NEW YORK -- Grace Slick sees a certain irony in success. The veteran singer, who turns 48 on Oct. 30, has been fronting one of San Francisco's best-known groups, the Jefferson Airplane-turned-Starship, on and off since the mid-1960s.
'When the Jefferson Airplane was the first San Francisco group to sign a major-label contract in the '60s,' she said, 'everybody said we were selling out then. So I guess I'm supposed to have been selling out for the last 20 years.'
Starship's recent success has been with hit singles. In the space of 18 months the band had three straight number one singles, 'We Built This City,' 'Sarah' and 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now.' The next single,'It's Not Over ('Til It's Over),' reached the top 10 and became the unofficial theme song of the San Francisco Giants in their drive to the National League playoffs.
The irony is that the group nearly went under several years ago after co-founder Paul Kantner left. At the time Slick wasn't even in the band, which was primarily a vehicle for vocalist Mickey Thomas and guitarist Craig Chaquico.
'The band kind of evolved with different people coming in at different times,' Thomas said. 'Back in 1974 it was Paul and Grace's band, but then it evolved to the point where Grace had left and it became much more of a democracy, supposedly, where everybody was gonna have an equal say.
'But once the band started moving away from the direction Paul envisioned, he really tried to assert his power and authority over the direction of the band. The rest of us were asking, don't we have something to say about this? Isn't this an equal band? Pretty soon it evolved into a situation where it was the band on this side and Paul on the other side.
'It must have been frustrating for him,' Chaquico said, 'because when the band first started we were all encouraged to write and contribute music. It really was a democracy then although since Paul agreed with everything it really wasn't an issue. When Mickey joined we started branching out more, playing hard rock, so the rest of our songwriting started to become more prominent in the image of the band.
'Also Paul didn't play a lot on the albums. I ended up playing almost all the guitar parts. It finally ended up with Paul making demands that he have control over all the material that would go on the record. We just weren't gonna go for it so that was kind of the last straw.
'It got to the point,' Thomas continued, 'where he said 'If I can't have my way, then I'll quit.' So he quit. Then, after he quit he said 'There can be no Jefferson Starship if I'm not part of it.' Then the litigation started.'
As part of the settlement with Kantner, the group agreed to call itself just Starship. 'We had really been tossing around the idea of dropping the Jefferson from our name anyway,' Thomas said, 'because we thought that musically and personnel wise the band had evolved to the point where we were no longer really a part of that early Jefferson Starship. We were different people with a different sound and a different identity.'
With Kantner out and Slick back in the band was free to move in new directions. Outside songwriters were auditioned for new material, and Starship started from scratch.
'The last two albums are more song-oriented,' Thomas said. 'It's a little more of a modern sound. We felt that we had reached a point about three years ago, we had an audience of 500,000 to 750,000 album buyers for every record. We were kind of making the same album for about three records in a row, so we really wanted to take a chance and go for a change in musical direction.
'We tried to expand our audience and get into a little of that top 40 format without losing our album base. We did that but we thought maybe we alienated some of the older fans, so when we did this album we tried to get more back toward the late '70s roots of the Starship, and we alienated our top 40 fans.'
One thing the new material does is form the basis of an enjoyable live show, highlighted by the anthemic exchanges between Slick and Thomas on 'We Built This City' and 'Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now.'
'I think this is the best live show we've ever had,' Chaquico said.
Slick shares that view. 'One of the positive things is that everybody's good on their instrument,' she said. 'Nothing will fall apart on stage. That makes you feel secure as a singer. I enjoy being onstage now. Fifteen years ago I liked touring but not being onstage. I'm more comfortable now because the band is in sync musically.
'It's a good thing because we're going to have to keep touring to make ends meet. We didn't make any money from those hits because we didn't write the songs. We don't have that hard core cult following like the Grateful Dead, and we don't have any exploding lizards in our act. Our drummer doesn't turn upside down while he plays. In order to stay alive we have to keep going out on tour year after year.'