April 3, 2015 Interview – Rich Williams of Kansas
During the 1970s Rock-n-Roll was at a crossroads of ingenuity and experimentation, giving birth to what soon became known as Progressive Rock. Taking the chance to interject different instruments into the traditional assembly of guitar, bass, and drums of a Rock band, in 1973 six musicians came together in Topeka to form the now legendary band, named after their home state, Kansas. Attaining four gold and two multi-platinum records, many of Kansas’ songs go down as some of the most recognized in the history of Rock. Last year the band celebrated the fortieth anniversary of their self-titled debut album, and in 2015, they put together a wonderful retrospective documentary entitled Miracles out of Nowhere. Recently we sat down with long-standing guitarist Rich Williams who reflected on the past four decades with Kansas, putting together the documentary, his undying passion to perform, and more.
CrypticRock.com – Kansas has been one of the leading forces of Progressive Rock now for over four decades. In that time the band has released fourteen studio records and a list of live albums, and consistently tours all around the world. Looking back in retrospective, what has this journey been like?
Rich Williams – It’s been great — a lot longer than I would’ve thought. When I was in high school, I wanted to start playing in a band; it was a hobby and it turned into a career by the stroke of luck followed with a lot of hard work and determination. But still, it’s lucky; it’s been my entire life. It’s a wonderful thing, and I’d recommend it for anybody.
CrypticRock.com – It is wonderful. When you say “luck,” when you are involved in it, you probably think it is a lot of luck, but it is more a testament to yourself and the band’s hard work and determination.
Rich Williams – The luck is something that happens when you work hard. (laughs) Luck doesn’t just fall out of the sky and land on your face. You have to apply yourself to it, and then you’re putting stuff in a position where good things can happen to you; there’s no guarantee. You know, if you want a good job, you can’t sit on the couch and wait for somebody to knock on the door and say, “Hey we need you to be the CEO of our new company.” It’s a lot of hard work and determination and sticking with it and believing in it; you make your own luck.
CrypticRock.com – Agreed 100% percent. Now as stated, the band clearly is a fixture in what became known as Progressive Rock, utilizing keyboards, synthesizers, and violins. Back in the formative years of the band, was this something you and the rest of the members were aware of or did the idea of being a Progressive Rock band not even cross your minds?
Rich Williams – Well, Progressive Rock wasn’t a term at the time. We were just doing a style of music which we wanted to do. We’d all played in local bands together, playing a lot of cover material and we had done that. A lot of the people we played with had done that, a lot of the people wanted to continue to do that, a lot of friends were quite happy with doing cover material playing at the Holiday Inn Lounge. We learned our craft doing that.
What brought us all together was wanting to do original music, not mimicking the popular music of the day, but we wanted to do something that was outside the box. I think that was what brought us all together from the get go. We had a need to break out of the local bar scene. We wanted to write and play material that was exciting to us; we had already played all the other stuff. Just previous to that, when we got together, there was a lot of exciting new outside-of-the-box things happening in England and Europe that kind of opened the door, like adding a violin. Jethro Tull was doing something similar with a flute. It was having a violin as part of the ensemble instead of a fiddle, a string section in the back of a ballad. It was about making it a voice within the orchestra and doing things a bit differently than they had been done before.
CrypticRock.com – Right, and it is really rather interesting looking at everything all these years later. The things bands such as Kansas and Jethro Tull were doing laid the groundwork for what we see today. You would be surprised how many Progressive Rock bands Kansas has influenced.
Rich Williams – Again, it was a very creative time. There were so many bands where you could hear them on radio, or drop a needle on the record, and bands were very identifiable. I think it was because there weren’t so many of them, and there was not a template that is so defined as in today. Any recording studio, even country music is recorded in such a similar fashion now, such as the walls of guitars behind the power ballad and all that. Back then, the formula had not been set in stone. Of course, now, everything is a formula and a right and a wrong way of going about things that homogenized music to some extent today. It’s not approached, it is more, “Here is the road to take; here is how it is done.” We were more experimental then. We did not know exactly what we were doing, but it felt right.
CrypticRock.com – Many would agree with you. Modern mainstream music has become rather formulaic at times. Hopefully that will change sometime in the future.
Rich Williams – To be honest, I don’t keep my ear that close to the ground to hear all the bubbles below the surface. I know there are a lot of people out there who are trying to break, but so much is dictated by the thought of what is popular and what hits the media and is played on radio.
It’s really hard. The business side of it really dictates what is out there now. Back when we were getting started, there were indie stations that weren’t part of a conglomerate that had a certain playlist to play. The college stations could play anything. Whatever was recorded could get out there and heard. Now they just pick a thin layer of popular things and cram them down your throat. Essentially, it doesn’t have the chance to get off the ground like it did in the early ‘70’s.
CrypticRock.com – That is a very good point. Two thousand fourteen did mark the 40th anniversary of the band’s self-titled debut album. Now in celebration of that, you’ve released a documentary, Miracles Out of Nowhere, which was released on March 24th. Fittingly titled, this documentary gives deeper insight into the band’s journey. What was it like putting this together and reflecting on everything?
Rich Williams – There are so many different emotions about it all. We got it together and went back to Topeka, Kansas where we started; it made sense to do that. I get back there a few times a year usually. Kerry Livgren moved back there years ago, but some of the other guys don’t get back often at all, if ever. To have us all there together at the same time — that has not happened in thirty plus years. It seemed essential because every time that I go back, every time I go around a corner, I remember when such and such happened, either relevant to my life or to the band. To get us all back there to tell the story helped spur that inspiration and those memories. It was a lot of fun. We are all in touch with each other quite frequently. It is not like we were strangers that had not seen each other in a long time, or not because of hard feelings. It just happens we all had not been together at the same time in the same room in a period of time. There were so many different emotions of it all and a lot of laughs. Everybody has a bit of different reflection and different memories of events from their perspective and it’s interesting to relive a story forty years later. It is kind of set a certain way in your mind, and to hear it from other people’s perspective, as they are telling it and when you hear everybody talking about it, you get a better idea of the truth of it all. To get us all together doing that was a great experience.
CrypticRock.com – Talking about the different perspectives from the different members, you have been there for the duration of the band’s career. One can imagine you have seen the highs, the lows, creative differences, and so much more. With that said, what do you think the key has been for Kansas’ longevity?
Rich Williams – We couldn’t have done it without a couple of things. Kerry wrote a few great songs that have stood the test of time, that are still on the radio, and that kept us out there. Without those breakout songs, we probably would’ve faded away. Those really helped us to stay out there, to be in movies to be on video games, to be in cartoons. All of those things have kept the music alive, and that’s really what we were always about — about the music. For me I guess it was just, maybe tenacity. I signed on for all of this. People asked me how I started, and the answer was always, “Seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.” That was a big inspiration making me want to do this. I did not realize this until recently, but the seed had been planted before that. I remember laying in bed one night. It was in the summer. I had the windows open. It was a Friday or Saturday night, and there was a block party a block or so away from me, and the band was playing. I could hear the music coming through the window and it was kind of like a little boy seeing the circus train pull up.
There was something about hearing that that struck me to think I wanted to be a part of that — being on this team, being in this band, travelling the world, and all of the stories that come with all of it. Not just the performing, not just the recording, but with the lifestyle that comes with it. The good, the bad, the ugly, all of that. That seed was planted in me that night. I wanted to run away and join the circus. I heard the call, I heard the lonesome whistle, and it’s not been an effort for me to do this. It is not like, “Oh damn. We have to go play again.” I looked forward to all of this. People leave. We are used to the fact that things change. In life things just change. People vibrate in and out of your life for whatever reason, and you can sit there and stop living, mope, and mourn about it, or you just figure out a way to keep going. That has been my nature throughout all of this. The grass was never greener to me somewhere else; I’m doing what I was born to do and what I’ve always wanted to do. This is what I wanted to be even before I knew it.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, that is a great outlook to have too. That is a good outlook to have in life in general, not just as a career philosophy. You should pursue what you love.
Rich Williams – Right. How many people get to do what I do? To just simply do what’s in your nature to do? To follow what you love to do? I am every day grateful that this is my life, and, for whatever reason, the powers that be have allowed me to do this.
Part two of all of that is our fan base. The fan base is the lifeblood that keeps us doing what we to do. Without that, the body will die; we have a great bunch of fans.
CrypticRock.com – The band certainly does. It is not just a generational fan base. A lot of younger fans have discovered the bands through the years. Speaking of touring, the band will remain actively touring through 2015. One of the most impressive aspects of Kansas is that the band’s sound live mirrors the records flawlessly. Is being an excellent live band something Kansas prides themselves on?
Rich Williams – That’s always been. Recording is great, being in the studio is great, and looking at the gold albums on the wall. The essence of it all is getting to do it. That’s what being in a band is all about, doing that and playing. That’s what excited me from the get go. It was going to the recreation center and seeing a band play. There’s nothing like that. I’m sure that everybody can remember the first time they went into any club or school dance, and there was a band playing. There’s an excitement about all of that that will never come on through on a record. A living organic event happening and unfolding in front of you — that’s what music really is. That is why I’m always looking forward to that next event. We’ve always been a blue collar, hands-on working band. It is not talking about it and your past victories; it’s the act of doing it, and then doing it again. It is the joy of six guys going “one, two, three, go” and out it comes. That’s music.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, that is what it is all about. That is what certainly makes music so special. While the band has kept extremely busy through the years with touring and live releases, the last studio album put out was Somewhere to Elsewhere in 2000. Has there been any new Kansas material in the works for a new studio album in the future?
Rich Williams – We are actually are in the works right now of getting back in the studio for four or five days at the end of April. We are going to start pounding some stuff out and see how it feels. The plan is to start recording this next winter. This unit has never done that. We are very mindful to go back and re-listen to what we’ve done in the past in our live performances and trying to recreate those things, and we’re doing that very well. There is also that creative itch that needs to be scratched and that really has not had the opportunity in fifteen years. It is time. So we’re going to get in the studio and get a feel for each other again in that element. The last thing that we did was outside of the band, when four of us did an album in 2009 called Native Window. That was just us standing in a circle and we started writing. The premise was, if it starts sounding like Kansas, we’d turn the corner and go away from that. We weren’t going to try and do a Kansas record because it wasn’t Kansas. That was really the only rule, and then we just started creating. Without the Kansas template, kind of anything else was possible. Our approach was, let’s just have fun with this and see where it takes us. Now with the six of us, including the two members Dave Manion on keys and Ronnie Platt on vocals, who’s just a smoking singer, it’s time. It is time to use that same thought in mind, direct it toward being Kansas, and see where we can take that. We are extremely looking forward to what’s going to happen from that.
CrypticRock.com – That is extremely exciting news to hear. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror films. If you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorite Horror films?
Rich Williams – Wow, it has kind of been a while since I’ve paid much attention to that genre at all. I think what, for me, modern Horror movies became less about the stories and more about the special effects, so I lost interest in that. Say for example The Shining (1980) was a terrifying movie. I get goose bumps right now just thinking about some of the imagery in that movie. I guess more of the Alfred Hitchcock style of suspense is what I really like in that type of movie. The original Jaws (1975) was suspenseful, everything after that was just fish out of the water chomp. There’s nothing scarier than what’s going on inside your own head. Things that can touch those fears and that’s beyond just painting the full picture for you and laying it out for you; it’s imagination. When that gets tickled, is where the true Horror lays.
CrypticRock.com – Extremely true. There is something to said about a story and dialogue. A movie like The Shining or The Exorcist (1973) is terrifying because of the atmosphere it creates. It seems that has been lost in all areas of cinema. A lot of times mainstream cinema does not let a film breathe.
Rich Williams – Absolutely, it’s kind of a laziness and it’s not people’s fault; it’s just that’s the way things kind of went. It’s similar thing as in music, everything is so instant now. When you hear something you like, you go to your phone, you select the song you like, and for ninety-nine cents, bink, you’ve got the download in a second. It’s kind of like eating sugar, and saying, “That was good. Give me another!” Everything is instant gratification followed by moving on to the next sweet. I remember when you’d like hear that a new album was coming out, you would hear it through the grapevine or maybe on a radio station.
After that you would rush to the record store and find out that it was sold out. Then you would have to drive to the next town, you’d call to see if they still have it in stock and they would say to you, “Well we’ve got two left; you better hurry.” Then you would get that hard copy in your hand, you see the album cover, the great artwork, the liner notes, you pull it out and see all of the photos inside. You were reading about where it was recorded and who it was dedicated to. All of these things are part of that whole package and you would put it on and you would devour it. Then all of a sudden MTV is showing a video and they’re laying out in front of you the imagery from somebody else’s perspective. In the days of old the imagery was created inside your own head. It’s just all a bit lazy to me. It’s like you don’t have to think anymore. The same with Horror movies where it feels nowadays you are told, just sit here, watch this, let us create all the imagery, manufacture this sphere, and scare you with that. I seriously don’t care for all that.