Kansas continues to please fans -- and
By Naughty Mickie
Photos Courtesy www.kansasband.com
The list of hits is like turning the pages of a photo album for many Kansas fans. With a span of 30 years, each song easily takes you back to a moment in your life. Almost everyone can remember the first time they heard "Dust in the Wind" or sang along with "Carry On Wayward Son." If you don't, then you need to take some time to listen to these steps along the path of music history.
In 2003, the band saw the release of "The Ultimate Kansas" (Epic/Legacy Recording) a two-CD retrospective, as well as the DVD "Device Voice Drum" (Compendia Music). This meant yet another criss-crossing of tours for vocalist/keyboarding Steve Walsh, vocalist/violinist Robby Steinhardt, guitarist Richard Williams, vocalist/bassist Billy Greer and drummer Phil Ehart.
I managed to get some time with Ehart, who I asked to take me back to when the group first got together.
"Well, ah, gee, I don't know if I can think back that far," Ehart teases. "I mean, heck, all four of us went to high school together and we grew up in Topeka, Kansas and that's where the band was formed. We just all knew of each other in a small little town."
"So it was just something to do?" I offer.
"Yeah," Ehart agrees. "At 15 and 16 you play in a band and you're hoping to meet girls and stuff like that. It was fun to do. But by the time we were 19 and 20, your value systems change there and you think, 'Oh my gosh, I could actually maybe do this for a living.' And by the time we were 23 we had signed our recording deals."
Ehart took to percussion naturally.
"I think everybody starts out on drums. Everybody plays around with a drum set at one time or another. It was something I seemed to be better at than the guy next door. By 16 I was already making a lot more money than my friends sacking groceries and so I thought, 'Well, I'll just keep doing this.' None of us, except for Robby our violinist, are formally trained or really had any lessons, most of us are self-taught," Ehart confides. "I started playing probably in second or third grade just beating on pots and pans and books and things like that. I was just born with natural rhythm, so I just started playing on stuff, playing along with Beatles' records and things like that."
Talent put education on the back burner for most of the band.
"No college for us. I take that back, our bass player Billy Greer's got a degree in something and we always kid him about how much good it's done. It was one of those things where we decided to give it a shot and if it didn't work out maybe go back to college, but by 23 we were up and gone and making records," Ehart says.
For Ehart, music is and has been his life.
"I've never had a job," Ehart tells me. "I've been very fortunate, yes. Doing what I like to do. There's a lot of people, even people with day jobs, who I'm sure enjoy what they do and they don't look it as a job. But playing in a band that's a misnomer-- 'playing' in a band, you obviously work in a band if you play in a band. It is work and we've worked hard over the years to create this music and maintain the fan base and go out and play. Being away from home isn't always everything it's cracked up to be, that's work too.
"I guess a number of years ago they did a survey of a lot of traveling businessmen and how they considered traveling as part of the job," Ehart goes on. "And yes, it is. It can be very tiresome and lonely and it is work."
Since Kansas has managed to make their living with their music, you would think that they have lots of time for other interests.
"Most of us have kids, so that takes up time. Some of us golf, some of us fish, some of us do nothing. I have two little kids, I have a five-year-old (boy) and a seven-month-old baby (girl) so that takes up a lot of my time," Ehart shares. "But I also manage the group and my spare time at home is always managing the band and what we're doing and what's going on with the band. And I like to golf and things like that, but mainly it's family and band."
We discuss Ehart's children and he sums up, "They definitely are a gift from God, they're pretty incredible things."
Another misnomer about Kansas is that they're just making their money off some old hits.
"The writers continue to write all the time. We're preparing to do a new album hopefully next year so we're starting to get the songs heard and arranged and some of them we hope to be playing live before we record the new CD. Writing is a continual process with Kansas, it seems to go on, as well as playing the gigs and rehearsing and doing what we do," Ehart says. "Steve Walsh writes a lot of the stuff for our band and Kerry Livgren wrote the entire last album we did, 'Somewhere to Elsewhere,' he wrote that album a couple of years ago. So it switches back and forth."
I ask Ehart why many critics misunderstood Kansas when they first arrived on the scene.
"We were really too different for everybody. We came from out of the Mid-West at a time when there was a lot of new stuff going on. You had the West Coast sound with Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and at the same time you had Chicago and their kind of big band sound and you had Santana and you had the Alman Brothers with their jam band stuff," states Ehart. "So then you had these guys from Topeka, Kansas coming out of nowhere who wore overalls and had a violinist and had very odd time signatures.
"A lot of people tried to compare us to British bands, but we didn't really compare well to British bands, we had two guitars and we were much more aggressive than a lot of English bands. We weren't quite as pompous as they were." Ehart continues, "They just couldn't put us in a pigeon hole, that's what I believe. I just don't think we didn't fit in there very well so they just forgot about us or didn't review us at all or just didn't like us.
"But we've never been much of a critical darlings of the media-- we were never really good looking guys and nobody really dated any models or anything like that. And we weren't really rock stars, we were successful musicians and that was something I had a hard time with. We weren't really on Epic Records, we were on Don Krischner Records, a subsidiary of Epic Records, so we were the step-sisters or step-child there. We were really hard to figure out, probably still are to this day. That's just what happened to us," Ehart concludes.
But what gave these overall-wearin' Mid-Westerners staying power?
"'Dust in the Wind,' 'Carry On Wayward Son' 'Point of no Return' and a lot of those songs are played every day in every town or city in the country. It's some place, classic rock radio or adult radio or whatever, we're playing. I think that's helped us a lot, the continuing airplay of our catalog," Ehart responds.
"I think that being the radio staple that we are, we are a staple of radio, and the ability for us to always play, we've just always been a really good live band. People, I think, respect us for that. I think we're just living in a little corner by ourselves and we just exist with our airplay and our gigs and we don't really bother anybody, we just do what we do." Ehart goes on, "We're kind of a musicians' band and I think musicians respect us and that's great to have the respect of your peers. We just really do the best that we can without making too many waves."
We discuss Kansas' live performances, a few which I have seen.
"We're definitely a rock band, we're pretty loud and we play loudly. 'Dust in the Wind' kind of fakes you out, we're not like that too much, but we enjoy playing," Ehart says.
I ask him his thought on the rest of the music scene.
"There's a lot of great stuff out there and a lot of stuff that isn't quite so great, but that's the way it's always been in any of today's music scene. There's stuff that has an enduring quality to it and other stuff that will be gone tomorrow. There's some great musicians, great players out there. There's people that aren't quite so great. But as long as there's an audience," Ehart offers.
"I think you have to be careful as you grow older as a musician that you don't turn into your dad and take pot shots at everything that's a lot younger," Ehart continues. "We try to be careful of that. We try to look actually look at stuff honestly and see if it does have some musical staying power, a kind of a musical merit to it, and a lot of that stuff does. But then again any generation you look at is going to have great stuff and other stuff that disappears tomorrow."
Like many bands, the Internet has been good for Kansas.
"The Internet has helped us a lot with our Web site as far as getting information to our fans. They come to kansasband.com and kansasband.com really gives them what the band has done, what the band is up to, shows them our tour dates, anything special that's going on and it that regard it really helps us to keep our fans apprised as to what we're doing," Ehart says. "As far as anything else, then there are some people that have Kansas chat sites and fans can go there and talk about the band, which is great, which I didn't have 10 years ago. That's about it for us, it doesn't really affect us too much other than that."
I would be remiss if we didn't talk about "Device Voice Drum," Kansas' DVD.
"We worked hard on that," Ehart begins. "It was something we had never done before and it was a real challenge for us, especially shooting it in film. That made it a real challenge to sit down as a band and sit down and go, 'We're not going to do this in video like everybody else, we're going to do it in film.' We became moviemakers without really intending to, it's a real responsibility.
"It took about a year and a half to put it all together and we are very proud of it. It was a one shot thing where we brought in people around the world to this small venue here in Atlanta and shot it all. It had to happen, this isn't the kind of thing that I could break an arm or Steve could lose his voice, we all had to be there that day and we all had to make it work. So there was a lot of pressure from that point. Then, what did we get on film? How did it turn out? Because after we were done shooting everyone went home so it's not like I can go back in and shoot it again," Ehart continues. "It's all one take-- one show. We were very pleased with it and happy with the way the animation turned out and the behind-the-scenes stuff that we did, the artwork on the front, we were very proud of it."
The future is still shining for Kansas.
"Next year is our 30th anniversary of recording, our first album came out in '74 and next year will be 2004. Somebody wants to do some five-to-one surround re-mixing on 'Point of no Return' and 'Left Overture.' They want to do that on some of our bigger albums," Ehart says. "We're hoping to have a new album out with new material and to continue touring.
"We're very thankful to be here 30 years later, we know that's not a real common thing for rock bands. And we try not to be a cliche or a jukebox of ourselves, we try to create new music. As of 30 years ago, we try to look at it as a creative vantage point versus just going out and regurgitating the same old songs over and over again." Ehart goes on, "Now we're not accepted like that near as much as like an Aerosmith or a Bruce Springsteen or any of those and those bands have been around pretty much as long as we have. Some bands have just retained their commercial viability much better than we have.
"We haven't been able to do that because we were never that commercially successful to begin with, we were never really considered a 'hit band,' we never had lots of hits. But we've tried to maintain our musicianship and our musical credibility. We hope that that's still there; the DVD proves to people that we are viable and still very much real today." Ehart adds. "You can't spend your time spinning your wheels hoping that radio is going to rediscover Kansas, hit radio, that isn't going to happen. We know that and so, like I said, we stay in our own corner and do the stuff that we do best, which is create Kansas music."
Many bands have come and gone during Kansas' 30-year span and quite a few have reunited and are back trying to rekindle old flames. Kansas never left.
"We had about a two year break. From about '83 to '85, we just took a two year sabbatical because we were tired from the last 15 years of doing stuff. That's when our 'Best Of' album came out and we rode on that for a while. We've never really gone away because this is what we do and what we like to do and hopefully people will come see us play," Ehart grins.
See music history that's still being made. Find Kansas info at www.kansasband.com
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