Summer 2020 sees legendary US band Kansas releasing their seventeenth studio album, entitled The Absence of Presence, and it’s drenched in the sound which has made them one of the most iconic bands from the USA. You want classic rock, Prog rock and heart wrenching ballads, all played with the high quality of musicianship which helped make their name? It’s all here. There may only be Rich Williams (guitar) and Phil Ehart (drums) left from the band which played on the first Kansas album back in 1974, but they’ve not lost anything along the way. They’re still Kansas and they’re still a class act.
Kansas emerged out of Topeka, Kansas, in the early seventies when, in what was at this time a fluid club scene, musicians were interchanging regularly across different bands and mixing sounds together but, when the six members who would eventually become Kansas got together, it was clear to everyone they had ‘something,’ so they formed a permanent band, naming it after their home state. And, after forty seven years in the saddle, they’re now fully qualified survivors of a golden period of US seventies classic rock, which saw bands such as Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, REO Speedwagon and Styx, amongst others, rise to the top. And whilst these bands still exist and play gigs, it’s only Kansas who’re still making albums with new songs on a regular basis.
Vocalist Ronnie Platt is the relatively new boy in Kansas, being a member of the band since 2014. He’d previously played in bar bands and covers groups whilst working as a truck driver but, when he stepped up to the plate with Kansas, not only was he joining a well-established act, he was also stepping into the shoes of an iconic vocalist, Steve Walsh, who’d been with the band 40 years, apart from a break in the early ’80s, and was a major part of the band’s identity. Nerve-wracking or what? Ronnie explained how it felt to replace a legend, amongst other things, when he agreed to talk to Velvet Thunder, ahead of the new album’s forthcoming release.
“It all happened so fast,” he began after being asked about his getting the Kansas gig. “A friend sent me a message about the announcement of Steve’s retirement. So, I contacted Richard Williams on Facebook on a whim. I was friends with him and he’d seen me when I played with Shooting Star, so I asked him to consider me. I didn’t really expect anything to come of it because, with announcements like this, it’s usually the case they’ve already got a replacement in mind because they were in the middle of touring. So, when I got a message back from Richard the very next day, it was quite a shock. I thought my chances were about one in a billion! But I talked to Richard on the Thursday, and to Phil on the Friday, and on the Monday I found myself in Atlanta meeting both guys. I didn’t have any high expectations because I’d had previous auditions which I’d been excited about but which hadn’t come to fruition, and in this business there’s a lot of rejection,” he emphasised firmly. “So, after meeting Richard and Phil I was home late Monday and was back at my day job Tuesday morning when I received an email from Phil telling me I was in the band. Even now, six years after that week, it still seems surreal to me.”
Did it feel like he’d won the rock ‘n roll jackpot then? “Oh, in more ways than one,” Ronnie exclaimed, very excitedly. “Not only to get the position of lead singer in a band I’d had a lifetime’s affection for, but also to discover I was going to be singing on a new studio album? Talk about beyond your dreams. And, as well as this, I was also going to have a big hand in writing lyrics for the Prelude Implicit album, so for me this was winning a lottery three times in a row. How many people can say this?”
“I’ve taken over from Steve Walsh,” he went on, “and there’s also been Arnel taking over from Steve Perry in Journey, and Tommy deCarlo’s taken over in Boston, so I’m in a very exclusive club with these guys. But, what really puts me at a higher level than these guys is Kansas still puts out albums of new music, and I’ve written lyrics for them, and this is beyond anything I could have expected.”
Steve Walsh left Kansas in 2014. At this time, despite still being active on the gig circuit, the band hadn’t released any studio albums since 2000’s Somewhere to Elsewhere. Did Kansas have any plans to make another studio album after Steve left, and would they have recorded Prelude Implicit if Ronnie hadn’t joined the band? “Not at first, they didn’t,” he stated. “When I joined the band, I had no indication a new album was on Richard’s and Phil’s agenda. At this time, they were just looking at replacing Steve and keeping the train rolling, as far as performing ‘live,’ but with the addition of myself and David Mannion, we brought new ambition into the band and, really, you have to hand it to Phil and Richard because, after all this time, forty seven years, they still,” (he was emphatic), “want to create new music, and that’s an amazing thing when you consider the back catalogue of music Kansas has at its disposal; they could easily have just fallen back on the library which was already there. But with new members, and Richard and Phil wanting to enhance their creative side, all the creative elements were there to make new music. The Prelude album came out way higher than any of my expectations, and I believe it made no:14 on the Billboard 100 album chart, which is amazing, he stressed, “for a classic rock band from the seventies.”
So, when Ronnie first started singing with Kansas onstage, and putting across classic songs from their repertoire such as Wayward Son, Dust in the Wind and Song for America, how hard had he found it to try and make these songs ‘Ronnie Platt’ songs, as many fans would have been used to hearing Steve Walsh singing them? “Not very hard at all, because I’d been such a Kansas fan, and also a fan of progressive rock, and I’ve never been a very disciplined singer as far as staying true to the music. I’ve always considered myself a singer who shoots from the hip, wanting to experiment and make small changes in the melody. Sometimes you experiment and something really neat comes out from something you just did off the cuff. Richard and Phil give me creative licence, and I don’t honestly think I’d survive too long in any band which had me under a microscope, and expected me to sing every note the same, every time. That’s just not my character. Against this, however, some of Kansas’ songs are so ingrained in people’s minds so you try not to veer away from the melody too much so as not to alienate the audience. Classic example of this? Take Dust in the Wind. I don’t take creative licence with this because I’ve heard it a million times, and it’s ingrained in the fans’ minds just the same, so I stay true to the original recording – but, in the deeper cuts, I’m gonna run with it.”
On stage, I suggested to Ronnie, surely there’s nothing wrong with taking chances with new arrangements because, if all you want is the note-for-note original, you might just as well stay home and play the album. “Right,” he agreed. “When fans come to a show, they want to hear the band embellish the song, it’s part of the ‘live’ element. It’s interjecting extra energy into the show and helps heighten the excitement level.” And this is why people go to shows, isn’t it? “I believe so, ”Ronnie demurs, “especially when you’ve got the musicianship Kansas has. Phil plays drums like a 25-year old, and Richard is rock-solid on guitar. We have David Ragsdale, one of the best violin players in the world, and now we have Tom Brislin, who’s one of the best, if not the best,” he emphasised, “keyboard player in the world, so when you come see a Kansas show, you don’t wanna see us restrained, you wanna see and hear us giving it our all, and that’s what makes our ‘live’ show so attractive. It’s very self-indulgent for me to be onstage with such stellar talent. I’ve been in the audience at a Kansas show, and I could feel the excitement, but it’s tenfold standing onstage when, playing something like Wayward Son, you can feel the energy of the audience. It’s a circulatory thing; when the band feels the energy of the audience, the band elevates, and when we elevate, you can feel the audience elevate. It’s a fun thing.”
When Steve Walsh left the band in 2014, given his iconic status as a singer, and the band’s forty plus year history, had Kansas give any serious consideration to calling it a day, or was it always the case the band were going to continue? “I don’t think so,” Ronnie came back with. “I don’t honestly believe they had any plans to call it a day. Richard’s attitude was ‘what am I gonna do if I retire, watch TV all day?’ I think he’s gonna keep going and die onstage. This is what he does, he’s doing what he loves to do, and the same with Phil. They’re enjoying experiencing the success the band is currently having. When you’re doing something you’ve loved your entire life, why end it ? Why stop? If I wasn’t in Kansas I’d still be a musician. Music’s the best therapy in the world.”
Before Prelude Implicit, Kansas hadn’t released a new album in the 2000s but, since 2016, as well as Prelude, they’ve also released a ‘live’ double album, Leftoverture: 40th Anniversary Tour and now, in 2020, there’s a new studio album, Absence of Presence. Did Ronnie think his presence, as new blood in a long established band, has given Kansas a new lease of life? “Yes, I think so,” Ronnie said, cautiously. “With the addition of myself and David Mannion in the band back in 2014, it was definitely new blood coming into the band, and one of the things I’m very fortunate to experience is the acceptance of the fanbase, which is something I’m very thankful for. There’s definitely a new lease of life because, in the time I’ve been in the band, I’ve seen our audiences and our venues grow larger and larger. Not only that, with the help of the TV show, Supernatural, and our playing ‘ComiCon’ in San Diego, we’ve seen an influx of younger people. The long-time Kansas fans are now bringing their children, who in turn are bringing their children,” he laughed, “and I love seeing the younger fans in the audience with an appreciation of our music, it really warms my heart. The band has acquired a new lease on life and we’re really taking advantage of it.”
Ronnie believes he know exactly why a band like Kansas have acquired such longevity. “I grew up during a time when some of the greatest music ever has been produced in classic rock. The timeframe, from the late sixties to the mid-eighties? Gosh, there was just an incredible explosion of great music, really great music, and it’s stood the test of time. Carry on Wayward Son is one of the most requested songs on rock radio, if not the most requested, along with Stairway to Heaven.” And Don’t Fear The Reaper must be up there at the top for requests, I suggested… “Oh, my God, our friends Blue Oyster Cult,” he laughed. “We’ve done so many gigs with BOC. They’re a great bunch of guys and, I’m very proud to say, I’ve played the cowbell on Reaper ‘live’ onstage. That’s pretty cool. My life is complete,” he laughed again.
Kansas and similar bands like them from the seventies era are often referred to as ‘Heritage bands’ but, it was suggested, with Kansas still releasing albums of new music, this is surely a description more applicable to bands like the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons? Ronnie was in full agreement with this.“I don’t think so. Heritage band isn’t a valid description of a band like Kansas. Heritage, to me, is something from years ago, and to release Prelude Implicit and Leftoverture Live, plus with Absence of Presence set for release, I believe there’s no end in sight. We’re going to continue. Heritage band isn’t a fair description of Kansas. Not only are we playing new music, we’re having it well received as well. Not a day passes without someone commenting on Facebook about anticipating the release of Absence of Presence, there’s a real excitement about it, and it’s flattering our fans are still excited about what’s coming out. It’s a great thing.”
The new album, Absence of Presence, is a wide-ranging prog album with very strong musicianship from guys who’ve got their chops honed perfectly. There’re some really strong songs on the album, it’s very rocky and surprisingly heavy in places. What was Ronnie’s take on the new album? How would he describe the album? “I would describe it as being very diverse,” he stated, “which is a typical recipe for Kansas. Every album Kansas has done has always had such a wide variety of music, and Absence is no exception. There’s a song like Throwing Mountains, which a lot of people are saying is progressive metal, because it’s so heavy, maybe almost like in the Dream Theater genre. But, on the same album, there’s Memories Down The Line and Never which are straight-ahead heartfelt ballads. So, the diversity in the songs is very wide. Tom did a fantastic job on The Song The River Sang, but from Tom I never expect anything less. We had a blast recording this song. We were doing some very interesting things in the studio. I think people will be very surprised by the new album.”
I suggested that they’ve now set the bar very high for their next studio album, if indeed they have another one left in them. Ronnie agreed with this. “Yeah, right, we have,” he said, laughing. “But I’m confident, when you have Zak Rizvi and Tom Brislin in your band, the high bar is an expectation. Both of these guys bleed talent, they really do. Zak never ceases to amaze me as to how good someone can be as a guitar player and a producer, as well as have an incredible knowledge of music theory. And on top of it, you won’t meet a nicer guy. God, I hate him!” he laughed out loud. “No, I’m just kidding. In this band, there’s no rock star attitude or no musical arrogance, which is one of the reasons we all get along so well together.”
Kansas are in the Kansas State Hall of Fame and the Georgia Hall of Fame but, to date, have yet to be inducted into THE Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Is this something the band have given any consideration to, or are they simply not concerned about their absence (of Presence ?) from it? “To me, it’s just mind-boggling that Kansas is not there, ” he was emphatic, “because I really have a hard time coming up with a list of bands who’ve launched other musicians as much as Kansas. Throughout my life, of all the many guitar players I’ve known, and I’ve known quite a few, one of the first songs they learned on guitar was Dust In The Wind, which influenced them and started their music careers. And then, the band has such iconic songs. Dust In The Wind wasn’t just a big rock song, it was also played on country stations and contemporary rock stations. Where have you not heard Dust In The Wind? But, for the band not to be in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, it short-circuits me, I don’t understand it. We should be in it, and I’m saying this from the perspective of what an influence Kansas has been, and to come from Topeka, Kansas, with these musicians and this level of talent is really a unique thing. Richard and Phil, forty seven years on, would appreciate it, but they don’t let outside things like this disturb them. They’re proud of what Kansas has accomplished and is still accomplishing.”
In 1998, before Ronnie’s time with the band, Kansas recorded with the LSO at Abbey Road, London, and did an orchestral tour. Was this a one-off or could something like this happen again? “If there’s one thing about Kansas, it’s that there’s nothing which isn’t on the table: Everything is an option. It’s a matter of, logistically, does it work and does it fit into our schedule? There’s nothing in the works at present but anything is possible.”
A very interesting talk with Ronnie Platt ended with him being asked how, in 2017, Kansas had been booked to headline the prog stage at the Ramblin’ Man festival, but they pulled out, citing fears of terrorism as the reason for not flying over to appear, though this didn’t stop Glenn Hughes and ZZ Top, amongst others, from appearing. Devin Townsend headlined instead. I wondered, was this the real reason they didn’t appear or were there other factors involved? Ronnie thought for a moment. “At this time, there was a lot of unrest, and I think what sets our band apart from other bands is the name of the band is Kansas, which might draw a little more attention than other bands. But it was a decision which was made after the Ariana Grande incident, in May 2017, and it was unfortunate we had to pass on this one. I’m so looking forward to coming over to Europe at the end of this year,” he stressed, “but with the current lockdown situation, we really are in a holding pattern, so we have to wait and see. But I am so anxious to come over to Europe and to bring this band to spoil the fans, because it’s something to see, and I really hope we get there sooner rather than later”.
The ‘Jukebox Heroes’ 2020 American tour, with Kansas, Foreigner and Europe, has been deferred due to the pandemic. Kansas are due to play London in October but, at this time, it’s anyone’s guess if it’ll go ahead. Fingers crossed that it does happen at some time!