Interview with Kansas drummer and co-founder Phil Ehart

if this man has an ego of a rock star, you would never know it. Read on. Photo: Phil Ehart, by Keith Utter/Outback Photogs

WASHINGTON, August 29, 2013 — Late Tuesday, the phone rang. The gentleman on the other end of the line was profusely polite in apologizing for running a little late due to a previously arranged interview. That gentleman was none other than Phil Ehart, original member, drummer, songwriter and manager of the famous rock group, Kansas.

No apolgies needed. What followed on the phone turned out to be a fantastic interview with both Ehart and his drum tech, Eric Holmquist, a fantastic drummer in his own right. 

Kansas set out to create what they considered non-run-of-the-mill rock music and ended up accomplishing exactly that. Their music is complicated, quite different from what may be considered standard rock music and lyrics.

Kansas in action. (Band photo by David Carstens and Courtni Meadows)

In fact, Kansas’ music is normally declined by cover bands due to the complexities and difficulties involved in learning how to play it. Ehart claims he has heard this story before observing “That’s probably a good decision,” acknowledging the challenges in approximating their sound.

Ehart noted he had read and enjoyed our interview with Lou Gramm of Foreigner fame, and also a recent interviewee here at Washington Times Communities. Ehart knows Gramm, who became ill with a brain tumor. Ehart said his entire group went through Lou’s pain in both spirit and friendship, a kind and gracious nod to a fellow rocker and obvious friend. Happily, Gramm has since recovered.


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Kansas is  now winding up their 40th anniversary tour, providing their own unique touches along the way. For example, at a recent August 13 “Fan Appreciation Concert” at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center, the group showed up in the basement level to meet and greet their fans, sign autographs and just shoot the breeze. The positive fan response carried over on the Internet as Pittburgh fans shared their fantastic experience with their favorite group.

Most well established internationally famous rock groups do not bother to take the time to relax with their audience and fans like this at this stage of their careers. But, in typical Ehart fashion, it was the group’s way of saying “Thank you” to their fans who’ve followed them for so many years.

Kansas created their first album in 1974, first emerging as a garage type band. They went on to produce eight gold albums, three sextuple platinum albums, one platinum live album while continuing to play to sold-out arenas and stadiums throughout the world.

Kansas traveled to the UK and recorded in the famed Abbey Road Studio when Alan Parsons from the Alan Parsons Project happened to come by. They recorded with the world famous London Symphony orchestra, a rock and roll first. Ehart said these experiences, coupled with the history of Abbey Road and the Beatles, was quite a special experience.


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Late, great rock promoter Don Kirshner signed Kansas, the only group Kirshner ever chose to promote personally in his storied, accomplished career. That item is sure to be covered in the group’s upcoming documentary, to be released in 2014, according to Ehart.

Ehart continues to pound the drums at age 63, a time when most early Boomers are looking forward to spending most evenings with a beer in a Barcolounger. How does he do it? “I am in great health,” he says. “I live a clean life and have been physically playing drums since I was kid, so the workout keeps me healthy.”

Phil Ehart of Kansas. (Credit: Keith Utter/Outback Photogs)

When asked of the first time he heard a Kansas song on the radio, Ehart emoted by saying “We were driving to Topeka Kansas when I first heard our song on the radio. Anyone who says they were not thrilled by this moment has no heart”  

Ehart speaks at engagements several times annually and recently spoke at Auburn University. Ehart claims “I went to the school of hard knocks” but went on to explain that as a manager of such a popular and sought after rock group for the last 25 years, dealing with promoters, recording studios and recording companies, not to mention artistic temperaments, may have earned him  Ph.D. in business.

In fact, the reason he was late for my call was a conversation with Sony records.

When asked about his drum tech, Holmquist, Ehart was once again as gracious as could be by explaining “Eric is a great drummer in his own right. He is a hardworking man and knows exactly what he is doing”. Holmquist was managing a Guitar Center when he was plucked up for touring with Kansas. Asked of this, Ehart exclaimed “Ask Eric this one” so, Holmquist was asked.

“I met the guys in Kansas when I was a kid and attended 30-40 shows a year. I got to know the drum tech JT Thompson and he knew I wanted his job. I was working at the Guitar Center when I got the call from Kansas. It was a dream come true.”

On setting up for a gig, Holmquist said they start by flying to whatever city and takes about three hours to set up. They go through a “linecheck” and for an 8 p.m. gig, start assembling at 7 p.m.

When told of Ehart’s sterling recommendation of his drumming ability, Holmquist responded with a surprised “WOW! I don’t know what to say! Phil is a great guy and a great drummer. I’ve learned a whole lot about drumming and managing a band from Phil. I’m forever grateful to the guys and Phil.”

Holmquist learned by playing with his Dad, Neil who, by Holmquist’s standard, is a great drummer as well.

One remaining key question on the mind of this interviewer was this: what does the well-known song “Point of No Return” really mean. Speculation on the Internet has ranged among drugs, suicide, and a host of other explanations. When Holmquist was asked about this, he replied “I really don’t know. But for me, it means there are 13 more songs to play in the setlist!”

A final call to Ehart revealed the song is a actually metaphor for any of life events that can get out of hand or deteriorate to the point where there is no going back. Which may not be a bad thing.

Both Ehart and Holmquist today remain polite, grateful for their current station in life, thankful for their great fortunes and gracious in conversation. For this author, waiting for Ehart to call was no problem. There is no “How long” and no point of no return.

 

Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based writer and psychotherapist.

 


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