“People don’t realise the depth and diversity on the rest of the material. If you’re a Yes or Genesis devotee, this band should be on your radar”: Kansas’ image problem means even a future member struggled to discover them

(Image credit: Emily Butler Photography)

Kansas’ 2020 release The Absence Of Presence was their second album in four years. It seemed as if the band were on a roll after 16 years of studio inactivity; and part of that seemed to be down to recent recruit Zak Rizvi, who’d taken on lead guitar, production and writing chores. Rizvi departed in 2021 and Kansas haven’t released any studio material since. But before he moved on in 2020, he told Prog about his involvement in their creative burst.

“We felt like The Beatles!” Kansas guitarist Zak Rizvi is very nearly speechless as he recalls the band performing at Comic-Con back in 2017. “There were these 5,000 kids screaming and going mental for us. Just shows you what being associated with a big TV show can do for you.”

For those wondering what Rizvi is talking about, Kansas got the opportunity to play at the mega entertainment convention because their 1977 single Carry On Wayward Son has become a staple part of the soundtrack for hit fantasy TV series Supernatural. The show follows two brothers as they fight demons, angels and the Devil himself against a classic rock soundtrack. And it’s given Kansas a major boost.

“I assume that someone within the Supernatural production team is a Kansas fan, and that’s how the song came to be used. I have to say we were not happy when asked to play at this event in San Diego, because we had a show in New Jersey the next night. But they offered to pay the costs for the flight to the East Coast. We only performed the one song, but it was an amazing experience.”

The series has introduced Kansas to a younger generation of fans, and that’s something for which Rizvi – who is also the band’s producer and principal songwriter – is very grateful. “Looking out now, and seeing so many young faces at our gigs means we’re not just a nostalgia trip for fans who’ve been following the band for decades.”

Yet, despite the fact that Kansas have had a hugely successful career in the US, in the process having four Top 20 albums (two of which have sold close to five million copies each) and four Top 20 singles, they seem to be rather undervalued compared to the likes of Styx. Both bands played a pioneering role in the development of progressive music in the States during the 70s. However, while the former get the accolades and credit for their influence, the role Kansas have played is almost overlooked.

“I know,” sighs Rizvi, who joined the band in 2016. “A lot of people only seem to know who we are because of the hits like Carry On Wayward Son and Dust In The Wind. What they don’t realise is the depth and diversity on the rest of the material. Anyone who loves progressive music should particularly enjoy the early albums from Kansas. If you are a Yes or Genesis devotee, then this band should be on your radar.”

And Rizvi admits that it took him some while to appreciate what Kansas have to offer for a progressively inclined listener. “When I was a lot younger, I thought Kansas were a southern rock band, or even a country and western one. That’s because all I’d heard were the singles played on the radio. And there are so many who still think this is what the band are all about.

“When I was 15 I discovered Rush, and then four months later I started to listen to Kansas. And from then on, I wanted only to hear these two bands. As far as I was concerned, they blew everyone else away. For the next three or four years all I would play were Rush and Kansas records. And they were so inspirational.

“The first five Kansas albums – the self-titled debut [1974], Song For America [’75], Masque [also ’75], Leftoverture [’76], Point Of Know Return [’77] – are my favourites. I guess those are the obvious ones to choose, but they are in my blood. I may have wanted to move into studio production rather than be in a band myself when I was starting out, but this band’s music has always motivated me.”

Rizvi has now seemingly become a driving force for the band, being the main songwriter and also handling the production side. “I wouldn’t say that I am the creative hub of the band. Phil Ehart [drums] and Rich Williams [guitar] – the two remaining founder members – should be given the credit for that. Especially Phil, who also now manages us.

“I have to admit that I’m not very good at motivating myself to write. I have to be pushed. Phil did that to me in January 2017. He called and told me that I needed to start preparing material for the next studio record.”

Considering that the previous one, The Prelude Implicit, only came out in 2016, that does seem to be rather rushing things. “Not really. We’d released that album in April of that year and then did a lot of touring. But both Phil and Rich were anxious to keep the creative side going. They are both very keen to carry on recording new music. I know there are a lot of older bands these days who feel it’s not worth their while to put out anything new, because the fans aren’t interested. That’s not the way we operate.

“This band are also lucky that we can record an album on a small budget. It’s all done at my studio so costs can be kept right down. And we have a genuine desire to get fresh songs out there. Everyone in the band understands we won’t sell millions of copies and make our fortune. However, that won’t prevent us from following our musical instincts. It keeps us from just becoming a band who are content to play the old stuff all the time.”

Rizvi admits that these days Kansas do an album very differently from the way things were done in their 70s heyday. “Back then, the band could afford to spend two or three months in an expensive rehearsal space working out all the songs. And then take their time in a huge recording studio. 

Certain members felt they had nothing more to offer. As far as they were concerned it’s all been done. When you have this lethargy, it can ruin a band

“Now, it has to be different. I’m a planner, so I work out the arrangements for the songs as they’re written. I then demo these and send them to each member of the band for their comments. If they want to make any changes then that’s fine by me. There are no egos with us. We all co-operate to ensure the best possible results.

“We tour so much that we have to set aside a specific time to go into the studio. Obviously, the last thing we want to do is take a long break from the road, because that’s how we earn money. So the album was done in July and August last year. We recorded for about four weeks, took time out to do some shows and then went back into the studio for three more weeks.”

The result is The Absence Of Presence, the 16th Kansas studio album, and one that finely balances a nod to the classic style of the 70s with a modern feel. “As a long-standing fan, I can’t help but tap into what’s gone before. But as a producer I’m mindful of making things relevant to 2020.”

The new album is the first to feature current keyboard player Tom Brislin (Yes, The Sea Within), and Rizvi believes the musician has been a crucial addition. “Tom’s been amazing. He replicates the classic Kansas keyboard sound so brilliantly that it’s hard to believe he’s only been in the band a short time. Moreover, he’s a good songwriter.

“I was running out of steam on that side, so he stepped in and not only came up with three complete songs but also added lyrics to four tracks I already had. He took a load off my shoulders and saved the day. Next time I think he’ll become even more involved on that side.”

When a band such as this one have been going for so long they can become stagnant and a little complacent. So the injection of fresh blood can be a life saver. “Yes, that’s true with us,” says Rizvi. “There have been certain members who have felt they had nothing more to offer. As far as they were concerned, it’s all been done. When you have this lethargy, it can ruin a band. So, it’s important to bring in exciting new talent. I believe this is what’s really helped to keep Kansas interesting.”

The band were in the middle of their hugely successful Point Of Know Return tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of that album’s release when the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down. But they’re very much hoping that the European tour this autumn will still go ahead. The dates include one UK show at the prestigious London Palladium.

It’ll be their first appearance in the country since they controversially pulled the European leg of their 2017 tour. The band claimed this decision was made due to advice from the US government, because of safety concerns following the London Bridge terror attack that June. However, no other American bands followed suit and back then it left something of a bad impression. Was there an ulterior motive in Kansas’ decision?

“Not at all. I can honestly tell you this was the only reason we didn’t go over. And we were all devastated at not being able to play. But I realise a lot of people didn’t believe what we said. I got a lot of hate mail and our reputation was tarnished. I hope we can make it up to fans at the Palladium.”

This tour will probably now stretch into 2021, as some North American shows had to be postponed due to the virus lockdown. “About 30 gigs will need rescheduling,” Rizvi explains, “and we may even carry on beyond that if the demand is there. When we did the same sort of tour to celebrate Leftoverture, we thought there would be maybe 15 dates, but we did over 100. Will there be a live release from the tour? We record every show, so that’s possible. But so far nothing’s been discussed.”

And let’s not forget that 2023 will mark the band’s 50th anniversary. Might we expect some sort of fanfare release or tour to coincide with it? “We haven’t talked about this yet, but as a fan I would love it. So I will push very hard for something to happen.”

As for the possibility of great names from the band’s history returning to help in these celebrations, Rizvi is clearly very passionate at the prospect. “Kerry Livgren [the band’s original guitarist, and a member during four separate periods] turns up occasionally to play Dust In The Wind live with us.

“And we sometimes bump into Robbie Steinhardt [who was to pass away in 2021].  We don’t see anything of Steve Walsh [keyboard player from 1973-81 and 1985-2014], but there’s no bad blood.

“It would be wonderful to see them and others involved somehow,” he adds. “They are all a part of what has made Kansas who we are today.”

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021