By: Brian D. Holland
Kerry Livgren was a founding member, songwriter, guitarist, and keyboardist for ’70s classic rockers Kansas. Though the band is easily put into the “classic” category today, primarily because of the adored hits they turned out back in the day, like “Carry On Wayward Son,” “Dust In The Wind,” and “Point of Know Return,” it was progressiveness and outstanding musicianship that set them apart from many of their contemporaries. These songs and more were from a string of albums that were as popular as the songs themselves, and were directly causative to the album-oriented rock (AOR) atmosphere that became prevalent in the early ’70s.
Though Topeka, Kansas, wasn’t known for turning out illustrious rock ‘n’ roll bands, the fact that Kerry was bent on performing and recording original material set them apart from the rock music scene that existed in the heart of agricultural America. Having been influenced at a very young age by the works of Liszt, Wagner, Debussy, and other classical composers, coupled with an adoration of ’60s rock, helped Kerry set the stage for what eventually became known as the Kansas sound.
Throughout the years, members of Kansas came and went. Though a second wind for an album and tour still occurs sporadically, Kerry Livgren stays increasingly busy with his own side projects. Ironically enough, and one may consider it a full circle move, his present project, Proto-Kaw, is a progressive rock band made up of himself and members of the original Kansas, those members who stayed behind and lived normal lives while Livgren went on to experience success.
It started with Early Recordings From Kansas 1971 – 1973, released in 2002. The second Proto-Kaw release was an album of new material released in 2004, entitled Before Became After. Proto-Kaw’s latest release is The Wait of Glory.
Below is my conversation with Kerry Livgren, in which he talks about Kansas, Proto-Kaw, life, religion, and music.
Brian Holland: The Kansas sound was an interesting blend of American heartland and British progressive rock. Is this a fair assessment?
Kerry Livgren: Well, much has been said and much has been made of the British influence of progressive rock on Kansas. I think it has been an overstated taste. Truth is, Kansas was very much headed down a progressive road before we ever heard of most of those British bands. A couple of years ago some very early recordings were released of the original Kansas, under the name Proto-Kaw, which is the band I’m in now.
Those recordings were from ‘71 and ‘72, and I think they pretty well demonstrate, for historical record, that we had a very progressive sound prior to any influence by any of those British bands. It was more like we were contemporaries of them rather than derivative of them. I will give them due credit for later on, being part of the same genre, if you will.
Of course, you tend to bounce ideas off your contemporaries, if not in person, at least from listening to their music. I wouldn’t say we were completely devoid of their influence; that wouldn’t be true either. But on the other hand, we were very much cut from that same mold right from the get go.
Brian: What was the music scene like in Topeka, Kansas, back in the ‘70s when you started the band?
Kerry: Was there one? [Laughing]
Brian: Maybe asking whether or not one even existed may have been a better question. [Laughing]
Kerry: [Laughing] Well, there was and there wasn’t. We come from the heart of agricultural America. It’s not exactly the center of the music industry or the entertainment industry. In fact, you couldn’t get farther away from it. By the same token, there was a rather healthy music scene here in the late ’60s. In fact, they used to call Topeka the little Liverpool.
When I was in high school there were so many bands. It was like every kid was in one. That was just something you did. And it was a healthy music scene in that regard. On the other hand, there was really nothing original going around. There was no place for bands to do original music. They were all doing cover stuff, so we stuck out like a sore thumb.
Right from the very beginning I was writing the music for the band. I knew that the only way we’d get a ticket out of here to do something significant in the world of music was to be original. And yet there was really nowhere for us to play. That kind of started the classic starving artist syndrome.
Brian: To take what you had just talked about a bit further, did it take a while for listeners to get into Kansas’ beat driven style of progressive rock?
Kerry: It took a very long while. As a matter of fact, here we are in the year 2006 and we’re still working on that. [Laughing] I guess we’re just not what anybody expected at all to come out of here, if they even had any expectations at all. Kansas was a very unique band. They hung several labels on our sound and us.
It’s true that in some sense we were progressive rock. Now we’re called one of the classic rock bands. I suppose that’s true, in the sense that we had some major hits. Our songs still grace the airwaves as part of that era.
But I do think Kansas had something very unique. We had a blend of things. We were compared to the British prog bands. But we rocked a whole lot harder than any of them. It was almost an R&B element. Same thing with my band Proto-Kaw, there’s a jazz and, if there is such a term, a progressive R&B thing going on that’s very distinctive.
Brian: When talking Kansas, although a very unique and distinctive style did exist, I can’t help putting the band into the same folder as some of the other bands from that era, such as Foreigner, Styx, Boston, and one or two more. All of those bands seemed to have a unique progressive thing and amazing musicianship going on, as well as a string of hits.
Kerry: Well, we were certainly all from the same era. We were all contemporaries. Every one of those bands had something unique, even though in some ways similar. I think of all those bands you mentioned, Kansas had more uniqueness.
We were more progressive; our instrumentation was different. We probably had an equal number of hit songs, but on a much deeper level. If you get past the hits, I think we were doing some things that perhaps the other bands weren’t doing.
Brian: I had read somewhere that you’re a born again Christian.
Kerry: That’s correct.
Brian: I don’t mean to pry, but if you’re interested in talking about that then we surely will.
Kerry: I wouldn’t be much of a Christian if I refused to talk about it. [Laughing]
Brian: Did living the rock star life have anything to do with it?
Kerry: I suppose it did, in a sense. Here I was, a young man, and suddenly my dream came true, which was to become a successful musician. Actually, successful far beyond my expectations. You hand a young guy everything this world says is success and what is supposed to be fulfilling. We were very well off financially; we had our pick of the girls; we had Porsches, yachts, and all that kind of stuff. Then you find that that’s really not it.
Even at the peak of our success, when I wrote “Dust In The Wind,” which is a song that basically says life will be over before you know it. You can’t take anything with you. It kind of begs, on a deeper level, the question, “What’s this really all about?” I was very much a guy who was looking for a deeper level of satisfaction than just “stuff.”
Brian: Though bands of Christian substance do exist, it seems some don’t like to admit to that occasional theme.
Kerry: I think they’re afraid the audience may feel we’re shoving it down their throats or something. Also, there is a contemporary Christian music industry, which is a very different thing musically than anything I’m really connected with.
Sometimes I think we want to avoid the preconception that we’re part of that musically. Somebody might think, “Oh Kerry Livgren, he’s a Christian artist,” and they would automatically typecast my music as being a particular style, when in fact it really isn’t at all.
Brian: I was in your website awhile back and I noticed a page on viewpoint. I found it interesting to read your view on what you call today’s ‘throwaway culture’. John F. Kennedy once noted something on that idea in his book Profiles In Courage.
Though concerning a different profession and all, he wrote something to the affect that great politicians often do what’s right at the risk of damaging their own popularity. Do you think successful musicians are sometimes subjected to the same scenario?
Kerry: That’s right. It is kind of sad. We just got back from a European tour, and it was kind of an eye opener. In the states it seems we divide everything up into ten-year increments. We’ve got ‘60s bands, ‘70s bands, ‘80s bands, and so on and so forth. People want to identify with one of those and then they kind of close off the boundaries outside of that. Over in Europe, if something is great music, it’s just great music.
It doesn’t really matter when it happened, whether it came out yesterday or a hundred years ago. It’s just great. We’re very fickle, and we want to assign everything to this time period. It’s hard as an artist to think, okay, after my ten year period is up I’m no longer relevant. Not only is that not true, it prevents a lot of people from hearing stuff they might otherwise really get into.
Brian: You did quite a few outside project albums throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Kerry: Seeds Of Change was my first solo project. Proto-Kaw was the archival release of the old recordings, which actually got the band back together and reunited. Proto-Kaw was the original Kansas, prior to the version of the band that everybody knew. They were the guys that got left behind. We’ve reformed. My current project is touring and recording with Proto-Kaw.
Brian: What about “The Resurrection of Lazarus?”
Kerry: That’s an unfinished project. It sort of stands apart from everything else I’ve ever done. It’s a completely different type of endeavor. I’ve been working on it for twenty-four years. [Laughing] It’s a large-scale orchestral work.
I’ve been calling it a cantata; I suppose the musical designation of oratorio works just as well. Those are interchangeable. It’s based on a Biblical narrative called The Resurrection of Lazarus. Musically, if you’re familiar with Les Miserables, it’s kind of along those lines. It was really kind of a contemporary opera, and had no spoken word in it.
Brian: What was it like to work with Ronnie James Dio?
Kerry: It was fantastic! What a professional. He’s one of the most classic singers to come out of the whole era. When I had the opportunity to work with him, of course, it was kind of controversial. Here I am a Christian artist and I’ve got the singer from Black Sabbath. [Laughing]
I still get emails and stuff about that. It was a very controversial thing to do. But to me it was the most natural thing in the world. He was the perfect vocalist for those songs. I thought it would be interesting to hear him sing the other side of the struggle.
Brian: What about Ambrosia’s David Pack?
Kerry: David Pack and I are old friends. We go back all the way to the beginning of our careers. We had kind of a mutual admiration society going on. I was a big fan of Ambrosia, and he liked the work of Kansas. We began to correspond, and finally I told our manager that it would be an incredible if we toured together. So, I managed to get Ambrosia on our tour, and we were friends ever since.
Brian: The year 2000 saw a new Kansas album, Somewhere To Elsewhere.
Kerry: That’s right. It was sort of a reunion. I hadn’t worked with Kansas for a number of years at that point. I guess I’ve been a very prolific writer and had written a lot of material that began to sound like Kansas to me.
So, I got in touch with the guys and told them that I think I have an album sitting here. Let’s do it. The stipulation was that I wasn’t going to tour with the band. I had so many things going in the studio that I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase again.
Brian: The album’s proceeds were donated to the WWII memorial fund?
Kerry: Not all of it, but a significant portion, yeah. A lot of bands get involved in causes and I suppose we’re a little different in what causes we choose. We thought it was something that was certainly worthy of recognition; but ironically, there was no particular monument to commemorate. So we got involved in that.
Brian: The guitar playing in Kansas had a signature sound to it. That was you and Rich Williams?
Kerry: That’s correct. We were the two guitarists.
Brian: Talk about that relationship, and who was the riff man and who was the rhythm player.
Kerry: Well, it was a bit interchangeable. But the majority of the time I did the lead work and Rich did the supportive role. However, Rich probably did 80 or 90 percent of the acoustic work, which really wasn’t my strength. There’s a tremendous irony that had to do with that. When I wrote “Dust In The Wind,” which was by far Kansas’ biggest hit, it was an acoustic song. It was to be played on acoustic guitar exclusively.
We went into the studio and I was the one who played the acoustic. I had to borrow Rich’s Martin D-28 to play that. [Laughing] And so, here I am, almost exclusively an electric guitarist and the most famous work I ever did was on an acoustic.
Brian: In songs like “Carry On Wayward Son,” was that you or Rich Williams who played the signature lead parts?
Kerry: It was Rich and I together. That was one of the fun things with Kansas.
Brian: Was it demanding to constantly produce albums that the fans expected to be album oriented and progressive?
Kerry: Yeah, it was kind of a struggle because you had to balance between what you really wanted to do as an artist and what direction you wanted to go in, yet you had to stay within the confines. Once you get on the radio, you’ve kind of established an identity.
People have certain expectations, and the record company certainly does, too. You find that you can’t really branch out the way you might have otherwise. You’ve got to stick to the formula. That was always a controversy.
Brian: Did the ability to write successful pop-rock songs suffer because of that?
Kerry: Well, our ability to write pop-rock singles was always kind of a fluke. It wasn’t something we really set out to do. I didn’t sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a hit now.” All of our songs were at least honest representations of something we wanted to do that happened to become a hit. If I had to, on command, sit down and write a hit, I don’t think I could ever do it.
Brian: You were a keyboard player in Kansas as well. Do you still swap tasks today?
Kerry: With Proto-Kaw, yeah. My role with Kansas was about 50/50. Generally speaking, if you heard a piano in Kansas, it was me. The organ was Steve Walsh. I did most of the synthesizer work as well. In Proto-Kaw it’s about 80/20, with more guitar.
Currently, the primary keyboards are a Kurzweil K2500 and a Yamaha Motif. In the old days with Kansas I played a grand piano. I also had a mini-Moog. I had a very rare prototype made by Korg. It was one of the first polyphonic synthesizers ever made, called a PS3200.
Brian: What is your personal favorite Kansas album?
Kerry: This is hard because there are moments that are favorites spread out over all of our albums. But I think the one that really had the magic, the one that put us on the map, was our Leftoverture album, released in ’76. We were firing on all cylinders when we made that one.
Brian: Name five favorites by other artists.
Kerry: Wow. That’s really hard to do. My musical tastes are extremely broad and diverse. I could probably give a different answer to that every day. I’ve probably been listening mostly to composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The genius of his work is so incredible that I constantly marvel at it.
I feel kind of the same way about Debussy. They just blow me away so bad. I can branch out and listen to other things but I keep coming back to them. I know it’s kind of a strange association, or not the influence everybody would expect from a guy who’s known as a rock artist, but those are who I look up to.
Brian: Who do you consider to be your main influences over the years?
Kerry: When it comes to guitar I probably have the same list as most people from my era. When I first started playing the guitar, way back in the early days when surf music was happening, I was a huge fan of Nokie Edwards and The Ventures. That probably shaped my original approach to the guitar.
Somewhere along the line, and it probably came to me in a very roundabout way, I was a huge fan of The Yardbirds and The Kinks, on the backside of the British invasion years. Of course, their playing was influenced by American blues artists. So, I guess I’m a glorified blues guitarist [Laughing], now stuck in this scenario of playing progressive music. That marriage, actually, is what makes it kind of interesting.
Brian: Have you ever considered recording a blues album?
Kerry: I have, in fact, thought about that. It would be such a strange move for me because nobody would be expecting that, yet it actually is one of my biggest influences. I really think I may pursue that one of these days.
Brian: Talk about Proto-Kaw.
Kerry: Well, Proto-Kaw, as I had mentioned, was the original Kansas. We fell apart when I left the group back in ’73, the end of ’73 or the beginning of ’74. They went on to non-musical careers. They were talented musicians.
Basically, my entire career with Kansas went by, and then in 2003, a small record label called Cuneiform contacted me. They put out unreleased material, masters, and things like that. They said that they understand I have archival recordings of early, unreleased Kansas. I told them it was true, but it wasn’t for public consumption. They told me that if I ever change my mind they’d love to release them.
I later went back and listened to the recordings, and suddenly realized that we were doing some really groundbreaking stuff. It was way back before anyone had ever heard of Kansas. And the band was called Kansas at that time.
I went into the studio and I was able to clean up those recordings very nicely. We released that, and much to everybody’s surprise it created kind of a stir. It actually got a good review in Rolling Stone. That started the ball rolling.
We had a reunion where we all got back together. We hadn’t seen each other in literally decades. I thought, what if it was this band that had gone on to do a lot of great things. What would we have sounded like? The only way to find that out was to get everyone into the studio.
Of course, it was kind of a mystery to me whether or not everyone could play and sing. Much to my astonishment they not only could play but they bounced back and sounded better than ever. That started the ball rolling.
Brian: Then another CD was released?
Kerry: Yeah. We released a subsequent CD after that, which was Before Became After, on Inside Out Music. That did extremely well. We started touring. We just returned from a European tour and finished our second new release, The Wait of Glory.
Brian: Let’s talk about gear.
Kerry: Well, like many guitarists, I have quite a broad collection. In the early days, I played a 69 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. I literally wore that guitar out. At that time we were starving artists, so I didn’t even have a backup in case of a string break. That was it. I played that thing for years. A strange irony happened when Kansas finally took off. When you’re a struggling musician without money to buy guitars, you might have one good one. Suddenly, when you start making money they give them to you.
We began to get into the endorsement thing. During the ‘70s and the Kansas heyday we were endorsed by Gibson. I was the first ever to be endorsed by Dean Guitars. I met Dean at one of the NAMM shows and tried one of his instruments. I’m an endorser of Dean’s to this day. They make fantastic instruments in his USA custom shop.
I also got hooked up with another small American guitar company, named Zion, out of North Carolina. I play a couple of their instruments.
I found myself playing a Gibson ES-335 during the Kansas years. In the early days I never played a hollow body guitar. But I picked up one in Chicago on a trade that somebody brought backstage. I had one of those magical 335s that didn’t feedback. It just sings, and I’ve never been able to get completely away from that hollow body electric sound. It’s just a fantastic thing.
All these years of being an artist I was never really a Strat player. But Proto-Kaw’s music is so diverse, and it calls for so many different tones, that I’ve started playing Stratocaster-type guitars. I’ve got a couple of Fenders and I have a G&L.
I have a new guitar that I’ve only recently procured, a Pearlcaster, by Ed Roman. I’ve started intermingling that with my 335s, Zions, and Deans. I’ve got a whole arsenal going.
Brian: Are your Fender Strats new ones?
Kerry: Yeah, they’re pretty recent. I’ve got a USA Deluxe, which has the S1 switching with humbuckers, where I can get either a humbucking or a traditional Fender single coil sound. That’s a pretty neat option. My Zion guitars have the same option.
Brian: In your opinion, how do the different brands of Strat-type guitars compare?
Kerry: I’ve found that whether it’s G&L or Fender, or custom built by someone else, for me anyway, there’s that endless search for the perfect Strat. There are many variations. You may find one that plays perfect but has some quirk about its sound. But I think, at this point in time, I’ve really arrived at a group of them that I like to play very much.
I trade off between them. I’ve got one Fender USA Hardtail, without the Wilkinson tremolo, which gives me a little more stability tuning wise. It’s gotten down to what mood I’m in, or, “I think I’ll play this one tonight,” you know.
Brian: Which G&L is it?
Kerry: The G&L Comanche, with the Z pickups. You don’t have any hum or buzz problems. I’ve found I like them quite a bit. I tend to use them more in the studio than on the road.
Brian: What about amps?
Kerry: Let me start with historically. All throughout the Kansas years, basically, it was one 100watt Marshall head and one slant cabinet. I went straight into the amp, no pedals and no modification of any kind. Rich Williams and I were both kind of purists, I guess. It was amazing the range of tones you can get just doing that. Presently, I’m using an amplifier called a Jones.
It’s custom built, point-to-point hand wired, all tube circuitry, and actually made here in Kansas. He was after me for quite a while to play one of his amps. I finally tried one and found that it was everything I was looking for. He asked me, “Kerry, what would be your dream amp?” I said, “Well, an all tube, hand wired head that has a 100watt Marshall and a Fender Twin inside.” It would literally be two amps in one box. He said he could do that. So he built it, and I use an A-B switch to go between the two sounds.
I’ve got a pretty extensive pedal board now, mainly because of the diversity of the music with Proto-Kaw. I’ve got an H2O pedal, for echo and chorus. I use a Route 66 pedal for compression and overdrive. If I’m playing a real Strat type sound, maybe with a little chorus on it, you kick the compressor in and it just smoothes it right out, making it sound really silky.
I’ve got a couple of different echo pedals. This is kind of my secret weapon. I don’t want to talk too much about it because everybody else will start doing it. I’ve got a pedal called a BackTalk that plays backwards. It’s almost become kind of a signature thing for me in Proto-Kaw. It’s a real interesting pedal because you have to think through what you’re playing, with the idea in mind that it’ll be coming out backwards.
I use Firewire strings; I endorse them. Not many people have heard of these yet. They’re made in Canada. The metal in the strings is processed with some type of secret formula. I don’t know what it is. They told me that if we told you we’d have to kill you. [Laughing]
The thing is, they last an extraordinarily long time, the sound stays fresh, and I have never broken one. I go crazy stretching strings. I stretch them clear off the fretboard. They also stay in tune extremely well. I’m pretty enthusiastic about them.
Brian: Do you get into alternate tunings at all?
Kerry: On acoustic I do. I use the old DADGAD tuning. I’ve found that if I detune a guitar to that tuning and start playing, it just generates songs. There was a song on the Kansas album, “Somewhere To Elsewhere,” called “Byzantium.”
That song came into being just as a result of fooling around with the DADGAD tuning. You can play all sorts of chords and positions that wouldn’t make sense in regular tuning and end up doing new things with it.