Travis Shinn

The Winery Dogs’ Rock Evolution

Going back to the perfectly imperfect, rough-around-the-edges way of making rock and roll music, this supergroup still feels modern. It’s impressive and innovate and worth talking about at length.

How great is The Winery Dogs new album, III? To start, all of the songs could be singles. The powerful, memorable tracks feature an amalgam of melody and enormous musicality. The Winery Dogs – singer/guitarist Richie Kotzen, bassist Billy Sheehan, and drummer Mike Portnoy – are way beyond the sum of their parts. That is evidenced on III. The band’s appropriately titled third album, and first full-length in eight years, was released earlier this month.

The new record combines and evolves the straight-up hard rock of The Winery Dogs’ self-titled debut and the experimentation and left turns added on sophomore effort, Hot Streak. The band’s pedigree is über-impressive. Kotzen is a dynamo on guitar and possesses a voice that, like a fine wine(ry), only gets better with age. He recently joined forces with Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith for the self-titled Smith/Kotzen album. Sheehan, whose work on III is a master class on his instrument, has played with Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big, and too many sessions to count. Portnoy, the ex-Dream Theater drummer, is one of the best in the business. His work can also be heard on albums by Liquid Tension Experiment, Transatlantic, and Sons of Apollo, among others.

III kicks off with “Xanadu,” setting the tone as an opener with a thick groove. It melds melody with technicality. Kotzen’s singular vocals, dazzling runs, and emotive solos, Sheehan’s bass acrobatics, and Portnoy’s inventive work behind the kit heightens listeners’ expectations for the rest of the album. They will not be disappointed.

The trio moves effortlessly into straightforward rocking with the addition of vocal hooks of “Mad World.” The track features stunning harmonies that are heard throughout III and add a rich sensibility to the group’s songs. On the heavier side, “The Vengeance” induces raised fists while “Gaslight” moves at a breakneck pace. Overall, III is a wonderful listen worthy of multiple spins. Fans can hear The Winery Dogs perform them live at Sony Hall in New York City on February 21, Starland Ballroom in Sayreville on February 23, and the Newton Theatre in Newton on Feb. 27.

We recently spoke with Billy Sheehan.

III is a stellar record. What was the writing process for it?

We came up with ideas and pounded away for a few hours, took a break for lunch or dinner, came back and did some more, and repeated it the next day until we had some things that we were pleased with and excited about… kind of like the old days where musicians would get together and write. What you’re hearing are the efforts of myself, Mike, and Richie in varying degrees of each one of us from song to song. Some ideas came from one guy on one song and another for another, so it’s a good representation of all our musical sensibilities

The essence of the record is three people in a room together writing, as opposed to doing stuff remotely. I’ve had to do a lot of that. That’s become very fine-tuned and productive as well as people figure out how to make that work. We get better at it. I’ve done a lot of sessions for people around the world. We get it down pretty well so we can get it sounding like it’s real and it’s alive, even though it’s just me and the digital file. We did improve that quite a bit, but I’m just glad for The Winery Dogs, that we were able to get together and do that in a room. 

Do you have any favorite songs at the moment?

“Mad World.” The first moment I heard that I thought, “Wow, this is righteous.”

“Xanadu,” as well. “Stars” is a good one, too. I could go on – all of them. There’s no song on here that I don’t really love. I’ve done a lot of records and there’s usually a couple of clunkers like, “It’s ok, we needed 12 songs and this was the extra one,” but on this there’s nothing on it that I don’t really love. And I’ve had to be listening to the record a lot because I’m rehearsing all the songs for the tour. It’s an interesting discovery to relisten to it again and hear things I might have missed the first couple times around because I have it really under the microscope now. It’s pretty fascinating.

The Winery Dogs achieve a great balance between penning melodic songs that also show your technical abilities. 

Most every band I’ve been involved with, from Talas to David Lee Roth to the Mr. Big records; they were all song-oriented records. They were all designed to give a message with each song. There were other aspects to it, as well – some had a little more musical wildness. or not, but it was always the song that for me personally is the delivery mechanism of everything. I feel that way. I know Richie does and Mike does, as well.

It’s got to be something that’s interesting to me as a listener, not as a bass player. Not as a music fan or a playing fan or a soloing fan. There’s got to be something there, when we hear the songs and their structure and how they’re put together. That combination is the most important thing that draws me in song-wise. Then we hear whatever playing is there – the song and its structure and how it’s put together lyrically and vocally. Then we begin to listen to anything else that’s there. We try very much to keep those sensibilities intact. It’s never about the solo or other notes. 

I work here in Nashville with a bunch of really great songwriters. This is a songwriting city. It’s amazing how deep they go when they’re constructing songs. Sometimes they just happen and not a lot of work goes into it, but that’s a lucky break for everybody. Constructing the song, there’s a lot to it, and it’s quite fascinating to see.

III is The Winery Dogs’ first full-length album in eight years. Is that due to scheduling conflicts with your various other bands?

We’re all pretty busy. There was a time way back when you’d get in one band and you’d be in that band for your whole career. Then around the late eighties and early nineties, that changed where people have side projects. Now people have a couple of things they do. I’m very fortunate that I’m playing with a lot of supremely talented people in a couple of projects. We just did the new Talas record, which went swimmingly well. Of course, The Winery Dogs as we’re speaking. Mr. Big was an amazing adventure, and Sons of Apollo. Niacin is another side project. As a player, being involved in different entities rounds you out in a better way. For me, doing something completely different for a while and then coming back to what I normally do, I have more to draw upon. 

How are you gearing up for this tour?

This will be my first gig in almost three years. I’m ready to go. Live [music] is a riot. I’ve always been about live [music]. I’ve often written in my posts that I live to play live and I play live to live. The studio is cool and you can do your thing, but I’m just used to that. Tour bus gets in, it’s around noon. I set up in the dressing room, I start warming up. We do our sound check. We hear the opening act start. I get dressed, get out there, its two hours of hot and sweaty. We get done, say hi to everybody, get in the bus, and repeat. I could do that for years without a day off. I’m excited. We’ve got a lot of great shows and great cities; what’s been posted is just the beginning. We’ve got a lot more to go. We have people complaining, “Why aren’t you playing our city?” Read the post – more shows to come. Our manager and booking agencies are working like fiends to get everything full and hit every place we possibly can. 

How is the band’s chemistry onstage?

It’s great because we’re all kind of on the same page as far as what we like. We’ve all kind of been through a lot of the same things. We have a lot in common. The chemistry onstage happens kind of automatically. I get up onstage with Mike Portnoy and I know I’m going to lock into what he does, and we’re going to watch each other eye to eye. I’ll follow him, he’ll follow me. We’ve got it together. Richie’s very much like that, too. Richie’s a good drummer and a good bass player and a great vocalist and an amazing guitarist. We communicate really well so that in an improvisational sense, where one guy can make a left turn and you don’t lose the other guys when you do that. We hear where you’re going and we understand what you’re doing. We’re going to jump right in there with you. It leads to a lot of energy and excitement live because we’re excited and we don’t know where it’s going to go. There are surprises for us every night so that sense of excitement and anticipation and improvisation seems to make its way out into the crowd.

We do have a wonderful time with our amazing audiences who we love with all our hearts and souls. They’re so awesome to us. It’s kind of a group effort between us and the audience. We end up having some pretty wild nights. We did a show in Paris. This was a pretty good-sized place, but it was so crowded you couldn’t fit another person in the room. They went so crazy for us. It was just so glorious. A similar thing happened to us in Seoul in South Korea, our first time in on our first tour. Amazing crowds. The place was jam-packed and they went out of their minds. There are so many shows like that where we show up and the crowd is just one with us. It pushes us harder and makes us go farther to take more chances, makes you go out on an improvisational limb. 

How would you say III is an evolution from the first two Winery Dogs albums?

The first one was pretty straight up, just a rock record. The second record we took some chances, took some left turns, a couple roundabouts, and tried some things, which I enjoy very much. It was good to stretch out a bit. This one we kind of went for a combination of the two. We took some chances, but it’s still a straight rock record. We have some funkified and soulful moves there, thanks to Richie Kotzen’s voice. He’s got such a great voice. I heard from a couple of other lead singers that I know who heard some of the stuff off the new record and they were blown away and they gave their thumbs up to Richie and the band. So this record, I think it encompasses the first two records and this record’s identity, as well.