The very first thing you have to know about Phil Ehart, and perhaps the most important thing, is that he’s incredibly modest—maybe a bit too modest, if that’s possible. Consider the facts: Here’s a guy who has been playing drums for the group Kansas for the past 12 years. Kansas, of course, is widely regarded as a somewhat progressive rock outfit, that is, one which includes classical strains to go with its rather sophisticated rock format.
When I ask Ehart about the complexities of Kansas’ music in general, and his drumming in particular—especially the classical elements of it—he frowns a little, takes another bite of his sandwich backstage at the Meadowlands, and says rather plainly, “I fake a lot of the classical-sounding stuff I play.” Get that right. When it comes to much of the classically slanted signatures, tempo shifts, and tight, snappy rolls heard in the music of Kansas, Phil Ehart fakes them. Well, anyway you look at it, you’ve got to admire a drummer who tells it like it is.
But is that really like it is? Let’s put it this way: Phil Ehart is definitely not the type who needs his ego stroked every time he walks into a room, or for that matter, speaks into a tape recorder. Thus, when the opportunity arises to do just that, he pulls back— retreats. He says he fakes it. Now Ehart may be entirely self-taught with little or no knowledge of, say, reading charts. And Ehart might never have been classically influenced as a kid. But no one gets on for 12 years playing in a band that has sold millions of records, garnered eight gold and two platinum LPs and recorded such hits as “Dust In The Wind” and “Carry On Wayward Son” by faking it. What Ehart means to say, if you cut away the excessive amount of modesty, is that he plays much of the time by feel rather than with the expertise of a heavy-duty technician. Ehart might not have been the best drummer for the job on paper. But in the studio and up on the stage—where it counts—Ehart has per formed his drum duties quite admirably, to say the least, regardless of his background.
There are a lot of things about Phil Ehart that seem to go against the grain. Ehart, for instance, not only resents the lack of respect too many drummers fall victim to, but he also does something about it. You know what I’m talking about: the drummer being the person in the back of the band buried behind a kit, acting merely as a timekeeper so the singer and lead guitarist can bathe in notoriety.
The way Ehart sees it, it’s about time drummers step out of the shadows and take on a more direct role in the group intrastructure. According to Ehart, drummers need to be more assertive; they need to make an active effort to become more visible and more productive.
In the interview which follows, Ehart talks about how he accomplishes this within the framework of Kansas. He also recollects the early days of the group, presents his thoughts on drum solos and the importance of drum clinics, and has a bit of advice for drummers intent on strengthening their image.
RS: I recently went back and listened to all the Kansas albums in my record collection—LPs such as Song For America, Leftoverture and Point Of No Return. I must say I noticed that the drum sound on these records is quite different from what’s heard on Drastic Measures, Kansas’ latest record.
PE: It is a different sound. That’s right. As a matter of fact, it’s the most different drum sound I’ve ever come up with.
RS: Did you start out with that objective in mind?
PE: In a way I did, yeah. We used a large fairgrounds building in which to record; it had something like 30,000 square feet of space in it. We brought in a mobile unit and went after the big sound a place like that will give you. We even recorded some of the drums in the bathroom.
RS: Where is the building located?
PE: It’s in Atlanta. It was built around 1919. We went there as a sort of experiment; basically that’s all it was. But that’s not to say we were interested in breaking new frontiers in recording. [laughs]
RS: What was so intriguing about the drum sound you heard in the building?
PE: The sound you get in a room like that . . . well, it’s very loud. Unbelievably loud is a better way of putting it, I think. I didn’t do anything different as far as my playing went. But the approach was different and so, of course, was the sound I ultimately wound up with. It was a lot of fun and very educational.
RS: A lot of people, it seems, have somewhat of a difficult time pinpointing your drum style. There’s a certain amount of eclecticism that flows through your playing. If you looked back, say, on the last ten years of your career, is there any one album that best represents your view of your drum style?
PE: I think I’d probably have to turn to Leftoverture or maybe even Monolith. See, the thing is, I’m just a rock drummer who happens to be in a band that plays in a lot of different time signatures with a lot of classical directions. That’s what probably confuses people most. I don’t blame them for being confused. But I never had any classical or really technical background. I’m just real good at faking it. I can make people think or assume that I have a lot more technical training than I actually do. I grew up and learned how to play my drums in bars and at proms and things like that. There was very little formal training in my past.
RS: Your father, I understand, made a career out of the service. You must have experienced quite a bit of picking up and moving from one base to the next. Did you find that an advantage or disadvantage in terms of learning your instrument?
PE: Basically it was a real pain. I lived in the Philippines for about two years when I was a kid. I must have been in fourth or fifth grade when I first started playing. My dad got me a snare drum from somewhere and arranged for me to take lessons from the drummer in the air force band. But as soon as we got rolling, the guy got transferred. It was that kind of thing which made having to bounce around every couple of years a frustrating thing for me. Actually, that was the last time I ever took a lesson. I guess you can say I’m totally self-taught, but definitely not out of choice. I wish I could have learned to read, but because of moving around so much, lessons would have never worked out.
RS: How old were you when you played your first professional gig?
PE: I think I was 16. I was making money; I bought my own drums and my own car. The band I played with at the time was a typical bar band from Topeka, Kansas. It was the usual bar-scene trip.
RS: How long was it from that point until you formed Kansas with Kerry Livgren and Dave Hope?
PE: Oh, about six years. I was 22 years old when Kansas came together. But even though Kansas started at that point, we still played bars for the next three years. In fact, we went to New York, recorded our first album, and the record company said, “Well, we’ll release it when the time is right.” So we went home and told our friends that the record would be out real soon. We must have told everyone in Topeka. Well, a year later it still hadn’t come out. So we continued to play bars and clubs even though we already had a record deal and had already recorded an album. Finally, it was released.
RS: Why was it that way? Was it because Kansas was so far ahead of its time?
PE: You know what it was? It was the depression the industry felt in 1974. It was a real bad time for the record industry. The Kirshner label just couldn’t afford to put the album out. I remember getting a phone call and the voice on the other end of the line telling me that 10,000 copies of the record had just been shipped. It was the best feeling in the world.
RS: How much support did you get from your family in the early days? Did you parents encourage you to play the drums?
PE: I would have to say yes. My parents were always behind me because they thought that, for a kid, playing drums was a very nice hobby. [laughs] They’d tell friends, “Phil’s hobby is playing the drums. It keeps him off the streets and keeps him out of trouble. But of course when he’s older, he’ll get a real job.”
RS: Sounds like a lot of parents of musicians.
PE: Yeah, it does. But I was down in New Orleans in 1969 playing at the New Orleans Pop Festival, which happened about two weeks after Woodstock. At the time I was in a band called White Clover. Anyway, after that gig—well, I hate to use the term “religious experience” because that connotes different things to different people— I knew that playing the drums was exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Sitting there in front of 30,000 people playing my drums gave me this incredible feeling. No way was drum playing a hobby for me.
RS: I remember the New Orleans Pop Festival. What was there, or what happened there, that led to this particular feeling? Was it simply the number of people listening to you play?
PE: That definitely had something to do with it. But mostly it was just playing in a band and getting tremendous satisfaction from it. And it just so happened to come to the surface for me at the festival. When I came home my parents expected me to enroll in college. Of course, I didn’t do it. The reaction I got from them was something like, “What do you mean you’re a professional drummer?” I told them I had been playing for quite a long time at that point, and that it shouldn’t have come as a major surprise to them. They just kept saying this thing about getting a “real job.”
RS: What was the music scene like in Kansas when the group Kansas was playing the bar and club circuit there?
PE: You have to imagine the most unmusical environment ever. I hate to say this, because it kind of puts down the state, but it’s a fact. It really is. On the whole, there’s very little culture in Kansas. It’s a farm state. People who live in the big city have trouble imagining that Topeka only has 100,000 people. We got all of our influences from the East Coast, the West Coast and from England. Whatever we heard on the radio is what we picked up. To form a group like Kansas in Kansas is really pretty crazy when you think about it. I mean, we were playing rodeos and biker bars. We took our music everywhere and developed a cult following of sorts. But we were pretty much alone. There were not too many other drummers around for me to hang with.
RS: What kind of bar band was Kansas?
PE: A terrible one. Kansas was a terrible club band. Kansas was the worst copy band ever. All we could play right was our own material. We finally got in the habit of announcing our songs as somebody else’s. We would say, “Now we would like to do a song by Led Zeppelin” and do one of our own. It was the only way we could get away with it. People would go, “Wow! That’s a great Led Zeppelin song!” It was a real battle, but a lot of fun.
RS: Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about you in particular. You’re very conscious of enhancing your identity as a drummer whenever you can. It seems to be a pretty big part of how you present yourself, be it on stage or off.
PE: A lot of things I talk about in my drum clinics deal with an identity as a drummer. Let’s face it, the lead singer and the lead guitarist are constantly out front where everyone can see them. Most drummers, on the other hand, are buried behind large sets of drums. And no matter how good you are, you’re still thought of as merely the drummer in the band. So what I’ve tried to do is stress that one shouldn’t be content with that position. If you’re in that position now and remain there, it’s by your own choice. At least that’s the way I see it. A lot of drummers I know in big-name groups are actually kind of the driving force behind the band in more ways than one. They may not necessarily be the brains behind it, but, for instance, a lot of the drummers who actually get involved are into the business aspect of the band.
RS: Can you give me an example of that with yourself and Kansas?
PE: I really got involved in our album covers, for one thing— album covers, artwork, titles. I’m a very image-conscious person. I’m real interested in pictures, posters, covers—the whole staging of the band. I do this, plus play drums in the band, which is demanding in itself. So I work hard to establish my own identity—my role. And then, of course, I do clinics which helps get me outside the typical role of the person behind the kit. I also do a lot of interviews. See, you can have as big an identity as you want. That’s with not even being involved in songwriting. Get involved with that, learn another instrument, make yourself like Neil Peart, who writes lyrics, and there’s absolutely no reason in the world why you can’t establish yourself in a band, regardless of how big or small it is.
RS: What about drum solos? They also help create an identity, don’t they?
PE: Drum solos definitely help. I would especially advocate solos for musicians playing in clubs and in the process of working their way up. There’s no magic in a drum solo, believe me. But it’s one of those things that can put pressure on you every night. If you’re sitting behind your drumset, you have all your chops down and you have all the songs down, it can become boring for you and actually hold back your progress. A drum solo can be something that you look forward to every night. I’m not talking about using gimmicks, but just playing things that challenge you as a drummer. It builds your own identity on stage. Instead of just being a musician behind a pile of drums, you get to become someone bigger than that.
RS: You consider yourself a rock drummer in the traditional sense of the term. Yet if one listens to Kansas and, more particularly, some of the things you’ve played over the years, it would seem to me that you’ve gone beyond the boundaries of standard rock drumming.
PE: Some of the more complex things I play sound more complex than they really are. I think, though, that some of those come across in the right way because, to be perfectly honest, I know my own limitations. I try not to waste time trying to be the drummer I’m not. I don’t have a classical background. I don’t even have a jazz background. I know how to play rock ‘n’ roll, so that’s how I approach Kansas’ music. Even if I hear something in my mind that sounds classical or jazz-oriented, I’ll usually still play it in a rock framework because the contrast works out so great for the band. Sometimes, due to the material the band is recording, I’ll have no choice but to play my drums with a classical feel. And I can fake it pretty well. But I think all drummers have to know their own limitations. The secret is listening to the final product and being able to say, “Well, I’m playing that beat behind the chord structure and that just doesn’t work.” You have to be hard on yourself and, most importantly, you have to be honest with yourself.
RS: Do the other members of Kansas express their feelings to you about the things you want to play and don’t want to play?
PE: Oh yeah, sure. We have a good rapport, so we can beat up on each other pretty well and not have anyone take it the wrong way. If something doesn’t work, no one in the band is afraid of saying to me, “Phew!”
RS: It seems that much of your drum style is derived from the way British rock drummers play rather than the way Americans do. Is that correct?
PE: Yeah, probably because the one drummer who has influenced me more than any other drummer is Ian Paice of Deep Purple. I ate, slept and showered Ian Paice and the way he played his drums for two or three years. This was during Deep Purple’s heyday in the ’70s. I just really enjoyed listening to that guy play. I think he has influenced other drummers, too.
RS: What was it about Paice’s drumming that you admired?
PE: I like a drummer who kicks, who really plays hard and really works out. Paice used to do that in Deep Purple’s heyday. I’m not going to say I’ve achieved the licks or the chops that he had, and I’m not going to say that I blindly copied my drum style after his. But Paice has meant quite a bit to me. Listening to a drummer who could play the way he did back then was a real treat.
RS: Are there any other English drummers who might have influenced you in some way?
PE: Well, more recently, Phil Collins would be another. I’ve always enjoyed listening to him, but he didn’t influence me as much as Ian Paice did. Living in Kansas, like I mentioned before, I was really influenced by everyone, when you really get down to it. And it wasn’t that I wanted to play like a British drummer. I mean, I could never play like Bill Bruford, even if I wanted to. But what I heard on the radio I listened to quite seriously. There isn’t a musician alive who is totally original. Musicians who claim to be totally original and to have developed a style all their own without any outside input are, to put it bluntly, full of it. A lot of musicians don’t like to admit who influenced them. I have to say that I listened to Ringo and I thought Ringo was the best drummer I had ever heard in my life. The same thing went for Charlie Watts. I would listen to “Satisfaction” as a kid and say to myself, “God! What a beat!” It’s a shame about Charlie Watts. He always seems to be putting himself down and underrating his playing. He still excites me as much today as he did back in the ’60s. The same holds true for Ringo, although we don’t hear from him all that much anymore.
RS: What about the new generation of hot drummers—drummers who have come on the scene, say, in the last five years or so. Anyone in particular who you enjoy listening to?
PE: Simon Phillips. I recently saw Simon Phillips play and he damn near blew me out of my chair. He smokes. He played a drum clinic in Dallas last year, and I was in the audience. I’d already done my thing so I stuck around. Well, Simon Phillips did his thing, and when he was done, man, I couldn’t do anything but get up out of my seat and give him a standing ovation. He’s simply terrific.
RS: You do a lot of drum clinics. Do you do them for the exposure they give you, or is there something else that you personally get out of them?
PE: I’ve been doing drum clinics now for about six years. It was real flattering that someone asked me to do my first drum clinic. I thought, “Well, yeah, I’ll do it. That was really nice of that person to ask me.” I learned the hard way what a job that is. Drum clinics mean a fat responsibility on your part. There are 250 kids out there in the audience and probably 220 of them are drummers. And they’re watching every move you make. They’re just focused in on everything that’s happening in front of them. If you have your act together, you’ll do alright. If you don’t, you’re pretty much guaranteed of making a big fool out of yourself. So I learned real quick why they asked me: Nobody else would do it! [laughs] But seriously, I really do enjoy drum clinics. I like to talk with kids. No t that I have any great secrets to give them. It’s just that I know that when I was young, if I’d had the opportunity to talk with a drummer who had “made it,” I would have been truly thrilled. So I try to make myself available for clinics whenever possible.
RS: How do you usually conduct your clinic?
PE: I’ll go out and play a short solo. Then we’ll talk a little bit about bands. Maybe I’ll answer a few questions about other things the kids have on their minds. Then I’ll play some more and talk some more. When I did the first Zildjian Day out in Los Angeles, I was the only drummer they had there who was in a band. Carmine Appice, Larrie Londin, Tony Williams, Steve Gadd—none of these guys are what you would call full-time band drummers. So I was able to approach that particular clinic from a totally different viewpoint than anyone else: playing drums in a band, forming a band, being in a band. Things like these really went over well.
RS: In a clinic, how do you normally explain the advantages and disadvantages of being a band drummer as compared to a studio drummer?
PE: I tell the kids how it really is. I’ve become real good friends with Larrie Londin, who has probably played on more albums than most, and I’ll tell you, the grass is always greener on the other side. I’ll sit sometimes and think to myself, “God, Larrie and Steve Gadd have played with everybody under the sun.” I keep saying to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice to look at your album collection and know you’ve played on, I don’t know, 200 records? What an accomplishment that must be!” But if you talk to studio drummers, they say, “I’ll tell you what, man, I’d give anything to be in a solid band with some security and knowledge of what I was going to be doing in the future and knowing that I’d be playing x-amount of dates. It must be great to have some sort of control all your life, play with the same musicians all the time and really get to know them, instead of seeing different faces every week.” Not all studio drummers feel that way, but from my experience with a lot of them, those that I know well usually feel that way.
But to get back to your question, I’ll try to explain this to the kids the best I can. The strange thing, however, is that underneath all that, studio drummers and band drummers are all drummers. That’s the common bond. It’s a challenge to play with different people all the time, and it’s a challenge to stay with the same band, the same group of musicians and continually progress as a drum mer. It’s very easy for a band drummer to become stagnant. It’s up to me to keep pushing myself to make sure I don’t get stagnant.
RS: Do you approach playing live differently than when you play in the studio?
PE: Playing in the studio is a very controlled thing. If you don’t get it right, you can go back and do it again and again. If you only get part of it right, you can splice things together. You can doctor things up so that you sound like you’re the greatest drummer in the world. But live you better be able to pull it off. Out on the stage you can’t fool anybody.
RS: Do you prefer playing live more than studio work?
PE: Yeah, because playing live is simply more fun. I enjoy playing in front of an audience. But that’s not to say I don’t like playing in the studio. I like the fact that I can be inventive in there when I want to.
RS: Do you consider yourself a perfectionist when it comes to getting the right sound out of your drums?
PE: I try to be somewhat of a perfectionist, but not to the point where it just overwhelms me and I become obsessed with it. The feel of my drum sound is as important as technical perfection. I’ll work real hard to get the proper drum sound, but even if the tempo is off because I’ve sped up or slowed down, if everyone in the band feels real good about the take, I’ll keep my drums just the way they are. Going for the nth degree isn’t always smart, especially if you’re going to sacrifice things in the process. I try for balance. Some drummers go for that metronome perfection. I don’t. I have to go after the performance and the feel of that performance. For me, that’s what really counts.
RS: When a new song is presented to you, what’s your technique in determining the drum part?
PE: Well, first of all, I stay in real heavy communication with the songwriter from the beginning to the very end. I’m always asking what feeling the songwriter is after, and even more important than that, what the dynamics of the song should be. Does the writer want a loud beat, a soft beat, more cymbal, or more hi-hat? I try to work as close as possible with whoever wrote the song.
RS: It sounds like you’re more interested in completing the writer’s thoughts about the song than adding your own.
PE: Yeah. And why not? I didn’t write the song. I know songwriters hear something in their heads. They’ll say something like, “Yeah Phil, just a nice, slashing hi-hat with a big, open beat would be great.” Or else they’ll say, “Keep it tight with a quick bass drum.” That kind of communication gives me a pretty good feeling of what they want. Then I’ll try to interpret that the best I can. If there’s something that I put in and they don’t like it, I’ll change it. I try as hard as I can to make the writers happy, and at the same time, make myself happy. On the other hand, I’ve had situations where the songwriter would tell me to play a certain beat, and I’d say, “Hey, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to do it. The beat you want is wrong. It stinks.” Then we talk about the song and work things out. I mean, I’m not going to play just anything. I have to believe in what I play. Fortunately, most of the time I do.
RS: Do you do anything in particular between tours to keep yourself in shape?
PE: I play a lot of tennis. I’m lucky because I’ve never had a weight problem or anything like that. I’m not the type to lift weights. I believe the best way to stay in shape for my drum playing is to play my drums. When I want to get those muscles I use in shape, I go down to my basement and hit the drums for a couple hours every day.
RS: Let’s talk for a moment about endorsements. You’ve endorsed Yamaha for a while now. Some musicians feel that an endorsement relationship is an exploitation of your name and your talents to sell drums and drum equipment without being justly compensated. I know one prominent drummer who likens instrument endorsements to what athletes do with footwear and clothing. He feels musicians should be paid the same way athletes are when it comes to standing up for a particular product.
PE: That would be nice, but I doubt if it’ll ever happen. The money simply isn’t there—the big money. I think people have to realize that, when I go out and do a six-month tour, I need a drum company behind me. I have to have a drum company behind me, because when things break down on the road, somebody has to be there to back me up. Fortunately, I’ve had great success with Yamaha drums; they’ve given me very little problems in terms of breakdowns. But if something happened, they’re going to be right there with whatever it is that I need. In addition to Yamaha, I also endorse Zildjian cymbals. If I break a cymbal on the road, what am I going to do? Am I supposed to walk down to the local music store and hope that they have the size I want? I can get anything I need from Yamaha and Zildjian. I get whatever I need within 24 hours. I would have to walk out in front of 20,000 people and say to myself, “Gosh, I sure wish I made it to that music store before it closed.” That is the most important thing I see in endorsements. Big money from it would be great, too. I have to back Bill Bruford when he says, “A drum is a drum is a drum.” It’s real hard to refute. If you can listen to a record and say, “I know what kind of drums the drummer is playing. The set is a Slingerland or a Gretsch.” No way. Nobody has that good an ear that they can tell without guessing. I like Yamaha drums; they make a great kit. But just as important as the quality of drums, is the service that goes with it. Yamaha doesn’t pay me to use their drums. I use them and I endorse them because they provide me with whatever equipment I need when I’m on the road. That means a lot to me.
RS: Have you always used the same drum setup as you use now?
PE: These days I’m using some Latin percussion for effect, which is something I didn’t use in the past. But basically I’ve always been into conventional drum equipment.
RS: Is there anything that you would like to have in your drumming repertoire that you don’t have now, or perhaps would like to improve on?
PE: Yes. I wish I had better hi-hat work. I see a lot of drummers playing double hi-hat—real cool stuff. That was something I kind of missed out on. Somehow it just went right by me. I see drummers doing it and it frustrates me.
RS: During soundcheck you were working on something interesting. What was it you were doing?
PE: Oh, just trying to figure out a few things, but it really wasn’t anything important. I’d love to have someone sit down and show me, I don’t know, a “Smoke On The Water” “tssh tssh tssh” thing. That’s something my drumming could use. Another thing I’ve been working on is a better hand-foot relationship. But what drummer doesn’t want that?
RS: Has there ever been a point since you’ve been with Kansas where you’ve taken your accomplishments for granted? In other words, do you do anything to remind yourself to play your very best night after night?
PE: Our band has sold more than 12 million records, and if you think about it enough, you can get caught up in it. You can have so many people telling you how good you are and what a big star you are that you start to believe them. One day though, you say to yourself, “Wait a minute. I’m the same guy I was when I came into this. I want to be the same guy when I go out.” The key to success is keeping a balanced perspective on things and keeping your head clear. Don’t be so conscious of making it, because what “making it” means is different for every drummer. There are a lot of club drummers who are smokin’ players and who are content to play club gigs. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve made it. They know they can play the hell out of their drums and that makes them feel good. You’ve got to respect that in a musician.
For me, it just so happens that I was, and still am, in a band that got to be quite successful. In a lot of other drummers’ eyes, I’ve “made it.” But that doesn’t make me any better a drummer. And that’s what I constantly try to realize. I see drummers in clubs and bars all the time who can cut up my chops—no problem. When I see that I come to terms with the fact that, just because I’m playing in front of 10,000 people or whatever, and that these drummers play for maybe 200, it doesn’t mean a thing.
If you get caught up in becoming obsessed with making it, then what happens if you don’t? A lot of drummers simply can’t find a place in rock ‘n’ roll and consider themselves failures. That’s a shame. Now I’m not going to tell you that making it isn’t any big deal because success is real nice. I’ve certainly enjoyed it. But I’ve worked my tail off to get where I am today. The success that I have is important to me. It’s not everything, but it’s important to me. I’d be lying if I told it any differently.
RS: I have a hypothetical question for you: If the roles were somehow reversed and it was you who was interviewing Phil Ehart, what one thing would you especially want to know about him?
PE: Wow, that’s a hard one. Let me see. I think I would have to ask myself why I was so intense. I think I’m overly intense. My intensity in what I do, especially in my playing, is probably a bit too much. I think that has turned some people off. I know there are times when people will approach me and ask me something, and I’ll turn around and give them this real intense glare that definitely turns them off. Or I’ll get so intense with my playing that I can’t step back and view what I have to do in a focused way. I’m a very serious person and I’m a very serious drummer. To be honest, and I hope this doesn’t come out the wrong way, I feel God has given me this talent to play the drums and I don’t think it’s something I should mess around with or take too lightly. So when I sit down to play, I mean business. And it all comes from within. Sometimes it really puzzles me. I really think about it and say to myself, “Hey Phil, ease up. Why do you have to put so much intensity into it?” I don’t usually get an answer. But I’ll tell you what, if I ever do, I’ll let you know.