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Interview with Rich Williams of Kansas

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Rich Williams of Kansas
photos Sally Rosen Official Fan Club, Inc.

January 18, 2011. “Long before classic rock there was classic rock” guitarist Rich Williams told OFC describing the emergence of Kansas as a classical rock band.  Kansas celebrates their 35th anniversary with live symphonic DVD, There’s Know Place Like Home. Rich Williams, original guitarist of the legendary band, met with OFC Official Fan Club to share his candid and insightful perspective on the symphony tours, the genesis of Native Window, Kansas early years and how the band broke in to become one of the decade’s most popular rock bands and continues to garner instant recognition.



Good morning Rich. You will be performing in West Palm Beach later this week, are you here now in Florida or on the road or home?
We're all based in Atlanta; that's where I am today. And we're coming up the morning of the show.


Kansas after 35 years is still hugely popular with timeless hits  ‘Dust In the Wind’ and ‘Carry on Wayward Son’.  Countless gold records and platinum albums.  And there is a strong following of fans under 25 who immediately recognize the band Kansas and can name Kansas songs,  teens download  Kansas music on their iTunes. What do you attribute to band's resurgence in popular appeal with younger generations?
Well a lot of that comes from having a song on Guitar Hero. A lot of kids get to know us through that and natural curiosity and they're savvy with the internet and they get a little curious and do a little research to find out a little more about us. That’s been a big help. We have songs that have been in a lot of popular movies last several years. So those both put together put us a lot closer to the younger generation I think.


2010 was a remarkable year for Kansas. Mixed in with standard tour engagements, there was the ‘United We Rock’ tour with Styx and Foreigner, new side band Native Window and the altruistic and hugely successful Kansas Collegiate Symphony Tour. What was the highlight for you musically in 2010?
I think what we enjoyed the most was the collegiate tour which is what we are starting right back up in Manhattan, Kansas on the 28th with the symphony there. We’re getting right back up on the horse with the collegiate symphony for this coming year.



What are the symphony tours and what inspired the symphony tours for the band?
Well it is just reinventing ourselves since we did some symphony albums a couple years ago. We did an album with the London Symphony Orchestra and we've been doing symphony dates periodically since then. It’s something we really enjoy and we want to do more of and once we did the DVD, it's a lot easier to present this to colleges and say "here's what we do, we’ll come to your town and do this." It’s an effort really for the students. It’s sponsored by D'Addario and there's some scholarship funds involved with D'Addario donating to the colleges. All proceeds from it are left to the colleges for music programs. It’s kind of a way of giving back and that’s good but we enjoy doing it for ourselves. It’s something different to do and it’s helping to promote the DVD. It’s a win-win for everybody.


How do you donate the proceeds to the colleges and universities?
We share the profits from all of the merchandise we sell at the show with the college and music department. Some of the money comes at the gate which we share with them plus D'Addario donates a lot of strings and band equipment to the school’s music department. There’s a scholarship fund that’s donated. There’s a lot of perks for the college plus the educational factor for the students on-the-job training in a way they would never get without this opportunity.


Do you see a trend growing with symphony tours? Sting did a tour with the Royal Philharmonic but I have not seen other bands doing collegiate symphony tours. Is Kansas distinctive in collaborating with the colleges?
We're the first ones to do it, I don't know if anybody is going to follow it. I don’t really think of us being a trend setter in any way, we just enjoy playing with the symphonies whether it is a college date or playing with the city symphonies, we enjoy them both. Playing city symphonies is kind of a hard nut to crack. Their season is so far in advance, it's really hard to book a tour, we don't just boom boom boom boom get them to coordinate.  They go about things in a slow way. With colleges we had more luck in lining this up to have a string of dates.


How did you choose the universities for the tour?
Well we put the feeders out there to dozens and dozens of colleges. Some say “we don't care for this at all,” some say they’re interested and some say they’re interested a lot. It’s a lot of coordination to get it from the thought to the actual event. You start out with 50 and end up with 12, it's not really up to us, it’s up to the school and their music department whether or whether not they're interested in doing it. If it was up to us, we'd be playing them all.




The symphony tour is truly altruistic as you described. Have you thought of extending the tour to include other progressive rock bands?
It's a nice thought and concept but not reality. It’s hard enough to get this stuff coordinated with just ourselves, to get involved with another band and all the headaches that comes with them, their management, their record company, them getting all their charts together, all that, I think that's more than we would ever want to chew on. It would be great if you could do it. It’s not like you're showing up and playing a show. There's so much that goes into a symphony show. Months in advance, weeks in advance, days before the show, there's a lot of things that need to happen to make this all work.  Another band in the mix, I think it would become too painful.


New side band Native Window opened for Kansas in 2010. Which Kansas band members are in Native Window?
Four of the five of us. They're no keys. Steve Walsh is not on it. It's the Kansas guys minus Steve Walsh. It's guitar, violin, drums and Billy Greer our bass player is the singer for Native Window. If Steve were in it, it’d be Kansas and we really wanted to just take the Kansas hat off and do something different, so musically we approached it differently. We didn't want to make another Kansas record, we would have done just that. So it was an endeavor in doing something different and see what else we could come up with.


Were you going for a Derek and the Dominos affect, in a sense trying to dip your toes in the water by introducing a new band not attaching the Kansas name to it directly or overtly to see the reaction?
We didn’t know what it was going to be. We had no idea. We had some thoughts in the past, what if we put together a band that opened for ourselves and it was born out of our fans requests. We'd be playing at a local performing arts center and a local band playing cover songs would be the opening act.  Fans would say “guys, we could go the Holiday Inn and see these guys” and all of the sudden we are in this concert with this cover band and we’d hear these complaints. Then we'd said “well, what if.” We started to take it a little more seriously and say “well, what if we did an opening act” and next step was “what would we play.” We'd have to write our own material and if we go to that trouble, we'd probably want to record it. This is the thought process until finally we went in the studio and started writing material. We didn't know what it was going to be but we knew it was not going to be Kansas. That was the Golden Rule and if we start turning that way, we got to turn it around and go somewhere else with it.


Do you have a favorite song from the album?
Oh, one of my favorites was because it was the last song we did was "Blood In The Water."  It was in listening to the album, we needed a little rougher sounding song, a little bit more bluesy influenced, a little more guts to it and we got ideas. One of us would say “well, I got this one little riff… well ok” and then we started brain storming and a couple of hours later we had this song. It was a lot of fun to be a part of the process of taking something out of thin air and as a group sitting down and turning it into something. It was a wonderful process.



Is Native Window going to tour again in 2011 and open up for Kansas?
We're done with that.  It's something we wanted to do, we did it and now we're done with it.  It's hard to coordinate these things, it's really up to the promoter who if anybody is going to be opening the show. And we can't say we're coming to town and we're opening for ourselves and that's the way it is. You can't dictate that. It's their venue, it's their money they’re spending and they pretty much tell you who's going to bill for the show. So to get multiple dates with us opening was really hard to do. It’s a whole different set up with a whole different monitoring system, lights in different places, it's hard to just jump out and do it, like every 4th week we have a show. Because it takes rehearsals, you can't a month later go do one. It just became too many one time rehearsals just to do one show. We were concerned about quality control.  We don’t want to start playing one show every other month and start to stink because we haven’t had enough practice time. So we're like we've done this, it was great and now let's put it to bed.


I have seen Kansas described as classic rock, progressive rock. And I think of progressive rock more as jazz infusion rock.  And then I think of Kansas and there are strong elements of classical.  What genre do you consider Kansas to be?
Well I guess it's all up to interpretations. For progressive rock, parts of Kansas fits into that to some extent. Long before classic rock there was classic rock, the review was written on us and the guy was calling us classical rock and I thought, that fits pretty good. Very much of our stuff does have a classical influence.


When Kansas debuted in the early 70’s, many of the progressive bands did not have high popular appeal. With the exception of a handful like Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd and Yes, many progressive bands were underground or what we call the Indies today. What inspired or influenced you to follow an innovative progressive / classical rock road with your music? Was it considered a risk at the time from music marketing perspective or were there predecessors who broke the ice for bands like Kansas?
Well, yeah there were people but it's not like we sat around with a marketing scheme; that gives us a whole lot more credit. We're just a bunch of guys in a band. And we had our fill of cover band playing hits of the day. We were playing clubs, we were writing our own material, and I think what drew us all together, we didn't want to sing songs about cars and girls, and we didn’t want to play in a format that is just your typical structure. What caught our ear was more things happening progressive and the progressive venue. So even when we’re having to play cover songs and playing in bars, we were a terrible cover band. We never learned it the way it was suppose to be done. You know, you would hear “you need to go see this band, it sounds just like the record”. Well we never sounded anything like it, we always just played it our way. If we didn't like the middle, we'd change it. If we didn't like the tempo, we'd change it. If it was all acoustic, whatever, we just did it the way we heard it. And at the time we were just a rock cover band but in perspective what we were really doing is fine tuning and defining us and that really paid off when we started doing just our own material. We already had a new sound.  We just got together and sounded like us. We threw six guys together and this is how we played together. This is the sound we created. It wasn't a think tank, we didn't imagine this and then create it; just six guys from Kansas playing together (laugh).



It is not easy for bands to stay together for 35 plus years. What has been your biggest challenge as a band?
The biggest challenges we hurdled about 25 years ago. People came and left and came back. After about 10 years people wanted to take it somewhere else or do something else or go on. Some of us wanted to continue on and some of us didn't. After that hurdle, there're not really any surprises, Phil or Steve are not just going to come up to us and say "I can't just live with that, I quit!" (laugh). We've been doing this too long, we've gone through all the rough spots. It's actually very easy now to do what we do. We manage ourselves which makes it a lot easier, we don't have any outside pressure, our souls are not signed away with any record label, so we pretty much do whatever we want when we want. And we’re all on the same page, we want to continue doing this. It's a lot easier now then when we were younger.


Kansas ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ is now on Guitar Hero II and Rock Band II.  As a guitarist, were you engaged in the creative process? And if so, what was that experience like?
They contact the record company, they want to use a song and you say okay. That's basically it. At the time we didn't know how big it was going to be. Most people don't seem to understand, that's not us.  It's all rerecorded by studio musicians. The song writer makes a wad of money from all of this. But since it's not the band, the band doesn't get anything. A lot of people talk about it year after year (laugh), I don't get paid. There are no royalties on there for me and it’s not Kansas on there and I didn't write it.


As a guitarist and a guitar legend yourself, are there any other guitar legends that you admire as a musician?
My favorite's Jeff Beck. He is "it" for me, there's nobody better. Eric Johnson, I've seen him a few times, those two guys are just monster guitar players. To watch them play, it's half inspirational and half extremely depressive to watch. The mastery of instrument that they have, I could play for 20 hours a day for the rest of my life and never touch those people. It's very inspirational and it's very depressing to watch at the same time (laugh).




As a veteran in the music world you have seen the evolution of web and music. What are your views of the paradigm shift in the music media business and how do you feel when you see classic song hits covered by new pop or hip hop bands and re-engineered with auto tuners and synthesizers and snippets of songs infused into a completely different song? Do you view it as a compliment to the artist?  What are your thoughts?
A cover in a sense is complimentary. I don't know.  I grew up where a band is a band. Before I was old enough to pick up a guitar, I was inspired by local bands in the Kansas area. Soul bands, 8 pieces of brass doing soul revues. That was exciting to me. To me it is a live living breathing thing and the excitement of those things. Throwing together things they do now, it's just not the same. It's more of an act.  If you want to see a band, go see the Allman Brothers - that's a band! These guys have been playing together since the 70's, they're not an act, they're the real thing. And that's the kind of the school I come from. I like my music real. Not that a lot of stuff out today is not good, it's not my cup of tea. I rather see some guy sitting there sweating into the lights, and playing what they've done for last 8 nights in a row, and will continue to play the next 200 nights and next couple years.  That's where it gets real for me. There's more to it than glamour, lights, huge crowds and hoopla.  Just more of the blue collar approach to it all.



What is scheduled for the band’s 2011 tour?

01-20 - West Palm Beach, FL South Florida Fair

01-28 - Manhattan, KS Kansas State University
That’s a symphony date

03-18 - Collingswood, NJ  Scottish Rite Theater
This is a make up date from show cancelled last year

03-19 - Lynn, MA Lynn Memorial
There are new shows going on the books today. We’re going to Europe in June with Journey and Foreigner.  That goes on the books today on the website. 12 or 16 college dates. It’s going to be a busy year.



Fans can find the 35th Anniversary Live Symphonic DVD ‘There’s Know Place Like Home’ in blu-ray on Amazon and fans can access Kansas music and news on Thank you Rich. It has been a pleasure and a privilege!

Just Announced!  Kansas to play Mililwaukee Summerfest!


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