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Tom Brislin Talks About Joining Kansas, Moving The Band Forward While Retaining Classic Sound

David Ragsdale, Phil Ehart, Ronnie Platt, Richard Williams, Tom Brislin, & Billy Greer.
EMily Butler Photography
David Ragsdale, Phil Ehart, Ronnie Platt, Richard Williams, Tom Brislin, & Billy Greer.

Keyboardist and vocalist Tom Brislin was a longtime fan of the band Kansas when he joined the group in 2018.

Despite being a newcomer, the New Jersey-based musician became a primary songwriter on the latest Kansas studio release, The Absence of Presence.

Kansas released "The Absence of Presence" in 2020, marking the band's second LP with vocalist Ronnie Platt and its first with keyboardist and vocalist Tom Brislin.

Brislin entered the fold in 2018 and, perhaps unexpectedly, became one of the primary writers on the new album. As he tells it, the offer to write material for the veteran act was an option from the start.

The results of Brislin's involvement are evident throughout "The Absence of Presence," a record that moves the veteran act into new territory while sacrificing none of its classic sound.

The group also recently issued a live LP, "Point of Know Return: Live and Beyond," which also features Brislin.

The band performs at Wave on Wednesday, Sept. 22.

Interview Highlights

"The Absence of Presence" came out last year and the band couldn't really promote it in the usual manner with touring and so forth. But it still managed to sell well, and Kansas fans embraced it.

It was pretty heartening to see the album do so well and show up on the charts since this is my first Kansas album. We were certainly hoping that we would be on the road, playing that stuff live in 2020, when the album came out, but that was not to be. I'm still grateful that we were able to put something out there that could connect with our audience while everybody was home.

You wrote a lot of material for the new album, and you're a new member. That doesn't always happen when someone joins an established band. Was songwriting something that was on the table from the start?

When they called me to ask me to join the band, that was one of the questions I had, I said, "What about the writing?" In previous years, when I toured with these other classic bands, like Yes or Meatloaf, it was strictly for the live show. Eventually, with Meatloaf, I did play on an album, but I'm a songwriter. That was one of the questions I had for Phil Ehart [and the other guys] was, "Am I invited to that party?" He said, "Yeah, show us what you got." So I got to work, and lo and behold a lot of my contributions were included on the album.

I'm sure that one thing other people have commented on is how this new music moves Kansas into the new century but retains the classic sound. When it came to the actual writing, did you have to modify pieces for them to fit a specific vision of Kansas?

I'm into so much variety in this musical style. I think maybe subconsciously I kind of veered to make things a little more "Kansas-y" or "Kansas-esque" but there was no sort of restriction or the band saying, "You've got to change things." I had been learning all the classics for the show.

That stuff was at the tip of my mind anyway. It was natural that the songs that I was writing and the lyrics I was writing were naturally going to have the Kansas vibe.

Something that's true in Kansas that I think is true in a lot of progressive music that gets overlooked is the influence of R&B and soul music. That even comes out on this record.

I'm glad you mentioned that because … I agree. One hundred percent. It's something that's not talked about a lot. You can go back to Yes and their origins. They were still coming up in the time [when] you had to make the audience dance. Over the couple of years to follow, it was more about blowing their minds and something progressive and grandiose. Chris Squire from Yes adored Sly and the Family Stone. You can hear it in "Roundabout;" it's "Dance To The Music." It's surrounded by all this symphonic sound that it's easy to overlook.

You can even hear it in Kansas music. When Phil and Rich were playing together when they were in high school, they said that every kind of music came through town. They saw Motown bands and soul bands and boogie bands. That all left a big mark on them.

How much of a Kansas fan were you before you joined? Were you someone who was sort of aware of the band but mostly in the periphery or was the music in your DNA?

Kansas music was definitely in my DNA. I was raised on '70s rock, especially the progressive stuff. I would have never expected that I'd be playing in Kansas one day, maybe it's because Steve Walsh was also the lead singer. I didn't realize that they had sort of split those jobs up for two musicians to play. It definitely has been a part of me, but I definitely needed to dig even deeper when I got the gig.

I think something that gets overlooked is the soulfulness of Steve's keyboard playing.

The keyboards in Kansas were no joke. Steve had that soulful Hammond B3 organ thing going on, and Kerry Livgren contributed a lot of keyboards as well, the mini-Moog, symphonic-type synths that were going on. I thought it was a delicious combination.

You're also part of this live album, "Point of Know Return: Live and Beyond." The classic material sounds so good, so fresh. What was it like for you to get out and play live with the band?

This is a document of my first tour with the band. We dove right into it. I definitely had my own work cut out for me. I wanted to learn every nook and cranny of this music and get all the sounds and everything [down]. I like geeking out like that. So to really make it happen on stage was pretty thrilling. It's a pretty formidable group to play with.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.