the PAUL KANTNER interview
One of my own personal ambitions when first discussing ideas for the Terrascope with Nick and Cyke was to interview Paul Kantner, the visionary songwriter and in many eyes the driving force behind the Jefferson Airplane, a man with wit, intensity and insight and for my money one of only a handful of truly original songwriters to have emerged from the San Francisco Bay area in the mid/late 1960s.
More recently, Kantner has - in addition to the Airplane reunions and flights on the Starship - been working on studio demos for a projected album generally known as 'The Women's Project'; five or six female vocalists that Kantner "is in musical love with" including Ronnie Gilbert from the Weavers, Darby Gould from World Entertainment War, Grace Slick, Signe Anderson and the gospel singer Tramaine Hawkins from the Edwin Hawkins Singers (who appeared on 'Sunfighter').
Kantner has also been playing acoustic sets accompanied by former KBC Band members Tim Gorman on keyboards and Slick (Mark) Aguilar on guitar, together billed as Paul Kantner's Wooden Ships, shows which included renditions of classic Airplane material such as 'When The Earth Moves Again', 'Crown of Creation' and 'Volunteers' as well as early Jefferson Starship pieces such as 'Caroline' - love that one, indeed the whole 'Dragonfly' album is a personal favourite - and even portions of 'Blows Against the Empire'. There was also talk of the original cast of the Kantner/Slick post-Airplane solo album 'Blows Against the Empire' reuniting for a semi-theatrical 'spectacular' performance during '92 (including such names as Crosby, Nash, Garcia, Hart, Casady and of course Slick); not sure what happened to that idea to be honest, as fascinating as it sounds, and I must confess it was one of the questions that slipped through the net when the PT finally got a chance to talk to Paul. Which brings us in a roundabout fashion to the meat of this article, the Paul Kantner Interview...
The interview took place in a San Francisco coffee bar late last year; your host for the occasion is Pat Thomas and the interview ran something like this:
PT: Can we talk a little bit about your current work and how that ties in spiritually with...
PK: Spiritually? Spare me!
Well, I mean do you see it as some sort of ongoing evolution from the Airplane? You're playing a few of the old songs, right?
Oh yeah, the ones I wrote anyway. There are a couple of exceptions, but they're pretty oblique, kind of left-field. We do 'Law Man' for example, a song that Grace wrote, and the Fred Neil tune 'The Other Side Of This Life'. We even do a Weavers song, maybe even an Edith Piaf song. Anything is possible.
I take it you didn't have much to do with putting together the boxed set of Airplane material?
I had peripheral input, I didn't get that involved with it because I didn't have the time. It was quite mechanistically put together really; there was a whole lot of other stuff that they could have added which I was pushing for - for example the Airplane jamming with Stevie Wonder, Micky Hart and Jesse Jackson - that was tasty! I may just steal the chords and write something new to it, or it may come out some years later. Who knows?
Are there any plans to do another set? That box only really goes up to about 1972.
Yeah, well that's when the Airplane ended. There hasn't been any talk of a Starship box and I haven't really thought about it - it would be pretty convoluted anyway, there's so many different things to draw from.
What are your plans for the new Starship?
We've been building it all Summer, we're working on getting a recording deal now. I'm not sure where or what we're going to do yet. There's a couple of options we're exploring. I'm also doing 'Wooden Ships', and the women project; that's a long-term project I have in my heart. It's just working with some excellent women singers that I know, that I happen to be intersecting circles with. From Ronnie Gilbert to Grace to Darby, who's singing with the Starship now. It spans a pretty wide range; I've been talking to Signe as well, and Tramaine Hawkins.
What kind of material will you be playing, is this old traditional songs or what?
No, no - it'll be all new stuff. It's not as if we'll be all together singing folk melodies or anything. Part of it is several songs I'd intended for the Starship right now. 'Serial Killer Women' works well, all about a woman serial killer of the Republicans. Another is about a girl who just wants to be an outlaw and another about a woman bank-robber. It's only got as far as recording demos so far, nothing really serious.
How did the Airplane reunion of a couple of years back come about? Who initiated it?
Who knows? It came from several different quarters and everybody thinks they started it. So I just let everybody else think they started it and go along with it thinking I started it...(laughs), so we all sort of continued along on that level. We'll probably do it again in a few years in some fashion or another.
Were you happy with the album?
Hmmm.. B, maybe B+. There were too many lawyers involved in front of it and that distracted from it a lot.
I understand a number of other studio musicians were brought in as well?
No, not on the bulk of the real serious stuff. The producer couldn't quite handle us, but it worked fairly well. I have high hopes for a better one next time.
The tour was pretty successful though?
Oh, excellent, yeah. The free shows in the parks were the best - we just did a series of those at the end of this summer, here and in Central Park in New York, in Philadelphia and in Los Angeles. Just sort of to introduce the band and let people see they could play and that it wasn't just some kind of old reunion thing, you know. I hate those, it's just boring.
So how did you come to hear about Darby Gould?
China introduced me to her, my daughter. She was singing with her band World Entertainment War at the time, I went and checked them out and noticed her singing straight away. I followed them around for a year, just enjoying it as a fan really. Then they started crumbling a little as we were putting the Starship together. I asked Darby to do a demo for the women's project I mentioned and she was great, real studied, knew what she was doing and contributed stuff way beyond my expectations. Which is what makes any good band a great band; that's why the Airplane was so good, because all the people contributed things that the writers would never have thought of doing. It doesn't always work, but we always try. So Darby really contributed on that level and it really worked out. She's very busy with her band Blind Tom, she's very ambitious, she gets her shit together and she's also a pleasure to be with. Most of the time. You know what I mean, we can all be assholes at times!
Do you still listen to folk and other types of music?
I haven't been listening to so much lately as I have been writing. I have a pile of things I want to listen to but I just don't have the time to get to it... unless I'm wanting to steal a chord change from somebody that I admire! I've been into instrumental music - Peter Gabriel's 'Passion' record is quite effective, I've been sort of absorbing things like that. Nothing that I've heard on the radio lately has really sparked me, though.
What kind of people aside from Fred Neil [who wrote 'Other Side Of This Life'] were you into in the early 60s?
The Weavers, all the early folk groups - even the commercial ones, some of them had some good stuff to contribute. Also comedians and jazz. You could go and see John Coltrane, Lenny Bruce, Peter, Paul & Mary and the Smothers Brothers all in one night if you were ambitious. The Weavers were particularly instrumental in my musical education though.
So when the Airplane first came together it was more of a folk/pop thing?
I wouldn't use the word 'pop' in there. It was electric folk music, a combination of elements really. Folk was one of them, but everybody brought their own thing to it which was different. That's one of the things that made it work; everybody had a different idea of what they liked and did. There's an old comedy record by Mel Brooks about the making of the Jewish star: six guys are in a large room, each one of them has a point and they run towards each other and meet in the middle of them room in a huge cloud of dust and confusion. And the Airplane sort of formed in that fashion. None of us really knew what we were doing or had a plan in those days, or a plan that worked anyway. But going back to your question, yes: everybody brought their own elements into the band and a lot of it was folk.
Similar to the Byrds in a way then?
Yeah, they came out of the same pot. The Byrds were the Los Angeles version and we were the San Francisco version. A lot of people took it up, it was easy to do, it was accessible and there was an open audience in those days. There was a vacuum really, and it was easy to fall into that vacuum. And another of the things that came out of the folk thing was the extrapolation of chord changes - relative minors, passing minors, that sort of thing. Sometimes it got a little too poppy with some of the groups, but nevertheless it worked for us. It wasn't too blues based until Jorma got more visible.
Paul Kantner was interviewed by Pat Thomas. Produced, written and directed by Phil McMullen © Ptolemaic Terrascope, originally published in issue 15 1993.