Veteran proggers Kansas have a new LP out, The Absence of Presence, and in light of that, vocalist Ronnie Platt made himself available to TPA for an interview where he talked about the new album, the challenges of recording and touring simultaneously and what he expects 2021 will look like for Kansas.
2020 so far and Kansas
For my part, I was quite nervous going into my call with Platt; I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many people during my career outside of music, but even in the case of my music interviews, I’ve always preferred to keep it to email, so a telephone interview is still new to me.
To get the ball rolling, I thought it would be best to open up the interview with nice, light conversation: global pandemics and how the 2020 lockdown had affected Kansas.
“Well it started off with a bang, that’s for sure,” Platt began. “With touring and putting the finishing touches on the album [to now being] kept in a holding pattern at the moment. So, you know, it’s a situation that’s beyond our control, so we have to abide by the situation.
“But I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel, I think things are starting to open up,” he added with a sense of optimism toward the future.
“It’s kind of a frustrating thing for us to have our album coming out now, because we were so, so excited about touring and perhaps playing a couple songs from the new album live,” Platt’s tone was genuinely upset about the lack of ability to hit the road with a new album in tow.
He continued: “One of course being Throwing Mountains, which is such a heavy song. You know, a lot of people are classifying that as progressive metal and that’s a perfect way to describe that song. But we are so looking forward to playing that live.
“We still are now, but we have to keep our excitement in containment, I guess.”
I agree with him that progressive metal is an apt description of the song, and also how heavy it is in comparison to a lot of Kansas repertoire, from what I could tell having done as much background listening as possible in the run up to the interview, which I think was appreciated.
Kansas 2020 European tour
So far, this was certainly an easy interview to conduct as Platt’s enthusiasm for his work and easy-going character found the humour in all of our exchanges and every response was accompanied with a good-natured laugh.
But it was time to get back to business.
“Do you want to talk about the tour?” I asked Platt as I was keen to know when audiences would have the opportunity to see Kansas performing. “I know you guys were meant to be touring Europe this Autumn – has that been pushed back?”
His response was earnest, accepting of a situation out of his control, but that didn’t stop his eagerness to not be weighed down by the situation and get back on to the road.
“It has been pushed back. It’s very frustrating for me now that our first tour was cancelled, and now this second tour of Europe to be kept in a holding pattern is frustrating for me because… I want to go to Europe! And I want to bring this music to you!”
He added, “Our friends on the other side of the pond need to re-discover Kansas and witness this band because this band is on fire and sounding better than ever so I cannot wait to get there… and I cannot describe my anticipation and my excitement of wanting to bring this band to Europe.”
Platt’s enthusiasm for touring and for the album come across clearly, and I remark that the European audience would be glad to have Kansas. I suggest that it’s all about momentum – having the new album to come out in time for the tour and being able to play the newer songs, which they’d now be losing.
“Yeah, that’s the operative word there… ‘momentum’. And we did have such an incredible momentum; that inertia was in high speed, but you want the air out of the bag with the current situation. But I feel very strongly that we’re going to pick up where we left off. Because, I’ll say one thing, we’re all very well rested now!”
Impressions on the album and challenges in recording
I ask Ronnie next what his overall impressions of the album are now that he’s had some time for it to simmer. His explanation shows to me that The Absence of Presence has much more than musical value, the value for him is in knowing all the hard work that the band members put into it.
“I am as excited about this album now as I was when we first started working on the basic tracks,” he begins.
“There’s just something about the mystique of the album. It seems like the band is well tuned now. With The Prelude Implicit, I was still new with the band and Zak [Rizvi] didn’t join the band until we were already recording that album. Now I think we have a little maturity as a band with this album. Even though we recorded this album while we were touring – which made our schedule really intense.
“With The Prelude Implicit, we recorded that in the Winter months when we were off and we had the time to focus on just recording. For this album we were touring and at the same time recording.”
“That must have been something really difficult to juggle,” I reply.
“It was. With the band having so much momentum, we did want to take the entire month of August off, but the demand for the band wouldn’t let us, but we didn’t retract. Even though we did end up doing some shows, we didn’t let up on our recording schedule at all.”
Platt mentioned that the pressure and intensity helped the end product. “It helped the intensity, when you’re so focused and forced to be focused on one thing and you’re really striving for your songs to come out as good as they can… Wow! This album just… I can’t wait for everybody to hear this album.
“Between the diversity of the songs… you know very prog rock songs to very heart-felt ballads and that’s within the Kansas recipe and that’s just in one album. We’re really excited, really, really proud and we cannot wait for June 26th.”
[Since the interview, the release date has moved to July 17, 2020]
I am keen to know more about his take on the individual tracks on the album, and my next question was about which tracks stand out the most, to him.
“Throwing Mountains because it’s such a high energy, high intensity song and we knew from very early on that we would be playing that song live.”
He exclaims: “That song just screams to be played live,” but adds, “it’s the old adage of ‘which one is your favourite child?’.”
That’s a fair assessment when you’ve put equal effort into every track on the record.
He added that when it comes to the Kansas back catalogue, he enjoys the ability to re-discover the older track as if they were new after re-listening to them. “Maybe I’m a bit fickle, but I change my favourite song every day,” he tells me with another chuckle.
I also wanted to know if there were any tracks that were a challenge for him to record – listening to the album I was impressed by the vocal range on display, and it’s a performance that won’t be easy for any vocalist, no matter how long they’ve been working. Again, Ronnie’s honesty was good humoured and reflected the pride he put into the album.
“Right! No, not really, because Zak [Rizvi] wrote everything in my key which I really take a lot of pride in my range and my endurance, so there really was nothing that was too challenging.
“The challenging thing was to try stay in good voice while we were touring. Because when you’re touring, you never sleep. You never get the right amount of sleep, because you know you’re doing a show, you’re going back to the hotel and I’m not the kind of person that could just go back to the hotel room and fall asleep.”
Platt explains getting enough sleep after shows that have his adrenaline flowing means unwinding is essential – but there is added pressure to his intense live performances: “You know there’s a level of intensity when you’re filling the shoes of Steve Walsh, you know? He set the bar pretty high.”
He elaborated a little on the strains of recording and touring simultaneously.
“I don’t think people realise, it’s not just singing the song once or twice, it’s grinding it out in the studio. You’re kind of in the experimentation realm, so you’re trying things, you’re singing something over and over and over again and making small adjustments here and there, then you’re singing the harmony to that, so you’re trying different harmonies and then different combinations of voices. ‘Does it work well with me, Billy [Greer] and Tom [Brislin] singing? or should it be me, Tom and David Ragsdale?’
“It really is a tricky thing to find the right combination of voices that fit that harmony. Knowing which part fits which person and putting that together, doing a basic mix and experimenting there and going back the next day and listening to it with fresh ears. ‘Did that work? Should we try something different’. It really can be a tedious process sometimes.”
How audiences at live shows have received Kansas
Platt’s insights into the recording process were really interesting, and I wanted to know more about what went on in the making of the record, but I was getting close to running over time, so I thought it would be worth knowing how the band’s new music and live shows were being received by younger fans given the new momentum Kansas was experiencing.
Platt’s response was as earnest as ever and filled with appreciation for Kansas’ fanbase.
“I have to tell you this. I have now six years under my belt with Kansas and one of the most flattering things to me is not only to have our original fans still coming to the shows and in the time I’ve been with the band, I’ve seen our audiences get larger and larger and larger, which is extremely flattering.
“Also, the fans from the seventies and then on have brought their kids and their grandkids. And I’ve seen our audience, you know taking the average age, just in the time I’ve been in the band, I’ve seen our audience get younger and younger and it’s really a great thing to have young people have an appreciation for this music. This is not something that has been made with a couple of samples and a drum machine. This is very intense music by intensely talented people. So, for young people to appreciate this music, it doesn’t get better than that! That’s really a great thing and I hope it continues”
What’s in store for Kansas in 2021?
With my time already a little bit longer than planned, and I was sure Ronnie had other interviews scheduled, I wanted to end the interview asking what 2021 had on the cards for the band.
“You ask the hot question there! 2021…
“I will say this… it’ll probably be the most intense touring schedule we’ve had, since I’ve been in the band. And a quick little story: when I first talked to Phil [Ehart] and Rich [Williams], they had told me they had plans on doing about 55 and 65 shows a year. My first full year with Kansas we did 98 shows. My second year with Kansas we did 99.”
He concluded, “we have to make up for 2020. I think there’s a very good possibility of us well surpassing that number next year.”
With the prospect of the busiest year of touring yet with new songs to add to an already energetic live show, my time with Ronnie Platt was up – indeed it had been up for 10 minutes now; what was meant to be a 20-minute chat had run to nearly 30-minutes, but it’s hard not to when you’re speaking to a man whose enthusiasm for his work and his band exudes with every word he says.
I was worried when I was dialling in about how the interview would go. But there was no need to. Ronnie answered and his friendly manner kept the interview in an upbeat tone throughout… it was apparent that he, along with his bandmates, are all excited about the work they’ve done in putting together The Absence of Presence and that infectious enthusiasm rubs off on you when you speak with him. I believe this is the sign of a rejuvenated Kansas as the band’s touring cycle has grown since Platt joined the band in 2016. From my chat with Ronnie, the current dynamic of the band is one of positivity and honestly, it reflects in the album.
Even with 2020 being a challenging year for the music industry at large, Platt looks ahead with optimism, confident that when Kansas hit the road, the enthusiasm the band has put into their latest release will reflect in the live shows and on their ever-loyal fanbase.
[Read TPA’s review of The Absence of Presence]
[All photographs by EMily Butler Photography – used with kind permission and our sincere thanks.]