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Mysteries And Mayhem: Kansas Guitarist Rich Williams Reveals All

Interview by John "Bo Bo" Bollenberg

Richard Williams (courtesy)
Richard Williams (courtesy)
Somewhere, elsewhere, guitarist Richard Williams found himself 1500 miles from home yet with a free day on his hands. Due to the fact that the entire Kansas line-up consists of middle-aged men, Richard decided to kill the time by calling me for an interview instead of a knees-up with the boys. In fact it was I calling him which will make my wife very happy once the phone bill hits my letterbox! As it was impossible for me to fly over to the States to see Rich "eye to eye" (no pun intended) the "long distance" phone was our best option.

In fact, only an hour or so before the interview I was informed that I would talk to "cyclops" Rich (maybe he has his money tied up in the British prog distribution company Cyclops?) so I could throw away three-quarters of the prepared interview, which was based on an interview with Steve Walsh. So what? I was convinced my Kansas knowledge would stretch far enough to get to know some interesting bits and pieces. So could the receptionist connect me with room 208 please?

What is the magic of Kansas, the original recipe?

Steve Walsh (courtesy)
Steve Walsh (courtesy)
Obviously the inclusion of the violin within our music makes it original. The violin is part of the orchestration, as we approach our music as an orchestra with structures and counterpoints. I mean Charlie Daniels also plays a mean bit of violin but the result is nothing like Kansas!

There's a brand new Kansas album, Somewhere To Elsewhere on Magna Carta. What's your favourite track and why?

This probably changes every day! "Icarus II" I like because it has a very good story. I also like the middle section, the heavy guitars and the ending. It's a well-crafted song. "Myriad" is "old school" Kansas with all the trimmings. "The Coming Dawn" has some nice lyrics. Somewhere To Elsewhere (2000) Right now we only play two songs from the new album live, but we do hope to be able to include more once we headline our own tour. So far we've chosen "Icarus II" and "Not Man Big". We would also like to come to Europe, but as long as the German tax law isn't changed then there's no chance for us to come over. In the "old" days a promoter would agree on a certain fee and you would pay tax on that fee. All extras such as flight, backline, catering, hotel, bus would be free from tax. With the new regulations you pay 40 % tax on everything which means we'd have to pay money to have the privilege to come over. No, as long as these rules are applied there's no chance for us to come to Europe.

Back to the new album which has not been produced by Jeff Glixman

Phil Ehart (courtesy)
Phil Ehart (courtesy)
We worked with Jeff for a very long time and then our collaboration ended, as we wanted to explore new musical ventures. We brought Jeff back in for the Live At The Whiskey album as we needed an engineer. The new album was recorded at Kerry [Livgren]'s place, which is where Kerry produces all of his own stuff. Me, Phil [Ehart] & Kerry knew what to do yet we needed a professional outsider to supervise the mixing so in we drafted Brad [Aaron] who also mixed Monolith and worked as an engineer with Glixman on Point Of Know Return and Leftoverture.Point Of Know Return (1977)

How did Kansas end up on the Magna Carta label?

We have never liked the record industry, so from the moment we knew we were to record a new Kansas album, we definitely wanted to do everything on our own. We all liked the vintage-Kansas idea but we most definitely didn't like the record industry. Although we wanted to do everything ourselves, we soon realized we had no experience in a lot of domains such as distribution and promotion, to name but two. We certainly could sell CD's through our website but that would only mean a handful of releases. We knew Pete Morticelli at Magna Carta HQ,
Robby Steinhardt (courtesy)
Robby Steinhardt (courtesy)
Robby [Steinhardt] sang on the Jethro Tull tribute [he does a mean "New Day Yesterday - JB]) whilst Steve Walsh has been recording his solo album Glossolalia for release in September on Magna Carta. So far I haven't heard any of the material but the only thing Steve wanted to reveal to me was that it will be a "departure from anything!" So we'll probably hear Steve doing something he never did before, not with Kansas, not with Streets. I'm curious.

Were you ever asked to contribute on any of the Magna Carta tribute albums yourself?

The very first meeting I had with Pete Morticelli, he asked me if I was interested. I said I was, but in the end nothing happened. I know there even was talk of a Kansas tribute album, which would be interesting, as I'd love to hear how other artists treat our music. Billy Greer is doing an album for the Italian Frontiers label and I'm guesting on that. I've only heard one song so far and it sounds very much like 80's Whitesnake. Should be interesting.

Billy Greer (courtesy)
Billy Greer (courtesy)
Whose idea was it to integrate a small segment of "Magnum Opus" within "When The World Was Young"?

Believe it or not but that was already there in Kerry's demo! He thought it would be a great teaser for the fans to include this repeat theme. And he's right because it works very well, even if it only concerns a tiny fragment.

Kansas has always been regarded as being a band with violin, but suddenly Robby leaves and Kansas hits the road (and the recording studio) with two guitarists. Was Steve Morse the ideal replacement for Robby Steinhardt?

At the time we really needed someone who could write new material as well as play so when we heard that Steve was game of course we were interested. We knew Steve from the Dixie Dregs so we knew how capable he was. We never thought at that moment that a guitar was replacing a violin because we were really looking to create a brand new Kansas, and if that meant a change in sound so that be it. When Robby was still around we used to divide the solos fifty-fifty between guitar and violin. With Steve in the band the solos were divided fifty-fifty between Steve and myself, so in a way very little changed except for the sound. I have to admit that things changed for the better once David Ragsdale stepped, in as he brought back the missing link, which certainly was the violin.

Kansas Discography 1983 - 1998It strikes me that during a Kansas gig no material is played from Power and In The Spirit Of Things , both of which were albums Steve Morse guested on.

People hardly request any of the material anyway. Both albums were released on MCA and they did next to nothing to promote our albums. There were a couple of minor hits on the albums, but not big enough to be requested at a later stage. With David Ragsdale we did "Bells Of St. James" and "Musicatto" [from In The Spirit...] though. To be honest I'd rather play some of the new material than harking back to those days.

What would you say is the difference between Robby Steinhardt and David Ragsdale?

Ragsdale is a very accomplished musician. He plays in Vegas for about two months, six days a week. Robby has always been regarded as the one with the true Kansas sound. He also was the visual focal point of the band, our frontman who did all of the talking and also sang 1/3 of the material. So in that respect there is a big difference, but both are very talented brilliant musicians. I'm happy to have had the privilege to work with both of them.

What strikes me as a little "weird" is the fact that all of the material on Somewhere To Elsewhere has been written by Kerry Livgren yet he doesn't join the band on tour

Kerry Livgren (courtesy)
Kerry Livgren (courtesy)
Kerry doesn't want to go on tour. It's that simple. He lives with his family on a farm full of animals, he has his own recording studio, has his own record label, does bible studies. Sometimes his wife goes "hey Kerry, why don't you go on tour with the boys?," but as much as he would like to do, it he has so many other things he wants to do, so he just stays at home. I mean, look at me: today is a free day, whilst yesterday and the day before both concerts had to be cancelled due to throat problems of Jon Anderson. So I have been stuck in this hotel room for three days, 1500 miles away from my family, in total boredom! That won't happen with Kerry! But whenever we perform in his area he's always there to join us, as he really enjoys being on stage. Where the material on the new album is concerned, Kerry had written lots of material which simply was top notch Kansas material. On the other hand, Steve had written plenty of material as well, which was in no way related to Kansas. So when the idea for a new Kansas album came about, it was obvious that we needed to use all of Kerry's songs.

You are currently doing the Masterworks tour with Yes. How does it feel?

It feels great. It's a good formula. We have a good selection of crossover fans who like both Kansas and Yes. Yes are the headliners as it's their tour so we play for an hour. Of course, there's so much material to chose from that we can only play two of the new ones next to the classics. It's obvious that people want to hear as much of the "old" material as possible, especially as we're back in the original line-up.

Is it possible that Jon Anderson might hit the stage to guest during "Dust In The Wind"?

That's fine by me although it hasn't happened so far. I think it's not that logical either because each of the bands play their specific form of complicated music. It's not as if you'd have .38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd performing on the same night. I guess here it's too difficult, although everything is possible. The show Yes is doing now is really the Yes we all like best as well. I mean, they open their show with "Close To The Edge" so what can be wrong with that? I also loved Yes with Trevor Rabin, as he added something extra, but it was like Kansas with Steve Morse: a different band. I also liked Billy Sherwood, but just prior to this tour we were informed that he had left the band. So it's all up to Mr. Guitar himself Steve Howe. He's a great player and there's no way you can compare me with his playing. We both use a stand on stage which is as far as it goes [some loud transatlantic laughter reaches my ear! - JB]. We both use different tones, a different approach, but Steve's a tremendous technician.

I believe Kansas did a similar tour in 1996 together with Styx

That's right and a good tour it was, too. From a personal view I must say I like this tour better. The Styx show was very successful, they're a great band, but let's say I only have a few Styx albums at home but I do have every single Yes record!

Do you know what's happening in the current world of prog? Do you know who Zello is? Or Enchant or Ted Leonard?

Zello I've never heard of before, but now you tell me how close their sound is compared to ours, I definitely need to check it out. I'll ask someone to keep me informed so I can listen to their music. I have heard the name Enchant but I don't know if I ever heard their music. Again now you tell me how close Ted Leonard's voice is to that of Steve Walsh, I definitely must check it out. You have made me curious! The only thing I can say about the new wave of progressive rock is that a label like Magna Carta has become synonymous for quality. You now have fans of Magna Carta buying all of the label's releases blindfolded! This might have happened with Motown but I don't recall it happening in the last twenty years or so. Personally I heard some of their tribute CD's and found them pretty interesting. I should ask Pete Morticelli to send me his entire output though, as I'm really getting more and more interested in what's happening. Also that other band you just mentioned, Tempest, sounds like something I'm certain to enjoy.

On 28th July 1995, Kansas entered the RockWalk of Fame. What does this mean to you?

Of course you're proud you've been awarded this achievement. In fact it's at the Los Angeles Guitar Center and I was there recently with the boys from Under the Sun. They're a great band, very talented musicians! . What I really would like to see is get Kansas in the Hall of Fame in Cleveland. You need to be active in music for at least 25 years so we're eligible now. I know there's a bunch of people from our fan club following us around on this tour. They visit all of our concerts and hand out thousands of ballots that they send, fully signed, to the organisation in Cleveland. So who knows, one day it might all happen.

Two For The Show (1978)On 14th August 1978 a certain John Hoffert was involved in a car accident when he drove home from a Kansas concert. This made you dedicate theTwo For The Show set to him. How far does Kansas go in their commitment to the fans?

If it wasn't for the fans then all of this wouldn't happen in the first place. After Steve Morse left, MCA dropped us, the booking agent said he no longer had work for us, the management said we were out of a job. Then came an offer from a German promoter offering us a two-week tour in Germany. When we came back we thought it would be fun to do a two week tour every year, but then two weeks were added to those two weeks and another two weeks followed and before we knew it we were doing more than one hundred shows a year! So now we manage ourselves. I guess we always underestimated the size of our fanbase!

Rumours have it that Steve Walsh's vocals were not recorded during the session at Kerry's place, which has some people believe there are some problems in the band

When Steve was approached about the new Kansas recording he and his wife just had a new baby. On top of that, he has his own professional studio at home in Atlanta, so whenever he feels the need to sing, say at four in the morning, he just gets out of bed, goes to his studio and starts recording! If we had asked Steve to come over to Kerry's studio then half of the time he would have been bored to death thinking of his loved ones in Atlanta, which would not have been good for the atmosphere on the album. Also due to the fact that technology has improved enormously over the years, we felt comfortable that he would do his recording in Atlanta whilst we did all of the rest at Kerry's. We would send him the instrumental material on CD-R and he would sing different tracks on MP3 and send it to us over the Internet. We would discuss it over the phone until we had what we wanted. Federal Express would then send his CD-R back to us and we would take it from there. Steve just did what he wanted, to sing, and didn't need to come over and bore himself.
Dave Hope (photo: (c) Robert Fritsch)
Dave Hope
(photo: R Fritsch)
Dave Hope, who's a youth minister in Florida and who works for a church, came down one weekend to record his parts. Sometimes people forget that Billy Greer has been with us longer than Dave ever was. Bill's been with us fifteen years, whilst Dave was with the band "only" eleven years. So Dave agreed he would only "guest" on the album, which is nice.

Some people would like to see Kerry and Steve together in one room with guitar and piano in order to compose new material from scratch.

People always had this misconception about Kerry and Steve sitting together to write. I don't think it ever happened in the past, let alone will happen in the future. What did happen was that both came along with new ideas and they would sit together, listen to each other's ideas and then try to combine them into one solid song. Placing both musicians in one room today would be like putting milk and water into one bottle, shaking it and hoping the two won't mingle!

When you listen closely to the album, one'll notice that instead of the ten tracks mentioned on the sleeve, there's also this mystery track right at the very end. Is that really Kansas?

Yeah; it's me, Kerry, Robby and Billy, an old mike and two acoustic guitars going a little crazy. We just had a laugh and thought it would be fun to sneak it in there. On the Japanese pressing there will only be ten tracks and you'll have one minute silence between the end of "Not Man Big" and the mystery track. We really want people to go "what's this?" at the end of the record.

Maybe you could play it as the real ending of a Kansas concert as well?

Montage of album covers 1974-1982 Well on the previous tour in our own right we always ended with "Home On The Range" by Roy Rogers, but now you mention it, yeah, maybe we can leave the stage and have this "mystery track" play through the speakers. A good idea!

I'll send you my invoice! We just mentioned "Not Man Big". It's one of the songs that I simply can't find an explanation for

So why ask me, because I know as much as you do: nothing! Fact is, Kerry explained it on Rockline [on radio] a while ago and although he explained it there and then, and I was sitting next to him, I still don't know what he talked about! In fact, it's a twist on words with [this] as a bottom line: if it's not made by man then who made it? Of course Kerry refers to his belief in God here.

Kansas is known for gathering a decent crowd during concerts, once selling out entire stadiums, but how come an American band still finds it challenging to come over to Europe? I refer to Phish who attract tens of thousands of people in the States, but were only able to reach around 300 people when they performed in Brussels, Belgium, last year?

In our own right we also play in front of 500, 600 people a night, so we're not far from the Phish crowd in Brussels. Where Phish is concerned, I don't understand their popularity. They sometimes play in front of 70,000 people, would you believe? For me it's not so much about the music but people see it as an event. The same happens with Jimmy Buffet. The guy sells out two nights in a row and I simply can't understand why? Kansas still wants to come over to Europe and perform because we also have loyal fans over there, but as I explained earlier, as long as this tax system doesn't change in Germany, I'm afraid we won't be coming to Europe. Fact is: Germany is always good for six, seven shows, so on the strength of that we can build an entire European tour, but right now we can't afford to go to Germany, so this means losing a lot of money.

Whilst various members of Kansas released solo albums over the years, you never got around to doing that

I guess I never had the urge to do so. I enjoy being part of the band. Period. I never needed to express myself outside of the band. It's hard enough with the band, let alone doing everything all by yourself. Alone is painful! I'm married, I have three children, I have a life, and certainly no time left. You know what I mean: there's school, baseball games, functions to go to. If I look at my family life, I'm running a real shuttle service!

Who would you say influenced your guitar style most?

I guess Kerry's playing influenced me, whereas I influenced Kerry's playing. You see, right at the very beginning, all we could play were some chords. All I could play was "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks, but then I got into Jeff Beck by means of his Beano album which also sports members of the Bluesbreakers. That to me was THE album that showed me there was more to guitar playing than what I already knew. Several years later I heard his Jeff Beck's Guitar Shop album and it blew me away. Other artists I like include are Steve Morse, because of his versatility; Eric Johnson, for the tone, and Eddie Van Halen because he re-invented the instrument! I'm also a fan of Steve Lukather. I remember once being in the same studio complex as he was. Steve was recording an album, which to this day has not been released, and he asked me to get into the studio with him. He said: "Rich come on in, what do you think of this solo?" I think he asked this rather to intimidate me and when I told him I would play the solo a note shorter he said: "right, I'll keep it the way it was then!" That sort of illustrates him a bit, yet he's a very talented musician.

Imagine there's only one guitar shop in the world and they only have two guitars in the shop: one electric and one acoustic. Which one would you take home with you?

[Without the slightest hesitation] Definitely the electric one. During "Icarus II" I love the part where the guitar goes really loud and aggressive. But I also like the acoustic guitar in order to fill up "holes." When you're in the studio and you listen back to what is already recorded, then at times you notice these "holes" in the music, so you ask yourself "what can we do here to make it more interesting?" So for "Icarus II" there was this finger picking which I did where the piano was. Robby and Kerry were in the control room and they said "that's great, keep on doing it." Listening back to it, it really works very well, as it changes the colour of the song.

Whenever you're not performing or composing yourself do you listen to music?

Well, it's been a while, but not so long ago I was re-stocking my "old" albums and I came across the ones which I refer to as being my "roots" music. Certainly my favourite album of all time has to be Spooky Two' by Spooky Tooth. It's from 1969 but still holds up to today. In fact all of Kansas know that album, as we used to play it over and over again and sing along to it when we were just starting out. I also enjoy the Savoy Brown greatest hits and I'm amazed at how close to early ZZ Top that album sounds.

You have three children. Do they sometimes make you listen to "their" music?

Both of my boys are into rap, which is not at all my cup of tea, whilst my daughter is into boy-bands and Britney Spears, of course. In fact I think that her selection of music is a collection of well-crafted songs with good melodies, so I guess her music pleases me most.

What is the thing you are most proud of?

Leftoverture (1976)When we received our first gold album for Leftoverture. We were surprised by miles because this surpassed our wildest expectations. In the end it went on to sell a staggering 3 million copies in the States. At times you set your goals, but then when you reach them and it even goes further, it becomes real frightening and out of control. With that first gold album I was finally able to prove to my parents that I had made the right decision. My parents didn't like it that I wouldn't settle for a daytime job. I could have stepped in my father's footsteps, which I didn't. So I understand them being disappointed in me until the arrival of that gold album. Then they were very proud of me. I'm sad that my mother, who was British, didn't live long enough to see me perform with the London Symphony Orchestra. That would have been her proudest moment in life for sure.

Tell us a little bit more about the collaboration with the LSO

We hired Larry Baird who did the Moody Blues. Larry transcribed it all, yet we only heard how it would sound when we were at Abbey Road ourselves. It was a magic moment for us entering this famous studio where the Beatles worked and recorded their material. Then you notice the London Symphony Orchestra sitting there with your scores in front of them, and then they start to perform your music. It was too late to change anything, but to hear the LSO perform your music. Boy that's fabulous and spooky all at the same time. An unforgettable experience. Come to think of it, another unforgettable thing happened when we were on tour recording what would later become the Two For The Show album. Robby went to the microphone and announced that tonight's show would be recorded for a live album. The crowd went absolutely wild and it took us several minutes before we could start playing. The noise was so overwhelming it was like a jet taking off! We all had goosebumps all over. That's another thing I will never forget for as long as I live.

Did you know that an album exists of ballet music from Tchaikovsky performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Richard Williams?

Really? I didn't know. I must track down the album as I can now have everyone believe I can even conduct an orchestra!

With a new album and truckloads of positive reviews what can we expect from Kansas in the future?

Certainly no more trips to Trinidad [where 1995's Freaks Of Nature was recorded -ed] as we have found our haven in Kerry's studio. It would be unwise to search for another location to record because there definitely will be a next album. We have signed a two-album deal with Magna Carta. But first we'll have to promote Somewhere To Elsewhere on our own tour. The album already picks up some good airplay as I think some edits, which I haven't heard, have been made for radio purposes. I believe an edited version of "Myriad" has been mailed to the radio stations. Kansas has always sold a lot of albums during their tours. Once people see us perform, they get the urge to go to their record stores and not only buy our new album but also our back catalogue. Kansas's music keeps on selling over and over again so I really want to embark on a tour of our own. Also we start getting masses of media coverage. With the LSO we hired the best media experts we could find but nothing happened. Now with Mazur public relations we do loads of interviews. In fact we're on the phone talking to people day in day out. These guys really do a terrific job! It might have taken us a long time with ups and downs but it looks like every link is in place now. We haven't felt this strong in a long time!

And so ends my lengthy (one and a half hours!) phone call with legendary Kansas guitarist Rich Williams, a friendly man whom with the new album Somewhere To Elsewhere has proven to be one of the most accomplished guitarist in the world of prog. Long may he reign!

[With thanks to Michael Mazur and Mazur PR for arranging this interview. Somewhere To Elsewhere was released in the US on July 11, 2000. -ed]

Kansas (l to r: Billy Greer, Kerry Livgren, Richard Williams, Robby Steinhart, Steve Walsh, and
                                    Phil Ehart) (courtesy)
Kansas, l to r: Billy Greer, Kerry Livgren, Richard Williams
, Robby Steinhardt, Steve Walsh, and Phil Ehart (courtesy)