Michelle LaRose talks with Rich Williams for Road To Jacksonville
Photographs by Michelle LaRose
Kansas has enjoyed an illustrious career spanning more than three decades. With such hits as Dust In The Wind, Carry On and Hold On they have most assuredly earned a well-deserved spot in the rock-n-roll history books. Having eight gold albums, three sextuple platinum albums, one live platinum album and a one million selling gold single, Kansas carries on, continuing to delight fans with their brilliant live performances.
Phil Ehart, Billy Greer, David Ragsdale, Steve Walsh and Rich Williams are collectively known as Kansas and yes they are from Kansas.
Lead guitarist Rich Williams found a free moment in his busy schedule to have a chat with Road To Jacksonville.
Rich: Because that’s been covered and covered again. This era, this particular project is just stuff that really hasn’t been covered at all. They’ve put out so much with Dust and Wayward Son, that stuff on it in the past. There’s not too much of a need for that to be repackaged.
RTJ: Why is the album titled Works In Progress?
Rich: That’s a question that I have also. It refers more to us as a band. We are still a work in progress. At rehearsals we’re like, “I got an idea for that song!” We’re changing something all the time. Everything is in perpetual motion.
RTJ: The album also comes with a DVD. What is on the DVD?
Rich: There are some cuts from Live At The Whiskey. There’s stuff from the Device, Voice Drum DVD that we did a few years back. There’s also some Dolby 5.1 re-mixes from we did an album with the London Symphony Orchestra. Dust In The Wind is re-done in Dolby 5.1, Hold On is re-done. It’s like standing right in the middle of a symphony hall. It sounds great!
RTJ: You have at least four albums that were re-mastered [Point Of No Return, Leftoverture, Masque and The Best Of Kansas]. Why were these albums re-mastered?
Rich: The technology available for re-mastering today is… A lot of those things were done years ago on vinyl. It’s just old tape and it has to be reprocessed because it’s just falling apart. They just run it through new processes and they make it sound more like it did when we were in the studio.
RTJ: Why did Robby Steinhardt leave the band?
Rich: We just had a parting of the ways. He needed to go. And its ok. Best wishes. We wish him well. He was back with us for almost ten years. It was a mutual decision.
RTJ: You now have David Ragsdale in the band. Wasn’t he in the band before?
Rich: Yeah. He was with us previously. We were without a violinist for a while then Steve Morse was with the band for a while then Ragsdale played with us for seven, eight, nine, ten years I guess. So yeah, he’s back with us.
RTJ: Robby’s come and gone. David’s come and gone. Steve’s come and gone. It seems as though members have come and gone, nobody’s burned any bridges here.
Rich: Yeah. It’s just for the best sometimes. Parting of the ways is usually painful at the moment but there’s always a reason for it. We’re always looking forward instead of looking backwards. We just move on.
RTJ: You have been a professional musician for more than thirty years. What do you think is the difference in a new band being signed back when you were signed as opposed to a new band being signed now?
Rich: There are probably a hundred times more people out there trying to do it. From where we came from thirty plus years ago… It just seems everything is more forced into being a certain formula now than it was back then. Bands were different from each other more so than they are today I think. It dictates what gets the business. Fortunately for us we’ve gotten out of that arena of “keeping up with” and all that years ago. We came to grips with the fact that we weren’t the hottest flavor on the block. It was kind of a relief to find out that there’s a whole world of fans and music out there that just don’t care that pop radio says you’re supposed to be listening to.
RTJ: You must have also seen technology in the studio change over the years. How has the studio technology changed through the years?
Rich: Some things are for better, some things are for worse. One thing that’s definitely a plus… Like when we did our earlier albums it was like, “One, two, three, go!” You recorded it; the rhythm tracks live in the studio. You couldn’t punch in parts. They weren’t fast enough and they were real noticeable. “Click” when you cut it. If you made a mistake and tried to drop it back in, you just couldn’t do it. So somebody’s that really good with a razor blade did it. Cutting the two-inch tape and assembling it is a frightening thing to do. Everything we did was bass, drums completely all the way through, guitars, all the rhythm tracks basically. Then you’d come in and layer stuff on top of it. Like when we did Dust In The Wind it was just a naked guitar there. You couldn’t overdub anything. I had to play it completely through. I’d just learned to finger pick at the time. That’s six guitars layered so I had to do it six times. Whereas now you get a phrase and you just copy it and paste it. You just assemble it and put it together in a tenth of the time. Things like that have made a lot of the process easier.
RTJ: When might we see a new Kansas album with new material?
Rich: Oh would really like to do it. This year’s done. We’re booked pretty much for the year. It would be next fall or winter before we would even start the album.
RTJ: You have a nice U.S. tour schedule going. Do you think you will be playing outside of the U.S.?
Rich: We played in Europe last year. We just sent a letter off to the agency over there saying we’re available next summer to go back and they replied back and said they’d love to have us. In ’07 we’ll be back to Europe.
RTJ: People Of The South Wind [potsw.org] have announced Wheat-fest 10 for the Wheat-heads [Kansas fans] September 23, 2006 in Las Vegas Nevada. Will you participate in Wheat-fest other than performing?
Rich: Not really. It’s usually in Kansas City.
RTJ: Yeah they’re having it in Vegas this year.
Rich: Well probably just for a change of pace. It’s something a certain group of fans throw together to get the same bunch of people all in the same town. Usually when it was in Topeka or Kansas City they’d go see where we went to school and the band houses and that type of stuff. I don’t know what the Vegas connection is other than it’s just a lot more fun place to go than Topeka! [Laughing] They always have an auction and I usually find something in the closet to add to it.
RTJ: You were once quoted as saying, “Monolith came out and it was a disappointment because it only went gold.” I think that is a very profound statement. It really is a true statement of just how big Kansas is. Looking back at it all, is this everything you had ever hoped for going into it?
Rich: The only thing we’d hoped for was to make an album. We did that and actually got it played on the radio. I don’t think we ever dreamed of having a gold album. That was far out of our reach. Everything past making that first album was all gravy.
RTJ: Most of your band mates have done solo projects. Why haven’t we heard of a Rich Williams solo project?
Rich: I like being a part of an ensemble. The way that we tear them apart and put them back together, it makes it a Kansas song. In watching people do it by themselves, the frustration not having the other person to bounce ideas off of and having to do everything themselves they can’t go out and perform it. Sales on solo budgets have always been low. It just seems like an awful lot of effort and the reward, I just don’t see it. It’s beating your head against the wall when you don’t have to.
RTJ: What are some of the current bands getting air play that you like?
Rich: Well, I don’t really know.
RTJ: [Laughing] You don’t listen to the radio do you?
Rich: No I really don’t unless I want to listen to talk radio to see if there’s a traffic jam ahead of me. I just don’t drive around and listen to the radio. If I turn it on, I wind up on a classic rock station and stay there. There are some things where it’s like, “Wow that’s cool!” I just don’t want to sit through twenty songs to hear the one I like. I just don’t care anymore about that. I came to terms with something a while ago and that is… I’m a guitar player and I like to play in a band. I like playing live, that’s what I enjoy, playing music. Sitting around listening to music is a whole different thing. They’re just not the same. They don’t go hand in hand. I like playing! I just don’t sit around listening to music all day. I have to many other things going on.
RTJ: Kansas has always had that orchestrated big band sound, even without the orchestra or choir, kind of reminiscent of The Trans Siberian Orchestra. Have you ever considered doing a Christmas piece like The Trans Siberian Orchestra?
Rich: They do it well. Every time I hear, “Blah-blah-blah has got a Christmas album coming out. ” It’s like, awe geez not another one. I think we could do it well but what’s the point. It’s been done, it’s been done, and it’s been done. The Trans Siberian Orchestra did such a good job at it anyway so let them go do it.
RTJ: Maybe you guys should do some Fourth of July music.
Rich: There you go! [Starts singing Hooray For The Red White And Blue]
Rich: We were out in Topeka Kansas and Robby was out in Lawrence Kansas. He played in a different band. There was a band called Beautiful Day that had a violin player, there was The Flock with Jerry Goodman. It’s not any different than orchestrating Jethro Tull with the flute. We just did it with a violin instead. In rock-n-roll and in country there have always been violins. Adding it in a classical sense instead of a fiddle sense is really what made the difference.
RTJ: When Rich Williams isn’t touring with the band that has secured its place in the rock-n-roll history books, what is he doing?
Rich: Well yesterday I was out doing yard work. I was just mowing the lawn and edging. Family life. My oldest son just came back to Atlanta from Colorado. He’s going to school out in Colorado. He came back Monday. He’s majoring in snow boarding out there. He tore his ACL so he’s back here to get his knee operated on. I’ve got a twenty-two year old, a sixteen-year-old boy and a thirteen-year-old girl. That’s a full time job right there.
RTJ: You have had one hell of a career. What would you like us to say at your eulogy fifty years from now?
Rich: If I had known I was going to live this long I would have saved more money!
Rich: I can’t afford to live that long!
RTJ: Rich we thank you for taking time to speak with us today.
Rich: Thank you.