Chapel Hill News & Views publisher Tim Collins spoke with David Ragsdale on March 3rd, 2014, in advance of the March 8th show at Mill Town Music Hall in Bremen. David is the Violinist for the band, which is celebrating their 40th year. Here is a transcript of the interview.
Tim: Thanks for taking the time to interview with me. Growing up, Kansas was literally my favorite band, so this is a big thrill for me.
David: Honestly it was one of mine too. I am not an original member. I was a big Kansas fan coming up.
Tim: I was looking on your personal website, and I know you are the violinist. There aren’t a whole lot of bands that use a violin.
David: There aren’t. It’s becoming more popular, but I still think it is an underrated rock instrument. It has such a unique sound and it’s the most expressive instrument by far.
Tim: How long have you been with the band?
David: Combined 13 -15 years – something like that. I first joined the band in 1991.
Tim: How did you become a member of Kansas?
David: Do you remember when the album “Power” came out in 1986? Up until this time, Kansas had always had a violin. For that album, they added Steve Morse, a guitarist from the Dixie Dregs, a violin band. But they didn’t bring a violinist with him, and they put out an album with no violin. I could actually, in my head, HEAR the notes of the violin. At the suggestion of a friend, I sat down with my 4-track cassette and put Kansas on two of the tracks, and added the violin parts that I was hearing in my head and put it together send sent it to them.
Tim: So once you sent it to them, did they say that it sounded so much better with a violin?
David: Well, they didn’t say that. I sent out a whole bunch of them, I mean I didn’t know exactly how to get it to them. What I did was make a whole bunch of copies of it and then just started putting them in the hands of anyone I thought might have the most remote possibility of actually getting it to the band. A friend of mine was really good friends with their accountant and he got a tape to him, and the accountant got a tape to Phil Ehart (the Kansas drummer), and Phil was really impressed with it. He didn’t hire me then – it was about another 4 years after that before I got the gig, but the door had been opened.
Tim: What was it like taking the stage with them for the first time?
David: It was (pause) exciting. I hate to wrap it up in a little tiny word like that. The first rehearsal was a very special moment for me.
Tim: I know the band still has several of the original members
David: Yeah, drums (Phil Ehart), Keyboard/Lead Vocalist (Steve Walsh) and Guitar (Rich Williams). Billy (Billy Greer – the Bass player) has been with the band since Power – that was 85-86. He’s been there about twice as long as Dave Hope, the original bass player.
Tim: What’s the most unusual thing that happened at a Kansas concert?
David: That’s the easiest question you could possibly ask me. In ’93 we did a show just outside Battle Creek Michigan called “Nudestock. It was a three-day event and there were a bunch of bands. We were there with Alan Parsons and Foreigner – that was the day we were on. We played for a whole bunch of naked people, about 98% of which you would never want to see naked. (laughs).
Tim: I know you live in Atlanta. Do all of the members now live in Atlanta?
David: Billy lives in Savannah, everyone else lives in Atlanta.
Tim: What led to the band moving here, because I know at first everyone lived in Kansas?
David: In their early success, the band moved to New Orleans, but then they moved to Atlanta a little later. I think the official reason was because of the airport. This was when they were starting to fly a lot. Delta gets you there, you know?
Tim: Do you guys still fly to most of your shows?
David: We do! In the 90s we were on tour buses. (laughs) This had a lot to do with why I left the band the first time. In the 80ss I played with Louise Mandrell. I was on a tour bus with her for 4 ½ years, and then when I joined Kansas we were on a tour bus for 6 years. I just had to step away and get the diesel out of my system.
Tim: It’s probably kind of claustrophobic in a way.
David: Yeah, yeah – After a while, you can imagine, the buses are really nice, but when you put 9 to 11 people on them they get pretty crowded.
Tim: So, how long would you be on tour at a time, staying on the bus.
David: In the ‘90s, we’d go out for six weeks at a time, then come home for two or three weeks, then go out again.
Tim: Do you like playing in small or large venues better or is there really a difference?
David: I really do like the smaller venues. When you get in front of too many people it loses its impact because you tend to try to pick out people to play to. During the course of the evening you can catch on to someone that you feel like is paying particular attention, and you feel like you can move them, and you kind of aim at them. When the audience gets too loud it’s kind of like an overload and you just kind of play to yourself.
Tim: What has been the favorite memory of your career?
David: (long pause) Gosh, of my career, I’d have to go back to my Louise Mandrell days when we played on the Tonight Show. That was something else. William Shatner and Steve Allen were both guests on that show, and the Doc Severinson band was there.
Tim: What about during your time with Kansas – do you have a favorite memory of that time?
David: Oh man - most of it. Our trips to Europe are very special, because we do it every other year, and we’re only there for maybe a month. But, gosh, all of it. I don’t want to belittle even the little moments. It’s a pretty cool way to do life. The whole thing has been kind of remarkable.
Tim: I saw on your website that you started playing violin at age 3, didn’t you?
David: Yeah. I was one of the ones that saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show when I was very young, and from THAT MOMENT I knew what I wanted to do. There are a lot of people like me that saw that show and wanted to be a Beatle. I was very fortunate that I was able to end up making my living doing that.
Tim: When you were growing up, how long did you practice every day?
David: Well, I grew up hating the violin, because there was not anyone playing the violin. I was forced to play the violin, but I messed around on guitar when I got into my early teens I really started practicing guitar. Then all of a sudden Mahavishnu Orchestra with Jerry Goodman (on violin), and Jean-Luc Ponty started showing up and I was like “Woah – wait a minute”. Then I heard Kansas for the first time. I was in high school. I’m pretty sure the first Kansas tune I heard was “Can I Tell You”. And here is this rockin’ violin and that actually had a lot to do with me making the transition back to violin.
Tim: What are your personal favorite Kansas songs?
David: Oh, man, there are a big handful of them. Song for America is a good one. Cheyenne Anthem. They’re all fun to play though. Icarus is a hoot!
Tim: Is there one that is the hardest one for you to play?
David: (answers immediately and with extra certainty)Magnum Opus. Also, Journey from Mariabron is no cake-walk. Magnum Opus though, when we play that one, you set yourself. It’s like the beginning of a football play (laughs), you know. then the ball is snapped, and then you execute. If you don’t, you lose the game.
Tim: One of the things I have always thought, with Kansas, is that it would be really hard to synchronize all of the instruments, because everyone is playing so fast, and it is so complex in a lot of ways.
David: You have to pay very, very close attention. It’s like playing in a symphony orchestra and Phil (the drummer) is the conductor, and you have to execute.
Tim: It’s probably an adrenaline rush.
David: It is. Especially in a situation like Magnum Opus, if you fall off, it’s tough getting back on.
Tim: Would that be the hardest song, corporately, as a band to play?
David: It’s certainly one of them. It’s one of the most active violins, and difficult. And if you fall off it takes a pretty strong act of will to get back in to the picture.
Tim: It’s probably one of those things that people would maybe notice.
David: They certainly would. (Laughs). They’d be wondering why the violinist is crying.
Tim: Do you have a song that you feel is the most creative lyrically or musically?
David: There’s a bunch of them. You know there are a whole bunch of really well crafted, well-composed pieces of music. They’re all very good – it’s a lot of fun to play.
Tim: On the first album cover, and continuing through many of your earlier albums, like Leftoverture, there was a guy with a long beard. I’ve always wondered the story behind him. Do you know what that is?
David: The man on the first cover was John Brown, who led the slave revolt. A piece of Civil War history.
Tim: Wow – do you know why they put him on there?
David: He’s a very strong historical figure from the state of Kansas. He was absolutely sick of slavery and started the slave uprising. They finally cornered him in a barn. And, what’s amazing is that two of the United States Military officers that were present when they arrested him were Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.
Tim: So, that’s not the same guy that was on Leftoverture then?
David: Nope – the picture from the first album – the guy with his hands outstretched. – that’s John Brown. That photograph was taken from a painting that hangs in the state capitol of Kansas.
Tim: So, who’s the guy on Leftoverture
David: Uhhhhh (laughs) maybe some kind of wizard dude. Maybe a “Da Vinciesque” kind of figure.
Tim: What are your plans for the future as a band?
David: We are enjoying playing. We’ve dabbled in putting out new albums. No one is really interested in anything new. The albums are expensive, and they are time consuming. It’s just a whole lot of work, a whole lot of time, and a whole lot of expenditure, and at the end of the day you’re looking at a half million dollar bill. The industry pushes what is popular TODAY. They don’t care about what was popular yesterday or who was doing it. Right now it’s Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus.
Tim: What do you attribute the reason that Kansas is still on the music scene – what makes the band so popular in your opinion?
David: A bunch of really great songs. And people forget, then they come to the shows and they go “Oh yeah” when they remember them. What’s fun is seeing the young people. You know people whose parents brought them up on Kansas. One of the most satisfying images, that I see a LOT, is you look out at a 14 year-old that has seen a whole bunch of bands, but he’s never seen one like this, that can play. They are standing there flap-jawed. It is one of the most satisfying visual images that I take away from Kansas shows, and it happens frequently. Also, there’s no virtuosity, and if nothing else we are virtuous.
Tim: I agree. Most of the songs seem to have a very positive message, and one thing I notice is that I don’t know of any songs that have any kind of immorality associated with them. Was that an intentional decision to be different from other bands, and do you think that this has been one reason for the band’s popularity?
David: Kansas is from the state of Kansas. You’re talking pretty conservative moral values. Kerry (Kerry Livgren) and Dave Hope (former bass player) are ordained ministers. The band is very faith driven.
Tim: Can you tell us some of the songs that you will be playing, and how do you decide which ones you will play at a show?
David: Uh, I don’t like to but I can tell you that it will be most of what you would expect, and there will be some pleasant surprises as well.
Tim: When you guys do a show, what factors would make you feel like, “man, that was a REALLY GOOD show”?
David: A really good mix on stage, where everything turns out to be just the perfect level. Combine that with audience affection inspired great performances, if that makes any sense. We come out and we do what we do. And if things are just right, we are able to inspire the audience, which in turn inspires us, which in turn more inspires the audience, which in turn more inspires us. It turns into almost like a feeding frenzy. Those are the really good ones. They happen frequently enough to where I can give a description of them.
Tim: Do you know if there was a particular song that was the hardest to write?
David: I don’t know. I imagine most of Leftoverture was kind of a nightmare to write, because things were different then. Now you kind of have all of the electronics, and home recording suites, and one person can create an amazingly detailed recording. But at that time it was Kerry and Steve coming in with well hashed out songs, but they would have to show each person their part. Like Steve would say, “this is what we do here” and Phil would say, “Gosh - what am I going to play there” . I imagine it was something to see. Not having been there at that time, I am not positive. Now, when a person submits a song, it’s a full-fledged demo that they did at home.
Tim: It probably required a lot more skill back then.
David: Certainly a lot more imagination.
Tim: Would Carry on Wayward Son be your most popular song?
David: It’s kind of a toss-up between Carry On and Dust (Dust in the Wind). They’re both still high on the food chain of AOR (Album Oriented Rock)
Tim: Do you know if they had any idea how popular those songs would become when they first wrote them?
David: Those two songs are so well-crafted, yet at the same time commercial, I think they had very high hopes.
Tim: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. I am looking forward to the show on Saturday night, March 8th at Mill Town Music Hall.