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Guitar heroes band together in Smith/Kotzen project

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2021

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It was inevitable for Adrian Smith and Richie Kotzen to make an album together.

The veteran guitarists -- Smith with Iron Maiden, Kotzen with Stanley Clarke and in the bands Poison, Mr. Big and Winery Dogs, among others -- have been friends for more than a decade, since Smith and his wife established a home there as well as in his native England. "Over the years we would get together, me and him and his wife and my wife, and hang out and go to dinner and that sort of thing," Kotzen, 51, says by phone. "And then we would have holiday parties and at some point we would end up in one of the rooms he had set aside for guitars and amps and PA systems, and it would turn into a jam session. This happened many times over the years."

Smith, 64, adds that there was no problem finding common musical ground. "We both like the old 70s Free, Bad Company, Humble Pie, that sort of thing. That's what I grew up on, so we naturally gravitated towards that." It was Smith's wife, however, who came up with the idea for what became Smith/Kotzen and its self-titled debut album, coming out Friday, March 26.

"She said, 'Why don't you fellas try writing something?'" Smith recalls. "So that's how it started."

Produced by Kevin "Caveman" Shirley and recorded in the Turks & Caicos Islands during February of 2020, "Smith/Kotzen" offers nine tracks of brawny hard rock, steeped in those influences Smith mentioned, along with blues and R&B flavors the pair also favors.

"I've wanted to make a hard rock sort of album for a few years, pay tribute to that music I grew up on," explains Smith, who, as part of Iron Maiden is nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's class of 2021. "Maiden is a lot more intense, frenetic energy, and it's great. I love working with Maiden. But I have another side to me which is more expressive, guitar-wise, a bit more space in the music. There's all this sort of emotion in the music, and it goes with sort of a more bluesy feel like we have."

It's also a largely self-contained project. Smith and Kotzen each play guitar, bass and sing, while Kotzen also plays drums on most of the album. Maiden's Nicko McBrain hits the kit for one track, "Solar Fire," while frequent Kotzen cohort Tal Bergman drums on two others.

"I'd bring in an idea and Richie would bring in an idea. I'd have something to go with it -- as simple as that, really," says Smith, who began his musical career as a singer before devoting himself to guitar and subsequently joining Iron Maiden in 1980. "At the end of the first writing session we had two, three ideas for songs. The chemistry was really there -- that's not always a given."

Kotzen, who considers himself "one of the biggest Iron Maiden fans to ever live," confirms that he and Smith had no problems connecting either as writers or players. "I had a pretty clear picture of what he was into," he notes. "We have so much in common. We both have the same experience as songwriters -- we know when to leave room for the other guy.

"I really enjoyed (Smith's) sense of counterpoint; That must come from so many years of working with another guitar player. I'd come up with something that in my mind was finished, then he would come up with some great counterpoint line that sent the song off to another level, which was really cool."

Kotzen threw some curve balls as well, according to Smith. "Richie, now and again, was very naughty. He'll throw in something technical which he can do, which has me raising my eyebrows a bit," he says, pointing the album track "Taking My Chances" in particular. "there's, like, a jazz fusion section in there, which wouldn't be something I would do myself," Smith says.

He also cedes the singing high ground to his workmate.

"Obviously Richie is a world-class singer," Smith acknowledges. "He's very well-established. I've sung enough over the years; I'm sort of a guitar player who sings a bit. I think my voice works quite well; I tend to sing the verses, and Richie has got more range so he will sing on choruses, and that gives us a wide range."

Both Smith and Kotzen say there's only a track or two they worked on beyond the nine that appear on "Smith/Kotzen." No touring or live performances are imminent, of course, but both consider their partnership a going concern and fully anticipate making more music together, possibly sooner rather than later.

"I've got to say it was the easiest record I ever made in my life -- and one of the most rewarding, on many levels," Kotzen says. "I think we just really complement each other, so I'd love to do a follow-up."

Smith -- who's also written a new chapter for the upcoming paperback edition of his 2020 memoir "Monsters of River and Rock" -- predicts he and Kotzen are "definitely thinking about doing another record," and maybe even have "more material to choose from" when doing live shows becomes possible again.

"I've done solo albums in the past, and it's great," Smith explains. "But you sort of turn around and don't have anyone to say, 'What do you think of this?' or 'Was that good?' It's nice to have someone to bounce off of, but not have the pressure of a whole band and multiple opinions about things. that can get very complicated. It's nice to have just two of us, where we can focus on what we want to do."

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