The Roots Report: An Interview with Phil Ehart of Kansas

I spoke with Phil Ehart, drummer and manager of the band Kansas about the band and their upcoming show on July 27th at the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket.

Phil Ehart: Hi, this is Phil…
John Fuzek: Hi, this is John from Motif Magazine, how are you?
Phil: I’m well, John, thank you, how are you?
JF: Thanks for agreeing to do an interview
PE: Sure, thanks for having me!
JF: So, where are in you? In Kansas? (snicker)
PE: No, the band is based in Atlanta, we haven’t been based in Kansas for over 30 years now, we’re still Kansas boys but we just live somewhere else
JF: I read about your beginnings with a band called White Clover. Can you tell me about it?
PE: That was a band that I started. It was sort of a late 60’s kind of a club band, cover band, that is where I spent most of my teen years-playing with White Clover
JF: Was there any progressive rock there?
PE: No, not really, it was just a local band
JF: I read about that and Kansas 1 and Kansas 2
PE: Yeah, that can give you a headache reading that stuff! It’s all over the place
JF: Yes, all the personnel changes! I see that you have Ronnie Platt as the lead vocalist of your band now, he was a former member of Shooting Star, and I always thought that they had a similar sound to Kansas. How did you hook up with him?
PE: It was through seeing him perform live and also seeing his performances of Kansas songs on YouTube, it was a combination of things that led us to him, we met with him and talked with him and he seemed like the right kind of guy and it’s worked out, he’s been with us for three years now, so it’s gone very well!
JF: Did he record with you on the Prelude Implicit CD?
PE: yes
JF: Is he a contributing writer as well?
PE: He is a lyric writer, yes, he was very much involved in writing the songs
JF: Does he play keys as well?
PE: yes, singer, keyboardist and very involved in the writing of the songs
JF: I listened to Prelude Implicit and it sounds like you have recaptured the old Kansas sound
PE: We appreciate that, we worked very hard to do that, it’s not an easy thing to do but it kind of came to us naturally, go figure (laughs), it does lean towards the early Kansas days and the sound that with have with the violin and all
JF: Yes, the great harmonies, the violin, guitar and organ mix is really what drives it and gives it the prog rock feel I gave it a listen and like it a lot, “The Voyage of Eight Eighteen”, “Camouflage” and “Summer” were some of my favs from it
PE: Well, thank you!
JF: I was thrilled that you got the sound, I was an early Kansas fan, i love “Song for America”, it’s an amazing song, you music was very opus-like
PE: A lot of music there, yes
JF: My fav of everything that you have done is “Miracles Out Of Nowhere”, it’s an amazing song
PE: Thank you, we enjoy playing it every night!
JF: Cool, i was going to ask if you still performed it!
PE: Oh yes, we have played it since the day that we wrote it, let me put it this way, we have done it since the day that we RECORDED it! (laughs) It’s a great song to play, people really like it, so yes
JF: One of memories of listening to that was back in the days of stereos and the big headphones I would lay in bed and listen to that song and I would close my eyes and there would be all this “trippy” sound going on in the headphones that you couldn’t hear when you just listened to it with loudspeakers, these little sounds would float around like bugs and buzz between the phones and it was pretty amazing
PE: YES! That was a lot of fun!
JF: That must be a lot of work to produce, that work was genius
PE: Yes, it was difficult to work up the song, and learn it and perform it well for the recording, so, yeah, it’s always challenging, to this day it is still challenging
JF: I can imagine! So, have you ever heard of a band called Umphree’s McGee?
PE: Sure!
JF: A few years back they put out a CD called Mantis, they had sent me a copy for review, it reminded me so much of early Kansas
PE: Really!
JF: Just that CD though, I went to see them live and when they performed those songs there was a very Kansas sound to it but when they strayed from those it was more jam band sounding
PE: They’re a very talented band, they’re a good band
JF: I am a fan of prog rock, especially the early days of prog rock. How do you feel about the vocalist change? I know that you have had a few over the years. Why did Steve Walsh retire?
PE: Well, it was time I guess. He was struggling with his voice, like a lot of singers do as they get into their 60’s, they can’t do what they want to do vocally and it just got to the time where it was time for him to retire, it was very friendly, very agreeable, the time had come, he’s not the first one to retire from the band, so it’s the kind of thing that happens, we wished each other the best and moved on
JF: How long were you without a singer before you hooked up with Ronnie?
PE: Probably a few months, it took a while, luckily we didn’t have to go through a lot of stuff, just a minute, don’t go away… (sounds heard-BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!) OK, I’m back!
JF: What was that???
PE: (laughs) This is the first time in an interview that I have ever had to kill a wasp! (laughs) I’ve been sitting here watching it, watching it and finally it landed so I nailed his ass!
JF: (laughing)
PE: BIG WASP! They just need to stay outside! That probably sounded like gun shots didn’t it?
JF: YES! I didn’t know what the hell was going on!
PE: (laughs) just a second I’m going to shoot this wasp! (laughs) I just hit him with a magazine so it’s ok (laughs), all is cool!
JF: (laughs) So what is the creative process for writing for Progressive Rock? It is more music driven than lyric driven.
PE: You are correct
JF: How do you get that kind of music going on?
PE: Usually with Kansas there’s one guy who’s writing a particular song, for many, many years it was Kerry (Livgren) was our main songwriter, but Steve also wrote songs, too, but Kerry was, through a certain part of our career, the main songwriter, and then after a while Steve (Walsh) was the main songwriter and now, starting with the Prelude Implicit, Zak Rizvi is the main songwriter, so it’s the kind of thing where Zak works with Ronnie on lyrics and works with the rest of the guys in the band on middle sections, titles, arrangements and stuff like that but Zak is pretty much the guy who comes in with the biggest chunks of the songs, but then, like with any songwriter, the band has always been involved in the arrangement of the songs and finishing up the songs for their final rendition that you hear, the vocalist always has a lot to do with forming the melodies, the songwriter will have an idea for a melody and the singer takes it to the next stage and stuff like that so all the guys are involved in their own parts, Zak will have certain rhythmic ideas, he leaves the drum parts up to me, everybody is involved overall beginning to end
JF: i read that you once filled in for Neil Peart from Rush once, is that true?
PE: Ah, no, (laughs) I did a charity event one time with Alex (Lifeson) and Geddy (Lee), it was a charity thing, I played one song, they did a couple of Kansas things, I played one Rush song, no, it was a strictly off the cuff kind of a charity jam thing, i did not fill in for Neil, but that is nice of someone to somehow imagine that!
JF: I am sure it would be tough just like trying to have someone fill in for you, someone just can’t drop in and fill in, your stuff is so complicated and so is Rush’s
PE: They are good guys and an incredible band, that was back in the 80’s as I remember, it was just a one off at a charity and Alex has a jam thing there and I jumped up and played on the song, it was not anything that was remotely serious, everybody was just having fun and Alex played on “Wayward Son”, it was a fun, fun, jam type thing
JF: It didn’t sound like it was an easy switch, that is why I was curious. I read that while Kerry was in the band that you started heading towards Christian Rock, is this true?
PE: No the band was never a Christian Rock band, ever, Kerry’s lyrics on certain songs would definitely lean that way but the band never consciously sat down and said “OK, let’s become a Christian Rock band”, some of his songs were definitely Christian based and Christian themed, there’s no denying that, and some of his best songs were of that writing period, but the band it self was never a Christian Rock band, has never been one
JF: I read that one of your old singers, John Elefante, was going to come back but he had a “calling” and decided not to come back
PE: yes, you know Kansas is a little country unto itself, we have different kind of races, religions, political affiliations (laughs), we have our own little world, but there is no ONE particular world or political point or religious viewpoint that is the ruling ideology of the band, Kansas is a good cross section of this country, there are all sorts of different thoughts and ideas swirling around in this band, so it’s easy for people to get confused
JF: Do you all get along well despite all the differences?
PE: No, we hate each other! (laughs)
JF: (laughs)
PE: I’m kidding, (laughs) they are all good guys and to this day whether the original band or any of the members that we’ve had, everybody is still good friends! and we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we stay in touch and see each other occasionally
JF: This is something that I can identify with you on, you are the band manager as well as the drummer, I am the manager, booking agent and musician in my band, it’s a lot of work, on a scale of a band like Kansas how do you manage it?
PE: It is something that I wasn’t PLANNING to do, I have been doing almost 30 years now, back then our record label and our manager and our booking agent all decided in the course of a few months, to move on, and I looked at Steve and Rich (Williams) and said “Hey, I’ll manage the band on a day to day basis until we find someone else”, and that was 30 years ago, it was just the kind of thing that I had always been involved with that anyway with our manager so it was kind of a natural transition, i was never really the band leader, the original band didn’t really have a leader to speak of but I was involved with a lot of the decision making and stuff so I thought that I could do this until we get a real manager, that was the intent, so that’s what happened, so, it’s just a part of my day, so when I get up every day there is some stuff to do for Kansas, I work with our booking agent as well as our business managers, and our production managers and people on the road, and you know, it’s a band, and I know how it works, and how to stay in touch with record labels, making the records and getting them recorded, yeah, i just happened to be a part of it, so moving into that even though, on a scale, on a large scale is still very doable, plus I love doing it! (laughs), I just really like managing the band, I don’t look at it as a job or a chore, I just want to make sure that it’s done correctly, so instead of paying people a lot of money to do something that I can do, I’ll just do it, so I do, and we go from there
JF: I can totally relate! So, how was it to work with Don Kirshner? (Don Kirshner was first to sign the band in 1973)
PE: He was a great guy, rest his soul, a really good man, and really believed in the band when no one else did, without him we would not be speaking, he really believed in us, put the money into us, never gave up, and when “Wayward Son” hit he was vindicated, for life, you know, he was a good, good guy, very talented man also,
JF: You folks had success before Leftoverture though, you had those three albums and I used to hear them on FM radio
PE: yeah, it was regional success, we still hadn’t broken across the nation, you know, we had pockets of success that those FM radio stations got us, but when “Wayward Son” hit it was around the world. It was a big, big change.
JF: That brought you to mainstream but I used to hear “Song for America” on FM radio all the time
PE: yeah, FM was great
JF: that’s when they would actually play good music on the radio and you could play a ten minute song on the radio and it would be amazing
PE: yeah, it was, it was very cool
JF: You and Rich Williams have been in the band pretty much from the start, correct?
PE: He and I have performed on every record that we have ever done, in the early 90’s we were on the road, on the road, on the road and I decided to get married so I took an eight or nine month sabbatical to get my marriage off on the right foot and not try to be married outside of a tour bus and then I came back to the band, so I just a bunch of not so good concerts! And instead I got my marriage off to a good start and 23 years later we’re still married, so it was the right move, and yeah Rich has always been there, too. There was a hiatus with the band from about ’81-’83 where we actually just came off the road for about three years, and we came back with Steve Morse, Steve Walsh, and Billy Greer so we started back up, so there was about a three year hold there, we just said, “we’ll see everybody later and that was that”
JF: I watched some videos of the band performing with an orchestra, what kind of experience was that for you?
PE: It went from having 5-6 people on stage to all of a sudden having 55 or 56 people, the responsibility and the sheer size of the music changes dramatically and you have to be very conscious, you have a bunch of people behind you following you and playing with you, so it’s a lot of pressure, lot of pressure on the drummer because usually the conductor is following me so if I screw up or drop a beat or something that could be catastrophic, it’s a lot of added pressure but as far as the pay off musically it’s really cool, it was really a cool experience, I’m glad that we did it and got recordings of it, videos of it, it was really a unique experience for sure
JF: You are a very intense player, i was watching you on the videos and I was getting just tired watching you, there is just so much going on
PE: I get tired watching me! You have to pay attention, there is a lot going on, that’s one thing about Kansas music, you just have to pay attention, it’s a couple of hours, 90 minutes to a couple of hours every night, it’s intense, there’s a lot of notes there, there’s a lot of changes and a lot of things you can’t just sit back have fun on every song, there’s a lot of stuff going on mentally, to, you have to pay attention
JF: Do you folks read music? Do you play from sheet music and write actual notation or are you a “play by ear” band?
PE: We’re all “play by ear”
JF: That’s amazing
PE: A lot of us are self taught, there are a couple of instruments like the violin and stuff but (David) Ragsdale obviously can read music that is how you learn that instrument but I am self taught, Richard is self taught, Billy is self taught, most of us in the band are self taught and do not read music, we wish we did but it never happened
JF: Tell me a little about the show that you will be playing at the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket on July 27th, what can we expect from the show?
PE: It’s a pretty intense Kansas show, it’s 90 minutes of intense music from the hits to deeper cuts, up tempo rock songs, it’s very energetic and very entertaining and we have a real blast with this set because it’s rocking stuff and it’s Kansas, and all the hits are in there, it’s exciting for us, fans seem to really like it, too
JF: Do you still play “Song for America”?
PE: We do not go that deep, we are not playing it on this particular run, giving it a bit of a break, we’ve been playing it for about forty-some years, some of the music we are actually having to put on the shelf for a little bit because we’ve played it so much, sometimes it just needs to be set down for a while and revitalized, so that song is sitting out this year, there will be songs from Leftoverture and Point of Know Return and two songs off the new album, Prelude Implicit, we’re playing stuff off of about ten albums, so if you’ve got favorites we’ll get to them I’m sure, it’s a really good set
JF: Sounds like a really good show! Well, thanks for your time, I enjoyed talking with you!
It was very interesting and I appreciate it.
PE: Great, OK, man, well you did a great interview! A very good one so thank you!
JF: Thank you, I look forward to the show!
PE: OK, man thanks! See you, bye!

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