Stellar Musicianship Drives New Kansas Album ‘The Absence Of Presence’

When Kansas released The Prelude Implicit in 2016, their first album of new material since 2000, the band hit the road, centering the show around the 40th anniversary of their 1976 breakthrough Leftoverture, sprinkled with tracks from the new record. Another tour followed in 2018 and 2019, this one around their 1978 follow-up, the six times platinum-certified Point Of Know Return. During down times in between shows, the band worked on new material.

Videos by American Songwriter

The Absence of Presence, their latest release (June 26), rocks hard with stellar musicianship. The addition of guitarist/producer Zak Rizvi in 2016 and keyboardist Tom Brislin in 2019, two powerhouse players from New Jersey who have mastered their respective instruments, plays a big part in continuing and expanding that sound.

The Absence of Presence takes the band even further into the progressive rock arena while still maintaining the classic Kansas sound. Longtime, hardcore fans will roar with approval at the precise musicianship, contemplative lyrics, soaring vocals with tight harmonies, intricate arrangements, memorable riffs, complex changes, and majestic musical passages in the album’s nine songs.

Original members Phil Ehart and Rich Williams guide the band. Bassist/vocalist Billy Greer has been with the band since 1985, and violinist/guitarist David Ragsdale since the early 2000’s. Vocalist/keyboardist Ronnie Platt stepped in when original vocalist Steve Walsh retired in 2014.

The classic Kansas lineup of  Ehart (drums), Williams (guitar), Robby Steinhardt (violin), Dave Hope (bass), Steve Walsh (vocals/keys) and Kerry Livgren (guitar) churned out eight gold albums of earworm gems and the most accessible progressive rock to cross over from album-driven FM radio to mass appeal AM radio. The 1976 release Leftoverture and its 1978 follow-up Point of Know Return featured fantastic album cover art that sent many a young fan looking for meaning as they pondered the deeper significance of the lyrics “All we are is dust in the wind” and “How long to the point of know return?” And in a sure sign of securing your place in musical history, learning how to perform the riff-heavy, harmony-laden “Carry On Wayward Son” and the fingerpicked “Dust In The Wind” is a rite of passage for all aspiring teenage musicians.

In the early 2000’s, guitarist/producer Zak Rivzi was running his own recording studio in New Jersey and playing guitar in an original progressive rock band, 4Front, as well as performing in a Rush tribute band Power Windows when he took a chance and reached out to Kansas drummer/founding member Phil Ehart and told him he would like to write with him. Surprisingly, Ehart called him back the same night.

“It was a total cold call!” says Rizvi. “I had a fax number for Phil for a few years and finally got some courage up and told him who I was and that I would like to write some songs for him.  Incredibly he called me back that same night. This was in 2001. I started sending him songs, and he liked them.”

“One day he called me and said ‘we’re playing at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank. Do you want to have your band open the show?’ I wound up opening up three or four shows for them with my band 4front. From there, he introduced me to Jeff Glixman (the band’s producer) and we hit it off.”

Central Jersey keyboardist Tom Brislin studied jazz composition at nearby William Paterson College and formed the critically acclaimed underground power pop band Spiraling in the early 2000s. That led to performing with Glen Burtnik, Debbie Harry, Meatloaf and then Yes. Brislin also released a solo record, Hurry Up And Smell The Roses, in 2012 (and performed a song from that release for American Songwriter, which you can view here). A one-off project, The Sea Within, released on Inside Out Music led to Ehart asking him to join Kansas. “Zak and I hit it off quickly because of our similar backgrounds playing all over New Jersey and having similar musical tastes.  It’s a miracle that we never knew each other prior but he had been in the scene a few years earlier. It definitely gives you a perspective when you go through similar experiences.”

Zak, tell us about working on your first project with Kansas, the 2016 release, The Prelude Implicit?

Zak: Four of those songs I sent Phil early on eventually wound up on The Prelude Implicit. Initially I wasn’t going to play on it because I wasn’t going to be in the band. I was just producing, and Rich did all the guitars. About two weeks in, Rich, being the gracious guy he is, came to me and wanted me to play and divvy up some of the parts. I said, ‘I don’t want to do this over, you played it so well.’ So, I’m on about 60% of it on guitar and my fingerprints are all over it as a producer. That record was recorded in Georgia since most of the band is based in the Atlanta area.

What is the songwriting process with Kansas?

Zak: It’s definitely a present your songs to the band format. We’re on the road about 200 days a year so it doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity for people to get together in their free time and collaborate. I write songs and demo them and if Phil and Rich like it then it gets passed on to the next step. I don’t write lyrics so that’s always an issue. Ronnie (Platt) did a lot on the last record.

And with this record Tom wrote lyrics for four of my songs. He did a hell of a job. And it’s the same with Tom in presenting songs. He writes independently and everyone puts their two cents in. Things can get changed around and developed, of course.

Tom: Zak was such a principal writer, producer and engineer of the music of the previous Kansas album. Before we even got to the recording process, he sent me demos and they were great. They just needed lyrics and I knew I wanted to be a big part of the writing process, and that was one of the first questions I asked Phil when I joined. The other bands I worked with, like Yes, Camel and Meatloaf, had just hired me as a keyboard player, which was great. But some of them didn’t know I’ve been writing songs as long as I’ve been playing keyboards. And I’ve been releasing recordings under my own name and with my band Spiraling, which were more pop. So, with Kansas it was a golden opportunity to work on my compositional skills. I really got into the challenge of writing lyrics for Zak’s songs. In some cases, Phil would give me a title, like “The Absence of Presence” and say, ‘here’s how I feel about it, this is what made me think of the title’ and that would be it! It was a really good songwriting workshop, to say here’s a title, now write a song! It gives you direction and I was able to put my own interpretation into what that meant. “Throwing Mountains” “The Absence of Presence” and “Animals on the Roof” are good examples of that process.

How do you approach songwriting for Kansas versus songwriting for yourself?

Tom: When you get down to business, it’s trying to create the best song you can. What’s helpful is that I was given parameters. ‘This is the vibe of what Kansas is.’ They didn’t want me to write a typical relationship or love song. I write plenty of relationship songs but those are close-up zoomed-in views of life. Kansas is more of a widescreen view, a look at the big picture songwriting. That informed my lyric writing in a different way. On my solo album I wrote more personal music. This was more a way to express myself in the landscape on those three songs I mentioned.

There were other opportunities on the record where it was wide open. For instance, there’s a song called “Jets Overheard” where Zak had written the music and gave me the demo. I just went from scratch and wrote lyrics. It’s got a colorful backstory, but I like to be a little ambiguous about it. There were a few other songs where I came complete with music and lyrics. “Memories Down The Line” and “The Song The River Sang” are two. That was a tremendous act of trust on their part to have the new guy come in and give them complete songs and have them make it on to the album.

And you’re singing on “Song The River Sang,” correct?

Tom: Yes. I would write the demos with music and lyrics and send them the whole thing. And for “The Song The River Sang” they wanted my vocals. Which, if you think about it, is part of the Kansas tradition going back to their first album. Sometimes Steve Walsh would sing and sometimes Robby Steinhardt would sing. You had that multi-flavor vocal vibe happening. So, it’s not out of place to have an alternate lead singer for a song or two. Ronnie Platt does such a great job on this record, so it was really cool to have him sing vocals on a song I wrote.

Do you try and stay true to the progressive sound that Kansas die-hard fans know and love?

Zak:I try really hard. But I’m me. I’m certainly not Kerry Livgren and very few are. I can’t exactly do what he does- it gets filtered through my sensibilities. Kansas has been a huge part of my life since I was a teenager. I want to try and do justice to the name. I discovered them in the ‘80’s though, just after Drastic Measures and I thought they were done. The Power tour was the first show I saw with them.

Conversely, do you try and consciously write a radio hit like “Carry On Wayward Son” or even
“Dust in the Wind?”

Zak: No, I don’t. But I love hooks, whether they’re musical or vocal melody hooks. Even if I’m writing prog music, I love the idea of hooks and someone not being able to get a melody out of their head.

Tom: There are no rules except to make it rock, make it great and make it sincere. There was a time when many bands were under pressure to reign in certain aspects of the music just to stay marketable and get a radio hit. That doesn’t apply anymore. We know what Kansas is and Kansas is able to find their fans directly.

You have a faithful Kansas audience, don’t you?

Zak: We do. It’s one of the reasons we can get away with a song like “Absence of Presence” and it’s actually what the audience expects from you. If I didn’t write an eight and a half-minute song, I would probably get a lot of flak from them!

Tom: It’s always been a part of Kansas’ identity to have great melodies and great hooks. We don’t just want to go into self-indulgent mode. We want to make great songs that stand the test of time and are meaningful. And then all around that in the song, there’s opportunity to flesh out musically and compositionally. That’s a great freedom to have.

Tom, the first track of the record, “Absence Of Presence,” opens up with you playing keyboards. That has to be a ‘pinch me’ moment for someone growing up with the band.

Tom: Just the whole fact that I’m part of this band now that has such a rich history and a part of my own life growing up, it’s pretty incredible. It’s musically involved and the fact that they welcomed me as a writer gives me a whole other aspect to sink my teeth into.

The musicianship is stellar throughout, right from that opening track. The solo interplay on “Absence of Presence” is intense. Let’s talk about the recording of the track. Did you lay your parts out first?

Zak: Rich did his solo first in Georgia and Tom and I took our cues from what he did. Tom added a lot to it. He busted out an amazing solo! He laid his part down while he was in Nashville and I did mine in New Jersey. That’s how it pretty much works for us because we are limited to an overdub situation most of the time. It’s impossible to get in a rehearsal room based on our schedule to the point where we can play them cold. We get together in the studio and flesh them out, making arrangement changes on the spot. It’s a little nutty, but it’s a necessity and it’s worked so far.

Part of my job as a producer is to make sure everyone is vibe-ing with what we had early on, so we don’t get flat, lifeless tracks. Hopefully it has energy and rocks.

Rich’s playing is a unique, recognizable style, a bit more pentatonic and blues-based sounding.

Zak: There’s a ballad on the record called “Never” and I played an elaborate demo with a lead on it.  He told me he loved the solo. I told him I wanted him to do it and he was shocked. I think he assumed it would be my solo. For me, as a long-time Kansas fan, it’s so exciting to hear that tone on something I wrote, and he absolutely killed it. It’s a flavor I grew up with, and I really love, and it’s familiar. It’s great to have access to that.

“Throwing Mountains” has so much control in the arrangement.

Zak: That was a hard one to write! That took a few months to get together. It was a lot longer originally and I had to kind to squeeze it down because it was getting a little bloated.

Did that start with the intro first?

Zak: Yeah it did. I tend to write in order, starting at the top and working through. One of the staples with Kansas’ music is a long intro before the vocal. Whenever I write those kinds of songs, I don’t have a clue what the verse is going to sound like. But I still start with an intro and that will tell me where to go. It will put it in a particular key or a particular mood. Then I’ll be able to write a verse. Usually my first drafts are nothing you’d ever want to listen to you in your life.  It’s the second draft that will cull things together and make sense of the mess.

Zak, who are your guitar influences? This record has a very Dregs-sounding feel, and of course (guitarist) Steve Morse was in Kansas in the ‘80s.

Zak: That’s a good observation. I’m a huge Dregs fan. But for me, it’s Alex Lifeson from Rush first and then everybody else. There a bunch of others who I also really admire like Trevor Rabin, Steve Lukather. Steve Morse, David Gilmour and Ty Tabor. They’re the ones who made me want to play guitar.

It has to be a thrill to play the Kansas classics.

Zak: I often get asked by people who ask me why I’m playing an electric on “Dust In The Wind” in the live show. I learned something interesting from Rich. He told me on the recording they double-tracked the acoustic guitars and then they had a third acoustic that was strung an octave higher and it was panned in the center and mixed in really lightly. It’s the high strings of a 12-string guitar so it’s an octave higher and gives it a beautiful sheen on the record. We already have Billy and Rich playing acoustic live, so I figured why don’t I play it on electric? I can’t capo that high on the acoustic and I don’t have that type of high-strung guitar on the road with me. So I capo the electric up on the 12th fret and that’s the part I’m playing live, that high-strung part. It gives a nice sparkle. It’s a great studio trick. There are also some acoustic guitar harmonic notes on the fadeout of the record that Tom captures on the keyboard for the show. We’re really trying to get those little details covered.

Tom: The feeling you get from the audience once those songs start is remarkable. It’s a feeling I had when I first started playing with Yes. I was so focused on the task at hand and doing a good job that I had to step back and observe: “Oh this is interesting. I’m playing that legendary song with the actual band!’ It almost seemed like a different reality. To be playing “Dust In The Wind,” and getting to harmonize vocals with the members of Kansas on such a classic song is special. You can’t really make that up. “Wayward Son” is fun because it’s our encore and the audience has hung with us through the whole adventurous show. We’re giving people the full course meal musically. To let loose at the end is a real celebratory feeling.

Have you met Kerry Livgren?

Tom: Kerry sat in with us when played Topeka, Kansas and played “Dust In The Wind.” He was there for the pre-show rehearsal in the dressing room. It was interesting for me having him standing over my shoulder and watch me play his music, these really involved pieces like “Hopelessly Human” and “Closet Chronicles.” That was the first time I actually felt pressure, even though he was so sweet. It was so intimate because he was right there. I felt like I was in my old piano lessons as a kid. He didn’t say much, he just nodded and said, ‘ok you’re playing it right!’ Which was a relief to hear!

Leave a Reply

Bringin’ it Backwards: Interview with Radio Free Universe

Chicano Batman Share How They Came Together on ‘Invisible People’