In the 1970s, Kansas arguably achieved a level of popularity that was unmatched by any other American progressive rock band, thanks to radio-friendly songs like “Dust in the Wind,” “Carry On Wayward Son” and “Point of Know Return” — songs that still regularly show up on the playlists of classic rock radio.
The band has now been together for more than 40 years, with the current lineup including three original members: Steve Walsh on vocals, keyboards and percussion; Phil Ehart on drums; and Richard Williams on guitar. Along with longtime band members Billy Greer and David Ragsdale, they will be performing at the Santa Barbara County Fair in Santa Maria at 8 p.m. Friday. This concert is free with paid admission to the fair. Click here for more information. Don’t miss this chance to get your fix of prog rock, a genre that doesn’t seem to visit these parts very often.
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Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming show?
Richard Williams: I get asked this question probably more than any other question, and how do you answer that? This is what we do. We’re not going to suddenly open up some special trick out of the bag for this show. It’s another day in the life of Kansas. “Live” is what we do. That’s my favorite part of being in a band — actually doing it. Talking about it, listening to back when you did it? No, the next weekend is what I look forward to, the next show.
In 41 years now, we’ve gotten pretty good at that. So, that what we will bring — a fine-tuned live act. This is what we do. I hate the word “act” — we’re real.
JM: As you say, you guys have been together for 41 years. Looking back, are there any particular highlights for you during that time?
RW: Oh, yeah, a long list of highlights. Recording the first album, that was our dream, to record something. After that, everything else was kind of icing on the cake, really. The favorite part for me is now, to still get to do this, to be able to look at it from a perspective that this isn’t some new experience that I don’t know what to make of. Now I know what it is, and I can appreciate it at the moment instead of reminiscing and going, “Ah, that was great, I guess.” I can actually enjoy it now. This is the best time for me.
JM: When I watch the clips of Kansas from back in the day, you always have a tuxedo on when you’re playing live. What’s the story behind that?
RW: Well, before that I was wearing overalls. That was just what I was wearing at the time; that was the farmer. That was just kind of my schtick, I guess. As we progressed, it was, “OK, what are we going to wear this year? We need to clean up the act a bit, and try something different.” I don’t know, it just seemed kind of funny to me to wear a tux. So I did. Everybody chose something different. It’s funny to look back on some of those things now. I look at it going, “Oh, boy! Those were some ****ing costumes.” (laughs) Although I'm not ashamed of the tux. It seems a little corny, but when I look around me it was a pretty good choice in some of the comparisons, I would say.
JM: I would have to agree.
My favorite Kansas song is “Carry On Wayward Son.” Can you tell us a little bit about how that song came together?
RW: The song was the last song written for the Leftoverture album. We’d been working on the album for a few months, being in rehearsal, and we were getting ready to pack everything up and head to Bogalusa, Louisiana, to the recording studio, and record. And the last day Kerry (Livgren) came in and said, “I have one more song.” We were done, we didn’t want to learn anything else. We had plenty of songs to record, so there was a bit of groaning. He’d just written it the night before.
He started playing it, and it’s like, “Wow, there’s a bunch of great parts in this.” So we sort of learned it, and then when we went to the studio, I think we actually learned it while the tape was rolling and we were going through it, going through it. The version you hear is probably the first time we actually played it correctly. It was, from the get go, it was like, man, this song is really special. You start with the a cappella beginning, all the great guitar riffs, the half-time verses, strong chorus, great middle parts. It had so many sections to it. They were all hooks. And it wasn’t contrived, like, “Here’s what’s happening on the radio today, let’s formulate something like that.” There was nothing really like that. We didn’t copy anything. It just exploded out of Kerry one night. As soon as we heard it, it was a no-brainer. “Yeah, we’re recording this.”
JM: I think it’s you — there’s a little guitar solo in the middle right after the organ solo.
JM: Was that something you just kind of made up on the spot, or was that more carefully planned out?
RW: No, nothing is all that carefully planned out. Usually it’s trial and error. I wanted to fill the holes. There was the syncopation going one way, and I just wanted to play the opposite. So every time there was air I was going to throw a note in. That’s really all that was. It’s kind of a funky little thing. Again, back to the roots, the style of playing and the style of music we grew up on.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future? Obviously you’re touring right now, but anything in the works?
RW: We’re going to Europe in a month. The rest of the year’s completely booked. The biggest plan that we have at the moment is ... We’ve been working on a documentary for the last two years that was completed last night. It’s been forwarded to me, so I can watch it. It’s a Sony project. It’s the original band up through the Point of Know Return album, it’s telling the story of that time. So that’s our latest project. Sony’s releasing it this fall. So that's what we’ve been putting our effort into, as far as something new is concerned.
We’re going to finish up the year and then take a breather when winter comes, and then we’ll see what happens next year.
Click here for the full interview with Kansas guitarist Richard Williams.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.