Kansas on music, departed band members and being better than Aerosmith

Kansas band group shot

Despite having survived as a touring entity, the last decade and a half saw stagnant times for Kansas. With chief songwriter Kerry Livgren absent from the US prog rock stalwarts since the turn of the millennium, 2000’s Somewhere To Elsewhere seemed like their final will and testament.

However, this notions has now been rendered premature by a new album The Prelude Implicit, Kansas’s first studio release in 16 years. As original drummer Phil Ehart now reveals, the retirement of co-founding lead singer and co-writer Steve Walsh in 2014 has reinvigorated Kansas – and nobody’s more surprised than they are.

In 2005 you told Classic Rock: “Without Kerry Livgren or Steve Walsh writing material, it’s unlikely there will be another Kansas album.” And yet now we have The Prelude Implicit.

Sixteen years later, who knew that there could be a new record? But as the new line-up solidified it quickly became evident that we sounded like [the] Kansas [of old], which opened up a whole range of possibilities.

So who did write the album?

Zak [Rizvi, guitarist] was hired as the producer but ended up responsible for most of the material, in collaboration with others. He’s such a talented guy we asked ourselves why he wasn’t in the band, a situation we later addressed [laughs].

After a partnership of 41 years, how did Walsh’s retirement affect you?

It was very emotional, on Steve’s side and ours, too.

By the end, the fans were grumbling about the deterioration of Walsh’s voice. Presumably the band knew that?

Of course. Steve was also aware that he was losing his ability to sing. He wasn’t happy with himself and we hung in there with him as long as we could until he decided he couldn’t do it anymore.

Is it true that you sounded out Walsh’s early-80s replacement John Elefante about coming back again?

We talked to John but he wanted to spend some time thinking about it. After a week there was still no answer, and if he really wanted to do it then it shouldn’t have been that hard to decide.

Your new singer, Ronnie Platt, has been in melodic rockers Shooting Star and a covers band from Chicago. How did you become aware of him?

We were fortunate to find him singing Kansas songs on YouTube. He had the high tenor voice we wanted and he played keyboards. We didn’t even need to officially audition him. We knew right away he was our guy.

Platt’s voice is a natural fit, but inevitably there have been some haters insisting Kansas without Walsh just isn’t Kansas.

I understand that, and we have a lot to prove with this record. Are we still Kansas without Steve or Kerry? I honestly believe the new music will validate that.

Rhythm In The Spirit, Refugee and The Voyage Of Eight Eighteen are all signature-sounding Kansas tunes. It’s prog rock, but very hummable.

That’s how Kerry wrote, too, and it’s one of our strengths. Our tunes are complicated but, like you say, you can always hum along to them. It’s what makes us Kansas.

The Unsung Heroes even doffs its cowboy hat at The Eagles.

Yeah. That one’s a little unusual for us, but it’s a very cool song.

This autumn the band will play their breakthrough album, 1976’s Leftoverture, in its entirety on a North American tour. Any European dates planned?

Yeah, we’re already in discussions about coming over next summer, maybe for festivals but also for a number of theatres. With the Leftoverture songs, a chunk of the new record and the standards we’re obliged to play it will be a more than two-hour show. Quite a few of those, including Questions Of My Childhood will never before have been performed live.

Is it fair to say Kansas received some kudos from different areas for 2015’s documentary movie Miracles Out Of Nowhere?

Yeah, we definitely did. We decided to concentrate on just the first five records [released between 1974 and 1977] rather than get into the ugliness – a bunch of grown men yelling at each other – and it’s a great story. A band coming out of a small town, Topeka, Kansas, being picked up by an entertainment mogul [Don Kirshner] and going on to sell millions of records against the odds. Our record sales and live audiences definitely grew as a result of that.

Its highlights include the tale of Steven Tyler frantically trying to cut the band short at an early show opening for Aerosmith?

We were – and still are – huge fans of Aerosmith, so it was a thrill to get to play with those guys. But we were warned to be careful. Steven would often pull the plug if a support act went down too well, and, sure enough, that’s what happened. But there’s no bad blood as a result and it gave us a very funny story to tell.

In the grand scheme of things, don’t Kansas deserve more respect?

It’s a good question, and maybe that’s correct. People know Carry On Wayward Son [the hit from Leftoverture] and Dust In The Wind [from 1977’s Point Of Know Return] but The Prelude Implicit is our 15th album. In a lot of ways we’re a forgotten band, but with the movie being repeated a lot on VH1 that seemed to change. Now, of course, it’s all about the new band so we hope that the reawakening will continue.

Carry On Wayward Son was the second most played track on US classic rock radio in 1995 and had logged more than two million downloads. Does the song being used in the cartoon South Park or the comedy movie Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy in any way demean composer Kerry Livgren’s message of purity?

Who knows? We know what the lyrics mean and we’re respectful of what Kerry wrote, but we’re just flattered that people still like it enough to want to use it. And at the same time, we laugh at ourselves just as much as any other band might. We always ensure that those references are never derogatory; it’s just people having fun with the music, and we’ve no problem with that.

The Prelude Implicit is released via InsideOut Music on September 23.

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