Mickey Thomas, on Jefferson Starship’s transformation into Starship: Something Else! Interview

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For Mickey Thomas, a summer stop as part of the Raiding the Rock Vault series hosted by Asia’s John Payne is a kind of homecoming. The two singers know each other well, and share a bond having carried forward with established bands in the hopes of putting your own stamp on that legacy.

“We’ve crossed paths out on the road touring several times,” Thomas says. “We’ve had the occasion to chat a little bit on the road, and to talk about something like this.”

Thomas will appear, during a break from a national tour with Starship, from July 5-9, 2013 at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino as part of the Rock Vault program. He’s also in the midst of completing Starship’s first studio recording since 1989, with an important assist from Jeff Pilson, who was part of Dokken and Dio before joining Foreigner almost a decade ago. Thomas tells us, in this exclusive Something Else! Interview, that Loveless Fascination will arrive on September 17, 2013 from Loud and Proud Records.

He also talked about his lengthy history with Jefferson Starship, which morphed into the pop-hit machine Starship after the departure of founding member Paul Kantner in the mid-1980s; the importance of gospel, R&B and blues in his approach to singing — and how he’s come to terms with every part of his career …

NICK DERISO: As you entered Jefferson Starship in 1979, the band was in flux – with the departure of both Marty Balin and Grace Slick. What made you think that it would work?
MICKEY THOMAS: I didn’t know if it would work. I had just left the Elvin Bishop Band, and I was preparing to do a solo album. I was down in Miami with Bill Szymczyk (of Eagles fame) producing, and that’s when I got the call from the Jefferson Starship. Grace and Marty had left; the drummer John Barbata at the same time had been involved in a terrible car crash. So there was really just Paul Kantner, Craig Chaquico and Pete Sears and Dave Freiberg. There really was a question about whether the band would try to continue, at that point in time. But they did. They brought Aynsley Dunbar (of Journey) in on drums, and he brought much more of a rock element to the music. Then they gave me a call, and I’m thinking, based on my influences and where I was coming from at that point in time: “How in the world is this going to fit?” I had recently left the Elvin Bishop Band, which was all about the blues and soul music and R&B and country and every other kind of roots or organic music you could think of. But I was flattered to get the call, and I at least owed them the courtesy of going over there and seeing what’s up. (Laughs.) We had several meetings, and couple of jam sessions. I was still rather hesitant. A few months went by, really. Finally, I thought: “As crazy as this is, and as unlikely as it would be that this would work, there’s something there.” Where they were coming from, and where I was then, it was a meeting of styles that created something original.

NICK DERISO: There was suddenly this tough new sound coming from the band on tracks like “Jane,” and “Find Your Way Back” too.
MICKEY THOMAS: They were going for a harder edge at that point in time. Before that, it was all about “Count on Me” and “Miracles” — which are all fine, but all of them were sort of softer, mid-tempo ballads. Then, here we come with “Jane.” That was quite a statement. And it worked, because when you think about it, a lot of what we think of as hard-rock bands from back in the day, it all goes back to the blues. With Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, all of those bands, it was about the blues, really. So, it really kind of made sense. We got together and were really able to forge a new style that worked as Jefferson Starship.

NICK DERISO: By the mid-1980s, Grace had returned and Paul Kantner had departed, which led to a more pop-focused sound – and criticism from some quarters that the band had sold out. What’s your take on that?
MICKEY THOMAS: It’s a double-edged sword. It was great when Grace did come back and rejoin the band. I was excited about that. By the time the mid-1980s rolled around, Paul Kantner had left. With Knee Deep in the Hoopla, we definitely made a conscious effort to to sort of redefine ourselves and say: “Let’s go in and try to do a completely different approach to music. Let’s use a different method. Let’s try to have a couple of hit singles. Let’s just go for it.” So, we set out to do that on Hoopla and No Protection. Of course, in retrospect, when you look at my whole career, it was a very short period. But it was a short period that produced three No. 1 singles in 18 months. (Laughs.) That’s what people remember the most. Even though my career, and Starship’s career, has encompassed so much more than just that pop period. Those are the songs that have the lasting value, though. They’re the kind of fabric of people’s lives. That’s OK. The success of those songs is one of the biggest reasons why I’m still able to go out and perform 75 to 100 shows a year, and still bring the music to the people. Even people who came along a generation after that, they still know about those songs, because they were so popular. You did get some criticism for selling out, or going commercial, or whatever, and with a band like that that had its roots in the Jefferson Airplane, I think we were going to get a little more criticism than somebody who didn’t have that history would have gotten. There was such a romanticized vision of the Jefferson Airplane and the 1960s, and the whole Summer of Love and the San Francisco scene. People really wanted to hold on to that, and not have it tainted in anyway. So, I’m thankful for those songs, even while I understand the criticism. But that was just a small part of my career, and a small part of what I do.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Craig Chaquico goes in depth on some favorites songs from Jefferson Starship, as well as key moments from his subsequent solo albums.]

NICK DERISO: Certainly, Starship wasn’t the only band transformed by the 1980s, be that by adding synthesizers or by doing high-concept videos. Heart did it. Journey did it. Chicago did it.
MICKEY THOMAS: If you wanted to survive, if you wanted to continue to be a viable band and make records, and to stay together, then you better conform to the times. At that point in time, it has reached a point that if you didn’t get Top 40 airplay, and you weren’t on MTV, then you just weren’t part of the game. You had to have that presence.

NICK DERISO: Take us back to your time with Gideon Daniels, and how that influenced your singing style.
MICKEY THOMAS: Gideon Daniels was my mentor. I was interested in music, and interesting in singing, before I met Gideon. But I don’t think I really knew how to sing until after my experience with Gideon. I grew up in south Georgia, and I initially got into music, of course, through the Beatles, the Stones and all of the other bands from the first British Invasion. But then once I got deeper into music, I gravitated toward the great soul singers of the ’60s — Otis, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke, Aretha. Then, when I met Gideon, who was a gospel singer straight out of the church, hearing him sing then I realized where all of those great singers had gotten it from. Most of them had either grown up in the church, or were heavily influenced by the black gospel music of the times in developing their style. Gideon really taught me how to use my voice in that way. There were never really any kind of formal lessons. We would just sort of walk around all day, and he would sing gospel songs — and I would try to imitate him. (Laughs.) He was obviously my biggest influence. He also introduced my to Elvin Bishop, which ultimately got me into that band. Then, of course, that led to “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” and then one thing led to another.

[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: How has your relationship with “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” grown? Do you approach it differently all of these years later?
MICKEY THOMAS: My approach really hasn’t changed a lot. I’ve always tried to maintain my roots, to try to keep the elements in my singing that I think I am best at — that whole R&B and gospel influence. I was able to kind of translate that into the Jefferson Starship. Your presentation might evolve, as you say, over the decades, but I always try to bring it back home to what I think I do best — to what my initial influences were, and are.

NICK DERISO: “Sara” was a textured moment, something that really stood out in that period.
MICKEY THOMAS: When you think about the exuberance pop of “We Built The City” or the kind of mainstream fashion of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” “Sara” had a solemn quality to it — and much more depth musically. Peter Wolf, who produced Knee Deep in the Hoopla and part of No Protection, he wrote the song for me. He’s a great musician, classically trained. He wrote something that was unusual for that time, something with a kind of haunting quality to it. All of my musician and sessions friends down in LA at that point in time, as soon as “Sara” hit the radio, were calling me and saying: “Wow, man. I love that. How did you get that sound?” It was an audiophile song.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Craig Chaquico talks about his blues-rocking release ‘Fire Red Moon,’ and his musical journey from Jefferson Starship into acoustic contemporary instrumentals.]

NICK DERISO: You’ve often said the troubled 1989 album ‘Love Among the Cannibals,’ the last with Craig Chaquico, is your favorite. What makes that one so special, considering the circumstances?
MICKEY THOMAS: It’s my favorite because I think it’s the best collection of songs, at least as far as my own personal tastes went then. I think it’s the album sonically that holds up better now. If I put that record on, it still sounds fresher and a lot more modern compared to today’s standards than all of the records we did in the 1980s. It’s just the one that, for my personal tastes, I would enjoy going back and listening to. It still sounds fresh to me. Of course, there was a lot of other stuff going on during the making of that record. Grace had left the band, and then Paul was suing the band. Then Grace was suing Paul, and Paul was suing Grace — and they were suing our manager. That’s kind of what made me come up with the title, and the song “Love Among the Cannibals.” I thought: “Wow, these people kind of exemplify the whole love generation of the late 1960s, peace and love and wearing flowers in your hair and let’s change the world — and now all they want to do is sue each other. (Laughs.) So, Love Among the Cannibals was my statement about all of that.

NICK DERISO: I was surprised to see Paul Kantner jump start his own version of Jefferson Starship again. Has that hurt your brand?
MICKEY THOMAS: I didn’t expect it, because part of our settlement agreement was that no one — especially Paul (laughs) — could ever use the name Jefferson Starship again. He’s just determined to do it anyway. The people who have the most ability to stop him from doing that would be Grace Slick and Bill Thompson, and they just sort of acquiesced and said: “You know, it’s really not worth another battle.” So, they just sort of let him have his way. There’s no denying that sometimes it creates a little confusion in the minds of the audience. So, I just try to do everything I can to educate them that, OK, there’s two different entities out there that are completely different musically. They sort of focus more on the Airplane history of the band, and a lot of Paul’s solo stuff. I’m more of like “Jane,” and beyond.

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

NICK DERISO: The Bluesmasters album from a couple of years back found you returning to your early roots. Meanwhile, Craig has made his own blues-focused recording recently. That had me thinking about a reunion. Any chance of that?
MICKEY THOMAS: I haven’t ruled that out. Craig and I have remained friends over the years, and we were very, very close during our time together in the band. Under the right circumstances, in the right situation, I don’t see why we couldn’t do something. I would never rule that out.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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