Jefferson Starship’s Embryonic Journey Continues

When one looks beyond the many hits – no less than 18 charting singles – the history of Jefferson Starship is admittedly a complicated one. Rising from the ashes of beloved and influential ‘60s band Jefferson Airplane, the band launched in 1972 has gone through myriad lineup changes, name changes and musical styles. But a mainstay from the group’s earliest days to present day is multi-instrumentalist and singer David Frieberg. Just ahead of a tandem tour with fellow rock-era musical veterans Marshall Tucker Band, Frieberg spoke with me about his life in music, and the enduring appeal of Jefferson Starship.

Jefferson Starship today (Frieberg front and center)

Your musical foundation is in classical, and then folk. How did that all progress?

I did play violin and viola when I was in high school, and I enjoyed that. Somehow my family would never agree to get me a guitar!

I left Cincinnati, which is where I grew up, Christmas Eve of ‘59; my wife at the time and I took a train to San Francisco. We didn’t last very long; I think we met just so we could move to California! And when we split up, I said to myself, “I think I should get a guitar.” So I bought one.

Until I got to California, I never even considered that it would be possible that I would earn a living playing music. I was being programmed to become a lawyer or something. Oh, boy! That was never going to happen. Even when I was busy doing poorly in college, I spent a lot more time singing in choruses and beer halls than I did studying.

Folk singing was really big back then; everybody listened to the Kingston Trio. But I was interested in Pete Seeger also, because when I was a kid, I loved the Weavers. And so I started playing folk music and getting into a little left wing politics.

How did you go from that to rock, making six albums with Quicksilver Messenger Service?

I ended up with a job with Southern Pacific Railroad in their freight department, at the main office in San Francisco. But I ended up making more money playing on the weekends at folk clubs. So I just left. I met Paul Kantner; we became buddies, and we tried to do various musical stuff together. But I ended up starting Quicksilver.

Back in ‘67 when all that was really getting going in San Francisco, did you feel part of some bigger movement?

Yes, were part of the community. We could feel that everybody in that community was really behind us. You felt really good just walking down the street, because you knew everybody.

And then the tourists came; they were running Gray Line buses up and down the street.

Yeah: “Oh, look at the hippies!”

Exactly.

How did you end up joining Jefferson Starship in ‘72?

I ended up getting busted for smoking pot, and I was in jail. And then Paul came and visited me and said, “I’ve got together with Marty Balin; we’ve got this band and we’re calling it Jefferson Starship.” And I said, “Wow, that sounds great.” They didn’t keep me in jail that long; I think I sat there 30 days, and they realized I wasn’t going to make bail, so they ROR’d [released on recognizance] me because they didn’t want to feed me!

It seems like at one time or another you have taken on every musical role in Jefferson Starship except drummer…

Thank God they didn’t ask me to do that!

As a classically trained musician, do those different instruments all come naturally to you? And which do you prefer?
When I got into Quicksilver Messenger Service, they didn’t have a bass player, so I started playing bass. I’d never done it before. And I played some keyboards, too.

Keyboards, I never took any lessons. There was a piano in the house when I was a kid, and I think I played it more than my brothers and sisters who took piano lessons. I knew how to read music, and I knew where all the notes were, and then I just kept on. It’s a good instrument to write songs on because you have the whole range.

In Quicksilver and in Jefferson Starship, I would never play a keyboard solo; just little licks. There’s the lick in “Miracles” that I played on organ. It turned out to be the little hook at the beginning of the song. Every now and then, something magic happens; that’s how I look at it.

Right now I’m preferring to play the guitar because everything else is pretty much covered. That’s covered, too, really. Singing is why I’m there; that was my first love.

To what degree does the band adhere to the sound and the arrangements of the original recordings?

We try to keep the spirit of the original arrangements there. I mean, it isn’t going to be exactly the same because we have different personalities playing the instruments. We all feel free to do whatever we need to do to have a good time, because that’s basically why we’re all still doing this.
I left in ‘84, and didn’t rejoin Jefferson Starship until after the Starship thing happened. I rejoined in 2005. But Chris Smith, though, joined Paul’s Jefferson Starship in 1998. So he’s actually been playing with us for more than 25 years! And I don’t think anybody else has played that long a stretch, uninterrupted.

The group’s sound has changed radically and then changed again and again since the beginning. In concert, you’ve got less than two hours in which to balance the crowd pleasers with the ones that you most enjoy playing. How does the band choose a set list?

It’s always a problem, because there are so many songs. There are certain songs that everybody wants to hear. We’ll play some Airplane stuff, because Jefferson Starship always did play some Airplane stuff. And I was in the Airplane for the very last tour. And we can’t leave out some of the beautiful Marty Balin stuff from the ‘70s.

Luckily, we enjoy playing the ones that most people want to hear. I enjoy playing all of them, actually. Even the ones from when I wasn’t in the group; I wasn’t in Starship when they dropped the Jefferson. But we do three of those, usually. And I enjoy singing them, so it’s fun.

The most recent Jefferson Starship studio album is Mother of the Sun from 2020. That record got a lot of positive reviews, many noting the album’s sonic connections with the earliest days of the group, and even to the Airplane. It even features a live recording of the band playing a Jefferson Airplane classic, “Embryonic Journey.” Going forward, is there a possibility of new studio recordings?

Our main problem is we don’t all live in the same city. And we’re actually performing so often, it’s hard to figure out time when we can all get together. It was hard, even, for us to get Mother of the Sun made: “Okay, we’ve got two weeks here. We can actually do this.” A lot of it – overdubs and stuff – we did in our own studios.

But we have some other songs. We’ve been in the studio for two days in the last few years; we still have these songs that we never have find time to finish. So there are other ones in the works. All we have to do is stay alive!

Jefferson Starship way back when
Frieberg front row, left

Jefferson Starship has a distinctive San Francisco character. What keeps it going?

I guess it’s a matter of everybody being free to do what they want. When Cathy [Richardson, vocals and guitar] joined the band in 2008, something happened; it was special. And then when Slick Aguilar had really bad medical problems and couldn’t go on the road anymore, Jude [Gold, lead guitar] came in. And all of a sudden we felt this connection that was really happening; everybody could feel it. I know Paul noticed it, too. He really loved the band.

Grace [Slick] and China [Kantner], Paul and Grace’s daughter, really loved the band. And when were at Paul’s funeral, the kids said, “Wouldn’t you like to keep doing this?” And we said, “We would love to!” And Grace, who had the actual license, gave us the license to do it. And she even helped write some of the lyrics for one of the songs, “It’s About Time” on Mother of the Sun.

The band has gigs on its calendar through August. What else is in the future for the band?

Maybe we’ll find some time to get back to those songs that we have started, maybe get them finished. I am 85 years old. You wouldn’t think I would still be doing this, but I have to. Playing with these people is what’s keeping me alive.