Kansas’ Phil Ehart: ‘We Can’t Find Any Reason to End the Music’ – Exclusive Interview
When Brendan O’Brien first heard Kansas' ‘Song for America,’ he was stunned. O’Brien, now known for his work as a producer with AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Aerosmith and Bruce Springsteen, says that 1975 album “sounded so complicated to me and so difficult.” Listening intently, O’Brien analyzed what he was hearing and thought to himself, “That must have taken a year to do this, but it’s only been nine or 10 months. How did that work? They’ve been on the road.”
Kansas drummer Phil Ehart says that O’Brien -- who later worked directly with the group as an engineer on the band’s 1988 album ‘In The Spirit Of Things’ -- wasn’t alone in his thinking. During a conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock, Ehart said “most people were way off” in regards to the length of time that the group spent recording the album. “I think we recorded that in like a month,” he says. “We just went in and knocked it out, and went back on the road. In fact, we did ‘Song For America’ at the beginning of ‘75 and we did ‘Masque’ at the end of ‘75. We did two albums in the same year.”
Kansas achieved a lot of seemingly impossible things during their early years, reaching a level of success that hardly seemed likely for six guys from Topeka. That’s the story revealed in the appropriately titled ‘Miracles Out of Nowhere,’ a new film that celebrates the 40th anniversary of this legendary group.
‘Miracles Out Of Nowhere’ traces the building process that was involved in making Kansas an international success, focusing on the group’s first five albums -- from their 1974 self-titled debut through ‘Point Of Know Return’ in 1977. Featuring new interviews with all six original members of Kansas, the film also includes additional insights from fans like O’Brien, Garth Brooks and Brian May of Queen.
The documentary will debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Feb. 2 and will be officially released on March 24. Fans can pre-order ‘Miracles Out Of Nowhere’ on DVD or Blu-ray (with bonus footage and a companion CD) via this link.
We spoke with Phil Ehart about the new film, and about the possibility of new music from the group, which has transitioned from longtime frontman Steve Walsh to new vocalist Ronnie Platt. He provides an interesting look at how Kansas continues to successfully navigate through the ever-changing music industry, more than four decades into their career.
This documentary is a good watch. How did it come about?
There was a number of people involved. [Former Kansas manager] Budd [Carr] and I talked about it -- and Richard Williams, our guitar player, he and I talked about it. Budd introduced me to the director, Charlie Randazzo, and we talked about it. And then me and all of the guys in the band talked about it. [Laughs.] It wasn’t just really any one or two people that walked in and said, “Okay, we’re going to do this.” There was a lot of talking because, you know, the six original guys hadn’t really sat in a room together for 30 years.
So, even though the idea was a good one, trying to make it come into fruition, it was kind of a group effort. Everybody just kind of had to say, “Okay, we’ll come here and we’ll do this.” But Charlie Randazzo, as the director, really did a wonderful job in getting everything out of everybody and getting everybody to talk about it and feel comfortable. I mean, it wasn’t the easiest thing to do, getting the six of us all in the same room. There were no bad feelings, but it was just, “Okay, when are we going to do this and where are we going?” Everybody had different lives going on, but once we did it, it was pretty cool.
It’s a poignant thing as you referenced, seeing the entire original band back together and discussing the history -- especially now that Steve has also departed from the group. As you’re aware, sometimes you have a documentary like this where there’s one guy who doesn’t want to participate. So it was really cool to see the entire band come together for this one.
Well, that’s a good point. We said this early on, in putting this together: If somebody didn’t want to do it, we weren’t going to do it at all. It just didn’t make any sense to have somebody not there. We didn’t have to do any arm twisting. Everybody just went, “Yeah, it sounds great; let’s do it,” because the premise for doing the story was just the first five albums. We weren’t going to discuss the breakups and the drugs, and all of that kind of stuff.
We just kind of agreed as a band, let’s not do that. I mean, who cares? Not that we didn’t discuss tensions and things between people getting things done, but at the same time we didn’t want to drag out the same tired dirty laundry that a lot of bands do to where people go, “Oh God, it’s just another story of a bunch of sad people.” We just thought, let’s just leave all of that out and let’s actually tell a pretty cool story about how we started here and how we ended up there.
So, I think the story stands on its own, without having to drag everything out. I think once we decided to keep all of that out, everybody felt a lot more comfortable being involved. Everybody just knew that, “Look, if there’s anything in here that really embarrasses you or you don’t want to talk about, we’ll just take it out.” I think everybody felt good about that premise. So when it was time to show up, everybody was there.
I thought it was an interesting way to approach it. Looking at it that way, making a film about the “good years,” was there any point where you wondered if it was just going to be a puff piece? How much did you think about that?
I never did think of it that way because I knew how hard the climb was. I knew what the story was obviously, because I lived it. I didn’t think it would be a puff piece. I was hoping it would be an inspirational piece because that’s kind of how we looked at it. Let’s make this an uplifting and inspirational piece about starting here at A and ending up at Z. This is how we got there.
We just knew that you get about 11 or 12 years into Kansas and everything starts to fall apart, and it gets so convoluted that it’s hard to tell the story. It was like, “Screw it.” [Laughs.] I mean, I couldn’t even keep track of all of the players. So we said, “Look, let’s just do this: Six guys started out from here and we made it to there.”
That in itself seemed to be a very cohesive story and one that you could tell, and it seemed interesting. Once we got into it and got all of the players and all of the people that were involved, it seemed to kind of just tell itself. It seemed to be a very uplifting, and a very different story because of a band that came out of such an incredibly obscure part of the country and got discovered by this guy [Don Kirshner] that was known for the Monkees.
Once you started putting all of this together, it was just like, “This never should have happened.” I mean, there’s just no way all of these dots could connect. That’s what I had to sell to Sony. I had to go to them and basically make this pitch. The guys just looked at me and said, “This is a no-brainer. We’ve got to do this. There’s just not many stories like this.” So, we did and that’s how it worked out.
You’ve got some great people in this film that offer a heavy endorsement of the group, just because of who they are. Brendan O'Brien is one interesting person who pops up in the film. And we also hear from Brian May and Garth Brooks. How did you find out that Garth was a Kansas fan?
Brendan is a friend and he is from Atlanta, and he worked with us on the album ‘In The Spirit Of Things’ that we did with [producer] Bob Ezrin. He was the engineer on that. Brendan’s career then went on from there, not that it had anything to do with us -- even though he does give us credit for helping his career. We just became friends and we played golf, and we’ve just remained friends through all of this time.
We talk all of the time and one day I called him and [asked him if he wanted to be in the documentary] and he goes, “Sure!” In talking with Sony, when I told them who was going to be in this, it was like, “Garth, okay, cool. Brian May, oh yeah, alright.” When I said “Brendan O’Brien,” the room went silent -- because he had just come off of the Springsteen record and all of the stuff he does. One of the guys goes, “How in the hell did you get Brendan O’Brien to be in your documentary?”
They said, “He doesn’t do much press and he’s very reclusive.” I said, “Well, I didn’t know any of that. We’ve just been friends for 20 or 30 years. He’s a golf buddy, and we play golf all of the time and kind of hang out when we see each other.” So that’s how we got Brendan and yes, he is a fan and he had told me stories back in the day about how he discovered Kansas and I guess I kind of locked it in my head. We didn’t really want to get too much into the back-patting mode. We didn’t really want to bring in tons and tons of Kansas fans -- not necessarily fans, but you know, other famous musicians who would just sit there and pat us on the back. There’s a number of documentaries that are out there that kind of gag me, because it’s just tons and tons of people just patting the band on the back.
That didn’t work for us. I’m sure it worked for them, but we wanted to find people that might be a little bit more insightful as to what the music, and how it affected their careers and how they affected our careers. So yeah, that’s the way Garth was. Somebody came up to us in the ‘80s when he was first coming out and said, “Have you guys heard of this Garth Brooks guy?” And we go, “Yeah, he’s kind of this country guy.” They said, “Boy, does this guy love you guys!” [Laughs.]
They started showing us the interviews that he was doing and he would say, “Oh yeah, I’m a huge Kiss fan and I’m a huge rock fan, but you know, Kansas this and Kansas that and I went to see Kansas.” So, I remembered that and called some people at our booking agency, CAA. They knew Garth and made some calls and he said, “Hell yeah, I’d be happy to.”
That took a little doing, you know, getting to where Garth was and hooking up and doing the whole thing. But yeah, it’s outstanding. Of course, Brian May has been a friend for a long time -- and yeah, we got some real heavyweights. But it’s kind of people off the beaten path. That’s kind of what I wanted. I wanted people that kind of make you scratch your head a little bit and go, “Wow! That’s different!” I think all three of those guys turned out that way, and they all did a good job.
Watching the film, it really sticks out how invested Don Kirshner was in this band, with his belief that there was something there, which seems like it remained constant, and the finances that he put behind the group.
That was really important to us, because so many things in the heyday that happen with a lot of bands, there’s a lot of times where certain people who have a lot to do with a band’s success don’t always get proper credit. That’s why we dedicated the film to Don Kirshner and Wally Gold, the people that discovered us, stood behind us and paid for so much and underwrote so many things. The people that were there for us when we didn’t really know anybody else.
Like I said, we didn’t have a manager, a road manager or anything. We just had the six of us and Wally used to call us at our band house and talk to us, “You guys doing okay? Do you need any money?” So, he’d send us money to eat on and stuff like that. They deserve so much credit and I wish they were both still alive to be in this film, but things don’t always work out that way. But yes, they were very invaluable assets.
When you sign away the publishing, I guess that there’s a lot of bands that don’t know what they’re doing at the time. How do you get past what would seem like the inevitable sting of something like that?
Oh, it was easy. There was never a sting, because as Kerry [Livgren] says in the film, it was the only offer we ever had. You look at it and go, “Well, okay.” But then you go, “If we hadn’t have done that, we’d have no career.” We wouldn’t be making a documentary and we’d have no records. So, if there’s any sting at all, it might have been back then for about a second.
It’s not like we had a lot of choices. That was our choice and it’s not like we had anything else to ever come along, so I guess it was a pretty good move that we did. You know, at the time, if we would have held onto our publishing, it was worth nothing. So as Rich said, this was an opportunity to make an album and we could hold onto the publishing -- which was worth nothing -- or we could make an album and get out of Topeka, and hopefully have a career.
So, we feel we made the right decision, and we’ve never looked back. We never have. We got an opportunity and he was very upfront about it, “This is what I do. I’m a publisher and if you guys want to move ahead, let’s move ahead. If not, good luck!” We’re looking at Don Kirshner and the chance to make a record vs. going back to Topeka and playing in a biker bar. The choices were rather simple. They really were.
How long was this documentary in process? Did you know at the time that Steve was planning to leave?
No, we did not. In fact, the documentary was done when Steve left. It was already finished. It took us over two years to make the documentary, because some of the members had health issues. Robby [Steinhardt] had a severe heart attack during the making of this, so we had to go back and reshoot him -- and when we did, we went ahead and reshot everybody again, just because things had kind of changed with him, health-wise. So, it took us over two years to make this.
When Steve announced his departure from the group, what was it that kept the group moving forward instead of just making the decision to call it a day at that point?
It’s really how we look at the band Kansas. We don’t look at it as fans. We look at it as the creators and performers of the music. It’s about the music to us. That’s why we continue on, because it’s about the music. From the beginning of the band, it’s been about the music. It hasn’t been about anybody in the band.
If you listen to what [journalist] David Wild says in the film, he says, “The one thing about Kansas, it was always about the music.” Well, that’s why we’re continuing -- because we hope that if people want to hear Kansas music, they’re going to come see Kansas.
Now Kerry Livgren, who has written the majority of our stuff, hasn’t been in the band for 30 years. He’s been gone for 30 years. Well, I remember people going, “Well, Kerry’s gone. The band’s over with.” Not really. It’s about the music. If you like Kansas music, come see Kansas.
If you like the original band and that’s what you prefer, well then, we’re not really the band to come see. You’d need to stay home and listen to your records. There are Steve Walsh fans, who go, “Well, Steve’s not in the band anymore. I’m never going to come see the band.” Well, that’s okay. I totally get it. They’re more Steve Walsh fans than they are Kansas music fans. So, it all breaks down. There’s people that go, “Well, I’m never going to see the band without Robby,” or “I don’t want to see the band without Kerry and Dave [Hope].” We totally get it.
The band Kansas, as it’s always been, has been about the music. It has not ever been about who is in the band. That’s how we think of it on the inside. Now, I know that fans will look at it differently, and they have favorite people or favorite incarnations of the band they like, and that’s cool too. But it’s about the music and that’s why we’ve kept it going.
We can’t find any reason to end the music. Why would we end the music? I know that someday I’m not going to be playing drums, but I hope that a really good drummer jumps in there and Kansas music continues. It’s always people’s choices. If they don’t like what they see and hear, they don’t have to come. It’s okay. But we think Kansas music is unlike most other bands out there. There seems to be an audience for it and people seem to like it, so why wouldn’t we play it? That’s why we keep it going.
I asked that because, as a band, you’ve got nothing left to prove -- unlike perhaps the first time that Steve left when you guys got another vocalist and continued to make records. Now, when this happens with a band, and they're 40-plus years into something, they’re at that crossroads whether they either keep doing it for their reasons or they don’t.
We’ve thought about it. It’s just not something that we just go, “Screw it.” We’ve thought about it. Here’s another perspective. Thanks to social media, we have a million-plus people on our Facebook and the majority of those people on there are under 40 years old. The majority of the people that follow us on a daily basis are under 40 -- and that’s because of ‘Carry on Wayward Son’ being featured on ‘Supernatural.’ It’s because of the Will Ferrell movies. It’s because of ‘South Park.’ It’s because of the video games that we’re on.
The majority of the people that follow us now? They don’t even know who was in the original band. Isn’t that weird? Those ‘Supernatural’ fans, they know the song ‘Carry on Wayward Son,’ and it’s not even for sure that they know it’s Kansas. [Laughs.] But they know the song and you walk into any place and if somebody brings up ‘Dust in the Wind,’ they go, “Oh, I love that song!” “Yeah, do you know who the band was that did it?” “No, but I really like the song!”
The songs and the music far outdistance the band now. The songs are bigger than the band. So, people know the songs. They don’t know who sang it. They don’t know that Kerry Livgren wrote it. They don’t know that Robby Steinhardt played violin on it. They don’t even care. [Laughs.]
So as we’re sitting here wringing our hands going, “Oh my God, what are we going to do?” In reality, nobody cares. Our fans are so much younger that a lot of the fans that are in their 50s and 60s that knew the original band, a lot of them, they don’t even go to concerts anymore. So any of my peers will tell you, as we’ve spoken among ourselves, our audiences are getting so much younger. We’re all seeing second and third generation fans out there.
When you talk to these young kids and ask them why they’re Kansas fans, they’ll go, “Oh, well my mom and dad played your stuff,” or “You know, I loved ‘Carry On Wayward Son’ off ‘Supernatural.’” They’ll give you today’s reasons -- not because they discovered us on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert back in the ‘70s. Those people are not necessarily our core fans anymore. Our core fans are now skewing in the 30s and 40s.
So, that’s another reason to concentrate on the music vs. concentrating on the members. When you look at it, you know our new singer Ronnie Platt, he’s out there singing and everybody’s going “Oh, he’s great” -- but they don’t know that he’s not the original singer. They don’t care that Journey's on their fourth singer. They don’t care that Boston has a different singer or that Foreigner has a different singer. It just doesn’t make a difference to them, because they love the songs. That’s why they’re there. They’re there for the music.
Rich [Williams] and I being the last two original members have kind of had to shift gears and go, “Hey, nobody cares anymore about the original members.” I mean, yes, there are some people out there that do, but the majority of the people that come see us, they want to hear those songs. They want to hear Journey’s songs, they want to hear Toto’s songs, Boston’s songs -- all of these bands with different singers now, they want to hear the songs. That’s how we look at it. I hope it’s not a long-winded explanation, but that’s how we look at it.
Do you guys want to do a new studio record at this point?
Yes, we do. We very much want to. We know that it’s not going to come out and sell a lot of copies. Playing in a band is great and it’s what we do 90 percent of the time but, as a professional musician, if you don’t get to go in and create new stuff, it kind of eats at you as a writer. Let’s just say that you’re not going to get to write anymore. Everything you’re going to do is going to be on some sort of recording or something, and you’re going, “Man, I really like writing. I really like the creative process.” Let’s just say that that’s what you like to do. It’s the same thing.
The playing is the ultimate, playing in front of an audience is [great], but so is writing a great song and recording. I think that sometimes we just have to do that for ourselves. We just have to go in and go, “Okay, we know that everybody is going to go, ‘Man, make another ‘Point Of Know Return’ or make another ‘Leftoverture.’” Well, that’s never going to happen, so let’s go in and create what we’re doing today and hope that people like it and maybe we’ll play a song live or not.
People always go, “Okay, I’ll buy a t-shirt while they’re playing their new material.” We expect that. But yeah, we’d like to give it a shot. Just to see what this band could do, because it’s a talented group of guys. You just never know. There is that opportunity and we may just take it.