Although there is no future in the past, one’s contribution to history can really tell us (and teach us) something and music is no exception to that.
For example, there have always been very talented musicians and today, there are still plenty of them around. However, some cats went further by finding a way to combine popularity or commercial success with their talent. Still, others have distinguished themselves by showing great creativity and passion for their trade along with other qualities. However, even amongst the most elite ranks, it’s not all that often that a musician can combine talent, popularity, success, creativity, and passion and then combine them all with a very unique ingredient; the ability to have affected history. For these rare few we have reserved the name “legend” and more often than not, you can find these kinds of performers in the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame.
I recently sat down with two such legends; Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. Jorma and Jack need little introduction however, to really understand their contributions and impact on modern music history, that takes some doing because there’s a lot of ground to cover. Although largely recognized for their contributions and mastery of the American blues genre as well as their respective instruments and styles, these two are flat out amazing musicians and incredibly personable folk. In 1965 Jorma was a founding member of San Francisco’s Jefferson Airplane (in fact he named the group) and following the departure of original bassist Bob Harvey, Jack joined the group. Jorma’s impact can be heard each time you hear that hauntingly brilliant lead riff in “Somebody To Love”; Jack followed suit with his extraordinary bass work on “White Rabbit.” (Both tunes were top 10 hits in 1967).
For most, the Airplane experience would have been enough particularly with the group’s induction (including Jorma and Jack of course) into the Rock N’ Roll Hall Of Fame in 1996. But there was more. Much more.
Despite the formation of Airplane in 1965 (with their first performance being 46 years ago on August 16, 1965) Jorma and Jack then paired up in 1969 to form the legendary group Hot Tuna which preceded the release of their first album (aptly entitled “Hot Tuna”) in 1970. To be part of two legendary groups at the same time is nothing short of extraordinary and probably should have served as a precursor of things to come for those paying attention, and there were many who did.
In any event, up and through today the musical partnership of Jorma and Jack—which has spanned fifty plus years—has produced countless albums (either with Airplane, Tuna, or solo projects) and the duo have logged countless (and almost inconceivable) hours on the road. If that wasn’t enough, the pair have also performed with other legends. (Jorma’s work on David Crosby’s 1971 release of “If I Could Only Remember My Name” and Warren Zevon’s 1989 release of “Transverse City” come to mind as does his “work” (Jorma might challenger that term) with Janis Joplin on the legendary “Typewriter Tapes.” For Jack, his performance on Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Chile” is a classic). Finally, Jorma and Jack also helped form history by performing at both at Monterey (1967) and Woodstock (1969).
With the advent of 2011 it is obvious that these two greats (Jorma is 70 and Jack just turned 67) have no intention of stopping or slowing down. In fact, just this year—for the first time in 20 years—Hot Tuna released a new album entitled “Steady As She Goes” (Red House Records). Fortunately for Tuna fans the guys picked up where they left off and Jorma and Jack still have their chops and on this record they have them on display, that’s for sure. But for music fans in general, “Steady As She Goes” is a rare look into the eyes of history as told by two legends who helped shape it.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with the guys. Check it out.
Why this record now? What prompted its release 20 years later so to speak?
JK: The answer to that is pretty simply. This album came together now because the timing was right for us. Before this we did have some half-hearted offers but we never really felt—until now—that we had ready what we wanted to say. This record felt right. I would say it was the “perfect storm” of creativity.
JC: I agree. Timing has a lot to do with things. When you’re ready you’re ready and Jorma and I have talked about doing a new record for the last seven years. One of the things I didn’t want to do was go into the studio without the right people. One of those right people is Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin) whose been playing with us for about seven years. I also wanted a great drummer—which was Skoota Warner—and a great producer—which was Larry Campbell—as well as a rhythm section which would allow me to work on song structures and to make sure that Jorma had great songs to sing with. That’s one of the reasons why it did take so long; we had to get the right combination of people. And, I didn’t want to do live material as there is so much of that out there. I wanted to go with new material and material that we created in the studio. That’s the most fun to me. Also, we had things to say. I’m 67 and Jorma and I are “men.” We wanted to share our experiences.
Jack, interesting point. So you didn’t want to do a live record?
JC: No, I wanted the studio atmosphere. I didn’t want to duplicate any great heights that had been done at a live performance. I would leave that to a live performance.
Do either of you think you could have done this record earlier?
JK: Honestly, I think this was really the first time we could have done it. I think if we would have had the right offer we would have taken it. But as it turned out we were ready for this one just at the right time.
In looking back on your respective careers starting in the 1960s with Airplane and Tuna and up and through the years, did you ever imagine that you would be forging history along the way and can you look back and appreciate how important these contributions were as well as your impact on music history?
JK: Not really because I don’t think it’s possible to think of yourself that way. As I’m watching my daughter it reminds me that the miracle of life is not what’s happened before but what’s happening now. The past is important, I know, and we learn from it but I keep it in perspective. I don’t minimize it but I do understand the affect. I know, for example, that what happened in San Francisco in the mid-60s was such an anomaly it was almost like a parallel universe.
JC: For me, not at all. I don’t think we were aware as such. We knew that there was stuff going on but Jorma and I always just enjoyed the simplicity of an acoustic guitar and a bass. I think we did have a unique approach to music and that we were in the right place at the right time. We were also lucky to have had audiences at that time that would accept a bass player playing a more melodic role and a guitar player playing with his fingers instead of loud and wild stuff. Within that realm we then realized that we were doing something a little bit different but we really never dwelled upon that.
Now you both were at Monterey and Woodstock. What do you remember the most about them and do you think we’ll ever experience anything like them again?
JK: I don’t think we’ll ever see something like that again and that’s really because it’s been done. Woodstock was such an explosion of reality. In fact, a few years ago I played at a festival that was larger than Woodstock but it didn’t have the same feeling. I doubt you could re-create Woodstock’s sense of musical community and cultural community. I know we had Woodstock 2 and 3 and so forth butI don’t see it happening. But, we’re always waiting for the next big thing.
JC: For me, Monterey was the first time I really got to see it all from the outside so to speak. When you start out you’re in a club and there are some people around and over time it builds up but at Monterey you had all these different kinds of people that were listening to greats like Otis Redding and some people hadn’t even heard Otis Redding by that time. And then you had the English bands like Jimi Hendrix and you also had some of the L.A. bands and the San Francisco bands. It was humbling to hear how many different kinds of music there were and yet there was also a unifying experience. People were absorbing it and they were ready to flow along. Now, Monterey was different because it was the first and it was on a smaller scale. At Woodstock there was this new music culture that formed and no one thought that that many people would be there and that was a phenomenon unto itself.
When you were performing that fateful morning with Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock, what was running through your head?
JK: (Laughs) Well, I’m looking at half a million people and we’re all thinking “boy I sure hope we play good.”
JC: It was like nothing else I had seen before that’s for sure. I was just thinking I’ve got to try to keep my bass in tune. Remember we were supposed to have gone on 18 hours earlier but with the rain and humidity and all, people were tip-toeing around because they were worried they would get electrocuted. It was like being in the middle of a storm of some kind.
Jack, right around that time you had also had some interesting experiences with Jimi Hendrix right?
JC: That was in 1967. Jimi played the Filmore in San Francisco and the fans were blown away by him. It was thrilling to hear him and the indulgence in the music which was taken to another level. Anyway, Jimi and I as well as Mitch Mitchell and I became buddies. Then came an opportunity when I was in New York doing the Dick Cavett Show and Jimi had started to produce himself. The timing was right. We jammed around the Filmore Shows and I remember one night that Steve Winwood and Traffic were playing at The Scene Club and we went to hear him and afterward Jimi invited us to the studio after Traffic played. We listened to Jimi work on tracks between 2:00am and 7:00am. At about 7:00am Jimi said he had this blues riff so myself, Jimi, Steve Winwood and Mitch Mitchell, in a very impromptu way, sat down with Eddie Cramer and started to play. Anyway, we wound up playing this tune “Voodoo Chile” which wound up being a 15 minute cut. We all then broke up because I had a show in D.C. later that night. I think we all left around 8:30 in the morning. I never thought anything of it. It was a jam and a lot of fun. A month later Jimi called and asked if I minded if he put the song “Voodoo Chile” on the album. I didn’t mind but I said I hadn’t heard it. He said it was great. Lucky for me it then wound up on “Electric Ladyland.” Looking back, there was familiar territory that we were playing but it was the way we played it and extended it that made it different. It was a unique song in that it ended up that way and we were’nt staring at charts either. Jimi, in his genius, was able to provoke great performances out of everybody.
What do you remember the most and take from your experiences with Jefferson Airplane?
JK: In Airplane I really learned how to be an artist. Before that I was a guitar player and I don’t think I thought of myself as an artist. My band members encouraged me to sing seriously—which I had really not done before—and most importantly, to write and create seriously. I knew that Airplane was a very talented band. We didn’t fool around and we rehearsed relentlessly and we had great song writers. Even though I don’t normally listen to myself when I go back and listen to that material I remember it was an honor to be a part of that band. It allowed me to be me the rest of my life. I think for us the stars were aligned and I don’t think you could have scripted a better story.
JC: Airplane was our opportunity to get recorded. Back then you didn’t have the ability to hear yourself back. Few people had recording equipment. You didn’t have a chance to record unless you got signed by a record company. So when we got signed in 1965 it was a big deal. What I took out of it was the ability to work on a lot of different songs; pop songs, melodic songs, and blues and folk songs. There were also unique writing opportunities. I was able to write unique bass parts.
Jack, how did you find working with Grace Slick at that time?
JC: She wrote interesting songs and she had interesting topics to sing about which drove me to play the bass in different ways. It let me search and find out different ways to enhance her songs. Of course the vocal power she brought was really something. It wasn’t anything that I had heard before. She wasn’t trying to be soft. She had a lot of power and attitude and she really spoke for a generation of women. This showed up after “Surrealistic Pillow” because after that we were able to call our own shots and that was unique at the time.
What was your take on writing with Airplane?
JK: No doubt, we pushed the limits. One of our many blessings in Airplane was that as much as we might have hassled each other about things we never did that when it came to material.
Jorma, having said that, do you think Airplane—if you came out today—would have turned out the same?
JK: Probably not. I’m not sure that the audiences today are the same. Back then the audiences were much more open to listening to diverse material and even in the Airplane’s world there was diverse stuff! Plus, so much of our stuff then was politicized and I don’t know that people are as tuned in today. Back then, the audience was so tuned in to what was happening around the world with things like Vietnam and all that kind of stuff. It was also a completely polarized society and so much was new to us and them although there was a “them and us” dichotomy. A lot of that stuff is old hat today. It’s almost like people can’t watch a show today without recording it on an iPhone or something digital like that. Now, I admit I used to do that way back when. I had the first battery operated reel-to-reel recorder and I was there when Cream was recording their “Wheels of Fire” live album way back when but I stopped doing that because it took away from the experience. If I go to hear someone play I want to hear them play. If I want to relive it I’ll do that in my mind.
Talk about how you would contrast the differences between the two groups—Airplane and Tuna?
JK: I think Airplane was more free-form and that was probably because of the personalities. Everybody in Airplane had a take
on what they thought music should be. With Hot Tuna, it really was me and Jack. Airplane was such a diverse melting pot and the chemistry just allowed about anything to happen. Hot Tuna is not like that but, when we got together with this last record I was able to recreate some of the excitement that I had felt working on some of the Airplane records because in the past [for Hot Tuna] I had played all the instruments and there were no surprises. But on this record when I got to work with Larry Campbell—a man whom I respect as a man and as an artist—it brings me to do some wacky stuff which I wouldn’t have done if I had played all the instruments myself.
JC: I think Tuna’s music is timeless. It wasn’t associated with political events at the time like the way the Airplane stuff was. That allowed us—as Tuna—to play music for its own sake and for the more universal messages.
Tuna used to play all the time even after and during Airplane shows right? I had never heard about such a thing in my life.
JK: It’s true but first of all we were younger! However, the truth is that we loved to play and we couldn’t get enough of it. It was so exciting for me because I came into Jefferson Airplane as an acoustic guitar player so every step along the way I was learning. I was learning and we just couldn’t get enough of it.
JC: We had a lot of energy. We carried our instruments everywhere. We were able to sit in with different people all the time and we had material to jam on and to open up with. This was material you could do something with as opposed to saying let’s jam in “E” for a while. So, we took advantage of that.
When you formed Hot Tuna, did you envision that the group would still be recording and touring 42 years later? Why is it, in your opinion, that it doesn’t seem that today’s groups have the longevity of the groups of yesterday and what makes Tuna different in that regard?
JK: It’s interesting. I think it’s because Jack and I always give an honest show. I also really think our music is timeless in nature which I know is a somewhat dangerous thing to say. But I also don’t think that most of Tuna’s music has been defined by pop culture either. For some reason I think our fans care about what we do.
JC: The love of music and the mutual respect we have for each other. I really respect Jorma as a man and for the things he does and his work on his stagecraft and within the music. (Laughs) I don’t think we’ve ever had a band meeting. Now, the band meetings we had with the Airplane are infamous but here there is very little of that here. You just try to bring something in to create the right atmosphere.
What did the Hall of Fame mean to each of you? For Jorma you must have also felt honored when Rolling Stone named you the 54th greatest rock guitarist of all time as well as when Martin Guitars created the Martin M-30 in your honor.
JK: I’ll tell you what, the HOF was an honor as was the Martin guitar thing. I cared about both. I also really cared about my Grammy nomination in 2003 for “Blue Country Heart.” I didn’t get into this business to do that kind of stuff but it feels good when you get recognized. Rolling Stone was really cool and that’s because I’m so far out of the mainstream these days that for R.S. to mention me at all it’s a big deal.
JC: I’ve always loved the music and always respected the music. The business side is always there but, you have to be pure of heart and honest every time you pick up the instrument. So to get recognized for that by the HOF was great.
Now let’s get to the new album itself—“Steady As She Goes.” The record starts with “Angel’s” infectious guitar riff and follows up with “Zion’s” bluesy gospel and both seem to offer a diverse and fresh feel to this album even 20 years later. What else can Hot Tuna fans expect to hear different on this record as opposed to works in the past?
JK: Well, this is an electric album and it is an album of songs. When we play live we do a lot of jamming and stuff but on this record I really like the songs. This album brings you “songs” and it reminds me of Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow”—not in terms of the music—but more because both offer cool songs.
JC: I think they’re going to hear a great variety of material. But I also think we captured the ability to work within the songs. There’s also great communication amongst the players and that’s what it’s all about. Listen to “Mourning Interrupted” and you’ll hear some great funk playing. It’s different. We had a lot of fun doing it.
Led Zeppelin was known for putting out records like “Led Zeppelin III” which really offered diverse tunes. This record seems to do the same thing. Talk about that.
JK: I don’t normally say this but, notice on every song that it has a different beat and we did that on purpose. And we wanted it that way. We really approached each and every song differently and each one is really different. For example, on “Angels” (the first track) Larry Campbell came to me with the music—one verse and one chorus—and he said “can you write the lyrics for me?” I agreed and I asked him to play the rhythm for me so that I could overdub the lead. I figured why should I redo what he did since I loved it. That made me free with my leads just like with Airplane. But, it also meant that we got a variety of songs because I wouldn’t have written that song like that—it’s very different with the groove and all.
JC: I’ll add this. One of the things I wanted to do was write a kind of different song with Jorma and I did that with some of this material. I have an R & B background. I wanted to apply some of that sensibility to this record. And I also felt that bringing in all these partial ideas into the studio really made a difference. We also took a fresh approach to some of this material like the track entitled “Things That Might Have Been.” I remember working on that track with Jorma three years ago in Alaska. We didn’t play this material to death and for some of this material we never even played these songs before. All this added up to different songs and a different experience which I think this record shows. We had a renaissance with this record and that helped too.
How about recording this new album. Jorma, in the past you talked about four-tracks and really just laying down tracks. Is it still that way?
JK: The technology now is really dreamy for the artist. Back then you did have four-tracks and you could only do so many overdubs before it would start to degrade the sound quality. You really had to rehearse and nail your part. Now, with the digital age today, you really don’t have to do that. Now, you can really go for it like a big dog and you might come up with great stuff but then you go to the record and learn your parts so you can play it live. (Laughs) In the old days rehearsal really counted and you had to nail your parts.
JC: Recording is essentially the same in one sense and sometimes you paste things here and there but we didn’t really need to do anything like that here. Our ob
ject was to create the best tone that we could and I think we did that.
Any difficulties with the new album?
JK: None. We got it done in 11 days. And that really didn’t surprise me because again, with “Surrealistic Pillow” we did that album in a week although “After Bathing At Baxter’s” took 6 months. I like to work that way because that way I don’t get caught up on nitpicking my parts and about stuff that no one cares about.
JC: That’s right. I think we were hungry to let an atmosphere develop which would lead to a great record. I don’t think I heard the word “no” once in those 11 days. And a lot of that had to do with Larry (Campbell) as our producer. He found a way to understand our styles and how we each play and make suggestions that just clarified our ideas even more.
And how about rehearsing for this record—how was that?
JK: You’re going to love this—we didn’t rehearse one single day. Now, I’m not saying that this is the best way to do an album either, but I figured that since we had played together a lot and also live for some of these songs that this would work here. For example, we had never heard “Angel Of Darkness” before we got into the studio. Frankly, I was impressed with that and this method did work for us this time.
JC: The object was to get as familiar with the material as soon as possible but then to capture the newness in the studio. At the same time you want to know the material well enough so you don’t make mistakes. But, you want to cash in on the uniqueness of the moment.
What about the album cover art—where did that come from?
JK: A friend of mine, Kevin Morgan, did it. He does all the art work for us at the Fur Peace Ranch and he has done a lot of stuff for me over the years. Anyway, I got an email from him one day and it was this picture of the tattooed girl and he told he had his fingers crossed on this one and that he thought this was the best thing he had ever done. I emailed him back and said I couldn’t agree more.
Jorma, how was writing this record—how was that for you?
JK: Well, I’ve never done any serious co-writing before but I did on this record and I’ll tell you what, I found out that if I want to write a song I can write a song. For example, on “Smokerise Journey” Jack (Casady) and Larry Campbell wrote some music and they came to me and said write some lyrics. I said okay and that’s something that I’ve never done before where someone has just thrown something at me so to speak and on this record it worked for me. In the end, this record is very organic, absolutely.
Touring and support for the new record. How is that going?
JK: We’re going out this summer and for some of the dates we’ve already done it’s been going great. We’ve been well received and as for our fans I just love them to pieces. Some people have told me our music has been the soundtrack for their life and I appreciate that and we try not to forget that. But our fans have always allowed us to do this stuff and encourage us to play it and that’s the greatest.
Judging by the reactions of your fans the record is doing great and being well received. Do you pay attention to today’s interactive mechanisms like Facebook that really seem to bring artists and fans together?
JK: I started a blog about 10 years ago and I did it because I just like to write. I like it a lot but it is time consuming although it is satisfying on a lot of levels. But I’ll say this, I couldn’t have conceived what’s happening in our world five years ago much less 42 years go.
Since it’s been a while for Hot Tuna in terms of putting out an album, did you perceive a difference in doing a record today from yesteryear?
JK: Definitely. It used to be that you couldn’t make a record without a record deal. That was a big deal. Now, I know kids that record in their living rooms and their projects sound unbelievable. That’s a good thing because I think today’s artistry is free from the relative slavery of the music business. That’s the good news. The bad news is in the old days if you got a record deal you knew you were going to sell records ‘cause the record company would go to bat for you. But that’s a different story now.
Let’s talk about your partnership between the both of you. You’re both from Washington, D.C., and do you think this thing was fate?
JK: Absolutely. For some reason it was just meant to be. We became buddies in 1957 or ’58 and we’ve been so since then. I’ve been playing with Jack for 53 years. And really, he knows my moves better than I know his. Jack is brilliant. When he plays songs he plays his arrangement and he creates wonderful parts for songs. But, when he solos it’s different every time. It’s like there’s an infinite well of creativity that he brings out. I need to be ready to go with Jack and you never know where he’s going to go and that’s such a rare quality. I don’t have that and I’ve been playing for quite a while and I know a lot of stuff! I just don’t know where that creativity comes from.
Jack, I want to ask you, what’s it like playing with Jorma?
JC: I see myself and my role as a bass player but with Jorma it’s different. Jorma is so complete and he gives me full music to work with. With the technique of the fingerpicking he’s really playing the rhythm section and this allows him to do a lot more with the melody and music with rhythm and chords all going on at the same time whereas most guitar players are either playing a lead line or a melody, if you will. So, my role as a bass player expands. It gives me room and I don’t have to necessarily have to play a repetitive lick format for a soloist to play over. That allows me to use certain syncopated and melodic ideas which really works well I think.
Jorma, let’s talk about the Fur Peace Ranch. Walk us through that. What’s this project about?
JK: This is the real deal. This is not a “fantasy camp.” We do four day weekends and we have unbelievable talent coming through here. What happens in those four days—from Friday morning to Monday morning—is a “music nation.” It’s so great. This is a lot of instruction but what really happens is like minded spirits get together and they share that commonality for music and creativity. There’s no showing off and there’s a lot of sharing and encouraging each other and there’s nothing to do but to enjoy music.
(Editor’s note: To find more information go to www.furpeachranch.com).
It seems like Fur Peace is really centered on being real and down to earth and giving students a relaxed and natural environment to learn in. Is that right?
JK: I’ll tell you this. People have been so generous with teaching me and mentoring me and all that. I thoroughly enjoy passing that on. I think t
his is important to do. I think the bar is always getting raised musically and everyone’s goals are not the same. In fact, most people who come to the camp are not going to be professional musicians although some are. But the people love it. That commonality and sense of community is what is the ultimate goal. And for me to be able to share this stuff is really cool and I’m happy to pass it on. There’s nothing out there like this.
What does the future hold for both of you?
JK: I’ll say this. I’m 70 years old but the music excites me today as much as it ever did and I’ll tell you, to be as excited as you were when you were a teenager, that’s cool stuff. Jack and I love what we’re doing and we do spend a lot of time on the road and my family knows that’s what I do and that’s how it goes. I guess we’ll see.
JC: I believe there is urgency to everything you do no matter how old you are. There are also things I can do now that I couldn’t do at a younger age. You also don’t ever get to the point where you’ve learned it all. I’m just going to keep moving.
Originally posted 2012-01-09 13:48:23.