TPA’s own John Wenlock-Smith spoke to Richard Williams of Kansas shortly before the release of their new album, The Prelude Implicit, which appeared on 23rd September, their first album of new material since Somewhere to Elsewhere in 2000. It also marks the first music to feature their new singer Ronnie Platt (ex-Shooting Star), who replaced the ailing Steve Walsh. In addition this is the first Kansas album without an input from Kerry Livgren. Read on and hear Richard’s views on the new album and future plans for the band.
Good morning Richard. How are you?
I’m here to ask you some questions about the new Kansas release that is coming out in September.
I’m here for the answers.
Lovely. Let me just say that it’s a real pleasure to speak with you. I’ve been a Kansas fan for 40 years now, ever since I heard Journey to Mariabron off the debut album on a British TV show called The Old Grey Whistle Test back in 1974.
Why thank you.
I think I have everything that Kansas have recorded so it was a great delight to hear of this new album after all these years, and having heard it I’m looking forward to getting my hands on a proper copy in September too.
You have or have not heard it?
I’ve heard it.
Yes the record company (InsideOut Music) sent me a download link so I could hear it in advance of this interview. I will be buying the album itself though as I want the lyrics and cover and everything else too.
Certainly, I’ve been listening to it for 6 months but I can’t wait to get it in my hands! (Laughs).
So I have some questions then. It’s been 16 years since the last album, how does it feel to have some new material to play around with?
It’s going to be awesome! Starting in late September, we are starting the 40th anniversary tour for the Leftoverture album where we will start to play songs from this new album. We are going to play over half of this album, we just cannot wait, we’ve been sitting on this album for six months now and it is finally getting close. For a while it was getting frustrating because we could not play any of this until now, so now we are going through the dressing room and we are starting rehearsals. We are actually starting playing this together really for the first time since we were in the studio creating it, so it is very exciting for us. It is very important for us since Steve (Walsh) retired because we can actually go and be creative again. It’s very important for this band to have new material to play and whilst we weren’t exactly sure where this was going when we started, it was more of a kind of feeling out process along the way, but as soon as we got started, we kind of knew that this is not the last album for Kansas. This is the first of this version of Kansas; the creative juices are flowing and we can’t wait to get back into the studio again. In fact we are already scheduled to start another album in 2018.
Excellent, that’s really good news – and you’ve answered my second question about the Leftoverture shows. I have to say this album has a real classic Kansas sound to it, still lots of violin, lots of your trademark sound but not a clone, rather a new development in the sound I think.
Recording techniques have changed a bit; sonically it sounds more modern but the music we really want is to capture the essence of what Kansas began with those first five or six albums. That’s what we wanted to do, that was our target musically and in the variety of the album too. We didn’t want it to be just one thing, we wanted it to have different tempo’s and everything. Between every song we wanted the lyrics to be meaningful, thoughtful, so we were concentrating on both aspects along with the artwork, the album cover, the liner notes. Everything about this project was to be as quintessential Kansas as we possibly could, that was our goal.
Well I think you’ve achieved that and created something very special indeed, something significant actually.
Well we are very happy with it. Going into the project we knew we were going to do it but we didn’t have any idea of what it was going to be. It’s like you’re going to have a child but you don’t know whether it’s going to be a boy or a girl and you don’t know what it’s going to look like when it’s matured. All we knew was it was going to happen and it was exciting but it was also terrifying.
Previously Steve (Walsh) and Kerry (Livgren) were the main writers in Kansas and we had never done something without them. When you hear a lot of scepticism, “Oh they can’t possibly do that without them” and all that, of course we can, but you still hear the doubters in the back of your head. You hear that chatter and it creates a lot of pressure. We have got to respond to this moment so we jump in with both feet and we have to be successful in this attempt.
I’m sure it will be, as there are a lot of folks who’ve been waiting for some new Kansas material for a long time.
Yes and it is very important to us that when we finally did it, it was so people would go “Holy shit“ rather than “what a bunch of crap”! It was vital to us that it was going to be good and I think it’s a damn good record. We are very, very pleased with what happened with it all and I think Kansas fans are going to love it.
I think they will. So what is it like for you having another guitarist in the band now?
Well it’s great! For the Leftoverture tour songs like Magnum Opus, we’d played it with one guitar player, just me, and it worked but I had to kind of bastardize those parts a bit. Sometimes I’d have to play the more dominant part or try to do both parts at the same time or the rhythm part might be covered on a keyboard. Now we can get back to the original arrangement, although adding a second guitarist wasn’t planned, it was kind of secondary. In a way it wasn’t like “We really need to add a second guitar player”. It was in the studio with Zak Rizvi, who we’ve worked with for years as an engineer, that we realised he would be a good addition to the band.
He is an unbelievably great engineer. We’d worked with him enough to know that we wanted him to co-produce the album with us. We wanted him away from the desk and we wanted him to work more on the musical aspect of things. We had no idea of how creative he was until we started working together and all the ideas started pouring in. That’s when Phil (Ehart) and I decided that Zak needed to be in this band. He is bringing so much to the table on this project and so we asked him and he said yes, he’s that good that if he only played the flute he’d be in this band. He just happens to be a great guitar player and he adds a lot to it, so it’s all good. His song writing ability, well, let’s say I’ve not worked with anyone else since Kerry Livgren in the Leftoverture / Point of Know Return era, where the music just flows out of him. It’s in a style that is so suited and suitable for us to record. He is a quintessential necessary part of the puzzle on this record and in us continuing on.
Ronnie’s voice is great too, it suits the sound and blends in nicely – I’d not actually heard him before, so I was concerned about when Steve retired; I thought vocally “Who is going to be able to fill his shoes and continue in that trend and style?”, but I think Ronnie’s voice fills that gap very well, indeed it’s a good fit.
When John Elefante was in the band he didn’t sound exactly like Steve. He was a rock tenor but he fitted as the stuff that Steve sang translated well to John. It’s the same with Ronnie today: Ronnie was very influenced by Steve and he really enjoys singing the songs as they were originally sung in the studio. He really honours that aspect of it by singing them the way they sounded at the time. He doesn’t have the same voice as Steve but it is a similar voice, so when he sings the old songs, it’s fantastic! Steve had been struggling for a few years so there were certain songs that we just were not able to do anymore. Well now we can do anything! If it was up to Ronnie, we would play every song we ever wrote! That’s very refreshing. Within this band there is nothing we can’t do anymore. There is no more “I don’t want to record”, now it’s “Where to begin?”, “Play this song instead of that one”. Everything is a positive with what we are doing now.
Instead of being limited to 60 shows a year because that’s all people were willing to do, last year we played 94 shows and this year we are doing more than 100! In with that, we still have all the rehearsing and writing and recording to do. Now this is full time, all the time work. From not doing anything, to practising, to dress show rehearsals before the show, now every day is filled with us doing what we do. It’s more so than it ever was, we’ve never been this busy. I don’t think we have ever been this dedicated and we’ve never done as much fine tuning of things as we are doing right now.
You certainly sound like a band that has a new lease of life, rejuvenated really, like you’ve been given a whole new lot of energy and impetus to keep moving forwards.
Well for 16 years, we’d not been able to record or been able to add any new “old” songs. We’d say we want to play this song and Steve would say “I don’t want to sing that one, I don’t believe in that song anymore”, so there were a lot of restriction. Now there are no restrictions. There is absolutely a new lease of life. We have been treading water for 16 years and now we have walked through another door and anything we want to do we can! That is extremely exciting for us!
So what reactions have you been getting around this new CD?
Well the only people who have heard it yet are the ones who the record company have sent copies to ahead of interviews. Everyone has said what you have said, everyone has been extremely positive. After we finished Leftoverture, everyone stood around and there was a feeling that we had completed something significant. Sure we had made other records, but there was a feeling that this could be a game changer here. There is something extra good about this album compared to what we have done in the past and that feeling is back with this record.
So this is like the crest of a wave that is about to land and make a big impact?
We will see, the times are so different now, the way albums are sold now. Radio has very little relevance to outside of, say, Katy Perry. How are we relevant outside of classic rock stations? It’s hard to break that mould, all they will play is our classic stuff. Maybe we will break through that this time, maybe they will start playing some of the new album again, but it feels like there is a feeling in the air that some of the old is coming back a bit. Fifteen years ago, progressive rock and classic rock was almost dead. In our audience now, I would bet, that about half of the people at our shows weren’t even born when we got started, probably not even when Leftoverture came out, so we are attracting a new audience, which is good.
Half the time, it’s getting the people who were followers before, to even know there is a new record out.
Yes, it’s getting folks aware that it’s out there. Just getting it heard is an effort. Everything is YouTube and Spotify and all of that. It’s a different world. When Leftoverture went platinum, it went on to be a quadruple platinum album. That was not that unusual a thing at that time. Hundreds of bands were going platinum, but to have a gold album nowadays is almost a miracle for anybody. Just a handful of people do that, Adele will come right out and sell ten million records but no one else will.
Have Kerry or Steve heard this album yet?
Dave Hope (original Kansas bassist) and Kerry Livgren have both heard With This Heart which is the only song we have sent to them so far and they’ve really liked it. We have to be extremely careful sending copies out to anybody because you never know where those are going to wind up. We don’t want the album out and copied to a friend so that the new Kansas album is out early and unofficially. That is like putting out a forest fire, you can’t stop it and that’s why we aren’t playing it live right now either. We don’t want the whole album out on YouTube, recorded from the back row of a concert.
Yes, we could send a copy to Kerry Livgren, and his nephew could be in the house and make himself a copy that he shares with his friends. Whilst he’s not trying to do anything harmful, but Boom, suddenly the album is out there and the release is a month away!
As a reviewer I’m very conscious of my responsibility to you artists in that area.
Actually some of our road crew haven’t even heard it yet.
Ok, so you mentioned doing about a 100 dates this year, can we have some U.K. and European dates please?
Well right now the booking agency are working on Europe for 2017.
Not just London though please, come to Manchester, Birmingham and play there too!
I’d love to but that is not up to me, it’s up to the promoters. I’d love to be in England for a while, my sister was born in Taunton (Devon), my mother grew up in Taunton, I have relatives there and I’ve not been there since 1980. I’d love to go back, my wife is beyond fascinated with England and all of the U.K. and its history. I’m afraid if I take her there she will never come home! So I would love to come back, but that decision is in the promoter’s hands.
It would be lovely to see you guys over here, although I did see you play at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1988.
Was that outdoors?
Yes, it was at the Pleasure Island complex.
Yes, that was an unusual gig for us, but we accepted it as it was a kind of paid vacation for us. We were there for 3 days playing three shows at night.
Yes, and Steve (Morse) was with you as well on guitar.
We did those shows and I remember Steve Walsh saying I will never play here again! (laughs) Who knows maybe he will though.
I saw the documentary (Miracles Out of Nowhere) about the early days of Kansas and I really enjoyed watching that. Do you have any plans to follow that up, although I know the next chapters are a bit more difficult and turbulent.
We wanted to make a documentary whilst we were all still living and to make something that our grandchildren will be able to watch and see what grandpa did. We didn’t want to make a “behind the music, throwing shit at each other” rockumentary. We wanted to tell a positive story of a bunch of friends growing up in Kansas and the unlikely occurrence of climbing to the top of the mountain together and that really was the story. After that Steve left then came back, then Dave and Kerry split, where do you stop it? That seemed the right place to stop it, we wanted to leave at a highpoint and on a good feeling. I think if you take any band on earth that ever was, or is today, you can tell tales of naughty boys doing naughty things. It’s all the same old shit that we all do so there is nothing new in that story. It’s more of a distraction to the individual story of each individual band. Did we do bad stuff? Sure we did, all bands do, that isn’t the important part. The music we made is the important part and the dedication and by sticking to it the success we achieved from that and the fact that we are all still friends to this day.
I also liked the final part of the film where you reassemble on the mound for a forty years on photograph. It’s a pretty poignant moment.
Yes it was; when we first thought of the documentary we thought about doing a book. Then we thought we could make it an audiobook but who would we have read it? Well what if we all read it? Then we can have everybody’s input. Then Bud Carr, our old manager, who has been working with Oliver Stone for the last 30 years got involved and said “This needs to be a documentary not a book”. When we first started the idea of a book, I was in Topeka, Kansas, and every time I pulled around a corner it reminded me of another story, another moment. I thought it was really important to come back to Topeka to tell the story, so that’s what we did. Everybody met in Topeka and that’s where we filmed it and whilst we see each other quite often we hadn’t all six of us been together in a very long time.
We decided to go back up to Brinks Mound in Topeka to recreate the back sleeve of the first album. We didn’t appreciate the significance of that until we were doing it and climbing back up together. That first photo and 40 plus years later doing it all again, it kind of brought it all back home.
Richard my time has gone, it’s been a joy to speak with you.
Thank you so much John and I hope to see you in the U.K. sometime soon.
[You can read TPA’s review of The Prelude Implicit HERE.]