Paul Kantner : « The songs of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship are as relevant now as they were in the 60s »

Dimanche 14 Octobre 2012

Interview with Paul Kantner, guitarist and founding member of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. Jefferson Starship will play live in Paris on 22 October 2012 and in Reims on 23 October.


I know you love folk music. Was it folk music that inspired you when you started playing music and when you wrote songs for the Jefferson Airplane?

I was primarily and greatly inspired and energized by the Weavers, a folk music group from the forties and fifties that was one of Pete Seeger’s early bands. In so many ways The Weavers taught me “how to be a band”. There was a combination of beautiful three-part harmony singing and the rich folk music as well; there was also the connection to social responsibility that led to a mentality that drove our own band to the act of supporting and doing benefits for any number of people and causes in need, and then there was just the overall joy of life that shown forth from The Weavers. I treasure The Weavers still. It was for me… a memorable beginning. My other main influences also included such disparate characters as Fred Neil, Bob Gibson and Jack Traylor.

How was San Francisco in the 60s? Some people describe it as heaven on earth and others as a weird place with crazy people and bad trips...

For me, San Francisco in the 60s was literally – very literally – “heaven on earth”, as well, populated by all sorts of crazy people, so many disparate types of people, “out there”, as it were, all emblazoned in a town much on the very edge of western civilization.

I thrived here and continue to do so!!!

With my having recently come out of twelve years or so of catholic, all boys boarding schools, it was an extraordinary leap into an as yet undefined future. The best was probably “The Summer before the summer of love”. My fondest characterization of San Francisco is “49 square miles surrounded, entirely, by reality!”.

When you listen to California music of the 60s, it is surprising to hear the difference between the spontaneity and the creative freedom of the San Francisco sound and the « perfectionism » of the L.A. sound. What made these two sounds that different?

The cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, themselves are that much different. What goes up in one goes down in the other. One is intimately small; the other is inarguably huge. And each of the bands in San Francisco was radically different from all the others – From Jefferson Airplane to the Grateful Dead to the Quicksilver Messenger Service to Big Brother and the Holding Company, and later Santana and Creedence Clearwater Revival… and on and on and on… And they were all very different that most L.A. bands.

Jefferson Starship is a spin-off band of Jefferson Airplane but it sounds very different, especially material released in the 80’s. What had changed? Did you change the way you made music?

I wouldn’t so much call Jefferson Starship a spinoff as, perhaps, an evolution. I brought along my love of three-part harmony singing, as well a musical science fiction bent and a large Irish-Scottish-Appalachian musical influence that resulted in my early Jefferson Starship songs, and, for that matter, the songs I’m working on this very day. One is “Pooneil Goes to Mars”; another one, as yet untitled, centers around Mary Magdalene setting out from the Holy Land on her Own, after the death of her “husband”, Jesus. And two more songs are brewing in their nascent stages.

And remember, as well that Grace Slick brought her own unique and indomitable force and voice and songs to the new Jefferson Starship band, some of which we also continue to perform.

Peace, ecology and poverty were important themes in your music from the beginning and more than 40 years later, these issues are still very much important. Is this the reason why you recorded the protest songs album « Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty » in 2008?

I would not really characterize the “Three of Liberty” album as a protest album. It is more a return to our folk beginnings, from The Weaver’s songs to Woodie Guthrie songs and more. We used primarily acoustic instruments – 6 and 12-guitars, banjo, auto harp, pisno, et al. I did feel compelled to throw in one new song of science fiction and future and more – “On the threshold of Fire”.

Science-fiction was a source of inspiration in your writing. Was it because it is a good means of addressing political problems that affect our society?

No!!! Politics I tend to steer clear of, as a general rule. It’s worse that the music business.

For me, I find science fiction more prone to being an imagination booster. It will take you places that you haven’t yet even conceived of. That was it’s great value to me when I was left alone in the library in the second grade; and down on the bottom shelf I found “Perelandra” and “Out of the Silent Planet” by C.S. Lewis. I have not looked back since. Then… The wonders of exploration and adventure and frontiers are forever thrilling… !!!

Do you think that the end of the music business as we know it is a good thing for musicians and especially aspiring musicians?

I have had the great fortune, living in San Francisco, to be somewhat removed from the grind of the music business. And… the business has changed near yearly since the time I first became involved with it. I was born in San Francisco and I always say – If I’d been born anywhere else I probably would have been executed by now.

You perform songs from the Jefferson Airplane in your concerts. Playing these songs now, how is it a different experience than playing them in San Francisco in the 60s?

To be true – a good body of the songs of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, for that matter, are as relevant now as they were in the 60s. I would speak of some of my songs like “Volunteers” and “Crown of Creation” and “We Can Be Together”. Fred Niel’s “Other Side of this Life” remains one of our most driving and creative songs.

And science fiction is always an emotional motion detector for me – a sense of being propelled forward, a sense of adventure.
For our science fiction songs, I would speak of “Crown of Creation”, “Wooden Ships”, “Have You Seen the Saucers”, and “Blows Against the Empire” and, in its own way, “Ride the Tiger” and “When the Earth Moves Again” and “Alexander the Medium”.

We’ve recently, at Cathy Richardson’s urging, rebuilt the song “Connection” from, I believe the later “Nuclear Furniture” album.
We are currently singing “When the Earth Moves Again”, “Sketches of China”, “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil”, “Other Side of This Life” and “All Fly Away”.

And “Somebody to Love”, “White Rabbit”, “Lather”, for that matter, are more powerful, in certain ways, than they were back then. Over these years, we have done much of Grace’s work – “Eskimo Blue Day”, “Hyperdrive”, “Greasy Heart”, “Fast Buck Freddie” and “Lawman”. As well, “Across the Board, “Silver Sppon”, “Better Lying Down” and “Darkly Smiling” come to mind.

Cathy Richardson is the voice of Jefferson Starship. How did you find her, and was it difficult to find a successor for Grace Slick?

I have had the great fortune of working with five different and marvelously compelling singers in this regard – female singers is what I’m talking about here.

First, there was Signe Toly, and then the ever-so Grace Slick. In years later my daughter China, introduced me to Darby Gould and the band, World Entertainment War. She too became spectacular with us. When she left, Diana Mangano came into our fold, and for ten years thereabout, she became a dynamic force and interpreter of our songs as well as outside songs. I was doing a show with Big Brother and the Holding Company and Cathy Richardson was singing Janis Joplin’s songs with them. What really captivated me was her dynamic stage presence and the very ‘Force of nature” attitude that she put forth. She has been with us about five years now and I always look forward to playing with her on stage.

As well as she also has a company “Shining Shakti”, that makes very colorful yoga pants and other wear, that I have taken to wearing sometimes on our own stage.

Is there a missed opportunity in your carreer that you deeply regret?

Nothing springs immediately to mind…???!!!


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Boris Plantier