Tom Brislin, keyboardist with Kansas and Yes: Something Else! Interview

We caught up with Tom Brislin just as he began a new tenure with Kansas, where he replaced David Manion. Preston’s Frazier’s latest Something Else! Sitdown also delves into Brislin’s time as a touring keyboardist during Yes’ 2001 symphonic tour. That followed a stint with Meat Loaf from 1998-2001. Brislin’s debut solo album Hurry Up and Smell the Roses was released in 2012; he’s also worked with Renaissance and Debbie Harry while co-founding the groups Spiraling and, more recently, the Sea Within. The busy Brislin delves into much of that, while also revealing other upcoming musical plans … 

PRESTON FRAZIER: The announcement that you joined Kansas was a surprise, since the band’s current lineup has only been in place for two years and had seen a resurgence since the release of The Prelude Implicit in 2016. How did you make a connection with Kansas?

TOM BRISLIN: Kansas and the Sea Within are label-mates on Sony/Inside Out. It was through that link that they connected with me. I had met Richard Williams years ago when I played with Camel at NEARfest, as well. Phil Ehart called me and asked me to join the band, and as of this interview, we’ve done our first rehearsals. It’s a great chemistry!

PRESTON FRAZIER: How did you become involved with Yes? Was that after Meat Loaf?

TOM BRISLIN: That’s correct. They heard about me through my work with Meat Loaf and as a bold 25-year old, I boasted how I was raised on Yes music. In time, when they needed a keyboardist for the Symphonic Tour in 2001, they gave me an opportunity to send them an audition CD, playing “Close to the Edge” and “Gates of Delirium.” After that, they invited me to visit them while they were recording Magnification, and we went from there.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Did you have freedom to develop your parts in Yes?

TOM BRISLIN: Since the concert was heavily weighted towards the classics, they wanted me to re-create most of the parts as they were originally recorded. I looked at things as if I were sitting in the audience: I’d want the familiar sounds and iconic passages, with an occasional left turn to make the live event a unique one.

PRESTON FRAZIER: I love your album, Hurry Up and Smell the Roses. It’s very accessible, yet contains some progressive elements. How did that album come about?

TOM BRISLIN: Thank you. I had been working with Spiraling for years, and after we called it a day, I had wanted to bug out somewhere, fill a room with instruments, and make an album where I play and sing most everything. Spiraling had been a support act on many tours, and there was a lot of pressure to grab the listener’s attention immediately. With Hurry Up and Smell the Roses, I felt freer to let the music develop organically, and to have more musical “patience” for the moment. Plus, I had started performing in a solo piano/vocal format. Those two ideas brought out a lot of the ballad side of things; there wasn’t this self-imposed pressure to rock out all the time. I also don’t put any rules on my songwriting, so it can come out pop, progressive, jazzy, whatever. I write first and ask questions later.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Given your recent high-profile gigs with the Sea Within, Anderson/Stolt and on the #Yes50 tour, I was anticipating a new solo album. Do you have any immediate plans for a follow-up?

TOM BRISLIN: In 2018, I gathered some musicians I admire to start writing new music together. There came about an opportunity to perform at ProgStock in New Jersey, so we put together a concert with most of Hurry Up and Smell the Roses plus a few new songs, under the name Gold Rotation. There’s a lot of writing on the agenda, and we aim to start recording in the coming months.

PRESTON FRAZIER: You are currently on the road with the Sea Within supergroup. How did you become involved with the band? It’s my understanding Roine Stolt conceived of the project. What role are you playing in the band?

TOM BRISLIN: Roine and Jonas Reingold both approached me with the idea of forming the group. I knew them since the days when Spiraling and Flower Kings would play on the bill at CalProg and NJProghouse. I had first worked with them in 2015 when recording Anderson/Stolt, and I was interested in the idea of a collaborative environment. We all started sending songs and ideas to each other, and the album features songwriting from all of us. We performed only once in 2018, at Night of the Prog in Loreley, Germany. We picked a good one to play, it was a great event. We’ll be performing on Cruise to the Edge this year, something I’ve been looking forward to.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Give our readers a look into your background.

TOM BRISLIN: I was born and raised in New Jersey, and the piano was a central ingredient at home. My siblings played and were my first teachers. I started taking piano lessons at a local studio and formed my first bands with my friends at age 10. We were … awesome. But seriously, from around age 12 something clicked in my mind and I knew that I wanted to play in bands and be a professional musician. I’ve been working at it ever since. I studied jazz and classical piano at William Paterson University and was performing in a variety of settings – solo piano, church organ, jazz quartet, rock bands, wedding bands. I don’t even know how I managed to do it all and work for my degree at the same time. While in college, I formed a band called You Were Spiraling (later just Spiraling), and after graduation I began playing keyboards for Glen Burtnik; he eventually referred me to Kasim Sulton, who was musical director for Meat Loaf at the time. I started playing piano/keyboards for Meat Loaf in 1998, the first performance being VH-1 Storytellers.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What is your live rig set-up for the Sea Within? Will the band tour more extensively in 2019?

TOM BRISLIN: One of the main synthesizers I play on the Sea Within album – and live show – is called the Sequential Pro 2. It combines the ’70s-era type sounds with more modern effects, which fits perfectly in a band like this. With my new position in Kansas, Jonas playing bass for Steve Hackett, and a new iteration of the Flower Kings, we’re going to put our heads together to see where the Sea Within fits in to everything. We all believe that there’s a lot of potential yet to explore.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Will your keyboard set-up for Kansas differ from that? Are there plans for a new studio release for Kansas?

TOM BRISLIN: I’ve constructed a new but similar keyboard setup for Kansas – Hammond Organ (XK-5 with Leslie), Minimoog Voyager, the new Sequential Prophet REV2, Macbook Pro running Mainstage with NI Komplete, IK Syntronik, and Audio Modeling software instruments. I tried to find new – or new-ish – editions of the classics, to evoke the feeling that these instruments helped convey on the albums. Perhaps the best thing of all is that I’m an official member of Kansas, so my contributions to sound and songwriting are encouraged. We will record the next Kansas album this summer, aiming for a 2020 release.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Lastly, please list your Top 5 favorite albums.

TOM BRISLIN: It rotates, of course. At the moment, in no order: Prince’s Purple Rain; Men at Work’s Business as Usual; The Ventures’ Christmas Album; Yes’ Fragile; and Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition.