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Published: 2008/10/25
by Mike Greenhaus

Paul Kantner Locates Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty

Paul Kantner has seen it all: The politically-charged psychedelic ’60s, the glitzy, space age (or at least Starship) ’70s, the power ballad ’80s and even the classic-rock revival of the modern day. And if the past 40 years has taught the singer/songwriter/guitarist anything it is to speak his mind. So earlier this year, Kantner and Jefferson Starship, the latest version of the brand he revived in the early 1990s, entered the studio to complete Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty, an album of protest and like-minded folk songs recorded with both his current bandmates and a number of Airplane/Starship alumni. The results stand as not only some of Jefferson Starship's best records in twenty years, but also the group's most relevant. Below Kantner discusses his latest project, his love of the Weavers and why Grace Slick is a much better singer than painter.

MG- You originally had the idea to put out an album of protest songs in 2003. What caused the five year delay?

PK- We made two stabs at it. Originally we wanted to do it in Cuba. Just to be difficult. That’s my catholic school upbringing. Our manager went down and talked to the University of Havana and set up all this stuff we could do. But the state department and the Bush Administration wouldn’t let us go without severe penalties, so we couldn’t really do it.

MG- So the five year delay is Bush’s fault [laughter]?

PK- Isn’t everything? Of course, he’s not running anything. It’s the guys behind him you’ve got to worry about. He’s a clown. He’s like the Ronald McDonald of the government. If you go to McDonald’s and your hamburger sucks, or your hamburger’s fucked up, you don’t ask to see Ronald McDonald. You want to see the manager, and in this case it’s the managers of all that situation, even beyond Cheney and all those people: the oil companies and the insurance companies, those are the people who are really running the government at the moment. And in its own way that has its benefits because while being selfish they also have a need to keep up a good front so people don’t catch them out too easily, but they do good stuff even though they’re doing bad stuff, but yeah, all this knee-jerk stuff. You know, they’re worried about Cuba but not that worried about North Korea, only because Cuba doesn’t have atomic weapons. Now, if Cuba had a few nukes, we’d be a lot more ameliorative.

So when that blew out [recording in Havana], we let that go and about a year later we were going to do Jefferson in Amsterdam, which I thought would be a good secondary move. In its own peculiar way, Amsterdam is San Francisco’s second city or sister city, if you will. The problem is we probably wouldn’t have gotten anything done for months [laughter].

MG- So when did you start what eventually became Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty?

PK- When Cathy Richardson joined us at the beginning of this year. It was very fortuitous and everything came together at the same time in terms of having a record company who liked it and understood what we were doing. When we did the Amsterdam thing, it turned out that the people who were behind it and supporting it were a bunch of right wing businessmen who wanted to make money and saw an opportunity. Then they found out we were doing protest songs and they sort of backed away. Then we said, okay we probably wouldn’t have gotten it done well in Amsterdam anyway. And then a year or two later, here we areand then Cathy Richardson had just joined our band, and she’s a phenomenally gifted musician and singer who fit right into our wave, if you will, and we all locked in very fast. The singing came out beautifully, and it was just down to pianos and acoustic guitars so it came together quite fast.

MG- During the five years it took you to put this album together Bruce Springsteen also released an album of Peter Seeger songs. Were you ever worried that people would think you were riding his coattails?

PK- There’s a body of folk music that comes from our history, and I still have a great list of songs that I want to do more of. So we picked and chose and went with what worked and went forward from there. The singing between Cathy and David [Freiberg], and I worked out instantly and it works out live very well. So that was a pleasure. It came together in a way that allowed me to use several of the women I’ve worked with in the last couple of years, like Darby Gould and Diana Mangano.

Basically the record centered around me and David and Cathy and Chris Smith, our keyboard player. Then the other people that were around, we asked to join usfrom Prairie Prince to [Barry] Sless and [David] Grisman and blah, blah, blah, and they all got enthused by the project and added this that and the other thing, as we’ve always done over the years. So we’d just wander aimlessly into each other’s studio and hear a song going on and say, “Oh, I could sing on that.” And they’d say, “Well, go ahead.” And I’d do the same thing, so we got really nice combinations of people just by accident of association and, geography. That worked out very well on this album, but the heart of the album is me, David, Cathy, and Chris.

MG- Jefferson Airplane co-founder Marty Balin appears on the album and occasionally tours with Jefferson Starship. What was his involvement in the project?

PK- Marty [Balin] is in and out of our project because he has a young child at home that needs his care a lot. Half the time he can come with us out on the road, half the time Marty cannot find an adequate caretaker for the child so that he can go out on the road for three or four weeks. So sometimes we’ll go with him, sometimes we’ll go without him. When we come back east he’ll be with us for four of our shows. The other shows will be little folk, Tree of Liberty kind of shows with just piano and acoustic guitar. For me it’s great because I get the best of both worlds. I love them both and we have a great, kick-ass, powerhouse rock n roll band when we want it and we also have a really strong, really good folk band when we want it. And that’s very satisfying.

Back in the total rock n roll days, it was hard to pretend you were a folk band with any credibility. But now I sort of say that I’ve kind of grown up and I’ve done my rock star time, and so I don’t need to be a rock star any more and do all that. I can be a musician. I like to think of myself as a journeyman musician. We’re like a semiprofessional baseball team, in my mind at least. We’re not really professional musicians. We don’t live in Hollywood and we don’t have big managers and publicity companies and make-up artists and blah, blah, blah, all that shit, load of crap that you have to go through.

We are a pretty credible group of musicians who move ourselves and others, and I’m constantly amazed at-and it’s maybe one of the reasons I’m still in music-the effect of music on people, myself included. Why it affects us. I have no idea why a combination of notes and strings and voices and things can bring a tear to someone’s eye, to a stranger’s eye. Just the emotion that that music creates-or any art for that matter-in the person who is affected by it, is still an amazement to me and I have not a clue as to why. I don’t know if I want a clue even, because I don’t want to ruin the illusion of whatever is behind the curtain there. But I am semi-adept at functioning with it and playing with it. To watch the affect of it in other people and in myself on stage even, is a constant amazement and is probably why I’m still playing music. Otherwise I’d have to get a real job.

MG- Grace Slick also appears on one of the album’s tracks. When did you record that number?

PK- The track we used with Grace was one from the distant past. It worked out well and it fit with the album and it was nice having Grace’s voice around. She doesn’t want to sing anymore for some strange reason and I haven’t figured that one out yet. Me and China [Kantner] spent a couple years trying to convince her to sing again, but she wouldn’t give in. She just wants to sit at home and paint all the time, pictures. And just to tease her, she got a little pissed off at me, I told her, “You’re a much better singer than you are a painter.” But she’s not a bad painter, actually. But she’s an extraordinary singer. And there are so very few of those in my world that I lament the loss of her not singing. So we had this track that we made thirty years ago actually, and we asked her if she minded if we used it and she said, “No, no, go ahead.” But, for some reason that I have not yet figured out, she doesn’t want to put herself out into the public.

A lot of credit for putting this together goes to our manager Michael Gaiman who is like a fanatic fan as well, which may or may not be that good. But he is very industrious and pushy about getting things done. I always say that everyone in life should have a manager to take care of shit that really needs to be done but you don’t want to do, or can’t do. So Michael Gaiman was instrumental in putting this thing together, as well as trying for the Cuba project and the Amsterdam project. And that’s what a manager should do in the world.

I wrote a song called “I’m on Fire” years ago that was celebrating falling in love in times of war. Falling love is always exciting. Like when I fell in love with Grace, it was in a time of rock n roll, which is, in its own way, war. And that was very exciting to be in that swirl, that river, that current, that whitewater, if you will. That’s thrilling too. You can have love and war or love and peace and I’m not sure which is better, even yet.

MG- Do you feel any modern bands have picked up Jefferson Airplane’s political torch?

PK- No. In my car I have six slots for CDs. Four of them are filled with the Weavers. One of them has a Freddie Neil album in it, and one of them is empty for whatever I come up with day by day. One of my more pleasurable albums is the theme music from the movie Blade Runner. The music is the love song from the movie Blade Runner, and it is just so beautiful. I fell in love with Sean Young in that movie. She’s so spectacularly beautiful in that movie, in that way movie stars can be when they get that way. I’m still in love with her, that when I hear the love song from Blade Runner my heart goes pitty-pat. I put that in that empty slot and just play it while I’m driving down to North Beach.

I can’t think of a modern band, but there’s got to be one or two. Beyond U2 or whoever came after them. Cathy does a verse from “Pride in the Name of Love” almost a cappella just with the keyboard, just a verse, right before we go into “Somebody to Love.” And it brings a tear to my eye every time she does it just because of the tonality of her voice and the way she sings it is just moving.

MG- Can you talk a bit about your current live show? Which eras of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship canon do you primarily draw from?

PK- We play songs from before, during, and after [Airplane, Starship]. A lot of the songs we have on this album are from the before. They were songs that moved us when we were coming up and into the world of music and that we had not put aside, but had been put aside for all intents and purposes while we became Jefferson Airplane. And it’s really nice to have a chance to go back and do some of these songs. Some of them like “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and “Chimes of Freedom” for that matter, “Frenario,” in my case, are just beautiful songs by themselves, forget if we’re singing them or not. Almost anybody could sing them. They’re just really rich, wholesome songs that buoy your spirit in a way that’s worth buoying.

Most good musicians start out as copy groups. We find songs that we like and learn how to play them. And then we play them and we get a little attitude and say, “Well I can go play these in public maybe.” And we do and people sort of like us, and we get more inspired and we start writing our own songs. And that’s sort of a path that we all have taken. For me, thank god for the Weavers and Pete Seeger. Pete Seeger’s “How to Play the Five String Banjo” book, a little red book about fifty pages long, was how I learned to play music. I came across the Weavers and really liked what they did, and came across that book-the banjo was my first instrument-and learned how to play music from that book and just took it from there onto the dark depths of communism and everything else that we became. Our FBI list is probably longer than the encyclopedia. And that’s thanks to Pete Seeger as well, and the Weavers, I should say, because it’s not just Pete Seeger but the combination of all of them that made such an impression on me. And the idea of people singing together and getting other people to sing along with them and to join them in their ideas and their joy of life was just such a great template for what became Jefferson Airplane, eventually, and then Jefferson Starship and to this day, what we are now, whatever you want to call us.

In a certain way, the Weavers were a template for Jefferson Airplane of how to be a band. You can have fun, and the Weavers were a complete amalgamation of various personalities. Pete Seeger is almost Amish in his own way. He doesn’t drink, smoke, blah, blah, blah. And he’s veryAmish is the only word I can think of. Lee Hays [The Weavers], on the other hand, the bass singer was a complete party boy. Ronnie Gilbert was somewhere in between and Fred Hellerman I still quite haven’t figured out yet, he was a very quiet lead guitar player. But I made friends with Ronnie Gilbert when I was first starting the concept of this sort of thing—-God, it must be twenty years ago now—-and I talked to her about her band and our band and I said, “I look at your band and I look at our band and it seems like the combination of all the people in both of our bands make up one complete human being. There’s the party boy, the English boy, the party girl, and then there’s the strange guitar player who god knows what’s he all about.” And she says, “Right on.”

Musicians are like, fucked up to start with. Otherwise we wouldn’t be playing music. We’d have a regular job and a family and a home in the suburbs and a pension plan. But we’re not. We’re musicians. And as such, we have our areas of fucked up-ness. And in Jefferson Airplane, and Jefferson Starship for that matter, everyone had weaknesses and strengths. The combination makes that one plus one equals three situation occur which I’m always in awe of and enjoy, as a general rule. It continues to happen to this day with me and Cathy and David and Chris Smith. The body of those people making whatever they do amazes me and whatever comes out is so emotionally satisfying.

MG- I’ve always heard you disliked Phil Ochs music. Why did you decide to include one of his songs on this record?

PK- I’m not a big Phil Ochs fan, but our manager, who’s a New York boy, is and he’s been trying to get me to do this song for years. He’d say, “Paul why don’t you do this song, it’s really a great song blah, blah, blah.” And I’d tell him I’m not really a big fan of Phil Ochs, and on and on. So he hustled Cathy to do it. And for the first time I said, “Now here’s a Phil Ochs song I like, a lot.” Because she does it in a very unusual, unexpected way, and I like her to start with, as a singer and as a person. She pulled it off with just an acoustic guitar, which she is capable of doing on her own. So we said, okay, let’s go with that one, and the song says sort of the right thing as well.

MG- Do you feel that some of these classic protest songs reflect our current political atmosphere?

PK- I’ve never really given much thought to what we do in terms of what is around us. It’s just occurred and it’s worked out sort of naturally that it works with what’s around us. Whether that’s our doing or our fault, I’ve never given much thought to it. We just go in and do what seems to be the thing that needs to be done. And more often than not, it’s worked out pretty well. And it seems that way this time. I wouldn’t quite call the songs “protest songs.” Is “Pastures of Plenty” a protest song? It is, yes, but in another way it celebrates the joy and beauty of the life around us at the same time. That for me is a much stronger protest than going and standing on a soapbox and railing about this that or the other thing and talking about Bush and Cheney and blah, blah, blah. Who wants to hear about them? But if you can find things that you can celebrate, I find, and this is true of most of our music that we are adept at finding things worth celebrating when people do that they find a certain joy and beauty and light in life that is worth pursuing. And in that pursuit they sort of do good things.

People sometimes say, “Oh, the 1960s failed, we didn’t change the world, blah, blah, blah.” But I would look back and say that there was a whole lot of stuff going on back then, like the Civil Rights movement, for example, the Ban the Bomb movement, the Women’s Rights movement, the Gay Rights movement, the Ecological, take care of the air and water, breathing rights movement, and the health insurance movement of taking care of the elderly and children and sick people who need your help, all those kind of efforts sort of naturally flow out of seeing the beauty of life around you and trying to preserve it. And that’s been, I think, our place rather than a “political band.”

MG- So you don’t consider yourself a political artist?

PK- We are not in the least political in the sense that we deal with political situations. We don’t support candidates and we rarely, if ever, support political causes. It’s more about just celebrating life and encouraging people to celebrate what they find worthy in life. As my sort of mentor Pete Seeger says, that whole thing about think globally and act locally. Find something small that you can do and do it. Rather than thinking so grandly, “I’m gonna change the world!” Yeah right, good fucking luck! Go out and fix the creek that’s dribbling down and polluting this stream or that stream, and go from there. I think this has been one of the signposts of what we have always done. In that sense, these folk songs like, “Pastures of Plenty” celebrate the beauty of what is around us and encourage people to help make it more.

The Berkeley political crowd, the stand-on-the-soapbox crowd, were always contemptuous of San Francisco as being too hedonistic. Of course, we ignored them and kept on being hedonistic. But among the things we were hedonistic about was making the world a better place by doing something about it rather than complaining about it all day long on a soapbox. Which is good too, and it’s necessary, but it’s not what we do. I found what we do to be an extra added bonus to the world around us. You find something you like and you turn somebody onto it. You find a good meal or a good restaurant and you say, “Hey, why don’t you go try that restaurant.” And they go, “Mmm that was good, I’ll pass that on.” The same thing with ideas. Pete Seeger started cleaning up the Hudson River and everyone said, “That’s like cleaning up a sewer, you can’t clean up the Hudson.” But sure, by God enough, the Hudson is a whole lot cleaner than it was fifteen years ago. And that was a lot of his doing. That’s one of the things I learned from the Weavers: the celebration of the life around you and the making of it better where you can. And that’s why there’s four Weavers songs on the album probably. Their music did that for me. They didn’t go out and say, “Fuck communism or fuck democracy or we’re gonna be communists or this that and the other.” They went out and celebrated the joy of life around them. And that draws you in. Then you get a little deeper and you see what is underneath that and what needs to be done sometimes to help that process.

MG- Finally, with the 40th anniversary of 1969 approaching, can we expect any Jefferson reunion shows in the near future?

PK- I hardly pay attention to my own birthday. I don’t pay attention to that kind of shit. With my children gone, as much as I loved Christmas when I had children, I hardly even buy a tree anymore. So no, I have no idea which Jefferson Airplane anniversary is coming up. I’m sure one is coming up and we’ll do something for it, but basically we just like an excuse to go out and play music, and whatever it is, that’s more than enough [laughter].

For more on Jefferson Airplane, please check out the December/January issue of Relix.

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