The Wheel Turns, an Interview with Paul Kantner
In the 60s the Jefferson Airplane was one of the most influential and commercially successful bands to emerge from the San Francisco hippie-era with its energetic mix of, initially folk-rock and then acid rock that was laced with often socio-political lyrics. The Airplane was as many would argue more musically accomplished than its contemporaries the Grateful Dead. Regardless, they were certainly more commercially success in the 60s. The Airplane was of course to go through many changes. By the early 70s bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen took their blues side project Hot Tuna and went full-time with it. Drummer Spencer Dryden had left after the seminal "Volunteers" album. Vocalist Marty Balin jumped ship not long after. Grace Slick and Paul Kantner made solo and collaborative efforts with all-star casts of San Francisco-based musicians such as Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, David Crosby and others. At the time they dubbed it unofficially the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra. Eventually out of the solo projects a new band emerged Jefferson Starship which focused on Kantner's passion for science fiction as well as the usual socio-political stuff.
Jefferson Starship would go on commercially to eclipse the Airplane. However, over the years and after numerous personnel changes the band became less and less of Kantner's baby. The democratic approach within the group eventually led to Kantner leaving his own band which then metamorphosed in the mid 80s into the awful commercial pop group simply called Starship.
Not surprising the band lost a lot of credibility. For the last decade though Kantner with fellow Airplane cohort Marty Balin, vocalist Diana Mangano, drummer Prairie Prince, guitarist Slick Aguilar, and several other sidemen, have been reclaiming the band's reputation. These days the Jefferson Starship is a band that tours extensively and has a sound that's closer in concept and content to the original Jefferson Airplane. In fact, the band mines its entire catalog for its repertoire (save for the crass pop period of the 80s). There's almost nothing that the band will not play in a concert setting.
Aside from touring regularly in electric and acoustic formats they have a series of archive releases that one can buy. These discs are much like the Dead's Dick's Picks series in that they are warts and all type deals, but as with the DP series the Starship stuff is all extremely good. To date the releases have been from relatively recent concerts but all are exceptionally good. There's the 3CD 10/31/00 recorded at BB Kings Blues Club in New York in a semi-acoustic format, and the searing electric two disc set from Vinoy Park, Florida, 11/11/00. The band plans on releasing many more archive sets in the future. If the band is playing in your area they are well worth checking out. They haven't sounded this good in decades. What follows is an interview with the affable and ever controversial leader Paul Kantner.
M.S. Jefferson Starship seems to have lost its profile over the years. Has it been a struggle to get it back?
P.K. Isn't that the nature of the beast in any field. Whether you are a teacher, a movie star…you have this blast of youth if you will and you get a whole lot of stuff done and then you settle into a pathway of three and carry on and new people carry on behind you and you got to graduate.
M.S. I like that analogy.
P.K. I mean you are not supposed to be a rock star all your life. God forbid.
M.S. Would you want to be?
P.K. It's quite an interesting process in the beginning and enjoyable and you do graduate. Grace's (Slick) point of not playing rock and roll at 60 or whatever I saw the Rolling Stones on TV or part of it is quite well taken from that point of view. It just looks so out of place. For Mick to be dancing around like he was when he was 20 and it's like watching your father trying to fuck a young girl or something. It's embarrassing. You know how old people want to fuck young girls all the time. But there is the other side of the coin also that I like about what we have fallen into and being musicians rather than rock stars. I am sort of working on being a journeymen musician still in the shadow of people like Jack (Casady) and Jorma (Kaukonen) who for instance you are consummate musicians. I'm still learning. We never really did prance around on stage but I can't see doing what we did at 60 what we were doing at 20. It certainly pays Mick Jagger well, so who's to quibble.
M.S. After the pop phase of the Starship in the 80s you’ve had to pretty much reclaim the stature from a musical point of view. You seem to have done remarkable well of getting back to what the Starship was about.
P.K. Yes, well there's the science fiction heritage there that I am quite fond of and have been since the 2nd grade, which for me is a very valid concept whether it's music or writing or just delving into the metaphysics of it all. It's always a forward looking field and always dabbling in the undoable, approached by the unknowing and the hopeful. It's a very hopeful field and one that I grew up in and I still enjoy it. On a writing level I am just putting out a novel on our website called "Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra." I originally took it to publishers in the 80s but they couldn't quite figure out what it was about or if it was good any even. The main question I got from them was "we don't know what shelf we'd put it on the bookstore. Is it a music book, a spy novel, an adventure, a screen play, a science fiction book." At that point I got pretty disheartened and was doing a lot of other things at the time so I didn't really pursue it. But then some fans among others, not by insistence but more request …I got back into it. When we got our own website I decided to take the vanity publishing route and I did the whole thing myself on this little homegrown business that we do here on our website. I went and re-edited, type-checked, spell checked and added this and that and put together a 500 page novel and a CD and combined it from the music from the same novel. We are giving it away to fans in our fan club and then we are putting it up for sale on our website. There's a couple of other books that I am working on, one that I have already done called "The Nicaraguan Diaries," about a trip to Nicaragua.
M.S. Even though I prefer the original Blows Against the Empire album better, I thought the sequel Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra had some good stuff on it.
P.K. We are actually playing a lot of the music live now from that album and will be this year. Hopefully we will come out will some newly recorded version of it in our little archive series of music that we put out.
M.S. Now a lot of people probably don’t know about your archive series. Is it just downloads or regular CDs as well?
P.K. It's working out quite well. We allow for downloads and we also just sell then via the normal channels. We have a good ten things available so far.
M.S. What years do they cover?
P.K. Just the last ten years.
M.S. Is there any possibility of older recordings from different configurations of the band being released?
P.K. Yes, I am working with our old manager, Bill Thompson right now in terms of unearthing things, even ancient Airplane tapes as crude as they may have been.
M.S. Well, you know Marty’s dad has all those Matrix tapes?
P.K. Yes, but I am sure they are pretty crude, I don't know how well they would stand up recording wise, but that is one of the things that we going to be looking into.
M.S. I always thought that the Go Ride the Music special that the Airplane did was great and would make a great CD.
P.K. Yes that was a pretty good show. At this point anything is a possibility. We are just bridging that gap.
M.S. Now would RCA own all the live tapes?
P.K. No, No. There's a whole plunder of live tapes that RCA has nothing to do with.
M.S. Going back to the present day which I’m sure you are more interested in, have you been writing a lot of new material?
P.K. Yes, I have a new one that we have been doing called "Teaching the Computers to Dream." That's working out quite well live. I have about four others that I am working on right now that will see the light of day soon.
M.S. Are any of the other members writing as well?
P.K. Yes, but it is pretty much me and Marty that take care of most of the writing right now.
M.S. I see that you have some members in the band that I’m not familiar with.
P.K. Well, we go all the way from a three and four piece folk band with just voices and pianos all the way up to a full-fledged rock and roll band. There's a bass player that we work with out of L.A. named John Lily who is quite good and he has fit in with us excellently. So when we play the big shows that call for that we can go all the way up a seven-piece band. I have the sort of enviable place of being and enjoying it, of being able to play both the folk thing and the hard rock thing.
M.S. Well, for you the folk thing is full circle. It’s back to where you started.
P.K. Yes, as I say I hadn't quite finished it before we got swept away in the 60s having just started it. Last year we played with Pete Seeger at a benefit concert for the river up there, the Hudson in Poughkeepsie. Pete was one of my original stimuli for getting into music. I learned how to play music from his "how to play banjo" book so; it was a nice reconnection with that particular element as well.
M.S. I hear you are doing a special show in San Francisco in April?
P.K. Yes, it's just a family show. We are inviting people that have played with us in the past, in the last ten years. There are other possibilities, everything from David Freiberg to Jack Traylor and Pete Sears.
M.S. Sounds like fun.
P.K. It should be a nice show. We will tape it. Michael our manager is pretty much a tape freak and he mixes us quite well.
M.S. Do you wish that you had taped more of your stuff going back over the years?
P.K. It's not something I really even think of. You did what did and you do what you do and what is, is and what isn't, isn't. I don't collect stuff very much be it guitars, tapes or art memorabilia. We didn't really save all out stuff. Everybody was too concerned with carrying on and doing what there was to be done rather than starting some kind of museum. So we neglected that more that we should have but that's how it is. A lot of people have tons of the shit. It always shows up somewhere if you need it.
M.S. Sometimes the collectible thing goes a little too much to the extreme.
P.K. Yes, I don't really have time for that.
M.S. Do you have a favorite period of the Starship?
P.K. No, no. There's good and bad to all of it. It's like your life. What year of your life did you like best! It's sort of an unanswerable question.
M.S. I liked some of the real early stuff when you did "Blows Against the Empire" live.
P.K. We do that now. The present band plays it really well and I am looking forward to developing the PERRO thing within the construction of a rock and roll band rather than the album, which was a little overproduced in some ways. Doing it live allows for another take on the situation which I am really enjoying. We did a tour about a month ago and broke out about half of the album and it worked out really well, so I am going to bring the rest of it out this year.
M.S. What do you think about what RCA has done with the Airplane catalog and the box sets and reissues?
P.K. It's not something that I really pay that much attention to. They are all okay but again it's a museum thing. The future is still looming (laughs) and it takes up more of my concentration and interest than does the past. I love to play some of the songs as part of our shows, but in terms of going back and getting involved with that, you just don't have the time. You know what I'm saying and fortunately the future still looms quite well and voluminously in terms of doing stuff and that really takes up more of my concentration than the museum shit.
M.S. I assume because you play folk and rock sets your venues differ vastly. Do you play much with any of the jambands?
P.K. Now and again we play on the same venues. That April 5th show we will be playing with a local band that is popular on that level. They are called Vinyl.
M.S. Oh yeah, I know them.
P.K. We have done other stuff as well but we are pretty much our own specialized little area. We do not having to go out and break down new barriers in terms of where we can play. Generally we get to play places that are enjoyable to play. Coming up in the summer and spring we are dickering from playing in front of the Pope in Vatican Square and a week later going to Cuba and playing in Havana playing for Castro at some May Day celebration.
M.S. I saw you in England was at Knebworth back in 1978 when Grace had just been sent back to the US after the German fiasco.
P.K. (Laughs) That's going back. You must be old.
M.S. Yes, nearly as old you. It was an interesting show that you were supposed to do a live album from. You did "Pride of Man" the Quicksilver song (actually an Hamilton Camp song made famous by QMS).
P.K. Yes, and we will probably do that again in April if Freiberg joins us if we can learn it properly.
M.S. I can’t see that being a problem.
P.K. No not really. For this last tour the PERRO stuff I just sent to the band on CD and we went out cold and did them and to their credit they came off pretty good.
M.S. Now, there’s a lot of the vintage PERRO stuff circulating but it’s pretty basic and unfinished. Are there more finished versions of that 70s stuff that could be issued?
P.K. Oh those are just studio jumbles or jamming. The stuff you are calling the PERRO tapes I didn't think could be released or that anyone would have any use for them because they are just sort noodling around. They are interesting sort of as a first look at what they later became perhaps but I never say much value in that stuff as a musician.
M.S. I suppose it depends on the sound quality and the playing?
P.K. They all sound pretty good but it's just like noodling as far as I am concerned, but people like noodling. If you have a good player noodling it can be good and Garcia was always good at noodling well.
M.S. It’s funny some of the stuff that Garcia played you was great. At one point he seemed to be in your band more than the Grateful Dead.
P.K. Right. I think that he played some of his finest work with our material.
M.S. I love his soloing on "Holding Together" on the Sunfighter album.
P.K. Yes. The same goes for Jorma and Jack. With my strange chord changes and whatever it challenged them to a point where it brought something out of them that otherwise wouldn't have been brought out. Some of their work on some of that stuff is excellent.
M.S. Do you listen much to current music or any current bands?
P.K. I have been writing than listening these days, and I look in now and again but nothing has knocked my socks off that I have run across lately at least that comes to mind.
M.S. I was just curious because the whole jambands type genre has an element that’s trying to re-create something that happened in the 60s but falls short.
P.K. Well, the drugs aren't as good. They are trance drugs which are sort of like qualudes. Whereas most of the drugs in those days pre the hard drugs glut of heroin and cocaine when you just had acid, mushrooms and marijuana etc. it was a very forward kind of thing. People didn't take drugs to take drugs if you know what I mean. They were just a sort of an enjoyable thing like desert at a diner and the diner was an important part. Now the drugs have become such a focus and everybody is trying to recreate something without the essentials, which was good music and more than music was the mind, the expansive and challenging exploration of the minds of the people that were involved in the situation.
M.S. I think the average player today seems much better than it was in your younger days but the essence of the song seems to be missing. Oftentimes lyrically the jambands songs are nonsensical.
P.K. Possibly, but I have been accused of writing things that no one can figure out what I am talking about, including myself. Art is always subjective and I don't think you can really judge art on that basis. It does what it does. It's really not up to you to judge the whys and wherefores of it. Rather just enjoy what it does for you. That still one of the charms of music for me. To this day nobody has figured out what it is, or why it works and we all know it works, but nobody knows. If they did they'd put out hit singles everyday of the week. Nobody can figure out what grabs people and why this record is good and this record isn't good. They just know it internally that it doe something for them, that it moves them. It strikes them in some fashion that they haven't been struck before.