The Jefferson Airplane - interviews with Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, and Jack Casady

 

These interviews occured on August 7, 1999, following a performance of Jefferson Starship at the 4th Annual Gathering on the Mountain Festival, at Big Boulder/ Jack Frost Ski Resort, near the town of Blakeslee in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania.

See also my review of the Jefferson Airplane 1989 reunion concert here

Marty Balin was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, January 30, 1942.

Craig Morrison : The other day, I was in a record store and saw an odd
CD called San Francisco Live, with the Jefferson Airplane, the Dead, It’s A Beautiful Day, but also people that weren’t from the city, like Taj Mahal, John Hammond, and Gordon Lightfoot. And it had a song that you did with the Town Criers called “Hell Bound Train.”

Marty Balin : Really ? Yeah, that was the folk days ; I was in different folk groups. The Town Criers were pretty popular. I started writing songs in that band. I was influenced by a lot of folk music that I heard. I toured and played with Pete Seeger, Odetta, people like this, and really dug it.

But I was interested in lots of music because when I was growing up my father would take me to see some of the greats : Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald. I saw Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa have a drum battle, with footlights and giant shadows ; it would go back and forth. I always dug big bands from being a kid.

We used to listen to the radio. Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” was one of my family’s favorites [sings :] “hey, get rhythm when you get the blues, get rhythm.” My sister one time was having a party and my folks were gone, and she said, “You can stay up if you don’t tell the folks.” So I stayed up and they had three records, one was “Hound Dog” by Elvis Presley, which, when I first heard that, changed my life. I was a little kid but it had a lot of meaning for me, energy. They had Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” and Charles Brown’s “Walkin’ the Blues.” [Since I can find no mention of Charles Brown recording this title, I believe Balin is referring to the 1955 recording by Champion Jack Dupree, his biggest hit. This fits with the time period, as the other records mentioned were hits in 1956.] That changed my life right then. It struck a chord in my being, as something true to me, music was something true.

When I was a kid I was in church choirs, I sang on street corners, I was always into music. I even hung out with Ralph Mathis, who was Johnny Mathis’s brother and Johnny was the biggest thing in the world at the time, so we used to wear the clothes and go to see the best jazz people in the world with Johnny. I dug a lot of that.

I was doing this folk stuff but I wasn’t happy. I wanted use electricity on my guitars and I wanted to have a drum, and folk didn’t really do that too much. Then I heard Trini Lopez do a folk song with an electric guitar, I forget what it was at the moment, but I said that’s it : folk’s got to have electric. [Balin is likely referring to “If I Had A Hammer,” a #3 hit in 1963, that featured Trini Lopez singing and strumnming an electric guitar, accompanied by an electric bassist and a drummer. Two members of the Weavers, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, wrote it in 1958 as “The Hammer Song.”] Then the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan [in 1964] and I said. “Well hell, man, I know I’m right on the beam baby, you know, come on !” I tried to get things happening in town but nobody would hire us because we had a drummer and we had electricity on our guitars. I said, “To hell with it, I’ll open my own nightclub.” So I opened the Matrix, and out of the woodwork came all these other people who were doing the same thing : Janis Joplin, the Warlocks—became the Dead—Santana Blues Band, Steve Miller Blues Band. It was great. Plus, at the time, comedy was a big trip so all the comedians came down for opening night and played a set. It was a success overnight, bam ! We were on our way. There was nothing there on that street when I did it.

1965

CM : How did you come up with the name ‘Matrix’ ?

MB : Actually it was one of the partners of the club. I was playing in the folk club and these girls would come in and watch me and one night they brought their boyfriends. I was talking to them and they said they each had three thousand [dollars] and they were looking for something to invest in. I said, “Give it to me !” They said, “What will you do with it ?” I said, “I’ll open a nightclub, you can have the nightclub and I’ll create a band and I’ll have the band.” And they gave it to me.

CM : I always pictured you as a romantic balladeer. Does your vocal style come from people like Johnny Mathis ?

MB : I picked up something from everybody. I got to hang around in the early days of the Fillmores and stuff. I got to hang around with Muddy Waters a lot. I thought Muddy was god for a while. And then Otis came around. It was me and Bill Thompson, the road manager [of the Jefferson Airplane] who told [concert promoter] Bill Graham to hire Otis Redding, because we had heard “These Arms of Mine” that had just came out and we were hypnotized. We said Bill you got to get this guy, and Bill would listen to all the bands and if they wanted to see someone he’d get them. He was very open to that. After Otis [played] I hung around Otis for a long time. I really idolized him ; I thought Otis was the greatest performer I ever saw in my life. Before Monterey [Pop Festival, June 1967] he played the Fillmore many times. I can remember days when there would be 50 people there, and me Janis and Pigpen [of the Grateful Dead] sitting on the floor getting drunk, getting off on Otis Redding, going nuts. Did you ever hear that Otis in Paris live album ? Dig that out, that’s a cool one.

I wrote “It’s No Secret” for Otis Redding [to sing]. I admired him so. I never did get it to him though. I was always so shy around the guy, it was funny. When we did Monterey and we came off the stage, Otis was standing there, ready to go on. He came up to me and he said, “Man, it’s a pleasure to be on the stage with you.” What a compliment ! I said “Well, Otis, it’s an honor to go on and open them up for you.” He went on and shattered them.

Paul Kantner was born in San Francisco, March 17, 1941.

Paul Kantner : The Weavers were my prime teachers. I sit at the feet of the Weavers, still. They were all very different people. Probably all together they make up one perfect human being, sort of like our band, Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship. The Weavers and Pete Seeger particularly. What got me into music was Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo book. I was a banjo player, played in college, still play banjo, love banjo. Ronnie Gilbert was the reason I wanted to work with a woman singer, just because she so obviously added a great unknown quantity that takes you far beyond even the expectations of a known. I never saw the Weavers perform, that was my one great loss, only Pete, and he was good on his own. I really wish I had seen the Weavers because they were so invigorating to my songwriting approach, to life, and to what you’re supposed to do as a band, whether you are a rock and roll band, a folk band as they were, or whatever. It’s just sort of an overall Grecian equivalent of everything you are supposed to do : good, bad, indifferent, drunken party boys to severe ascetic, almost Amish kind of Pete-Seeger-dedication to the cause.
The Weavers

Ian and Sylvia was another fine folk band. Sometimes when we play acoustic, I do “Four Strong Winds” and another one of theirs I was fond of. “You Were On my Mind” [an Ian and Sylvia song, written by Sylvia Tyson, and remade into a folk rock hit] by the We Five is a good tune : beautiful chord changes and melody.

The first album [Jefferson Airplane Takes Off] was folky, it didn’t click though. Nobody could figure it out and we were sort of amateurish. We got censored by the record company for “trips,” [in “Runnin’ Round the World”] can you imagine that ? But the second one [Surrealistic Pillow] was better. “White Rabbit” was censored though, heavily ! It was the downfall of Western civilization. We got more professional on the second album, it was a little better recorded with a little more professional producer, and help from [Jerry] Garcia arranging. It took off.

Craig Morrison : But it had shifted from folk rock to something else by that point.

PK : Right, but there was no name for it, because when you do new stuff there’s no name for it, if you’re new enough. That’s the nature of the beast and if you can get away with that, and do it well, you did what we did and got away with it. Should have been arrested, should have probably been executed about five or ten times over by now, but we haven’t been. What does that mean ?

CM : Has being able to play the banjo influenced what you did in Jefferson Airplane ?

PK : Oh yeah everything, those modal banjo tunings, Appalachian, not hillbilly, somewhere between that and New York professional bluegrass banjo players like Eric Weissberg [known for his 1963 album with Marshall Brickman New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass, and for playing, with Steve Mandell, “Dueling Banjos,” the theme from the 1972 film Deliverance], and Dick Weissman [a member of The Journeymen, along with John Phillips, later of The Mamas and the Papas, and Scott McKenzie ; The Journeymen formed in 1961 and disbanded in 1964]. "Volunteers" is just an old hillbilly tune, an old fiddle tune, banjo tune. David Crosby turned me onto the lick.

CM : Did you play in open tunings on your guitar ?

PK : Yeah, “Blows Against the Empire” is a C tuning, just ones and fives. You finger to get the thirds when you need them. But it’s total banjo shit, like “Pretty Polly.”

CM : That’s in the folklorist’s category of the murdered girl ballad. It’s a classic tune.

PK : Yeah it is, dark and evil. “Polly” was one of the songs I used to do as a solo folky before I started the band.

CM : Never recorded it ?

PK : No, never recorded it. Too simple.

Jack Casady was born in Washington D.C., April 13, 1944.

Craig Morrison : Jefferson Airplane’s style evolved very rapidly, very early and your bass playing was a big part of it. Your sound on the bass was unlike any one else’s. How did you come up with it, not just the tone, but the choice of notes ?

Jack Casady : It’s a good question. Some of my friends in Washington, when they heard me play back in D.C. in the five years I played before age 21—before I moved out to San Francisco to join the Jefferson Airplane two months after it was formed in 1965— said that I was actually developing that kind of style then, but I didn’t have a vehicle to use it in. Because then a lot of the bands you played with in the bars had to play a lot of cover songs. I guess what I really needed was a group where everybody had the freedom to write all their own music and work on the styles that they play. If you’re making your own songs—working on them from scratch—and it’s the right time in your development, in your formative years where you’ve practiced some other styles but you haven’t locked yourself down into anything yet, then if luck and timing have it, you get yourself into a situation where you’re making your own music. Then you can manage to create your own style and approach to the music. That’s what happened for me.

In the Jefferson Airplane, everybody came from a different musical background, so nobody was really trying to dictate to me how to play the bass or what I should play. I’ve always liked melody, I’ve liked concert music and I’ve liked the different roles of an orchestra, and the way the lower the lows go to the higher the highs. I just happen to play the bass, so I would play all the notes that I had on a bass, sometimes with some modicum of success, and sometimes not. I still really loved certain other bass players—Duck Dunn with Booker T and The MGs was always one of my favorite bass players—but I didn’t feel it was necessary for me to emulate him ; he did his thing and I loved the music that he did. I had to find my own approach and try to play the notes that I was hearing in my head and get them out. I just happen to play the bass guitar, so that’s where it happens.

CM : Did you take some of the cover band experience with you into your style ?

JC : Not really. I listened to a lot of different music and also played guitar before bass. I love the emotion in different kinds of music. I’d listen to jazz and classical and a lot of blues, a lot of folk music, and I’d listen to it all as music and then somehow in my role as a bass player I would use all that, rather than just finding a bass player and trying to play like him. Probably the best thing that happened to me was being born in Washington [D.C.] and being able to go down to the Howard Theater and listen to all those bands that came through there in the mid to late-’50s. I saw Ike and Tina Turner when they first started, and Little Richard, any of the people of that early ilk at the time. Later on I got to see a lot of jazz and a lot of blues coming through D.C. as well. I liked Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry and I got to hear all those people. Then the next night I’d go down to Constitution Hall and hear [20th century classical composer] Prokofiev or something. It was all available. I listened to a lot of bluegrass at the same time. That was fortunate. I just really loved music when it was played well and played honestly by people. That was my big influence rather than the specific instrument.

CM : How did you come up with that fabulous tone on the bass ?

JC : Just trial and error. Everybody has their own tone if they strive for it. I do some teaching now out at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp and I encourage my students to find their own sound. Everybody’s unique and has a unique approach and their own tone is somewhere in there.

CM : Do you think it has anything to do with vocal sound ?

JC : I love vocalists. I can’t sing worth a crap but I have formed a lot of my music around vocalists and around songs. I love songs more so than instrumental music just for instrumental music’s sake. My reason for playing is a good song. If it’s a good song then I’m inspired.


comments or questions ? email me

I have posted interviews with members of the Doors, Electric Prunes, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Music Machine, Quickislver Messenger Service, and Strawbery Alarm Clock. To go to the index page, click here.

you may be interested to read Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context, and Evolution by Craig Morrison, available as a download from lulu.com for less than $5

I recommend Got A Revolution ! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane by Jeff Tamarkin. Click here to go to the website for the book.

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006