A lot has changed since classic rockers Kansas got their start in the early ’70s. The band’s lineup alone has seen members leave and reappear like characters on a daytime soap, but the music industry’s been evolving dramatically, too. Kansas, on one hand, has had eight gold albums and three sextuplet platinum records, plus a platinum live LP. On the other hand, the first album to go platinum in 2014 was Taylor Swift’s 1989, and that didn’t happen until November.
“It’s pretty weird,” says Kansas guitarist Rich Williams from his home in Atlanta. “It’s always been difficult for artists to get paid by the record companies, but nowadays it’s so much worse.”
But just because Kansas became popular during the record-sales heyday doesn’t mean the members have gotten filthy rich. Though the band’s albums charted for 200 weeks in the ’70s and ’80s, their bank account balance showed no sign of success. “We signed a horrible record deal back in the ’70s, so album sales were never for the group — a gigantic source of income lost,” says Williams. “We signed away our publishing, not knowing what it was in the early ’70s, and so that’s publishing gone from 30, 40 million records that we just never got. So the road has always been our bread and butter.”
Throughout the changes, touring has been a constant. Williams remembers one special road show in the mid-’70s where they got to know a “nice guy” named Freddie Mercury during his first American performances. “Queen was great because Queen was just becoming known,” he says. “Neither one of us had really made it yet, so it was a good bonding experience. We played 38 shows together here in the States, their first tour over here.”
This year, Kansas will play 100 shows, shows that will include a mix of loyal fans and new ones who’ve been introduced to the band via video games, TV shows, and movies. “Dust in the Wind” was not only a gold single in 1977, but it also got a second life when Will Farrell brought it back into the forefront of pop culture in 2003’s Old School, while “Carry on Wayward Son” can be heard on everything from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Family Guy to “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band.”
Kansas’ unique blend of classical violin, jazzy sax, and guitar-driven boogie rock has been a big draw from the start. Today, the guys have plans in the works to collaborate and tour with a symphony, something they’ve done in the past. In 1998, Kansas released Always Never the Same, an album created with the London Symphony Orchestra, and last year they celebrated the band’s 40th anniversary with a show featuring a 35-piece orchestra in Topeka, the band’s old hometown.
Williams says the group will also write and record some new material, be it a single or an LP. But one thing’s for sure — there’s no slowing down now. For Williams, who has been with the band since 1972, there’s never been a reason to stop. “The grass was never greener for me,” he says. “I liked being part of this team.”
When others came and went, Williams stuck around. He loves the job and everything that comes with it. “When I started doing this, I just wanted to play guitar in a band because it was fun. It’s pretty simple really, and I got to do that,” Williams explains. “There are some people who like to look back on their accomplishments and sit around and talk about it, and we’re more blue collar. We really like the work. The joy is really in doing that — the travel, the camaraderie, the team work, going new places — all of these things — going to old familiar places, seeing friends in old places — all of that is what I signed up for. If I win the lottery tomorrow, nothing would change.”
As for the state of the music world, Williams has some advice for bands who are trying their luck at a music career. “Have something to fall back on, No. 1,” he says. “And two, work with people that you like, that you can get along with, that you can be friends with, because you’re gonna be spending a lot of time in a lot of uncomfortable situations together, and you want to be able to smile and laugh through it all.
“Just take four, five, six, 10 friends, and put instruments in their hands,” Williams continues, “and they will make a joyous sound together. Maybe something will happen out of that, maybe it won’t, but at least you’ll have fun.”
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