Rich Williams Carries On With Kansas

First-hand talk about the group’s new album, Leftoverture‘s 40th and more

By Gary Graff
September 23, 2016

Believe it or not, it’s time to be excited about Kansas again. The prog rock troupe from Topeka has fallen into a bit of creative malaise — as guitarist and co-founder Rich Williams will be among the first to admit — with no new album in 16 years. That said, the group’s legacy of arty, ambitious music remained strong, and last year’s 45th anniversary celebration served as a reminder of how unique and musically combustible the group can be.

This year it’s proving it two-fold. For starters, Kansas is finally releasing a new album, the dynamic and vintage-sounding The Prelude Implicit, that marks the debut of three new members — singer/keyboardist Ronnie Platt, keyboardist David Manion and guitarist Zak Rizvi. On top of that, the group’s fall tour will also celebrate the 40th anniversary of Kansas’ five-times platinum breakthrough album, Leftoverture, by playing the set in its entirety. No “Dust in the Wind” here; these wayward sons are carrying on, in fine form.

FGPO: What accounts for the kind of resurgence Kansas is experiencing this year? 

Williams: For 16 years, we’ve been treading water. Within the dynamic of the band we weren’t able to be creative anymore. It’s one of those things where everybody has to want to be, like: “Let’s go achieve something!” When everybody isn’t on board with that, there’s no reason to even try. But with this bunch of guys…suddenly “no” just is not a replay to anything. Now everything is “Yes!” So we did 94 shows last year. We’re gonna do over 100 shows this year, and it’s one of the busiest years I’ve ever had in my life with Kansas. Plus, we wrote and recorded a new album. We’re having a lot of fun. It’s just great to be creating again.

FGPO: The new members have clearly breathed new life into the band. Where did they come from?

Williams: When [singer-keyboardist] Steve Walsh retired two years ago, there was no thought in my mind of hanging it up. It was just, “What’s the next step?” David Manion was our lighting tech for the last 20-plus years and was also Steve’s keyboard tech, and he played with [bassist] Billy Greer’s Seventh Key projects and on Steve’s solo projects. He’s a tremendous keyboard player and has been in the organization, and it was Steve who suggested we hire David Manion to replace him on keys. So we did. Then we found Ronnie Platt to be our lead singer, which really helped to revitalize us, ’cause Steve was starting to struggle quite a bit with his voice. We had a new energy about us, and that’s when we decided this band needs its own music. We need to not just be a jukebox playing stuff from our legacy. We need to start creating again. And we did.

FGPO: The other part of the equation is Zak Rizvi, who co-produced The Prelude Implicit with you and [drummer] Phil Ehart. Where did he come from?

Williams: Zak is an engineer who has worked on many of our projects over the last 15 years or so. He was the engineer for Jeff Glixman, an old bandmate of mine who became our front house sound engineer and went on to engineer and then produce us. So that’s how we got to know Zak. When we started this project, we thought: “Let’s bring Zak into this.” We knew we had a lot to offer, and we wanted him more in a co-production role rather than sitting behind a desk. And all of a sudden the world of Zak opened up; he’s a great guitar player and had so much material and so much to offer that was right down our alley. The seven of us just worked as a team so well that early on in the project Phil and I just said: “Zak needs to be in this band.” So that just added one more big chunk of positive energy—makes us a two-guitar band again. With this lineup we feel like we’re starting over, not just to make this record but to make the record after that and the record after that and continue on.

FGPO: How do you approach being a two-guitar band with Kansas?

Williams: Well, take “Wayward Son” for example. Most of the things that we did in the studio way back when, all the riffs on “Wayward Son,” me and Kerry [Livgren] played in unison. We played together. There’s places where he takes a solo or I take a solo, he’d be backing me, I’d be backing him, but the meat of the song was each of us playing a part. Then there’s other songs like, say, “Magnum Opus,” that has two very distinct parts at the same time. That made it tricky on stage; I was having to pick the dominant part or play a combination of the two or play a solo part and designate the other guitar part to a keyboard or something. So now we’re just more capable of doing it as it’s written. Zak’s a great guitar player, but if he played flute he’d be in the band just because of his musical contributions. It’s just quite handy; he’s a great guitar player. So it’s worked out extremely well.

FGPO: Do you have a favorite guitar part or solo in Kansas?

Williams: I think there’s two on the new album, actually. The epic song on the album is called “The Voyage of Eight Eighteen.” It’s the most progressive song on the record. There’s just so much music going on. In the middle section there’s a three-part solo — me, the keyboard player and violin. I sat down and said: “I don’t know what to play here. There’s so much music going on. I really need to minimize this.” I was in the studio and had my amp cranked up as loud as it could go to get a lot of feedback and sustain; it was so loud I was bending over in front of the amp and kinda leaning back trying to hear the track, and I would hunt and peck and look for where the changes were, and it rolled by and they said: “You’re done.” “What?” I just captured the feel of the moment in that first pass in a way I could never create again. It’s the nastiest thing I ever recorded, and so appropriate. Had I thought it out instead of going with just pure feel it would’ve been a lot more involved, more notes and this and that. This is just raw emotion captured in the panic of the moment. I’m riding on the back of a wild stallion and trying to hold on. It’s my personal favorite thing I’ve ever done.

FGPO: Wow. So what’s the second one?

Williams: It’s a song called “The Unsung Heroes,” and when the song was first done it was this gratuitous blues solo which was to me just very un-Kansas. It ended up being more of a musical part; we all got together and wrote a chord structure to differentiate from the verse, and I worked out a different part. I really wanted it to be a back-and-forth conversation, a question-and-answer with me and David Ragsdale on violin, so I wrote more of a structured guitar solo — not that I would ever be Eric Johnson, but there’s a kind of picking style in it that’s kind of Eric Johnson 101, I guess, very melodic cut still very moving, and it just happened to work out so well between the violin and guitar, and at the crescendo it goes back into the beginning of the song again, a very Kansas-esque intro that worked out perfectly.

FGPO: Did you use any new or different gear on the album?

Williams: Well, the goal with this album was not to reinvent Kansas but to condense it and make is as pure as we could again. The record company wanted a quintessential Kansas record. So everything from the songs to the sound to the lyric content, the artwork…The target was to be the best Kansas we could be, not the newest Kansas, not the most hip new thing, but to be quintessentially us.

FGPO: So prior to The Prelude Implicit, old school, what would have been our choices for favorite parts you played?

Williams: Maybe the beginning of “The Wall;” There’s nothing amazing about it, just I played simply what needed to be there. I found the holes and played a part that didn’t distract but still set a mood. Maybe “Magnum Opus” at the beginning; there’s a little break, just one of those things that was found by accident, trying to find exactly where I want to play on the neck and with what character, just a slightly different scale than I would normally use.

FGPO: So much of Kansas’ music is symphonic and textured. How would you characterize yourself as a player within that?

Williams: I’ve never been a flashy player. I’ve never been able to be that way. Some people have the tools and talent for that, but I really don’t have that. I do it by feel. I mean, Jeff Beck, he can tear it up, but most of the time when he does it’s just a very tasteful selection of notes and they way they’re bent and the air he leaves around them, the phrasing, the spacing. The anticipation of the next note is always a lot more effective to me than a constant barrage of fast notes, which is just an exercise. I can appreciate it, and if I was capable of playing that way I probably would — though I’m really kind of grateful I’m not, ’cause then I would sound like every speedy guitar player on earth that plays real fast. But I just am not capable, so it’s not an issue.

FGPO: There’s also a great range in your music, from big, majestic prog rock to down ‘n’ dirty blues.

Williams: Y’know, we were really affected by just the music of the day, playing in club bands and things like that and playing Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, that type of stuff. We never had a light touch. We were never jazz cast. We were very heavy-handed players and liked that hard, nasty aggression. But as we progressed out of that and started working in bands playing original material, there were a lot of very progressive things coming out of Europe and England, things like Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, early Yes, Genesis, King Crimson. That was just another way of doing things, not only being original but throwing away the old tried-and-true chord progressions and time signatures and meters. That was very appealing to all of us. But still what we were underneath that was just a rock band. We weren’t trained to be anything other than that, so I think that’s what made us a bit different than other progressive bands. We played a very progressive style of music, but in the approach of more of a rock band.

FGPO: What were some of the other sources for your sound?

Williams: Steve Howe [of Yes] is a great guitar player, but Billy Gibbons [of ZZ Top] was more of an influence to me in tone and playing approach. Eric Clapton when he was playing with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, that is more appealing to me than a jazz cat. It just suits my ears better. But musically we like playing things a little bit more outside the box.

FGPO: This is Leftoverture’s 40th anniversary, and you will be playing the whole thing live this fall. What’s your 40-year perspective on that album?

Williams: My first one was gratitude that it happened. We’d done three albums with Don Kirshner, who put a lot of money into us, tour support as well as recording, and we weren’t generating enough income to really pay for all those things. After three albums, I’m sure Don was bleeding pretty profusely, and if it wasn’t for Leftoverture and “Wayward Son” in particular, being the last song written for the album, if that wasn’t the breakthrough hit that it was Leftoverture very well could’ve been our grand finale. We had no idea it was going to do what it did, but sitting there listening to the album in the studio, we did know at the time that it could be a game changer, that we did something right this time. So I’m completely grateful for that song and that album. It’s 40 years later and I’m busier than I’ve ever been in Kansas.

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