The Phil Ehart & Richard Williams Interview
Toto, I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore
By Ralph Greco, Jr.
The thing with interviewing is to try and not genuflect too much when you meet your idols. A recent meeting though was going to test my idolatry to the limit, busing in as I was into big bad New York City to meet Richard Williams and Phil Ehart of Kansas to discuss their new band Native Window. The guitarist and drummer, respectively, are the only members of Kansas who hold the distinction of being not only original members but to have survived every incarnation. Recently they, along with Billy Greer (currently Kansas bassist/vocalist) and Dave Ragsdale (current violinist/guitar player), produced the smokin' 10-song self-titled Native Window CD. I was here to chat up the guys about what's going on with the new record, as well as their illustrious history.
I was led up to a wide, comfortable hospitality suite in one of the city's more plush hotels, past the business executives' flying furious fingers cross-listing lightly illuminated laptops and groups of other guys just sitting around enjoying a few minutes of quiet time, coffee and a rather bountiful buffet of fruits and snacks. Walking with their publicist into the next room, a darker maroon and wood affair, Phil Ehart bid me to sit next to him, while both he and Richard Williams stood, put out their hands and smiled like I was an old friend.
I was put immediately at ease as I placed my tape recorder on the table between these welcoming, open-faced guys. The now gray-haired Ehart eagerly prompted me to ask away as I stuttered through my opening. Richard Williams leaned in as eager as his partner. Though the fate, status and politics of Kansas is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, I was determined to make this more about Native Window — at least with my first question.
"So why this album, why Native Window now?" I asked.
"We just made a decision to do it," Ehart began. "We'd never done anything like this."
"Yeah, we figured, why not?" Williams chimed in.
"The StarCity label is working with us on the Kansas 35th Anniversary DVD we're doing (more on this later, I promise). Rich and I were talking about sending something up to our producer there, so we sent him some rough mixes. He said, 'This stuff is great. I'd like to get this out on StarCity,' which has a Sony 'Red' distribution, so we knew the record would come out and we'd have funding there to promote it."
"And the studio we recorded it in was in Atlanta (Real 2 Reel Studios), so that helped for all the people we were working with," Williams added. "We're all friends, we love working there; it's a very comfortable, easy atmosphere."
Treading as lightly I asked if they could confirm what I read about Kansas — mainly that Steve Walsh was not interested in writing any new Kansas material and that Kerry Livgren, the bands' other main songwriter, was more or less retired. Again, the thing I didn't want to do was hammer these gentleman about their past when they seemed to be looking forward with their new project, but, let's face it, Kansas is the band that got them here and how could I be true to you, my readers, if I didn't get into some vintage rock stuff. The guys were completely at ease and forthcoming.
"Steve has informed us that he will no longer be writing any new material for Kansas. Kerry on the other hand may," Ehart stressed.
Williams quickly added: "We've been waiting for that 'may' for an awful long time."
I wasn't so sure there was much more to add to that, but I had read that Native Window was actually warming up for Kansas on a recent tour, so I knew both bands and all players were obviously comfortable with the current state of affairs. Like Steve Howe doing the Asia/Yes double-bill (though Asia is a known quantity), I pressed Ehart and Williams about how they managed to pull double duty. Did Red Bull play a part?, I joked.
"It's like we're naked," Mr. Ehart told me. "We haven't been an opening band in years. Nobody knew the material when we opened for Queen."
Gulp, I gulped. That's right, I knew somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind that Kansas, back in the 70s, did open for Queen, and as these two guys would come tell me later, they opened for Mott The Hoople and Bad Company too. I was hoping to return to that subject, believe me, but Williams talked more about Native Window's first few shows as the opening band.
"It was familiar…but a painful familiar," he said and we all laughed. "Feeling a bit nervous in a familiar way. The anticipation of it and the unknown about how we're gonna get through it, but once you start, it's fine."
"It's different though because with Kansas, it's instant recognition," Ehart said. "People just turn it into the biggest question. But it's fun — 20 minutes we're done, and then we come back out as Kansas."
"Plus it's tougher on the singer, a lot tougher on the drummer," the broad shouldered guitarist added, in what I could see as his often-humorous matter-of-factness. "As a guitar player, I'm standing backstage warming up anyway. How hard can it be?"
I was really starting to warm up to these two. A group of three guys and a girl left the room, and now I was basically alone with these two veteran musicians and feeling more than ever that they were inviting me into their inner circle. I knew from talking to their publicist that they had been at this — interviewing for satellite radio, talking to journalists, dealing with lowly ole scribes like me — all day. Still they couldn't have been more engaged.
"Native Window has a whole different front line…" Ehart explained the nuts and bolts of the live performance. "…that's in front of the Kansas set. Rich wears a cape." He stopped and we all laughed. "Then we come off, strike the gear, change clothes and we come back as Kansas."
"So different guitar rig, different drum set?" I inquire.
"Same guitar," Williams answered. "I mean there's one other guitar I use cause of different tuning that I normally wouldn't use, and we're in different positions on the stage. Phil's out there in the front with us."
"I have a little tiny drum set," Ehart said. "Native Window drumming is different than Kansas drumming."
I figured maybe it was time to get into the Native Window album. Complimenting them both on what I felt is a pretty accessible sounding record, we all agreed that Native Window isn't a Kansas album. We also agreed that was a good thing.
"That was very intentional," Williams said. "Some rabid fans are having a little trouble with Native Window. They don't understand it. Why isn't the new Kansas album and they say, 'This isn't a new Kansas album!' But it's not supposed to be Kansas. We hope we do another Kansas album, but this is something else. Let's take Kansas off the table for minute."
I couldn't have approved more. Let's face it, I love Kansas as much as any true-blooded vintage rock fan does, but why not a new project from such great players?
"Tell me how you recorded the album. Was it done live? How did it come about?" I asked.
I'd get back to that Kansas-warming-up-for-Queen comment, believe me.
"It started acoustically," Williams explained. "Just building songs and once we had the form and structure, that's when we started working it up as a band. And then we took more chances once we started to lay tracks, things were changing as we went. Let's change this, what if we took this out and made it acoustic or electric. We didn't know what we were — we didn't have to be anything."
"We had to go in with click tracks and build it," Ehart chimed in. "We also had never sung together before. We're not singers. We went in to do the background work and we thought, 'I wonder what this is gonna sound like?' So that was brand new."
"It was all revealing to us — painting a picture, really all of us, throwing ideas at the wall, there was no wrong idea, we'd try anything," Williams concluded. A thought suddenly occurred to me. I had long ago pushed away my pad of pre-arranged questions anyway. "You guys never sang on record before?"
Both responded with a couple of "oohs" and "ahhs."
"I sang live on 'Hold On.'" Williams said.
"A couple of things," Ehart added.
"How is that challenge live?" I asked the world-class drummer sitting next to me, if anybody could manage it, it would be this guy, one of the best drummers in the business.
"It's great…great," he said.
I was aware of time ticking, sensing I was the last of these type of interviewers for the night. I certainly didn't want to overstay my welcome. But I had to get back into some Kansas history with the members who have been there the whole time. I mentioned the great stuff on their DVD/CD box set Sail On, along with the breakneck key changes of some of their early material. Richard Williams shared with me the concept of the band's early approach.
"We've always been, by nature, pretty heavy-handed. We're more attached to a more progressive style of things outside the box, but for lack of a better word, we lacked the chops to be delicate, so we just attacked it like Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels."
"It's amazing how competitive we all were," Ehart said about those old days. "If we were warming up for somebody, it was like a group thing — go out and annihilate them. It was a wild mindset. We weren't beautiful people and we weren't hippies. But there were guys we just couldn't touch. We did 40, 41 shows with Queen on the Sheer Heart Attack tour. They were just getting into theaters, then we got on the Mott The Hoople tour because Queen cancelled. And so we got that tour, and that was incredible. We really learned a lot watching those guys. Then we moved to opening for Bad Company, so we got a heavy dose of the British thing."
"We learned how to pace a show; don't stop for anything," Williams added. "When the show started, it was show time. We really learned a lot from that, the Queen thing, it was theater."
"So then when Leftoverture came out..."
"We were ready," Ehart reacted with no false modesty.
I know they were. I saw Kansas for the first time at MSG in 1978 and they were more than "ready".
It was time for me go. Plus I had to almost change my pants imagining shows like Kansas warming up for Queen in a theater. But I wanted to get back to business — at least for the few minutes I had left.
"So, how do you sell Native Window?" I queried, figuring I'd throw the big 'how-has-the-music-business-changed-and-how-does-it-affect-guys-as-old-as-you' question across the table.
Ehart took this one. "Starting with people like you" — he couldn't mean little old me, could he? — "doing the press junket. Then we're gonna work radio, classic rock stations that still play new stuff, and then we're going out opening for Kansas and doing everything we can do. Tying in to Kansas fans, Web sites, the Kansas Web site, Kansas gigs. We already have a fan base that likes what we did in the past and might like what we're recording now."
The publicist walked back in, so I knew I had to wrap it up, but could I really? This was the most comfortable I had ever been interviewing someone, and the wealth of these two gentlemen's experience, the stories I am sure they could have told me, just hanging with such good-natured guys, made me want to stay put all night.
"What's next now, what's in your immediate future?" I asked.
"We're getting into the tour; we've done two dates so far. Then in September, we go to South America. We have symphony a show in October in New Jersey. Then it's over to Germany."
"And that ties in with DVD coming out in September, right? A Symphonic Evening With Kansas?"
"Yeah," Williams confirmed. "It's all high definition. It looks great."
"It's probably the best-looking, best-sounding thing we've ever done," Ehart added.
"That will set us up for the future," Williams said.
"It's a niche that really nobody's working," Ehart said, meaning their continued future work with orchestras, which both men were pretty psyched about.
I stood to leave, putting out my hand again, mentally pinching myself that this had all happened. I thanked both men and wished them much continued luck and success, and especially how happy I was to see them still at it.
"I am aware of a number of bands because of the economy who are struggling, mid-to-low level bands there having trouble do they go do something else. This is what we do and I am happy we're doing it," Ehart asserted.
"It took me about 25 years to figure out there is a career in this," Mr. Williams smiled as I exited.