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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kansas carrying on 36 years later




By ERIC SCHELKOPF

While other bands have long come and gone, Kansas is busier than ever more than
30 years after it first formed.

Kansas will perform at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Arcada Theatre, 105 E. Main St., St. Charles. Tickets starts at $29, and are available at www.thearcada.com.

I had the chance to talk to original guitarist Rich Williams to get his thoughts about the band's longevity and the ever changing music industry.

Q - What was it like performing last year in Topeka, Kansas, with the Washburn University Symphony Orchestra for your 35th anniversary show? What did it add to the music?

First, of all, it's familiar. We've done a lot of symphony shows. Twelve to 15 years ago, we did an album with the London Symphony Orchestra, and we've been doing symphony dates pretty much ever since then.

We love doing it. It's a lot of fun. It's not a stretch to imagine us with a symphony. Our music is already very orchestrated and symphonic in many ways. It's not a shoehorn situation, where you try to make something fit. It works very naturally.

We just finished a tour working with different college symphonies around the country. We enjoyed working the students, to see their excitement in all this.

It's also a fundraiser for the music programs in the individual schools. It gives them an opportunity to do something they otherwise never would do. It's all very rewarding.

Q - Kerry Livgren and Steve Morse came back and performed with the band for last year's show. Later in the year, Kerry, had a stroke, I understand. He's still trying to get feeling back in his hands, according to his website.

It happened just a few months after we had filmed the DVD, actually.

Q- How did having Kerry and Steve there add to the experience of the show?

We just wanted to make the 35th anniversary show special for the fans. We knew we wanted to do it, but we really didn't know where. Once we decided to take it back to where we got our start back home, it started to make a lot more sense.

In going back home, suddenly it all made sense. Kerry lives there, so that was a natural. But with Steve Morse, we hadn't really seen him since he was in the band. We called him, and he said, yeah, he'd love to do it.

And that was great. He's such a good guy, and a tremendous player. He hadn't changed a bit. It was spooky how he looked exactly the same.

It was just like where we had left off, like no time had passed. And we had a lot of fun. Steve and Kerry were in the band at different times, so they had never played together. Having the two of them on stage at the same time was something also cool for the band.

Q - Talking about the roots of the band, what was the idea for forming Kansas in the first place?

Growing up in Topeka, Kansas, we all played in various different bands together. The first band I was in was with Phil Ehart, our drummer. I've been playing with Phil since 1966.

As we got a little bit older and other musicians left, we were some of the last guys really working to pursue this. I think what brought us together was that we wanted to do something original. That being said, we didn't want to do the flavor of the moment. We didn't want to sing about cars and girls, and we didn't want to play in the standard format.

We really wanted it to be outside the box. And everybody brought their own experience and influences to the table. That combination turned out to be Kansas.

Q - There have been several lineup changes over the years. Is there a lineup you prefer?

Well, I know some fans will say that we're not Kansas without the original lineup. Well, the two new guys, Billy Greer on bass, he's been with us for 26 years now, and David Ragsdale on violin, he was with us all through the '90s, and he's been back with us for five years. So nobody's really new.

I like this lineup. And to the naysayers who complain a lot, the guys who want to be here are. The ones who want to do something else aren't here. Complain to them.

Q - It seems that with every lineup change, it brings something different to the music.

Change in a band or change in life is painful in a lot of ways. You never know what is coming next. It's also a necessity in the life of a band and in life in general.

This band would not be here if we hadn't rolled through the changes.

Q - Dave Hope, Kerry Livgren and Robby Steinhardt came back for the studio album, "Somewhere to Elsewhere." Any chance of that happening for another album?

It's mentioned on occasion. I'm not opposed to it in any way. It's getting that done that's really been the thing. With Kerry's stroke, that's changed things quite a bit.

I know he has some great material. It's been discussed to do one last great Kansas album. But then, you never know which way the wind blows with Kerry. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and wondering what's next, we just move forward.

Q - Any other projects on the horizon?

This winter, we are doing one album with Cleopatra Records. It's going to be a covers album, doing different songs that might have meant something to us.

Q - Any songs that you would particularly want to cover on that album?

We're in that discussion stage now. Coming from different backgrounds, everybody has different ideas - we can't do that because it's sacred territory, we can't do this because one of us doesn't like a lyric. And so it's a typical Kansas argument coming into play.

It's somewhat painful, but it's a process we go through when we are making any record. It has to be something that we all can live with.

Q - Do you mind being labeled a "classic rock band?" Did you ever imagine when you started the band that you one day might be referred to as a classic rock band?

No, no. It's appropriate. I once heard a reviewer call us a classical rock band. I kind of like that one. You can definitely hear some classical influences in our music.

Q - These days, bands can make their own music and not have to worry about getting signed to a label. Has the music industry changed for the better?

Yeah, I think in a lot of ways, it has. What happened with us is a different world from what happens today.

When we signed with Don Kirshner Records, they had what was called artist development. Now, there is no artist development. There's isn't any time for that.

I don't have a good taste in my mouth for record companies in general. It's not any secret that they've screwed musicians to death ever since they pressed the first vinyl.

When I see a few of these record companies going down in flames, it doesn't really break my heart. The billions of dollars that they've kept from the musicians that actually earned it, there's a special place in hell for them, as far as I'm concerned.

Q - How has the band tried to keep up with the changes?

In the way that music can be heard or purchased, you just have to roll with those punches and make it available in all formats, with the Internet and all that kind of stuff.

And as far as keeping up with musical trends and stuff, that's not something we do. We rode in on a horse, and we're going to ride out on one. We do what we do, and that's what we are known for. Why would we try to be somebody else?

We were a terrible cover band because we never tried to emulate the songs that we learned. Even when we were doing covers, we were doing them our way, which will make this project interesting.

While we are doing other people's material, what we will have to do is try to own this stuff, and do it as if we wrote it.

As long as we are true to ourselves, if nothing else, we will be happy. If the public doesn't like it, that's fine. I'll rather do that then bend to every drib. That is not what we do.

Q - What do you think keeps the band going?

This was a hobby that turned into a job and a career. This is what I do. Musicians play.

I play guitar, and that's just in my nature. That's what we do. We perform. If we stopped doing this, I'd probably be playing in a local bar somewhere.

Q - Are you surprised that there continues to be a strong fan base for the band?

Well, we're grateful. We had a few really good songs that have stood the test of time, and kept our foot in the door.

I would have never imagined that 36 years later, we'd be busier than we've ever been.
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