Interview: Phil Ehart (Kansas)

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HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: June 2015. We had the great honour to talk with a legendary drummer: Phil Ehart. He is best known as the drummer of Kansas for more than 40 years. Kansas have released very successful singles such as “Carry on Wayward Son” and “Dust in the Wind” and excellent albums such as “Leftoverture”, “Point of Know Return” and “Masque”. In March 2015, they released a documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere” which chronicles the story of the band from 1974 self-titled debut through “Point Of Know Return” in 1977. Read below the very interesting things Phil told us:


Are you satisfied with the feedback you got so far from fans and press for the “Miracles Out of Nowhere” documentary?

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Yes, it is completely beyond our expectations the response that we got and we are still getting today. The fans and the press and just people in general really seem to like the documentary and we are very pleased with that. We worked very hard on it.


How did you come up with the idea to make a documentary about the story of Kansas until the “Point of Know Return” album and tour?

Well, it was our 40th anniversary and we wanted to do something special and we thought that maybe we could do a book and then we came across the idea that maybe we could do a documentary. We thought that it would be best just to do the documentary from the very first album through “Point of Know Return”. Just that section of our career. As we started to put that story together, we realized that it was very miraculous that this band was ever discovered, that we ever made it out of Kansas and that we ever had the success that we did. It was a very miraculous story, so we decided to go ahead and do the documentary.


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How emotional was when the six original members sat in a room together after 30 years during the filming of “Miracles Out of Nowhere”?

Well, it was emotional. You know, I will tell you this: we had all been in touch with each other over the last 30 years. He had seen each other. It wasn’t like we hadn’t seen anybody and then all of a sudden we were there. We had spoken to each other. Sometimes, some of the guys would come and play on stage and things like that. So, we had, but that was the first time that all six of us were together at the same table. So, it was emotional and it was a very cool way to start the documentary.


You are currently on tour. What is like to be on the road with a new singer, Ronnie Platt (Steve Walsh retired in 2014)?

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Ronnie Platt has just done an incredible job. It is very exciting to have him in the band. He does the songs just as he is a very big Kansas fan and he wants to sing the songs as they were written and he does and it’s just a real pleasure. We will always love Steve Walsh, but he retired and we were moving on with Ronnie and it’s been incredible.


Can you give us some information about the next Kansas studio album?

We just started on that last week. We went into the studio for the first time in 14 years for work on new material. We had one song and just work on it to see what this band sounds like, how we work together and it was just outstanding. We decided to move ahead and start recording the album probably in November-December and January of this coming year.


Can you tell us the title of the song?

It doesn’t really have a name just yet. We are not sure if we are going to end up using that song.  It was just a song that allowed us to go and see how all came together. We are not really sure what the name of the song will be, we are not really sure whether the song will end up because it’s still a long way before we actually pick songs for the album. It’s a great song and it turned out very well.


Kansas still remain an amazing live band. What is the secret?

Thank you, I appreciate that. The secret of course is music. The music that has been written for this band and we perform all the time seems to be timeless. We have a whole new audience now. A lot of our audience is now in their teens, in their college years, in their 20s and 30s, much younger that it was a number of years ago. So, audience seems to keep discovering our music as well as the older fans and that allows us to stay on the road and keep playing in front of great audiences.


Did you expect the commercial success of “Leftoverture” album in 1976?

We did since we heard “Carry on Wayward Son”. We knew that that was a special song and we knew that might be an opportunity for us to break through Top40 radio here in the United States and sure enough it did. It was a very big hit and we were very glad that we had “Carry on Wayward Son”. It’s still one our biggest songs even today.


Can you tell us the story about the song “Magnum Opus” and Neil Peart of Rush?

We played “Magnus Opus” and Neil and I, spoke in times and he really liked that song. The Rush guys were always fairly outspoken about how much they liked Kansas and how much we liked Rush. So, it was a very good touring package and “Magnum Opus” was a pretty crazy song and we spent a lot of time talking about it with each other as well as with a lot of their songs. There has always been a mutual admiration between Kansas and Rush.


Neil asked you what you played in the middle part of “Magnum Opus”.

Oh, yes!! There was one particular rhythm that I played. A lot of people (laughs) -not just Neil- a lot of people over the years have asked me what the heck pattern was that I played during the song and yes, he did ask me about it and he said: “I wouldn’t have guessed that in a million years”. Yes, he’s a good guy and a good friend.


How did it happen to play on Buddy Rich’s drums from the “Tonight Show”, on Steve Hackett’s “Please Don’t Touch” album (1978)?

Steve Hackett had invited myself and Steve Walsh to perform on that album and we got to Los Angeles to record and I had asked Slingerland, my drum company if they can provide a drum set. So, the drum set had been delivered and we were out there to unpack it and it was Buddy Rich’s drum set that he used on the “Tonight Show” every time he went to play there. So, Slingerland had grabbed Buddy Rich’s drum set and brought it over to the studio and we all just kind of stood there in owe just saying: “Oh, my Gosh!” I ended up playing it but it was with very much respect. Me getting to play on Buddy Rich’s drum set that was once in a lifetime opportunity.


Do you have happy memories of the “Sheer Heart Attack Tour” (1974-75) with Queen?

Yes, very much. Playing with Queen was one of the highlights, I can say, of our career. They weren’t only extremely nice people but an incredible band and we’ve been friends to this day. Of course, Brian (ed: May –guitar) was kind enough to be on our documentary and said very nice things about us. Queen to this day is still one of the most incredible bands ever.


Were you frustrated with the lack of attention that MCA Records showed to “In The Spirit of Things” (1988) album?

Yes, that was a very frustrating time. You know, we were very fortunate to have Bob Ezrin  of Pink Floyd fame to produce the record and we spent six months making it and it was a great experience working with Bob and we were very proud of the record and then we were turned in. MCA was kind of changing artists that they were concentrating on. Kansas was not one of those artists and they just said: “We‘ll put the album out but we are not going to support it and it just can go away quickly” and it did. Yes, any time you work that hard on an album and on music and just have been tossed aside by the record company was very demoralizing and very disappointing.


You are also the manager of Kansas. Does the business aspect of Kansas, distract you from creating more music?

Well, at times it can. Yes. Managing Kansas can be a full time job at times. Most of the time it’s not distracting. But it can be. Especially, now working on new music, putting the recording contracts together and things like that. But it’s not impossible to do. I’ve been doing it now for over 25 years, so I enjoy doing it. I never planned to be the manager of Kansas. It just kind of worked out when our manager at the time moved to other things and I called the guys of the band and said: “I’d be happy to do the day-to-day stuff until we find another manager and that was 25 years ago. It has worked out well for us. I’m not sure, I wouldn’t recommend to anybody that they play in the band and manage that band at the same time. But, it has worked well for our band.


How did you feel the first time you played at the Madison Square Garden?

Madison Square Garden was part of a long “Leftoverture” and “Point of Know Return” tour back to back and at the time we were doing so many concerts that it almost turned out to be just another gig. In other words, we were doing so many, so many concerts: Today, we are in New York, we are doing Madison Square Garden. We were there for such a short amount of time because he had to go to the next city the next day that it wasn’t until later that we looked back and said: “Wow, we sold out Madison Square Garden”. It will always be a special concert but the impact of it happened after we played, more than the day that we actually played there.


How important was the influence of Ian Paice (Deep Purple) to you as a drummer?

I can say that Ian Paice was the most influential drummer on my drumming. I mean, Deep Purple and Ian Paice. I listen to those guys non-stop since I was in high school, continued through the ‘70s and I still listen to them today. So, Ian Paice had the style and an approach to drumming that I really liked because not only was interesting but he really rocked. And he still rocks today if you have seen him recently. His style of drumming seemed to fit my style and seemed to fit Kansas music. I have never had the chance to meet him, I would like to someday and tell him –as I’m sure many other drummers have- how big of an influence he was and still is on my playing.


Do you think social media like Facebook and Youtube have helped younger listeners to learn about the music of Kansas?

Very much so. Social media has opened so many doors for Kansas, especially as I said earlier, there are so many younger Kansas fans now. Over the last 4-5 years we use our Facebook page to give information to our fans, give them special opportunity even like knowing about the documentary and things like that and concerts that we play. So, yeah social media has given us a huge advantage.


Your pre-Kansas band, White Clover played at the New Orleans Pop Festival in 1969. Was it an interesting experience to talk with Janis Joplin there?

(Laughs) You’ve done your research. You are asking very good questions. I was 19 years old. I was a very young man and I was down there playing and yes, hearing Santana before anybody knew who they were then and meeting Janis Joplin and meeting Jim Morrison with The Doors who played for this in the French Quarter. The whole New Orleans experience, the New Orleans Pop Festival experience had a huge impact on me at that time I was wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. And I think being down there really convinced me that I wanted to give this a shot and I wanted to commit my life to doing that and see what would come from it. So, I think I made the right decision and playing in New Orleans had a huge impact on my life and eventually the life of the band Kansas.


Are you happy with the comeback of the vinyl records?

Very much so. All of our records since we started were on vinyl and we had many requests from Sony, our label, to keep reissuing a lot of those records on vinyl. They are selling very much so. In fact, even the new record we are doing for the next year will be issued on vinyl also. So, yes I think it’s great that people are discovering it again. Vinyl records sound so much better than CD’s and the artwork on the vinyls it’s more important. Because it’s bigger, you can do better things on it than you can do on an a little CD thing. Yes, I think for all of music, not just ours. I think for all of music it’s a great thing that the vinyl is coming back.


Do you remember the concert that Kansas played in Athens, Greece in 2005?

Yes, you have a place called Lycabettus Hill. It’s was kind of a pike and our hotel was on the pike and we could look over and we could see all the different parts of Athens. It was one of the most beautiful concerts that we have ever played. The fans were great. We would just absolutely love to come back some day. It was great. Athens was just an incredible place for us to play and we would love to come back.


A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr Phil Ehart for his time and to J.R. Rees for his valuable help.

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