Between A Rock And A Prog Place: KANSAS’ RICHARD WILLIAMS – “There Was No Such Thing Then – As Far As The Label ‘Prog Rock’ Is Concerned”
December 27, 2022, a month ago
What truly is progressive music? Each month BraveWords will aim to dissect that answer with a thorough overview of the current musical climate that is the prog world. Old and new, borrowed and blue. A musical community without borders. So watch for a steady and spaced-out array of features, current news and a buyer’s guide checklist to enhance the forward-thinking musical mind. So, welcome to BraveWords' monthly column appropriately titled, Between A Rock In A Prog Place.
In this month’s column, we speak to Kansas’ Richard Williams, who will be hitting the road once again in March of 2023. The occasion? Kansas celebrating their 50th anniversary, and recently issuing the three-disc set, Another Fork In The Road – 50 Years Of Kansas. In addition to discussing both topics, the group’s long-time guitarist also fielded a few prog-related questions.
When Kansas originally formed, was it a conscious decision to incorporate prog rock elements into the band’s sound?
“Well, there was no such thing then – as far as the label ‘prog rock’ is concerned. But we grew up together – sometimes in the same band, sometimes in different bands, playing the club circuit. You’d go from playing school dance to playing the bar scene. And a lot of people we were playing with, they’d eventually fade away…or maybe they’d want the Holiday Inn gig – where they could leave their equipment in the corner and not have to travel out of town, and they’re happy playing the cover songs of the day. We were kind of in our peer group the last men standing – who wanted to go beyond that and be an original band. And we were tired of playing other people’s material, and were also now influenced by prog – coming out of England and Europe. Early Jethro Tull to Yes to King Crimson. So many bands had shown us, ‘Rock n’ roll is in this box. Remove this box. There are no rules. You can do anything you want.’ So we just followed our nature. Understanding there are no rules – you can either write about anything we want, you can write in any time signature you want. And we all came from different musical tastes and different musical backgrounds. Robby [Steinhardt] was a trained, schooled violinist, the first band I ever played in was with Phil [Ehart] and we played the hits of the ‘60s and soul. It was more your white soul, heavy-handed band, behind very soulful arrangements and vocals. We’re all coming from these different backgrounds. And Kerry Livgren’s influences were very eclectic. So, that’s what we all brought to the table – wanting to do things differently and our own way. We brought our own part in creating that.”
Would you agree that the song “Magnum Opus” is the most progressive tune Kansas ever did?
“It’s definitely in there. It could be the most. Recently, on YouTube there are things where people hear songs for the first time. And there was a couple who had never heard the song before and listening to it, and I saw another one with a classical music arranger doing the same thing [see video below]. And seeing their reactions on their first listen. That song, when we play it, I am spending so much time concentrating on it that you’re not really listening to the whole thing. To just sit back and listen to it, it’s like, ‘How did we do that?!’ And the title of the song was actually ‘Leftoverture.’ And the record company said, ‘Whoa. Wait a minute…that is the best album title we’ve ever heard.’ But what it was, was parts. I had written the middle section of it, and it was just laying on the floor of my memory. And we just assembled this scrap floor of parts, that we didn’t know what to do with, and twisted and turned them. Like, ‘Here’s the beginning and here’s the end,’ and we connected all the dots and all these weird parts to get there. All we could do was laugh when we were finished – ‘How did we even do this?’ So, I wouldn’t disagree with you – that it’s our most progressive song.”
How does it feel for Kansas to be celebrating 50 years?
“You kind of have parallel different feelings. It seems like yesterday and it feels like it’s been forever. I guess that’s just the way life goes. For Phil and I – who are the last men standing from the original band – it’s just been a day-to-day process, of taking the next step in a direction. And you don’t really notice it – it’s just what we do. My life and what I’ve done from college until today is just follow this path. It didn’t seem like that much of a labor. It was just following your heart – ‘This is what we want to do.’ We’re fortunate that our passion of performing and being in Kansas and doing this doesn’t feel like work. It feels like I’ve cheated life in a lot of ways. And so, it’s remarkable. If I can step aside and look at it, I’d say, ‘Why me? Why did I get to be so lucky?’ And fortunately, being around so many talented guys throughout the band’s career and get to avoid the real work life my entire life. I’m very grateful for it all – for what this band has given me. And to hit that 50 year level…that’s a mark that few can claim.”
How much of a hand did the band have in selecting the tracks included on Another Fork In The Road – 50 Years Of Kansas compilation?
“Actually, very little – which, we agreed to that approach. Thomas Waber from Inside Out Music was a big Kansas fan long before we were on his label. And him and Jeff Wagner, they had a vision for this project If they left just Phil and I to fill in the blanks, it would have been probably more like a ‘greatest hits.’ And they wanted to approach it from their perspective of fans, and to not regurgitate but tell a history of the 50 years – representing all the changes and different albums. And maybe with some more unknown, deeper cuts. Phil and I just agreed to the process. Of course, we had final say, but we made it a point of being agreeable. It was more the record company, and they’re the ones that brought in the cover idea, and Phil and I worked on their idea. So, as I look at the package today, I can look at it from a fan’s perspective, because it’s not like we had hands on every little detail. As a fan, I can look at it and say, ‘That’s a really cool package.’”
How did the idea come about to re-record the song “Can I Tell You”?
“It was our idea, because we wanted to have a ‘book end.’ Our career started with that song – before we were Kansas. We got our record deal before Kerry Livgren joined the band, and we got the offer for the record deal from Don Kirshner. There were six songs on a demo reel to reel tape we had sent him and he didn’t know there were songs on the second side. The first song on side A was ‘Can I Tell You.’ I’m not sure how crazy he was about the other two, but ‘Can I Tell You’ caught his ear, and that’s how we got the record deal. Without that song, I’d be disgruntled bartender in Topeka, Kansas, probably. Or drunk or dead – who knows? So that is the song that brought Kansas to the table. So, it’s 50 years later – what better song to re-record with the current line-up, just to put a book-end to the project. That was our biggest input to the project – doing that together.”
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A PROG PLACE NEWS BLAST
Billed as the “world’s premier progressive rock experience,” Cruise To The Edge will return in 2024 (sailing out of Miami, FL and visiting Rios, Jamaica and George Town, Grand Cayman) – with a line-up including Marillion, Steve Hackett, Flying Colors, and Big Big Train, among many others. For more info (and a complete list of the performers), visit cruisetotheedge.com. Transatlantic will issue a new concert set, The Final Flight: Live at L’Olympia, on February 17. A clip of the band performing their tune “The Owl” can be viewed below.
Progressive death metallists Atheist has announced that all five of their albums are once again available on all streaming services worldwide, and you can chose your preferred listening platform here. Saudi Arabia’s Dusk is described as ‘a one-man musical progressive metal journey from the mind of Meshari Sangor,’ and will be issuing its debut full-length, Spectrums, in February 2023. In the meantime, you can sample some sounds here.
Slovenia-based prog metallists Seventh Station recently issued a music video for their track “Unspoken Thoughts,” which is a kin to a mini-movie at times – and can be viewed here German prog metallists Time, The Valuator also issued a new video, for their track ‘Binary Pulse’. Persefone has announced a 2023 North American tour (on a bill with Ne Obliviscaris and Beyond Creation), which launches in October.
Two symphonic metal bands return in early 2023 with new product: Serenity with the live release Memoria and Ad Infinitum with Chapter III – Downfall. Epiphone has announced the Adam Jones Les Paul Custom Art Collection, which will include seven limited-edition Les Paul Silverburst Models, featuring the artwork of five world-renowned visual artists (Mark Ryden, Frank Frazetta, Julie Heffernan, Korin Faught, and Ernst Fuchs) and curated by the Tool guitarist. Take a gander of what you can expect via the video below.
JANUARY 2023 NEW ALBUMS
Damanek- In Flight
Riverside- ID Entity
The Tangent- Pyramids, Stars & Other Stories: The Tangent Live Recordings 2004-2017
Uriah Heep- Chaos & Colour
There’s been much talk over who was the first true ‘prog metal’ band. Rush from Fly By Night and onward? King Crimson circa Red? Well…how about ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ by Yes? Listen to the song’s repetitive/heavy riff (originally released in 1971, on Fragile) and tell me otherwise!