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Carrying On With Kansas

There’s nothing like a prog-rock classic to give your playing skills a workout. If you’ve played “Carry On Wayward Son” you probably came away with new appreciation for Kansas’ skills, especially those tricky drum parts and death defying vocals.

The band’s still alive and well, and just released an expanded version of their 70s live album Two For the Show. We talked to guitarist Rich Williams and drummer Phil Ehart—the two guys who’ve been in every lineup of Kansas since 1972.

PHIL EHART talks about the drum part he didn’t mean to play, band life in the “Carry On” days, and the band’s next orchestral project:

 

RICH WILLIAMS talked about recording “Carry On,” different band lineups, and why Kansas will never make another album:

 

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Phil Ehart Interview

Brett Milano: So let’s talk about that era and that song just a little bit for people that might just be getting into it. I think I’ve heard you say at different times that you didn’t imagine that that song would be any kind of breakthrough for the band or be what it turned out to be. Was that the case when you first started recording it?

Phil Ehart: I think we didn’t really start realizing how good the song was until we had finished it. It was one of those things that we didn’t really have a chance to record it when we were working up the album Leftoverture. It was a song that Kerry had actually written after we were done we were breaking down our gear and he said, “Well I’ve got one more song, but maybe I can show it to you at the studio.” So we got to the studio and it’s not like we’d been working on it for months and it was like “well let’s learn it” and we kind of pieced it together. In fact, the very beginning right after the vocals “Don’t you cry no more” and I go boom-boom boom-boom with the drums – I just kind of put that there as a marker because I was going to go back and put some kind of clever drum lick in there or something. As we continued to record over everybody was kind of getting hung up on it [saying], “You know, I kind of like that.” And I said, “Really? It’s not very inventive.” And everybody goes “Well yea.” But for some reason everybody kind of thought it [worked], so we stuck with it and now we play the song and everybody goes boom-boom boom-boom, when the song starts. Who knows? You look back and figured you made the right decisions but you’re never really sure why. We never really, at the beginning when we were working it up, thought it was any kind of single. We never really heard it as something on the radio. And when it was done, we kind of sat back. I remember me and Jeff listened kind of leaned back and he said, “You think this will go on the radio?” And I said, “Gosh, it sure sounds good, but what do I know?” It was never planned to be a single. It just kind of happened.

BM: So Leftoverture really came that close to going out without that song even being there?

PE: Well yeah, we had written the whole album. The album was done. We had written it, and rehearsed it, and we were packing up to go to Bogalusa, Louisiana to record the album. And as I remember, we were breaking down stuff and wrapping cords and putting away drums and stuff and Kerry goes, “Oh by the way, I’ve got another song.” Because he was just so prolific at that time. And we said “Really?” and he goes, “Yea, it’s kind of a guitar song and I’ll play it for you guys.” It was just kind of a pieced together – it wasn’t thrown together but it didn’t have all the work on it that all the other songs that we had been rehearsing for a number of months [did]. It just worked great.

BM: Would it have been a shorter album? Was anything bumped to make room for it?

PE: I don’t remember. I don't remember. I think it would have just been a shorter album. I think Leftoverture would have been what it is, just without “Wayward Son.”

BM: Happy accidents. Kansas: Good move Kerry. Thank you for writing that song. It made a big difference.

BM: Do you think that song fits in anywhere conceptually? A lot of Kansas songs were about searching and not really finding what you were looking for and “Carry On” is the most uplifting song I can think of.

PE: Well, Kerry countered it with “Dust in the Wind,” one of the most down songs we’ve ever done.

BM: Right.

PE: Kerry was writing a lot of different [songs] - we had “Cheyenne Anthem” on that album which was about the whole thing with the Cheyenne Indians and all kinds of stuff. There was a lot of different subject matter. “What’s on My Mind” was about his relationship with his wife. There was just lots of different stuff. We were twenty-six, twenty-seven at the time, most of us. We were in our mid-twenties, just talking about stuff. It was a pretty cool title and very cool lyrics. It worked very well for all of us. It’s not a real easy song to play. I’ve had a lot of drummers yell at me about it. “How do you play that?” and “Well how the heck do you?” It was just fun and it came together and everybody enjoyed playing it. Still do.

BM: I think people playing it now in the game would have that same reaction. You did pack an awful lot of information into your songs, didn’t you?

PE: Yes, I agree. I don’t think any of us overplayed on that song, but there was just a lot of stuff in it. The time signature from 4/4 that kind of slides into the 6/8 part is hard for a lot of drummers to grasp that time change. But it’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of fun to do. Once people figure it out they say, “Well that wasn’t that hard at all.” It’s a lot of fun.

BM: In some ways, that song is as close as you got to heavy metal - the sound of the guitars certainly. It’s as heavy as I think you did.

PE: Yeah, -ish. A lot of bands, heavy metal bands and heavier rock bands, have told us that they've play that song because of that riff, so it could be.

BM: What sort of transformations did songs undergo after Kerry or Steve would play them for you? Was there a lot of everyone throwing ideas into the mix and arrangements being pulled out of the hat?

PE: I won’t say a lot of times, but sometimes they’d bring songs in that were just done. They would just kind of play them first, and we’d put our stuff in and it was just done. Sometimes they’d come in needing a little bit more work so the band was involved. With a lot of the arrangements, it didn’t have to be a longer song, we’d play it and say “What would happen if we did this or took that part out?” or “Do we really need to repeat this seventeen times? Can we repeat it seven times?” – that kind of thing. There was always a band involvement in making [the songs]. Lots of times Kerry would come in with a vocal line in mind and Steve would really make it come to life, being a singer. He would make things happen a lot more. Just like the opening harmonies to “Carry On Wayward Son” – that whole group vocal thing – that’s all Steve singing.

BM: How many Steves are there in there?

PE: [laughs] I don’t know. But it sounds great. And those are just things that he’d come up with. We’d all throw our two cents worth in and go from there.

BM: Did you set the bar high for what you’d have to do vocally with that song after that? To have Steve sing like that and now he’s got to do it every night.

PE: The bar wasn’t set too high. There are bands that set the bar so high, like Queen. But when you talk to the Queen guys about that, they said they didn’t look at live performance and making an album as the same thing. They’d say an album is a work of art to them, and they were going to do everything they could possibly do to make it sound like they wanted to. And if they couldn’t pull it off live, then so be it. Obviously Queen had bajillions of vocals, and you’d go see them and there was just three or four guys singing. But Kansas, we tried to stay fairly close. Over the years nobody can absolutely replicate everything physically that you have to do. As you get older, some of the things you did in your twenties are harder to pull off, so you do the best you can. You try to keep it close, anyway.

BM: You recently put out that double album.

PE: Yeah, Two for the Show. It just came out.

BM: Yeah. Did you make any interesting discoveries going back through the old tapes and unearthing the new stuff?

PE: Yeah, about nine tracks that we didn’t know we had. That’s what we discovered and that’s what the second disc is in that release. There’s a whole second disc of stuff that really nobody had ever heard and we went back and remixed all those and put them on it and they sound great. One of the main things we discovered is how fast we played everything. Some things are really fast, but that probably has to do again with the youth, and playing in front of twenty thousand screaming people. The adrenaline starts flowing and tempos pick up a little bit - on some songs, a lot. That was kind of surprising. “Wow, we played fast!” Well, we were about thirty years younger too. It turned out to be a very good release and we’re very proud of it.

BM: Somehow you managed to play some incredibly tricky stuff at even faster speeds.

PE: [laughs] Yeah, we do that anyway. It’s always fun to listen to that stuff, very much so.

BM: What were your lives like back then when you were basically touring all the time, recording all the time, writing all the time? Did you have much of a life outside the band?

PE: Not much. The first five or six years of this band it was just nothing but gigs. And then we’d take a short time to record and then… In 1975 we released two albums – Song for America and Masque.

BM: Both at the same time?

PE: Well the albums were at the beginning and end of the year and it was like, “Okay, now get back in and [make another one].” A lot going on, and the band was very successful. Once we hit “Wayward Son” and then boom, it blew up again. Then came Point of Know Return, and that was top twenty single for us. And then boom came “Dust in the Wind” and then we were even more famous. It was pretty exciting times, selling out everywhere we went and going to Europe and Japan. Doing all this stuff you’d always dreamed of doing. And we were very fortunate to do it and at the time we just thought well obviously when this quiets down we’ll probably go home and work at Sears or something. [laughs] We didn’t realize that we could keep this going and going and going. And next year is our thirty-fifth year of playing in Kansas. We just never thought we could actually get to do this. We just thought, well after you fade away you just stop. Thanks to classic rock radio, which popped up in the late eighties, we came back. Even though we were still recording and working with NCA at the time, our popularity started resurging and plateau-ing because of classic rock radio and the success of “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry on Wayward Son.” Those two songs are played on radio every day all over the world. It just keeps the band there, just keeps us in front of people. We’re very lucky.

BM: You and Rich have been the two that have been in every line-up. How did it wind up to be the two of you to have carried on the tradition and always held the band together?

PE: I don’t know. It’s not like we’ve ever sat down and planned it out that way. It’s just the way it was. People came and people went. It was always their choices to come and go. Obviously we asked some people to join and they did and some of them chose to leave and others chose to stick around. The organization that we have now with me and Rich and Billy and Steve and David Ragsdale is a great incarnation of the band that we really like and is very solid. And as long as everybody stays healthy, this band does very well.

BM: It’s the same line-up that was together in the early nineties, right?

PE: Yeah, it was. Yeah, it sure was.

BM: For a long running band you’ve had a fairly small amount of turnover, I would bet.

PE: Fairly small. If you spread it over thirty years, it’s fairly small. We’re happy with that and we still have three original guys which is more than a lot of the other type bands out there. I don’t think people get that hung up anymore. You figure that Journey’s on what – their fourth singer? They did bigger business last summer than they have in decades. I don’t think people care. I think that people are into the songs and as long as the songs sound remotely close, they’re gonna go. I mean, who would ever think that somebody could replace Steve Perry, one of the greatest vocalists of all time? But three singers have. And people still come to see them. It’s more about the music I think any more than who’s in the band. I don’t think people care.

BM: Tell me about the orchestral thing you’ve been doing lately. I believe you’re about to go further with that next year.

PE: Kansas has been playing the symphony since the mid-nineties, and it’s just a niche that we have that we can go do at times. We’re working on doing that for 2009 and 2010, working more with university orchestras and stuff like that, as well as city orchestras. It’s just taking Kansas music and having it scored and conducted and played with an orchestra. We play along with them and it’s pretty cool. It’s a real different experience. We probably do five or six, seven a year. The first year we did it, we did about fifteen and then we kind of took a break and said we don’t want to do that for a while. It’s just very odd going from five guys on stage to fifty-five guys on stage. It’s just a bigger endeavor and a much bigger something to cart around, but we enjoy doing it.

Rich Williams Interview

Brett Milano: The fun thing about Rock Band is that you can play it on drums and bass and vocals so you can kind of see how much tricky stuff all you guys are doing in that song.

Rich Williams: That's a great idea. Somebody told me that it was the number three guitar riff or something on that program that was rated by some magazine or something. I don't know. It's pretty cool though.

BM: It could well be. I'm going to ask a couple of questions about that song, first of all before we move on. And one thing I've always wondered about is back in the day when you were recording those records and someone like Kerry or Steve would bring in a song, how much transformation would a song undergo when the songwriter brought it in? Was there a lot of trying out different arrangements and hashing things out in the studio?

RW: Every song was different, but some were close to really written, a lot of them were not at all. Something would come in and it would just be transformed right from the get go. Then when you get down to it there's the part, and sometimes the part that's in your head doesn't sound quite right when it's applied. And just the nature of each individual playing, things change. Inevitably there was some change, but there's sometimes just a lot. "Wayward Son," for instance, didn't have much of a chance to change because it was brought up on the last day of rehearsal before we went to the studios so basically we ran the structure of the song and then went to the studio. We were just rolling tape as we were learning it, basically and probably the first time we got it right is the version they heard.

BM: What did you first think when you heard that song? Did you think it was something special?

RW: Yeah, right away it just had enough unique [things] - it had a great riff at the beginning, it had a great riff in the middle with a really strong chorus. It's about three or four songs in a song that really melded together well. Add the cool rhythmic changes where it turns into double time, double time turns into a shuffle and all that. It just had a lot of really cool elements. We just liked the song. We had no idea it would do what it did, but we knew we had a good song.

BM: I remember I think it was Phil that said the idea of that song ever becoming a hit seemed really far-fetched to you guys at the time.

RW: It wasn't an attempt at a hit. It was just another song that came up. It wasn't like, "You guys let's crank out a hit." It just turned out that way and it's far from a formulated song at that time or any time. Usually an attempt at a hit is like going, "Okay guys we gotta have something for the radio. Okay, what are they playing right now? Okay write something like this crap. Okay." That song just came out and it was like "Wow! Let's do a capella here at the beginning." It was just, "Okay, that sounds cool." It just all kind of fell together. There's an old saying that you can't polish a turd.

BM: Right.

RW: And this just had too many great parts, like "Let's put this here," "No, let's put this here." Any way we twisted or turned it, all the parts were good.

BM: I know there was a tendency in the band to get very experimental and play a lot of complicated music and there was also a tendency to be a rock band and be pretty straightforward and accessible. Were those two things always kind of battling it out within Kansas?

RW: It was a battle on some fronts and it was a compromise on some fronts. We wanted to do it on some parts, it was kind of all of that. But really it was coming from when you put six individuals' viewpoints of how things should be done, and so kind of the compromise of all that turned into the spectrum of what we are. Had any one person been God, it would have been different. Lyrically it was just inspirational for any man. It's not inspirational strictly for the Mennonites. It's for anybody. It's non-denominational. It is no denominational. It's inspirational. And it's ambiguous enough that that anyone that wants to pay attention to what the lyrics are.

BM: You recently went back and dug up some new music from the double live album that you had in the seventies, Two for the Show. Were there any revelations to be found listening back to those tapes?

RW: It was really fun to listen to. We'd never heard any of that stuff before. When we recorded several nights, and the expense of mixing everything was just not a practical thing, so it was like, "Here's what we'll put on and find the best versions of those and put it on." We could only do the double album being vinyl restricted to just a certain amount of time. When the record company told us they wanted to put out this 30th anniversary album, and wanted our input. We knew we had the tapes in a vault stored. Normally they'd just want to remaster it and put it out. That just doesn't give me or anybody a warm thought. We really wanted to make this project different than [others]. So we did remaster the original disc, added new liner notes and this and that, but the second disc is all the rest of the stuff, basically, that didn't make it on the first one. Actually, we had to resurrect the tapes because they were rotting thirty years later, so that's a whole process where tapes have to be baked in an oven and then that information is transferred to digital and they only get one pass at it. And so once you do that, then you can actually start listening to it. And it was pretty exciting really to hear stuff that you haven't heard since the night you played it. Personally for me, it's rare that you get to go in as a listener and hear something. To hear something that you did thirty years ago was just, it was fun. I've actually listened to the album [thinking] "What did I screw up?"

BM: [laughs]

RW: And I finally could sit back and just listen to the band as a whole and it was very exciting to hear. We knew we had it, something to add to the disc. And in doing that we wanted to do it exactly the same way which was no overdubs, no anything - just mix what happened. It was done in the same manner, with analog gear, not even automated mixing, we had hands-on mixing and all that to simulate basically what the original disc was - a historical recording of the event, basically.

BM: Does it seem amazing now how fast you were able to work back then? Doing an album every year and learning all that stuff and going out and playing it?

RW: Well you get six guys all living hand to mouth together with nothing to do except practice new material and then the occasional gig, you can get a lot done. Once people started getting their own homes and married and children, life really does get in the way of that process. You just can't keep up the pace that you did when you were all living together twenty-four hours a day.

BM: Were you able to have any personal lives at all at that point?

RW: I don't think we really cared. We grew up in a very structured environment, you know school, home, homework, family vacations - it was,I would say that, We were out on our own for the first time and it was just like a pirate ship. You know, "All for one, one for all." Free from the bonds of small-town Kansas, an eye-opening experience.

BM: Yeah. I assume the idea of being famous and making money and all that didn't really touch you yet, because you were too busy to even notice it, right?

RW: Oh, yeah. It wasn't really until Leftoverture went Gold that we really knew. At that point all our past record debt was paid off, and at that point we were even. We signed the worst record deal, probably of all time. And so, it was pennies on the dollar, and then we split that with management and six ways, which didn't leave much. Especially when you have to pay off recording costs, all the video costs, everything. And then that maybe three cents that finally would get in your pocket, the record company hides half of that from you. If we got individually, a penny a record, I'd be surprised.

BM: So you and Phil are the two guys that have been in every incarnation of Kansas now. Did it kind of fall to you to be the keepers of the flame?

RW: It wasn't like we volunteered, but it is the way it turned out. I don't know, it was like, "What do you want to do?" "I want to do this." "Well me too." It was like a no brainer. I love what we do, always have. And all I have to do is just get my ass out of bed and go do it. What else would I rather do? And I know I'm in Kroger a lot. I know my way around there, I could probably be a stock boy or maybe run the cash register. I've had a real job. This isn't real work. This is fantasyland. I've lived in fantasyland for thirty-five years now. Like Peter Pan, we never really grow old. You look in the mirror though and, holy s**t, what happened? You're still young at heart.

BM: You've played in the band now alongside a couple of other different guitar players and two violin players over the years. Does your approach tend to vary according to who else is in the front line?

RW: To some extent. With Dave versus Robby, the parts were just written as is, so nothing much changes there. With Robby there was a lot more guitar playing that I had to do on everything because I was the only guitar player. Dave also plays guitar so there were some things where we could double on the guitar, which kind of frees me up to do a slightly different part.

BM: And you can bring that double guitar stuff that there was before?

RW: Yeah. With Steve Morris, again different because he was a violin player, so he was covering a lot of things including all the violin melody lines and stuff. It's always different to some degree.

BM: I know it's probably an issue you've thought about and people ask about, but do you think there can be one more album for the road?

RW: I don't know about album, but as far as all new material, no. It's hard to imagine. Right now we're in the working plans of doing a - we started this year with symphony dates. We're going to put in a lot more for next year and we wanted to do - we're aiming for January, I don't know if we can make it - we're going to record us with the symphony for DVD. It includes stuff that we haven't ever scored with a symphony.

BM: So it'll go beyond that symphonic album you did a few years back?

RW: Yeah, it will be, some of those scores and other scores that we've added to that repertoire since. Then again it'll be a DVD not just a studio disc, but live DVD and hopefully we'll have a new song or two that will be heard for the first time in that format. Kind of like that Eagles album that was the No More Cloudy Days. You know, if you want that song, that's where it's available, it's on the DVD. Times have changed. We could record two songs and make them available as downloads. There's no chisel and stone anymore where you have to go in, record X amount of songs to fill up a disc and then market it as a CD. We could kind of do anything we want.

BM: Downloads only tracks seem to be quite a successful venture nowadays.

RW: And that is a much more doable thing to us anyway. I mean, let's face it. I always use the Rolling Stones as an example because they're our peers. They're out on mega-million dollar tours, they put out an album, they sell 150,000 copies. Nobody cares. They start playing stuff off the new album, people go out and get a beer, take a piss and get a t-shirt. So why stop doing what we're doing, spend a year of just in bloody hell trying to put together an entire album that only a handful of people will give a s**t about? Why am I going to do this? It's pretty hard to talk yourself into it. But a couple songs here, a couple songs there? Hey, why not? That's easy.


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