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Rearview Mirror: Paul Kantner

by Mike Greenhaus on January 29, 2016

This article originally appeared in the 2009 December_January issue of Relix

A few years ago, Paul Kantner decided to revisit Jefferson Airplane's counterculture roots by recording an album of the protest and like-minded folk songs that originally inspired him to make music. "Back in the total rock and roll days, it was hard to pretend you were a folk band with any credibility," the singer/guitarist reflects. "But now I sort of say that I've grown up and done my rock star time and think of myself as a journeyman musician.

"Originally we wanted to record in Cuba in 2003, just to be difficult, the thick-voiced, at times haggard Kantner jokes about Jefferson Starship's new album, Jefferson's Tree of Liberty (Jefferson Airplane more or less dissolved in the 1970s). "That's my Catholic school upbringing. But the State Department nd the Bush Administration wouldn't let us go without severe penalties."

After scrapping his Cuba plans, Kantner's next logical step was to move the project--to Amsterdam. "Our investors backed away after they found out we were doing protest songs, which is probably for the best," he acknowledges. As it turns out, Kantner's two delayed attempts were a blessing in disguise: Earlier this year Kantner found Cathy Richardson, the "singer he's been looking for," to front Jefferson Starship, the latest version of the band he revived in 1991 (Airplane co-founder Marty Balin rejoined the group in 1993 and still tours when his parental duties allow). The ensemble entered the Dead's rehearsal space early this year to record a set of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and The Weavers. 

In addition to a number of Kantner's more recent collaborations, Tree of Liberty features appearances by classic members Balin and Jack Casady, latter-day Jefferson Airplane bassist David Freiberg, Prairie Prince and T. Lavitz. Kantner also received permission to use a lost vocal track from his former bandmate/lover Grace Slick. "She wants to sit at home and paint and just to tease her I told her, 'You're a much better singer than you are a painter.' She's not a bad painter, actually, but she's extraordinary singer. For some reason she doesn't want to put herself out into public."

Of all the covers featured on Jefferson's Tree of Liberty, perhaps The Weavers hold the greatest significance to Kantner: "In another way it celebrates the joy an dbeauty of life around us at the same time. The Berkeley political crowd was always contemptuous of San Francisco being too hedonistic. Of course, we ignored them and kept on being hedonistic. But among the things we were hedonistic about was making the world a better place by doing something about it rather than complaining on the soapbox."

Indeed, if the past 40 years have taught Kantner anything, it's to speak his mind. "Musicians are fucked-up to start with, otherwise we wouldn't be playing music. We'd have a home in the suburbs and a pension plan. But we're musicians and as such,we have our areas of fucked-up-ness. Everyone in Jefferson Airplane/Starship had weaknesses and strengths and the combination makes that one-plus-one-equals-three situation occur, which I enjoy and it continues to happen to this day with me and in this band.

"People sometimes say, 'Oh, the 60s failed,' we didn't change the world. But I look back on the Civil Rights movement, the Women's Rights movement, the Gay Rights movements and all those kinds of efforts naturally flow out of seeing the beauty of life around you and trying to preserve it. That's been, I think, our place rather than a 'political band.' We don't seal with political situations. We don't support candidates and we rarely support political causes. It's more about just celebrating life. As my sort of mentor Pete Seeger says, 'Think globally, act locally.'"


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