Something Else! Interview: Jefferson Starship’s Paul Kantner on science fiction, Slick Aguilar, and a concert on Mars

An abiding passion for science fiction led Paul Kantner to transform his psychedelic 1960s-era Jefferson Airplane into Jefferson Starship over the subsequent decade — and it still guides his stewardship of the band today.

Jefferson Starship, which relaunched in 1992 with a lineup that initially included ’70s-era members Jack Casady and Papa John Creach as well as then-newcomer Mark “Slick” Aguilar, recently issued a double-live album Tales from the Mothership that took place at the perfect setting, in Roswell, N.M.

There, as on recordings like 2008′s Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty, Kantner steers the band back towards its roots — mixing and matching songs from the Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship repertoires, along with other legacy music that contextualizes their contributions to rock. As with Kantner’s most memorable work with the group over 15 years beginning in 1970, everything is held together with stardust.

Ultimately, that brings it closer in feel to Blows Against the Empire, a Kantner solo album with a sci-fi theme that ostensibly launched the Jefferson Starship, than it with any of the mid-1980s chart-topping confections subsequently issued under Mickey Thomas’ Starship banner.

Thomas, with whom Kantner had a successful collaboration between 1979-84, is leading a separate group focusing on the more pop-oriented fare that followed their split. Guitarist Craig Chaquico, who spanned both incarnations, had departed by 1990, as well.

Meanwhile, Kantner continues with classic-era member David Freiberg, Donny Baldwin (who previously appeared in the early-1980s Kantner-Thomas lineups), Cathy Richardson (filling in for the retired Grace Slick) and Jude Gold, who took Aguilar’s spot after the guitarist was forced to retire in 2012 because of health issues. An on-going tour brings Jefferson Starship to Norfolk, Connecticut on Thursday, March 13, 2014.

Aguilar contracted hepatitis C, which led to a harrowing 16-hour-long liver transplant. He must now take more than 30 pills everyday — one of which, he says, costs $1,000 each.

Kantner spoke to us, as part of this exclusive SER Sitdown, in advance of a benefit concert to be held for the guitarist at 8 p.m. Friday, March 14, 2014 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J. The Aguilar benefit will feature Marty Balin, founding vocalist with Jefferson Starship, as well as Foreigner’s Lou Gramm.

“Slick is still working on his health,” Kantner tells us. “I don’t know if and when he may rejoin us. In the meantime, Jude is filling in quite admirably.”

Jefferson Starship’s legend initially grew out of a free Central Park concert, held in 1975 — well before the breakout Red Octopus album, and its Balin-sung hit “Miracles,” arrived. Not that Kantner could predict just where things were headed. He just liked the setting: “I never sense the group is on the verge of anything,” he says. “We carry on, in our own way, and what comes out of it is normally entirely unpredictable. My favorite places to play are outdoors, in the parks.”

After Balin’s initial departure, Jefferson Starship emerged with a heavier sound heard on turn-of-the-1980s songs like Freiberg’s “Jane” — and it seemed like the band had been reborn. That made Jefferson Starship’s eventual turn toward the pop mainstream all the more surprising for the quickly departing Kantner.

He took the “Jefferson” portion of the name, and has since reasserted a seminal interest in folk music since starting the band up again — including several adaptations of songs by the Weavers, for instance, on Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. The impetus, Kantner says, was “just the very glory of the Weavers, and all that they contributed to my idea of how to be a band.”

A childhood interest with the works of fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis — specifically, he says Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planent, “still classic masterpieces” — fires Kantner’s imagination even today. “Science fiction, for me, was an escape from the harsh environment I was in — a Catholic, all boys, military boarding school,” Kantner says. “Actually, an escape to, not an escape from: It was an adventure, an exploration of discovery and wonder.”

Kantner even found himself arrested once, quite memorably, with none other than Carl Sagan when both were trying to sneak into Area 51. Looking back, he says that happened “just by the circumstances of being in that mode,” adding: “We shared similar beliefs and goals.”

As for what lies ahead, there has been talk of presenting mid-1970s Jefferson Starship albums like Dragonfly or Red Octopus in their entirety. But, it seems, Kantner has his sights on higher goals — literally: “Perhaps a concert on Mars.”

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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.