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A Chat with Paul Kantner

Paul Kantner

The statement “If you remember anything about the Sixties, you weren’t really there is attributed to guitarist, singer, songwriter, counterculture maven, co-founder of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. Kantner passed away this January 28, 2016, at the age of 74.

White Rabbit

The following is a conversation between Paul Kantner and Mike Ragogna, our music biz vet and long-time Huffington Post music reviewer on August 24, 2012. They are discussing Kantner’s album Tales from the Mothership.

Mike Ragogna (MR): Paul, you played a concert at Roswell, and your new album is called Tales From The Mothership. Of course, “Roswell” has a certain connotation, it being the at the heart of many “aliens among us” stories and the ultimate conspiracy theory. Is there any particular thing about Roswell that resonates with you?

Paul Kantner (PK): No, Roswell is just that spirit of the unknown, and it’s become quite a thing in itself because of the situation around it. We decided to play there because of that science fiction connection. “Crown Of Creation” was probably my first science fiction song that I can think of off the top of my head. At the time, I was at our house on Fulton Street and the Democratic convention of 1968 called us, the way they do–famous musicians, when they’re having their conventions. They wanted us to write a song for them and I was reading a book called Rebirth by John Wyndham and I was playing a little blues lick that I had stolen from Jorma [Kaukonen]. Sort of a shuffle. There was just a good collection of song lyrics that popped out of that book that became most the lyrics of “Crown Of Creation.” I just put it all together as a joke, knowing that if they read the lyrics, they’d never use it. I’ve never been very political in terms of dealing face-to-face with political people and we’ve never done a benefit except for Barry Milton from Country Joe & The Fish when he ran for judge or something in San Francisco; another sort of joke. I sent “Crown Of Creation” to them and, to their credit, somebody read the lyrics and knew that it was not what they wanted to say for their convention. So they turned it down, but it became one of our most popular songs in the aftermath.

MR: Since we’re talking about sci-fi, there’s your solo album Blows Against The Empire that had a pretty large musicians roster. You use the term “Jefferson Starship,” a creative choice, maybe inferring it had a bigger vision than the Airplane’s?

PK: Well, it wasn’t, but pretty much what you said is what is. I was in the studio making an album and other bands and people were in the same studio. We would wander back and forth between each other’s studios and see what they were doing, and we’d sometimes sit in on each other’s songs or they’d come and sit in on some of our songs. That’s how it happened, that all the people who are on that album came to be on that album.

MR: And over the years, hasn’t it come close to being turned into other media events?

PK: Yeah, everybody wants me to do this with them and I haven’t really run into one that’s sparked me yet. We still play much of the music off of that album when we play live. A lot of it’s on the Tales From The Mothership album.

MR: Do you consider Tales From The Mothership one of your more special live performances?

Paul Kantner: It’s one of our better performances, yeah. And we had a bunch of extra people playing on it as well, from Pete Sears to Barry Sless and it just worked out in a very interesting way. They had a little parade through town on the day that we were playing for their festival. Though it’s out in the middle of nowhere and sort of a hokey little town, it has its own sort of mystical aura about it and we took full advantage of that.

MR: Did you also take home some Roswell souvenirs?

PK: No, no, not too many. They just had cheesy souvenirs. Mostly what we took home was this album.

MR: (laughs) On this album, you also feature legendary folk artist Jack Traylor

PK: Yeah, he was a musician back in the folk days and he became–I hesitate to use the word “mentor”– but he taught me all sorts of guitar licks and ways to play Spanish guitar and various chords, and he introduced me pretty heavily to the twelve-string guitar, which became my weapon of choice, as it were. I play mostly Rickenbacker twelve-strings to this day. I have a couple of Guild acoustic twelve-strings and a couple Martin acoustic twelve-strings that I also dabble with.

MR: Now the track list on this project covers all the eras. When you’re looking back at Starship and Airplane, do you look at any particular period as being your Golden Age?

PK: No, not really…it’s like asking, “Which of your children do you love best?”

MR: Yeah, sorry, it wasn’t meant to be offensive.

PK: They all have their qualities, and hopefully, they’re all radically different from one another and it works out in a way that gives you a body of work that has fine moments from every year that we’ve done.

MR: Personally, the Jefferson Starship material is just as good as the Jefferson Airplane material. I love Dragon Fly and Red Octopus, and I also love what you guys went for as far as the musical elements and arrangements. Plus, for each album’s artwork, you took the classical elements and used them in the packaging designs.

PK: That sort of came about almost by accident as we started off with Dragonfly in that series. That was obviously air, flight. Then Red Octopus came next, which was water. Then Earth, and then Spitfire, which was fire. That was a nice little combination of elements that worked out almost accidentally.

Mike Ragogna: Paul, you’ve been the torch-bearer for the band through the years. And the touring band that you had in 2009, that’s basically what the band is now, to this day, right?

Paul Kantner: Yeah. Cathy Richardson has been with us as one of our lead singers for the last five years or so and is a splendid and marvelous addition to our band that just kicks it really good. Between her and David Freiberg and Chris Smith and Slick Aguilar who’ve been with me and Donny Baldwin, our drummer, and sometimes Prairie Prince, our drummer who’s going to Europe with us next month, we have a fine conglomeration of people.

MR: Yeah, and I love that Prairie Prince is in the mix. I’m a huge Tubes fan.

PK: Yes. He plays with everybody, I tell you.

MR: Now the track list. Some of the material on this surprises me a little bit because of the kinds of covers you’re doing, although it doesn’t surprise me how well you pulled them off. They’re very heartfelt. You have “Chimes of Freedom” by Dylan; you covered Woody Guthrie songs; you have Pink Floyd; and you cover David Bowie. It’s an interesting mesh of intellectualism.

PK: I’ve always been accused of that, one way or another.

MR: Let’s go back to the sci-fi theme for a moment. What are some of your favorite sci-fi movies?

PK: You know, I haven’t been to the movies in about ten years now. Movies have escaped me, and I’ve pretty much gone back to reading. I find reading much better than movies as a general rule just because they’re more fleshed out, and it engages your imagination better. Any movie that comes out that’s supposed to be good, I immediately go out and buy the book, and sure enough ninety-nine percent of the time, the book is better than the movie. I like, particularly, the ability for the characters to speak internally to themselves, which is very difficult to do in a movie and rarely works. But in a book, it’s right there in front of you and you get a whole other body of feeling and emotion that you just can’t get in a movie. But I go way back to the sixties, to all of those early black and white movies where I was right up there every Saturday morning checking them all out, from Creature From The Black Lagoon to Forbidden Planet. I even have a novel that I’ve written, and I used some scenes from Forbidden Planet. I threw them in the novel to sort of give it a feeling that I kind of like.

MR: One of my favorites from the period, that’s also kind of cheesy, is Invaders From Mars.

Paul Kantner: You know, I can’t remember that one too well. I don’t know if I grabbed onto that one as much as even Destination Moon, which is one of the first ones that I saw when I was about eight or nine years old, and that one was sort of cheesy too. But being eight or nine years old, it was like the foremost adventure for me, and I started walking upstairs from there. Eventually, I got into reading all of the classic writers, particularly. Heinlein affected me, as well as Asimov, and later, Ray Bradbury. Those kind of people sparked me quite thoroughly as far as science fiction.

MR: Yeah, Ray Bradbury, for me, especially. Before he passed, I’d always fantasized interviewing him.

PK: Yeah. He had a good run.

MR: A couple of others I just want to throw out there, The Thing; I know it’s considered a horror story, but on the other hand, it’s major sci-fi.

PK: Oh yeah, the original Thing. I liked it.

MR: The scariest thing for me was when the doctor puts the stethoscope to one of the plants and hears the heartbeat. I get goosebumps just thinking about it! And then This Island Earth, that’s another sort of cheesy classic.

PK: Oh, no, This Island Earth is another one that’s really fun. What’s the one with the big robot in it? The Day The Earth Stood Still. The new one they made sort of sucked, but the original one was quite meaningful for me.

MR: Asimov and all those guys were way ahead of their time as far as how they were looking at society, and really being able to point their fingers at problems like the ethics of robotics, etc.

PK: Yeah, they were good.

MR: Alright, so Jefferson Starship has this shiny new 4-CD box set that includes the rehearsals, performances, etc., but are you working on any new projects?

PK: Yeah, we’re working on two. A new rock ‘n’ roll album from Jefferson Starship, which I’m sure will contain some version of science fiction, and another kind of–I hesitate to call it “folk” music, but a folk-based kind of music with acoustic guitars and banjos and voices and pianos and things, in the same run as “Tree Of Liberty,” in a sense; a combination of those kinds of elements. So I’m working on both of those albums at the moment. Delving into areas like Carthage and Mary Magdalene and aliens in general. Living in San Francisco, we’re often considered aliens by people outside of our borders, and I’m sort of fond of that emotion as well.

MR: Well, you’d be fine in Fairfield, Iowa. (laughs)

Paul Kantner: I tell you, I think the first time we flew into Iowa to go to a concert when we were just starting out, we were followed from the airport by about six police cars trying to figure out what we were all about. I like to think they still haven’t figured out what we’re all about, which has kept us rather safe over the years.

MR: Nice. Paul, I have to ask you my traditional question: What advice do you have for new artists?

PK: “Don’t sell your publishing,” was some of the best advice I got from David Crosby when he was in The Byrds and we were just starting. One of the main things he said to me; “Don’t ever sell your publishing.” Sure enough it came true. And just play. If you enjoy playing, that’s half the battle. If you’re just going out there to be a star or try to make money, you’re not likely to succeed very much.

MR: You mentioned that you’re going to do an acoustic-focused album. So are you going to have some of your old friends on there, you know, like David Crosby and maybe a couple of others?

PK: Whoever’s around is how it works out. Jack Traylor still works with us now and again, and everybody else from the era. If they’re in town and I’m working, we’ll usually figure out a way to get together. That’s how I got Pete Sears on this album as well as Barry Sless, another excellent player.

MR: I’m not sure if this is a delicate question or not, but are you planning on having any other original members join you?

Paul Kantner: You know, we never plan. Whenever we make plans, God laughs. Plans always get changed, so I will make a plan and push forward, and almost inevitably, new surprises come in and old expectations go out by the end of whatever we’re doing, be it an album or, in the case of the two books I’m writing right now; one is where we stole “Tales From the Mothership.” It’s not my memoirs but it’s sort of remembrances of times past. The other is a science fiction book dealing with an Ice Age, even though we’re here in the middle of a non-Ice Age. It’s about dealing with an Ice Age with some rock ‘n’ roll bank robbers.

Here are the lyrics to “Crown of Creation” by Jefferson Airplane. The song was written by Paul Kantner (R.I.P.):

You are the crown of creation.
You are the crown of creation,
And you’ve got no place to go.

Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for,
In the only way that it’s granted:
In a place among the fossils of our time.

In loyalty to their kind
They cannot tolerate our minds.
In loyalty to our kind
We cannot tolerate their obstruction!

Life is change.
How it differs from the rocks.
I’ve seen their ways too often for my liking.
New worlds to gain.
My life is to survive and be alive
for you.

If you would like to read about or listen to more music from Paul Kantner, please click here for “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.


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“Don’t sell your publishing,” was some of the best advice I got from David Crosby when he was in The Byrds and we were just starting.


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Jane Minogue

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