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Kerry Livgren (Proto-Kaw)

Interview with Kerry Livgren from Proto-Kaw
by Orpheus Spiliotopoulos at 18 May 2004, 7:19 PM

Music is an ever to be flowing river; music's one of those form of arts which remain although people parish. It never dies. Some songs are remembered and others are remembered even more. One of the songs which I'll never forget (me and some millions of people won't) is Dust In The Wind by Kansas. What I'd never simply imagine is that one day I'd be on the phone, talking to a living legend, the person who'd written this song and many more, Kerry Livgren! Kerry told me about his reunited band (a reunion that took place 30 years later) Proto-Kaw, his thoughts, Kansas and more.

How did the whole thing happen, with Proto-Kaw? Was it a tough to fulfil idea, to continue something that started more than 30 years ago?

Well, yes it was because of course Proto-Kaw is an early version of Kansas. The original band started in 1970 and the second version, which we now know as Proto-Kaw, was from 1971 up until 1974. So here we are, 30 years later, suddenly putting a band together that not only has not played together for 30 years but with the exception of myself, the musicians had not played at all for 30 years.

They hadn’t played at all?

No. In fact Dan Wright, our keyboard player, didn’t own an instrument. So, the problem, the difficulty was actually fairly scary because when we decided to do this recording no one really knew if we could do this. No one had ever heard of musicians that had not played for that long, suddenly trying to do  very difficult music actually. Even more than that, Lynn, the vocalist, it’s just absolutely miraculous what he has done because he had not sung for 30 years and then suddenly he has to sing the songs, as he has done, it was just a marvelous job. I was quite amazed. And when we started recording, all the musicians practiced very radically to get their musicianship up to the level that was necessary. Of course they not only did that but they went beyond it!

 I guess though that there must have been various difficulties during the recordings, right?

Well, we tried very hard to all be here at once. Part of the challenge that we faced was that we’re geographically spread out a bit, we’re not all at the same place. So one of the biggest challenges was just scheduling everyone to get here so that we could work. I didn’t really wanna do it one musician at a time you know, which can be and sometimes we did a bit of it, but we always tried to have at least three or four members of the band here all at the same time so that we could play. It was just absolutely amazing the story of these guys who got back together after this long and what they were able to do on this recording!

It is amazing to hear that and it’s even more amazing to listen to the album while knowing that. You simply don’t come to any conclusion that you’re listening to some musicians who haven’t played for 30 years but on the contrary…

We wouldn’t have released it if it didn’t sound the way we wanted it to. We worked on it for quite some time. It was about nine months to put the whole thing together, that wasn’t constant recording because we couldn’t schedule everyone everyday. But we were very much perfectionists you know, we would not release it unless it was something we could be proud of.

All of the people in the band were following everyday lives, up until the formation of Proto-Kaw, right?

That’s exactly right! They were employees or had other types of careers that were not musical. John Bolton had to go buy a flute, he did not even own one. Dan Wright bought several keyboards because he no longer owned an instrument. So I just think, of all the things I’ve heard in music, it’s just an amazing story. As I said, I’ve never heard of musicians that have been inactive that long. You know, music is a discipline. Even sometimes weeks or months, for me, I begin to loose some of my skills and I try to keep them up. Imagine that for 30 years and then suddenly you get a phone call and are asked to show up at the studio to record a progressive album! \[laughs]

How easy was it to persuade all of these people to carry on?

Well it was interesting because they wanted to do it very very badly.

From the very start?

Oh yeah, yeah. Everyone of them wanted to do this very badly because you see, these were the musicians that had a dream of making a life as musicians and it never came true for them. They never got a chance to be heard and even 30 years later for that dream to suddenly come back, they were all very excited. But also at the same time everyone was very nervous because no one knew how well he good do this. Even when we started recording the music tracks, then we thought what if Lynn can’t sing, he’s 53 years old, this may all fall apart. And he stepped up to the microphone and everyone was just amazed! If you did not know, you’d think he’s a guy that’s 30 years old! His voice is just pure, clean and it was just perfect! In the studio, my mouth was hanging open with amazement, I just couldn’t believe it.

I was shocked to read that 30 years ago club owners would be kicking you out of their clubs! 30 years later you’re a successful musician of course. How easy was it though to get a contract with a record label?

Well, for us it was impossible. It never happened! I’m talking about back in the 70’s. The band was very experimental, very progressive, our music was complex. There were very few places for us to play and almost no places for us to play that really understood what we were doing. So we never got heard, it was almost impossible. In fact it was a miracle that Kansas band that followed up later, did make it. We were quite fortunate in that.

Do you feel that songs like Dust In The Wind played their part in having recognition later on and up until now, having people worldwide knowing Kansas for songs like that? Do you believe that helped you in a way to get immediately a contract (nowadays)?

Of course for Proto-Kaw we have to give credit to the success that Kansas had and that I had as the writer of those songs because any band that I put together now, people will listen to because of that success that Kansas had. So it was very much in the favor of Proto-Kaw, although I think Proto-Kaw is really nothing like Kansas in many ways. It’s a very different sounding band. I must ask you, have you heard the whole Proto-Kaw CD, the double CD, or did you just get the promotional CD?

I got the promotional CD.

Oh man, you haven’t even heard some of the best things we do!

Oh God, don’t tell me…

You probably don’t have the song Words Of Honor .

Nope.

That was one of our best songs. You see, the promotional CD was sent out before the album was finished and so some of the best work that the band has done, you haven’t even heard of because of that.

How many tracks were added after the promotional CD? There were nine on the CD I got.

There’s 13 tracks which means that there’s four songs you haven’t heard, one of which is a video that’s included on the double CD. You’ll have to ask InsideOut Records to send you the CD \[laughs]

Well, I guess I’ll go downtown and simply buy the double CD!

Well…of course that always helps too! \[laughs]

I think that InsideOut is a label that we were very happy to sign with, it’s a very classy label and it does good work for the the kind of bands that they have and that we fit in to.

 My next question concerns you specifically. What were you doing all this time? I mean before Proto-Kaw.

Well  I’ve been very busy actually. I’ve never stopped recording. When I first left Kansas in 1983, I formed my Christian band which is called A.D. and we put out four CDs. Along that I did a series of solo projects. I think I’ve done another three or four CDs through the 90’s and then of course in 2000 I went back with Kansas and did the most recent CD, Somewhere To Elsewhere, which I wrote everything on the CD and in fact it was recorded here in my studio, the same studio were Proto-Kaw recorded. Then I’ve been working on a Cantata. I’ve been actually working on this over 20 years and it’s a large scale classical work that involves choirs, orchestras and is very different from anything I’ve done. It’s kind of a life-long project so I don’t know when that will be finished.

But it will always be in your future plans, right?

Oh absolutely yes!

Do you believe that Before Became After has the exact sound you’d want to have back in the 70’s or are you nostalgic about that decade’s sound?

No, I’m not too nostalgic about it. Three of the thirteen tracks that we recorded, or actually twelve (not counting the video), I think that three of them are songs that we played back in the 70’s but even those three have been re-written to make them more current. Really most of what Proto-Kaw has done on this CD is totally new. It never occurred to us to try to re-capture a sound of the 70’s, it’s just this is who we are. If you get caught up in trying to think about decades and which one you fit in to, that goes nowhere. To me you just play music that comes out of you and it is what it is.

Tell me a bit about the album’s artwork. Was it your idea?

Well, yes and no. Actually there’s a graphic artist named Ken Westphal, who’s also from Kansas and is a very talented artist. I’ve been using him for all the last three or four projects that I’ve done and when we got about halfway through our project, we realized we better start thinking about the cover or else we’d end up waiting for it. So I contacted Ken and played some of the music for him. He’s just marvelous because he comes up with these images that fit the music so perfectly. If you look at the buffalo as a kind of an American icon that represents the West, which is where we live here, and the contrast of the prairie fire and the snowstorm, it was just perfect I think for our representation.

It’s a very, should I say alive, artwork!

It means so much to us because if you look at that buffalo, he has to move forward, he can’t stand still. He has to move forward or he’ll parish and in a way you think about that, the way we are as a band. We had to do something or parish and there was just so many things about it that fit in with what the band was doing.

How would you characterize your music? A lot of people characterize Proto-Kaw as a progressive rock band or even a progressive jazz psychedelia.

All of these things are true to some degree. One of my goals as a composer has always been to make music that really doesn’t fit comfortably into any of the categories that people like to stick on it. You just say it’s progressive rock, which is not wrong but it really leaves a lot unsaid, it leaves a lot undescribed. There are moments on the CD that  are very orchestral, there are some others which might make you say this has a jazz flavor and a few moments later it’s rock. I believe it goes beyond the descriptions we all put.

I must add that there’s a spiritual feeling emerging from the album.

Oh absolutely yes.

Where does it come from?

That’s always been a part of my music even if you go back to the early 70’s, back to the very beginning! That’s always been a theme in my writing and I guess that’s because I think it’s the most fascinating of all subjects. There’s nothing else a person could write about that would be more compelling or deeper or more interesting than the Divine. That spirituality is always into pretty much anything I write.

How about the songs on Before Became after. For example, there’s a song called Axolotl (in lack of a better name) . What’s with the title?

\[Laughs] I think I have this bad habit. Sometimes a song title makes perfect sense, I mean, you may use a phrase from the lyrics like for example Carry On Wayward Son. Other times I’ll think of a title for a song later. We’ll go ahead and record this piece and when the title, you stick a temporary title on it and quite often I just make up a word from something that I’ve read! Axolotl is an obscure Mexican lizard. It has absolutely nothing to do with the song but then…it becomes a habit and everybody’s calling the song Axolotl and after a while you can’t imagine it being anything else. I just kept in lack of a better name as a temporary title.

And there you have it! \[Laughs]

There you have it!

Do you want to tell me one or two words about every song?

I think that the opening song, which in short abbreviations is called Alt. Is kind of a recognition to the whole world of computers but the real title is More Words Than Known and it’s a song a little bit about the band itself. It was so ironic because I wrote the song before I knew we were going to do this project and Lynn began singing Here I am, I’m alive again! I think it’s a statement about the band. Something that we thought it was long dead and gone…here it is, it’s alive; pretty much alive!

Axolotl is one of the songs, of course that we actually played back in the 70’s and it’s a very orchestrated piece, perhaps what you’d call an orchestral power ballad.

Quantum Leapfrog is sort of an indescribable piece of music, it’s music for musicians. A lot of people think it’s kind of a fusion-jazz type of piece but it’s a real exercise for musicians. It was a particularly interesting thing because most of it is in unusual time signatures and it really pushed these musicians to their limits, which was quite interesting considering what we talked about; them having not played for 30 years.

Gloriana was a totally new piece even though it almost sounded familiar the first time we heard it. It’s very reminiscent of the kind of music that this band once played many-many years ago. It’s got complex arrangements and unusual time signatures again, very broad-sweeping orchestral melodies.

Then we’ve got Heavenly Man, which also is a song that we played many years ago. I think it demonstrates one of the ways Proto-Kaw is quite different from Kansas. There’s a lot of improvisation. There’s a lot of things that happen spontaneously, things no one expected.

Theophany, I guess you’d say that Theophany is a progressive anthem, one of the kind of pieces that’s always very challenging for the musicians to learn. They had a lot of homework to do! \[Laughs]

How’s the album doing now that it’s been released? I bet you got a great response back from people.

So far the response has been really-really surprisingly great. We had no idea that this album was going to mean this much  to so many people. It’s probably sort of a miracle not going to be at the top of the charts or anything like that but then we’re not a band that really cares so much about that. We love music and the excitement music can make and to try to go into areas. We like to think we’re explorers, we go places in music no one’s been before. People seem to appreciate that because much of what you hear nowadays is so formularized and there’s not too much excitement going on sometimes. People seem to be really excited about this!

What about future plans? Touring etc

Our plans are not specific and of course the CD’s only been out a few weeks now so we kind of need to wait for it to make it’s way into the system and let people become aware of it. Of course we’re very excited about playing live. We’ve played one show in Kansas City so far, which went very well, so we’re getting hooked up with connections and hopefully we’ll be doing so live shows. Most of all we’d love to come to Europe!

That would simply be great! Especially if we had the chance to see you in Greece for example.

I would come to Greece just to eat mousaka! \[Laughs] \[note by Orpheus: as you’ve imagined, mousaka is a Greek, sort of traditional food]

Here’s a question I always wanted to ask you. Would you ever tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd or The Outlaws?

We did play with them in the past, many times. Kansas continues to tour, that band is very much alive as well and I’m still a part of it, in many ways. In fact I’m playing some shows with them this summer, here in the States. I’m not doing the whole tour though. I decided many years ago that my time was much more valuable as a composer and in the studio, continuing to make recordings for people to listen to because…if you play a live show, it’s gone but if you make a recording, it stays for generations. I think that’s the best use for my time.

Finally, I’d like Kerry Livgren to send out a message to all the people who’ll be reading this Interview, since we’re an International Magazine and actually 50% of our readers are American.

Wow, really? That’s wonderful! Well, I guess my message would be that I’m extremely grateful for all the years of support that all you people have given Kansas and now Proto-Kaw and I’m very excited at the opportunity to continue to make music for you!

Kerry, thanks for this Interview, it’s been more than a pleasure talking to you. I wish you all the best with Proto-Kaw and hope to see you up-close some time, given the opportunity!

Thanks Orpheus. The pleasure’s all mine. Take care!



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