Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner: “We were like Columbus, exploring the world”

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AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER’S
RCA, 1967
The psychedelic pop
of Surrealistic Pillow is replaced by jams, song-suites, sonic collages and a reworking of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Midway through the protracted sessions, the band find time to play the Monterey Pop Festival.

KANTNER: That was a little crazy and chaotic. We just went in and jammed. We were taking a lot of acid, both onstage and in the studio and everywhere else. I’ve always wanted distraction.
KAUKONEN: We were running two eight-track machines side-by-side. And, because we’d had a hit with Surrealistic Pillow, we had an unlimited budget. So all of a sudden we had all this money, all this technology, endless time to mess around and create things. The songs are long, they’re convoluted, there’s overdubbing up the wazoo.
KANTNER: We had a good time at the mansion we rented while we recorded. Our first album took a week. Baxter’s took seven months.
KAUKONEN: We became rock stars. The Beatles had rented this house when they came to LA, so of course we had to rent it, and it had all kinds of absurd amenities. A pistol range, and a window into the pool underwater. I think we enjoyed being famous and enjoyed having money, and I’m sure some abuses went along with it. It was a non-stop carnival. Neil Young was there, Stephen Stills was there, Crosby was an old friend of Kantner’s. And people you didn’t even know.
CASADY: We even put a free-form instrumental [“Spare Chaynge”] on the album. For RCA it was sort of horrific.
KAUKONEN: The line in Grace’s “Rejoyce” – “I’d rather have my country die for me” – a lot of people found that unbelievably offensive, and seditious. We really didn’t care.

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CROWN OF CREATION
RCA, 1968
Adopting a heavier rock sound – influenced by Cream – Marty Balin feels increasingly isolated. David Crosby contributes his song “Triad”, which had been rejected by The Byrds.

KANTNER: A lot of the lyrics on title-track “Crown Of Creation” came from John Wyndham by accident. We had explored probably every button on the studio board during Baxter’s. So now that we got to Crown Of Creation, we could use them sound-wise and idea-wise, and brought all sorts of things to bear on that album that were subtler than Baxter’s, but I think equally exciting.
CASADY: Was Marty on the outside by then? It sounds so neat and tidy, at the time I’m not so sure. Marty was dealing with the fact that there was another hugely strong personality in Grace Slick, and you’ve gotta understand, at the time, hardly anyone had seen a woman in a rock band really strong like that. But Marty was opening up his singing style, too, to match the improvisatory style of the way Jorma and I were driving the band. Jorma and I were starting to faction off together as a musical entity, and Marty was left on his own a little bit. Crown Of Creation displayed some of those different directions on the record.
KANTNER: We were close to Crosby and Stills. We’d all grown up musically together. Everybody was in that clusterfuck, if you will, and learned and expanded. It was just a sense of adventure and exploration. “The House At Pooneil Corners” explored the dark side of taking off into the world and exploring, and what to do about it. The violence and riots then, the Black and White Panthers, it’s not like we didn’t take notice of shit. But I like to think we were taking notice in a positive way. That’s why we left that one where it was at the end of the album. Notes of caution, where necessary…

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VOLUNTEERS
RCA, 1969
“Up against the wall, motherfuckers!” the Airplane jeer on “We Can Be Together”. Volunteers offers a more militant vision than in 1967, but songs such as “Wooden Ships” – shared with CSN – paint a more rounded picture of the counterculture, and the band, at the end of the ’60s.

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KANTNER: I took that line “Up against the wall, motherfuckers” off some graffiti. RCA Victor didn’t like to use bad language on records. That was one of the first times we went head to head with them, and we got away with pretty much everything. Did we feel we were in a revolutionary situation, which we could contribute towards? In a way. I don’t think it’s a position any of us consciously tried to take up, other than giving people an opinion to investigate – although we had contacts with everyone from Abbie Hoffman to Black Panthers, people united in an unspoken connection. That was the point of “We Can Be Together”. An element of put-on too? Exactly. Volunteers for me is one of my more splendid albums.
KAUKONEN: It’s easy to be a “revolutionary” when there’s no possibility you’re going to be shot or put in prison. My grandmother, who emigrated from Russia in the late 1800s, was a Jew fleeing Russia, and her family was killed by Cossacks, and when they left, they killed Cossacks. That’s a revolutionary. Yes, we spoke out. But for me, it’s like an art revolutionary.
CASADY: The iconic songs are “Volunteers” and “We Can Be Together”. Paul loved looking out over the great masses of people, holding his guitar up like an AK-47. I preferred orchestrating parts when everyone had left the studio. I didn’t have that sense of confrontation that’s in those songs’ lyrics. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t emotionally affected by it, and sometimes I was very, very emotionally affected by it. We were all children of that time, of Vietnam and the assassinations, and all of that anger comes out in the music, and all of that disappointment, too. Volunteers was also the first album we recorded in San Francisco. Wally Heider started a studio that looked like a San Francisco turn-of-the-century environment inside, with stained glass and wood accoutrements, and cut-glass chandeliers. And I hit my first bass note, and everything rattled! After one note, they had to strip everything out.

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