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INTERVIEW: TOM BRISLIN from KANSAS – May 2023

Photo Credit Mark Schierholz

According to a recent press release: America’s preeminent progressive rock band, KANSAS, will be touring 50 select North American cities to celebrate the band’s 50th Anniversary. KANSAS 50th Anniversary Tour–Another Fork in the Road will showcase music spanning all 50 years of the band’s illustrious history. The tour will showcase two hours of hits, fan favorites, and deep cuts rarely performed live. In 1973, the “garage band” from Topeka was discovered by Wally Gold, signed by Don Kirshner, and released their debut album in 1974. KANSAS has gone on to compile a catalogue that includes sixteen studio albums and five live albums. KANSAS has produced eight gold albums, three sextuple-Platinum albums (Leftoverture, Point of Know Return, Best of KANSAS), one platinum live album (Two for the Show), one quadruple-Platinum single “Carry On Wayward Son,” and another triple-Platinum single “Dust in the Wind.” Most recently, KANSAS has released two Billboard charting albums with 2016’s The Prelude Implicit and 2020’s The Absence of Presence. KANSAS is currently comprised of original drummer Phil Ehart, bassist/vocalist Billy Greer, vocalist/keyboardist Ronnie Platt, violinist/guitarist David Ragsdale, keyboardist/vocalist Tom Brislin, and original guitarist Richard Williams. With no signs of slowing down, KANSAS continues to perform in front of large and enthusiastic audiences.” We get keyboardist Tom Brislin to discuss new music, old music, touring, and much more…

Toddstar: Tom, thank you for taking time out.

Tom: My pleasure.

Toddstar: I know you’re at home getting things wrapped up after a few days on the road in the chilly north and ramping up for the 50th anniversary tour.

Tom: Exactly, we just got a few more shows coming up and then we’re going to turn around quick and get this new tour going.

Toddstar: Awesome. Let’s talk about that. 50 years, obviously you haven’t been there that long. I think you’re hitting at about four or five years yourself in the band as the newest guy at five years. What’s it like for you to hit the stage and prepare for a tour knowing that you’re helping continue the legacy of a band that’s been around 50 years?

Tom: There’s a little bit of pressure, but I like it. It’s been a fun journey so far with Kansas and the fact that I’m here for this momentous milestone, it’s pretty cool. I like digging into all the eras of the band, too.

Toddstar: With the being a 50th anniversary, how much fun have you guys had going back and just culling through the catalog to see what you guys can unearth and surprise everybody with?

Tom: I have a unique perspective because it’s all new to me, but some of the band members have played some of the songs before years ago, and some of them haven’t. There’s this fresh perspective on everything, but it’s a good energy in the room with the group when we’re talking about the new songs and starting to get them together, so it’s exciting.

Toddstar: Are there any songs out there that you’d like to see unearthed that you thought would be cool to polish and bring out, that just for one reason or another wouldn’t work in a live situation?

Tom: Well, without giving away any spoilers, I will say that digging into the early albums and the epic cuts is something that appeals to me because it’s just a real daunting undertaking to bring some big works to life, and also some of the later material that might have been even overlooked for a time, it’s cool to unearth that and hear the songs side to side.

Photo credit: Emily Butler Photography

Toddstar: You mentioned something interesting. In December 2022, the Another Fork In The Road compilation came out cataloging the 50 years allowing you guys to put your own stamp on a track. I previously spoke to Ronnie and Rich and mentioned I thought you guys modernized “Can I Tell You” without overdoing or modernizing it. What process was that for you as someone who’s not as long in the tooth with the band, to be able to take a song that’s that historic to the band and its legacy and put your own stamp on it without recreating the wheel, so to speak?

Tom: The song is so straight ahead that, you nailed it, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel, you just want to play it with some love and some energy and have a good time with it. Because it’s really a nice romp, just tearing through this tune, so we didn’t overthink it, we just played it as we do now, and we had a great time with it.

Toddstar: In your opinion, what makes that a good song to revamp or refresh at this point versus going in and redoing one of the more fan-cherished songs?

Tom: You may know that this was the song that got the attention of the record company when the band first started. Donald Kirshner had signed the band based on his interest in the fact that the group mixed the violin with the rock and roll and the harmonies altogether. I think that because of the importance of this song in getting this whole thing started for the band’s recording career, it was a great place to look back and unearth this one in a new recording.

Toddstar: It sounds like it genuinely was a band discussion, obviously there’s guys that might have a heavier vote, but it sounds to me like it was definitely at least a band discussion of what do you guys think?

Tom: Phil Ehart and Richard Williams are the founding members who have kept the band going for so long, so they have a good pulse on what’s going on and what has gone on. Having guys like me in the band who are just eager to jump on any Kansas music, they’re enjoying thinking to themselves, what haven’t we done in a while and what could we do with this new lineup? They bring the ideas to us and we just gobble them up.

Toddstar: You come from a different but same perspective in that you’ve got a very prog rock background. You’ve been with Yes, which is a very heavy prog rock band, but you’ve also ventured into different areas. Is there a certain structure or era of the band where you dig the music a little bit more than others? I ask that only because you get someone like me who, my first realization that I liked Kansas was “Play the Game” before I knew about the bigger hits early on or got into some of the prog  rock stuff.

Tom: It’s interesting you ask that because I feel like I come from two musical backgrounds. There’s music from the 70’s, that was the first music I heard because my sisters were playing the records in the house. All the great bands that we loved from the 70’s, including Kansas, and Yes, and Foreigner, and Led Zeppelin. That was my introduction to music and sparked my love for music in general. Then there’s the 80’s stuff that I was hearing on the radio and that I was discovering on my own without anyone’s help. That was a new discovery and that had all the new wave and the synths and everything like that, so I feel like I’ve come from both DNA, so to speak. The fact that Kansas has that element in it too, it just makes it even more of a good fit.

Toddstar: As you’re preparing for this trip, it’s going to be a long road. You guys wind this down in January 2024, you’re shutting this tour down. What is your hope for the music and the tour, other than the fact that this is truly a celebration? Is there something you’re rooting for or hoping for some realization in the background that you’re hoping that the fans can grab out of this?

Tom: I’m hoping that the tour will continue even beyond what we have on the books now because I think it’s already building a great head of steam. As I speak to you, we haven’t done the first show of that tour yet, so I’m excited to see it come together and I think it’s a great love letter to the fans who have been with this group through all the years. I just hope we keep it rolling.

Toddstar: How many times a night when you’re on stage with these guys do you pinch yourself or are you beyond that phase?

Tom: When I was about 24 years old, I got the position of playing keyboards for Meatloaf and we hit the big stages right away. He was one of the guys that really taught me about how to do that and how to perform in that environment. I got all that out of my system back then and then after playing with Meatloaf, I toured with Yes, who was the group that I had the posters on the wall when I was a kid. I’m glad that the Meatloaf experience happened first because by the time I played with the Yes, I didn’t have any of that fanboy stuff in my system anymore. I still had to pinch myself, like you said, and just be aware and say, “This is awesome. Look around, can you believe you’re doing this? This is a virtual reality or something.” But there’s so much responsibility musically. It’s like you don’t have time, I have to use all my resources to stay in the moment with the music, but part of that is soaking it in. Like you say, you don’t want to just keep your head to the grindstone and forget you’re doing this cool thing. It’s what I’ve dreamed of doing all my life, so I try to stay aware of the moment, but you got to stay on the ball, too.

Toddstar: Tom, looking back, what’s your earliest memory or recollection of your appreciation for Kansas?

Tom: It was a combination of hearing the 70’s hits on the radio, right around the same time that I was hearing a song like “Fight Fire with Fire” on Rock Radio. When I had my boom box and my blank tape ready to record songs off the radio to make my rock mix, and that was one of the songs. For me to realize this is the same group, sure, there may be some different musicians involved, but there’s a lineage and a band is not just one thing, a band can have different chapters in their story. That was an important thing that I discovered early on.

Toddstar: It’s funny you’ve made so many references, and you can tell we’re about the same age. I remember sitting with my boombox and the blank tapes on Sunday listening to Casey Kasem so I could record all the cool tunes.

Tom: I wish I still had those mix tapes.

Toddstar: Absolutely. How surreal is it for you, and again, we’re about the same age, to know that you’re out here helping continue the legacy of songs that are as old as you are?

Tom: I take it seriously. I know that music is a very precious thing to people, and with a classic rock band like Kansas going out, people come to the show. We have people from all different generations, but they all have a story that links their life to the music. This music was at a special time in their life, or for the younger generation, they love Supernatural, the TV show. Kansas music was a big part of that, and just any reason is a good reason. That’s what reminds me to put my best foot forward with the music and keep it alive for people because I know it means so much.

Toddstar: Tom, it’s been about 30 years since you released your first music, if you could go back and talk to yourself then, what conversation or what advice would you give a young Tom who is bright-eyed, bushy tailed, and is ready to take over the musical world?

Tom: That’s a tough question, I’d say at the very early stages, I would tell myself to put as much time as I can into it. Because there’s ambition that we wanted to get out there and be a band and have a recording, but sometimes you’ve jumped the gun a little bit. My first recording was not fully cooked, so I’d tell myself to spend a little more time in the studio. I think in general, just remember that I tell myself that I’m a songwriter as well as a musician. To always be listening and always be paying attention and writing things down because you can always learn to play a Beethoven piece, but if a song is coming to your mind that you got to create, you stop everything and get that down because it can leave just as quickly as it arrives. I think just to keep showing up and pay attention.

Toddstar: When you look back on music, everybody’s got their influences, everybody’s got certain things that stand out that you alluded to, every era of any band can provide the soundtrack of our lives. Looking back, what album do you remember being the soundtrack of your life to where you thought this is what I want to do?

Tom: I can’t narrow it down to one, it’s not fair. But I think because they were pieces of the puzzle. I remember when I first heard the first Foreigner album, and I was looking at the album cover and saw the musicians and it seemed like a squad of superheroes. Everybody had their job, and they formed this team and made music, and that was very appealing to me. I was drawing album covers before I was even able to properly write songs, I knew that I wanted to create something. But then taking all my change down to the store and buying Men at Work, Business as Usual, as the record that I owned, that was special to me as well. I felt like it belonged to me and that the songs were speaking to me, so that was a part of it too. I just think the first music that you hear that you feel like is yours, that is a big influence.

Toddstar: Absolutely. You’ve collaborated with the guys in Kansas, you’ve mentioned Meatloaf, you’ve done stuff with Yes. Who’s on your bucket list that you’d like to collaborate with? Whether it’s playing on something they’ve composed or getting somebody to play on something you’ve composed, who’s out there that you still idolize and would love to collaborate with?

Tom: I have to say I’m happy in Kansas. I’m so focused on seeing what we can do next, but sometimes having a guest collaborator or something like that is appealing. I mentioned Men at Work before. Colin Hay is a singer I’ve always adored and would love to play some music with him one day, even if we’re just jamming on a tune somewhere. But you never know, you never know who’s going to show up.

Toddstar: You mentioned the Kansas stuff and you mentioned collaborating and working with them, and we know you did the one track for the 2022 release. The world isn’t album driven anymore and that is a huge shame. Is there writing going on? Are you guys considering dropping singles, EPs, or putting new stuff out there, or are you guys happy just doing what you’re doing and keeping the Kansas name alive?

Tom: Anything’s possible. It pays to pay attention to what’s going on with the times and how music is delivered and how music is consumed, because that influences what you create. We have a large part of our audience that still likes the album format, so when we did The Absence of Presence album, that was a real album effort. Now, I had standout songs that could be thought of as singles, but a band in Kansas’ position isn’t worried about trying to get a hit song on the radio. We’re just going to play honest music that is Kansas for the Kansas fans, and we can get ambitious with it, too. We just be ourselves and try to make the music as imaginative and as quality as we can, and we’re really proud of that album. In the future, do we drop a single here and there? Could be. I think that’s a conversation worth having.

Toddstar: Tom, we’ve talked about The Absence of Presence a few times and it’s a great album. It opened a door for you within the realm of the band and that you’re able to put your lead vocal on a song. What are the odds that some of those who haven’t heard that song or heard you take the lead are going to get that shot on this tour?

Tom: I will say that we have played “The Song the River Sang” live, so it’s not unprecedented.

Toddstar: You’re not giving any tidbits away on the new tour?

Tom: No, I’m too clever… or so I think.

Toddstar: Tom, I appreciate the time. Can’t wait to see this tour, I get to see it June 17th when it rolls through Detroit. Very excited to see you guys on stage at The Fisher Theater, it’s an iconic venue and it’ll be great to see you guys out there. I appreciate the time and wish you safe travels and decent shows until we get you in Detroit.

Tom: That sounds great. Looking forward to it. Thank you.

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Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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