For over twenty years, Richie Kotzen has waxed nearly as many albums under his own name, as well as high-profile discs as a former member of platinum-selling rock bands Poison and Mr. Big, the latter of which enjoyed massive popularity in Japan. Kotzen recorded two albums with them—1999’s Get Over It and 2001’s Actual Size—before the group called it quits with a Japanese farewell tour the following year. (In 2008 they reformed their original lineup, and is rumored to hit the road in the U.S. next year.)
The Philadelphia native’s most recent release is 2009’s Peace Sign. I spoke with him while he was en route to the next stop of his current tour, which comes to New York’s Highline Ballroom on May 25.
When did you first go to Japan?
I first went to Japan in 1994. I was signed to Geffen Records and the album was released by MCA in Japan, and they took me over there to do a publicity tour. And so, that was my first experience—I think I did a couple of magazine interviews and radio interviews and a couple of television appearances…it was exciting, you know—it was definitely a lot different than anything I’d experienced before.
What were your impressions being there the first time compared with what you’d heard about?
I was impressed with how organized everything was. Even after that, for touring and that sort of thing…the Japanese way is very much like the German way. Like if you say, “We’re gonna be there at 12:00 p.m.,” they’re gonna be there at 12:00 p.m. You can trust that things are gonna run smooth and well-prepared, well-informed. In interviews, they do a lot of research and ask you questions that you can tell that they took the time to find out who you are and get to know you on a personal level.
I noticed that the tattoo on your left bicep is the kanji for endurance or patience, also the first half of the word “ninja.” What’s the story behind that?
There’s two pieces of that tattoo, there’s the front and the back. Nintai, I believe, is what the meaning is—all the characters are supposed to mean “patience,” The front part was done in Los Angeles, and the back part was done in Osaka as well as the lotus with the symbol inside the blue flame, which is the year I was born—the Year of the Dog—1970. The whole thing to me just represents patience, which is something that I really don’t have much of…
How are things going so far with the Peace Sign tour? You started in Brazil…
It’s really cool, man. I’m actually in the car right now on the way to Jacksonville….Last night’s show in Orlando was probably one of the best performances we’ve had out of everything we’ve done recently, including the Latin America run, which is always, for whatever reason—São Paolo is always probably where we do our best. We had a nice audience last night, and they were very involved, very responsive, and we have that in response to do a great show. So I’m happy to be doing this here in the States.
Briefly, how did you get the job with Mr. Big? Were there any other “name” guitarists they were courting at the time?
They came straight to me….They said, “Mr. Big is really primarily a band that works only in Japan,” at that time …”The reality is, it would take a month out of the year, and we would work around your schedule.” [Kotzen was in the group with Vertú with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White then.]
When you joined Mr. Big, what did your new bandmates tell you to prepare for your experience when you went off to Japan with them?
What they told me was, “We are very popular in Japan,” so they basically prepared me for that. I didn’t realize how popular they were….The first show was in the Osaka Dome, 50,000 people, [and] that was opening for Aerosmith.
That was for the millennium concert, right?
What kind of memories do you have of that show?
Well, I remember I was wearing Steven Tyler’s pants. It’s kind of a funny story…there was a woman on Melrose who used to make clothes for rock stars, and she had this incredible pair of pants in the window—they were like $2,500 for these deerskin Indian-looking kind of pants that she made. And I kept going into her store looking at her stuff, and I kept eyeing those pants and she said, “They were made for Steven Tyler, and I’m waiting for him to come and get them.” So time went by and the pants were still there…so I bought ’em, and I wore them on the cover of my third or fourth solo record, but I ended up busting them out for the millennium concert because I knew he was playing, and he came backstage before we came on.
I introduced myself and said, “Hey, these pants were originally made for you, do you remember?” and I gave him the girl’s name and, you know, it could have been a [expletive] story, but he acted like he knew exactly what I was talking about, he was that cool of a guy, you know? And out of that whole experience, that’s the one memory I have of that show…he made everyone in the room feel like they’d known him for years. He’s one of my heroes, and I got to meet him.
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Richie Kotzen plays New York’s Highline Ballroom (431 West 16th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues) on Tuesday, May 25. Tickets are $20 general admission; $100 VIP (includes show ticket, early soundcheck entry, reserved seats in balcony, post-show Meet & Greet, and merchandise package). Visit his homepage at www.richiekotzen.com, and purchase tickets at www.highlineballroom.com.
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