A tornado has broken free of Kansas borders, bringing the world a whirlwind of clear-cut harmonies and meaningful lyrics—not to be lost in the dust in the wind. The eye of the storm remains strong, with no end in sight. With 14 studio albums, Kansas is diving headfirst into yet another recording session once they return from their current tour. However, there’ve been a few changes: original singer, Steve Walsh, has retired from this beloved American band. But thankfully, the guys were able to band together and adopt a new, talented voice: Ronnie Platt.
Although Kansas have had to make a few adjustments, they continue taking the music scene by storm. Setting off, tucked into their numerous plane rides, the musicians continue to carry on. In the midst of travel, I was able to chat with David Ragsdale [violins] and catch up on what the group was up to—and get the scoop on what to expect from them in the future.
You’re booked for nearly 100 shows from now until the end of the year—isn’t that taxing? How do you get through the exhaustion?
Yeah, but we get over it! I mean, it does wear you down a little bit. But it’s not the shows, it’s the travel. That’s what wears you out because you’ve gotta get up early in the morning, catch a flight to some place, and then you have to probably drive to another place… And you do it every day. You’ll get back to the hotel late and you have to get up early the next day and do it all over again.
You guys travel by air? No tour bus?
Nah. We fly commercial most of the time, so we’re all pretty high up on the food chain of Delta’s frequent flyers (laughs).
How do you keep from constantly getting sick? Especially when you’re so contained in an airplane…
Well, sometimes you get sick. You know, with whatever virus or cold that’s floating around. But then you just have to deal with it. I mean, we have given performances with one or another band member really sick, but you’ve got to pull yourself up by the bootstraps and you just do it. But we very rarely cancel a show due to illness, but not very many.
The show must go on! But you have a new vocalist, Ronnie Platt, as of 2014. How’d you guys find him?
Well, Steve Walsh, who was the original singer of the band, retired and we were left with the dauntless task of finding a suitable replacement for him. Now, we have a drum tech that looked after the drums and such and his father used to play in a band with Ronnie. That’s kind of how that led to it. He was in a couple of other bands and we knew who he was, but for whatever reason he wasn’t first in our minds. But then, we heard him on YouTube and such and we were like, “This is the guy.” And he was—he is. He’s a great guy. An outstanding person and we’re just loving life with him.
That’s awesome to hear! What were your feelings about Steve Walsh’s retirement?
Well… I mean, none of us are getting any younger (laughs). It’s just a matter of time for all of us, I guess. It was kind of a disappointed and a wake-up call, but it wasn’t like, “Gol-lee! That don’t even make sense!” But there comes a time where it does make sense. And we were all disappointment and we’re all like, “How do we replace Steve Walsh?” But the answer to that is: you don’t. But we’re all very pleased with what Ronnie has brought to the band. And it’s all about the music. It doesn’t matter… I mean, no one gets disappointed when they go to the New York Philharmonic and Beethoven isn’t conducting the Fifth Symphony (laughs). The music outlives the composer—hopefully!
Hopefully! How’s the tour been going so far?
It’s been going great. It’s really great. It’s been a lot of fun and we pulled some songs out of the repertoire that the band hasn’t done in years and years. Like, some of the older records, some of the more involved, difficult and kind of arcane. And the songs that only the really true fans love! We didn’t overdo it, but we just have some that are very impressive, they’re show-stoppers, they’re very challenging musically and they’re a lot of fun to play and the fans are really enjoying it—as have we. The stuff is very fun to play and well-crafted and I can’t think of another rock band I’d rather be in.
That’s sweet. I saw you’ve been playing for tens of thousands of people on the West Coast—what’s been the most exciting venue so far?
Oh gosh! They’re all starting to blend together! We will end this year with almost 100 shows under our belts and they tend to blend together, so it’s hard for me to recall one, but there’ve been a couple that’ve been just outstanding—very exciting shows. And I’d hate to single one out… There’ve been so many. And all of them have been great! There hasn’t been a single bad show. But it’s been a very fun year. A very exhausting year, we’re all worn out a little bit, but I think we’re still good for the rest of the year (laughs). And we don’t really even get a break, either, because we have to write a new record. We got signed to InsideOut Records out of Europe and over the break this year, we’re gonna be writing a record. But luckily, that doesn’t involve travel. At least we get to sleep, have some decent food… Kind of recover from the year and then we’ll go out and do it again.
Yeah! How did that new record deal come about?
You know, I don’t know. Phil Ehart and Richard Williams are the founding members of this band and they’re kind of the driving force. All of the heavy stuff is overseen by those two guys. So, I’m not sure how it came about, but I’m just glad it did! (Laughs)
Fair enough! Getting back to the tour, though, do you guys have a solid setlist, or do you switch things up each night?
We have a set lit that has a lot of songs and depending on what time is allotted by the venue, we create a setlist for that time period. That’s probably the best way to do it: to just have an hour and a half of music that we can play at the drop of a hat. And if we have to pull two or three songs out of the list, we can do that. Sometimes, we’ll pull these two or three and other times we’ll pull another two or three, depending on the venue or the time allotted.
You have 14 studio albums out already; how do you pick from so much material?
You listen to the fans. Like, “Ah, I wish they played such-and-such.” And if enough people say that, it’s like, “Oh, maybe we better pull that out of the archives.” It’s always a smart thing to do—keep the fans happy!
Yes! So, after the tour is over, and the new album is finished, what are your plans?
Keep going, man. We’re not getting any younger and the world’s not gonna end because we do. So, you might as well run the race till there isn’t one.
Exactly—do you guys have the new album all planned out? Are the songs written yet?
Well, right now, we have ideas. And what you do I, everyone has ideas and the ideas all get thrown into a pot, and you start pulling them out and everyone says, “Oh, here’s one!” And then that gets crafted. And then a section of a song, or a verse, you just start building with all of the ideas that have been thrown in the pot. And new ideas are still coming in. Like, “Carry On Wayward Son” was an afterthought. The album was done and Phil had already broken down the drumset when they were recording that album and Kerry [Livgren; guitars/keyboard/vocals] said, “Well, I’ve got this,” and he picked up his guitar and they set all the gear back up and they recorded the song and they played it back and said, “Oh, this is going to be our biggest hit ever.” Sometimes it just shows up.
And they were right. Your new album will be the first with Ronnie singing; has he contributed any new ideas?
Oh yeah! Ronnie’s a clever guy. He’s a great keyboard player as well. He’s thrown some ideas around and they’re Kansas-esque. Ronnie has also come up with great lyrical suggestions and everyone’s got ideas—the whole band.
The band has seen such evolution in the music world; do you guys still use analog to record some songs, or have you all upgraded?
We tend to go with modern because it’s so much easier, and especially to archive. The tapes can get ruined. So when you do it digitally, it’s on a drive and everything’s at your fingertips and the editing is much easier. So, we tend to stick with the newer technology. It sounds great, but they have software that can replicate that to a degree and only people with really, really good ears can tell the difference. And none of us can hear anymore, so it doesn’t matter to us!
Oh no! I saw there’s a documentary that came out in March; were you involved in that?
No—it’s really about the history; from the founding until the Point Of No Return, which was the embryonic years to the pinnacle of success. With the release of Point Of No Return, I remember that as a fan. At the time, Kansas was as big as you could get. They were huge at that point. And the DVD covers the founding through to that record; and if you’re a Kansas fan at all—I didn’t expect to enjoy it that much ‘cause I was like, “Oh, I wasn’t in it,” but I was spellbound by that DVD. It’s a really good watch and well put together. And it’s not just about the band; it involves everything that was going on during that period. It’s just a lot of fun to watch.
Wait—you were a fan of Kansas before you joined?
Yeah! As a matter of fact, my mother wanted me to play the violin, I did not want to play the violin, but she had the say until I was 16 or so… I wanted to play the guitar, and it was Kansas that get me get thinking that, “Hey, maybe this violin isn’t such a bad idea.” Because here was this rock band and this guy playing outstanding rock violin in this rock band and I got to thinking, “Hey, I can do that, too.” So, that was when I started taking the violin a lot more seriously.
How did you end up going from fan to bandmate, then?
I chased them down! In the early ‘80s, the band broke up and then it was refounded by guitarist, Steve Morse. But when they reformed, they reformed without a violinist. And when I heard their record, I could hear the violin parts that were not on the record. And a friend of mine insisted that I take a four-track cassette machine and add the violin parts. Put Kansas on two tracks and add my violin parts on the other two tracks and mix it all together and get it to them. The hard part was getting it to them. That was the toughest part—to get it in their hands. But it finally happened. So, Ehart, the drummer, called me up and told me he was very impressed with it, but it took another four years for them to hire me. So that’s how I joined the band. That’s how it all happened. My friend who suggested that—that was a brilliant, brilliant idea.
To catch up with this timeless group, check them out when they roll into the area. They’ll be playing Tarrytown Music Hall on Oct. 9, Patchogue Theater on Oct. 10, Sherman Theater on Oct. 11, and Landis Theater on Oct. 15. For more on the band, visit their site at Kansasband.com.