Steve Walsh - vocalist, Kansas / Streets
On the phone with Philip Anderson - 2000
As the owner of one of the most prominent voices in rock during the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Steve Walsh is still one of the most respected frontmen of the rock world. Coming to public view in the progressive/pop rock band, Kansas, Steve enjoyed a very decent career that garnered him quite a few fans. Upon feeling the need to leave the security of that band for parts unknown, Steve embarked onto a journey that, aside from doing solo work, also formed the band Streets. Streets, for those who may not know the name, had two albums that had, arguably, some of the best production work with its crisp definitions and standout instruments. Since that time, Steve has once again rejoined Kansas while still enjoying a healthy solo career.
We had the chance to speak with Steve about his career and the paths it's taken. He was quite open about where he has come from and where he is currently heading for.
K2K: To start with, you've had quite a long and distinguished career. What is the one most memorable moment out of it all?
SW: (laughs) That's quite a global question there, Phil.
K2K: Was it during your tenure with Kansas or after?
SW: You're asking me to encapsulate a moment that is precious to me above all others. I would have to dwell on that for quite a while.
K2K: How do you keep your voice in such good shape after all these years?
SW: Well, more than what I do, is what I don't do that keeps it kind of OK. (snickers)
K2K: What do you do to prepare for shows?
SW: Very little. I used to do warm-ups and stuff, but everybody in the band made so much fun of me that I decided, "This is kind of silly. It sounds silly coming out of my face." I just kind of go on and do what I do. I just try to stay in good physical condition and eat right. I sound like the Surgeon General when I'm talking, but that's about what it boils down to.
K2K: To get some background... When did you decide that music was what you wanted to do?
SW: You know, that just kind of came to me as a default measure. It came real natural to me. By the time I was 12, I was being approached by other guys in my hometown. "Hey, do you want to be in a band?" That was just from goofing around at school, on a piano that was laying around. I was playing stuff, silly stuff, radio stuff. I said, "Yeah, I guess." At one time, hell, I was in, like, four bands at once. We all played all the same songs - it seemed like, at least - but each band played in a different key, so your repertoire had to be pretty extensive.
K2K: Were you one of those kids who used to run around singing all the time?
SW: My mom didn't "make me" do that, but she urged me to. Yeah, I was a ham from the beginning. Yeah.
K2K: What did you start off playing? Were you a vocalist first?
SW: Yeah, keyboards. I just started playing keyboards. There was an old piano down in the basement of our house. I used to plunk around a little bit on it.
K2K: What else do you play?
SW: Oh, I don't know. Not anything really. Keyboards are a percussion instrument so that you learn about percussion by playing the keyboards. You can take it to drums and congas and stuff like that. With synthesis being the way it is, it's pretty much the only thing I do now.
K2K: Who are your early influences?
SW: The early ones, the obvious ones like Vanilla Fudge and the Yardbirds. Iron Butterfly, The Seeds, and all that early, early stuff back then.
K2K: Since times have changed in music, as has your own style, who are your current influences?
SW: I really like Tool and the new album by A Perfect Circle. I think Tori Amos is real good. I still like Kate Bush's album "Hounds Of Love." That's probably my favorite album in the whole world. I think Fiona Apple is real cool. I like Rage Against The Machine. I think they are very relevant.
K2K: So you're into some heavier stuff now?
SW: I guess. Yeah.
K2K: What do you think of today's musical climate?
SW: Well, like I said, I'm influenced heavily by... If you're talking about the artists of today, I think they're brilliant, not "they" as a whole, but there is a lot of brilliance out there if you look for it.
K2K: So if you had started playing today instead, would your whole style be different?
SW: Sure. Hell yeah. Anybody who starts playing right now, their style is going to be different. Music is just a... You can go retro with music, and a lot of people are actually. Since so many rap records today are sampling early grooves from other people who weren't rappers, they will listen to that and say, "Yeah. That sounds pretty cool. I think I'll pick up the original artist, whoever did this to begin with." A lot of young kids today are going way back into vintage rock, if you will.
K2K: So you think it is working to that benefit? I had found that people had stopped listening to their roots.
SW: I think people are way too busy to sit down and listen to an album, or to a CD. That's my own personal feeling. The world is getting way too f***ing busy. I ask people that, "When is the last time that you did nothing but hold the CD jacket in your hands and leaf through the lyrics, and listen and study this piece of art that somebody slaved over for, perhaps years. When was the last time that you got off the Stairmaster, shut the TV off, and sat their with a vibe of music going through your head?" It's like, "Well, uhh..." Never! The world is getting way too fast.
K2K: What was the first band that you were in?
SW: I don't even remember the name of them. But, like I said, I was in about four at once.
K2K: What other bands of notoriety have you been in? Streets...
SW: Yeah, I formed Streets as a project when I left Kansas. I've worked with [ex-Genesis guitarist] Steve Hackett on a solo album that he did, called "Please Don't Touch." Around 1979. I did it, but I didn't play live. I've really not been in any... I've tried out for a lot of bands. I tried out for Yes and Bad Company, both, when Jon left Yes, but it didn't work out.
K2K: It sounds funny that you would have had to try out for a band as opposed to just being approached for them.
SW: Well, yeah. You know, you're talking about a lot of stature there. These bands were established. I went out to L.A. to do it, I went to England to try out for Bad Company. You've just got to kind of get a feel for it. You just can't jump in saying, "Hey, I'm Steve Walsh and I'm here to stay." That's not going to fly.
K2K: I heard a story that you were originally discovered while waiting on tables. Is that true?
SW: Well, that's pretty close to true. I was working a couple of jobs and I saw this ad in the paper in Topeka, Kansas. It was a musician's magazine advertising for a keyboardist. So I went to Topeka, Kansas to check it out. It was the guys in Kansas, but they weren't called Kansas then. It was called Clover. They were looking for a keyboard guy. They asked, "Do you do any singing?" When I sang, they said, "Well, why don't you be our lead singer?" I said, "OK." So that's kind of the way it happened.
K2K: Who was singing at the time for them?
SW: Just a guy. He didn't go anywhere.
K2K: When did the incarnation of Kansas finally form?
SW: It was around 1974 when we recorded our first album.
K2K: So before that it was pretty much the same band but with a couple different members and a different name?
SW: Oh yeah. It's an ever-revolving door until you get a record contract. Then you settle down.
K2K: Who are the original members?
SW: All the guys who are in it now, except that Dave Hope was playing bass, and [guitarist] Kerry Livgren was in the band also. He's pretty much retired now.
K2K: Why did you ultimately leave Kansas the first time in the 1980s?
SW: Just disagreements, basically. We had had a tumultuous five years of recording and being in the studio, and when we weren't in the studio, we were out playing. Hey man, you know, when it's time to rock, you go for it, you go full bore. That's what we did for five years. There's bound to be a lot of animosity built up around people over the years because you've got creative elements that say, "Well, I think it ought to do this." and another guy saying, "Well, I think it ought to do that." Hell, there ain't nobody who's right and nobody who's wrong, it's just a difference of opinion.
K2K: What tour did you headline when you played headlining in Oakland or San Francisco?
SW: I think it was the "Leftovertour." That was our first big tour.
K2K: When you left, what did you think about your replacement?
SW: I think John's great. I love his writing and really think he's a great singer.
K2K: Did you think they would replace you?
SW: Oh sure. Hell yeah. They had a big contract.
K2K: How did you manage to come back again?
SW: Well, Atlantic just threw our Streets albums against the wall, and if they stuck, fine. But they weren't willing to go out on a limb and do any kind of promotion for it, so they didn't stick. We're talking "hair god" days, back in 1984. Well, we weren't "hair gods," we were guys who were really good. That band was and is real good. Atlantic won't even release them on CD. Neither Streets album is out on CD and don't ask me why. Somebody really upset them greatly.
K2K: I wanted to talk a bit about Streets. I think that the Streets album, at least the first one, is one of the best produced rock albums that I have heard.
SW: Oh, thanks!
K2K: Who was responsible for that?
SW: Neil Kernon started with us, and the guitarist ended up. Neil kind of bailed on us and Mike [Slamer] took up the slack and finished it up. Neil produced Kansas when I left.
K2K: How did you guys manage to get such a perfectly recorded album? Every single instrument is crisp and clear with no overlap. You certainly didn't have any type of Def Leppard extensive production. You could hear every instrument crystal clear including the vocals.
SW: I've got to tell you, it's got a lot to do with Mike Slamer. Mike mixed my latest CD.
K2K: I was wondering who did your latest production.
SW: Well, it was me and Trent Gardner, but Mike mixed it and did all the guitars on it.
K2K: Whatever that guy touches is brilliant.
SW: Oh, Mike's great.
K2K: What else is Mike doing?
SW: Mike does a lot of stuff. He's brilliant.
K2K: Why is he so practically unknown and underrated?
SW: Because he's a gentleman. He doesn't go out and toot his own horn. He just does what he does and doesn't believe in all that hype s***. That's Mike. He's a little hard to find, but if you ever find him and make sense to him, he comes back and does balls to the wall work for you.
K2K: I'm glad that you got him back to work with you on your latest solo project.
SW: So am I.
K2K: Any chance of doing Streets again?
SW: Very good chance. I'm not sure when or how, but it's a very good chance.
K2K: Any chance of kicking Atlantic Records in the ass to get those previous albums out on CD?
SW: I've got a lawyer on it right now.
K2K: What can I do, or the fans do?
SW: I don't know. Call up Phil Wilde at Atlantic Records in New York City and say, "What the f***!?" That's what I've been doing for ten years. I just keep running into a brick wall. I can't find the real answer and nobody will come to me and go, "You pissed them off, so they're not going to release your CDs." Nobody's told me anything.
K2K: Do you think that's what it is?
SW: It has to be. What else could it be? I mean, that's bucks! I get asked for those CDs all the time and we're a touring band. Yeah. Really.
K2K: When you came back to Kansas, how did you like working with Steve Morse?
SW: He's a genius. There's very little I can say about the guy except that he's an incredible and uncanny musical talent.
K2K: Why did Kerry leave?
SW: Oh man! He's made a lot of money and he's kicking back. If I would have made a lot of money, I wouldn't do this anymore either.
K2K: I would have imagined that, with the fame of Kansas, you would have.
SW: No, I didn't write a lot of the famous stuff. "Dust In The Wind" and "Carry On My Wayward Son" were both Kerry's. Oh yeah.
K2K: I understood that the reason you actually left the band originally, and then ultimately why Kerry left, was due mostly to religious reasons, or differences.
SW: Yes. I would say that it was due to religious beliefs. I do have religious beliefs, but it was the way that they were being...
K2K: Was it your problem or Kerry's problem?
SW: Well, I don't want to characterize... It must have been my problem because I left, but I must say that I have a problem with anyone who stands up in front of a mass of people and tells them one thing but lives another way. That's the way the lyrics were coming out. They were coming out, "You must do this, and you must do that..." and I didn't see that from the guy who wrote them.
K2K: Really? That's a slightly different answer than what I was expecting.
SW: (laughs)
K2K: The story that I had always gotten was that, after you left, Kerry had become a Born-Again Christian...
SW: Yes.
K2K: ... and had come upon the realization that "Dust In The Wind, lyrically, was bulls*** because it was anti-Christian, and the fact expressed was that we really are nothing and there is no God and we're just dust in the wind.
SW: Oh man, he was on the 700 Club and they grilled him. It was embarrassing. Oh, it was Pat Robertson sitting right across from Kerry and he said that exact thing. "If you're a Born-Again Christian, how could you write this?" I was sitting there watching it thinking, "S***, I sure am glad that I'm not sitting there."
K2K: But he wrote that before he became Born Again, didn't he?
SW: Yes.
K2K: Well then, there's the answer right there. I don't see why they would grill him over it. We all make mistakes.
SW: Yes. They're going to gravitate toward anything that's famous.
K2K: So is that part of the reason why he quit the band?
SW: The reason was that the lyrics were just getting... Kerry, at that point when he was writing "Dust In The Wind" and "The Wall" and "Carry On My Wayward Son" and all, he was on a journey, man. I was along because he wrote some great stuff. But, once he found himself, I just couldn't empathize with the salvation that he was trying to get me to put across to masses and masses of people. It just didn't fly.
K2K: Did that all get sorted out eventually?
SW: Well, he wrote all the material for the new album. Yeah.
K2K: So all is cool now?
SW: Oh yeah. Kerry's great. Everything's fine.
K2K: What's the reason that he wouldn't stay with the band and tour?
SW: Because he's 50 years old.
K2K: I won't listen to that excuse. I've got John Lee Hooker living the next town over and he's going to be pushing 90 any time. He still performs.
SW: Yeah, you know. It's just all in your make up. Kerry's happy now and that's the most important thing in life, is happiness.
K2K: If touring didn't make him happy, then I understand.
SW: Absolutely.
K2K: What kind of beliefs, if I may ask, do you have? What do you like to convey?
SW: Oh, well... I kind of went through an awakening about three years ago that just got me clean and sober. I'm following my own brand too, so I have beliefs but they're nothing that are spectacular or unique. Nevertheless, they're beliefs and they're mine, but I can't put into words why I believe them or what I believe in.
K2K: Well, I wasn't expecting any sensationalism. I was just wondering about any changes.
SW: Sure, a lot of changes. Yeah.
K2K: How are those brought across on your new solo release? Do you encompass them lyrically?
SW: Well. No. Have you listened to the CD?
K2K: Yes. I really enjoyed the variety that you put into it.
SW: Thank you. I would say that you'd have to just take that and write about it yourself. I don't want to characterize it for you.
K2K: What exactly does "Glasolalia" mean?
SW: Speaking in tongues. That's in Webster's dictionary.
K2K: Where did the word originate from?
SW: I don't know. This guy pointed it out to me one day. It's my friend Chip Simone, who took my picture for the album. He lives across the street. He's a great photographer. He said that word and I said, "What did you say? That's a great word. What's it mean?" He said, "Speaking in tongues." I thought, what a great title for my album than that because there's so many tongues to speak from. So I went in and wrote the song.
K2K: That's such a heavy song, comparatively. I also got some Genesis and Kansas style from the album too. I would say that "Serious Wreckage," to me, not that it sounds like Genesis, but I could picture that early, pre-Phil Collins era style...
SW: Thank you very much. That's a big compliment.
K2K: Are you more comfortable in Kansas or solo?
SW: I like all kinds of forms. I'm speaking to you right now from a studio that I'm recording in right now, for another project.
K2K: If you had the chance to have the ultimate band to front - with musicians dead or alive - who would it consist of?
SW: Oh, wow. You know what I really wanted to do? I wanted to sing in Bad Company, but I wanted to sing all Paul Rodgers songs because I think he was so great.
K2K: He's a really nice guy too.
SW: Is he? We've played with him before but I've never had the balls to walk up to him and say, "Hi. I love your voice."
K2K: Who do you respect?
SW: I respect him. I guess I respect all kinds of people in this business. I think Paul Rodgers would garner the most respect that I have just because he seems so natural.
K2K: How much influence do you think that you've had on other vocalists?
SW: Oh, I don't see that I'm any kind of influence like that. If I am, that's great, but I don't look to influence anybody. I just don't do that.
K2K: We have all our guitar gods and drum gods, etc., but your name certainly has come up a lot over the past 20 years as one of the top respected vocalists.
SW: Ha! Well great. Thank you.
K2K: On your solo album, were you trying to go for more experimentation or was it a set project?
SW: No, sure... I've been writing this stuff for about ten years. I was going for an experiment. I don't ever want to write the same song twice.
K2K: How is it working with your new label, Magna Carta?
SW: It's great. The guys up there are fabulous. Pete Morticelli is great. Without him, this CD couldn't have been done.
K2K: It's a good thing that there is a good progressive rock label now.
SW: I know.
K2K: How many albums did you do with Streets?
SW: Two. Then we did a King Biscuit thing too.
K2K: When Streets came out, I got those two albums immediately. They are amongst my prized possessions.
SW: We've got to get them out on CD. Help me out Phil.
K2K: With the new Kansas album... How come this is such a big deal if the band had never really broken up and has been going on? What's different about this? Just a new label and new push?
SW: Yeah, I think so. Kerry agreeing to write all the music for it. I think that was a big impetus for everybody to dig in and go, "Let's do it."
K2K: Is he going to do any more writing for the band?
SW: Oh, I hope so. I sure hope so.
K2K: I am surprised that this new album, updated as it is, still retains so much classic qualities.
SW: That's what everybody has said.
K2K: Oh, here's a question that was on my mind for years... What exactly is a "Leftoverture?"
SW: It's just a made-up word.
K2K: What was the biggest hit for the band? "Dust In The Wind?"
SW: Yes.
K2K: What's in the future for you?
SW: Hopefully more of the same. Being a musician, it's hard to quit touring and writing and recording, so just hopefully more of the same.
Written by Philip Anderson

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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