Kansas are bona fide American Progressive Rock heroes. With a legacy behind them that includes some of the most beloved tracks in rock music history, the virtuoso group finally released a brand new album in 2016 – the well-received ‘The Prelude Implicit’, after two and a half decades away from the studio. Signalling a rebirth in a new guise, the band are preparing to unleash follow up ‘The Absence of Presence’, which given the events of 2020, couldn’t be more aptly titled. We sat down with producer and guitarist Zak Rizvi for a chat about the new album, the difficulties of releasing in the time of coronavirus, and respecting the past. Wayward son; Eamon O’Neill
Hi Zak, how are you doing?
I’ll tell you what, I’m good, but I’m doing exactly the same thing that I was yesterday; not a whole lot! Actually, I’m working on music and doing just a little bit of this and that, but mostly, I’m just being bored!
It must be a tough time to be releasing a new album, in the time of coronavirus.
It’s certainly a strange thing, and the strangest thing of all is that we’re releasing an album called ‘The Absence of Presence’ in a time where everywhere I look, there’s an absence of presence. And that was not an intentional thing - it was a complete coincidence. I suppose maybe, in some ways, people might be looking for something new to listen to, or something to do because everybody’s stuck at home, and who knows; maybe this will be a little ray of light.
You should actually be on tour right now, which must be hard for you.
It is a strange time, and right now we’d be out on the road with Foreigner or something, with a string of shows in the US. But unfortunately we’re shut down until further notice, but fingers crossed.
There must be a certain element of frustration for you, and many others in the music industry right now?
Yeah, it’s certainly true. There are so many of our peers here whose livelihoods depend on touring; not just us, but bands like Styx, Foreigner and .30 Special, and so many people who we see all the time on the road and play shows with. Everyone is off the road right now, and the entire industry has kind of come to a halt, and it’s a tough time. I just hope we get through this and things get back to normal, hopefully next year, as soon as possible.
Going back to the new album, and you touched on the title ‘The Absence of Presence’ already, but where did it come from?
As I said before, it has nothing to do with coronavirus – that is just a strange coincidence, but two years ago when I was about halfway through trying to write music for the record, Phil Ehart, our drummer and manager called me and said; “I’ve got this title- ‘The Absence of Presence’, and I think it could be cool, and I think it might be a great song title and an album title”, and what we had talked about was. Since we travel a lot, we spend a lot of our time sitting in hotel lobbies and airport lounges, and we’re completely surrounded by people; they’re packed in all around you, but everyone is on their cell phones or on the internet looking at their social media. People aren’t connecting quite the way that they used to. Now we’re not judging or being critical; it’s basically an observation. So that’s where the title came from; so many people all around you, but everyone is buried in this little world of their own.
Where did the lyric came from?
It was Tom Brislin [keyboards] who joined the band last year who actually penned that particular lyric for the song that I had written. It was amazing the way it came together. I’m so glad that Tom had a sense of where to take that lyric, because it’s kind of an abstract concept. I thought he did an amazing job with it.
The title track opens the album, and it’s an absolute epic; there’s no easing the listener into it.
I’ll tell you, the fact that that song is the opening track is something that I did not expect. When I write epic things, I always imagine them as being the last song because you just think; “well, okay if it’s eight and a half minutes long, it’s got to be the last song”, because how could it not be? And I remember it was Phil who had the idea, and he said; “let’s put this up front; it’s the title track; let’s come out swinging!” I wasn’t sure if it would work, but the first time I heard the album sequence I was like; “man, good call!”! It’s amazing that it worked out that way, but I feel like it’s a good thing.
It’s followed by the first single ‘Throwing Mountains’, which is a huge song.
The music that I write gets written over a long period of time, and all the songs that I wrote for this record were written over three years. So every few months I’m submitting a song to the band, and none of them are special to me - I send them out and I wait for a reaction from the guys - but I remember that particular songs just getting the most immediate reaction out of everybody. Everybody was excited about it right from the get-go, and enthusiastic about it, and it made me motivated to make it even better, and to push ahead with the production and to try and make it something really special.
There are a lot of layers to it.
When I looked at it later and when we finally got it done, I realised that for me, I think that in six minutes it really encapsulated so many aspects of Kansas really well; there’s a lot of different sections, there’s a lot of dynamics, there’s a lot of ideas; there’s a strong hook and a lot of good melodies, and I think that’s why it came out as the first single. It’s just kind of packs of lot of the history of Kansas in to six minutes, and I’m pretty glad that they went with that one as the first one.
One of the other tracks that really jumps out is ‘Jets Overhead’, which is a towering, anthemic number with some soaring guitar solos; it’s a quintessential Kansas song, isn’t it?
You know, I’m glad it worked out that way because I was not confident about that song at all. It was the very last song that I wrote, and it was actually written at the beginning of last year. I had kind of run out of ideas after working for two and a half years trying to write, but we needed more music, and I came up with this song, and I just looked at it thinking; “what the heck is this?! Will this even work”, and I remember sending it to Phil going; “I don’t know if you’re going to like this”, and it was met with sort of muted enthusiasm, but somehow I always felt that if it found the right lyric, it would really just light up. It doesn’t have as many pyrotechnics as some of the other songs, and it really is reliant on the vocals and the words, and when Tom came up with those lyrics and the title, it just all clicked and immediately jumped to the top of my list on the record. It’s amazing; you don’t expect things to work this way, but when you get different people together, you just never know what’s going to happen.
The album follows on from ‘The Prelude Implicit’ which was the first Kansas studio release in 16 years; how proud of it are you, looking back?
‘The Prelude Implicit’ was me getting thrown in at the deep end of the pool. I went from doing a lot independent production for a lot of unsigned bands in New Jersey and New York, to producing a record for a huge band that I have loved for my entire life. It was a complete blur for one year, and how do I feel about it? I don’t even know yet. I’ve only listened to it a couple of times since it came out, and usually, you need to get some distance from things like that before you can genuinely judge them. But overall, I’m proud of it, and I’m amazed that we got it done.
How do you think it compares to ‘The Absence of Presence’?
What I’ll say about the second record is, I had the benefit of spending many years on the road with the guys and really learning how everyone plays, what everyone likes to play, strengths, weaknesses, and what would be good for the band. We would jam things in sound check and get ideas for songs, and so the second album was really, truly tailored for these six or seven individuals in the band. I think that this is a much stronger record just because we’ve had three years to really get to know each other and get comfortable together. I think we’ve sort of found our sound now, and we’ve defined this version of the band, so I feel real good about this record.
From a production point of view, was it difficult to make room for all those great soloists, and singers, harmonies and instrumentation?
Believe it or not, it’s not. My introduction into the arranging and into the production side of music came to me through orchestral and concert band music. So I kind of learned arranging from writing for a large ensemble; trumpets and so on, and flutes and clarinets. I came to this from a formal, theory-based knowledge of composition, so I think having a large palate like that works very well for me because in concert band arrangements that I’ve written in the past, you have this huge amount of instruments to write for, and so for a band like Kansas, it’s just more freedom for me actually. I’ve got the Moog synthesizer, I’ve got the Hammond organ, I’ve the harmonies like you said, I’ve got two guitars; so what it is, it’s freedom, and I can conjure up anything and the band will do it.
As I mentioned, ‘The Prelude Implicit’ was the first Kansas album in 16 years, and it relaunched the band; you had a lot of responsibility with that one, didn’t you?
Well, certainly there was a crushing fear of disappointing the band and the fans, and myself, so it was a huge amount of pressure, and it was really, truly, genuinely terrifying. The one advantage I had was I had in fact, got to know the band fairly well in the 15 years or so leading up to the recording of ‘Prelude Implicit’. In fact, four of the major songs on the record were things I had written 15 years earlier and send to Phil Ehart and the band at a time when they weren’t planning on doing any recording. Those songs just sat on ice for 15 years, so, I was lucky that I got into it with some material already ready to go, and having known the guys quite well; I think if I had gone in cold and I was a stranger, it could have been a completely different story. But I’m glad it worked out the way it did.
Did you have an awareness of not to mess with the Kansas formula and sound too much, or did you think; ‘no, I’m going to do what I think is right’?
Well, there is just a little bit of the old; “well, to hell with it”, kind of attitude, but only because I was so influenced by Kansas growing up. It was just naturally the way that I think that comes from that, especially as a composer and arranger. It was kind of like; “to hell with it, I’m going to write the way I really want to write”, which is automatically just like Kansas because that’s what I do. In the past I’ve had to work many times to not copy my heroes and the people who’ve influenced me, and this was an opportunity for me to just embrace it; “go ahead, this is your chance to do it!”. So, it really was a freedom for me, honestly.
As a long-time fan of the band, what did it feel like the first time you stepped on stage and played with them?
I very much remember the first time that I went out on the stage with them. It was absolutely amazing. I do also remember that the night before my first show I had a meltdown where I thought I’d made a giant mistake, and I was so terrified about going on stage that I would have honestly walked away from it then, because I thought; “what have I done?! I’m crazy, I can’t pull this off”. But getting to go on stage and playing these iconic songs?! Once I walked on stage I was fine. The audiences have been amazing, the fans have been amazing, and we’ve played an incredible variety of stuff in the last four years. We’ve went into the Kansas back catalogue and pulled out all kinds of classics from over the years, so it’s bee outrageously fun!
As a guitar player, do you recreate the guitar solos exactly as they are on record, or do you take the essence of them and add your own parts?
Naturally, as such a long-time fan, my gut instinct is to copy things exactly, because I want to be true to the music. But the great thing about the band is both Phil and Rich [Williams, guitarist and founder] have come to me several times and said; “look, you don’t need to be copying the solos. This is a new version of the band, and you can do whatever you want”. But me, I personally can’t do it. I play the big solo at the end of ‘Carry On’, and I can’t change it, I literally can’t; it would be a blasphemous thing for me to do, so I play that completely accurately.
Is there any freedom in any of the other songs where you allow yourself some expression to solo?
There are some songs which you can get away with adlibbing. I have an extended solo in ‘Journey From Mariabronn’, and there are a few things in ‘Magnum Opus’ that I got to do where it’s not exactly a composed solo, and you can kind of go with it. But the key solos, I play them note for note, because that’s what those records sound like to me, and it would just sound wrong if I just did anything else. It’s like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’; who wants change the solo in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?! You don’t want to do that.
The tour to support ‘The Absence of Presence’ has understandably been postponed until 2021, but you must be excited to make it over to Europe at last with Kansas?
God, you have no idea! I mean, it was disappointing enough to not come a couple of years ago. It just seems to me like there is little more general interest in Prog Rock in Europe. You guys just seem to like it more, and there seems to be more fans there that are just pure Prog Rock. So I really want to come out there, and we really want to come and play for you guys. You’re right; the tour’s been rescheduled until next year, and hopefully if everything works out and everything pans out, we will certainly be there, because we’re really looking to get back out to play again.
Finally, what’s happening for the band going forward?
Well, you know, until there’s anything definite that we have to work with, everything is so up in the air. Right now, we are on full steam ahead. We need to get back on the road as soon as possible, and probably, hopefully record another album in a couple of years. I’ve already started thinking about new material, and I’m sure some of the other guys are kicking around ideas right now. But as of right now, we’re planning on resuming activities as normal, making records and touring, and only an act of god would change that, so we’ll just have to see. But we’re certainly hoping to resume normality as soon as possible.
Kansas's 'The Absence of Presence' is released on 17th July 2020. Visit the official Kansas site to pre-order.