Something Else! Interview: Craig Chaquico, formerly of Jefferson Starship

Craig Chaquico is ready to rock again — or more specifically blues-rock again. After years of work as a best-selling acoustic artist, the former Jefferson Starship guitarist has dug back into his earliest influences.

That doesn’t mean the Muddy Waters field recordings, or Robert Johnson’s ghostly sides. No, for Chaquico, the blues sprang to life through the second-generation interpretations of Cream, Santana, Jimi Hendrix and ZZ Top. It was through them that he discovered the music’s foundational joys, and those are the sounds he celebrates on Fire Red Moon, issued on Tuesday via Blind Pig Records.

As for those who might be taken aback by this new venture, Chaquico reminds us that he’s made a career of defying expectations, first as a member of every different hitmaking incarnation of the original Starship and then as a Grammy-nominated smooth jazz performer.

“It’s kind of what I’ve always done, and I’ve been lucky enough to find an audience,” Chaquico says. “I don’t see me changing the concept of trying to make good music. They can call it jazz or new age or pop or rock or blues, to me it’s still the same thing. People can call it whatever they want. I call it good music.”

In the first of a two-part talk, Chaquico discusses Fire Red Moon, Jefferson Starship from its earliest days through to his departure in the early 1990s, and his eventual turn toward away from the electric guitar …

NICK DERISO: Was this an album you’d always wanted to make?
CRAIG CHAQUICO: It really was. But I was a little nervous putting the record out, because Blind Pig is such a great roots blues label. I have all of their albums. I’m a huge fan. I told them, though, when I’m doing a blues-roots record, my roots aren’t really necessarily going back to the original Robert Johnson versions. It’s more or less me getting it second generation, from listening to Clapton and Hendrix and all of those guys. They introduced me to it. So, my blues roots might be a little bit more along those lines, a little more rocking blues. My influences were also Santana and Zeppelin, ZZ Top, you name it. Every one of those bands was influenced by the blues, one way or another. To me, all of my music has been blues based, too, from my pop stuff, or ballads, or rocking stuff with Jefferson Starship, then to my contemporary instrumental stuff.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Craig Chaquico takes over our One Track Mind feature to talk about songs from his new album, Jefferson Starship and his Grammy-nominated ‘Acoustic Planet’ project.]

NICK DERISO: Did you worry about the so-called blues purists?
CRAIG CHAQUICO: I didn’t want to deviate too much, because I didn’t want blues purists to think: This isn’t a blues record. But I didn’t want to do another 12-bar blues record, either. I wanted it to have a song structure, and more of a rock influence as well. To actually do a record like this that is more focused was a nice way for me to get in touch with my rock roots, playing what I like to play on guitar. Not that I don’t like what I’ve been playing, but I haven’t had a chance to play like this for a while. It’s not a full-on rock record, or a full-on jazz record. It’s kind of a blues-influenced album, with all of these other things in it. I was hoping that if I followed my instincts I would come up with something that was a good combination of the two.

NICK DERISO: As a member of Jefferson Starship through every one of its original career phases, you certainly share an ownership of the brand. Do you ever go back to the Marty Balin era, and albums like 1975’s Red Octopus? Do you recognize that player?
CRAIG CHAQUICO: Oh, man. I remember Red Octopus very fondly, and I really loved playing on that album. It was my second album as the guitar player in that band. There were two instrumentals on that record, too, and a lot of people forget that. That was an album with a lot of influences, and it was so great being in a band like that with eight people. They were all different singers, different songwriters, with different styles – from Papa John Creach, an old black violin player, to the teenage-hippie lead guitarist. (Laughs.) I remember me being in the fray back then, thinking: “I’ve been thrown in the deep end. Are they ever going to figure out that I am kind of making it up as I go along?” (Laughs.) Still being a teenager when we recorded that, it was quite a thrill. I was just trying to fit in with all of these different styles going on at the same time.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: After decades of chart success with Jefferson Starship, and a heralded second career in smooth jazz, Craig Chaquico is digging into blues and roots rock — with similar success.]

NICK DERISO: How did you meet Paul Kantner, who had you on Jefferson Starship’s 1974 debut album Sunfighter when you were still a teen?
CRAIG CHAQUICO: I was gigging around San Francisco with a band that my English teacher formed. I was wearing a fake mustache, lying about my age to be in this band. I was riding my bicycle to school in the day, then by night, saying I was 21 when I was really only 14 and 15. Everybody in the band was 15 years older than me. My English teacher knew Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, and they would come to some of our shows. There was a connection with Jefferson Airplane, though I didn’t know about it at first. Then I started seeing people in the audience who looked familiar! (Laughs.) They heard me play, and they really liked some of my English teacher’s writing. They ended up using some of his songs on their solo records, and used me to play lead guitar on them. By the time I’d graduated from high school, I had already been a guest guitarist on three different solo records by Paul and Grace. That gave me a chance to play with some of my idols, who were also on those records – David Crosby, Graham Nash, Carlos Santana, people from the Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service. There were so many Bay Area musicians that they knew and invited to be on their solo records. That’s how I got started. We ended up doing a tour where our band opened the show, and then Jefferson Starship was the headliner – and I played in both. It was before we had done a Jefferson Starship record; we were mostly playing Airplane songs and songs off those solo records. I thought I’d just go back to school, but instead the tour went so well that I was asked to move to San Francisco and play on the very first Jefferson Starship album, Dragonfly.

NICK DERISO: The Bay Area back then was such a melting pot of bands, with a lot of comingling both on stage and in the studio. It’s easy to see how that kind of organic mixing and match of styles would one day lead to Fire Red Moon.
CRAIG CHAQUICO: I grew up listening to a lot of musicians who were impacted by the original guitar players. When I heard “Crossroads” and “Born Under a Bad Sign,” I heard Cream’s versions first. It was only later that I learned about Robert Johnson and Albert King, and all of these roots players were suddenly on my radar. It’s no surprise that those styles ended up on Fire Red Moon, because that’s part of my musical vocabulary now. Back then, we were a lot more concerned about playing together and making music, than we were the business side – at least, I was. It was just a matter of what we would do together to make the best music. And then when those albums turned into gold and platinum, and had No. 1 songs, I don’t think anyone was more surprised than I was. I have a feeling everybody else was surprised, too, because it wasn’t coming from a music-as-a-business mentality – “X Factor,” “American Idol,” “The Voice,” like that. Back then, there wasn’t that platform. It was just people getting together and making music. When we reached those sorts of successes, it blew our minds.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Jefferson Starship’s 1970s album covers fit together as a theme, though Paul Kantner now admits it was all just a happy accident.]

NICK DERISO: After Balin’s departure, Jefferson Starship initially took a more straight-ahead tack with hits like 1979’s “Jane,” which you co-wrote. For a while, your guitar became a more prominent element in the band’s sound.
CRAIG CHAQUICO: Marty left the band, and Grace left too for a while. Our drummer left, too. Aynsley Dunbar happened to be available. I was a huge fan of his from when he played with Frank Zappa and, of course, he had also played with Journey. When we got a chance to play with him, it was a perfect chance to do a song like “Jane,” which was more rock based. We got a new singer, Mickey Thomas, who had blues and gospel roots to him; he had sung “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” with Elvin Bishop Band. I always liked that style, with someone like Lou Gramm and Foreigner or Bad Company and Paul Rodgers. I always like those kind of bluesy singers in rock. Mickey really had that going on. Whether or not he wanted to do rock was a big question, but when we had him over for a rehearsal, one of the first songs he did was one I wrote with that in mind, and it was perfect timing to get into songs that featured more guitar. At the same time, not only adding Mickey and Aynsley and more of my influences in the songwriting process. We also changed producers at that point, Ron Nevison and he had come from doing records with Zeppelin and Bad Company. As a guitar player, it was a blessing to have that perfect storm happen. It ended up being more rock based. All of that had to happen, or “Jane” wouldn’t have ended up sounding like it did.

NICK DERISO: It seemed, as the post-Kantner version of the band moved toward mid-1980s hits like “Sara” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” that your role began to diminish. Is that what ultimately led to your departure?
CRAIG CHAQUICO: I think the real reason I left the band is because everybody else had left – all of the people that I enjoyed playing with were already gone. It was getting more produced and synthesized in the studio, and that was OK with me. The band had always gone through different changes and evolutions of style. Believe me, being the only one that was on every album, I saw it go through so many different changes – from songs like “Miracles” to songs like “We Built This City,” which was more keyboard oriented. I kind of enjoyed the idea of being able to evolve and use these different styles, and being part of a band. But ultimately, the people that I enjoyed playing with left, so it wasn’t a band anymore. At the end of the day, all that was left was Mickey Thomas and me. That’s when I started to lose the mojo. Even though I had been through all of those changes, there was always a band around me. Someone would leave, but someone else would take their place. There was a synergy, and camaraderie. This time, when everybody left, the idea was to keep the two of us and then hire people to do the albums and tour. I thought, well, maybe it’s time for me to leave too.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: A reconfigured version of Jefferson Starship is back with a live double-disc that includes new takes on early Starship recordings and a host of Airplane favorites, too.]

NICK DERISO: A huge transition followed when you left Starship in the early 1990s. It’s funny, though, I barely remember you playing acoustic guitar, other than on a few songs like 1978’s “Count on Me.” Suddenly, that became a big part of your music. What brought you there?
CRAIG CHAQUICO: A lot of people were surprised. I think a lot of the reason I went with the acoustic was because that my wife was pregnant at the time, and the acoustic was more welcome around the house! (Laughs.) Little did I know that it would lead to No. 1 records, Grammy nominations, and what have you. It was more or less a natural progression. Well, now my son is 21, and he says: “Dad, you know, you can play loud music again. I’m not a baby anymore.” Over the years, I’ve been adding more of the Jefferson Starship songs into my jazz sets, too. It felt like a natural progression to find this spot again.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.