by Danl Blackwood
(written January 1996)
There were always lots of bands in Topeka, KS in the 60's and 70's. Most of them were pretty average, but there always seemed to be a few that, when you heard them, you'd say, "These guys are going to make it." I still remember the first time I heard White Clover (which would just months later change their name to Kansas). It was the fall of 1973. We were at band practice (yes, I was in one of those bands, too) when Kerry Livgren's brother Chris asked me if I wanted to go with him to hear his brother's band. Of course, being part of the music community, I'd heard of White Clover, but I'd never heard them. So we drove to Lawrence, KS to the Red Dog Inn. Needless to say, my jaw was on the floor. They were incredibly tight, dynamic, and focused. I would later realize that I had, in fact, previously seen Kerry Livgren in two of his earlier bands, Kansas and Saratoga. Just a few short months later, White Clover would get a record deal with Don Kirschner, change their name to Kansas, record their first album, and the rest is history. Kansas would, in less than three years, become one of the most famous groups in rock music history.
One of the major player's in the success of Kansas was Kerry Livgren. Livgren, who went to Topeka West High School, was one of those rock star hopefuls who dreamed of success. However, Livgren was not just another garage band musician. The big difference between the average bands in Topeka (or anywhere for that matter) and the really good bands, was the original music. Livgren was and is an incredible songwriter as well as musician. His music, along wth the songwriting of lead vocalist and keyboardist Steve Walsh, and the rest of Kansas, would carry them far beyond this little midwest capitol city of Kansas. Livgren however was also a seeker. It was a well known fact that Livgren was involved in many religions and beliefs in his search for the truth. His band mates used to call him a "charter member of the religion of the month club." One day in January, 1979, Livgren found what he was looking for in Jesus Christ, and things were never the same; not for Livgren; not for Kansas. Dave Hope, bass player, who had a pretty ferocious drug habit, would a short time later have a classic miracle conversion. One minute he was a self destructive cocaine and alcohol addict, the next minute he was free from drugs as a child of God; led to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ in the back of the bus by Livgren and Jeff Pollard, lead singer of LeRoux.
The working relationship of the band became extremely strained, as many have experienced, when Christians and non-Christians work together. Eventually, the strain gave way when Steve Walsh left after Audio-Visions (actually during rehearsals for the next album). He was replaced by John Elefante for two albums, Vinyl Confessions in 1982 and Drastic Measures in 1983, considered by some as the Christian Kansas albums. (By the way, after many long delays and false alarms, I got the word from Sony that these two albums, along with Audio-Visions, are supposed to be released on CD in the spring of 1996.) The toll became greater when lead vocalist and violinist Robby Steinhardt left after Vinyl Confessions. Finally, Livgren and Hope both left after Drastic Measures, and the band dissolved. However, a short time later Kansas reformed, and has gone through even more metamorphisis in members (including a short stint by Steve Morse as lead guitarist). They now have settled down into a good, enduring group, with three of the original members, Walsh, lead guitarist Rich Williams, and drummer and co-founder Phil Ehart. This last year, they released yet another new album, Freaks Of Nature, and just finished an intensive tour across America, though they struggle to reach the prominence they once enjoyed. Livgren stays in touch with the band, including temporarily re-joining for a special tour in 1991, collaborating on the inclusion of one of his songs ("Cold Grey Morning") on Freaks Of Nature, and setting in for a guest appearance at a special Oklahoma City Bombing Disaster fund-raising concert in Topeka last August.
That brings us up to 1983, but what has Livgren been up to since then? Even though many have speculated on a answer, the first and obvious question was, "Why did you leave Kansas?"
Kerry Livgren: "I left Kansas (as an active participant), in 1983 to form AD. People are always curious as to why Dave and I left. It's a complicated answer, but it basically boils down to two reasons, one artistic, the other spiritual. After being in Kansas since 1970, I felt that the group was artistically 'played out' and becoming stagnant for me. By the time we were working on Drastic Measures I was very low on inspiration for the group, and I was ready to explore some different approaches to music than the band allowed. Spiritually, we did not, as a band, share the same goals and motives, and I was longing to work with musicians that were of one mind and to experience the unity of purpose that Kansas once had before we became so 'corporately motivated'. The Lord said that 'a divided house cannot stand', and that certainly is true."
AD, Livgren's Christian rock band, actually began unintentionally forming as early as the Vinyl Confessions Tour. During the search for replacement lead vocalist, John Elefante, Livgren also became acquainted with Warren Ham and Michael Gleason, who both would end up as side musicians for Kansas. AD's first album Time Line began as second solo album for Livgren (the first being Seeds of Change, released in 1980), but when Ham, Gleason, Hope, and drummer Dennis Holt got involved, it became the official beginning of AD. It would seem that he had finally found his dream gig. However, he soon found this not to be true, as with the move to Contemporary Christian Music, he lost the support of the secular record making machine, and even some fans. What happened to AD?
Livgren: "AD was active for the next 4 and one half years, and was a time of tremendous spiritual growth and musical fulfillment for me, while at the same time a period of much frustration from a 'music business' perspective. I loved that band. Some of the most transcendent musical experiences I've had were onstage with AD. AD was 'financially doomed', and we laid it to rest during the recording of Reconstructions. Prime Mover, recorded in 1988, was just myself and Warren Ham, as we had ceased to be a band at that point. Shortly afterwards I began work on my instrumental album, One of Several Possible Musiks, and though it won a Dove Award for Instrumental Album of the Year, there was no format in CCM for an album of that style of music and it had limited success. It remains one of my favorite works. The next three years are probably the reason why there is a perception that I have not been active. We put together my compilation, Decade, which was more work than might appear. There was some re-recording and re-mixing involved, as well as some previously unreleased tracks. Also in this period there was both a European and domestic tour with Kansas which was enjoyable, both because of re-establishing friendships and just experiencing performing that music again."
Now we get to the good stuff. Just this past Thanksgiving (with an autograph signing party at a local Topeka bookstore), Livgren kicked off the independent release of his latest project, When Things Get Electric. Livgren told me he "put more hours into this album than everything else combined". The consensus of online conversations on the Kansas mailing list, People Of The Southwind, is that this is possibly his best work yet, and I agree. Work on this project actually began back in 1992, while he was still living in Dunwoody, outside of Atlanta; where he ended up when his career took off with Kansas. A couple of years ago, he moved back to Topeka with wife, Vicci and his children, Katy and Kyle. So what took so long?
Livgren: "WTGE took an unusually long time to put together for several reasons. First, I set a standard for myself that was difficult to fulfill. I decided to attempt to make an album that, when it was finished, I would have no desire to change anything. At this point, I don't think that's a realistic expectation, but I got close. Secondly, there was a lot of time spent searching for the right musicians and singers. I wanted a fresh start, so I didn't want to use anyone that I had worked with before. Thirdly, and probably most significant, after finishing the first version of WTGE, I moved from Georgia back to Kansas and built a new studio. During that year (1993), I made some key and radical decisions: to scrap the entire project and start over in my new studio, and to use more live musicians to get a 'band feel'. I also wrote several new songs during that time that I felt made a more cohesive album. Lastly, I made the decision to form an independent label, Numavox, which has taken a lot of time and energy."
With the official title of the album being When Things Get Electric, by Kerry Livgren And The Corps de Pneuma, that brings me to my next question. You've always come up with very unique names and titles (some previous examples from the Kansas days being "Belexes", "Apercu", and "Incomudro - Hymn To The Atman"). Where did the names The Corps de Pneuma and Numavox come from?
Livgren: Corps de Pneuma is a sort of pidgin combination of French and Greek meaning 'army of ghosts' or 'Spirits'. Numavox means 'voice of spirit' or 'spirit voice'.
You've already proven your expertise with other projects in finding musicians to work with. Tell us a little about the main players/singers on WTGE.
Livgren: "Darren Rogers and Jason Beddoe are the two lead vocalists. I take a certain pleasure in finding little known or undiscovered talent, (of which there is a wealth), and bringing them to the forefront. Darren is from Atlanta and has worked in local bands there, Jason is from Nashville, and used to sing with the Imperials. Chris Kearney, the drummer, has worked with Bash n' the Code, Steve Taylor, and done a lot of session work in Nashville. Craig Kew is a local Kansas boy who just does everything right on a bass."
Of course, there is also David Ragsdale, from the current Kansas, lending his incredible talents on violin to a couple songs as well.
I understand the original title was Xylon. Why was it changed?
Livgren: "The album Xylon was actually the version that was scrapped. The consensus was that When Things Get Electric was a more interesting and accessible title."
This album seems to be very much about "end times". Is that an accurate assessment, and if so, was that theme intentional?
Livgren: "I suppose there is a focus on the 'end times' on this album, from the perspective that the beginning of the 'end times' is now. The decline of civilization all around us can hardly be argued. [Two cuts from the album] 'When Things Get Electric' and 'Two Thousand Down' in particular deal with that subject."
Many songs today (Christian and secular) are very cryptic about their message, however as a believer, I feel that the songs on this album are very clear in their meaning. Conversely, I wonder if non-believers will feel the opposite about the message, specifically the message will be cryptic. Can you speak to that issue a little?
Livgren: "The songs on When Things Get Electric are probably typical of my lyric style. 'Cryptic' from a non-christian perspective, with the Biblical world view perhaps being observed as 'preachy'. The songs, in fact, cover a lot of subjects, but that criticism always comes."
At this writing, the album is only available directly through Numavox by mail order (contact email@example.com). Will the album be available in stores?
Livgren: "Numavox is starting from the 'ground up'. Though we can sell directly, that is not our ultimate goal. We are currently negotiating for distribution, worldwide and domestic, in both the general marketplace and CCM outlets. The album will probably be available in some stores by the time this is read."
Will there be a tour?
Livgren: "Kerry Livgren and Corps de Pneuma is willing and able to tour if it makes economic sense. It will depend on the offers we receive. Jeff Roberts is handling our booking in Nashville [call 615-859-7040]."
I understand you have a deal involving a feature-length computer animation video from the company that produced the Mind's Eye series (a huge hit in the computer-animation industry). Can you tell us more about that?
Livgren: "I am currently working on the soundtrack for the next release in the Mind's Eye series of computer animation videos [due out next year]. They are quite amazing, and I'm finding it a very challenging undertaking. They have been aired on everything from PBS to MOR Music, and can be found in most video rental stores. The soundtrack will probably be released on CD as well."
What else is in the future for Kerry Livgren?
Livgren: "I've never been able to answer what's in the future for me, but, God willing, I will continue to be an active composer and performer."
So that's the story. Watch for great things to happen this next year with Kerry Livgren, an artist who loves the Lord, and lets His light shine in his life and his music.
For more info on the history of Kerry Livgren, Kansas, AD,
and his latest projects, see the Kerry Livgren Links on my Music Page.
Return to the Blackwood Music History Scrapbook ____________________________________________________ Danl Blackwood /\/\ http://danlnet.com/web.html danlnet.com \/\/ Topeka KS ____________________________________________________