Interview with Rich Williams (Kansas/Native Window)

Kansas lead guitarist Rich Williams caught up with Mick Burgess to chat about his new Native Window album, the new Kansas DVD and his future plans.

First of all how is Kerry after his recent stroke?

He’s doing much better. He’s been home now for quite a while. He can play piano just fine but he can’t play guitar as he has trouble with his picking hand with the up and down motion. Other than that he’s fine. His speech and walking is fine, he’s 95% back but it’ll take time to be back to 100%.

You’ve recently released your debut album by Native Window. How’s the reaction been so far?

It’s been very positive. It’s very tough to have a new record by a new band heard even riding on the coattails of Kansas. Radio isn’t going to play it so it’s only going to be heard by word of mouth but so far it’s been great.

That’s a great name for a band. How did you come up with it?

It’s impossible to come up with a band name any more that hasn’t been taken. Phil went online and did a Google search and every name he put in had been taken. He was reading about a Windows program a while back and it was talking about going back to your home page and it referred to it as your “native window” and he liked the sound of it. Just like “The Beatles” doesn’t mean they’re bugs, “Native Window” doesn’t mean we’re endorsing Microsoft. It just seemed to fit.

Was the fact that Kerry and Steve Walsh were not really interested in writing new Kansas music the catalyst to developing Native Window?

That was definitely one of the reasons. Although they didn’t show any interest in writing new Kansas material, the rest of us found that hard to accept. We wanted to do something new. We thought it would be an opportunity for us to do something different. The only rule we had was that if it started to be like Kansas then we’d have to change that. It can’t be Kansas but it could be anything else. That’s where we started from.

How was the vibe in the studio?

It was great. We just got into the studio and sat around in a circle with acoustic guitars and acoustic violin and just started throwing ideas against the wall. We tried everything, there were no bad ideas. Steve Rawls, our producer, was in there with us throwing ideas in there too. We threw out the rule book and just wanted to see what happened.

As Kerry and Steve were always considered the main writers for Kansas even though you all made contributions, was the writing of Native Window a liberating experience for you or did you feel under pressure without Steve or Kerry to take things forward?

We all had our own ideas even within Kansas. Songs are presented and we tear them apart and put them back together again. We wanted to move away from the traditional way of doing things of Steve and Kerry bringing in the songs. It was very liberating writing for Native Window, we were all on equal ground and it was very easy for us. We had a lot of fun; the whole creative process was wonderful.

How would you say that Native Window differs from Kansas?

Other than a distant background organ, there’s no keyboards. The guitar approach was different, there’s more acoustic in the music. David also played a lot of rhythmic violin parts to take the place of keyboards. Guitar tone wise it is different to what we do in Kansas and all of those things together give the Native Window sound, but you can still hear bits and pieces of Kansas in there quite clearly but we did make an effort to be a bit of a chameleon.

Billy puts in a terrific performance throughout. Maybe it’s a testament to the strength of the singers in Kansas from Steve and Robbie Steinhart but do you feel that he has been underused in the vocal department in Kansas in the past?

He certainly fulfils his role in Kansas and he does get used quite a bit as he’s covering those parts that Robbie used to sing. On record, it’s more of Steve’s show than Billy’s. On Native Window we all sing which is something that we’ve never done before. We all sing background vocals on this album.

Where did you come across producer Steve Rawls?

He has a studio where Phil lives and where I used to live on the outskirts of Atlanta and we’ve used that facility for a lot of projects. We’ve known Steve for a long time. There was no budget for this. We financed it ourselves then shopped for a deal. We wanted to keep things as inexpensive as possible and we made Steve a partner in the project. Steve has a lot to offer, he’s a brilliant guy.

The album has been put out on Jeff Glixman’s label and of course Jeff has worked closely with Kansas for many years. Was there the temptation to work with Jeff as producer or did you really want to break away and try someone different?

Jeff has been involved with many Kansas products since our heyday, including Live at the Whiskey, Freaks of Nature, Device Voice Drum. He is very experienced and he has a fantastic studio and to have a friend who is head of a record company is very comforting. We grew up together and I was actually in a band with Jeff before I was in Kansas. We played in a few bands before I joined Kansas and Jeff became the Kansas soundman before he became our producer. We have a long history, in fact me and Dave Hope used to go to his parent’s house and play bridge with them. Having Jeff involved and having a friend in the record company we knew we’d get a fair shake. He’s been very active in so many projects outside of Kansas, his knowledge is absolutely tremendous. It was such a natural fit and that’s why his company was also involved with the new Kansas DVD.

I see there’s backing vocals from Rachel and Lauren Williams. Are they related?

Lauren Williams is my daughter. I thought it’d be fun to have my daughter and a few of her friends involved. We had a gang vocal part and we had about 15 people involved including my daughter.

You’ve played some live dates already and actually opened for Kansas too. How did it feel to be your own opening band?

It was a little odd at first. We have a whole different set up on stage. There’s a different drum set and everything. Standing right out at the front of the stage was no problem for me, I’m used to that but it was different for Phil and also having everyone with a microphone is different to what we’ve done before. It’s not a hostile crowd as most people have come to see Kansas and know who we are. I think if it was in front of someone else then I think it’d be really scary. There’s not a lot of money in it but we get just enough to pay the road crew every night. It’s more of a labour of love for us and the opportunity to create it and perform it is just great.

I guess it solves the potential problem of falling out with the headliners!!

Yeah! Seeing as we know the headlining act we get treated well backstage.

I assume that you will play most of the Native Window album. Do you do anything else such as anything by Billy’s Seventh Key project or maybe an obscure Kansas song that you don’t play live with Kansas?

We do most of the album but we also do one Kansas song, “People of the South Wind” with a totally different arrangement, it’s a lot Bluesier. We avoid the real happy intro; we don’t do that part of it. It’s more in the feel of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” It’s not a song that Kansas is doing or has done for a long time and we thought we’d put a Native Window twist on it.

It must have made for a tiring show playing 2 sets. Did you have to pace yourself?

Phil has to really and Billy does a bit too vocally but for me I’m backstage warming up anyway so it’s no big deal for me to come out on stage and wiggle my fingers for 40 minutes.

What does Steve Walsh think of it all?

It’s given Steve the opportunity to show up a little later. He doesn’t really sit down and watch us but he’s been very supportive of the whole thing. I don’t know if he’s a fan as he hasn’t said one way or the other..Ha!!

Do you see Native Window as a long term outlet for your creativity?

Well, we’ll see. I’d love the opportunity again. We all would but we have to wait and see as there’s other Kansas prospects on the horizon. Native Window is our side project but we know which side of the bread the butter is on. Kansas is our day gig and we’re not going to get in the way of that.

As well as Native Window you’ve also been busy with Kansas. You’ve recently released a superb DVD, There’s Know Place Like Home. This was shot in Topeka in Kansas to mark your 35th anniversary. Are you pleased with the way the DVD came out?

We did an album a while back with the London Symphony Orchestra and once that was scored we’ve done Symphony shows periodically over the years. We hoped one day that we could film it and fortunately the opportunity arose to do that. We knew that we wanted to do it but didn’t know where. We thought we could go to Juilliard or Cleveland where they have a great orchestra but it just didn’t gel right until finally the idea of going back home to Washburn University. We actually performed there years ago and I went to college there, Kerry Livgren went there as did Phil Ehart. Jeff Glixman lived over the road from it and his father was a teacher there. All of this made it a lot of sense to play there. When I sit down and watch the DVD it just wears me out. It’s a lot more difficult to do than it looks. There is a lot to absorb in that whole thing, there’s a lot of music there and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

You performed a song from just about all of your albums except Vinyl Confessions. Was it difficult picking the set list for the night and did you miss anything out that you would like to have included?

There’s certain songs that we didn’t do because they just don’t work very well with the orchestra. Even with “Carry On Wayward Son” it was hard to shoehorn the symphony into that. Any Rocky song is difficult. The song “Portrait” sounded a little trite when you added a bunch of strings to it. What we did instead was add songs that we don’t normally do like “Nobody’s Home” If we played that at a fair during the daytime, there was way too much mood in it and dynamics to work but under the lights with the Symphony it took on a new life and was very powerful that way. The way we looked at material was in two ways, first, we had to represent ourselves and include the hits, and second, the songs had to be conducive to the Symphony and to the environment. I think “The Other Side” on this record is now the definitive version for me.

How different is it for you to play alongside the Washburn Symphony Orchestra rather than just as a band?

In a symphony show there’s some songs we have to brush up on that we don’t normally do and there’s some different arrangements too. “Dust In the Wind” without a Symphony is done one way and with the Symphony is done a different way with a long middle section. Sometimes a song like “Nobody’s Home” is done differently, with the Symphony the intro is just the orchestra but if we’re doing the song as a band we need to remember to do that part ourselves.

Kerry Livgren and Steve Morse were special guests for the show. How did it feel playing with them again?

We see Kerry frequently and when we play in the area he’ll come out and play with us anyway but Steve Morse, we haven’t worked with him since he was in the band. We contacted him to see if he was interested and he was very interested. He came over one day and played in the rehearsals in Topeka and the next day it was show time. It was great to see Steve again, he’s such a great guy. It just doesn’t seem that long since he was in the band. It was just like he never left, he doesn’t look ANY different. He seemed to really enjoy himself and to be a part of it. There was a song that he played that he hasn’t done since he was in Kansas and I could never play it in a million years and he just tried it in several different ways all over the neck before he settled for the way he was going to do it. It was absolutely amazing and also very depressing..Ha!!!! If he was a prick it would be easier to take but he’s such a great guy and an absolutely amazing player. We knew Steve way back when he was in Dixie Dregs and we had a mutual admiration society as we’d known Steve for many years before he was in Kansas. It wasn’t until this DVD however that Kerry and Steve played together. They weren’t in the band at the same time.

You played with Kerry for many years since the very start of Kansas and then with Steve during the Power/In The Spirit of Things era. How different were they to play with?

They are completely different. Kerry’s style and my style are a lot more similar. Steve is totally different, he won best guitar player five times in a row. Me and Kerry get by, but Steve is something else, his technique is incredible.

Why did you decide to be the sole guitarist once Steve and Kerry no longer wanted to stay in the band?

Well, it just turned out that way. There were so many of the parts that we did that were double parts where we both played the same things. I did have to do some things a little differently where there was a featured part where I’d have to pick and choose which way I was going to go. This year we started doing a couple of old Kansas songs that required two guitars and David Ragsdale is a great guitar player and he straps a guitar on for those songs and when we need it we have both.

Did it feel strange for you at first being the only guitarist after so long with another player? Did you feel under pressure at first?

When Kerry left we had Steve then Ragsdale doubled up on guitar too so it was not too bad. Our sound is pretty big without guitars anyway so I never felt naked up on stage. I’ve been doing this for 25 years now so I’m used to it. I’ve been the only guitar player in this band a lot longer than I have been “the other guitar player”

Back to the DVD, it’s great to see Kerry and Steve on the DVD. Did you invite Robbie Steinhardt, Dave Hope or John Elefante to take part?

Robbie has retired and it just wasn’t going to happen. Elefante, we haven’t had any contact with for such a long time but Dave, I get 3 or 4 e-mails a day from Dave so we’re in contact all the time. Dave is an ordained minister living in Florida, he’s had a different life since he left the band but we did play near him about 5 years ago and he sat in with us on a song. That was fun and he was extremely nervous as it’d been such a long time. In talking with Dave, in his mind it still feels like yesterday and he said that he’d never be able to get this out of his head and he still has this close connection with Kansas even though he’s not in the band anymore.

Talking of John, have you heard his Mastedon 3 album?

I haven’t heard it yet but John and his brother, Dino, have done some really good stuff in the past.

Robbie has left a couple of times in the past. What’s he up to now?

I know very little. With Robbie he just falls off the map and we don’t hear from him for a long time so I’m not sure what he’s doing right now.

Having David Ragsdale return to the band must have made the change pretty seamless?

David is a pleasure to be in a band with. He’s very dedicated and is a lot more talented than just about anyone I’ve ever played with. He’s a great violinist and is very dedicated and he is a symphony player who graduated from college and went into the symphony from there. He’s a fantastic musician with a great attitude and this is what he wants to do.

There are references to “Wheatheads” on your website. What are those?

This phrase came from the Kansas fans. Just like Grateful Dead fans are called the “Dead Heads”, Kansas is the wheat state where wheat is grown so Kansas fans started calling themselves “Wheat Heads”.

Over the coming months you have some shows with Foreigner and Styx. That’s a great combination and will be a great show for the fans. Will you take it in turns to headline or will you keep the same schedule each night?

Those two bands have a huge pile of hits and we only have a few so we’re the special guests and Styx and Foreigner are flip-flopping as the headliners. It’s a big Rock’n’Roll show with many trucks. Generally what Kansas does is that we like to work most of the year but at a very easy pace. A typical week for me is that I leave on Friday morning and I’m back by Sunday afternoon. On a tour like this there’s 5 dates a week and that requires being on a bus. For a week or two it’s fun but for a few months it’s hard work. It’s very close quarters to be with people so long and I like the balance that we have at home-job-home-job and doing it like this through the year you get to have a life too. Doing it night, after night, after night, after night it’s tough but I am looking forward to it. We’ll be on first and we’ll be packed up and gone even before the next band is on stage, we’ll be off down the road. They’ll be leaving at midnight and we’ll already be in the next city.

Back in 2005 you played your first UK shows in years when you played at Shepherds Bush Empire. When can we expect to see you back over in the UK and Europe?

There were rumours that we were going to come over this year but then the Styx/Foreigner tour happened and other things began filling up but hopefully next year. That would be great. Last time we played the UK I got to see my cousin. My mother was originally from Taunton and was a war bride. I spent the summer in Taunton between the kindergarten and first grade and it’s a beautiful area. I hadn’t seen my cousin since I was 6 years old and she was 12 when I saw her last at that show and she was 70. It was very strange. We’ve been very blessed to be able to circle the globe and go to so many places. I love to travel and it’s better than a kick in the nuts!!

What else do you have planned for the rest of 2010?

Other than the Styx and Foreigner shows, we’ll be doing another series of Symphony dates and we also have a few more Native Window dates with Kansas. After all that, around the fall and winter, we have some options that we are looking at but nothing is chiselled in stone. We have an offer to do a covers album to do some songs that were an influence on us and we’re tossing that around and it’d be a lot of fun to do. A lot of bands are doing that nowadays but we started out as a cover band in the early days like many others so we might do that. There’s something that I’m hopeful for but don’t know if it’ll happen but Kerry has a lot of material that is just sitting on the shelf. We asked Kerry if he’d like to get some of it recorded and he’s shown an interest in that and that’s as far as it’s gone, there’s no plan as yet, it’s just a hope that one day we could get to this and that would be great. So maybe we could release a new Kansas album at some point in the future, who knows?


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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