INTERVIEW- Surrealistic fellow: Kantner still rocks the Starship
Forty years after he helped provide the soundtrack for 1967's "Summer of Love," Jefferson Airplane/Starship guitarist Paul Kantner says little has changed.
"We have a lot more songs, we're a little wiser in some areas, we're a little smugger in others," he says, "but we still like to play with a certain degree of chaos."
It's that spirit of adventure that Kantner says has kept him touring and performing for more than 40 years, and also what's worth celebrating about the San Francisco scene from which his band emerged in the mid-to-late '60s.
Now the man behind such counterculture anthems as "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" is hoping to both commemorate that time and place and keep touring with longtime partners-in-crime David Freiberg and Marty Balin in Jefferson Starship. They're all part of the "Summer of Love" tour that will play the Charlottesville Pavilion Saturday, July 7. From a hotel room in Albany, New York, he caught up with the Hook to talk sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.
The Hook: You've been playing with some of these folks for more than 40 years. What's different about playing live now?
Paul Kantner: It's a lot less chaotic, but maybe that's a negative. I had to propel our drummer into a little more chaos last night. We've got a lot more tunes than we did back then; we can hear better than we did because we have monitors now. You know who first introduced me to monitors? Owsley [Stanley, the first mass producer of LSD]. He just grabs hold of a subject and explores everything about it, everything from the obvious to making gold jewelry. So he'd read a lot about sound engineering and convinced us to become one of the first bands to use vocal monitors. But to answer your question, I still think someone's going to tell me to get a real job. And of course, as I guess they say now, we still like "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."
The Hook: Did you have a sense in 1967 that the time and place in which you were living would go down in history the way it has?
Paul Kantner: No, not at all. We were just kids in San Francisco doing what seemed like a good thing to do. The best time was actually the summer before the "Summer of Love," before all the tourists came. I still don't know why San Francisco attracted not only all these people, but the bands, the Diggers, the clothing designers, the poster makers, and any number of other things. It's a small city, everything was available to everybody, the rent was cheap in Haight-Ashbury in particular. You could get a 10-room flat for $100 a month in these old Victorian buildings. The people who came there interacted with one another in a positive way.
We weren't protesting things like they were in Berkeley and elsewhere. We for some reason just chose to do things like we wanted and got away with an extreme amount of stuff that we should have been arrested for. We did things rather than complain about them. Some things were good, some things weren't, but we just did as many things as we could get to, and the majority of them worked out pretty well for me. San Francisco was a gateway to the edge, if you know what I mean.
The Hook: George Harrison later said of his visit to Haight-Ashbury in 1967, "It was just a bunch of horrible, spotty, dropout kids on drugs." What was it that he didn't understand?
Paul Kantner: I guess he didn't get laid, which was hard to do back then. It wasn't just sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll but just a marvelous exploration in a different way of living. But as with any exploration, people died. But the percentage was low compared to the normal level of survival in an exploration. Columbus lost a lot higher percentage of people than we did. How we lived the way we did, I still have no idea. Maybe God (or whoever) was protecting us; maybe it was luck of the draw. I have yet to try heroin, though. I'm saving it for my old age, but I don't like downers very much.
I still do a little of this, a little of that, whether it's alcohol or anything else. I do like a shot of Stoli, but if I get past four or five, I get sick or I go to sleep. So there's a built-in safety valve there. Of course, our prisons are filled with people who got caught with a joint, and we're letting child molesters and murders out because our prisons are too crowded. What a bunch of silliness. It's sinful, as my former Catholic church would say.
The Hook: Why exactly did the name change from Jefferson Airplane to Jefferson Starship?
Paul Kantner: Jefferson Airplane broke up, and we didn't want to carry on with groups of different people using the same name. So when I started Jefferson Starship, I wanted something that was very modular, like a ship, available for people to sail around on and get on or off whenever you like. And that's what it's been. But Jefferson Airplane was a definite unit, and we didn't want to f*** with that. But in the ongoing plot to overthrow reality, we've got a pretty good group of players now.
The Hook: You were not in the group with Grace Slick that was just called "Starship." In 2004, Blender magazine rated Starship's "We Built This City" as "the #1 most awesomely bad song of all time." How glad are you that you weren't part of that?
Paul Kantner: Well, that's the reason I left the band in the first place. Usually I'm the last one at the party, but everyone else wanted to go in that more commercial direction. That's when I said, "If you want to play that, I'm gone." I really didn't listen to it, because I was busy putting together a new band. But it was definitely cringe-worthy.
The Hook: What's your relationship with Grace Slick like these days?
Paul Kantner: Right now she's suing me for some unknown reason, but generally we get along really well. Twenty years ago, feeling tired of the music business, she signed over her interest in Jefferson Starship to me, and now she's suing me for using the name. I actually had to go and dig up the piece of paper she signed, and I showed it to her, and she said, "I don't remember that." And I said, "What's your name? Cheney? Gonzales? I don't think so. I'm going to have to hold you to it." But generally we get along pretty well.
The Hook: Jefferson Airplane still has a huge fan base, and all of the principals all still alive. What would have to happen for a full-fledged reunion?
Paul Kantner: You can't predict these things; they just happen. We did it 10-15 years ago; it came together by accident. We're not working on a five-year-plan, which is good in a general anarchic way. But I'm open to the idea, no problem from me. We were a pretty good band, I like to think, playing that satanist, communist music.
The "Summer of Love" tour featuring Jefferson Starship, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and others play the Charlottesville Pavilion, Saturday, July 7. Doors 4pm, show 5pm, $21.67/adults; free/under 12.