By David Iozzia
In the film classic "The Wizard of Oz," actress Judy Garland's character, Dorothy Gale, had some very memorable lines. She told her dog Toto that "we're not in Kansas anymore," and "we must be over the rainbow."
When I did this interview with guitarist Rich Williams, I was sitting under, not over, a rainbow that had just followed a summer rainstorm. I wasn't in the State of Kansas; I was in New Jersey. Rich Williams was on the road touring somewhere in the United States, but he wasn't in the State of Kansas either. Rich Williams is the lead guitarist for the classic rock band Kansas.
Kansas originated in the early 1970s, hailing from the town of Topeka. Their self-titled debut album was released in 1974, almost one year after it was recorded in New York City. The Kansas lineup at that time was a six-piece, and they toured extensively. Kansas had a violinist, Robbie Steinhardt, and his distinctive instrument set them apart from other progressive rockers from that era. All of the Kansas albums from the 70s went either gold or platinum and sold in the millions. Their three biggest hit singles from that era were "Carry On Wayward Son," "Dust in the Wind," and "Point of No Return." The lineup has changed a little since the 70s, yet the mainstays throughout most of their 35- year history include Rich Williams, keyboardist Steve Walsh, and drummer Phil Ehart. Joining them today are bass guitarist Billy Greer and violinist David Ragsdale, in a lineup that's been intact since 2006.
Although Rich and I briefly revisit the 1970s and the early days of Kansas, I kept my interview questions focused on the band's efforts in 2010, as well as an exciting side project of Rich's called Native Window. Kansas is touring in 2010 to support a live DVD titled "There's No Place Like Home," which was also borrowed from "The Wizard of Oz."
Dave: Hello Rich. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to interview you.
Rich: Sure Dave.
Dave: In 2009, your band Kansas celebrated the 35th anniversary of its self-titled debut by releasing a live DVD titled "There's No Place Like Home." Throughout your band's history, the lineup has been both a six-piece and a five-piece, yet for this DVD, it was almost a 60-piece as you were accompanied by the Washburn University Symphony Orchestra. What was the origin of this musical project?
Rich: We did an album called "Always Never the Same" almost a decade and a half ago with the London Symphony Orchestra. Kansas has been playing symphony dates on and off since that time. We've always had the hope of filming one of those performances. With the 35th anniversary of Kansas around the corner, it seemed like a good number and a good time for that project to happen. We were familiar with the concept. Larry Baird, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra, scored all of the music, and he's always on the road with us when we do "symphony" shows. We always wanted to do it. We just had to make sense of it as far as why and where. We looked at different possibilities. It wasn't until we decided to go back to Topeka, where the Kansas band got its start, that the project made more sense. I went to school at Washburn University, as did our drummer, Phil Ehart, and our original guitarist, Kerry Livgren. Jeff Glixman, who produced this record, some of the earlier Kansas records, and a lot of things since then, lived across the street from Washburn. His dad was a teacher there. The lady who runs White Concert Hall at Washburn, her father ran the music store where I bought my first guitar and took music lessons. All that being said, once we decided to return to Topeka, everything fell into place.
Dave: Knowing you'd be backed by a full orchestra at Washburn University, how did the band approach the task of re-arranging their material?
Rich: Most of the re-arrangements were already in place. The instrumental part of "Dust in the Wind" is twice as long when we play with an orchestra. We just have to remember that. There are some songs that we normally don't play in a typical Kansas set that we will play with a symphony. It's really just a matter of doing some quick homework to go over the re-arrangements before we play any symphony dates. It's not as hard as it looks. The conductor follows us, and he in turn conducts the symphony. It's kind of like a normal day for us. We just go out and play and they follow along. At the end of the night, hopefully it all works out.
Dave: Kansas drummer Phil Ehart has been quoted that "adding another 50 people to your band can be eventful." In 2006, I interviewed Emerson, Lake, and Palmer drummer Carl Palmer about his band's experiences touring with an orchestra in 1977. He stated, "I wasn't moved enough emotionally by the orchestra. The E.L.P. experience was good enough, I'm glad we did it, but I wouldn't want to repeat it." From where you stood with your chosen instrument, lead guitar, what was the biggest challenge being accompanied by an orchestra?
Rich: The biggest challenge is getting comfortable with it. It can be a bit overwhelming to hear everything. A good sound check, getting your monitors set, is quite a thing. The visual cues are different There are spots where I count it off with my bandmate Billy Greer, who's playing acoustic guitar with me on "Dust in the Wind." The conductor, who is watching me, is set up behind the band and trying to see me through the smoke. I'm setting the tempo, but with the wash of 50 instruments coming over everyone, the simple guitar pattern is pretty easy to get lost. I'm clomping my foot like a Clydesdale keeping it together, while Billy is watching me from the other side of the stage. Keeping all of those things synched together does take a little bit more effort.
Dave: Is that the only view the conductor has, from behind? I assumed he'd have a video feed of the band.
Rich: No video. He's set up behind the drums facing our backs. He does have an audio monitor so that he can hear me. The finger picking pattern, with an orchestra blasting in his face, is hard to keep on track if you don't hear it for a few seconds. Visual cues become so important. Things you don't normally do become things you have to do with an orchestra behind you. Generally, it all works out well.
Dave: What was the most gratifying moment for you from the "Kansas with an orchestra experiment," other than being at Washburn University?
Rich: Having our former band member Kerry Livgren involved, who lives in Topeka, was nice. Guitarist Steve Morse, he of Dixie Dregs and Deep Purple fame, did two albums with Kansas. It was nice having him involved. The whole project turned into a coming-home party.
Dave: What was your comfort level re-adding a second guitar to the Kansas lineup?
Rich: It's not that big a deal. Whenever we play in Topeka, Kerry comes out anyway for a few songs. It's a matter of remembering how Kerry used to play his parts because that's how he'll play them now. Then I need to remember how I played to complement those parts 25 years ago. It's really not that tough.
Dave: As a lifelong fan of your band watching the DVD, two highlights for me were the songs "Song for America" and "Nobody's Home." I felt that on these two songs, Kansas was accompanying the orchestra, unlike on other songs where the orchestra was backing the band.
Rich: "Nobody's Home" is a song we don't normally play at a casino gig. Playing in a theater, backed by a symphony, creates the perfect atmosphere for that song to work. "Nobody's Home" is my favorite song from the DVD, and it's the definitive version of that song. It's very dramatic in that setting. It has so many highs and lows. It's powerful, and it's very delicate. I'm glad we did that song. "Nobody's Home" was meant to be played that way. "Song for America" is very majestic. It sounds great with the symphony.
Dave: Another highlight for me was an interesting inclusion on the DVD. Filmed at the afternoon sound check, without the orchestra, and under minimal lighting was the song "Down the Road." The jam between you, Steve Morse, and Kerry Livgren was fun to watch!
Rich: We said "lets just do it. You take the first and second solos, you take the next, and you take the last one." That's all that was designated. Then off we went!
Dave: Was any thought given to having other former band members like violinist Robby Steinhardt or bass guitarist Dave Hope join the celebration?
Rich: When Robbie's gone, Robbie's gone. He's almost off the map. I get e-mails from Dave Hope every day. He's an ordained minister in Florida. He really has another calling now. The "symphony project" would have interrupted all of that. It would have been great to have everybody involved but that wasn't possible. We were lucky to get Steve Morse in between Deep Purple shows.
Dave: Kansas opened shows for Styx and Foreigner in a Summer 2010 North American tour. Your band has so many hits and fan favorites to squeeze into a short set. Your songs have different ranges and styles. Did the short timeframe and the way you had to sequence the setlist prevent Kansas from establishing a "mood" to their performance?
Rich: We did have to pick up the pace a bit and get to the point! It's impossible to compete with Styx, let alone Foreigner, when it comes to hit songs. Both those bands hit the stage and went boom, boom, boom. Every song they played was a hit. Kansas has two big hits and then some that were kind of on the radio. I'm very comfortable where we were if we're opening the show for those bands. In the past, that hasn't been a very comfortable place to be if everybody is trying to find their seat. On the summer tour with Foreigner and Styx, the seats were filled when we started. Everything was great!
Dave: Kansas will also be doing headlining shows in 2010 where you, Phil Ehart, Billy Greer, and David Ragsdale pull double duty. Your other band, Native Window, will be opening those shows. How challenging are the physical demands of playing with both bands?
Rich: We've done double duty a bunch of times in the past. It's more demanding on Phil Ehart because drumming is so physical. It's hard on Billy Greer because he has to sing it all. Me and Ragsdale just stand there looking pretty, wiggling our fingers a little. I'd normally be backstage at that time, practicing and warming up. It's no stretch for me to come out there early and play another 45 minutes. Native Window only has so much material to play and it's pretty easy.
Dave: After Kansas finishes their 2010 touring schedule, and as they leave the 35- year celebration and head toward their 40th, what can your fans expect next?
Rich: Now that we've finished the tour with Foreigner and Styx, Kansas will be doing some headlining symphony shows. There will be other Kansas dates in November and December to fill out the year. We have a couple of other opportunities with a couple of different projects. One's almost a done deal but until it is, I can't talk about it. It's something new and something Kansas fans should look forward to next year.
Dave: I'll tell everybody to stay tuned in at the Kansas website.
Rich: Please do. It's on the horizon.
Dave: Before I switch gears and ask some questions to introduce your band Native Window, I want to quickly revisit the early days of Kansas. As a rock music fan, I was always looking for a different sound. The first time I heard "Can I Tell You" and your band's use of violin, I was hooked. I saw many a Kansas concert in both Passaic, New Jersey's Capitol Theatre and New York City's Madison Square Garden. Thanks for those memories!
Rich: Thanks Dave. Those are great memories for me too.
Dave: What was it like leaving the Midwest in 1973 to record your debut album at the Record Plant in the Big Apple, New York City?
Rich: We signed one of the worst record deals in history. But when we were given the opportunity to sign, we said sure. We jumped on it because we wanted to record. To go to the Record Plant in New York City was special. We had only been in little two-track and four-track studios in the Kansas area. It was very exciting, but we also learned a lot of things like "you can't do it that way" or "you can't use those amplifiers in the studio." It was all a learning process. We were so green. Playing live and going into a studio are different animals. It takes a while to get accustomed to the difference. Being in that big city, staying at a big hotel five blocks from the Record Plant, and walking back and forth to the studio every day was nothing like being back in Topeka. We'd all been places on vacation with our parents, but we'd never been to the big city. It certainly was an exciting time.
Dave: "Carry On Wayward Son" has been discovered by a new generation of music fans after being featured on video games like "Guitar Hero II" and "Rock Band II." In 1976, leaving the studio with your record "Leftoverture" completed, did you have any sense that "Carry On Wayward Son" would not only be a Top 40 hit and certified Gold then, but a song worthy of entry on lists like "VH1's 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs," and a song that is still so relevant in the 21st century?
Rich: We could never have guessed what would become of that song, but we were confidant that we had a great song. We knew that just like we did with "Dust in the Wind." The minute Kerry Livgren brought that song to rehearsals, me and Phil Ehart looked at each other and said "that song will be the next hit for Kansas." I heard it clear as a bell, which was unusual for a song like that. "Dust in the Wind" was not a definitive Kansas song by any means, nor was it like anything else on the radio at that time. That says a lot for the song. "Dust in the Wind" was a hit in spite of itself.
Dave: Native Window is a band you formed with some of your Kansas bandmates: drummer Phil Ehart, bass guitarist Billy Greer, and violinist David Ragsdale. When was your self-titled debut record released?
Rich: I can't remember the exact release date. It's been out for about a year.
Dave: What's the best spot for fans to purchase a physical copy?
Rich: Amazon.com would be a good spot for fans to buy a physical copy.
Dave: Do you sell the Native Window CD at the merchandise booth during Kansas concerts?
Rich: Not at most Kansas shows, but fans can certainly grab a copy of "There's No Place Like Home" there. If it's a Kansas show where Native Window is playing on the bill, we'll include the CD at the merchandise booth.
Dave: Did you, Billy Greer, David Ragsdale, and Phil Ehart form Native Window out of necessity when Steve Walsh and Kerry Livgren stated they would no longer write new album-length material for Kansas, or was there more to it?
Rich: Native Window was born from several different types of frustration. The four of us really wanted to create something because Kansas wasn't going to be writing anything new. That gave us the opportunity to take off the Kansas hats and put on a different hat. We didn't know what is was going to be. We just sat down in a circle and started writing material. The only rule was that it wasn't going to be Kansas. We already knew that. Once that was out of the equation, that opened it up to be anything that we wanted it to be. It was a very organic process of guys saying "hey, I have an idea." You'd throw the idea against a wall and somebody would say "what if we do this," or "that reminds me of something." Then you have a lyrical idea. Some of the songs were made that way and others were brought in to the meetings in a more complete form. Then we tore them down and put that back together in the same fashion. It was a very freeing experience to create Native Window. We didn't have the albatross of this record having to be the next Kansas record on our backs. That made things very easy. We had a great experience writing and recording this record.
Dave: How pre-conceived was having the music of Native Window not sound like Kansas?
Rich: There was no preconception. The instrumentation of Native Window is different.
Dave: I'll link the Native Window MySpace page and website where fans can listen to some of the Native Window tracks and decide for themselves. Because my website is text-only, how would you verbally describe the differences in musical direction between Kansas and Native Window?
Rich: Native Window is guitar-based and violin-based. There is no Steve Walsh so it's not keyboard-based. Billy Greer, who's a great vocalist on his own, sings the whole record with all of us adding background vocals. By its nature, it is quite a bit different. But it's still us playing it and you can't completely shed your skin. There are some familiar moments and sounds. But Native Window does not sound like Kansas. It sounds like its own band and that's what it is.
Dave: Personally, I love the different musical paths this record travels. My favorite is the sometimes swampy, sometimes rocking "Blood in the Water," but I never skip over the acoustic "Still." I really enjoy the range of this record. What's your favorite cut and why?
Rich: The most enjoyable to play and the most fun to record was "Blood on the Water." The record was finished but we all agreed that we needed another song with more teeth to it to round out the record. We had a riff and a verse that we ran through. Then we slept on it. I moved things around and I had another idea for the beginning. David Ragsdale had an idea for the "B" section. We knew the middle would be some type of solo thing, but we stepped away from it. After the song was written, we got back to the solos and wondered what we were going to do. It came out as a sort of guitar and violin argument. That song makes me laugh; it's entertaining. It's quirky. It's funny at times and it's nasty at times.
Dave: In a music industry with limited record sales, and one where rock radio probably won't play Native Window, what is the reward for you, Phil, Billy, and David?
Rich: The reward was really in just doing the record. We had to scratch that creative itch. Steve Walsh and Kerry Livgren are typically the Kansas songwriters. They weren't warm and fuzzy about taking all of the time, and going through all of the expense, of writing and recording a Kansas record that radio wouldn't play. It wouldn't be heard either because Kansas wouldn't play much of it live in their setlist. Maybe if we only had one new song we could work that in. The reality of today's music industry for classic rock bands is that the Rolling Stones could play a soccer stadium with 150,000 fans in attendance. If they put a new record out, it might only sell 150,000 copies. When Mick Jagger says they're going to play something from the new record, half the crowd gets up to buy a beer and a t-shirt. If that's the reality, why should Kansas take the machine off the road and spend a year putting our hearts and soul into a record that nobody gives a shit about? Being frustrated with that situation, me, David, Billy, and Phil said we're going to have to do something anyway. As I stated earlier, we had to scratch that creative itch. In between Kansas shows, in our spare time, we took a year and a half and assembled the Native Window record. We kept our costs way down and funded it ourselves. We signed up with Jeff Glixman's label, Star City. The post-production was done there. We did Native Window because we wanted to. We wanted to create something new.
Dave: Does today's music industry force the members of this band to spend time on the computer at social networking websites trying to spread the word about Native Window?
Rich: We have a company that handles all of our websites. I'm not jumping on the computer myself. I'd rather be removed from all of that. We don't have a direct link on our website where people can write us and ask questions because the dialog never ends. I believe a website should be a place for fans to get information, not a forum for any of us band members to go blah, blah, blah about how things are, should be, and once were. (www.myspace.com/nativewindow)
Dave: I'm sure the instrumentation on Native Window's CD was the easiest part. What was more challenging: writing the song's lyrics or working out the vocals and harmonies?
Rich: There were no big challenges, it all just came together. Everybody had an equal voice and there were no bad ideas. Any idea lyrically, melody-wise, chord-wise, or arrangement-wise was tried, and that opened the floodgates. That environment made everything easy.
Dave: Is Native Window a one-off project, or should fans expect another record down the road?
Rich: Yet to be seen. That depends on if the Native Window record ends up paying for itself. Is there a will to do another? You bet! It has to make some business sense. You just can't keep throwing money at it if it's not going to sell. We could do it very cheap, but that's not the way we do things. They has to be quality control. We're not just going to set up in the garage and do it. If we can't do it right, we might as well not do it at all.
Dave: Opening shows for Kansas makes sense logistically. If the demand is there further down the road, can the members of Native Window ignore the comforts and avoid the costs of a tour bus, and jump into a van to play some headlining club shows across America?
Rich: To just show up and play as Native Window would be one thing. The reality of playing at Kansas shows is that we're already there. A road crew is already there and our sound system is already there. That's all provided because Kansas exists. Without Kansas, we don't have a road manager or a road crew built in. We'd be in a van with a trailer hauling our own gear. We'd be humping our own gear in and out of the venues, and paying for our own hotel rooms. I don't know if Native Window could generate enough income to offset all of those costs. There'd have to be a huge leap in sales or we'd have to be put out on the road on tour with some tour support funds. Kansas is the horse we road in on. It's our day job, and it would be hard to forego that. Native Window is a side project that has to be kept in perspective.
Dave: My final question is not about Native Window or Kansas. It's about an aspect of today's music industry that I haven't seen addressed. Kansas was always a band that played music on their own terms, and they never followed trends. A handful of bands today have the retail giant Wal-Mart as a distribution point for their music. That blessing could be a curse if Wal-Mart refuses to stock a record based upon artwork on the cover or lyrical content. Can you foresee the day when a band with that level of distribution walks away based upon freedom of speech or freedom of artistic expression?
Rich: If Wal-Mart is the only sole seller of your record, in advance you and they are on the same page before it's stamped and printed and ready to go. Could somebody butt heads with them because they wanted a dick and balls on the cover and Wal-Mart said they wouldn't do it? There probably will be a point in time when somebody has that type of artistic dispute. But it would have to be a band that is so big and has so much money. But it still wouldn't make sense. You only record and put out a record because you want people to hear it. Why would somebody cut their own head off just to prove a point? The business as it is today is such a funny thing. It amazes me that people would go anywhere to buy a record when they can buy it online. It's easier to sit at a computer and shop than it is to head down to any store to fumble through the racks to find what you want. You can find anything you want online at the click of your mouse. Downloading lets you pick and choose just the songs you want. That's been the future of this business for quite a long time.
Dave: But there's still old-fashioned guys like me that need to flip through the racks, hold something in my hand, read liner notes, and look at the artwork. I've still yet to download a song. I hope I can someday say that I never have.
Rich: Guys like us Dave are a dying breed.
Dave: I know I'm a dinosaur, and I want to go down a dinosaur.
Rich: Album artwork was always so important to Kansas. As I grew up listening to the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" album, I was holding the album, studying the cover and the back, and reading the lyrics and the liner notes. Those were integral parts that created a mental image of the entire project in my head and gave it a certain cohesiveness. You never got that from a cassette, an 8-track tape, or a VHS tape. You couldn't listen to ELP's "Brain Salad Surgery" without staring at the cover. It led you on the path of the mental images.
Dave: Or the mural you and Kansas used on your debut album. I can see that image on my wall whenever I think about or listen to that record.
Rich: I've missed that stuff for a long time. With the Native Window packaging, we tried to get something that meant something. I'm so tickled that we got to put it out on vinyl. A company from Belgium printed the whole thing and did the package right. Not just in flimsy cardboard. It's something you can actually hold in your hand, it has weight to it, and its something you can look at and read.
Dave: Thanks for the interview Rich, and best of luck the rest of 2010 and beyond. I'll see you when Kansas headlines the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, New Jersey on October 16.
Rich: Sounds like fun. I'll look forward to that show!