Monday, September 3, 2012

An Interview with Paul Kantner 'Captain at the Helm' for Jefferson Starship

By Ray Shasho

Paul Kantner is recognized worldwide for his innovations to the San Francisco music scene as the psychedelic captain for Jefferson Airplane. After the Airplane disbanded, a savvy Kantner created a parallel rock band, perhaps to mimic a parallel universe, but using a slight deviation from the original trademark. Henceforth, Jefferson Starship is launched.
Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship are amazing stories, and both bands have sustained one of the longest lasting relationships or affiliations in rock history.
Jefferson Airplane was formed in 1965, but the group’s classic line-up would eventually evolve into Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen, Spencer Dryden and Jack Casady.
In 1966, the Airplane was spotlighted in an article in Newsweek Magazine regarding the booming San Francisco music scene, which contributed to a mass convergence of young people into the city and the birth of the hippie culture, which ultimately led to the Summer of Love (1967).
Jefferson Airplane scored huge commercial success with their second album, Surrealistic Pillow (1967). It was the first album to feature their new singer Grace Slick (The Great Society). The album spawned the proverbial Top 40 classics, “Somebody to Love” (#5 Hit on Billboard’s Hot 100) and “White Rabbit” (#8 Hit on Billboard’s Hot 100). Both songs were originally recorded by Grace Slick and The Great Society. The Jefferson Airplane became one of the hottest rock groups in America.
In 1968, legendary music promoter Bill Graham was fired as the band’s manager.

Between 1967 and 1972, The Jefferson Airplane churned out eight consecutive Top 20 albums in the U.S. with Surrealistic Pillow and Crown of Creation landing in the Top 10.
Their controversial anti-war inspired release Volunteers (1969) featured, “Wooden Ships” a tune penned by Paul Kantner, Stephen Stills and David Crosby. (The song was also recorded by Crosby, Stills & Nash on their debut album). It was supposedly written on David Crosby’s boat while in Florida. Both versions of “Wooden Ships” were performed at Woodstock.

The Jefferson Airplane became the only band to perform at The Monterey Pop Festival (1967), Woodstock (1969), and the Altamont Free Concert (Headlined by The Rolling Stones -1969) … three of the most recognized music festivals of all-time.
Paul Kantner and Grace Slick began a relationship in 1970.
Later that year, Kantner released his first solo effort, a concept album entitled, Blows Against the Empire. It was released as … by Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship. It would be the first studio album to use the Jefferson Starship trademark.
Paul Kantner and Grace Slick gave birth to their daughter China Wing Kantner in 1971. (China became an actress on television, cinema, and the stage).

In 1972, after recording Long John Silver, and followed with a series of concerts, Jefferson Airplane called it quits. After the break-up, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady continued their success with its spin-off band Hot Tuna. Jefferson Airplane briefly reunited in 1989 with all its original members except for Spencer Dryden. A self-titled album was followed with a successful concert tour.

The Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Jefferson Starship officially launched in 1974. The line-up included Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, David Freiberg, John Barbata, Papa John Creach, Pete Sears and Craig Chaquico.
The band’s first album Dragon Fly landed at #11 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Marty Balin contributed his lyrics on “Caroline.” Balin officially joined Jefferson Starship in 1975.

Jefferson Starship’s subsequent release Red Octopus became the bands bestselling album. The album reached #1 on the Billboard 200. The album produced the hit single “Miracles” (#3 Hit on Billboard Chart) penned by Marty Balin and “Play On Love” written by Grace Slick (#49 Billboard Hot 100). Fiddler, Papa John Creach left the group in 1975.

Jefferson Starship continued their incredible string of commercial successes with the release of Spitfire in 1976. The album reached platinum and included the hit tune, “With Your Love” (#12 Hit on Billboard’s Hot 100).
In 1978, the bands next release Earth charted at # 5 on the Billboard charts. “Count On Me” yet another hit single peaked at #8 on the charts. Jefferson Starship became a mainstay on both Top 40 and AOR radio stations.
By 1979, Paul Kantner’s uncanny ability to helm two independent and commercially successful Mega-Groups became even more apparent after a huge lineup change. Grace Slick and Marty Balin had left the band in ‘78. Kantner spotlighted a new lead singer Mickey Thomas (Elvin Bishop Group –Mickey sang “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”). John Barbata was in a serious car accident and was replaced with legendary drummer Aynsley Dunbar (previously in Journey).
Even without key band members, Kantner and his Jefferson Starship produced yet another monstrous album entitled, Freedom at Point Zero. The album spawned the hard-driving rocker “Jane” (#14 Hit on Billboard’s Hot 100).

Grace Slick returned to Jefferson Starship in 1981 and contributed on their next three albums, Modern Times (1981) which generated the hit, “Find Your Way Back” (#29 Hit on Billboard’s Hot 100), Winds of Change (1982), and Nuclear Furniture (1984).
Jefferson Starship maintained their status as one of the most commercially-successful rock groups over the airwaves and on the worldwide concert circuit. And continuing to churn out added hits like … “Winds of Change” (#38 Hit), “Be My Lady” (#28 Hit), and “No Way Out” (#23 Hit).
Drummer Aynsley Dunbar left the band in 1982 and was replaced with Donny Baldwin (Elvin Bishop Group).
Paul Kantner left Jefferson Starship In 1984; a lawsuit by Kantner was settled out of court over the use of the Jefferson Starship name. An agreement was signed by all band members not to use the names “Jefferson” or “Airplane” unless all members of Jefferson Airplane, Inc. agreed.
Under the name “Starship” the lineup of Grace Slick, Mickey Thomas, Donny Baldwin, Craig Chaquico, and Pete Sears released their platinum debut album Knee Deep in the Hoopla (1985) which produced three #1 Hits on Billboard’s Top 100 … “We Built This City,” “Sara,” and “Nothing’s Going To Stop Us Now.” By the late 80’s, band members began departing and the name would eventually be changed to ‘Starship’ featuring Mickey Thomas.

In 1985, Kantner formed KBC Band with former Jefferson Airplane mates Marty Balin and Jack Casady. The band released a self-titled album and toured between1985-1987. Kantner then left to visit with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. (Kantner continues to write about his exploits with the Sandinistas in a series of novels).
In 1992, Paul Kantner re-launched Jefferson Starship as ‘Jefferson Starship -The Next Generation’ and the band grew stronger than ever. (Kantner eventually dropped ‘The Next Generation’). Marty Balin rejoined the band in 1993; he departed in 2003 but still contributes from time to time. Grace Slick has also made contributions to the group over the years.

In 2008, Jefferson Starship released their tenth studio album, Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty followed by a worldwide tour.
In 2009, Jefferson Starship headlined ‘The Heroes of Woodstock’ tour. Most of the concert dates featured … Jefferson Starship, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Canned Heat, Ten Years After, Tom Constanten (The Grateful Dead). Other dates included Melanie, Edgar Winter, John Sebastian, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mountain, Levon Helm Band, and Country Joe McDonald.

Today … the current Jefferson Starship is Paul Kantner (vocals/guitars), David Freiberg (vocals/guitar), Cathy Richardson (vocals), Slick Aguilar (lead guitar), Chris Smith (keyboards), and Donny Baldwin (drums). The band also invites past members to perform occasionally.

Jefferson Starship recently released a 4-CD set entitled, Tales From The Mothership. The CD was recorded live at the ‘Roswell UFO Festival’ in Roswell, New Mexico on July 3rd 2009. Jefferson Starship was dubbed “Grand Martians” for that year’s parade. The setlist included many of their classic hits plus material that has never been performed live.

I caught up with Paul Kantner recently while in between a lengthy worldwide concert tour that will include Florida dates. Here’s my interview with the legendary captain of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson StarshipPAUL KANTNER.
Ray Shasho: Hi Paul! This is a rather lengthy tour that you’re on …how’s it going out there so far?
Paul Kantner: “Yea, we’re gearing up for it, we’re everywhere from Tel Aviv to Scotland and everywhere in between, so we’re looking forward to it. But it is a good long tour actually.”
Ray Shasho: Do you still enjoy doing the long tours?
Paul Kantner: “This is the longest tour we’ve done in the last twenty years. We just had the chance to go to Europe a lot …and here we are. We’re going to Rome, several places in Italy, and we’re going to Israel for the first time, all through Scotland, the UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany, and we’ll be going to Japan later in the year.”
Ray Shasho: Paul, I’d like to personally commend you and the band for not continuing on with the Airplane name after the group disbanded. Bands are continuing to use the original band name without key band members involved.
Paul Kantner: “It’s much like when a good writer dies, they get some lesser author to recreate his style and put out books under his name, and I always hate that.”
Ray Shasho: Let’s talk about Jefferson Starship’s most recent release, Tales from the Mothership.
Paul Kantner: “That’s also oddly enough the name of the book that I’m writing about my ventures within the world, and all my bands. But yea, that’s our 4- CD set; we did a special concert down in Roswell, recorded it, finally got it together and put it out.”
Ray Shasho: Why Roswell, New Mexico?
Paul Kantner: “I’m a science fiction freak from way back. My mother died when I was young and I had to go to Catholic military all-boy boarding school, and that was pretty much of a shock for the second grade. Fortunately, I got left in the library one day and down on the bottom shelf was C.S Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet. I just started getting into that and fortunately it saved me from my years in boarding school there and gave me a bit of an imagination to work with … and I haven’t looked back since. So science fiction is sort of the underlining reason for wanting to go to Roswell.”
Ray Shasho: Your Sci-fi influence was certainly apparent on your solo album, Blows Against the Empire.
Paul Kantner: “I had done some science fiction songs earlier with Jefferson Airplane … Notably, “Wooden Ships,” “Crown of Creation,” and a song called “Have You Seen the Saucers,” all were sort of based in science fiction, but it came together on that album in a particular unique way that turned out really good.”
Ray Shasho: Blows Against the Empire was about a group of people “escaping” earth in a hijacked starship?
Paul Kantner: “I debate with you on the word “escaping.” For me it’s more “exploring,” An adventure within the parameters that surround you and with the available tools that you have. It had nothing to do with escape at all anymore than San Francisco did in the 60s. We weren’t trying to escape, some reason being able to fashion our own particular culture around ourselves. Not just ourselves but around the whole city at the time. We were lucky enough to succeed and not get arrested in the process …and here we are now.”
Ray Shasho: So are you a UFO enthusiast?
Paul Kantner: “I like the idea. Way back in … I think 1947, George Adamski’s book about UFO’s, where it landed for some reason onto my bookshelf shortly thereafter … it’s just part of my science fiction heritage. I always keep an eye out for that sort of thing … unfortunately I’ve not seen any and they’re probably wise enough not to contact me. But I like the concept quite a lot.”
Ray Shasho: What was Roswell like … was there heavy security guarding certain areas around town?
Paul Kantner: “It’s just a funky little town out in the desert and there’s really not much to do about it. But there’s no big deal about the security, it’s pretty casual.”
Ray Shasho: You didn’t try to get into Area 51?
Paul Kantner: “No… I’ve done that before, even got arrested for trying to sneak in with Carl Sagan one year; we were protesting outside at one of the places out there.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve chatted with Gregg Rolie (Santana), Johnny Winter and Henry McCullough (Joe Cocker) about Woodstock …now it’s your turn.
Paul Kantner: “I had the best time myself. I got plastered when the stage started to slip a little. I’m sitting there on the stage and Chip Monck whose running everything says we’ve got to get everyone off the stage its slipping a little, and I look up at him and say … I can’t move. And I didn’t mean it as an arrogant rock star … I mean I was glued to the stage with all of my being, and going through the stage miles and miles into the earth. I was totally immobile and I think he just thought I was an A-Hole and didn’t want to bother with me. In any case, while the stage was slipping, I was just sitting there flying … and I got away with it.”
“We came on just after sunup in the morning and it was interesting haven been up all night and suppose to have gone on at ten o’clock the previous night, so we were out there at ten in the morning at our most vulnerable if you will. I didn’t know at the time how we played, but have heard it since and it came off pretty well considering.”
“We were there several days before it even started just wondering around aimlessly, figuring out what was what, and then hung around the whole next day after our set. Then we did the Dick Cavett Show and did a whole bunch of stuff there.”
“It was all quite a good adventure for me.”
Ray Shasho: Was the ‘Heroes of Woodstock’ tour a lot of fun?
Paul Kantner: “Every place we play is fun. There’s a certain adventure of going out on stage, and we don’t quite know what we’re going to be doing, and we play the songs different quite a lot in many ways, so there’s a bit of adventure and exploration and just the architecture of music, even to this day is something that I don’t understand … why music works that way it does. After all these years why this combination of notes, elements, and melodies, influences people so emotionally, myself included, and that keeps me at the helm as it were all the time.”
Ray Shasho: I saw Jefferson Starship headline for Jeff Beck and the Jan Hammer Group at a sold-out Capitol Centre in Maryland … somewhere in the 70s.
Paul Kantner: “I remember those guys opening for us they were quite good. I’ve always liked the idea of having really good people opening for us when we played and I do that to this day. Some people like to have a crappy band open for them so they’ll sound better, but for me, we really drive when a good band kicks ass before us and it just makes us play better in the long run.”
Ray Shasho: Red Octopus was a huge selling album … why do you thing that was?
Paul Kantner: “I never have a clue. (All laughing) We just put out albums and what we’re doing at the time, and they go this way and that way… that one went a lot that way and turned out quite good. We never plan anything and it just comes out when we’re done with it. I’m working on a couple of albums right now … a rock ‘n’ roll album from Jefferson Starship and a sort of a half folk music kind of an album … in the adventure mode of Tree of Liberty, sort of like the way we started playing in the earlier days. I enjoyed thoroughly going back to that approach; I love acoustic twelve string guitars, banjos, grand pianos, and voices are probably my best area to work in.”
Ray Shasho: I play mostly electric guitar and have always thought that the banjo was a tough instrument to play.
Paul Kantner: “The basics are quite simple actually. I had the adventure of learning with Pete Seeger’s ‘How to Play the Five-String Banjo’ book, which got me going right off and it’s a very good book for that. I have two banjos and I’m looking at one right now sitting at my home that someone made for me. It’s a fine instrument and I’ve learned a certain way of playing that suits me quite well.”
Ray Shasho: I chatted earlier this year with Roger McGuinn about the old traditional folk songs and how much we miss hearing them, but also about just keeping younger and future generations aware of the genre. Do you talk with Roger?
Paul Kantner: “We’ve been playing with Roger since we both started … we did shows together when he was in The Byrds and we were Jefferson Airplane and have continued to do shows with him since. We both come out of folk music.”
“But that’s partly what I tried to do on Tree of Liberty, the resurgence of that sort of feeling and we succeeded pretty well I like to think. And Roger in his own way has succeeded pretty well. Both of us ended up playing Rickenbacker 12-strings which I play to this day. It’s one of my favorite instruments and almost all I play when we’re playing electrically.”
“But Pete Seeger started all that more or less … I latched onto it when I was just getting into college and it worked out pretty well for me thank you. Oddly enough, most of the music I still listen to nowadays go back to a band called The Weavers …Pete Seeger’s band. It’s where I get my love for three-part singing, which I do to this day. I think three or four CD’s in my car right now are The Weavers. I still draw both emotionally and musically from them and I’m learning from them all the time.”
Ray Shasho: Any thoughts of mentoring kids about folk music.
Paul Kantner: I’m too busy being a band, and I have a feeling that’s something that comes “after” you’re a band. I’m not really interested in being “after” at this time.”
Ray Shasho: So there are no plans after the band?
Paul Kantner: “I’ll probably die on the stage.”
Ray Shasho: If you had a Field of Dreams wish … what artist past or present would you like to collaborate with?
Paul Kantner: “Pete Seeger and The Weavers … which halfway I’ve done. I’ve worked with Pete Seeger and done several benefits with him. When I was making one of my solo albums, I asked Ronnie Gilbert who is one of the women singers in The Weavers to record with me. She was the reason why I wanted to work with a woman. That’s why I went after Signe first and then Grace. Working with Ronnie was a great experience. The Weavers taught me how to be a band, in terms of a full well-rounded combination … like social responsibility and fun ... the joy and fun of being on stage, and then again the mystery of music and why it is what it is. I learned all of that from The Weavers because they affected me that way. We do what we do as The Weavers did and I intend carrying on what we do until I don’t.”
Ray Shasho: Paul, what else do you like to do besides playing music?
Paul Kantner: “Study and read actually. I stopped watching TV almost completely because it became so dreary. I’ve taken up reading quite a lot, mostly serious stuff like Aristotle and Plato to just good junk literature which I also thoroughly enjoy. It’s an escape in its own way in the same way science fiction was for me.”
“I live in North Beach, so I like to walk down to the Café Trieste, the espresso bar and saloon here, then I go to the City Lights Bookstore and things like that.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve noticed a lot of rock stars that are getting up in age are now turning to God.
Paul Kantner: “Oh God … that is the worst. I’ve noticed particularly the alcoholics or drug addicts who give up everything, and then they just take up God which is sort of in its own way a version of the same thing. And yea, everybody who goes for that I feel sorry for more than anything, because it sort of clouds their minds in my opinion.”
Ray Shasho: I’m okay with that as long as they don’t come off sounding like TV evangelists.
Paul Kantner: “One of the highlights in my career was getting mentioned as one of the devils acolytes on the Jim and Tammy Bakker Show. I did a whole lot of stuff with those people for awhile, and even invited them to a concert. I’ve been to Jim and Tammy Bakker’s place in North Carolina and a couple of other places just to see it as a cultural oddity.”
“I’ve actually stole some chord changes from Tammy Faye Bakker’s band in my day, and have found their way into our songs one way or another. (Laughing)”
“I was a public speaker in high school and college, so I was quite taken with Billy Graham and his style of speaking … I thought it was very good to watch him speak. Now and again, they’ll have reruns of him on TV and I’ll check him out … but the new ones don’t impress me at all.”
Ray Shasho: Final thoughts Paul?
“Exploring is one of the best things I’ve learned about science fiction … exploring the unknown. It served me well back in the second grade and to this day. After all my children grew up and left home, I sold my home and moved down to North Beach, in a relatively simple little apartment right in the heart of it all. And I told my children, this is the best place I’ve ever wanted to be and as far as I’m concerned I can die here. And they say … dad??? And I say, not now, in about thirty or forty years. I’m at the height of my pleasure right now in North Beach. My corner down at Café Trieste is for me, the height of civilization in the ongoing plot to overthrow reality.”
Ray Shasho: Thank you so much Paul for spending time with me today, but especially for all the incredible music you’ve given to all of us over the years and into the future.
Paul Kantner: “Thank you Ray for the time and carry on.”

Jefferson Starship official website (Current tour schedule here)
Order Jefferson Starship’s latest release, Tales From The Mothership’ an incredible 4-CD Live Concert set from Roswell, New Mexico. To purchase visit
Coming up next ...Peter Rivera original lead singer and drummer for Rare Earth
Special thanks to the great Billy James of Glass Onyon Publicity
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