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From Triumphs to Tuna, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen is musical journeyman

You know Jorma Kaukonen for shaping the San Francisco sound with Jefferson Airplane. But that is just one of many achievements on the guitarist’s resumé .

By Lee Zimmerman

Though he's ensured his place in the rock firmament as a member of both Jefferson Airplane and its bluesy offshoot, Hot Tuna, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen continues to embrace his role as a musical journeyman. He’s more active than ever, and just as eager to pursue his muse as any time in his 50-year career.

Kaukonen first met Jack Casady, the man who became his lifelong musical partner, when the two played together in a local Washington, D.C. band called The Triumphs. By the mid-’60s, they joined the fledgling Jefferson Airplane. Despite Kaukonen’s appreciation of traditional folk blues — artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, the Rev. Gary Davis and Muddy Waters — he and Casady became an integral part of Jefferson Airplane as it made its transition from folk rock to the high-flying psychedelia that typified the Airplane at its peak.

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady hot tuna

Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady (left) have been performing together in one band or another since 1958. Their longest-running collaboration is Hot Tuna.

Though Kaukonen was never a particularly prolific songwriter, several of his compositions became staples of the band’s repertoire, including “Hey, Frederick,” “Embryonic Journey,” “Feel So Good” and “Good Shepherd.”

As the Airplane flourished, then foundered, Hot Tuna picked up steam, thanks to a well-received string of early albums. Kaukonen and Casady ultimately decided to call Hot Tuna quits in the late ’70s, only to reconvene a few years later. And while Kaukonen still pursues his solo career, Hot Tuna remains a chief concern.

Goldmine chatted with Kaukonen by phone from his home in southeast Ohio that also doubles as the Fur Peace Ranch, a weekend music camp that he and his wife, Vanessa, manage.

GOLDMINE: Despite a slew of live albums, Hot Tuna’s studio output has been somewhat scarce lately. Your last album was your first in 20 years. Why is that?
JORMA KAUKONEN: We just never had a record deal. It costs money to go into the studio. A lot of the kids today, they do a lot of that stuff on their own. But I’m not that kid. When we had our last major record deal, we put out “Paradise Found.” And then after that, there was just nothing going on, as the music business was evolving. So we did a lot of live stuff, because it was easy to do. But I’ve done some studio albums on my own. I did “Blue Country Heart” in 2002, and then I did “The Stars in my Crown,” and then I did “River of Time.” As I got back to working in the studio and having a good time with it, I went to the folks at my label, Red House. I was supposed to do another Jorma record after “River of Time,” and I suggested doing another Hot Tuna record, and they were very excited about it. In today’s world, you don’t have the absurd budgets that you did in the old days, but you want to know something? It’s a good thing, because you don’t waste time. And we had a really good time playing. So there will be a new Jorma record, and then later on, there will be a new Hot Tuna record. So we’re back in the saddle. I guess the bad news was we didn’t have people looking for us or looking for that next studio album. But the good news is — and it is good news — that we didn’t have that pressure where we had to do two albums a year. If I was a young artist, I’d probably thrive on that. But as an older guy, I like not having that pressure.

GM: When you mull over a new album, what is the divide that separates your solo material from something you might want to record with Hot Tuna?
JK: Sometimes people ask me if I do a so-called solo album — when you do a solo album, it usually takes eight or nine people — why don’t I use Jack. Then it would be a Hot Tuna album. The interaction that Jack and I have is a different thing altogether. It’s about the songs, but it’s also about the interaction between me and Jack. When I do a so-called solo record, it’s always about the songs.

GM: After 40 years, is it ever a challenge not to repeat yourselves?
JK: (Laughs.) Of course it is. I remember reading an interview with ZZ Top where they asked, “How do you guys keep it fresh?” And their answer was, “Buy new gear.”

GM: So can we assume that would be your response, as well?
JK: There is some truth to that. Sometimes you get a new guitar, and that new guitar will give you a new perspective on your music, whatever that music is. A lot of things happen. I’m listening to a lot of different kinds of music, so I’m always looking for something, you know? I’m always jotting lyrics down, because you never know what will come, something that really smokes your shorts. Obviously, me and Jack are always going to sound like me and Jack, but I think there were some growth elements to “Steady as She Goes,” and I like that. It’s not a power-trio album. It sounds like us, but it sounds like us a little more.

Jorma Kaukonen

When writer's block hits, buying a new guitar can't hurt. "Sometimes, you get a new guitar, and that new guitar will give you a new perspective on your music, whatever that music is," Kaukonen says. Publicity photo.

GM: How is your music camp going?
JK: We love it very much. It’s not the Berklee College of Music. It goes from a Friday morning to a Monday morning. We have great teachers, and I believe we’ve opened a lot of doors for people. Most of our clientele tends to be middle-aged people who are getting back into music or whatever, but we’ve had some youngsters in that have gone on to Berklee and done all kinds of stuff. Obviously, we can’t take credit for that, because that’s who they are, but we were part of the process, and that makes us very proud.

GM: Let’s talk about your other band, Jefferson Airplane. We’ll be celebrating its 50th anniversary soon.
JK: Oooh...

GM: Well, yeah, sorry to age you a bit there.
JK: (Laughs.) It’s OK; it’s OK. It beats the alternatives.

GM: That it does. So is anything planned for the anniversary?
JK: No, not that I’m aware of. I stay in touch with Grace (Slick). I haven’t talked to Paul (Kantner) in years. Marty’s coming to my ranch, so I do talk to Marty. But my mind’s open. We’ll just have to see what happens. A couple of months ago I did call Grace up. It did occur to me that I needed to call her and tell her what an honor it was to play with her back in those days, because she’s one of the great voices of our time. And I think she really was surprised, because that wasn’t the way we talked to each other. (Laughs.) We busted each other’s balls relentlessly back then. But it’s really true. What a cool band.

GM: With that big anniversary coming up, we wouldn’t be surprised if you do get a phone call.
JK: Well, I wouldn’t either. I owe the various and sundry people I played with over that seven years in the Airplane a huge debt of gratitude, because they got my train rolling, which has been rolling ever since, and I don’t think it would have happened without that. And, they were some of the most interesting musicians you could possibly play with.

GM: Still, wasn’t it sort of a strange transition after the blues influences you had embraced early on?
JK: Well, the first Jefferson Airplane album was certainly a folk-rock album. But I don’t think we thought about that transition at the time, because, for me, I had never really been in a band before. It was all a transition for me, because I had no idea what I was doing. The thing is, the Airplane rehearsed relentlessly, and they were always playing and singing. So I didn’t have to go home and try to figure anything out, because we rehearsed for hours and hours every single day. And as a result, I got to figure out a style that really came to be my own. It wouldn’t have happened without the rest of the guys in the band.

GM: When you and Jack began splitting off to do your own thing as Hot Tuna, what was the reaction from the rest of the Airplane, given that the two bands operated simultaneously for some time?
JK: In the beginning, it was encouraged. But when Hot Tuna began superseding the Airplane, I’m not sure that made everybody happy. But once Jack and I left the band, and they went on to become Starship, they became hugely successful, much more commercially successful than the Airplane ever was. They had all these hits. Everybody said they were such a commercial band. Well, obviously, I like some kinds of music better than others. But those of us in the music business become thrilled when one of our songs becomes a commercial success.

Jefferson Airplane publicity photo

GM: At that point, was there any thought of you guys returning to the fold for even a cameo appearance like Marty (Balin) did at one point?
JK: Not for me. Jack made a few appearances with them, but I wasn’t interested. I was busy chasing my own tail. (Laughs.)

GM: Other than the obvious fact that it’s acoustic as opposed to electric, what kind of approach do you take as far as the material and the dynamic onstage?
JK: Sometimes the material crosses over. But when we’re playing electric, we’re playing rock ’n’ roll, and rock ’n’ roll is not meant to be played sitting down. I don’t enjoy playing acoustic standing up. I don’t play it as well. So I prefer to sit down when I play acoustic guitar. Obviously, not the same as rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a different trip altogether. It’s one of those things where I consider how fortunate we are that we can do both of these things and these fans will allow us to do both of these things. And it’s funny. When we’re playing live, people will say, “Wow, I wish you guys were playing electric,” and when we’re doing the electric, they’ll say, “Well, we were really looking forward to the acoustic stuff.” My thing is, “Good. We’ll be back.” 

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