An Interview With Kansas: Guitarist Rich Williams On Why There’s No Place Like Home On The Range And No Style Like Your Own
The Aquarian Weekly. November 16, 2016
Kansas’ latest album, The Prelude Implicit, treats fans to 10 new tracks and two exciting bonus songs. The album, coproduced by the band’s new member, Zac Rizvi, alongside two of the original members, Phil Ehart and Rich Williams, brilliantly celebrates the vocal talents of Ronnie Platt and the musical prowess of David Ragsdale (violin), David Manion (keyboards), Phil Ehart (drums), Billy Greer (bass guitar), and both Rich Williams and Zac Rizvi on guitar.
The band boasts an extensive catalog of 20 albums, eight of which have gone gold, three have achieved sextuple-platinum and one has reached platinum status. After a 16-year recording hiatus, the legendary band is back and better than ever, with fans proclaiming The Prelude Implicit to be the band’s hottest album in decades.
On Sept. 30 the band kicked off their Leftoverture 40th Anniversary Tour where in a special two-hour concert Kansas is performing the sextuple-platinum Leftoverture album in its entirety while simultaneously playing fan favorites from their enormous repertoire.
Despite a hectic tour schedule, guitarist, co-producer, and original band member Rich Williams found time to speak with me about the last four decades of Kansas and what we can expect next from the rock band.
Congratulations on the new album. I’ve been listening to it for days.
I appreciate that. Thanks for getting it.
The Prelude Implicit has received tremendously positive feedback with some calling it the band’s best work in over 35 years. That is a true testament to your producing.
Before we made the record there were some sour grapes. Old farts going, “It’s not the same without Kerry [Livgren].” Kerry hasn’t been with the band in 33 years. Things have quieted down since the album came out. Reviews have been stellar.
What does it feel like to be touring and performing the four-decade-old Leftoverturealbum while also promoting The Prelude Implicit?
At least half of the Leftoverture album was always in the set, but we’ve never done the album in its entirety before, especially in its original sequence. I can’t tell you the last time I put the album on and listened to it in its entirety. I don’t sit around listening to Kansas records all day. Doing a tour of an album is something we’ve talked about doing in the past. Other bands have done it. It was always an interesting prospect, but we just didn’t always have a team willing to do it. This new lineup is happy to do anything. The Leftoverture Tour gives people that haven’t bought the record an opportunity to hear it live and for those that have the record they get to hear live the stuff they’ve been listening to for the last few months.
Kansas has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and last year the band was inducted into both the Kansas Hall of Fame and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Can you talk about those experiences and how it feels to be recognized by the band’s home and adopted states for a lifetime of rocking?
I’m very proud of the band and to be a part of that. Personally I don’t know what to make of it. I would love for us to get into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland not for me but for the band, the legacy, and the fans and for my family. For that it is important. For me it’s a bit overwhelming. I’m not so ego driven that I need the accolades. I appreciate them. I’m very humbled by them, but I’m not comfortable standing on the pedestal taking a bow. I’m just fortunate to be here.
The Prelude Implicit opens with “Home on The Range,” which is a sweet way to tip your hat and pay tribute to your home state.
Doing an instrumental of “Oh Shenandoah” was always something I wanted to do, but in the past there was reluctance. It’s a beautiful melody and I wanted to do it in a Kansas style. There’s an independent movie about “Home on The Range” premiering shortly in Wichita, Kansas. We were involved in that project in a small way. We’ve played that song as a closing take at the end of shows because it is the state song and it is such a departure from what we do. As a concept I liked it but I didn’t want to sound like a bunch of cowboys sitting around the campfire so I messed with it and took a lot of liberty with it. I made it from this happy sing-a-long cowboy song from a C major, turned it into an A minor song and altered the melody around that. It had a bluesy groove to it with a very baroque middle section. I wanted to put a Kansas signature on it from beginning to end. It’s been rerecorded thousands of times the same way. I didn’t want us to sing, “Home on The Range.” I wanted us to sing our version of it.
With 40 years of music industry trends and a roster of bandmates who have come and gone, how has Kansas stayed true to the complex American Boogie Rock sound you guys are famous for?
It’s not hard to follow your nature. We have never been a pop-hit machine; laying down groovy, monstrous hit tracks. We’ve stumbled on some by complete accident very fortunately like “Dust In The Wind”; what a fortunate accident. “Wayward Son,” the same thing. Being ourselves is what we do best. Be true to who you are and the honesty of it will come through. The shallowness of trying to be something else would never work for us.
Somewhere to Elsewhere was released in 2000. After a 16-year recording hiatus what reignited the band’s fire and sparked the desire to record The Prelude Implicit?
There was always a desire to record an album in those 16 years. When we did Somewhere to Elsewhere classic rock hadn’t come back to life yet. We were still slugging it out performing, but we weren’t making any waves. Kerry has been retired from Kansas for over 30 years, but he called and said, “I’m not really doing anything. You guys aren’t doing much but I’ve got a lot of material sitting here. It would be fun to get together and make another Kansas record.” He had a studio in his barn so Phil and I went there, picked some material and said, “Let’s do this.” It wasn’t like making a Kansas album in the days previous or since. There was no band rehearsal where we sat down and worked stuff out. I like the album. I’m not knocking the album, but it was not done as a group. Kerry had the songs written. Steve Walsh was not there for any of it. He was working on a solo project so he did his stuff in Atlanta and mailed it in. Phil, Kerry, and I sat in the studio. Dave Hope came up and played bass on a song. Robby came in. I was around for most of it. Billy played. It was great to record again. That’s always fun.
Since then the door has always been open, but Kerry has always said, “No. I’m not interested.” Steve got so discouraged by the business he finally said, “I don’t want to write anymore,” and sold all his recording equipment. For the rest of us who wanted to record the finality of the two main songwriters saying, “I’m not going to write,” was tough to deal with.
In that frustration four of us got together and did a side project called Native Window where we wrote a lot of material. The goal was to have fun and the rule was it couldn’t be Kansas. When Steve retired two years ago all restrictions left with him. With this new lineup the answer to everything is, “Yes. Let’s do it. Let’s play 100 shows this year. Let’s record another album this year. Let’s record again in 2018. Let’s do the Leftoverture Tour in its entirety. Let’s play two and a half hours. Yes.” “Yes” is the answer to everything. Everybody wants to play music, have fun, travel, see the world, and be creative in our way. We have not been able to do that for so long.
It must be refreshing to be having fun again. Energy is contagious.
These are personally the best times I’ve ever had. With the original six in our greatest times I didn’t have the perspective I have now. I grew up slowly. I was a pretty dense, typical Midwestern male for a long time who floated through life without thinking about it that much. When you travel enough and experience enough you start gaining wisdom. I didn’t appreciate what was going on at that time. I was sucking it all in and gobbling up more. Now I can look back and be proud of what we’ve done. I can actually appreciate the moment, which I was never capable of before. It was always, “What’s next?” I am living with the success of the band in the present. For me personally, this is the best time in my 43 years with the band.
Is this the first album that you produced?
We’ve had “Produced by Kansas” instead of our names on it. The band had more to do with production than anyone else on virtually every album, except when we worked with Bob Ezrin doing In the Spirit of Things. That was the first time we ever worked with an upper echelon, big time, star-in-his-own-right producer. He was great to work with and we learned a lot from him. There were disagreements; some lost and some won. We interviewed Roy Thomas Baker to do the album. He came in and said, “I love it. Let’s go record. What are the good places to eat around here?” We said, “Nope. That’s not our guy.” Bob Ezrin came in and said, “Guys, this is a lot of shit here. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” He got the best out of us. The album was unheard because all of MCA was fired and a whole new team came on when the album was about to be released. The album got lost in the shuffle, but we made a great record with Bob.
Of the 15 studio albums Kansas has recorded and toured does one stand out as more memorable?
The most disappointing was In the Spirit of Things, because the table was set, but it didn’t get the support it needed to get off the ground. On the other side of the coin it’s hard to be objective. The thing you just poured your guts into is always your favorite. My favorite album is the one we just made. Three years from now I might have a different perspective. Before that my favorite was the live thing we recorded at Washburn University. The No Place Like Home DVD was the band doing Kansas material with a symphony. To sit in front of a big screen TV with surround sound Dolby is the closest to being at a Kansas symphonic concert you can be without being there. I like us live. I think we captured a live spirit on this new album. What you hear on the record and the way we’re performing it is extremely similar.
The record sounds fat. You can hear every instrument simultaneously.
That’s Zac. Zac was going to coproduce with us. He is a tremendous engineer that we have a long history with. He engineered No Place Like Home. From the first day of writing we wanted Zac involved. He brought so much to the table. I knew he was a good guitar player and I knew he was a creative guy, but I had no idea he was such a phenomenal songwriter with so much musical depth to him. He completely understood who we are and where we want to go. Phil and I recognized he needed to be in the band. We said, “Zac, how would you feel about being in the band?” and he did not hesitate for a split second. It’s great to have him on board. With this creative team I don’t know what the limits are. We don’t know where the ceiling is yet.
You have not one, but two one-million-selling gold singles to your name. Do you ever tire of playing “Carry On Wayward Son” or “Dust in The Wind” or is it just as magical to perform these favorites to live audiences years later?
Sitting around the house playing “Dust in The Wind” doesn’t give me goose bumps. We don’t go through it a lot in rehearsals, but to play those songs in front of a live crowd is completely different. To be a part of that event; there’s nothing like it. I did the guitar work on “Dust in The Wind.” I am the guy that counts it off. I am the guy that starts that live. There’s not a person in the room that goes, “Huh? I’ve never heard this.” They all know it from the first note. They know every lyric and sing along. They identify what it means to them in their own way. They have personal stories about the song. I would hope I would never get so jaded I couldn’t appreciate that moment.
You can catch Kansas on the Leftoverture 40th Anniversary Tour at The Paramount in Huntington, NY on Nov. 19. Their latest album, The Prelude Implicit, is available now. For more information, go to kansasband.com.