By Jeb Wright
Concert Photos by Mark Schierholz
The band Kansas is back with a new album titled The Prelude Implicit. It is the groups’ first studio effort in 16 years and, truth be told, their best work in longer than that.
Despite original songwriter Kerry Livgren not being involved, and original vocalist Steve Walsh retiring, Kansas has proven a band is the sum of all parts and doesn’t belong to any one person… at least not this band.
The band in 2016 consists of original members Richard Williams (guitar) and Phil Ehart (drums) along with longtime members Billy Greer (bass/vocals) and David Ragsdale (violin). They are joined by newcomers David Manion (keyboards), Zak Rizvi (guitar) and Ronnie Platt (lead vocals/keyboards).
With the new album they have achieved something that just should not work. A naysayer would shake his head in disbelief at the Kansas vibe dripping off this record. Against the odds, they did it. They made a tried and true Kansas record.
In the interview that follows, Williams discusses the album in depth… all facets of it. From the songs, to the members to the members who choose not to be in the band anymore, this is the story of The Prelude Implicit… and it’s a good one.
Jeb: Kansas fans are going to love The Prelude Implicit. This is a great album. Were you aware how good it is, or did you just put it out there and hold your breath?
Rich: I had a gut feeling on this one. It seems to have all of the pieces. Lyrically and musically, there is a lot of variety. The package is great. It all feels right. The timing feels right. Everything we are doing is on our upswing. The music is very positive. It just seems like the right time for this to happen.
Jeb: New Kansas without anyone named Livgren and Walsh. Did you think that would happen?
Rich: We always have left the door open for Kerry [Livgren] to submit something. We asked, “Kerry, do you want to submit something?” He said, “No.” “Are you sure?” He said “Yes.” It has been an absolute ‘no’ from Kerry for a long time. It is the same with Steve. For years he has said, “I don’t want to do anything new. I don’t want to record anything.” I understand it from his perspective. He’d been putting out solo albums that nobody heard and nobody cared about. It just kind of broke his spirit on writing. He was like, ‘What’s the point.” He sold all of his equipment and just said, “Fuck it.” It is too bad, as Kerry and Steve are both creative guys that are just kind of done.
Jeb: As cool as it is to be a musician, for some people it just evolves into a job… Consequently, some can’t wait for it to be over.
Rich: This job isn’t for everybody. Steve poured his guts out all over every stage in the country for 41 years. He kind of ran out of gas. He’d been running on empty for a while before that. We had a meeting one time and I said, “Steve, I really feel for you because as much as I love to do this, you clearly hate it. You don’t want to do any new material. You don’t want to record anything. There are only certain songs that you will play. You put your foot down to so many shows. You don’t enjoy the road, the travel or the comradery. You don’t enjoy any part of it. From that perspective this must be awful for you. I feel for you because to hate this… this life would be torture.” I can’t really relate to it because I’m as happy as a pig in shit to be doing this.
Jeb: It shows on both sides. When you texted me and told me Steve was gone I could not imagine Kansas without Steve Walsh. You did it once before, but it just seemed weird at this stage of the game.
Rich: When Steve suddenly said, “I’m done” it was not the first time. He wanted to quit when we went to Europe. We said, “You can’t quit. The promoters have spent money, sold tickets, rented halls, advertised the shows. If you pull the plug they are going to sue us. ‘Us’ means you, too.” He agreed to finish the obligations. We had a couple of shows after Europe that he played and then he was done. That gave us time to recruit a singer. We found Ronnie [Platt]. We rehearsed with him and two weeks after Steve left us we were back on the road.
Jeb: After sixteen years, we get a new Kansas album and you all are already talking about recording another one. That’s great.
Rich: Go back sixteen years ago… that wasn’t a band album. Kerry had some material laying around that he wasn’t using and he thought it would be pretty cool for Kansas. Kerry wasn’t back in the band again. We went to his studio, but Steve was working on a solo album so he wasn’t there. He mailed his parts in. It was Phil, Kerry and myself sitting in Kerry’s studio. Billy would come up and play and he would be gone. Robby came in and then he was gone. Dave Hope came up and played bass on a song and he was gone. It wasn’t an organic band effort like the album we just did.
On this one, we were all sitting in a room working on material together and working on lyrics together. One of us would go, “This is missing something” and we would brainstorm and add things. All of it started happening organically at the moment. That is how a band makes a record. We all go to the studio every day together. From the moment it starts to when we leave we are all involved in the recording process. That is how it was done in the glory days. It was a team effort. We haven’t done that in a very long time… until now.
Jeb: Phil and you have ridden the Kansas wave since the beginning. Did you ever think Kansas would be the band it is today once again?
Rich: All of these people that we have around us, we have around us for a reason. We know how to delegate. We have Dave Manion as the keyboard player because he’s been with the organization for twenty plus years. He is a great keyboard player and he knows us. We can get along and we know what he can do. Rather than dictating, we say, “Dave, we need something here. What can you come up with? We think you can really bring something home here.” It is delegating responsibility to everyone instead of dictating from a lofty position. It works well for us.
Jeb: I’ve heard the album, but I didn’t get any songwriting credits. Are these mostly Zak’s songs?
Rich: Every song is different. Zak is incredible.
Jeb: I will pick one and you tell me about it. “The Voyage of 8:18.”
Rich: Zak wrote that one for Kansas a few years ago. Steve didn’t want to do it. He didn’t want to record. Before it was even really heard, it was over. When we started working on this album we were looking at material. Zak said, “Do you care if I resubmit that one song?” We heard it once again and we were like, “My god, that’s Kansas-sounding.”
In the demo of it there was no singing. Where the guitar line was the vocal would be. It was hard to figure it all out first. We started stripping it down and assembling it. We ironed out the melodies and fine-tuned the arrangement. We worked on the lyrics and things started coming together. That was the last song we recorded. That was a booger. It was a lot to chew.
Jeb: Kansas has an instrumental on this album.
Rich: On the song “Section 60” Phil and I wanted to have an instrumental. It is a neat thing to have on an album, so we wanted one. We wanted something kind of moody and grandiose, kind of like at the end of the song “The Wall.” This is what we were telling Zak.
Phil was mentioning as Zak was there, that about four years ago we went to Arlington Cemetery. A friend of ours knew an ex-guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We got a private tour. We went underneath where they dress and we got to talk with the guys. It was just a fantastic experience.
They took us around in this private tour of Arlington and there is this area called Section 60. I asked what that was. There is no memorial for it because it is ongoing. This is for today’s soldiers from Afghanistan, Iraq and the continuing war going on. It is not over yet and this is the section for that. There were families there burying their sons. It was very moving to see. Phil said, “As a theme of this instrumental, create something in honor of that. We can put a drum thing at the end.” That is all Zak had to go on.
Two days later he came back with that song. Once we saw how creative he was -we knew he was a great guitar player and an engineer- we wanted him to produce us, we knew that... But now we wanted his musical ideas. We didn’t want him stuck behind the console. We wanted him away from the desk and with us working on the music. Zak just came alive. That was the final piece of the puzzle. The music just started pouring out of us.
Jeb: Talk about the new single “With This Heart.”
Rich: Phil came up with that opening drumbeat. He said to Zak, “See what you can do with this.” That was it. Zak came back with this music around it that was so cool. At the time there wasn’t a middle section for it. There were no lyrics. It sounded like something that would be almost like on a newscast or something. It had this really cool thing about it. As we started working, it was going to be the instrumental… but then we started working on a melody for it. Ronnie came in one day with some lyrics. I looked at the lyric and I looked at Phil and I said, “I wouldn’t change a word of this.”
Jeb: Talk about working on the lyrics.
Rich: Working on lyrics… we were trying to direct things in a certain way. We didn’t want to sing about girls and broken hearts and cars. We didn’t want to have lyrics about the Edmund Fitzgerald or something. We wanted lyrics to be inspiring, but also to be a bit ambiguous. We wanted them to make you think rather than to tell you what to think. That was the goal that we were stressing in the lyrical approach to the album. Ronnie just nailed it with that one.
We now had the basic structure for a song, but we didn’t have a middle section for it. I said, “Let me take this home. It needs to go somewhere else.” I came up with a chord pattern over three or four days. I kept going over to Ragsdale’s and recording it and revamping it until I was finally happy with it. I told Dave, “Play over this.” I brought it in and everything worked out. Now we had the middle.
Jeb: Another song I like is “Unsung Heroes.”
Rich: That was the same sort of thing. That was an outside song brought in by Geoff Byrd. It had completely different lyrics. It was kind of a bluesy song. I didn’t care for it, personally. It is not like I didn’t like the song, I just didn’t like it for us in any way. It needed a lot of work to be for us.
Zak comes back in with the intro. Boom, all of a sudden we have a very Kansas sounding introduction. In the verse the blues stuff is still there, but the lyrics were completely changed. When it came to the middle there was a gratuitous blues solo. I was like “Wow, I don’t want to do that.” I just didn’t want to do that.
In the roundtable we worked out a different chord progression. I took it home and I worked up a solo. I said, “I want to do a back and forth, question and answer type thing. I want two instruments talking to each other.” I put together a simple line for someone to follow then I put together a second thing that was a bit Eric Johnson inspired. We did it so it landed right back into the introduction perfectly. Phil said it was one his favorite things that I’ve ever done. Again, it added a Kansas touch to it where the song initially did not have that.
These are all of the things that knowing where we have been and knowing what we are… I’ve never been a songwriter. I’ve always had a knack of knowing what doesn’t work and what we need to do to it in order to push it in the right direction. I’ve never been able to come up with the first seed or the germ that turns into a song.
Jeb: That is surprising because you’re very creative.
Rich: It is weird. I will say this because my kids are all grown now… When I was a kid, all I did was art. I drew constantly. I was in high school art classes. When the band went to New Orleans in late 1969 as White Clover I was doing pen and ink for the NOLA Express which was an underground newspaper. I was drawing advertisements and stuff. I was extremely creative. I could just sit down and ‘boom ‘make it happen.
One day I ate an eight-way hit of Mardi Gras acid that was laced with strychnine. It blew my skull out. It was a few days before I came back to earth. You’ve heard of people having bad trips… I went universes away for days.
After a couple of days I started coming out of it, although I was still very screwed up. I knew… if somebody does a little bit too much, they say, “It is just a drug. It will wear off.” It was two days before I could see myself coming back. I had flashbacks from that for years.
What happened in that moment is that I lost the ability to create. I’ve never been able to start something since then. I can do little parts here and there, but I can’t sit down and from nothing create something. The marker in my life is that event as to when that happened.
Through trial and error, I have always had a knack of being complementary rather than having my moment to shine. I know when I don’t have to play anything.
Jeb: You did create that awesome solo in “The Wall.”
Rich: The solo at the beginning… I could have played something very flashy, but I wanted something that was extremely complementary to the mood. I am a team player from the actual physical work of it all to finding a spot within what we do. It is not about me. It is about what can I do or not do to make this better and to make this ‘more Kansas’.
Jeb: You’ve told me about the old days when you ripped the songs to shreds as a band. Was the atmosphere ‘more kind’ during this album?
Rich: It was easier this time because of the people involved.
Jeb: No one in Kansas seems to have that rock star ego these days.
Rich: No one said, “This part here I wrote this and it is going to stay exactly that way. It is not changing and I am not going to listen to anyone’s idea.” No one said, “This lyric is chiseled in fucking stone and no one will change it.” There wasn’t anything like that. Of course, once in a while feelings get hurt a little bit. That is just natural. It was always for the common good and it was never mean-spirited.
At the end of the day, everyone was extremely happy for the outcome. There was never any putting your foot down. There was nothing like, “You do it like this or I’m pulling the song.” It was very refreshing to have that kind of very relaxed atmosphere. There was not any “What kind of mood is Rich going to be in today?”
Jeb: Talk about the song “Refugee.”
Rich: There are times when you’re in the studio and you’re listening to the playback and you just go, “Holy shit. This is good.” You feel a mood come over you.
Certain songs… it is hard to explain. “Lamplight Symphony” has more than just a great middle section and cool lyrics. A mood is created outside of all of that. That is rare when you can do that and I think we did that with “Refugee.” When that song is over you are not sure what just happened to you. You’re left with a hangover of this feeling that you don’t even know what to do with.
Look at Bob Dylan. Is he a good singer? Of course he is not a good singer, but he is great. “Like a Rolling Stone” is a song that if you sonically analyze it then you know it is not perfection, but there is something about the way he performs it and the way it sounds that makes it perfection. It has the indefinable something that certain songs just have. It happens very rarely. “Refugee” I think has that.
Jeb: The thing I like about The Prelude Implicit is that is has a lot of everything. There are very huge songs that are great right away. As I continue to listen to it, I keep getting into songs that I passed over. Right now I am hooked on “Crowded Isolation.” That is a sneaky song. It gets better with each play.
Rich: It is a cool riff. The acoustic part before it is just a part I stumbled upon when we did Native Window. I filed it away as I didn’t know what to do with it. I was playing it in the studio one day and Zak said, “What is that?” I said, “I don’t know what that is, Zak.” He goes, “Maybe we can put that somewhere.” I recorded it and then we realized it would fit perfectly in front of “Crowded Isolation.”
Jeb: “Visibility Zero” has a wicked guitar part in it.
Rich: That is a great riff. I love that riff.
Jeb: This album has a lot great riffs. It is hard to describe it in an interview. This album just has it. You have to hear it.
Rich: Before I came upstairs to talk to you I was working on “Rhythm in the Spirit.” That has a ballsy introduction that is just nasty. When it breaks down to the verse it is like “where are we?” Suddenly with the octave singing it gets so moody. It is almost like a deep cut on a progressive side of Earth, Wind & Fire or something… then it busts into this incredible chorus. I love the turnaround chorus. The guitar riff in that with the violin solo over it is very Livgren-esque.
I feel good about this record. This is a new album. We’re not repeating anything but it is definitely reminiscent of Kansas. This represents the Kansas legacy in really every way.
Jeb: Tell me about the cover.
Rich: We didn’t want some computer graphic guy to make some groovy album cover. We wanted to commission an artist again. We wanted to talk to her and have back and forth ideas and have her create some imagery as we did in the old days. That is an important part in creating everything that is Kansas. We needed that, too.
Jeb: I like hearing you so excited. You’ve been around, so you know it is not going to go Platinum. But you have a great fan base.
Rich: We’ve got a great network set up. We’ve got over a million and a half people on Facebook. We can direct market to them. We have our own marketing in place where we have thirty to forty plus thousand people that are hard ticket buying Kansas people that we can send them sound clips and all of that type of stuff.
Point of Know Return… I don’t even know how many million it eventually sold as you never get correct accounting. It was kind of normal at that time. Everybody was selling millions of albums. Now for an album to go Gold is very, very rare. Our expectations are very realistic.
We have signed a lot of shitty record deals, anyway. We never made a fortune on records. The songwriters did well, but as far as the piece of the pie that goes to the band… that was always a small amount. The bread and butter has always been the road for us.
This album will more than pay for itself I am sure, and it will ensure another record. It is going to give Ronnie his own songs to play. Now he can sing the great songs of our past live, but he now has his own songs to sing. When [John] Elefante first came onboard, before we hit the road, he had his own songs to sing. We’ve been out with Ronnie for two years and he is now going to sing his own words. He will sing his own melodies and this will now be his band. It is very important for that.
Rather than being a bunch of old guys doing the last lap around the track playing the ‘best of’ this is a new beginning for this band. We have music being written and we have plans for more music to come. We are reinventing ourselves again. We are not in a panic mode, but rather we are in an inspired mode. This band is on fire.
Jeb: We were both in Minnesota at the Moondance Jam on 7-16-2009 when Ronnie sang with Shooting Star. What a synchronistic way he came to your band. You heard him perform that day, when both bands were on the festival bill.
Rich: I do interviews, probably ten a week and people always ask, “Where did you first hear him?” I can see me standing on the side of the stage at Moondance and seeing him in the middle of some song. I just see him from the back. There are thousands of people out there at the Moondance Jam. Ronnie had them in the palm of his hand and was singing his butt off. I was like, “Holy shit, who is this guy?” None of this would have ever happened... I still remember that moment. It is funny how things work out.
It just goes to show you, Jeb. Change happens. You and I’ve talked about this before. We both post about it. It is the most natural thing in the world… change. Everything changes all of the time. Everything is in flux at all times. Yet… most people, for all of their lives, they fight it constantly.
Once you start accepting change then you start to anticipate it and you start to enjoy the fact that it’s coming. You look forward to seeing what is on the other side of that door that is closed instead of being afraid to open it. It all makes sense now because we are just following our new nature, which is just talking that next positive step forward.
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