Kansas Guitarist Richard Williams Confirms New Album Plans: Exclusive Interview
Kansas have weathered a number of changes throughout their 42-year history. So it’s not too surprising that when singer Steve Walsh announced last year that he would be leaving, the band quickly regrouped and decided to carry on with new singer Ronnie Platt at the helm.
As drummer Phil Ehart told Ultimate Classic Rock in an interview earlier this year, they have a very specific focus on what they do that helps to keep things in perspective.
“It’s really how we look at the band Kansas. We don’t look at it as fans,” he said. “We look at it as the creators and performers of the music. It’s about the music to us. That’s why we continue on, because it’s about the music. From the beginning of the band, it’s been about the music. It hasn’t been about anybody in the band.
“The songs and the music far outdistance the band now. The songs are bigger than the band. So, people know the songs. They don’t know who sang it,” Ehart explained. “They don’t know that Kerry Livgren wrote it. They don’t know that Robby Steinhardt played violin on it. They don’t even care.”
In a new conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock, guitarist Richard Williams expands on Ehart’s thoughts. “I guess that’s the difference of being a band instead of being an artist — it’s kind of like being on a team,” he says. “Growing up in Topeka, for some reason, there was always a Yankees game on and there wasn’t a Kansas City team in the [early] ‘50s. I became a Yankees fan. Well, Yogi Berra isn’t catching for them anymore. Mickey Mantle is no longer out in the outfield. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be a fan of that. The Allman Brothers, what a band — in all incarnations of that band. You know, that’s a team I like — Team Allman Brothers, I’m on it. I’m good with that, whatever that is.
“I understand also the purists that [say] ‘Yes isn’t Yes anymore,’ because I’m as big of a Yes fan as anybody and to see the Fragile-era of Yes, that’s my dream team there,” Williams continues. “So I understand when someone says, ‘Well, it’s not Yes anymore.’ Well, things change and things evolve. It’s kind of old and fuddy-duddy to not roll with change, I guess. You know, we used to ride around in carriages and then finally the automobile came along. A lot of people bought that. Things just change — accept it and move on or not. I’m more of a half-full glass type of person, rather than sitting around grumbling about the what-ifs and the way it used to be kind of thing.”
As soon as Walsh gave the band the news that he wanted to step away, Platt was one of the first people that came to mind as somebody who could possibly fill the slot.
“I had met him a time or two — he’d come to a show and I just became aware of him. Then we were playing the Moondance Jam up in Minnesota about five years ago and Shooting Star, a band out of Kansas City, was also playing that day and I just went over to see how it was going with them,” Williams recalls. “The singer was just commanding the stage and just killing it and really had the crowd in the palm of his hand and I was going, ‘Where did they find this guy? Who is this?’ That was Ronnie. It really left an impression on me. You know, this guy is good — a strong singer and really good frontman and you know, good for them.
“Fast forward to last August when Steve decided that it was time to retire. Again, change is always difficult, but Phil and I have learned to adapt to change over the years, just confident, knowing that there is something good on the other side of it if you just keep taking the next step. We go, ‘That Ronnie Platt guy, what is he doing?’
“With YouTube, it’s so easy to find stuff that he’d performed and we said, ‘This guy is great! Let’s meet with him.’ So we flew Ronnie in and at that time, we knew that he had the chops,” Williams remembers. “It was really important to meet the guy. I mean, you can have the best singer, the best guitar player, the best drummer, the best bass player on the planet in the band — that doesn’t really guarantee you anything.
“You might have four d—heads that can’t get along with each other or anybody else, for that matter,” he explains. “It’s really important to find out that here’s a guy that we can work with and travel with and write with — all of the things that are involved besides just being on stage — we knew he could do that.
“So we met with him and talked about music for about 10 minutes and then we spent the rest of the day just being band guys. He was just exactly like some guy I hung around in the music store in Topeka in the week when we weren’t playing at a bar somewhere. He was just one of us. And it was an important step to know that about him. You couldn’t find a nicer guy — I mean, we hit the jackpot with Ronnie.”
New music is next on the agenda for the band, who will do some initial pre-production in June and then they’ve mapped out January and February of next year to begin recording. “We’re starting to assemble [things], you know, putting ideas together,” Williams says. “Talking about how are we going to do this, where are we going to do this, who is going to co-produce this with us — all of these things….that is kind of the focus of what we’re doing beyond the tour and promoting the documentary.”
The prospective album, which would be the first new Kansas studio album since Somewhere to Elsewhere in 2000 represents a big commitment — one that Walsh was reportedly unwilling to commit to in the past. Williams confirms that to be the case, while also admitting that he understands why Walsh, someone who he says “had the best voice in rock n’ roll, in my opinion,” might have been hesitant to work on new music.
“Well, it’s true. I can’t speak for Steve [as far as] his reasons,” Williams says. “Putting out solo albums, he wrote some good stuff and it was not well-received at all. It’s not like it was snubbed, it just wasn’t heard. I think that spending the time, especially solo by yourself, to sit there and pour your guts for months and months and months on end recording it — all of that is on you and then you release it and it’s not even noticed. It’s very discouraging. I think it just kind of wore him down. With Kansas, we’ve put out a new thing here or there and nobody cares.”
As Williams notes, “You take all of this time off, do an album, release it, radio of course isn’t going to play it. The hardcore fans will pick it up and compare it, ‘Well, this isn’t the next Leftoverture.’ When you’ve had millions of sales and you get thousands of sales, all of that can be very disheartening. So all of those factors had something to do with why Steve just didn’t want to. If somebody in their own position says, “I don’t want to do this,” well then, it stops. You can’t force someone to. Everybody really has to be all in. Let’s do this. Okay, this is the plan…are we there? Yep, we’re all in — let’s go. It is an incredible commitment.
“There’s always the innate need to be creative. Now that we all want to do that, then you’ve got to say, ‘Okay, well to do that, we have to stop this machine from rolling for a while,'” Williams says. “That means that there’s no paychecks coming in. You have to really commit to it and understand — we’ll be off the road now. There is no income when you’re off the road. It just takes all of that — there’s a lot of planning. Because every decision that you make affects not just you, but the guys in the band, the crew, their families. So when you start looking at the wide scope of the 50 people that you might be affecting, it’s a decision that you can’t take lightly and you have to plan for it, you know, a year from now is when we’ll be done with it.”
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