River of destiny
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2015 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
It can be said with complete certainty that there’s never been another band quite like Kansas. From the outset, with its 1974 self-titled debut album, the group combined British progressive rock influences with American blues, boogie and funk elements. The hybrid was unique in that the music was complex and sweeping, yet highly melodic and accessible. It served as a template for a journey that continues to this day—one that’s seen the band achieve global stardom, selling 30 million records and racking up three sextuple-platinum and eight gold albums.
The band’s ascent from its earliest beginnings in Topeka, Kansas to a conqueror of arenas and stadiums worldwide is chronicled in Miracles Out of Nowhere, a new documentary. It focuses on the group’s heyday from its initial founding to its creative and career apex with the release of 1977’s Point of Know Return, which included the massive hit “Dust in the Wind.” The emotional and spirited film is unique in that it avoids Behind the Music-style storytelling that typically emphasizes scandals and infighting. Instead, it looks at how the original band, comprised of Phil Ehart, Dave Hope, Kerry Livgren, Robby Steinhardt, Steve Walsh, and Rich Williams, worked together as a united front to propel the band’s success.
The Kansas story continues to this day. The band’s chronology after the period covered in the documentary is equally fascinating and significantly more complex. Eight more studio albums followed Point of Know Return, featuring shifting lineups. Competing spiritual perspectives, creative tensions, substance abuse, and changing personal realities informed the many peaks and valleys the band experienced in subsequent years. Despite the chaos, when Kansas found its way into the studio across the next several decades, the quality remained high. Albums such as 1988’s In the Spirit of Things, 1995’s Freaks of Nature, and 2000’s Somewhere to Elsewhere all contained material worthy of standing alongside its ‘70s classic era.
In 2015, Kansas is once again determined to take on the world. The group’s lineup now includes Ehart and Williams, longtime members Billy Greer and David Ragsdale, and new recruits Ronnie Platt on vocals and David Manion on keyboards. The latter two came onboard in 2014 after Walsh announced his retirement from the band. There’s been a noticeable elevation in the band’s performances and drive since the change occurred. The positive response has spurred the band to return to the studio to make its first album of new songs in 15 years.
Ehart, the band’s drummer, manager and historian, spoke to Innerviews about making the documentary and went deep into the rest of the group’s history and its future plans.
Describe why you chose to focus exclusively on the band’s heyday for the new documentary.
When I made the pitch to Sony, I said I didn’t want the documentary to be a 40-year retrospective. There are too many twists, curves, fights, and members coming in and out. There’s no way we could make a concise film out of that. It would have to go on for three hours. So, I came up with the idea of focusing on the heyday and covering the stuff that was fun, like coming out of Topeka, Kansas and how we got discovered. That really was the most miraculous part. The rest of it is tiresome with a bunch of guys yelling at each other. I didn’t think that would be as interesting.
When I pitched it to the five other original guys, I knew they wouldn’t be crazy about talking about all the skeletons stuffed in everyone’s closets. Everyone has kids. Some of the guys have grandkids. Most people do things in their twenties and thirties that maybe they’re not real proud of. Most people don’t want to talk about that stuff 30-40 years later, let alone put it in a film the entire world can see. So, once we focused on the heyday, the documentary took off. There was enthusiasm from everybody. The other guys were up for it.
I also made it clear that if we do anything that makes anyone uncomfortable, we will edit it or take it out. I wanted everyone to be excited about participating and they were. I thought the guys did a great job. When I sit back and look at it, I’m so proud of everyone, including other people around at the time like producer Jeff Glixman and our manager at the time, Budd Carr.
So, there was a plan to this film. It was scripted from the start as being about how we started out and the climb to the summit. We left it on the summit. Most people liked that. A few people wanted the dirt and for us to do a Behind the Music-style expose, but that just wasn’t something for us. Maybe a few guys would have taken part in it, but we wouldn’t have had everyone participate. We wanted something uplifting and positive, rather than something about guys who make it in a band, get a bunch of money, blow it, break up, and die. We’ve all seen that film. We wanted something different and I think we were successful.
What was it like for you to have all six original members together in a room for the first time in over three decades?
We’ve all remained good friends and see one another from time to time. Sometimes Kerry Livgren would jump onstage and play. Robby Steinhardt would show up at shows. We’d see the other members too. It wasn’t like after 1980 when people started leaving that we said we’d never see each other again. But the amazing thing is when we all showed up in a restaurant in Topeka to begin filming the documentary, it was the first time we had all been together since 1980. It was a cool and comfortable situation because we knew this was going to be fun. We weren’t planning to embarrass anyone and that meant everyone showed up with the best attitude and wanting to tell their story. That’s why it turned out as well as it did. We’re all good friends that have accomplished something together in music history and we wanted to talk about it. We were there four days for that first round of interviews. The entire process was two years from start to finish.
The documentary portrays the band members as being kind of clueless from a business perspective during the early days. Your pre-Kansas band, White Clover, was briefly in an orbit with some of the biggest names in the business. Did any business acumen rub off on you from that era?
We weren’t kind of clueless. We were entirely clueless. With White Clover, we crossed paths with people like Santana, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison at the New Orleans Pop Festival. But when we did, it wasn’t in a way that would increase anyone’s business acumen. It was “Wow, there’s Janis Joplin.” She called us over and said “Where are you guys from?” We said “We’re from Kansas.” She said “You guys are a really good band.” We said “Hey, thanks.” That was the nature of it. We got accolades from people we admired, so we knew we were a good band, but there wasn’t any great knowledge we took back to Topeka with us. What we learned and a quarter would get you a cup of coffee. There was no preparation or collective understanding among the six of us about what we needed to do to make it.
We’d get on our school bus and go play gigs. That was our life. We’d play in places like Hays, Dodge City and Chanute in Kansas. We lived in a band house and were each given a dollar a day to live on. There was no education going on there, because we weren’t around anyone we could learn from. It was strictly us sitting in that house, sitting on that bus, or sitting at the gig. We were just six guys that were between 21-22 years old that played in a band.
All of a sudden, here comes Don Kirshner who changed everything and signed us. There had to be some sort of divine intervention that kept us from being totally blotto in our deal with him. It’s miraculous to even talk about because certain things that should have happened to us, didn’t happen to us, as the documentary shows. We just floated down the river of destiny without a paddle, hoping we wouldn’t capsize the boat. We were handed a contract and told “Sign this.” We did, made an album and went on tour.
I will say one thing about business acumen, though. Kirshner wanted to own the name Kansas. I remember a contract coming in the mail and Kerry looked at it. He said “Don wants to own our name.” I don’t know why, but I said no. Kerry said “Really?” I said “No, I don’t want him to own our name. We’re Kansas.” Kerry replied “It says in the contract that he’s going to own the name. It could be a deal breaker.” I said “If it is, then it is. We don’t have to give up our name.” We let Don know and it got blocked out of the contract and we went on. I don’t know why I felt it was important, but it’s a good thing we did it. It seemed like common sense that we should do that. To this day, we still own our name.
Provide some insight into the process of working on the documentary with director Charley Randazzo.
Charley did an excellent job. I can’t give him enough credit. I remember him turning to me when we started. He said “I’m going to need a script to shoot to.” I said “What?” He replied “I need the story written out.” I said “You’re looking at it.” He said “What?” again. [laughs] I said “I’m the script. It’s in my head. I know the story. Anything I don’t know, the other guys are going to fill in. Follow what I have planned for the next few days and we’ll get the story pieced together for you. This is who you’re going to talk to first. This guy is going to say this and then we’re going to talk about that.”
Now, shooting a documentary and getting the information is one thing, but editing it is another. When I saw what Charley was doing and how he put it together, I thought “This guy is awesome.” He knew exactly what he was doing. At times, something might be out of sequence and I’d say “That needs to move over here because this happened after that.” I’d also take rough cuts and send them to the other five guys in the band and make sure they were up on everything. They’d write back and say “That’s great.” They always had a chance to delete what they weren’t happy with, but we only had one small thing that was left out because it wasn’t accurate. Other than that, everyone went with what we had.
Encapsulate the Monolith and Audio-Visions era from 1979 to 1980 for me. Why wasn’t the band able to sustain the momentum of its previous two albums?
The lives of the guys in the band were changing during that period. People were getting married. People were having kids. The same concentration we had as six bachelors hurtling through fame started to change. It’s just the way it was. By 1979, everyone had relocated from Kansas to Atlanta. So, nobody’s even in Kansas anymore. Most of the guys married Southern girls. Everyone’s building houses, having kids and becoming adults. What was important two or three years ago wasn’t quite so important. Priorities change and stress began to develop because what matters to one guy didn’t matter as much to another guy. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but as soon as all that stuff was there, the idea of “Let’s get on the bus and go conquer the world” was gone.
From a musical perspective, we were following up Leftoverture and Point of Know Return, which were such huge albums. After that came Two for the Show which was a great live album. We had back-to-back tours and albums. Now, it’s time to do Monolith. I think the thing we heard most from the record company was “Can you guys do another ‘Dust in the Wind?’ We really need another ‘Dust in the Wind.’ Yeah, love the rocking stuff and prog stuff, but do you have another ‘Dust in the Wind?’” Our response was “No. That’s just not the kind of song that repeats twice.”
As Kerry states in the documentary, he was writing one way and Steve Walsh was writing another way. If you listen to Monolith and Audio-Visions, you can really hear the dichotomy. The two were really separating. Each was more into his own stuff. Then they started doing their solo albums, so their minds were on those. It wasn’t like the rest of us were walking around unhappy and pissed off. It was just that things were not the same. Times were changing. Priorities were different for each guy. What Kerry wanted to write about was different from what Steve wanted to write about. The rest of us were caught in the middle trying to hold everything together. There was some good music on those albums, but it wasn’t the six of us pulling together like it was previously. That was the biggest difference. It was a train heading for a brick wall.
Before Steve Walsh departed Kansas for the first time in October 1981, he had been involved in the making of the next album, Vinyl Confessions. Describe what took place with his exit during the rehearsals.
Steve was working on stuff with us. We had the band set up in a small studio to initially record the songs and work on them in order to get them ready to record. Things were hurtling so fast that there was no way to avoid hitting a breaking point. Kerry knew what he wanted to write about and say. We all looked at each and realized we were moving into an area that some of the guys felt uncomfortable with. What happened isn’t hard for people that have been through a divorce or romantic breakup to relate to. As much as we cared about and loved each other as guys who had gone through hell together, it got to the point where we had to say “Love ya, think the world of you, but this isn’t working out.” It was that simple.
At that point in the band’s history, Kerry Livgren became a born-again Christian and that influence was reflected in the lyrics on Vinyl Confessions. Was that the main difference between him and Walsh?
That was one of the things swirling about, but there were others too. There’s always been a lot of crosshairs put on Kerry for wanting to do Christian music, but that was one of many things that was going on that was making it difficult to be a band. There were a lot of drugs among certain members at the time and it wasn’t working in their lives. Gee, go figure. The drugs and misdirection of the music were the main concerns. Some guys were openly questioning directions. Some were also coming out of their solo projects and maybe thinking “I can do this on my own. I ought to go do my own thing.” People would say things like “I want to do Christian music. That’s a priority for me.” Someone else might say “I just want to sit over here and keep myself numb with drugs.” And then you have wives, kids, life in general, and the record company’s influence. It did not make for coherence. It was crazy. At the time, people couldn’t see a lot of what was going on as it was happening. Twenty or 30 years later, you can look back and realize there was a lot going on. There was an awful lot of money involved too. Guys had more money than at any other time in their lives and that affected things, too. There wasn’t one single thing that was bringing the band together at that point.
You’ve been totally clean throughout your career. How did you manage to shield yourself from a lifestyle of excess?
It was a decision I made early in life way before the band ever came along. It was just a path I chose to take. That particular lifestyle wasn’t for me and it wasn’t anything I sat in judgment of or looked down upon. My perspective was “If you guys want to do that, fine. I choose not to.” They were fine with that. By the time Monolith, Audio-Visions and Vinyl Confessions came along, drugs were getting pretty serious with some of the guys. It wasn’t anything that was part of my life or even around me, but I’d have to speak to some of the guys from time to time about getting their lives in shape. I’d say “You need to be more careful because what you’re doing is preventing you from doing this or that with the band.” It was about me wanting them to know “Hey, I care about you and you’re starting to sail away on a sea of cheese. You need to come back.” Usually, they would. It wasn’t always just me. Sometimes, it would be me and another guy or a couple of other guys in the band doing the talking. We always hoped things would turn around. Some guys weren’t so successful in dealing with things.
Given your Christian background, how did you cope with the religious conversations as they related to songs that emerged during this period?
It was odd at times, but we had actually talked about these things way back in the early days of Kansas. We decided that Kansas would not be about politics or anybody’s personal agenda. We never wanted to push one particular thing over another. Kansas was a perfect reflection of what America was. We had some Christians in the band. We had an atheist. We had some guys who weren’t quite sure what they believed, but we were a band. We knew Kerry was out there searching for things and writing about them. All you had to do was read the lyrics. It wasn’t anything that really bugged anybody. We thought it was kind of mystic and cool.
As a Christian, I knew what I believed. Kerry wasn’t writing about anything that made me stand up and go “Wait a minute. I can’t be part of this song.” It wasn’t like that. There other guys who felt the opposite way. None of us were perfect. We all fell off the pedestal a lot and we were always there for each other. If you imagine yourself as a family member, not everyone’s going to see things the way you do. There was some unhappiness there, but we did what we needed to do to try and keep the boat afloat. It wasn’t just me that was the great peacemaker. There were other guys too who were very concerned about what was going on. However, once the leaks started to happen, the boat was going to sink. It didn’t matter what any of us did. So, the personnel changes and breakups were inevitable.
Looking back, if we could go back and change anything, would we have done so? How do you change 10 things that were happening at the same time? It’s not like one of the guys went off to prison for 10 years. It was just guys growing up and maturing, with changing priorities and directions. I think that’s why we could go back and make the documentary. It’s why we remained friends after the breakups. There was never anything said or intimated that was hurtful. No-one turned around and chain-sawed anyone at the knees. No-one said “I never want to talk to you again” or “Go screw yourself.” The way people would leave is by saying “I’m moving on. I’m not in the band anymore.” Then someone else would say “I’m not going to be in the band either. I’m going to go do something else.” Another guy would say “Alright man, good luck.” That’s how it fell apart. No-one was standing on a table top in a drunken stupor screaming at anyone. It was a rocky, insane time, but lots of bands go through it, as do people in their jobs, businesses and families.
One thing that also changed during this period was the band’s artwork. They shifted from timeless illustrations into the almost disco-like cover of Audio-Visions. Why did they alter so dramatically?
We had an art director then named Tom Drennon and he was instrumental in our covers. He started working with us on Point of Know Return. He also did the Two for the Show cover which won a number of awards from the Norman Rockwell Society for being one of the best recreations of a Rockwell painting. So, Tom and I were on a roll and having fun working together. He was great and still is.
So, then we got to Monolith, which was a cool cover. There’s nothing like a big, tall Native American with a space helmet to get your attention. [laughs] But as for Audio-Visions, you’re just going to miss the mark sometimes. It was illustrated by Peter Lloyd who also did Point of Know Return. We thought, “We’re going to get this guy again. It’s going to be great.” We ended up with a guy wearing headphones and someone that looked like Cher as faces coming out of the headphones. Everyone in the band looked at each other and said “Umm, okay.” [laughs] It’s not like we were high-fiving each other going “Oh, this is great!” It was more like “Umm, oh, really?” So, that’s what it was. We weren’t crazy about it. So, it’s just like the songs. You’re going to have some that are great and others where you go back and say “What were we thinking?”
By the time we got to Vinyl Confessions, with the chair in the middle of the cover, we were going “Yeah, whatever.” It was okay. During the making of that album, my dad was passing away. He had congestive heart failure and it took him four or five months to die. So, I would record a drum track in Los Angeles, and then drive down to be with my dying dad in San Diego. Then I’d get back in the car and drive back up to the sessions. Vinyl Confessions is a distant memory for me because I was pretty much hanging out with my dad and family while that was going on. Of course, Steve had left the band too and I was listening to different singers as well. It was kind of insanity. The album covers were way on the back burner as far as priorities went for me. I was just trying to get an album made, trying to get the right songs, and trying to keep everything together. We were lucky enough to get through the Vinyl Confessions period. With our last album for CBS in 1983, Drastic Measures, we just limped to the finish line. It was the last record in our required commitment to the label. So, we all gave each other high-fives and said “See you later” and took a three-year hiatus. The best-of compilation came out and for a few years, we didn’t do anything. Everyone said “Bye-bye. Let’s breathe for awhile.”
Describe the journey from Drastic Measures to the MCA era that yielded 1986’s Power and 1988’s In the Spirit of Things.
Steve Walsh left and was off doing his solo thing and auditioning for Bad Company and Yes. Steve had met with the guys in Yes during one of those periods Jon Anderson wasn’t in it. Rich Williams said “I’m moving to Florida to go fishing. If anything’s happening, give me a call.” [laughs] Kerry and Dave Hope were doing their Christian rock thing. So, I’m sitting by myself in a room thinking “Okay, everybody’s gone.” I pretty much had the name and the ability to go on tour with a band named Kansas, but the question was “Well, who’s in the frigging band? Raise your hand.” Well, there was nobody in the room with me. I was by myself. [laughs] We had no management and record label. I thought “This is hilarious. It’s like starting over again.”
Eventually, I got a call from Steve going “I don’t want to sing in Yes. I want to get back with you guys.” His post-Kansas band Streets had run its course. Next, I called Rich and said “Well, you, me and Steve?” He said “Yeah, that would be great.” Steve said “I’ve got our bass player, Billy Greer. He’ll be great.” So, we had four of us. I ran into Steve Morse at a Robert Plant concert and mentioned what was going on. He said “Are you guys looking for a guitarist?” I said yes and he said “I’d love to audition.” I said “You don’t have to audition. You’d be great.” We had a five-piece lineup and made some demos and sent them to Los Angeles to some A&R guys and ended up with MCA. Irving Azoff was running the company at the time we got signed.
The Power album came out and took off. We had a lot of success on MTV and the album sold well. We had some hits on it. For all intents and purposes, Kansas was back. It was very different with no violin, but with the addition of Steve Morse, we could still do just about anything we wanted to do.
Next came In the Spirit of Things, with Bob Ezrin producing. That’s one of the production highlights of our career. But we got caught in the time period when music was changing. All of the ‘70s and ‘80s bands were losing out to other pop stars. The labels were cleaning out their executives and a lot of bands. When In the Spirit of Things came out, records by Elton John and Glenn Frey were dropped as well. I remember visiting the record company office one day and there was a big sign that said “Welcome Tiffany!” I thought “Wow, okay.” We were then informed that they were going to put the record out but weren’t going to support it. It was just going to go away.
How did you react to that news?
Knowing that it’s contractual and that they had total control, all I could do was go “Uh…” They spent a ton of money making the album. We had Bob Ezrin for months working on it. How expensive must that have been? Then they said “Let’s get rid of Kansas, Elton John and Glenn Frey. Bye-bye!” And we all knew it was a great record, but no-one was going to hear it. We went out and toured it, but after that, Steve Morse said “Guys, looks like everything’s over. I’m out of here.” So, he took off and it was just the four of us.
I consider In the Spirit of Things one of the biggest highlights in the band’s entire catalog. How do you look back at it?
We felt the same way then and to this day I feel the same way. Wow, it was something. It had a conceptual element about Neosho Falls in Kansas, a town that was swept away in a flood in 1951. One day it was there, the next day it was gone. We went to Neosho Falls, which is now a ghost town, walked through it and took pictures. We really got the whole vibe of the town. It was a great, great album. Steve Walsh, Steve Morse and Bob Ezrin all did a great job on it.
Why were there so many co-writers on that album?
You have to remember the time period of that album. It was when everyone was doing outside songs. Aerosmith and Heart were working with other songwriters. It was like using electronic drums. In the ‘80s, everything had them, as well as tall hair, and outside songwriters. It was the mark of coolness for the labels. It was a part of record company marketing to say “They were using this songwriter for this and that songwriter for that, who also wrote for Chicago.” I remember going with Steve Walsh and Steve Morse to Los Angeles to meet with all of the outside songwriters we worked with. I would have to go through mounds of tapes to find something we might want to do. That was the way it was. Welcome to the ‘80s.
What was Irving Azoff’s perspective on the band during the MCA era?
I think Irving liked the band and knew we could do new and great stuff. Both the Power and In the Spirit of Things albums have some really great Kansas music on them. He was the guy who wanted us to work with Bob Ezrin. Irving had been wanting Bob to produce an MCA act. Bob said “You’ve got to come up with someone I’m interested in.” Bob told me he was in London one day and had the radio on and heard the song “Power” and wondered who it was. He found out it was Kansas and realized we were on MCA. He called Irving and said “I’d like to do Kansas” and that’s how that came together. But after doing two albums for MCA, we didn’t have the footing we needed and everything changed. Everything was starting to move towards grunge as we’re coming up to the ‘90s. A lot of classic rock bands went away by the beginning of the ‘90s.
After the MCA period, things got really confusing for the band as it moved on to release the Live at the Whisky album in 1992. What were the issues the band was facing at the time?
After In the Spirit of Things, we were all sitting around thinking “What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?” I said “Let’s just get on a bus and go play.” At that point, our booking agent, manager and label had all left us. There was nobody interested in Kansas. We were labeled a “dinosaur band.” That’s how people referred to bands of our era then. There was no such thing as classic rock at the time. God forbid there would be bands that had been around for 20 years. People didn’t want to deal with us at all. So, we got on a bus and didn’t come home for 16-20 months. We were just on the road and toured and toured and toured. We added David Ragsdale on violin and Greg Robert on keyboards. This pushed Steve out front to become the front man and that was the band. No-one wanted to make a record. We just wanted to play. Some record labels talked to us, but we weren’t interested. We had seen that show. There were a lot of open wounds after making such a great record like In the Spirit of Things and having 20 people hear it. We decided to do what we do best and play live. We were just a bunch of guys prowling around on the bus, which wasn’t conducive to sanity. Things got crazier and crazier from there.
Live at the Whisky isn't considered the band’s finest hour. How do you look back at the album?
No, it wasn't our finest hour. It seemed like a good idea at the time. We had a company that wanted to shoot a full-length concert video and we thought “Okay, let’s do it.” The band plays well and that’s all I’m going to say. All you have to do Is watch it to have an idea of the state of things.
In 1995, the band turned around and made Freaks of Nature, an album that found Kansas taking musical chances and stretching beyond its comfort zone. How did you transition from a position of weakness into one of strength after three years?
You’re 100 percent correct on that. We were going outside. We tried different things on that record and they really came through on that album. There is some great stuff on there. Rich really came out as a lead guitarist for the first time. Previously we had Kerry or Steve Morse as lead guitarist. Now, Rich stepped out and that record really rocks as a result.
The way that album happened is the company that put out Live at the Whisky wanted to know if we’d do a new album. By then, we were over the whole bus life. We asked “Where do you want to record it?” They said “Let’s do it in Trinidad.” [laughs] Jeff Glixman was going to produce it. So, we went to Trinidad, which was keeping with the theme of “How insane can this band get?” We were there for several months. Steve Walsh, Billy Greer, David Ragsdale, and the rest of us were involved in the writing. We were living in the studio in a compound and working 24/7 on the album. The studio was beautiful, one of the finest I’ve ever worked in. We were cut off from everything and concentrating on the music.
By the time it came out in the mid-‘90s, classic rock radio was emerging in a major way. A lot of the baby boomers were going “Well, where’s our music? Where’s Journey, Foreigner, Styx, Rush, and Kansas on the radio?” So, radio started playing music from Freaks of Nature and our ability to get back on the road and play real gigs emerged. We were also able to go out with packages including bands like Styx and Foreigner. Those realities were there and everything picked back up. We were able to get out of the seedy side of living on a bus forever and actually start to have lives again. Prior to Freaks of Nature, the band was living in dark times. Again, all you have to do is watch Live at the Whisky. It’s dark. There are dark tunes on Freaks of Nature too that reflect that period.
Five years later, the Somewhere to Elsewhere album emerged in 2000. It involved a reunion of the original six members, in addition to Billy Greer, with Livgren handling all the songwriting. How did that record come together?
Kerry called me up, as he does from time to time, and said “Hey, I’m doing a solo album and this stuff sounds like Kansas. Why don’t you guys come to my studio and maybe let’s do this as a Kansas album.” Kerry is an incredible writer and always has been. He chose to go in a different direction when he left the band, but there were never any hard feelings about that. We were always kind of wishful that someday we’d do something with him again. When it popped up, we looked at each other and thought “That would be awesome.” Rich and I went up to visit Kerry to hear his new stuff and it took us about two seconds to realize that this was going to be really, really great.
The album coincided with Steve Walsh doing a solo album, so Steve wasn’t at the studio with the rest of us. He sang his vocals at his studio, while we were recording in Topeka, but it still worked out okay. Robby and Dave came in and did some stuff, so we had the original guys, along with Billy, on the album. The record had a lot of excellent music on it. I think “Icarus II” is one of the all-time great Kansas songs and one of the best ones Kerry has ever written. “Distant Vision” is a killing Kansas song. “Myriad” and “The Coming Dawn” are also really good. I’d put those songs in our catalog as some of the best stuff we did.
Somewhere to Elsewhere was released on the Magna Carta label. The band originally had a contract for two albums with it. Why didn’t it make the second album?
Magna Carta did nothing to promote the album. It was a dismal failure. The label had signed that particular band with Robby to record another record, but Robby subsequently left the band. He was at rehearsals one day and said he didn’t want to do it anymore. We said “We wish you the best” and that was that. Kerry also wasn’t going to be involved, so it wasn’t the same setup. There was nothing contractual to enforce because people involved in that contract were no longer there. So, it fell apart. Magna Carta was interested in the original members recording, so there was no interest from them. We didn’t really want to do another record for them either because they didn’t do anything with the first one.
Both Livgren and Walsh have said on occasion that they felt they couldn’t write for Kansas anymore. What’s your perspective on that?
I totally get that. Writing for Kansas is a major load. I never scratch my head for one second going “What do those guys mean?” when they say that. I know exactly what they mean. I saw it. I always watched what they had to go through. One thing Kansas has is what you might call a songwriting filter. Even in the early days, the guys would walk into rehearsals with songs and music, but they had to get through the rest of us and that was a pain, big time. These guys would have been working on songs and thought “I love this part and these lyrics are great” and they’d bring them in and we’d go “Nah.” You could just see the heartbreak and how crestfallen they were. They might say “Really, you guys don’t like it?” Someone else might say “We like this part, but we don’t like that part. Does it really have to have four endings? Can’t it have two endings? How about three middles instead of seven middles?” We would completely rearrange the songs in a lot of ways, sometimes. Steve would edit a lot of Kerry’s stuff and vice-versa. The rest of us were doing the same thing. It was never mean-spirited, but it was just brutal that something you worked really hard on would get totally shot down and never see the light of day.
When we made albums, we would say “Okay, everybody write down the songs you want to use.” There would usually be two or three that wouldn’t make the cut and that was hurtful. We didn’t mean to be hurtful but it was disappointing to the guys who had written the songs. It was a case of “Sorry man, nobody’s voting for it.” I think that took its toll. It got to the point where some guys are going “Screw this. I want to go do my own thing. I don’t have to put up with those Kansas guys who are always shooting everything down.” It really is a difficult process to make a Kansas album. I think that’s maybe why the standard has stayed somewhat high most of the time, though I know we have failed at times.
Going back to what Kerry and Steve said, I understand how they could feel worn out. It’s easier to do things on your own. That’s my read. We also don’t do a lot of boy-girl songs or happy-sounding songs. There is a style of music specific to Kansas. It doesn't just come bubbling out of you all the time. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
In the documentary, I was surprised at how down Walsh was on his own songwriting contributions to the band. What did you make of that?
There were things people wanted to say and I think it was important to Steve to say that. Was that something that caught everyone’s attention? Sure. I was sitting in the editing room watching the footage and then he said that. I looked up and said “Okay…” but that was that. People in projects like these sometimes want to set the record straight. Whether others agree with them or not isn’t important. There are fans out there that love his songs and I’m sure it surprised them, but life goes on.
Tell me about the circumstances under which Walsh departed from Kansas in August 2014.
It was time for Steve to retire from Kansas. He has two younger children and I think he got to a point where he didn’t want to do it anymore. There were zero hard feelings. He sent me an email and said “Phil, I want this email to be notice of my retirement. We have dates going through Europe, and a few shows after that. I’d like those dates to be my last shows.” It was just time for it to happen. And it will be time for all of us at some point, whether it’s me, Rich, Ragsdale or Billy. Nothing lasts forever. Steve put in more than 40 years of his life into singing for Kansas. Again, a lot of people have come up to me and said they weren’t going to do this anymore. I get it.
It’s something we knew was coming and it’s tough because we love what we do. The question was always is it going to be this year or next year? I know I’m not going to play drums for Kansas forever. I know that’s coming too and it’s inevitable. It’s a decision that’s no different from retiring from any other job. It was a great separation as far as being friendly, giving each other bro hugs, handshakes and high-fives. We wrapped up everything business-wise and that was it.
Describe the process of recruiting new lead vocalist and keyboardist Ronnie Platt, and keyboardist David Manion for the new lineup. It all seemed to come together very quickly following Walsh’s departure.
It did, didn’t it? Nobody was more surprised than we were. It’s not like we had a closet full of singers ready to go when Steve informed us of his retirement. We thought “We’re not the first band to go through this. Styx replaced Dennis DeYoung. Three singers have replaced Steve Perry in Journey. Kelly Hansen replaced Lou Gramm in Foreigner. Tommy DeCarlo took over for Brad Delp in Boston.” So, it wasn’t the end of the world, but there were some big shoes to fill. We wanted a singer that also played keyboards. We also wanted to get back to our two-keyboard setup which we had in the original band with Kerry and Steve on keyboards.
We knew our lighting guy, David Manion, was an incredible keyboard player. He had played with Billy Greer on some of his Seventh Key stuff, so we knew he’d be an easy addition. The very first time I heard about Ronnie Platt was from my drum tech Eric Holmquist. He said “I’m sending you a YouTube clip of somebody you need to hear.” That was the first time I heard Ronnie. I knew he had been in Shooting Star, but I didn’t know a whole lot about him. I went back to my room that night and watched the clip and said “This is a substantial guy and a heck of a keyboard player.” He wasn’t a Steve clone, but he was similar and had that high tenor sound. So, we started doing some vetting and calling other band people that had known him over the years and he came back with flying colors. We brought him down to Atlanta, sat him down and talked and joked for awhile. The next day, I called him and said “You’ve got the gig. Come down in a couple of weeks. Here’s the list of songs. For this song, I want you standing out front and for this other song I want you on keyboards.” We rehearsed for two weeks and started playing gigs in September 2014 and have been doing it ever since.
You also spoke to John Elefante, Kansas’ lead singer from 1982 to 1984, when considering a new lead vocalist. Tell me about those conversations.
We did speak to John as well. Rich and I met with John and asked him to think about the idea for a couple of days. We said “This is the offer and what we’d like to do.” He said he needed to think about it. After a couple of days, I called him up and said “With all due respect John, without burning any bridges, we’re moving on.”
Ronnie was a better fit. He told us in two minutes “I’m in.” I needed a gut decision from someone who was going to believe this was the right choice and not spend weeks contemplating it. Either you want to be a part of this or you don’t. I’m not into the “Let’s wait and see what happens” thing. I couldn’t sit around and wait. We needed a singer and had to get going. We had a ton of dates. We had the whole rest of the year booked. After Steve quit, we lost four dates. We had to stop for two-and-a-half weeks to rehearse with the new lineup, which meant I had to cancel some shows. We had accepted dates and signed contracts for shows and it would have been catastrophic for many people in our organization if we cancelled them. I didn’t want to put people through that. Steve didn’t want to either, but he had to go.
Ronnie was the only person we auditioned. He came and sang, and we added him immediately. We didn’t audition John. We wanted to see if he was up for doing it. It worked out for the best. John will tell you that as well. We’ve spoken since and there are no hard feelings at all.
Reviews of the new lineup have been very positive. Talk about the new lease on life Platt and Manion have provided the band.
I think new blood can sometimes be the best thing that can happen for a band. Saying “You can’t sing. Get the hell out” or “We don’t like your attitude” or whatever reason we could have come up with to fire Steve wouldn’t have been the right way to go. But it hadn’t got to that point. We were still trying to figure out ways to make things work. Obviously, we were aware Steve was having trouble singing. He wouldn’t argue that. It’s one of the things that led to his retirement. We worked around it by lowering the keys of the songs a half-step, moving some of the harder songs to sing out of the set, and putting in more instrumentals. But it wasn’t working. Once we brought in Ronnie and David, we moved everything back to the original keys the songs were written in and put back all the keyboard parts. We’re able to do songs we haven’t been able to do in 20 years, because we couldn’t previously perform them the way they needed to be performed. So, it is a new lease on life as you say, and a lot of the fans say that too. Their response has been very positive. It’s a new Kansas. There have been other new Kansas bands and this is another one. It’s one we’re all very excited about.
I understand you’re about to go into the studio to work on new material with the new lineup. What can you tell me about that?
In June, we’ll be in the studio. We have an offer to do a new album that we really want to do. We’re very excited about a new record. We haven’t played one note yet, but everyone is working on material. So, in 2016 there will be a new Kansas record. We want to turn out new material. We know it’s not going to be a Point of Know Return or Leftoverture, sales-wise, but it’s something we want to do as a band to stay creative. I think there are a lot of fans out there that would like to hear some new Kansas music, too. So, we’re keeping it real. We know that damn Kansas filter will be there and we have to get the material through that filter. But that only makes sure it’ll be the best music we can deliver. That’s what we owe the fans—the best stuff we can put out there.
Who’s writing songs for the new album?
We all are. We’re all bringing things in for it. There are all kinds of ideas that are starting to flow. We’re sharing things and talking to each other. In June, we’re going in for three or four days to see what things will sound like. We know we can play Kansas music and sound like Kansas, but when it comes to writing new music, what are we going to come up with? So, it’s a case of “Let’s go into the studio and see what we can do.” We want to see how the music we’ve been playing with the new guys will translate into what we do with the new stuff.
Will Livgren be involved with the songwriting?
The door is always open for Kerry to be involved. We’ll see. Let me put it this way, the door has not been shut. He knows it’s open and is aware we’re making an album.
What’s your perspective on the state of the modern music industry?
I don’t really pay a whole lot of attention to the current state, because it’s changing so quickly. I manage the band and I’m involved in the music business, but things are changing on a day-to-day basis. Kansas just celebrated its 40th anniversary. I asked people “Are there any new artists from today that are going to be around 40 years from now?” Everybody just breaks into laughter. That doesn’t make us better than anybody else, but there was a period from the ’60s through maybe part of the ‘80s when music seemed to have a timelessness to it. Nobody is more surprised about it than we are that all these years later, “Carry On Wayward Son” is a huge song on Supernatural, which is a young person’s show.
I’m just really happy we’re still here and that we’re not a new band trying to break through. Now, any band in the world can be heard. There’s no filter for new bands. Any band can put a video on YouTube, make a CD, and get their songs on iTunes. It’s possible for your music to go everywhere, and in a lot of ways, I think that’s great, but in other ways, the competition is mind-boggling. It’s hard for the really good bands to get through all the noise. I also notice that we don’t hear about a lot of bands these days. It’s mostly solo artists. Again, I’m not saying that’s wrong, but it’s what I see. They also seem to be here today, gone tomorrow. Things disappear quickly and people move on quicker than they used to because they get bored easier.
I’m just concentrating on Kansas and what we can do best. I’m happy that people continue to come see us and that we can make a documentary that’s aired on Palladia and VH-1 Classic. That’s great. We can still do 80-90 shows a year. So, as for what goes on with what my 12 year-old daughter listens to? [laughs] I don’t know. The music business is always going to be up and down. It’s still crazy. There will be people that pop up and are real famous for awhile and then disappear. I do think it’s amazing that the Eagles, Billy Joel and Elton John, and Bon Jovi are some of the biggest tours in recent times. What about Cher coming out and selling out all her shows? What about Aerosmith and Rush? There’s a timelessness there from the period those bands came out of. Nobody’s still going to see Tiffany. [laughs]
How have you evolved as a drummer across Kansas’ history?
I know I probably have. Playing drums for Kansas is so incredibly challenging. It’s humbling to be the drummer in Kansas, because it’s really hard. The music is so demanding, but at the same time, it needs to rock. You can’t get caught up in a bunch of things during the music or the song isn’t going to rock or rhythmically move from section to section. It’s difficult, but a lot of fun. I think I’ve evolved as the music has evolved. I’ve never given it a whole lot of thought other than trying to do the best job I can do playing the music. Every night, I walk on stage, reach down and think “Here we go.” You can’t do Kansas music playing at 60-70 percent. That doesn't work. If you’re not between 90-110 percent, you’re not doing the music justice. You’re not doing yourself justice. And you’re not giving the fans what they deserve. So it’s physically and mentally demanding playing those drum parts as close to flawlessly as I can every night. It’s never boring.
You’ve said when you get to the point of wanting to retire that you hope another drummer might come in so the band can continue. Do you feel Kansas could live on with an entirely new lineup in the future?
Kansas isn’t about anyone in the band. I’m sure you’ll hear arguments that the band isn’t the same without Kerry, Robby or Steve. I get that. But the music, I believe, needs to continue. It’s up to the fans whether it does or not. If someday, I’m propped up on the drum stool with a catheter bag underneath me, it’s probably a good time to step down. But if Kansas ceases to exist, so does the music. Yes, it exists on the recordings, but people will tell you that coming to see Kansas is something special that they enjoy. The reason is Kansas music isn’t great because of me, Rich or Ragsdale. There’s a great band onstage, but without the music, people wouldn’t come out to see it. If people stop wanting to hear the music, that would be the death knell. If nobody cares about hearing “Dust in the Wind,” “Carry On Wayward Son, “The Wall,” “Hold On,” and “Song for America,” that would be the point at which we would pack it up. Well, that remains to be seen. [laughs]
My hope is someday, I can come to the band and say “This is my last year playing drums. Let’s look for someone else to carry it onward.” Then, one night, I could stand up and wave at the fans and say “Thanks for everything” and someone else jumps up there and continues. That would be great because then the music continues. The music is what it’s all about, not the band members. The idea was always let’s make the music as good as possible and hopefully it’ll stand on its own. So, I think it is possible that the music could outlive the band. Let’s hope it happens.