A Conversation with Kansas Keyboardist Tom Brislin

After 40+ years of making music, you may think you know what to expect from a Kansas record.  However, their new record, The Absence of Presence, shatters your classic rock expectations and brings you into firmly into the word of 21st Century progressive rock.  Thanks to an infusion of new blood, the band sounds as vital and modern as ever.  Keyboardist Tom Brislin is a huge part of this fresh sound and took some time to talk about this exciting new release.
Please press the PLAY icon below for the MisplacedStraws Conversation with Tom Brislin:

On how he joined the band – The first performance with (his band) The Sea Within was in Germany in summer 2018 at the Night of the Prog Festival. It was an opportunity for me to get reacquainted with the head of our label, Thomas Waber from Inside Out Records. I think he first saw me play with Yes in Germany in 2001, I had appeared on a few Inside Out titles over the years, but this was really a great way to actually have a face to face and that performance was really special. As as it often goes with these festivals you’re sort of up against some logistical things that make it a challenge to put a show on, like not much of a soundcheck or rental gear, you name it. So there’s always a little bit of extra fire under you when you’re doing a festival but I thought that we had a really good performance and it was really special to bring that music to life for the first time.  I guess the impression I made on Thomas held with him because when Kansas had the need for a keyboard player he recommended me to them because they are label mates on Inside Out, and so just a few months later I got the call from Phil Ehart asking me to join the band. 1:00
On becoming part of the creative team for the record – It was a bit different because, as you may know, Zak (Rizvi) was brought into the band to produce and write for The Prelude Implicit and they loved what he was doing so much then that they invited him to join the band. When it came time for me to come on board I asked Phil in that first conversation if I would be invited to the songwriting festivities as well. He was very encouraging. He said, “Yeah, show us what you got”.  I spoke to Zak who had already been writing and making demos for some of the songs that would later be on the new album. I said, “What are the opportunities here?” and he said, “Well, there’s still a few slots left for music and every song needs lyrics”, and our singer, Ronnie Platt, writes some and I’m a lyricist as well. So I got to work on that front simultaneously with learning the Kansas material for the show because we were making and submitting demos and, in my case, writing music and lyrics during the first part of 2019 when I was a new member of the band, still trying to get my sea legs on stage with the group. So it was a big juggling act for me 3:49
“Throwing Mountains”
On learning to write a Kansas song – It helped that I had that Point of Know Return music swimming in my head while I was doing this. It was also important for me to not try to retread, rehash or try to emulate earlier Kansas music. I thought that would be a trap and that would lead to a dead end.  I think that I just have been writing music for so long t’s just gonna come out like me, but certainly, it was informed by Kansas’ identity and it led me to write the lyrics in a way that were appropriate for the vibe and the language of Kansas. 5:55
“Jets Overhead”
On developing the lyrics – Some of the songs, like the title track and “Throwing Mountains” and “Animals on the Roof”,  those were titles that Phil threw out to us and said, “Here’s what they mean to me, but  I really want you to see what you can do with this title”. That’s a great exercise for a writer because sometimes when you have a blank canvas you don’t know where to begin. But Phil would tell me about the “absence of presence” and what it meant to him. Now I didn’t have to write exactly that but I was informed by it and influenced by it and I was able to put my own feelings and ambiguity into it as well. 7:13
“Memories Down The Line”
On vocalist Ronnie Platt and violinist David Ragsdale taking over from Steve Walsh and Robbie Steinhardt – In the case of David, he has decades of experience as a member of Kansas, so I think he is very well entrenched and very big part of what this band is and has been. As far as Ronnie goes, he has won people over everywhere. I just feel like for any people who have made comments doubting what Kansas is, is this real Kansas, etcetera quote-unquote, just come to a show and then draw your own conclusions because I feel like anybody who’s been to a show has been entertained and they feel what Kansas music brings to them.  Ronnie is such an electric frontman and a great performer, and he has respect for Kansas history.  I feel for him sometimes because he’s up against the emotional feelings, the emotions of the fan base who have become attached to the band that they love. A lot of people don’t want to let go of that feeling ao it’s sometimes it’s hard to accept a new person in that position. But I think when you hear that we are respectful and enthusiastic of Kansas music and we want to grab the torch and hold it up and keep carrying it I think that shows a love of this band. 9:28
“The Absence of Presence”
On digging deep into the catalog for live performances – I think that once Ronnie joined it was no secret that there was a lot of music from the catalog that the band could tackle again. That, for whatever reasons, was off the table in years past. So they’ve been having a lot of fun bringing back Leftoverture and then bringing back Point of Know Return and in my first few months of concerts with the band, we were also playing tracks from the Power album and it was a real variety in the catalog. For me, it’s I love the two classic albums so much, Point of Know Return and Leftovereture, and we did perform both of them in New York at the end of 2019 the last show of the year.  Between that and all the new stuff that we got coming out, I’m really mainly thinking and imagining in my head “What would this new music sound like live?” Because remember we haven’t played it in concert yet. 13:39
“The Song The River Sang”
On whether the band considered holding the record until they could tour – I never heard that being discussed. In fact, I asked because I saw the writing on the wall, all these major acts holding back and I asked Phil if that was something that was being considered for this and he said, “Nope”.  I think the position that Kansas is in right now is an agile one. And, yes, the stars would have been aligned perfectly had we been out on the road with Foreigner and Europe like we were supposed to be, having The Absence of Presence at the merchandise table and in the air every night. It would have been just so amazing and we were all just crushed that that wasn’t to be. But I think it was a great move to release the album anyway when we did because we have this ability to still connect with our audience even if we’re not on the road. Not all of the quote legacy bands have that luxury of having new material and partially because of all the progressive aspects of our music we find ourselves in a position where we have an audience that is hungry for new material and a lot of people are bummed that they can’t come see Kansas this summer but at least we can bring new music into their lives and reach out to them in that way and connect with them in that way. So I’m grateful that we were able to put it out. 15:29
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