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Progressive Rock Interviews

Kansas

Interviewed by Sonya Kukcinovich Hill
Interview with Rich Williams of Kansas from 2007
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 5 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Kansas is the kind of band that just seems to have incredible staying power despite personnel and organizational changes through the years, and sometimes against incredible odds with the music industry and the listening public. What are your thoughts on that?
Um, it’s…well, I guess it’s not the band that refused to die. It’s more that we’ve got a lot of fans that still support us. It’s what we like to do. It’s as simple as that, really. Our fans ask us to go places so we’re like, “Sure, let’s go!” Just be sure there’s a crowd. We love to do it and they love hearing us!
MSJ: xcellent. Progressive music has been a beacon of creativity even when it’s out of favor, and it’s probably largely due to the public’s lack of exposure to it by the music industry. Do you think that Kansas will stand the test of time into the future, and what do want the legacy of the band to be?
In thirty more years from now, who knows where music will be by then. I would imagine [we’ll stand that test.] A good song is a good song. Well, you know that “Dust In The Wind” and “Carry On” both just became iconic Kansas songs, and invariably they are timeless in a certain way. They mean something yesterday, today and tomorrow.
MSJ: I was on your website today, and you guys tour very rigorously. That has to indicate a great deal of passion after so many years. How do you keep your routine fresh and innovative?
Over a period of years, we’ve figured out how to do it without burning anybody out. Pretty much what we do is, instead of cramming a tour into four months, we just spread that out into a year. And, we stay a bit busier in the summer. But for the most part, I’ll leave on a Friday and then come home on Sunday. We fly everywhere and stay in nice hotels. We choose which gigs we want to play because we manage ourselves. And, so we take the torture out of it. So, it’s just jump on a plane, go to a gig and play! It’s…uh…I’ve tried real work, and this just isn’t it. No, this is…(laughs) it’s like, “What are you doing this weekend?” (Chuckles contentedly.) “I’m playing with Kansas!”
MSJ: Who are your greatest guitar influences over the years?
There’re so many, it’s sort of hard to pick….but, I always come back to the same thing. You take The Yardbirds and the three guitar players who came from there. You’ve got Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. And….boy, that covers a lot of bases. Um, you can branch off from any one of those and it can take you just about anywhere. And, obviously, Jeff Beck is the all-time greatest guitar player. He’s just got more on emotion-per-note than, you know, anybody I’ve ever heard. He’s got such a unique voice in the way he plays.
MSJ: I know some of the band doesn’t read music, yet the execution of your intricate pieces speaks volumes from a musical perspective. Now, how does the band retain each individual voice and input? Say, for example, when trading solo phrases…yet staying so tight on those long unison lines and through odd meter changes…..
Well…yeah…I’ve never read music. David Ragsdale…he played with the symphony and stuff, but he doesn’t lean on that in any way with us. He said that in working with some of the orchestras so many times, I’m not saying this to put a slam on orchestra players, but he said that as long as they have music they can play brilliantly, but if you took the sheet music away from many of them they would just stop. They wouldn’t know what to do. We’ve just learned that it’s all memory and then improvisation all the time. It’s playing by the feel of it a lot more instead of looking at what’s dictated on a piece of paper.
MSJ: I must say it all fits together with the songs, like masterpieces…just simply beautiful. What do think of the newer prog bands out there that seem to emulate Kansas to some degree in their style of writing, such as Spock’s Beard and Neal Morse.
I don’t find time to listen nearly as much as I should, or as much as I used to. What I have heard of his [Neal Morse’s] is very cool stuff - very, very good stuff.
MSJ: Any thoughts on the prog metal bands, such as Dream Theater, that seem to be gaining a new audience?
Dream Theater’s as good a band as you’re gonna get. Those guys are just incredible players. I don’t know, there seems to be…we’ve noticed a lot this year…it’s just, we’re gaining a much younger crowd all of a sudden. And, I attribute that to a lot of things, I guess. One would be we’ve been in a lot of movies over the last five years or so…the songs have been. And then with games like Guitar Hero II, every kid on the block has that; “Wayward Son” is on that. And, you know, between those things… and fifteen year old kids today grew up learning how to type on the internet. You know, record stores are dead. Record labels are dying. And, you know, radio is just a bunch of s***! When you’re twelve, and radio is…..you know, you’re being dictated to as to what is popular and what is cool and all that. A lot of kids today feel they do have a mind of their own and they probably think, “You know, I’m getting tired of all this.” And they grew up downloading off of the internet and they start searching for other things, and their friends do. All of a sudden they discover AC/DC and think, “This is great!” They start discovering all of this other music. It’s a whole wide open universe for them, which is fine. And we are part of that discovery.
MSJ: I like that answer. That’s an interesting way of looking at it. Any plans for a new studio recording any time soon?
Um, not a lot as Kansas, no. We’re trying to put together some seventies work for next year. If we do that, I’m sure at some point we’ll film it for DVD release. We are working on a different project called Naked Window right now, which is me, Phil, Billy and David.
MSJ: Tell me about that.
It’s just an opportunity for us to be something else - to not be Kansas, just to write some songs and record them real quick. It started off a little bit more acoustically, and a lot of it is. But, it’s electric, too. It’s just songs. With the expectations of a new Kansas album, we didn’t want to fight that. This is just a completely different other project. And we’re just having a lot of fun with it.
MSJ: That sounds exciting. How would you describe your playing, personally, and what does the future hold for Richard Williams?
Well, I’m a team player. I’m a band member. That’s what I’ve always been. It’s kind of “All for One and One for All,” or however that phrase goes. This is as good a year as we’ve ever had. We’re just having a blast. I don’t really foresee any change in that. I don’t have any aspirations of going solo. I don’t understand why anybody would really want to because, personally, I like the collaboration of band members. I don’t want to do it all myself. I’m not suffering and frustrated that all of the others are holding me back. I just continue doing what I’m doing. I like playing in the band.
MSJ: How do you feel about where progressive music as a whole is headed, and how involved is Kansas going to be in that direction?
Hmm…oh, boy, where is it headed? It’s just about off the radar, so it’s kind of hard to say. The people who know about it always have. Are people gonna find out about it again? In its heyday, you know, the late sixties and seventies, will it ever rise to anywhere near that peak again? Boy, if you hold onto an ugly suit long enough it comes into style again, eventually. I would hate to say that progressive music won’t come into fashion again. To that level? I just kind of have my doubts. I’m not being negative, just being realistic. That being said, what’s that band out of Canada?.... Arcade Fire. It’s popular because it’s something different again. It’s very ambitious stuff; there are lots of multiple instruments. Just a different approach; I don’t know why they have that one guy running around beating on the drum, but other than that, it’s pretty interesting stuff. So, there is a future, I just think it’s going to be more like a band here and a band there. I think the cream of the crop could probably really stand out, but back in those days there were how many great progressive bands? Gentle Giant, for example, what a phenomenal band. There was so much variety within it. It’s a different world now. People had the time to listen, had the time to absorb. Everything is just such a quick fix now. There are so many ways to entertain yourself that everyone’s attention span is just seconds long anymore.
MSJ: As great as technology can be for us, it just takes away a lot of the personal nature of it all. When we were younger and prog was big, you didn’t have to rely on all this other stuff….
We had more imagination then. You’re being bombarded now. I mean, to just sit down and read a book you had to let your imagination fill in the blanks. You go to a football game or a baseball game. I was at Yankee Stadium a couple of months ago, and every spare second in between you’re being blasted with media. It’s supposed to be a f***ing ballgame. I don’t need that. The powers-that-be think that we have to be entertained by some input constantly. And, I don’t think it’s doing anybody any good. Like, when I learned to play the guitar, it was not that hard to put hours a day in. What else was I gonna do? TV was off the air at midnight and there were three channels. There were no computers and any games that we played were played outside. And, so, playing guitar occupied a lot of time. And, I had plenty of it. Today, the kids want to learn to play, but it’s, “Show me how to play that.” Well, when are you going to learn the language for guitar? “Well, I don’t wanna do that; I just wanna play it!” They like the idea of playing it, but putting the effort of hours and hours into it is kind of an alien concept. They want it in an instant.
MSJ: What do you think about a place like Myspace for musicians and networking?
Well, I’ve been on Myspace because as far as some friends of mine, it’s the way they communicate now. And that’s fine. As far as all the music stuff, between Myspace and YouTube and all of those different things, this is where the record companies have always killed themselves. They always try to horde little things. You know, keep the technology away, and make sure you can’t do this or can’t do that. It’s killed them. As the technology comes, then you’d better embrace it, because your competition is. You just jump on board. It’s some pretty cool stuff. The whole idea of getting music downloads; this next project that we’re putting out, we’ll do the songs simultaneously as a download. We’d be silly not to. No one knows that better than the record stores, to be honest with you.
 
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