Q&A: Rich Williams of Kansas Talks History, Houston and Will Ferrell

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In the realm of classic rock warhorse bands, few have managed to straddle genres like Kansas. Fist pumping FM rock anthems (“Carry On Wayward Son,” “Point of Know Return,” “Play the Game Tonight”) share CD and concert stage space with much more detailed proggy fare (“The Wall,” “Journey from Mariabronn”), and – of course – the only monster power ballad with an electric violin solo (“Dust in the Wind”).

Formed in 1970 in Topeka, the group went through several lineup and one name change (Saratoga??) before releasing their self-titled debut in 1974. Kansas then rode a huge wave of popularity that would carry them for the next decade.

The current residents of the Jayhawk state ensemble includes classic era members Steve Walsh (vocals/keyboards), Rich Williams (guitar) and Phil Ehart (drums), who are joined by veterans Billy Greer (bass), and Dave Ragsdale (violin). The amiable Williams recently spoke with Houstoned Rocks about the band’s history, Houston memories, and how Will Ferrell rates as a vocal interpreter of their music.

You were here last year for Arrowfest. When you think of playing Houston over the years, does any particular memory stick out?

The first time we played at the Summit was the first time I’d seen video screens in a venue. We weren’t very happy about it because we didn’t want the show taped and sold, but we were assured that it was just for during the show. Well, you can find that bootleg tape to this day! (laughs). Someone sent me a clip from it just the other day! I was pissed off at the time, but I’d like to shake the guy’s hand now.

And bootlegs like that really appeal to your hardcore fans who already have all the officially released music.

Yeah. Those fans buy it all. I stopped being concerned with all that awhile ago.

Kansas has always been able to have both a prog-rock sound as well as a more straight ahead Heartland rock appeal. Was that always the plan?

If I wanted to make myself sound smart, I’d say sure. But that’s the way it came out. We were just a rock band playing Top 40 covers. But we also grew up with a heavier thing like Deep Purple and even soul stuff. We were always pretty heavy-handed, because we didn’t want to sing about cars and girls. We wanted to take it outside the box and do something that really hadn’t been done before. But there was no plan.

Kansas music really demands listener attention. It’s not background music.

When I really started listening to Close to the Edge by Yes, at first I thought “Wow, what is this?” It was deeper into prog and an acquired taste at first. But 200 listens later, I was still hearing new things in the music. Same thing with the Beatles and Sgt. Pepper. It wasn’t just music you could snap your fingers and dance to, these were involved records. That’s what I liked about them.

In a few months you’re releasing a 30th anniversary edition of the live record Two for the Show. It’s expanded from the original record and includes an entire second disc of other songs from the same tour. How did you decide what to include on that?

These reels of tape were found in storage. When we did the original album, there were limitations on the length of time. A double album could be only a little more than an hour. These tapes hadn’t been heard since they were done, and there was this whole scientific process in transferring this delicate 30-year-old tape. You transfer it to digital and you basically get one pass because the tape destroys itself. So we got to listen to and mix 11 songs we’d never heard before. As with the original, we left it alone – the songs are warts and all with no overdubs. There’s also new liner notes and photos from the era, so it’s not just a reissue.

Nationally, more teens are getting into classic rock, but they’re getting first exposed to the music through media other than traditional radio. “Carry On Wayward Son” was featured in Guitar Hero II…

That made a huge difference! It [exposes] 10-year-olds to our music. It’s also been in a lot of movies…the “Highlander” TV series...kids are also discovering this music on the internet.

And there’s also a lot of classic rock in commercials. Years ago, that would have been considered “selling out,” but I really believe that most of that stigma is gone now. It’s just another venue to get your music to new listeners.

With reviewers and critics…there’s usually bitterness involved. A reviewer that was maybe a musician once and never got a break see themselves now as judge and jury. If anyone does anything with their music and a corporation, it’s “selling out.” Well excuse me, but I’ve got kids in college! We got some [backlash] when “Dust in the Wind” was in a Subaru commercial, but it was pretty much a non-issue by then.

That song too has been in a lot of other media…Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, “Freaks and Geeks,” “South Park,” and of course, Will Ferrell unforgettably singing it at Blue’s funeral in Old School. But it’s used more as a punchline or for irony. Does that bother you?

Oh hell no! (laughs) How fucking serious do you think we take ourselves? Like it’s some sort of sacrilege? Please. It’s an honor to be thought of. If you can’t laugh at yourself…I mean, you have to take a joke.

And of course, it’s your biggest hit, though it sounds unlike most of your other material. And the words are so depressing

It’s not even really a rock ballad, it’s a more Woody Guthrie ballad. Depending on your point of view, it can sound very hopeless. But it’s more about personal possessions and your earthly body.

What’s up for Kansas in the future?

We go to Europe next and just play through the year. And we’ve got some dates with symphonies, which we’ve been doing more of. I’d also like to do a DVD. Sometimes, I get goosebumps doing those shows, but it depends what kind of symphony you get. There are also some skin-crawling moments. It’s hard to keep everything synchronized, but it’s become a lot easier since we got in-ear monitors.

Finally, do you have any contact with [former members} Kerry [Livgren], Dave [Hope], or Robby [Steinhardt]?

Well, when Robby goes…he’s gone. He falls off the face of the earth. Kerry sat in with us during a show in Topeka. And I get e-mails from Dave every day. Dave is an ordained Anglican church minister now, and he’s got this outfit where he looks like the frigging Pope. He sat in with us for a show and I said “Dave, you’ve got to wear that!” But he wouldn’t! (laughs) We’re all joined at the hip corporately, and we remain very close. I mean, we’ve been through a lot…I used to pick Dave up for school everyday before we even had a band!

-- Bob Ruggiero

Kansas plays May 31, 8 p.m. at the Sam Houston Race Park, 7575 N. Sam Houston Pkwy. West. Mark Farner (formerly of Grand Funk Railroad) opens. $20-$45. Call 281-807-8760 or www.theshowgrounds.com. For more on Kansas, go to www.kansasband.com

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