Interview with Kansas — “Let’s figure out ways that we can keep rock ‘n’ roll alive.”

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With a legendary career spanning nearly five decades, KANSAS has firmly established itself as one of America’s iconic progressive rock bands and are now ready to release their new studio album, “The Absence of Presence,” on 26 June 2020 through InsideOut Music. We had the opportunity to talk to KANSAS‘ newest member, keyboard player Tom Brislin. Read the entire interview below.

Hi Tom! Thank you for joining us today. How are you doing?

Tom: I’m doing well, thank you!

You joined KANSAS a little bit over a year ago; how has the ride been for you so far?

Tom: So far it’s been a great experience, I jumped right in during the “Point of Know Return” anniversary tour and they welcomed my songwriting into the band as well, so I started writing, making demos around the same time I was learning all the material, and starting the live work with the band.

I was actually going to ask you about learning their whole repertoire during the “Point of Know Return” tour. How did you go about it and did you have to learn everything by ear? How did the process go?

Tom: I learned the entire set by ear, using the original recordings; in fact, I transcribed every note of keyboards that I could possibly hear on the recording, which is a challenge because I didn’t have access to the original multitrack, only the finished stereo versions that everyone has heard on the albums. Some of those parts are hidden in the mix, some parts are very prominent, but I did my best to uncover everything I could and transcribe every note.

How are you feeling about the result? Do you think you pretty much nail the songs now? Are there parts that you are still not 100% sure about?

Tom: I don’t have any confusion about the parts. I feel that I have done my best to be faithful to the original material and also I look for some moments in the show where there can be a little bit of variation but I don’t deviate too much. I like to imagine that I’m in the seat as a member of the audience and what would I like to hear? So I think of nailing the original parts as kind of like the entry fee (laughs) for me and once I’ve done that, I have a little bit more wiggle room to add my own personality into it.

Well, you’re talking about the fans; how have the reactions been so far to you joining the band?

Tom: The KANSAS fan community has welcomed me in a big way and I think they’re great and I do my best to try and give them that feeling that made them fall in love with KANSAS’ music in the first place. They see how much care I have taken in preparing the music and performing it with passion and they keep feeling me and I try to give it right back to them.

What is the story behind you joining the band; how did they find out about you?

Tom: They learned about me through our record label, InsideOut. I am also a member of the group called THE SEA WITHIN. We released our album on InsideOut in 2018. Once they had the need for a keyboardist, they had heard about me and some of the members of the band had already known about me through my work with bands like YES and CAMEL. So, they approached me and wanted me to join the band and be a real official band member, like I said before, not only to play the shows but to be a real writing, contributing, and composing member of the band as well.

Yeah, like you mentioned you played with other prog bands in the past, such as YES. You toured with them, but since you were a touring member, you weren’t really involved in the creative process. How did it feel to have that part in there as well for KANSAS, such a legendary prog band?

Tom: Being a part of the group creatively is one of the things I like the most about being a member of KANSAS. In fact, that was a question I had asked them when they asked me to join the band, because I’ve always been a songwriter, as long as I’ve been a musician. Some of the community of the prog rock world may not know that about me, because most of my original work has been in other genres, like power pop and more conventional styles, but I was raised on progressive rock, so the fact that I have the opportunity to actually create in that genre and to have a wider audience know about it was very appealing to me.

You were born about the same time as KANSAS was formed; would you say this is a dream come true or how do you feel about that fact?

Tom: It’s funny because I was practically raised on progressive rock music and when I first started playing in bands as a teenager, my friends and I were forming progressive rock bands, when they unfolded, I didn’t think I would be playing this music professionally in my career, I thought it was sort of a passion project. The fact that I was once touring with YES, a band whose posters I had on the wall when I was a kid, was surreal to say the least. Now to be a part of this story tradition of KANSAS’ music and a band that many consider being one of the best progressive rock bands to come out of America, it’s been a thrill, but I’ve taken it as a serious responsibility in a way, to keep the music moving forward.

As an artist who just joined KANSAS, what are your favorite songs from the band’s extensive catalogue?

Tom: For me, a special part of the concert every night is when we play “Song for America.” It has such an uplifting energy and I also got to bring back the original piano break that was on the recorded version of the song that the band hadn’t been playing live for decades; wanting to bring back that whole feeling of the recording and also feel the audience reaction, for long-time KANSAS fans who hadn’t heard the entire song live as it was originally recorded. That to me is a high point in the show.

Was that one of the choices you made to do that part of the song and why do you think the band decided to skip that part?

Tom: I’m not exactly sure why it has been omitted from their live version but I know that now we have a seven-piece band capable of playing a lot of the parts that were perhaps too overdubbed in the studio to play them live. I brought the idea to the guys and said, “how would you like to have this back,” and they had me make a recording of myself playing the piano break and ultimately, it was their decision to say, “okay let’s put it back in, I think it would be cool.” So, perhaps it was me being the new guy wanting to show them how into it I was – and I am very into it, so it worked out very well so far.

Obviously, progressive rock has existed since the seventies, but why do you think KANSAS’ music is still relevant today?

Tom: I think the progressive aspects of the music have been a great asset to KANSAS. There were perhaps times in the eighties or nineties when there was more pressure from the industry to streamline songs and make them shorter and simpler and more pop-oriented, but I feel that the fact that KANSAS always has had that progressive DNA in their music has worked out to their benefit now because there’s a loyal fanbase that really wants to explore listening to a really rich sounding album, full of changes and colors and more than the usual standard rock fare. So what may have been something that the band had to fight for in the past is now one of the main features and something that makes the audience want to hear new music from the band.

Obviously, the main reason why were are doing this interview is that you are releasing “The Absence of Presence” in June; what can you tell fans about the album?

Tom: I think the fans will appreciate the fact that the album has those progressive elements and also hooks, which to me, the combination of those things is one of the things that makes KANSAS’ sound like KANSAS. We wanted to make an album that had no compromises and that was full of energy and dynamics and to give the listener a complete album-listening experience. So I feel like there’s a little bit of all sides of the music present on the album.

You mentioned before that you were writing and touring simultaneously; what did the process look like? When you joined the band, were there already finished songs? What was your contribution to them?

Tom: When I joined, there were already some demos of music that Zak Rizvi had written that were going to be on the album. They didn’t have the lyrics yet, so I wrote lyrics to four of the songs and Ronnie Platt, our lead singer, wrote lyrics to two of the tracks. The door was also open for me to contribute musically as well as lyrically. There are three songs on the album that I wrote the music for as well. The process for me was just to write creatively and freely and not really worry about it and let the creative juices flow. Whenever I had time between the tour dates, I would just demo things in my home studio and present them to the group. It seems like I was on the right track because the songs were getting a good response from the band, they were really feeling it. So I’m really proud to say that I had a big part creatively in the album and that the band really brought the music to life in a way that I was really happy to hear.

I looked online for some reactions to the singles and a lot of people mentioned – and I agree – that it sounds like the KANSAS from the seventies and eighties. I personally feel that even though you respect the old sound, you add your own things to the songs. Since you had such a big contribution, is it because of your past with progressive rock that you were able to keep their own identity or how did that happen?

Tom: I feel that the fact that I knew that I was writing for KANSAS had an influence on my writing, but I never felt as if I had to change anything about the songs to fit it into any category that would be suitable for KANSAS. It’s just that I love so many facets of music that knowing that we could have lots of melodies and lots of changes and could get really colorful with the lyrics, it was more of a liberating experience than a restrictive one. It just so happened that I was so in-depth in playing the “Point of Know Return” tour that it had an influence on me because that was the music that I was studying, that I was playing live every night. It would seep in. It’s no coincidence that it has aspects of classic KANSAS in the sound.

You mentioned that you have been writing mostly power pop; is the writing process different for those kinds of projects or is it similar?

Tom: The thing about the writing process that I’m asked about a lot is what comes first: lyrics or music? Typically, I actually come up with the music first, so for my own songs, that’s really what comes first. With KANSAS, since there was already some existing music, I had the opportunity to just focus on lyrics and how they would fit into melodies that were already written. That’s a fun part of the collaborative process. I think that the process for me is all about capturing the ideas first and then asking questions later, so no matter what the genre is that I’m writing for, I feel that I don’t worry about it usually. I never really worry about it, it’s just that sometimes what comes out may or may not be fitting of the group I’m working with. If it’s not, I just put it in a different box and I just write some more, so I never changed my process, I just let it flow freely and then evaluate it later, okay, this works for this band and then if the answer to that question is yes, I would explore it even more.

During this process were there any challenges that you faced or did everything go smoothly?

Tom: For me, writing lyrics is always a challenge because I want them to mean something and I also want them to have a creative flavor to them. I want them to be fun to hear and perhaps a little bit thought-provoking, I want them to paint a picture in the listener’s mind. For me that takes some crafting, whereas music, I’m always coming up with some melodies and chord progressions. The main challenge for me is just to find something to record them with immediately (laughs) but for me, the lyrics take more time because I want them to really pass my own test.

So when it comes to lyrics, how do you start usually? Do you first have a topic or do you just write, kind of like a stream of consciousness?

Tom: What I try to do is some free-form writing every day; whether or not that goes into a song, I just try to get the muscle working, the creative muscle. I find that if I’m just writing more, then when it comes time for me to write about a particular idea, then everything runs smoother. In the case of “The Absence of Presence” album, there were a few song titles that Phil Ehart had come up with and brought to us such as “The Absence of Presence,” “Animals on the Roof,” or “Throwing Mountains.” That was an interesting exercise for me, to take a title and Phil would then sometimes say what the title meant to him and I would just let the lyrics flow from there. Sometimes the ideas that I came up with might have been a little bit different than what Phil may have thought of originally, but he seemed to dig what was happening and so it went from there. In the case of other tunes like “Jets Overhead,” “Memories Down the Line,” or “The Song the River Sang,” those were songs that I had written the lyrics for from the ground up, from a clean slate, so to speak. I would just kind of work with abstract ideas or concrete ideas. It didn’t even matter to me, I just wanted to make a good flow of lyrics or a concept or maybe even be a little bit ambiguous at times because I think that’s fun too.

You mentioned that they need to mean something to you. What sort of themes are present in the lyrics that you wrote?

Tom: One thing that was brought to my attention when I was writing lyrics for this album was that KANSAS‘ song lyrics have more of what I would call a wide-screen view. They’re more about the big picture or the bigger ideas rather than more intimate songs about personal relationships and things like that. Given that sort of guidance, it enabled me to take a step back and look at things in a wider way and the fact that we could use whatever kind of language we wanted. Again, I think that prides into our progressive side, is that we didn’t have to dumb anything down and we didn’t have to write super flowery, over-the-top lyrics either. It could be conversational, it could be abstract, I think that’s a really liberating thing.

I guess it’s prog-like as well; if you compare it to other bands that have lyrics that the audience might not be able to completely understand, is it important to you that the listener can have their own interpretation of your lyrics?

Tom: I do think it’s important that a listener can put their own interpretation in a song. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I like to leave the door open, so to speak, in the lyrics. I think being effective is the most important thing, so if you listen to a song and it affects you in a way, it paints a picture in your mind, or you connect the dots and draw your own conclusions from it, that’s rewarding, even if it doesn’t have the same meaning that I might have intended it to when I wrote it. I think the important part is that it entertains and it affects.

What was the recording process like? Did you go to the studio as a unit or did you record things separately?

Tom: For me, it was the best of both worlds – we employed all the techniques that are used to make an album in this day and age. We all went to the studio together, recorded our fundamental tracks from the album, and got that band feeling, got that band experience. We also were able to do sound design and development, add parts to the album after the fact in our own home studios, so I feel like we got the energy and the feel of what it means to be a rock band in the studio, whereas we got that responsibility to really take the sounds in whatever direction we wanted to when we had the time to really dig into the tracks.

What I also really enjoyed about the album is the cover art. Since KANSAS is a band from the seventies, I think that bands back then they paid a lot more attention to those things than bands now really do. How did the cover art come about?

Tom: You would have to talk to Phil about that a little bit more, it wasn’t really my department. He worked with the artist and told her what the title was and a little bit about what it meant to him and she went and created from there and Phil showed us what it looked like after it was done. To me it’s a quintessential prog rock album cover, it’s full of color, it’s got some really unusual imagery in it ,and it’s bold, which is what I feel about the music too.

You guys were going to go on tour but it was postponed due to COVID-19; a lot of bands are now trying out streaming concerts instead. Is that something that KANSAS might try in the future? What do you think about those alternatives in general?

Tom: Personally, I’ve done streaming concerts for over ten years and I’m familiar with the idea of playing from my own living room, but that was in a solo context. With KANSAS it’s a challenge because so much of the show has to do with the big energy and the stage design and the energy from how we are interacting with each other on stage. I’m always keeping an open mind with regard to ways we can keep connected with our audience. I feel that we are fortunate that the single is coming out and then the album is coming out because that’s a way that we can still share KANSAS’ music and connect with our community. As a musician, I feel it’s important to help people through these times with our art and keep people entertained and keep their spirits uplifted. I’m not sure what type of things might be in store for us as a group, using the technology, but I do know that everyone is always thinking about ways we can connect with the audience.

Some festivals are even thinking of having some sort of a drive-in festival, with people watching the show from their cars. Are you opposed to an event like that because you still kind of miss the audience’s energy when they’re in a car?

Tom: I’m not opposed to anything that allows people to enjoy music and allows musicians to perform, as long as it’s safe. I welcome creative alternatives and people thinking outside the box; to me that’s fun, that’s rock ‘n’ roll. Let’s figure out ways that we can keep rock ‘n’ roll alive and keep live music alive in any way that keeps people safe and happy.

I think our time is almost up and this is also a good way to wrap up the interview. Do you have any last thoughts you want to share with everyone reading this?

Tom: I just wanted to thank the fans of KANSAS for welcoming me into the group; there’s a lot of history and a lot of loyalty to the various musicians that have played in this band over the years. I’ve met people who’ve seen the band since their first tour, who are still with the group, and I’m grateful that they still support us and have welcomed the new guy.

Interview by Laureline Tilkin