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Gear Talk With Tom Brislin Of Kansas

Posted by Robert Dye on 21st Jul 2020

Gear Talk With Tom Brislin Of Kansas

The new Kansas album The Absence Of Presence officially streets today and hardcore fans are in for a musical treat. Produced by guitarist Zak Rizvi and co-produced by drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Richard Williams, the album’s nine songs are prog rock heaven that continue the signature Kansas sound.

Keyboardist Tom Brislin, the newest member, joined the band in 2018, after stints as a hired gun for Yes, Meat Loaf, Debbie Harry and Renaissance, as well as a solo career and bandleader on his own. His playing impressed founding members Ehart and Williams, and producer Rizvi (along with vocalist Ronnie Platt, violinist David Ragsdale and bassist Billy Greer), enough that they gave him more creative control than most bands would for a newbie, including songwriting credit and a vocal spotlight.

The New Jersey native is a consummate professional, meticulous player and self-confessed gear geek who dove deep into learning every nuance of the Kansas catalog prior to getting the gig.

“I wanted to be an authority on the keyboards of Kansas and the music itself. I painstakingly transcribed every possible note I could hear on the songs we were playing, including overdubs. I wanted to have it all available and really know what was going on in the music.”

“It’s very interesting. You get into the minds of the writers and musicians when you do that. I got to see what (founding member) Kerry Livgren’s thought process was like, in terms of what chords and melodies he liked and how he orchestrated parts. And Steve Walsh too, the type of language he played on the organ and how it complemented the song. That was invaluable for getting ready to play the material but also in writing new material. I was versed enough in their language to know how to write a Kansas song.”

Brislin studied jazz in college which helped train his ear. “In jazz, a lot of it is about improvising. But in rock, people are expecting to hear those signature melodies. It’s always been part of Kansas’ identity to have great hooks. We don’t want to be self-indulgent. We want to make great songs that will stand the test of time and are meaningful. Then, in a live format at the right time is the opportunity to flesh out musically and compositionally. That’s a great freedom to have.”

Brislin gave American Songwriter a run-through of his work flow, important tools of his trade and how he built his live and studio rigs:

“First, I would just sit at the piano and play the songs and not worry about sounds. Then I built the keyboard rig to accommodate the parts. Since I’m such a gear geek, I was able to identify certain sounds.

“The orchestrated parts that make the song what it is- the synth sounds, organ, piano- I tried to really bring those to life the way I’d want to hear them. I dug into programming the original sounds and getting the classic instruments going in a modern way. I want people to turn to each other and say, ‘that’s the sound I remember!’”

“For example, one of the classic 70s string machines is the Solina. They used that in a few places and is a big part of the sound. I went into my string library and was able to tweak it accordingly to match the effect and tonal quality of the album.

“On the album, I wanted to get those analog synths because that’s something I love so much. I used Mini Moog a lot. That’s a classic part of the Kansas DNA. I used a real Hammond Organ. And of course, piano. From there, I added Clavinet, which you wouldn’t think of as much for rock but it’s in there for Kansas. When it came to textures and pads and evolving sounds, that’s where I got a little more modern. I dug into newer synthesizers and my bag of tricks.”

The only rule for me was, ‘does it sound cool?’