Kansas Find New Beginning With First Album in 16 Years: Exclusive Interview
Anybody who has seen a Kansas show in the past couple years has been witness to a renewed excitement and vigor within the group that shines through in its performances. This is largely due to a revised band lineup that now features vocalist Ronnie Platt, who stepped in when longtime singer Steve Walsh made the decision to step away in 2014 after 41 years with the group.
Not long after making the change, drummer Phil Ehart, a founding member of the band, shared that they were hoping to make new music.
“We just have to go in and go, 'Okay, we know that everybody is going to go, ‘Man, make another Point of Know Return or make another Leftoverture.' Well, that’s never going to happen, so let’s go in and create what we’re doing today and hope that people like it. But yeah, we’d like to give it a shot. Just to see what this band could do. Because it’s a talented group of guys. You just never know. There is that opportunity and we may just take it.”
Thankfully, they seized the opportunity and entered the studio earlier this year, coming out with a completed album six weeks later. The Prelude Implicit, the first studio record from the band in 16 years is out this week on CD, vinyl and digital download. In a new conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock, Ehart admits that there was a lot of excitement, but also, a lot of unknown.
“It’s like, 'Okay, what is this going to sound like? Is it going to have a direction? Is it going to have a continuity? Is it going to sound like Kansas?' Working with three guys that we haven’t recorded with before, there were a lot of unknowns,” he says. “But I think in a way, that kind of gives it that edge. Instead of, well, we’re going to make another record, it was like, this was going to be a record unknown. Until we start to finish it, we’re not going to know. I can understand everybody’s trepidation over what the record’s going to sound like, because we had the same feeling. As it started to come together, in the middle of making the record, we add Zak [Rizvi] to the band. He’s writing such great stuff and Ronnie’s writing great lyrics and everybody’s collaborating and everybody’s contributing that we just thought, ‘Gosh, Zak needs to be in this band. He definitely needs to be with us.’ So that was an extreme unknown. Little did we know we’d go into making a record and end up adding a new band member that was actually the producer of the record. So it was all good stuff and it all worked out and we’re very pleased with it.”
In a separate interview, Platt shared that getting the opportunity to write lyrics for the new album was probably the biggest challenge -- and one that was matched by an even bigger surprise when the lyrics he submitted to Ehart and guitarist Richard Williams got the green light.
“I mean, we’re talking about a band that Kerry Livgren wrote lyrics for. Gee, no pressure there, right? Kerry and Steve Walsh [were] deep, prolific, amazing writers. That was very intense.”
The Illinois-based vocalist, who also spent time in the past as a member of Shooting Star, says that he had already gotten gifts from the band that were beyond his wildest dreams, so he was fully prepared that things might go the other way.
“One, getting the job and then signing a record contract knowing that, wow, my voice is going to be on a Kansas studio album. That’s a huge gift in itself. But to also be submitting lyrics and having them accepted by Phil and Rich, when I was all prepared to make that first song submission and have Phil and Rich go, ‘Well, you know, this is really good. You’re putting in a nice effort here, but we’re going to go with a different direction.’ I was all prepared for that. So imagine my excitement when I submitted that first song, which was ‘With This Heart.’ Submitting that first song and having them go, ‘These are really great, write another one!’ It’s like, ‘Really?’ And then one became two, two became three and then three became six and then co-writing two with Billy [Greer]. Surreal and beyond my wildest dreams.”
Ehart says that Rizvi, who was originally just brought in to help co-produce the new album, ended up being a vital part of the process.
“There would not be a record without him. It would not exist. We had hired him to produce the record. He had worked with [longtime Kansas producer and associate] Jeff Glixman in the past. He was always Jeff’s right-hand man as an engineer and of course he was a great guitar player,” he says. “We just didn’t know his depth as a songwriter. He had written some things. After we hired him to produce the record, he said, ‘You know, I wrote some things for Kansas many years ago before I learned you guys weren’t interested in any new material at that time.’ He said, ‘Let’s break them back out’ and so we did. We listened to them and we go, ‘Oh man, these are great.’ So not only did we use those songs, but he was very collaborative on other songs too. He had a major part in just about everything that we wrote and came up with as well as [becoming our] second guitar player. Kansas always had two guitar players back in the day, but we hadn’t really had two full-time guitar players for a long time. It just couldn’t have worked out better -- and he’s a great guy, who we’ve known for 10 or 20 years. It was just like adding a good friend to the band.”
Among the first songs that Rizvi brought was the sprawling “The Voyage of Eight Eighteen," one of several tracks on the new album that finds the band digging deep into its progressive roots. Ehart mentions “Visibility Zero” and “Rhythm of the Spirit” as a couple of the other songs that Rizvi presented to the band early in the process.
Songs like “Rhythm of the Spirit” reveal that while the group was aware that the new music they were making had to fall in a certain zone, they also felt plenty of freedom to branch out and explore some different avenues.
“The way we’re looking at it is, what the title says, The Prelude Implicit. The title just means without a doubt, this is a new musical beginning. This is a musical beginning for us. But at the same time, we couldn’t lose what was Kansas. It had to sound like Kansas, but be new Kansas and that was a major order,” Ehart says. “You know, when we started this album, we were kind of like, ‘That’s going to be a tall order to fill.’ But we worked very hard and we think we’ve achieved that and people like yourself and some of the fans that have heard some of the early stuff, the biggest compliment you could give us is that this sounds like Kansas. That’s what we were aiming for. We didn’t want to end up with people going, ‘Well, yeah, it sounds good, but we have no idea who this is.’ It does sound like Kansas. And of course, with Dave Manion coming in and bringing in the Hammond B-3, which was a big part of our sound for a long, long time, that kind of fell to the wayside and that’s back now, so to have the B-3 and Ronnie and of course, still having the violin with David Ragsdale and Zak and me and Rich, original members still hanging around, it turned out sounding like Kansas and that was our main objective.”
Platt, who labels himself as “a huge prog-rocker from the late ‘70s” that grew up listening to everything the band put out feels that fellow fans will give the new album a big thumbs up.
“I really feel that the Kansas fan is going to love this record. But beyond that, I hope we acquire a lot of new fans with it,” he says. “But I just want people to see the depth of this album, the intensity and appreciate the work that went into it. Hopefully we score a lot of new fans and what a testament to Rich and Phil for doing this for more than 43 years now and still have an ambition and desire to put out new music. What does that say about them?”
Doing more than a year’s worth of shows with the band ended up being a good primer for Platt when it came time to enter the studio to record The Prelude Implicit.
“Even though we’re playing songs I’ve known my whole life, you develop a feel for one another and you can actually anticipate everyone’s parts a little better,” he says. “It was a gelling time, although I got tossed into the fire pretty quick. I got the job extremely fast. After that first show I did, it wasn’t very long before things felt like they were running on autopilot. Things gelled really quick. A good prelude to getting into the studio and recording the music.”
“It’s quite a collection,” Platt adds, looking at the album that came out of their efforts. “I listen to these songs now and I’m just floored that we did all of this in a month and a half. Because when I listen to these songs, it’s like, to me, it sounds like it would take us six months to put all of this together.”
Coming from a blue-collar background, Platt was able to draw on plenty of his own experiences as he was working on the lyrics for the new songs.
“‘The Unsung Heroes’ is about everyday people that go out every day and do their jobs and it’s a song about thanking those people, because you know, a lot of people go to work every day and they bust their butt and they never get any kind of praise. And believe me, I was one of them, you know? Driving a truck around the streets of Chicago for 25 years is kind of a thankless job, but it’s something that has to be done. It’s how every thing in your room that you’re sitting in right now, at one time, was on a truck, being delivered to where it had to go.”
“Summer” finds bassist Billy Greer stepping to the front to handle the lead vocal on the song, which he also wrote the lyrics for, and Ehart gives kudos to his bandmate, who he says, “sang the heck out of” the track.
“I had sent Zak a particular beat and a groove, and he kind of came up with some stuff," he recalls. "He and Billy worked on the lyrics [and] it turned out to be a really aggressive rock song for us, which we felt we really needed. Because that’s a side of Kansas that we’ve played for a long time. The lyrics are about a particular time in the band’s life that we’ll leave to the listener to try to figure out which summer it pertains to. But it’s about a particular time in the career of Kansas.”
And with the arrival of the new album in stores, Ehart is pretty excited about this particular time in Kansas.
“We knew we were a good band. We knew Ronnie could sing. We knew Ronnie had a great voice. We knew we could go in and make it instrumentally a good album,” he says. “But we didn’t really have a whole lot of material and it was the kind of thing that, okay, where’s the material going to come from and what’s it going to sound like? What kind of lyrics are we going to come up with? I mean, Kansas in the past, has always set a high bar. This was a new band that had never recorded together. This band had never recorded together with the new guys. It was just something that Zak just popped up out of nowhere and he started writing stuff and it was just really great. All of the challenges were met and I think the record sounds really good. I think Zak and Jeff Glixman did a great job of mixing it and it sounds great and the cover turned out really well. So I think overall, it is a Kansas record. There’s no doubt about it.”
It’s a beautiful reward for the band, 43 years into their journey, after a lengthy stretch where it appeared that their days of making new Kansas music might be finished.
“It’s really no secret that Steve just didn’t want to do anything new,” Ehart says. “I was over at his house one day and he just looked at me and said, ‘I’m done.’ He said, ‘I’m just done with new stuff. I’ve run out of gas.’ And I think that Steve had just run out creatively and that can happen, you know? It’s nothing personal. So we just kind of went with it. That’s the way it was. I think that’s where Native Window came from -- that was just the frustration of not being able to do anything with him, so we did stuff on our own. The four of us just went off and made our own album and that was fun. It was just a side project, but it kind of scratched an itch that needed to be scratched and then when Steve retired, we knew that door was pretty much open to move on and do whatever we wanted to do. Yeah, it was stifling at times, not to be able to be creative with new material. It was stifling, but things worked out and everybody’s fine. Steve is retired and we’ve moved on and that’s that.”
For Ehart, where they’ve arrived at with the current band and the new album is a moment that was more than worth the wait.
“Richard, Billy and Ragsdale, all four of us, we hung in there with Steve. We were a band and we hung in there,” he says. “But as time went on, Steve’s voice, he was able to sing less and less and he knew it and we knew it and we just knew it was a matter of time and he retired and that was that. So there was never any bad words or bad feelings or whatever. We did hang in there and we’re glad that we did. Now we’re glad that we’re where we are today.”
Kansas will be on the road this fall playing the classic Leftoverture album in its entirety and fans can also look forward to a hefty sampling of the new music as well.
“We’re going to be playing, I think, four or five songs from the new album and we’ve already picked those and started working on them,” Ehart says. “So yeah, that’s going to be an interesting tour, because it’s kind of mixing the old with the new, coming into see Leftoverture in its entirety, but at the same time, getting to hear some of the new stuff also. We feel like it’s going to be a very interesting tour for sure.”
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