20 Years Ago: Kansas Return From Some Hard Years With ‘Freaks of Nature’
Kansas lost some key members and much of their commercial momentum in the early '80s, but 1986's Power brought them their biggest hit in years — which made it all the more disorienting for the band when they lost their record deal just two years later. The years leading up to their 12th studio LP, 1995's Freaks of Nature, were among the hardest the band had faced.
"It kind of went milky right there," drummer Phil Ehart told the Morning Call. "Our management and our record company and our booking agent basically all just said, 'We're going away. You guys should probably go away too.' And we just kind of looked at ourselves and thought, 'What are we going to do?' ... I had people laugh in my face. 'We're not interested in Kansas.' I mean, I even called Sony, where we sell tons of our old product every year, and they weren't even remotely interested in talking to us."
Out of other options, the band members fell back on what they knew how to do — play for fans — and they spent the early '90s doggedly touring in decidedly less glamorous circumstances than the ones they'd enjoyed as arena headliners in the years when they were releasing huge hits like 1977's Point of Know Return. A live album released through the small independent imprint Intersound Recordings in 1992, Live at the Whisky, captured a band that retained elements of the classic Kansas sound, but was audibly struggling through a number of professional and personal difficulties.
Whisky failed to chart, but Intersound — one of the first in a series of smaller labels that offered a home for veteran rock acts throughout the decade — still wanted to follow it up with a studio effort, and offered to bankroll the sessions that led to Freaks of Nature.
"We asked, 'Where do you want to record it?' They said, 'Let’s do it in Trinidad," Ehart laughed during a conversation with Innerviews. "We were living in the studio in a compound and working 24/7 on the album. The studio was beautiful, one of the finest I’ve ever worked in. We were cut off from everything and concentrating on the music."
The results were solidly in line with the sound of older Kansas records without being self-conscious about it. Freaks of Nature didn't strain for the charts like Power and 1988's In the Spirit of Things were occasionally guilty of doing, but neither did it sound like a band trapped in its past; for the first time in a long time, it simply offered fans an opportunity to hear Kansas being Kansas, and even incorporated a new song — "Cold Grey Morning" — from former guitarist and songwriter Kerry Livgren.
Unfortunately for the band, fewer fans were interested in buying new records from Kansas in 1995, and Freaks of Nature failed to chart — partly because of huge changes in rock radio since the group's heyday, and partly because Intersound simply couldn't deliver the kind of market penetration Kansas had benefited from during its earlier days. It all added up to a situation increasingly familiar to a lot of acts in their peer group: they just weren't selling records anymore.
But while changing trends and independent distribution prevented Freaks of Nature from enjoying the level of reach or promotion previous efforts had been afforded, Ehart still noticed an uptick in the band's fortunes after weathering those lean times in the early '90s — including years in which they were forced to stay on the road for months at a stretch in a touring market that had lost a lot of its luster. Whether or not it was a hit album, it marked a turning point.
"Classic rock radio was emerging in a major way. A lot of the baby boomers were going 'Well, where’s our music? Where’s Journey, Foreigner, Styx, Rush and Kansas on the radio?' So, radio started playing music from Freaks of Nature and our ability to get back on the road and play real gigs emerged," Ehart told Innerviews. "We were also able to go out with ... bands like Styx and Foreigner. Those realities were there and everything picked back up. We were able to get out of the seedy side of living on a bus forever and actually start to have lives again. Prior to Freaks of Nature, the band was living in dark times."
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