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Rich Williams speaks to Scene

James DuBray | Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Kansas will return to South Bend on March 27 for a co-headlining show at the Morris Performing Arts Center with fellow 70s and 80s rock band, Styx. Classic rock station staple Kansas achieved popularity with “Carry On Wayward Son” off of 1976’s “Leftoverture” as well as “Dust In The Wind” from the follow up album, 1977’s “Point of Know Return.”Rich Williams, the lead guitarist of Kansas, is the only band member who has been on every tour and studio album since the group’s debut. Whether playing acoustic or electric guitar, Williams adds a melodic and lush element to Kansas’ unique violin-infused sound. Williams is notable on stage for his eye patch, which is a result of a childhood incident with fireworks. The Observer had the privilege to talk with Williams about the upcoming Kansas visit to the Morris, as well as what it means to have survived in the rock business for 35 years.

Scene: So you’re alive, despite the reports out of New Hampshire? (A Rich Williams impersonator, who also lied about being a Vietnam War POW, recently died in New Hampshire leading to an obituary, which listed the actual Kansas guitarist as deceased.)RW: That’s true. Still here. Yeah I kinda felt sorry for him when I found out he was a Vet, but then I found out he was just a bull****er.

Scene: I see Kansas has a patchwork tour coming up. Have you guys ever been to South Bend before?

RW: Oh, yeah. The dates are still coming in. We’ll probably do 75 or 80 dates this year, like we do every year. Generally, the format is that I leave on a Friday morning and come back on a Sunday afternoon. I’ve spent too many weeks riding around in a bus. It’s good because there’s always another weekend to look forward to, but it’s also good to be home, to have a life. South Bend, we’ve been there six or seven times, at least.

Scene: What are you listening to today? What’s on your car stereo?

RW: I don’t pay much attention to today’s pop radio. I would rather play guitar and spend an hour or two a day practicing. Similar to a football player who would rather play then watch somebody else do it. I like playing guitar and playing guitar in Kansas. We just finished a live DVD of a show we did with a symphony in Kansas, so there was a lot of preparation for that [titled “There’s No Place Like Home” and scheduled to be released Aug. 4 of this year]. I’m also reviewing the final mixes of a side project of ours called “Native Window,” which will be released May 12. It’s the Kansas members without Steve Walsh, so it’s not a keyboard album. Also, it’s not a Kansas album. I’m sure some Kansas fans are looking forward to it. But they’ll say “this is not Kansas” and that’s good. I think we surprised ourselves; we didn’t know we had that album in us – 10 very uniquely different songs from a very cohesive band. We’re going to be opening some shows this year for Kansas.

Scene: The way music is listened to has changed drastically since say the mid-70s. What do you think about those changes? Is it somewhat disturbing that people don’t listen to albums all the way through now? Yet, isn’t there something more democratic about MySpace, YouTube, blogs, etc.? Just in terms of the gatekeepers not only being record executives anymore.

RW: Having been screwed by record companies for the last 35 years, I’m not very concerned about them. With Kansas, our bread and butter has always been touring. We’re a live band, that’s how we get ourselves out there. That’s what we started doing and that’s what we’re continuing to do. Whatever technology helps people hear our music and get to our shows, then all the better. Scene: What guitarists have influenced your style of playing?

RW: The first influence I had was Eric Clapton. Even before that it was The Beatles and George Harrison. When I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I wanted to play guitar. The whole British Invasion influenced me. Eric Clapton did an album with John Mayall & The Blues Breakers [1966’s “Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton”]. The guitar playing wasn’t B.B. King style. It was a lot more direct. That really stuck to me and I learned as much of it as I could. That album showed me the powerful voice that a guitar can have, rather then just whacking on it and playing chords. The Yardbirds with Page, Clapton and Beck, those three guys along with Jimi Hendrix are behind everything that’s happened since.

Scene: Finally, what was it like hearing Will Farrell sing “Dust In The Wind” in Old School?

RW: Some people perceive us to be a deep thinking, serious band and to be honest we’re not. We’re just normal guys who got lucky. Some of our fans thought it [the scene in Old School] was sacrilegious. I think it’s really funny. Will Farrell’s a Kansas fan and he put that in the movie. There’s nothing offensive about it, it’s great.