The Phil Ehart Interview


Through thick and thin, Kansas have persevered for almost 30 years. Mainstream hits like "Dust In The Wind" and "Carry On My Wayward Son" have hardly cramped the band's loftier musical ambitions — odd time signatures awash in a firm backbeat, guitars and keyboards polyphonically ripe with Steve Walsh and Robbie Steinhardt's cascading vocals tipping the scales in faultless harmony. Even though this particular description of Kansas' music has deviated at times due to personnel changes, it most certainly applies to today's line-up.

Signing with legendary impresario Don Kirshner, Kansas debuted in 1973 and slowly rose through the ranks. Their ascension was marked by patience, diligence, hard work and ultimately, success. Once the accolades for Leftoverture and Point Of Know Return subsided, the band stammered and stumbled with a series of inconsistent offerings that finally imploded the group by the early 80s. Numerous detours later, the original line-up reunited for 2000's stunning Somewhere To Elsewhere and a newfound respect for the group and their legacy resurfaced.

While the praise continues to pour in over remastered re-issues of Leftoverture and Point Of Know Return, as well as The Ultimate Kansas, a comprehensive 2-CD compilation -- Walsh, Steinhardt, guitarist Rich Williams, drummer Phil Ehart and bassist Billy Greer have regrouped and released a "live" Kansas DVD and companion CD called Device Voice Drum. This fall, the band played a few warm-up gigs as they prepare to go out in full force for a 2003 tour with Styx. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, I got a chance to speak with Ehart, who also doubles as the group's manager. As busy as he was getting ready for the evening's gig at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, he came across as down to earth, extremely modest, yet forthright about Kansas — the band he's been with since the very beginning.

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Let's talk about Device Voice Drum. Would you say this DVD has captured the essence of Kansas as a live band, or was this particular performance something out of the ordinary?

That's a good question. We tried to capture a gig — we just tried to capture Kansas playing a concert. You know, with a few extra things. We tried to make it one of our better-produced concerts obviously by bringing in the lasers, the string quartet, all the special lighting, the choir -- things like that. Ultimately, it comes down to the five us of playing and having a great crowd around us. That's what we tried to do — capture the essence of Kansas, yes. But it went beyond that with some of the extras.

You're covering a lot of territory — the epics like "Journey From Mariabronn" and "Cheyenne Anthem"; the hits like "Point Of Know Return," "Dust In The Wind" and "Carry On My Wayward Son"; and then there's stuff like "The Preacher," for which you used the New Advent choir. How did you decide which songs to perform?

We've always performed those certain songs: "Point Of Know Return," "Carry On My Wayward Son," "Dust In The Wind" and "The Wall." Those are kind of staples of our set. It (Device Voice Drum) was made for two different factions. It was made for the diehard fan, so we did songs like "Belexes," "Journey From Mariabronn" and "The Preacher." Those are the songs the diehard Kansas fans know of because they have all our albums. They're a little more obscure. And then we made it for the fan who likes "Carry On My Wayward Son" and "Dust In The Wind." Those are the two they know along with the other "hits" we played like "Play The Game Tonight" and "Fight Fire With Fire."

We tried to keep it on familiar territory, and then also, every once in a while, go out into areas that wasn't so familiar for some of the diehard fans. That's whom we aim for. I guess, it's also for us. We wanted to play stuff that we could have fun doing. Not just playing the same stuff over and over. That's why we did "The Preacher," "Cheyenne Anthem, "Mariabronn," "Belexes," "Child Of Innocence." These are songs we don't play all the time. So we put those in for us too because they're fun to play.

The DVD's animation is phenomenal. Did the band have any creative input on it?

Sort of. It's primarily Wayne Lytle and Animusic. We talked with Wayne. We were originally going to have him just do the album cover. Then we kind of got into the animation side where he could actually customize his animation for our project. That was discussed early on. The only thing we really had anything to do with it was when Steve Walsh had to actually make the MIDI files for the introduction (of the DVD) and then during the middle of "Miracles Out Of Nowhere," when the animation comes in. Steve had to make a MIDI file of our music and Wayne used the MIDI file to customize the animation to the music so everything would lock up. All the animation was obviously Wayne.

I'd rather see you play drums instead of a machine.

(laughs) Thanks. I appreciate that.

Device Voice Drum was recently aired on VH1 Classic. How well was it received?

I think it went really well. We had a lot of great response from the fans, a lot of people from out of the country. I guess VH1 Classic really liked it and they got a great response too. It's been a long, long time since we've had almost two hours of television coverage in one showing. We're thankful to them for showing the DVD. The fans really seemed to like it.

So, is the plan to tour behind the DVD and CD into next year?

Yeah. We're planning a package with Styx starting in February. That'll cover February and March. And then hopefully we're going out again in May, June and July. We'll be touring heavily. We'll go off on our own in August and do dates till the end of the year.

Are you just playing the States, or are you going over to Europe too?

We might possibly go to Europe; we've talked about it. But most of our touring will be here in the States.

In 2000, you reunited with Kerry Livgren and Dave Hope, signed a deal with the custom prog rock label Magna Carta, and recorded Somewhere To Elsewhere, which more or less picks up from where the band left off in the 70s. How did it all come about?

It was mostly because of Kerry. He was working on a solo album. The stuff he was writing sounded very much like Kansas. He called and said: "You guys need to hear some of this. Maybe we could do some recording." Rich and I went up there to listen and we agreed that it was very Kansas sounding. So, we got together and made the CD. Yeah, it was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work. We felt it turned out well.

What's the story with Kerry Livgren? Is he an occasional member of the band? Is he a Brian Wilson-like visionary?

(laughs) Probably a little of both. Kerry will always be a large part of this organization. And Dave too. They are original members and still good friends. Kerry just happened to write something that was for us. He's written for us before. After he left the band, he wrote something for Freaks Of Nature (1995) called "Cold Grey Morning." He's submitted things here and there. Of course, on Somewhere To Elsewhere, he wrote everything. And he played on it. It was great and we'll hopefully get a chance to do it again.

So, there's a possibility of another record with him?

It depends on how much material he writes, how prolific he is, how much he wants to be involved. The door is always open for him to be involved if he'd liked to be. I think there will at least be a shot for him to contribute some songs and play on some songs, but that won't be until 2004 and that's still a ways away.

But he still sits in with you guys from time to time.

Yeah, he comes out and plays gigs with us every once in a while. We might see him this next year where he'll come by and play. Yeah, it's always good to see him and we're always glad to have him on board.

What about Dave Hope? Do you think he'll doing anything else with you guys?

No, Dave is pretty much retired full-time from the music business. He came up and played on the album, and we didn't even see him. We happen to have some concerts on the only weekend he was available to come up and record. He's a full-time youth minister. It was a drag, because when he came up we were gone, and when we came back, he was done. So, we didn't get to see him. That's just the way it worked out. Dave comes to our shows every once in a while and doesn't play, but he comes in and says hi. We stay in touch.

I'd like to toss out a few more names associated with Kansas. Any fond memories working with John Elefante?

Yeah. John is a great singer, a great guy, a great writer. It was a tough time for the band. The growing pains kind of subsided and the band was coming to a halt with all the ideologies that were going around. He came in at that time and kind of kept us afloat. John and I have remained friends over the years, and have said hello through other people. He runs a big studio in Nashville and has done very well making CDs on his own. It was great having him part of the band.

What about Steve Morse?

There's not enough paper to talk about Steve. He's such an extraordinary talent, and that's an understatement. To have him on board was a lot of fun. He's a good guy. We had known him long before. He lived in Atlanta and was part of the Dixie Dregs. They opened for us many times. It was just a fluke. I ran into him at a Robert Plant concert and he said, "I hear you guys are looking for a guitarist," and I said, "Yeah, why don't you come by and see how things sound." So he did and we made a couple of albums together. He really brings a special sound and attitude to anything he plays on. It was really an honor to have him.

I interviewed Steve and he spoke very highly of Kansas. Now you're label mates. Is there ever a chance of him playing with the band again?

You never know (laughs). Steve's a busy guy, so it's kind of hard for us to fit our schedules together. I see him at NAMM shows every once in a while and it's always good to say hi.

One of my favorite Kansas albums is In The Spirit Of Things, which Steve played on. .

Yeah, we like that one, but just as the record was coming out, MCA changed presidents. The new president not only cut our record under, but he also cut Glenn Frey and Elton John — some pretty big names there — and went with Tiffany. So if we look back and see where Kansas is today, and where's Glenn Frey and where's Elton John. And then where's Tiffany (laughs). It was an interesting career move on his part. It was a sad thing. And they spent a ton of money on In The Spirit Of Things. It was an expensive album, especially with Bob Ezrin being involved. They just cut their losses and went away. But it's one of our favorite recording memories. Working with Bob was really something we'll never forget. He's a special man with a special talent. He came in and pulled a lot out of Kansas at that time.

Watching the new DVD, it seems like Rich Williams is doing an incredible job handling the guitar without Kerry or Steve at his side.

Kansas has always been a two-guitar band. We've kind of grown into what we are now. It was never really planned for Richard to become the only guitarist. I think he would say the same thing. After Kerry left, we had Steve Morse and then David Ragsdale, the violinist, played some very good guitar. Eventually, it just kind of worked out to Rich playing everything. We just kind of grew into it. And it has worked out well.

Do you miss not having another regular guitarist?

Not too much. There are a few songs we can't do because they were written for two guitars, but those are few and far between.

Did you let David Ragsdale go when the time came for Robbie Steinhardt to rejoin the band?

No. David decided to leave on his own. There were some things he wanted to do. I had heard that Robbie had basically gotten healthy again and went down to check him out at a club he was playing down in Tampa. I thought he was looking good and singing good, so we invited him back into the band. He had been gone 16 years, so it was something we really wanted to do. And he wanted to be back. It's worked out really great. He's been back for five or six years now.

Next to the Monkees, no other group is as closely associated with Don Kirschner as Kansas. Wally Gold actually signed you to the label, but did you have any kind of relationship with Kirschner?

We saw him a lot. It made no sense to us why we were with him. He must have really heard something in this band. When you think about it we were an odd band for him to sign — these guys from Kansas, just hicks wearing overalls with long shaggy hair playing weird time signatures. You think of all the bands he could have signed and why he would have picked us. But he believed in us and hung in there with us, and we finally had a hit with our fourth album. That's unheard of today, to wait that long.

He was always supportive and would let us record wherever we wanted to record. He never bothered us, never came down to the studio ever. Jeff Glixman (Kansas' producer during the 70s) would just hold up the phone in front of the speakers and Don would hear what was going on. He was a great guy. He threw a big party for us when we finally went platinum. He was never overbearing. He was just a nice guy.

Kansas has always been the only true American counterpart to Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis and ELP. Now, with a flood of new bands coming out on Magna Carta and other bands like Radiohead sort of falling under a similar banner, what are your thoughts on the current state of progressive rock?

I'm not really plugged into the current state of progressive rock. I'm so busy with Kansas and things we do. I also manage the band, which takes up a lot of my time. I listen to some things, but I don't have time to turn over rocks and find new little gems. I recently heard Spock's Beard and thought they were really good. I wish them all the best (laughs).

I've never really considered Kansas a progressive rock band. I've always thought of us as sort of a sophisticated rock band. I've always been flattered when people compare us to Yes, Genesis or ELP. But I never thought we were that good. I've always thought we leaned more toward the Allman Brothers (laughs) because we had the two guitars and rocked harder than some of the other bands. I don't know, it's hard to be in a band and compare yourself. But those are bands I really like and it's nice to be associated with the progressive rock arena. It's fine with me (laughs).

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