"Big in Japan" isn't only the name of a Tom Waits song. It's also a reality for power trio the Winery Dogs. The nascent supergroup -- consisting of lead vocalist/guitarist Richie Kotzen (formerly of Poison and Mr. Big), drummer Mike Portnoy (co-founder of progressive metal giants Dream Theater), and bassist Billy Sheehan (who also did a stint in Mr. Big) -- was having trouble nailing down a distribution deal for its eponymous, self-produced debut album, when its hard-rocking tunes found a kind ear in the Land of the Rising Sun.
"We were still trying to figure out how to put the record out, when we got this incredible offer from Japan," explained Kotzen in an interview with New Times. Released in Japan on May 5, 2013, via Victor Entertainment, The Winery Dogs landed on shelves in South Africa and then Europe, and finally, the band inked a deal with American label Loud and Proud Records, circulating the album stateside in July of last year. That's why, according to Kotzen, the title of one of the two discs, "Unleashed in Japan," from its current special edition release is fitting.
Drummer Mikey Portnoy and bassist Billy Sheehan hunted down Kotzen and his notable guitar prowess and menacing vocal chops to round out their ideal powerful guitar trio. Was Kotzen trepidatious when receiving the initial call to join the group? Not really. He says that the original concept was really laid-back. "We all are successful in our own right, and no one came from a point where they desperately needed to form a band," explained Kotzen. "I was more than happy where I was, coming from a place where I'd been fronting my own solo band for 10 years." But as he performed with his lifelong friends in the Winery Dogs, the group began to take shape.
It was baby steps at first. An informal meeting in Kotzen's L.A. home led to easygoing jam sessions in the studio. The band recorded three songs initially, and loved what they had laid out. Before they knew it, they had eight solid numbers on their hands and were looking for a way to put a record out. Kotzen served as the principal songwriter for the three-piece, submitting previously unreleased work that would become Winery Dogs humdingers -- including "Regret" and "I'm No Angel."
Kotzen was also responsible for the group's unique handle. "I lobbied hard for the name, I just thought it was perfect for us," he stated. Seems like this was the most arduous process in the whole Winery Dogs project, according to Kotzen. "The only arguments we have ever had was trying to pick this name." Other ideas on the table? One moniker thrown around was Telefunken, like the German microphone and Zen Vida, which Kotzen says would have worked if the three decided to form a mariachi band instead.
With its distinct appellation in place, the Winery Dogs debut, chock full of hard hitting numbers that would appeal to Led Zeppelin and Soundgarden fans alike, debuted on Billboard's "Top Alternative Albums" chart at number three and number four on the "Top Independent Albums" chart. Their success has brought the younger crowd in droves. Kotzen tells us that Winery Dogs shows are a mixed bag of fans, those that lean toward classic rock and ones that might list Queens of the Stone Age as its favorite group.
The live disc consists of 10 live songs, including the track "Criminal," previously unavailable in the United States, in which Kotzen shreds through monstrous guitar licks. He is held in high regard amongst guitar purists, performing with a style that mixes classic guitar hero with virtuosic magnetism. What kind of axe does this guitar wizard wield? "Nothing too fancy," he tells us. "It's my signature model, developed by Fender and sold worldwide at places like Guitar Center." Besides a few modifications, like building in his own guitar tuner into his model, he performs with the same unit that anyone can get right off the rack.
What makes Kotzen's style so unique? He attributes it to lots of improvisation. "I very rarely play the same solo twice, unless it is part of the song." Kotzen says. His playing transformed once he began to sing he added. "I started listening to music in a different way and became a different guitar player." He says he began to get enveloped in the creative process and gained satisfaction from "making something exist that wasn't previously there."
Although all three musicians will be moving forward with their three individual projects when the Winery Dogs finish touring this summer, Kotzen promises a second full length album next year. "We are very excited about the way things are going with the Winery Dogs and want to continue this project going afterwards."
The Winery Dogs perform at 7:30 p.m., tonight, Wednesday, May 14, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale. Visit Ticketmaster.com.