"What you're hearing wasn't exactly sat down and mapped out ahead of time," Kansas drummer Phil Ehart says, laughing, "but it was miraculous how it just fell into place." Ehart, one of two remaining Kansas founders along with guitarist Rich Williams, is well acquainted with serendipity – not for nothing was a 2015 documentary film about the band's unlikely late-Seventies ascent to superstardom named after a song on Leftoverture, the band's 1976 breakthrough LP: "Miracles Out of Nowhere."
The miracle to which Ehart is referring now is The Prelude Implicit, due September 23rd on Inside Out Music and the first Kansas album to feature new material since 2000's Somewhere to Elsewhere. That album, which reunited the classic Seventies lineup, turned out to be a swan song for the group's principal songwriters: guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren, who returned to solo work and side projects, and vocalist Steve Walsh, who continued to tour with Kansas until retiring in 2014.
Ehart and Williams had ventured into the studio in 2008 with Kansas bandmates David Ragsdale on violin and Billy Greer on bass, recording under the name Native Window. But with a transfusion of new blood – vocalist Ronnie Platt, keyboardist Dave Manion, and guitarist Zak Rizvi – came a fresh start and, eventually, fresh songs. Bringing the saga full circle, Kansas will introduce material from The Prelude Implicit during a fall tour marking the 40th anniversary of Leftoverture with the first-ever complete live performances of that album. Speaking by telephone from Atlanta, Ehart describes how all the parts came together for the new album, and how celebrating a classic LP might be the best way for Kansas to promote a new one.
The Prelude Implicit presented a situation different than anything Kansas had faced previously since your main songwriters, Steve Walsh and Kerry Livgren, were no longer involved. How did you approach starting over?
You're 100 percent correct, and you have to kind of look back – we hadn't done any new material in 16 years. It wasn't like we were coming out of a recently penned album by Kerry and Steve, or we were coming off the heels of Leftoverture. So in a way it wasn't like we weren't following in any footsteps, but at the same time, we had to deliver. It had to be strong, and it had to be Kansas. We had the pressure of living up to our past, but also sounding like ourselves.
How you determine that Zak Rizvi was the producer you needed?
Zak was an engineer, producer and guitar player who we had worked with up in New Jersey on a number of Kansas projects, the Native Window project – we'd known him for 10, 12, 13 years. Just a real talented musician, great engineer, perfect to produce the record. He comes on board, and he goes, "Phil, you may not remember, but a number of years ago I played some songs for you that I had written for Kansas, but at the time you weren't into doing anything new. I still have those songs." I remembered them being pretty good. He played them for us, and we're all going, "Oh, my God, this is perfect for what we need." So now we have a guy who's in the studio writing the material along with us. We're contributing arrangement-wise, Ronnie's writing lyrics, and it's starting to come together. That's really the first time that we all looked at each other and went, "This is going to be awesome." [Laughs]
You've made Zak a full-time Kansas member on guitar now, including onstage.
The original Kansas with Kerry and Rich, we came in with two guitars blazing. So to have that going again, as well as Dave Manion on keyboards playing the Hammond B-3, it's such vintage Kansas now. The fans are listening to it and going, "This is what Kansas was about, that big wall of sound with the two guitars, the keyboards and everything else."
Listening to The Prelude Implicit, you hear echoes of everything that Kansas has been – the heartland prog-rock group, the rowdy bar band, the group with the chart hits, the hard-edged version from the late Eighties – yet it also sounds fresh. No wonder you stuck a phoenix on the front cover.
[Laughs] You got it, that's exactly it. It's rising out of the ashes.
Kansas was never totally ashes, though, was it?
Before this newest reincarnation, it was very close, with Steve losing his ability to sing the way he wanted to sing. It was hard to watch one of your best friends, and one of your bandmates from the beginning, having a hard time doing what he used to be the absolute, to me, one of the best in the world at doing. It never really got to the point where, "Well, heck, we're going to throw in the towel," but with nothing on the horizon, it got dark at times. When Steve retired, we put the period at the end of the sentence, ended that chapter and started a new chapter in the book of Kansas.
In the search that led you to Ronnie Platt, you weren't looking for someone who sounded exactly like Steve, but a voice of similar character, correct?
Yes, it was very important to us. I'm not saying that we wouldn't have taken somebody that sounded exactly like Steve. We knew from watching Ronnie sing on YouTube in his band that he was not exactly like Steve, but he was a great singer. I mean, we couldn't hire a baritone; it's not like we could get a guy out of the Oak Ridge Boys or something like that [laughs]. Not that they're not great singers! But it had to fit stylistically and age-wise and the whole thing. And Ronnie being from the Midwest, it was just a no-brainer.
Did writing lyrics seem to come easily to him?
There was nothing in making this record that was easy. There wasn't one thing where we went, "This is no big deal." As far as looking over the lyrics and going, "We've got Kerry Livgren lyrics we've got to live up to" – well, I don't think anybody could actually write lyrics as good as Kerry Livgren's, but we still had that bar to reach. So Ronnie got started, and he'd bring the lyrics in. We'd look at 'em, make suggestions here and there, move things, suggest this word over that word. There was a lot of collaboration. But it was something where he really came out of this saying, "I can do this."
What was the starting point for "Visibility Zero"?
Musically, it was Zak Rizvi; Zak had written that song two years ago with just a melody that he played on a guitar. The next thing was, I had come up with a title, "Visibility Zero." The crux of what that meant I sent to Ronnie, and just said, "It's amazing how people sometimes cannot see things that are right in front of their eyes." So he started working on it, and when it was done, we all just kind of stood back and said, "Whoa … this is strong in a lot of different ways." So that's kind of where it started from, lyrically. I just kind of threw the seed out there; he's the one who did all the work and made it grow.
The lyrics are open to interpretation, but the video emphasizes one particular take: the idea that people have looked to charismatic salesmen and strongmen for guidance and protection since the dawn of civilization. Did someone have this election cycle in mind?
No, we didn't, because this was quite a long time ago that we were knocking this around. I won't say that it doesn't apply to today, but if you look at the video, it applies across the history of the world. There's really no part of humanity that it doesn't apply to. Could it apply today? Yeah. Is that why we wrote the song? Not necessarily. A lot of Kansas music is like that: You can take "Dust in the Wind" – that was written 30-some years ago, and it still makes sense today. "Carry On Wayward Son" still makes sense today.
Still, you can't get much more in your face than Hitler, Mao, North Korea and an atomic bomb. You're from the heartland, and Kansas has plenty of red-state fans. Are you concerned about how this might play there?
Are there going to be people that bitch at us? Yeah. Are there going to be people that are upset with us? Yeah. But if you look at it, it goes across the spectrum. We're very, very careful not to take a left lean, not to take a right lean – we're not leaning at all. It's just meant to make you think, and as you said, it's open to interpretation. It's really more about politicians, what they have done and what they've not done, what they've promised and what they haven't promised, and how their laws, across the world, have affected all of humanity.
"It's no secret, people just don't buy music anymore. That's not an earth-shattering statement."
When you hit the road, you're playing the new material alongside Leftoverture in its entirety. What parts of that album have you never done onstage before?
We have never played "Questions of My Childhood." That's it. But a lot of it we've not played in a long time, and we're looking forward to it.
How do you account for that album's extraordinary staying power?
Obviously it's the music; I mean, what else could it be? It's got an OK cover; it's memorable [laughs] But I think we didn't realize at the time – I mean, who would? – how timeless that record would be. I've been around musicians that I respect very much, and they've flat-out told me, "I think Kansas has made one of the best rock albums ever made." Of course, over the years, as new styles of music came up and we continued to become smaller and smaller, and disappeared, finally – the kind of thing where the band is out there just playing gigs, because nobody's interested in anything new from you anymore – a lot of us from that era became dinosaurs. Then all of a sudden, it's "classic rock," so here comes Journey again, here comes Styx, and here comes Kansas. One thing that strikes me is the young age of our audience now, compared to what it was 10 years ago. The show Supernatural has adopted "Carry On Wayward Son" as its unofficial theme song, and millions of these younger people that are watching the show hear the song. They go to YouTube, they go to Google, whatever, and listen to it, and start coming to our shows only knowing that song, and now starting to know other stuff about Kansas.
You have this new album that you want get in front of people. Radio isn't what it was in your heyday, and MTV changed direction a long time ago. Where do you start? Is playing Leftoverture part of the strategy?
Yeah, there's a bit of a purpose to that. The way we're going to get people into the door to hear four or five new songs that they're probably not even aware of and not familiar with is to bring them in on the coattails of Leftoverture. That's why they come in, and that's when we expose them to the new music. Of course, that's very difficult, because they only get to hear it once in the middle of about 20 other songs you're playing that night, and you hope something about those songs that gets their attention. … Plus, it's no secret, people just don't buy music anymore. That's not an earth-shattering statement: People do not buy music anymore. They stream it, or they go to YouTube and watch it, or whatever. That's why the music business is dying – that's not a secret either. I'm not saying music is dying, but the business of selling music is pretty much toast.
That must feel a bit discouraging when you've just made an album that you're really excited about.
We're just as surprised as everybody else by this record. I've had so many people say, "No offense, but when guys your age put out an album, they're always kind of pitiful, and this is not a pitiful album – you guys did a great job." [Laughs] What we need is a couple hundred thousand people that feel that way and can get the word out, because there's really no other way to do it.