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Kansas Is America's Band

The story of the band Kansas is exceptional. So we talked to them about it.

Rich Williams (left) and Phil Ehart (right), photo by the author

The story of the band Kansas is exceptional. It goes like this: In 1973, six guys from Kansas, all in bands, all who had grown up inspired by the Beatles and the soul bands of their era, decided to form a sort of local supergroup. They moved into a small house together in Topeka and toured the state in a school bus, playing shows at 3.2 beer bars for pocket money. They cut a demo and submitted it to a record label in New York, where it was plucked out of the slush pile. An A&R came to Kansas to see them perform, so they threw together a crowd by promising free beer to everyone who came. They got signed. They made five quintessential 70s rock albums and became one of the biggest bands in the world. The original lineup changed as some members found God and others parted ways over creative differences. In spite of the changes, they continued to release albums and tour for decades. They remain a popular legacy act.

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Maybe that story doesn't sound that special. It probably sounds like it was ripped from a Disney movie. It's the kind of story that seems to hit every 70s rock band trope and that could never happen today. But if it seems familiar that's probably because it helped create the clichés. Kansas didn't have the flash or the sex appeal of their contemporaries. Their 1970s America was a long way away from Bruce Springsteen's gritty highways or Fleetwood Mac's tangled love affairs. But it was—it continues to be—America not as we romanticize it, but as it is. Seventies Kansas were bold in their ambitions. They were cheesy. Their music videos look like every ridiculous movie montage where a character does acid.

Yet Kansas are a band that has to exist. They are the essence of America. They are the archetype to which American culture inevitably returns. They are part of our collective memory: “Carry on My Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind” are songs that everyone kind of knows, even if they don't know how. The former is the song from Anchorman! In the story of Kansas is a greater collective myth to which we all subscribe, the one that says anyone can make it in America with hard work and a little luck. Their tumultuous relationship with Christianity is ours, as is their perhaps stubborn insistence on keeping the band together all these years. They are a reminder that great music doesn't have to be cool; it just has to be awesome. Their music is ours because even if it's not ours specifically, it has some connection to someone we know. Kansas has to exist so there are cassettes to buy at truck stops.

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The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard recently wrote some smart words on the distinct way Americans flock to a collective cultural identity that might help capture Kansas's appeal. But I'm not going to quote Knausgaard because it's against the populist spirit of America that we're discussing here to quote Knausgaard. It would be more appropriate, in this context, to quote Marmaduke. That dog! Those hijinks! I digress.

Kansas are like the #1 Dad mugs of America. In part, this is because they are literally dads. But it's also because they are a concept that we all understand. We know what it means to drink out of a #1 Dad mug. It says that you are a dad and that someone in the world thinks you are number one at it and also that you are the type of person who gets a good chuckle out of a novelty mug. Only Americans, with our sense of exceptionalism and our talent for redirecting that sense to the utterly mundane, would drink out of a #1 Dad mug. To be in the band Kansas is to communicate that you are, first of all, in a band and, secondarily, from Kansas. To be from Kansas is, essentially, to be from nowhere: In the band's new documentary, one member describes the state as “expansive nothingness.”

When I met drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Rich Williams, the two active remaining original members of the band, earlier this year, they could have been any other pair of Midwestern dads. Although they are definitely worth millions of dollars, they were dressed nondescriptly, Williams in baggy jeans and a casual short-sleeve button-down and Ehart in a plain black cap. They could have been headed to a church picnic. The only indication that either might be a musician, let alone a famous one, was Ehart's Zildijan shirt. It probably goes without saying that they were incredibly friendly and reflexively polite in an unassuming, Midwestern way. Any attempt at pushing conversation into those uncomfortable territories that we avoid at American dinner tables—politics and religion—were quickly and cheerfully deflected. They are truly the most American band.

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Ehart and Williams were in town for the screening of a new documentary, Miracles Out of Nowhere, produced in honor the band's fortieth anniversary (technically it's two years behind schedule, but who cares), which looks back on the band's history, focusing on its canonical five-album 1970s run with the original lineup. Filming it was the first time the six original members had all been in the same room together in decades. It's simply made, and I didn't anticipate discussing it much, even though Ehart and Williams kept steering our conversation back to it. But it’s out now, and I highly recommend it. It's a documentary worth watching for a simple reason, the same reason that any music fan, no matter their presumed level of investment in the band's music, should care about Kansas: It makes real the myths we have about our bands. It cements and celebrates that familiar idea, the one that says that a bunch of kids from a small town in the middle of nowhere in America can grow up to be rock stars. It really is an exceptional story.

Noisey: Does everybody from the original group feel tied to Kansas still? Do you have any idea how they feel? You guys are the guys who are still doing Kansas, and the rest of the are doing their stuff.
Phil Ehart: It was something that we didn’t really know going into this. OK, we’re all going to walk into this room together. We haven’t been in the same room in 37 years. We’re going to sit down. The cameras are going to start rolling. Well, what’s going to happen? What’s everyone going to say?
Rich Williams: We kept it limited to that band in that era, through the first five albums telling that story, and so it was a lot easier to stay away from later things because they were part of the story.

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So whatever tensions that came up—
Ehart: Yeah, this is a good story. It’s a good story, an uplifting story and that’s how we discussed it at the beginning of doing this. We’re doing this, and we’re not going to go through the garbage and we’re not going to drag everyone through the mud. Let’s talk about the band starting here and going through these five albums and this is where we’re ending. So, having that kind of outline made it very easy to talk about and just discuss those things happening to us coming out of that small town.

When people think of Kansas, they’re thinking of the 70s essentially. Is it weird to be so tied to something from 40 years ago? Your career has been a lot longer than just that.
Williams: But we’re in a good company. There were a lot of bands that were our heroes that we listened to that are still doing the same thing 50 years later. I know what you mean. We want people to not be stuck in the 70s. It sort of is what it is. That was our heyday. I’d rather just be grateful for it.

How has your understanding of that music or that time period of music changed over time?
Williams: We haven’t changed that much, but music has. We found our niche in what we do, we we’re like lets do that. Why try to be something else, somebody else?
Ehart: It’s like you think about yourself as a person, you know? What you did in your 20s is still going to be very applicable to the person you are in your 40s.

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Well, I’m still in my 20s, so this is what I’m curious about! Do you still feel like yourself when you grow older?
Ehart: Once you’re 40 years old, you’re still going to look back at your 20s, and that’s still going to be you. It’s still going to be you. You’re not going to be a totally different person unless you choose to be.

Do you still feel young?
Ehart: I feel fine. [Laughs]
Williams: I feel pretty good.
Ehart: You look pretty good.
Williams: It’s not like being a football player and you’re 23 and your knees are shot and you’ve got to find something else to with your life. There is no other contact in this, so we can continue to do this. We had a passion to do this. I want to be in a band. Let’s do that. You want to play in a band? Sure, let’s do that. And that’s really been the joy all along, is just the act of doing what we do. And there’s not really an age to that.
Ehart: Either you have the passion or you don’t. Either you have the passion about what you do and either every day of your life you’re passionate about it and if you’re not, you should probably do something else.
Williams: There are people in the business, there are people that have left the band that are like I don’t want to this anymore, and I can imagine what it would be like to be on the road and playing all this stuff and just hating it all the time. It would be a terrible life. The other side of the coin is I can’t imagine a better job. This is great. It’s got its ups, its downs, but everything in life does. And I signed up for it all. The good, the bad, the ugly.

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The author and Kansas

Do you feel like you’re still pushing yourselves to improve your instruments and stuff?
Ehart: Yeah, it’s even harder now, speaking from the drummer’s standpoint. Now what I did in my 20s is even more of a chore. I spend more time just trying to stay in shape so I can go out and play two hours a night pounding my brains out. That’s much harder to do now than when I was a kid running around eating pizza. It is more challenging, but that’s okay. I’m up for the challenge.

Take me back to the pizza days. You guys came to New York to record your first album. What was that like? Where were you guys staying? What were you guys doing?
Ehart: We were staying at the Ramada Inn on 48th.
Williams: That was a different era then. A lot of drug dealers. A lot of hookers. It was fun. It was exciting coming from Topeka to New York was—we weren’t very worldly yet. They were trying to take our luggage, and we were like “hey, you can’t take our luggage.” They were trying to take it to the room. We thought they were stealing our luggage. So, yeah, we were just right off of the farm basically coming to New York.

Do you remember what your first impression of New York was?
Ehart: We took the train. It was Pawnee Express. Yeah, I mean we were all impressed. I mean, my gosh. How can you come to Manhattan and not just—
Williams: Love looking up. We went up to Don Kirshner’s office, and he’s on the top floor and you can see all around the city. It felt strength in numbers, and we were too young to be intimidated by any of this really, so it was just open-mouth wonder at everything at all. Just trying to soak it all in. Every time you turn the corner, it’s a new experience.

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How did it feel when that first record came out?
Ehart: It was amazing. It’s weird. Today I get to New York to do our press day, and one of the Sony people handed us the new DVD, which had just came out which we had been working on. Same feeling. It’s the same feeling. It’s still like oh my gosh. I mean, if you ever get jaded on that, you should probably hang it up.

It’s the same thing like walking into the music store. The weirdest experience is not to walk into the music store and buy or see a product, but to stand behind someone who’s buying the product. To look over their shoulder and they’re holding a Kansas album. You’re just going wow, this is just amazing.

Seeing someone buy it is really strange, especially seeing them play Guitar Hero at Best Buy or something. They’re playing—what’s it called, a controller?— they’re playing the controller of the guitar, and they’re playing “Wayward Son,” and meanwhile you’re like I could tell this kid that I’m in Kansas, but he’s never going to believe me. You’re crazy old man, you’re crazy.

You told me earlier that part of why you were so eager to sign the record deal you did was to get out of Kansas.
Williams: It was not so much leaving the state. We were stuck, everybody there was stuck. The bands that played throughout the midwest were stuck in that little regional market and it was hard to even imagine. It was bands like The Flippers and all these bands that played throughout the midwest. Big show bands and they were the big time to us. The world outside of that was not even a thought, I don’t think. It was too little to be in the big league. So, to escape from that circuit, which Kansas was in the center of of, really was an unreachable goal it seemed. So unreachable it wasn’t even heard or thought. I just wished we would’ve been as big as The Flippers one day.

Who are the Flippers?
Ehart: Whatever happened to the Flippers?
Williams: Most of the bands back then that we were watching were these ten piece show bands with a lead singer, suits, five horns, organ, guitar, bass, drums and they’re all doing steps and stuff and big soul time reviews. There were several bands doing basically that. Yeah, if you weren’t doing that you were judged by that. Well, you could never be in The Flippers playing that crap that you play. There really was—it was really held in high regard. That was the next level, it seemed. We were never really that style of players, though.

Kansas is this Bible Belt place, and your band has had this interesting relationship with Christianity because so many members have been very, very Christian and have gone on to make Christian music and stuff. As sort of the remaining members, what’s your view of Christianity and religion?
Ehart: That’s a heavy question. In talking about the documentary, let’s start there. Kerry, the main writer of the band, was very interested in spirituality. He was up front about that. The books that he read eventually converted to Christianity, but as a band, I can tell you each guy has his own beliefs. Religion and politics are things that we try not to get into in our music. Kerry would write about those things in a very obtuse kind of way that you could kind of read into those different things. There’s your personal life and then there’s your band life. There are Christians in the band today. There are guys in the band today that aren’t Christians. In the documentary there are guys that are Christians. There are guys that are not Christians. Our band is really good at reflecting pretty much what is going on in the United States. We have people that have liberal views, we have people with conservative views. The band pretty much reflects what goes on in this nation, without really wearing everything on our sleeve and getting everything really in-depth in three minutes. I hope that’s a good enough answer.

Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.