On paper the two guitarists are markedly different. Best-known mainly for two spells cranking out metal riffs with Iron Maiden, Londoner Adrian Smith has also played with ASaP (Adrian Smith And Project), Psycho Motel and, more recently, Primal Rock Rebellion.
Born on the other side of the Atlantic and 13 years younger, Richie Kotzen started out as a shredder, then hooked up with Poison and Mr. Big. Now he alternates between a solo career and as a member of the Winery Dogs.
And yet there are commonalities. Both are gifted songwriters and musicians, quietly spoken, residents of California, and share a passion for bluesy, funk-fuelled hard rock. And they were both on the line when we picked up the phone and made a conference call.
How and when did the two of you first become acquainted?
Adrian Smith: We first met eight or nine years ago but became friends over the last couple. I’ve a house in LA, and during the time spent there we often have jam sessions. Richie came over one night and we ripped it up on some Stevie Ray [Vaughan] and Bad Company, and had so much fun we decided to try writing some songs.
When did it become obvious that you should make a record?
Richie Kotzen: It was a slow thing, and we threw the idea around for a while. The first song was Running, and from there hit upon the idea of trading vocals. It all came together organically. There was no deadline, and maybe that’s why the record has a real honesty.
Did one of you write the music and the other the lyrics?
Smith: No. We both play guitar. And although Richie’s more experienced at singing than me – to say the least; he’s got way more range – I’ve sung all my life. Richie handles a few of the choruses because they’re quite high, and I tended to do the verses. In fact our voices are quite similar tonally.
Kotzen: Listening back, there are times when I don’t know who’s doing what – is that me, or Adrian? But it’s cool that we are so connected.
How did you decide who plays the solos?
Smith: We divvied those up the same way – it was just a case of whatever felt right.
Richie, in the press-release biography you say that you were “haunted” by the lost-love-themed song I Wanna Stay.
Kotzen: It was nuts. I got that one stuck in my head and it kept coming back like a recurring dream, but in the end it turned out really nice.
Who played the long, intoxicating solo at the end of that track?
Smith: That was me.
Did you enjoy the freedom of being able to stretch out?
Smith: Yeah. And it can be a very dangerous thing. Put two guitarists together in a studio… [laughter from both]. The album contains a lot of fireworks, but we tried to keep the solos relevant to the songs.
You also share the bass parts, with Tal Bergman (Billy Idol, LL Cool J, Rod Stewart, Chaka Khan) and Richie playing drums on all but one of the tracks.
Smith: We are the rhythm section on most of the album. We laid down the drums as a guide in most places, but they were so good that we kept them.
Kotzen: The drums provide the foundation of the house. And I have a long history with Tal Bergman. It’s not like we were opposed to involving others, but you can get into a meditation-style method of recording.
Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain contributes the pounding yet funky drums on the track Solar Fire.
Smith: Nick had played with the Pat Travers Band, among other bands, so it was perfect for him.
Kotzen: Nicko really fired things up.
The album was recorded on the Turks & Caicos Islands in the Bahamas. It’s a tough old life, eh?
Smith: Well someone’s got to do it, and we were happy to step up. I’d been there before, of course.
When Iron Maiden recorded three albums there during the 1980s.
Smith: Yeah. Back then there were lots of distractions. Five guys on a desert island. We had our own seats at some of the clubs. It was different this time, there were no shenanigans.
Amazingly, you somehow kept it all secret.
Smith: Richie and I are pretty laid back, we’re not all over town telling our secrets. It wasn’t difficult.
If it was put to you that the music has a vibe of the classic Hughes/Thrall album from 1982 about it, would you agree with that?
Smith: I take that as a massive compliment. I love that album. It’s such a shame that they never went on and made another record.
Kotzen: I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never heard that album. But Glenn Hughes was a big influence on my vocal style.
Presumably your bandmates in Maiden and the Winery Dogs have now heard the album?
Kotzen: Billy Sheehan [bassist] sent a nice text after the video for the first single, Taking My Chances.
Smith: It’s the same with me. I had a couple of congratulatory emails from some of the Maiden guys who liked Taking My Chances, but nobody’s heard the whole album.
Will Smith/Kotzen be a one-off?
Smith: We’re already thinking about song ideas [for a follow-up], and of course we’d like to play some live shows, though whether or not that will happen is uncertain.
What does 2021 hold for you, Richie?
Kotzen: Who the hell knows? I had a year of shows booked on four continents for my album 50 For 50, and bam! I’m just thankful that everyone I love is in one piece.
Adrian, Maiden have prepared some material for the follow-up album to The Book Of Souls.
Smith: We’ve shows booked [this summer], but whether or not they’ll happen nobody knows.
Will you wait until lockdown ends to push on with a new Maiden album?
Smith: Playing live will happen first. We can’t wait for the green light.
Smith/Kotzen is out on March 26 via BMG (opens in new tab)