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I’m Still Standing: Rich Williams of Kansas on ‘Point of Know Return Live & Beyond’ & the Signature Kansas Sound
It is sad to report that Kansas founder and violinist Robby Steinhardt has passed away. Steinhardt was the original violinist and vocalist on “Dust in the Wind,” “Point of No Return” and “Carry on Wayward Son.” Steinhardt, who was working on a solo album, was 71. The following interview with guitarist Rich Williams was conducted May 14, 2021.
Classic rock bands have always experienced a revolving door of musicians. Kansas has seen its share of upheaval, but guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart have been with the band since its debut album. “We have a work ethic that we get from our parents and from where we grew up of just sticking to it,” says Williams. “Things get tough, you stick with it.”
After years of false starts, the band signed with producer Don Kirshner’s label and released Kansas in 1974. Its mix of progressive rock and symphonic arrangements with the work of violinist Robby Steinhardt produced the band’s signature sound — a sound that has allowed the group to still maintain a steady presence today.
The band’s breakout LP was 1976’s Leftoverture, which featured the hit single “Carry On Wayward Son.” Point of Know Return followed in 1977. The success of the title track and “Dust in the Wind” secured the band’s spot as a major arena headliner.
In July 2020, Kansas released its 16th studio album, The Absence of Presence. The album introduced the band’s newest member, Tom Breslin, a vocalist who contributed music and lyrics.
Kansas in concert delivers performances that remain true to the original studio cuts. In 2016–2017 Kansas launched the Leftoverture 40th Anniversary Tour, which became the 2017 live album Leftoverture Live & Beyond. Kansas followed with its Point of Know Return Anniversary Tour. The band recorded every show and on May 28, 2021, released Point of Know Return Live & Beyond.
“We thought maybe one day we would release this,” says Williams. “And then with the pandemic, we figured, ‘we have the time, let’s put this together.’”
Rock Cellar talked with the guitarist shortly before the live album’s release, and it was made evident that decades of success have not changed his intensity and work ethic.
Williams explains how the band’s music — and members — evolved over more than four decades. It’s an object lesson that every musician should read before putting pen to contract.
Rock Cellar: Why was Point of No Return the focus of the new live album?
Rich Williams: We had previously released the Leftoverture Live & Beyond album. To have a recording done in its entirety, in its original running order, it had never been done. Until this tour, we’d never played all these songs ever. It also gave us the opportunity to go deeper into a lot of other albums. Like “Lonely Wind,” we hadn’t played it forever. If we played it, we didn’t play it for long. To bring certain songs back from the dead was just smart to do.
We recorded every night from out front, so we probably had 100 shows taped. That process becomes a lot easier, it’s almost like a studio at that point. You’ve got everything mic’d just right.
Rock Cellar: Kansas recently played its first live show in 14 months. What went into preparing for the show after such a long layoff?
Rich Williams: As far as the group, we showed up, we did the show. But fortunately we have the live album. And almost everything we’re playing at the moment comes off of that album. So we just compiled the setlist and then a playlist and everybody just did their homework.
For the last two months I’ve played that set twice a day. At home, I have the same setup as my live setup. So I can just stand there and go through all the motions of what I have to do and play along with the same guys, just through my studio speakers.
That’s really what everybody did. We just continued doing the show. We had a real brief hotel room rehearsal the night before. And then we jumped on stage and did it. The weirdest part was walking out on stage. It’s like another day. It didn’t seem like that much time had passed. The lights went on and we did the show.
We were just glad to see each other. That part was exciting, but everybody was very prepared. There was a bit of adrenaline, some nerves, it’s like, “how’s this going to go?” Normally, if we’re on the road, and we go three weeks without shows, one of us will put together a rehearsal. We probably won’t do that anymore now because we know we can do it without that. It’s six responsible guys that kept up on it.
Rock Cellar: How do you approach improvisation when performing live, especially on the best-known songs?
Rich Williams: For me, there are certain things I want to play not quite note-for-note, but I stick to the theme at least. There are other things I just don’t know. It’s like, “here comes a part, what are you going to play?” I don’t know. Then I just start playing.
I’m just going to play in the moment, kind of the way I do it in the studio. I hate to over-rehearse. What moves me at the moment is what I usually tend to go for. There’s been so many times where, in the studio, “I don’t know what I’m going to play here. Just roll the tape.”
For example, in the song “The Voyage of Eight Eighteen” on The Prelude Implicit, I had no idea what I was going to play in the solo. I just knew I wanted to get this big, out of control-kind of a sound. Usually, I record in the control room but for this I went out and had the amp right next to me, just crankin’. I said, “just run it by, let me get a feel for this.”
So it went by, I was just kind of holding on, I didn’t know what I was gonna do exactly. And they said, “you’re done.” I said, “what?” That was great.
I had no idea what I was doing whatsoever. I was just trying to get a feel for where the feedback points were and just get a general feel of it all. And it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. That’s my approach to a lot of solos. “I have no idea, here it comes.” It’s the shotgun approach. I just aim it in the general direction and pull the trigger and see what happens.
KANSAS will be extending the popular Point of Know Return Tour starting with new shows starting November 13, 2021. Before that, the band will be performing sets of KANSAS Classics later this summer & early fall. For more info & dates click here: https://t.co/0kY2dv39L3 pic.twitter.com/Q2CqYQwSGr
— KANSAS (@KansasBand) June 8, 2021
Rock Cellar: What are the challenges of performing such musically complex songs live?
Rich Williams: Especially on the long ones, it’s just a lot of notes. It’s one thing to sit down and practice it but then you’ve got the lights and the crowd and so many distractions. To keep a constant focus on what you’re doing [can be tough], because if your mind wanders, you’re in the weeds really quickly. It’s mentally exhausting staying focused. But then on the other hand, there are some simpler songs that my mind will tend to wander and I will get lost. It’s like, pay attention! It’s funny how that works.
Many bands of our era sit around and party before they go out and get half drunk and go out. We just have too much to do. There’s no way to do that and go out there and play. It’s too hard.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said that the success of Leftoverture and Point of Know Return changed the internal workings of the band. What did you mean?
Rich Williams: When we first started, we were young men. It’s not like we were from poor families, but leaving home, we all played in different bar bands, some together, some with other people, you’re not successful in any way. People living in band houses, you have kind of an all-for-one, one-for-all, you’re like pirates out on the open sea. It’s teamwork. And it goes like that. And time goes on.
And this isn’t a complaint, it’s an observation. It’s just the way things go.
The way the money works with records, etc. is we did not sign a good deal with Don Kirshner. He was our benefactor, it was the only offer we got. Without him, nothing would have ever happened. But the first thing he did was say, “I am a publisher. I want to publish or go somewhere else.” So right away, we threw a third of the pie away. Another third of the pie is writer’s royalties. And the last part of it is the royalties that the band would bank.
That part has to pay for every possible recording cost of everything. It takes a long time to pay off recording debts. So no money comes to the band. But the songwriters, and rightfully so, they get paid from the first record sold. They get money from that. So after Leftoverture went gold, we paid off all of our previous debt. The songwriters had already made a small fortune. That starts to change the dynamic.
At that point in the band, we’re getting a little older, we’ve been together for a while, people are buying houses, cars, getting married. So that all-for-one, one-for-all mentality has taken its natural course and starts to change the dynamic within the band.
Then Point of Know Return, some people have made a lot of money and they don’t want to work as much. Others are, “I’d like to get mine now.” So things just changed. People were going from young, dumb guys to maturing a bit.
And money does change people. So people will wander in all sorts of directions.
Things just take their natural course. People naturally drifted apart because it wasn’t really working anymore. But we’re all good friends to this day. No animosity towards anybody through all of that.
That’s just the dynamic of what happens within a band that’s been around for a little while.
Rock Cellar: How do you maintain the classic Kansas sound despite so many personnel changes?
Rich Williams: For the first album, everyone was involved in arranging things, in editing things, saying this works, this doesn’t work. Identifying what we’re comfortable with, what parts we like, which parts we don’t. My input is recognizing what fits within a quintessential Kansas part. Or what can we do to this to make it more Kansas-esque? I just have an ear for that.
We’ve surrounded ourselves with people who have done it for quite a while with us, people who came in very familiar.
We know who we are and we know who we were and what we want to continue to be, so it’s really not that difficult. Tom Breslin, the newest addition, brought in a lot of material and it wasn’t difficult for us to turn this into what sounds like Kansas.
Rock Cellar: The title, The Absence of Presence, is a reference of modern technology?
Rich Williams: Yes, but it’s a bit ambiguous. It tends to mean different things to different people. I like things that are ambiguous. The original concept of it was people are so out of touch with what’s around because of the technology in their hand or what they’re watching or computers, whatever.
Rock Cellar: The album continues the use of the band’s trademark violin. Explain the violin’s importance in the Kansas sound.
Rich Williams: We did a couple of albums, Steve Morse on guitar [Power and In the Spirit of Things], good albums but they sound like a different band. They just do. It is a signature sound, it does set us apart. I think it made us do something. What that is is the violinist needs something to do besides stand around and play fiddle parts. It changes my parts, it changes keyboard parts, because suddenly you find yourself in more of an orchestral sense.
It creates a more symphonic sound. If you take the violin away, all of a sudden the guitarist is just flashing, the keyboards are just playing away. You add that other dimension and suddenly you become more artistic in your approach.
Rock Cellar: You and Phil have been together since the first album. What’s the secret of your longevity together?
Rich Williams: The top of the list would be tenacity. We grew up in the Midwest, family life. My dad met my mother in England during World War II. They married and remained married until their death. He had a job at a place called Baker Truck Rental before the war. He came back, Baker Truck Rental became Ryder Truck Rental. He remained with them until he retired. Phil’s dad, he was a colonel in the Air Force. They travelled all over the world. His family life was very similar. He had one job, married until their death.
What I learned was that sticking to a commitment is in my nature by birth and by example. We have a work ethic that we get from our parents and from where we grew up of just sticking to it. Things get tough, you stick with it. Things get good, you stick with it. I started at a certain age to take the next step: when something shitty happens, OK, fine, fuck it. Next step. I’ve never quit anything. So that part isn’t an effort. It’s my nature.
People ask, when are you going to retire, Rich? I go, what would you have me do? Play more golf? Stamp collecting? I’ve got the best job on earth. And someone says, what do you do in your spare time? I practice. I’ve got a guitar room with 30 guitars in it, a wall of amplifiers and my computer is all set up so I can prepare for the next show. That’s what I do. And that’s true for both of us.
We talked about it recently. It comes up once in awhile, after the pandemic especially. It’s like, what do you think? Hey, I’m in. Good, I’m glad to hear that ’cause I am too. We will do this until we can’t. Because we love to do it.
Rock Cellar: Let’s do a Lightning Round. A Kansas song more people should have listened to.
Rich Williams: “The Voyage of Eight Eighteen.”
Rock Cellar: What would be a great song for Kansas to cover?
Rich Williams: We have done some in the past. We did “Eleanor Rigby” with the London Symphony Orchestra. We did “Bringing It Back” by J. J. Cale on the first album. A song that I always thought we’d do great is “Solsbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel.
Rock Cellar: Favorite guitarist.
Rich Williams: Jeff Beck.
Rock Cellar: If you weren’t in Kansas, what band, past or present, do you think you would have been a good fit for?
Rich Williams: AC/DC.
September 1, 2021
August 13, 2021