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Vox - Kansas/Steve Walsh

Kansas is a legendary progressive rock band, known world wide and of special significance in the American progressive scene. They’ve helped define generations of musical ambition, and have done much to raise the bar on what we may expect of our musical artists. I recently caught up with Kansas violinist, Robby Steinhardt, drummer, Phil Ehart, and guitarist Richard Williams after the release of their DVD: Device, Voice, Drum, a staged live performance filmed and recorded in Atlanta, Georgia at Earthlink Live. They had much to say about the DVD, their music, and the band’s career.

PO: How have things changed for you since the early days of Kansas, musically, personally, etc?

RS: Not all that much. I’m traveling less, and enjoying it more. Musically, it still feels the same as it did in the beginning. Kerry is writing most of the material, and it’s stimulating and enjoyable to play. As for different, I’d say it’s easier to travel, as opposed to long ago in yellow school buses to get from point A to B. Generally, things are better than ever. And more than ever, I’m glad to be part of Kansas. It’s still fun.

PE: I would hope, speaking personally, that I am a better drummer. I think I’ve gotten a lot of youthful exuberance out of the way and have become a better editor and arranger to fit what I do with what works in the band. The band is better in those ways, too. We’ve been around so long that we look at ourselves differently. Songs are more concise, considered, thought out. And we’re better at being a band and being songwriters. We’re conscious about trying to make fewer mistakes in the decisions we make.

I also now manage the band. I’m part of the whole the process: recording deals, product placement, putting the music out there. My becoming the manager was incidental and was kind of pushed on us in late 80’s. Our former manager moved on to other field of expertise. Our record company and booking company dumped us. We were told we were a dinosaur band. We went out on the road to play every dump and dive. We were in the bus, working and playing, working and playing. I finally turned to the guys and said: "I’ll just handle day to day stuff until we find a manager." From that it just kind of evolved. Though, I had always been the guy that the manager called to interface with the band. So, I guess it was fairly natural.

And I’m more confident. Able to handle the disappointments. Handle life.

RW: Personally, we were young and dumb back then. We didn’t have much responsibility except to ourselves. Now we’re at the top of the hill, but not over the hill. [Laughs] But maturity has affected the band and the decisions we make. (Takes a break to heat some soup, and get kids off to school.) I’m full time domestic for a while. (Goes to smoking lounge.)

Musically, we’ve attempted to change, mostly in response to the record company’s suggestion. There’ve also been feeble solo attempts rammed down our throats. They are what they are.

Also, radio has nothing to do with Kansas or what I like, musically. 4 or 5 years ago, I got thinking about radio and thought: "Ah, man." I decided the best thing was to make as little a change as possible, though we are better players now then before.

PO: How has your audience changed? Have you seen new, young fans as well as those who followed you in the early years?

RS: I’m not sure, I wasn’t as aware then as I am now. So its hard to tell if its changed. But one thing is obvious, fans are bringing their children and grandchildren. Great, old fans are helping to perpetuate the band.

PE: We’re not picking up as many young fans. Most of our fans are in their early 30’s to late 40’s. But those fans are having kids and bringing them to shows and introducing them to our music. But Kansas is not really exposed to a younger audience; it’s not on MTV or the radio, except for the classic rock stations.

RW: I think it’s a little bit of everything. Our main fans are growing old with us. Things are getting better for them, so you have decision makers at companies, etc., who are the people listening to Kansas. A lot of people do bring children out to shows. And there are a lot of kids don’t like the new stuff on the radio, they listen to classic rock and find Kansas as though we were new, they find something a little more musical.

PO: What remains the most satisfying element of your music career?

RW: Live gigs. The feedback from the audience. Without them there’s no spark. It helps me even more to enjoy what I do. It sort of comes naturally to me, since I’ve been playing since grade school. But, yeah, live concerts are the most rewarding. I love to talk with people after the show.

PE: To earn a living doing what I love. They guys in Kansas don’t take it lightly. We know how hard it is out there. So having a thirty year career is amazing. Doing an interview like this after 30 years . . . the music has stood the test of time. We also have the satisfaction that we’re leaving a legacy; we’re leaving a body of work. You don’t start out to do that, but when you get our age you look back and feel thankful. We’ve been fortunate to have the talent, but fans have really done it. Classic rock radio emerged and kept us alive.

RW: Yeah, it’s the ability to continue doing this as a full time thing. It feeds the bulldog. And I see no end in sight. Next year we’ve got something like 75 dates with Styx, then maybe Europe with Styx, followed by some more dates on our own.

PO: Who are you listening to these days that you find innovative and exciting?

RS: I’m not listening to anybody right now. It’s kind of funny to say. But I’m taking a break from music for a couple of months. It’s strange, too, since I’ve been playing and listening forever.

PE: I like the new Peter Gabriel CD. I like what he does and says and how he records. I also like Ramstein, a German band. Their latest album, Mutter, is great. I’ve never heard music like that. I discovered them when we were in Germany. And I like Sting.

RW: I’m not listening to anybody at the moment. I’m so tied up with life, I don’t have time. Career-wise, I’m focusing on new equipment.

As far as guitarists I like, Jeff Beck is the most expressive ever of all time. You can listen to a hundred guitar players and pick Beck out every time. Eric Johnson is also incredible, great tone and player.

PO: Your new effort Device Voice Drum embraces the new media available to musicians, a media that has made piracy and copyright infringement more pervasive. Do you feel the trend to download illicit music has affected Kansas sales?

RS: I suppose it has. But I’ve no way of feeling it directly or indirectly. I’m sort of removed from that if you know what I mean. I mostly concentrate on learning the songs and playing and traveling. So, it doesn’t really affect me. My opinion, though, is that it sucks.

PE: Downloading doesn’t affect us too much. I see a lot of it in colleges and younger kids. Kansas fans will go to the store and buy it.

But I think the cow has left the barn on this; record companies should have addressed when it first came out. If I were a teenager I’d be doing it like crazy because as a kid I couldn’t get or discover enough new music. So back then it might have driven him into file sharing, etc. But by now it’s moot point. CD’s are expensive and kids will certainly do something for free. Record companies are reaping what they’ve sown, having screwed the consumer and artist for so long. People are saying enough, we’re not paying anymore.

On the business side, though, I’m not exactly raising my hand to sell cheaper. [Laughs]

Ultimately and morally what is going on is wrong. This is how artists put food on the table, so people are taking money from them. But now it’s not as simple as putting a finger in the dyke.

RW: It really does impacts everybody who puts anything out. But I don’t feel sorry for record companies, they deserve to be screwed. They hand that screwing down to musicians. Then you have to hire expensive auditors to find the money. The record companies can tie up money for years with their lawyers. The artist gets hit hard.

PO: Thus far, what would claim as your greatest music career moment?

RS: There are many great songs in our repertoire and too many moments to single anything out. People ask questions about favorites, but I never have an answer for them. I may have to write one for that someday.

PE: There are too many to single one out. First, it was living in a little town in Kansas and then even being recognized by Don Kirschner for a recording deal. Then we were on our way to NYC to record, and went into the studio with New York Dolls, Johnny Winter, Aerosmith. Then we had our first album. Then it was walking into the store and seeing it on the shelf. Then it was being on the radio. After that, we opened for the Kinks and Queen. Then we had a hit song: "Carry On Wayward Son." Then it was headlining, selling out arenas. Then "Dust in the Wind." You get the idea.

Now, we’ve just put out the DVD, and we’re very proud of it. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we could do.

RW: The first album was as far as we could imagine to reach. It was beyond the stars for us. When we went platinum, then triple platinum, it exceeded every dream we could possibly have. When you see what’s behind the door and they you get it, it’s short lived, then its: ‘What’s next?’

PO: Can you describe your songwriting process a bit?

RS: There hasn’t been a Kansas band songwriting process for years because of the road and studio. So much of the music is written by Kerry. He’ll put the music down on a CD and sent to me. Then I’ll listen to it—while I’m driving—and learn it. I know it sounds mechanical, but it was great because it gave me time to get the stuff on the tape into my head. I make some small changes hear and there, but basically the songs are finished when I get them.

PE: Steve or Kerry will write songs. They come in various forms. Sometimes they’ll teach us how it should go. But the songs go through arrangement stages. Even if they come in mostly complete, they morph into Kansas. Kerry will demo a song from beginning to end. Home studio evolvement has made it more complex and complete. Other times, Kerry will begin plunking a piano. Other times we’ll jam on a riff. But just as often it comes in virtually done.

There are many different approaches, it just depends on the song. But there’s always total band involvement.

RW: Most of the time a song is brought in fairly rough. For the writer everything they do is a great song, so it’s a painful process but important process to be edited by those around you. But each Kansas player brings his own style to the parts. We’ll look at it and say: ‘This part really isn’t working, it needs a transition, or else something missing.’ It’s a brainstorming process.

PO: Do you feel the Device Voice Drum captures the band’s live dynamic?

RS: Absolutely. I’ve been hearing how much people like the DVD. It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. It’s fantastic for people have a visual of us. Everything’s been so positive from fans and people who did the recording. And I’m so proud of it. I always find it strange when people in the biz who’ve been in front of people say they don’t like the way the come off on film or that they don’t like being in front of an audience. It makes me wonder if they shouldn’t become dishwashers or something. [Laughs]

PE: Yes, we worked hard to do that. That’s why we shot it in film; it didn’t wash out things in lights for video. So we used film to have shadows, etc. We created the concert. Then on sound we didn’t go overdub crazy, just a few things. This is 100% what Kansas is. No makeup, no stylists. We came in and played a gig. We did use animation and a choir, but other than that it is a good representation of the 5 of us.

RW: Yeah, we captured the moment. You really get it if you sit back and listen to it on a good stereo and great TV. To stare at 5 ugly mugs for 2 hours and not get bored is quite an achievement. [Laughs] It’s the biggest undertaking we’ve ever done. Hats off to Phil; this was his baby from beginning to end, and he saw it through every phase.

PO: What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring musicians that you didn’t know when you began?

RS: Stick with it. If it’s something you really like, you have to remain fixed on your goal. You have know that it’s going to be harder than you think it will be, and you have to work twice as hard as you might have thought--unless your one of those that’s one in a million. So, its a lot of hard work, but a lot of enjoyment too because your heart’s in it. And it’s rewarding when it works out. You need to be prepared for downs if you want to be there for the ups.

PE: It’s hard to give advice, because it puts you in the position of having to know something. After 30 years, I would say to keep it fun. That may seem simplistic, but there are so many disappointments that if it doesn’t work out for you that you can make a living, you want to be able to look back and know you had fun doing it. Because that’s really all that’s left. If you’re not successful you’re not going to make a lot of money, or if you don’t make a lot of recordings, you’ll need to look at the high points of playing, learning your instrument. Enjoyment of the music is the thing. Being fortunate enough to make music at all is what you should focus on. If you strip everything away, it’s the fun of being in a band.

RW: Have something to fall back on. We’re not best players in the world or even in town, but we had a goal and were able to get along, that’s important, especially when you spend thirty years with 4 or 5 guys. You’ve got to make the whole dynamic of guys and their wives work. [Laughs] Be patient, and have a sense of humor. Check big head attitude at the door. If you don’t, you work with one person then another, then another.

PO: What’s next for Kansas?

RS: Touring all over the place with John Waite and Styx. We may also be later touring with Paul Rogers and Robin Trauer. We’re really enjoying touring at this stage in our lives, so I don’t know about another album. We’ll probably tour until we pass out. [Laughs] This has been the longest break we’ve ever had, so now we’re hitting the road and looking forward to it.

PE: We hit the road in January to promote the DVD all next year. There’s no new Kansas project at this time. We’re packaging with Styx for 60 to 70 dates.

We’re Midwestern workaday guys. We appreciate the influences that we have in the progressive music scene. We don’t always understand, but we appreciate that people love what we do. We wish progressive music were more popular. Kansas is really the only multi-platinum American progressive rock back. And it’s sad. There’s Genesis, Yes, ELP, but they’re all from England. What else are American fans going to choose from? I find if kind of funny when people lump us in with Journey, Styx, Boston, REO. We’re glad to be there, and there are some similarities. But we are in a more progressive vein; like Rush is in Canada. We know we are a 3 legged dog in a world of 4 legged dogs. But we’re getting along just fine.

RW: This DVD is one of the best things we’ve ever done. With Ultimate Kansas and the DVD, next year we’ll be on the road to promote.

PO: Anything else you’d like to add?

RS: Not much to say. Except, tell people to stop moving to Florida. It’s full! The government won’t listen to me. But I tell them that before a person can move in, one should have to move out. Stay away from Florida, and we’ll see you out there on the road!

RW: Yeah, for the first half of my career people will remember that I had two eyes, and for the second half I wore eye patch. I’ve had a glass eye since 8th grade. One 4th of July I made a little bomb out of firecrackers in a porcelain jar. It exploded and tore up my face. Eventually, I got tired of wearing the glass eye. It didn’t track right, so I was aware of always looking forward. It gave me a stiff neck. They’re not comfortable anyway, your eyelid sticking to it when it’s cold. So that’s the story of the eye patch.

PO: Thanks, guys. Best wishes in all you do.

RS: Thanks, I hope to see you out on the road at one of our shows. You’re always welcome.

PE: Thanks, Peter, for your time and insightful questions.

RW: Yeah, you were real thorough. That’s rare from rock journalists. Thanks.

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