Paul Kantner's hotel suite is not exactly the neatest place in the world. The living room looks like one big unmade bed: guitars, clothes, amplifiers, a portable synthesizer against one wall, lightbulbs, bottles of wine both full and empty, halves of loaves of bread, cake boxes, jugs of Poland water. Blows Against the Empire, the new Kantner solo album assisted by Jefferson Starship (Grace Slick, David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, Peter Kaukonen, Jack Casady, et a goodly number of equally heavy al.) is on the record player.
Paul emerges from the other room [Grace Slick, seven months pregnant with the future China Kantner, is trying to get some sleep therein, and offers cordial greetings but passes on the interview] wrapped in a white hotel towel and says that the record is to be listened to with total disregard for both the quality of this particular sound system and the level of the volume; he disappears again and returns fully dressed in rock&roll fatigues, worn green T-shirt and pants, no shoes.
Paul is Pisces, Libra rising; the interviewer is Pisces, Virgo rising. As usual, the best stuff missed the tape.
Patricia: We've been doing some talking about the magic piano that appears on the album, and would you like to repeat that for the folks at home?
Paul: Oh, Superpiano. Wally Heider's studio. San Francisco. Hyde Street. They have this piano there that sounds like nothing on earth; we didn't have to do anything to it, no electronic gimmicks or things like that. Some guy in L.A. put it together, and it just eclipses everything else, even the RCA pianos. That's what gives the record that churchy sound, gospel stuff. Grace and I did most of the piano playing for the album, and she can play, but I can't, but even the stuff I did do sounded great because of the piano.
Patricia: Blows Against the Empire doesn't sound particularly like Airplane music, even though most of the Airplane play on it.
Paul: It's just basic tracks. That's what my basic tracks always sound like even if they don't come out like that.
Patricia: Would that maybe be because of the musical background you in particular have? You were originally the folky member of the Airplane, banjos and things, and I notice you play solo banjo on The Baby Tree.
Paul: There's a lot of that on there, lot of acoustic guitar. Also the progressions and the way it's all put together make it sound like that. One of the tunes on the first side starts off with the riff from Let Me In [on Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, the band's first album].
Patricia: Right, and you have bits from We Can Be Together and Volunteers the song in Starship.
Paul: Yes, it is; it's the same guitar tuning.
Patricia: Who plays lead guitar on Starship? It sounds a lot like Jorma.
Paul: Not a chance. Jerry Garcia. Grace did this illustration on the inside sleeve, of Jerry when he was trying to figure out just how to play that particular thing, how to do the chord changes, fiercely concentrating.
Patricia: I notice Grace did most of the illustrations.
Paul: Yeah, the ones that appear in the libretto thing that will come with the record. We printed all the words out because otherwise nobody would be able to understand them.
Patricia: One thing I noticed, though you can't really tell from one hearing--
Paul: I haven't even heard it all myself yet. We'd be in the studio recording along, and all of a sudden we'd hear new stuff we'd forgotten about, like a month later, "Oh yeah, what's that? Far out, I don't remember doing that." There's stuff on there now that I still don't remember doing.
Patricia: How long did it take you to do it all?
Paul: Three or four months, on and off. It just involved getting everybody into the studio at appropriate times. The Dead were recording upstairs, Santana was down the hall, Quicksilver was recording there also; everybody just moved around. Whenever anybody wasn't busy doing something, I'd just grab them up. I even got Graham Nash to mix it down for me. I had spent two and a half weeks trying to get it all together, had two-track tapes going up to the ceiling, and Graham came in and did it all in two days. He did it all with headphones on. I hated him for it. But that made the mixed album fantastic for headphone listening, all these little weird things you can't pick up otherwise. What we want to do next is have Grace and me and Crosby and Jerry and Phil Lesh and Graham Nash and Neil Young and some more people all get in the studio and make a sequel album.
Patricia: My God. What will you call that group?
Paul: Oh, "Crosby, Garcia, Slick, Kantner, Young, Lesh..." The studio scene in California is sort of ridiculous anyway. We have a room about the size of this one gone floor to ceiling with tapes that happened in all possible combinations when all these people fell by the studio.
Patricia: You record in San Francisco now?
Paul: Yeah, we haven't recorded in L.A. since way before Volunteers.
Patricia: Where does the basic starship philosophical idea come from, that you use on Blows Against the Empire? There were a couple of stories about the idea's genesis -- what's the real story, Paul?
Paul: [Laughter] I haven't any idea. It started getting together somewhere and then it was there.
Patricia: No, why a specifically science-fiction concept?
Paul: Oh, 'cause I like science-fiction. If you're familiar with science-fiction...you are...well, there are pieces of Dune in it, also Stranger In A Strange Land, two Theodore Sturgeon books I really liked, some Pooh stuff, Edward Lear... The last three lines "At first I was iridescent/Then I became transparent/Finally I was absent" are a transmutation by Grace of what Jean Genet had to say about the Chicago [Democratic] Convention of 1968 -- which I can't remember, what he said...but he said it, whatever it was, about Chicago, and Chicago has to do with why we're doing the starship.
Patricia: There's been some talk about your doing a movie based on the album.
Paul: Nothing definite on that. Though I did talk to Kurt Vonnegut today; if I decide to pursue it he may have something to do with the screenplay. He's doing a movie version of Sirens of Titan, and I might do the soundtrack for that, maybe even use pieces of Blows Against the Empire for it. Vonnegut's the only new writer I've found that writes new; he writes like a singer, a lot, as far as weighing words, phrasing...
But the movie: I tend to see it in levels, like a nuclear submarine down below, with Crosby's sailboat above it, and a saucer hovering over both of them to cover all three levels.
Patricia: That's a very visual image. It seems as though the movie itself will have to be purely that -- no real script or direction.
Paul: Well, yeah, because it'll be mostly little bits and pieces of conversation. For instance, having Grace and Garcia and Crosby sitting on the deck of the starship one day coming up to the chronosynclastic infundibulum, and the dialogue would go, "(Sniff) Well, Crosby, what do you think of that thing out there?" and just picking up from that. That's the way we did the album. "Well, Crosby, what are you going to play here?" and Crosby would just pick up with a riff.
Patricia: So you might as well call it a visual album as a movie.
Paul: Right, right! And the starship is going to be basically an Earth; we'll be able to create another Earth right from the starship itself. There'll be an ocean Crosby can sail his boat on, hydroponic forests where the Grateful Dead can play free concerts; and different levels and decks, from the force deck up through the marijuana deck, probably three decks for marijuana, on up to "A" deck, which will be the top deck. Like in the song on the album, go up to "A" deck and watch the stars...
Patricia: Paul, I hate to say it but you're mumbling...
Paul: Paul's got the mumbles again is that it? [Laughter]
Patricia: Yeah...it seems that this album would be an easy one to stick subliminals into.
Paul: Any album would be, really.
Patricia: Right, but somehow this one in particular, just the way it's layered.
Paul: Actually, there is subliminal stuff there, but you can hear it if you listen close enough; sort of marginally subliminal. Mostly words, underneath the space noises, that are sung or spoken in the far background; and they're there, but if you don't know they're there you'd just pass right over them.
I'd like to play you this Al Capp thing; it's his statement about Jefferson Airplane, on a mailer that he sends out to all his fans. We got it on tape from a radio station in Boston, and we play it at all our shows and the kids go wild. If you turn it all the way up it sounds like God talking. The next voice you hear will be that of Al Capp, folks.
TAPE OF AL CAPP'S STATEMENT ON THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: One of the most popular musical groups in the country is the Jefferson Airplane. Your children flock by the tens of thousands to see them, their regular performance fee is twenty thousand dollars a night and up. Now, what is the message of the Jefferson Airplane? Well, if you're over forty, you may not get it, but your kids do. The very name of the group is a message itself. You may not know this, but your kid does. "Jefferson Airplane" is what addicts call holding a narcotic in cigarette form to their lips between two matchsticks to get maximum amount of effect [Paul: We didn't even know THAT...]. That is a Jefferson Airplane. The Jefferson Airplane also has messages for your kids in their songs. Their big hit, We Can Be Together [Paul: Big hit??!!] has one line repeated: "Up against the wall, mother!" [Paul: Finish it, man!] Now your kid knows what that line means: It means KILL COPS! [Insane laughter in the hotel room] Back in the thirties, the Germans didn't just suddenly start baking their neighbors of the Jewish faith, they were prepared for it by a massive campaign. Those campaigns to get people to kill other people, they do their job. There's one going on now. It's directed at our children. This campaign, though, is to get them to kill themselves. How often have you heard the term "acid rock group"? It's usually used in connection with gatherings of hundreds of thousands of your children, as in Woodstock. The New Dictionary of Rock defines "acid rock" as a musical group playing true psychedelic music. True psychedelic music, it goes on to say, must be conceived by minds disoriented by the use of hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD. Acid rock is composed by stoned musicians, played by stoned musicians, to generally stoned audiences. Acid rock lyrics urge young audiences to get together and get stoned. "Stoned" is defined as "dominated by other than normal consciousness, loaded on drugs." Acid rock is just another form of dope peddling.
Patricia: Solid! [Laughter]
Paul: Right on, Al, right on. Hard on...[Laughter] We're thinking of using that as the opening for our next album, and then when he sues us, we'll double whatever settlement he gets if he wins and give it to the Black Panthers. We may also sue him, too, for libel, but it's probably not worth the bother. Send him a copy of the record, though... When [Spiro] Agnew came out with that three-year-old insight about Eight Miles High and White Rabbit, we got together and sent him all our new albums, the new Dead with that cocaine train song, new Quicksilver, Crosby Stills Nash & Young with Ohio; made up a nice big thick package and sent it with a letter saying, "Here, get up on our new shit." We never heard anything from him.
Patricia: Probably gave the records to his daughter. Did you have any censorship problems with this record?
Paul: No, not a bit. We're giving RCA another record, and that should finish them. Saucers and Mexico will be on it, probably live versions; Marty [Balin] has a couple of songs, Joey [Covington, drummer]'s got a song called Bludgeon the Bluecoats -- social protest.
Patricia: There you go, taking sides again.
Paul: No, listen... "Don't think I'm on your side, I'm on nobody's side/I'm a battlefield/Burn me or mark me, explode me and beat me/I, we, you will live." That's easy. Maintain yourself and everything maintains itself around you.
Patricia: There's an ad on the back of the booklet that comes with your album that lays out what seems like a plan of action: "We intend to hijack the first sound interstellar or interplanetary starship built by the people of this planet... We need people on Earth now to begin preparing the necessary tools. There will be room for 7000 or more people. If it seems that your head is into this please write & talk about something for a bit. You will not be contacted immediately." Is this for real?
Paul: Sure. Want to go?
Patricia: Oh, absolutely.
Paul: You gotta get ready though. But you have twenty years or so. We'll have drugs to keep everybody young, develop astral traveling, get rid of your body altogether if you like.
The starship thing is really political action and reaction, the natural outgrowth of Volunteers. Having done Volunteers and seeing nothing get done, we decided to do this. You can't just sit around and make protest albums all your life; eventually it comes to the point where you have to do something. What we're saying now is you have a choice: You can stay, or you can go away. You can go out to sea, as in Wooden Ships, or you can go out into space, as in Starship. Ultimately, it'll be getting away from the concept of ships altogether; maybe what we'll do is get out into space, hit a time warp, come back, and funnel back through the sixties.
Patricia: I think it may have already happened.
Paul: Right, and now we just have to go to the other end to find out.
© Patricia Morrison, Jazz & Pop, February 1971.