Kansas: Numinous Minds and Music for the Soul

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music, Artist Feature,   From Issue 740   By: Robert 'Bo' White

26th January, 2012     0

Rich Williams, the extraordinary riff-meister of Kansas, sat down for a deep collar interview with Review Magazine.  Kansas is preparing for another extended tour in 2012 that will include a stop at the historic Temple Theatre in Saginaw. 
Kansas has been a musical force of nature since the mid-seventies with such enduring hits as Carry on Wayward Son, Point of No Return, and Dust in the Wind. The music is incredible with ornate and complex arrangements, unusual signature changes, and poetic lyricism. They have underwent enough lineup changes that rock writers sometimes refer to that various incarnations as Kansas I, II, III - though founding members Rich Williams (guitar), Phil Ehart (drums), and Steve Walsh (keyboards, vocals) have remained a strong stabilizing presence.
Kansas has released over 65 recordings (including compilations) in various formats - vinyl, CD, and DVD. They have toured relentlessly with only a few down moments in the past 38 years. They have grit and creativity to keep it going as long as love and oxygen wash over their spirit.   Kansas music is a strange and wonderful brew of folk, hard rock, and orchestral, almost operatic music. The musicians embrace a stubborn eclecticism that follows its own shadow and frustrates the critics. They have been criticized as overwrought and pretentious but the critics be damned, Kansas has survived and flourished despite their mixed reception. The band has retained a legion of loyal fans that are more than happy to sing songs of praise in the name of Kansas!
Kansas recently released a DVD Kansas: There is No Place like Home and a Special Edition 35th Anniversary Dust in the Wind Book.  2011 was a big year for the band and the energy is building for more concerts and recordings in 2012. The momentum is strong and Kansas is on the move. Come to the Temple Theatre and witness a great band that paints grand canvases with heavenly baroque music.
The concert is at the historic Temple Theatre on Thursday February 16th 2012 @ 8pm. Tickets are priced @ $79, $59, $39, $29. Call 877-754-SHOW 10am-6pm to purchase tickets. There isn't a bad seat in the house!
Review: You recently completed the 2011 Collegiate Symphony Tour to raise money and awareness of college music programs. It sounded like a fantastic project. How many concerts did you put on? Did you reach your goal? 
Williams: We are still doing those events actually. We did them last year and the year before and we have dates set for this upcoming year too. It's an ongoing process. We'll do it until no more colleges will want to do it anymore (laughs).  Ever since we did the DVD There's No Place Like Home, we wanted to do more orchestral work so we did an album with the London Symphony Orchestra and we wanted to get it filmed and we eventually did it with the Washburn University Symphony in Topeka Kansas. Once that came out we could present it to colleges and they could see it - that this is what we do. It answered a lot of questions for them. One thing led to another and we got a sponsorship from D'Addario and it took on a life of its own. Now we've done over 40 colleges. The doors been kicked in and it's a lot easier now. It's been very successful; it's in part a benefit for the music departments at the colleges. 
Review: It seems like a massive commitment. Was it difficult to teach the orchestra musicians? 
Williams: Some songs we do only with the symphony because they seem to fit well with that genre. We've always been very symphonic by nature, it's not a shoehorn, and it works really well. Scores are advanced to the colleges so they have plenty of time to learn the music. It becomes part of the curriculum and they have an opportunity to work on it long before we get there. Larry Baird, our conductor, scored the music and he shows up and does a rehearsal with the musicians, sometimes the day before, sometimes just the morning of, or even in the afternoon. It's really more of a sound check; get the levels set, smooth out the rough spots and then its show time.
Review: It seems your actions match the poetic and spiritual lyricism in many of your songs. Your music seems to reflect a message of hope, is that how you see it?
Williams: Well, yeah, a lot of the lyrics Kerry wrote were ambiguous and hopeful- inspirational and seemed to mean something different to the individual. Inspirational is a good word. (Kerry Livgren composed the biggest Kansas hits. He left to form AD, and focus his writing on a Christian worldview) 
Review: Kansas seems very active as far is touring. How do you prepare for the emotional strain and physical crunch of touring?  How is it that you are able to keep it up without becoming depleted in some way?
Williams: Well, we figured it out a while ago. To continue to do it we have to keep it fun. Riding in a bus, playing five nights a week stops being fun in a hurry. The hope that we aim for and never quite reach - it is sort of what we do…basically I leave on a Friday morning and come back on a Sunday afternoon. That's basically how we work throughout the year. That's the rough framework of it. It works very well for us; everyone has a home life and a family life. We are rarely in a bus, we fly to gig and stay in a nice hotel. It keeps everyone healthy and happy.
Right now I'm going stir crazy because we took January off - we've been off since the first of December and we don't start up again until the middle of February so these are the confusing times for me. It took me a long time to figure out what to do with myself. The rest of the year I've got the weekend to prepare for and it works very well for us. Once you make peace with the travel and just kind of relax it's actually fun. It's just not tough…I had a real job once and it's just not like that. We do eighty shows a year
Review: You have released several albums and CDs since 1974. That is an incredible body of music. What sparks your creativity?
Williams: Some of it is the record company decides to re-wrap something, slap a different cover and then they put it out. The last thing we did was the DVD. It was a hands-on experience in our control. The decisions of the record company are beyond our control like re-mastering of old product. Recently I saw they did something with the early Kansas stuff when we were on CBS.  They did a real nice package of that. What our focus has been on since we did our DVD There's No Place like Home, artistically, has been college dates - reinventing ourselves in that way. Playing with the college kids - they bring an enthusiasm to the table that you don't necessarily get when you are playing with a professional city orchestra. It's new to them, they are not getting paid and they really appreciate it. There is nothing planned at this time to go back into the studio to record new material. 
Review: It is said that your progressive music - complex orchestral arrangements and heavy rock & roll guitar riffs were inspired by groups such as King Crimson, Yes…Emerson, Lake and Palmer - even Frank Zappa. I can hear it. But what do you say, who inspired Kansas?
Williams: All of those - King Crimson, Jethro Tull Gentle Giant…early Genesis. They were all an inspiration to us. We grew up playing the hits of the day. We listened to Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and a lot of soul music so we grew up as a rock & roll band. As we grew up we began to take it in another direction so underneath it all, this is what helped give us a heavier sound. We are pretty heavy handed; we don't have a light touch
Review: Rich, you are a brilliant guitarist that can rip and soar and yet play very melodically. Did you learn from a master? Who inspired you as a guitarist? 
Williams: No. I just took a few lessons when I first started playing in high school. I loved Eric Clapton - early Eric Clapton. I was influenced by his work with John Mayall. Before that I played a lot of soul music, Ike & Tina Turner stuff. I liked Ike's style. But Eric Clapton with the Bluesbreakers…that Les Paul through the Marshall really cranked. I heard blues before but not with that tone and intensity. It was really eye-opening to me to hear such a strong voice coming from a guitar…and all the early Yardbirds stuff was incredible - Jimmy Page was in the Yardbirds, Jeff Beckwas in the Yardbirds… Eric Clapton. They influenced everybody. 
Review: You are excellent musicians but the vocalists are integral to the Kansas sound as well - they sing their asses off - the lead and harmony vocals are exquisite. Who arranges the vocal parts? 
Williams: Steve Walsh is the main vocalist, always. Billy Greer is the new guy on bass and vocals. He does a lot of the singing. He's the new guy but it's his 26th or 27th year with us. And then on violin Dave Ragsdale does a lot of backup singing. He's been with us since the nineties. The new guys aren't even new. We've been with them forever. They've been with us longer than some of the original members.
Review: I read that in the early “broke and starving” days of Kansas, Phil Ehart told an interviewer, “We were going to play this style of music and not compromise, even if we had to f***ing starve.” It seems like an inspired comment. How do you view that comment now, does it still resonate with you?
Williams: Well, that is the exuberance of youth, when your life is all ahead of you and you stand firm on a principle - all for all; one for one. You live in a stinking band house and make decisions. You know, I'm glad we did. That type of a determination is a young man's game
Review: When did you get your lucky break?
Williams: As a group we were kind of the last man standing in the area (in our age group, anyway) that wanted to play music professionally. We did not want to play the hits of the day in a Holiday Inn. We did not want a day job and we wanted to do original material. For a lot of people it's too risky. If we do that we can't play the prom. Well, f*** the prom. Even more than that we wanted to do stuff that's outside the box. We made a demo tape - we mailed out four reel to reel tapes and one ended up on Don Kirshner's desk. He was our benefactor. He listened to part of the tape not knowing there were six or seven songs on the other side, so basically he liked one song on the tape, What Can I Tell You…it ended up on our first album.  So he sent a scout out to see us. We were playing in a small town in western Kansas. The gig was at the Ellenwood Opera House. We played there a lot. We wanted to impress this guy - he didn't know it but it was free to get in and the beer was free. It was packed and people were standing in line waiting to get inside. So the scout reports back to Kirshner - “There' something going here.” When we got the record deal we asked Kerry Livgren if he would join. Once we had a great songwriter onboard we started to gain momentum. The rest is history.
Review: Kansas has created several classic songs/albums that stand then test of time. Can you describe the creative process - writing, arranging, producing? 
Williams: It was not always the same. Steve would come in with a song a lot of times or Kerry would show up with a song. Sometimes it would be written completely, other times it might be an idea. Then what happened is that everyone would put their own little twist on it. It was kind of painful. I think that is why Kerry would like to do things on his own now, like Steve did. They would create this thing, which is their child, and then they'd bring it to band practice where we would just rip it to shreds.  We would tear it down, reassemble it, and put it back together and then change it again. We self-produced all the early songs. It wasn't until later that we worked with Bob Ezrin on In the Spirit of Things on MCI. It was the second LP with Steve Morse. It was the first time we ever allowed a producer to come in -in that capacity. He was a cool, guy. Bob was a great guy to work with. We got to trust someone outside of the group. He was kind of the seventh member of Kansas. It was hard but he really got a lot out of us - he had so many great ideas.  It made a big difference in the outcome of the album. It was one of my favorite recording processes we ever did working with Bob Ezrin! 
Review: Can you talk about each of your stone classic megahits:  Carry On Wayward Son
Williams: The album before we recorded in Bogalusa. Louisiana and we found that going to this remote spot was just what we needed - the album before that was done in Los Angeles - too many distractions - and so we found this great studio in Bogalusa and went there and did the Masque LP. We planned on going back to the same studio for Leftoverture. We'd been in rehearsals working on the new material for several months and we were winding down. It was the last day or next to the last day before we were going to pack up the truck and head south. Then Kerry walks in and says, “No, no, I've got another song” and we go …”oh damn.”   We just weren't in the mood. We had enough but we said,” Ok let's see what you got.”  We listened and we knew it was a pretty cool song so we worked it out. We finally made it down to the studio and started laying down basic instrumental tracks. The songs are generally assembled in the studio. Then we started working on that new song - Wayward Son. Basically we learned the song in the studio. We had never played it live before. We really didn't know it well in rehearsals. It came down to the first time that we did it right - take 20 was good. It was just a cool song with the great guitar riffs, from half time to double time, in out between a straight beat and a shuffle. It was interesting to listen to and fun to play. We had a great song. Of course I had no idea that I'd be talking about it thirty some years later.
Dust in the Wind
Next album; same situation. Kerry comes in with a reel-to-reel tape. But the story of this song goes back several years ago. We were playing at this small club and Kerry and I met a guitarist who was older than us and more accomplished. He was showing us a finger picking style but neither one of us had done any acoustic playing or finger picking. A few years later Kerry wanted to remember how to do it a few years later so he wrote a finger picking exercise, just a pattern just to practice it and it became the chord pattern for Dust in the Wind. As the story goes his wife heard it and said “that's really pretty - you need to do something with that.” He was reading a book on Indian philosophy, which is where the lyric came from. We knew instantly that it was a great song. It was odd, as we'd never done anything without drums. At the time there was nothing on the radio that sounded like it.
Point of No Return
The only thing I can relate to it is that we were out on the road, the album was out everything is going great. Our manager wanted us to do a video for markets in Australia and parts of Europe. They sold more music by featuring these commercial videos. They would play it on television and I was thinking. “Like that's going to catch on.” So we did these videos - a cutting edge, psychedelic attempt at using modern technology. I was stunned when I saw the Point of No Return video. It seemed like it was just a parody.  I couldn't watch it for years. Now in retrospect I think it's funnier than shit, it really captures that era. 
Review: There seems to be a lot of energy around Kansas. Do you feel it? Can this be another big year for Kansas? 
Williams: Oh yeah, we have a lot of symphony dates coming up; we have concert, casino dates, fairs and festivals. In the Midwest I love the fair atmosphere and the smell of funnel cake in the air. I've always enjoyed that. We are working on 20-30 dates with a solo act called That One Guy. He's a cross between Frank Zappa and Weird Al. It's very strange to watch this guy. He's a trained oboe player - funny but serious. We will do another eighty shows this year. I'm really looking forward to being up there in Saginaw. We are all restless and ready to play!


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