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The Catalyst interview: Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna

Bill DeYoung



Hot Tuna: Jack Casady, left, and Jorma Kaukonen. Publicity photo.

Since 1969, when they were still active members of Jefferson Airplane – then one of the hottest rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world – Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady have performed together as Hot Tuna, sometimes with a rotating cast of players, sometimes as just a duo.

The Airplane is long gone. Three members of the classic San Francisco lineup are dead – singer Grace Slick, retired more than a decade ago. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Along with Slick, guitarist Kaukonen and bassist Casady are the sole survivors. And they’ve never, ever retired – except for a brief spell in the 1980s, when they were pursuing other projects, Hot Tuna has been a going concern for 54 years.

They’ll perform Wednesday (Oct. 4) at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater.

These musicians’ musicians play two kinds of concerts: Acoustic Hot Tuna, and Electric Hot Tuna. Wednesday’s concert will feature the guys on electric instruments; a few nights ago, they played live on NPR’s Mountain Stage, and host Kathy Mattea told Kaukonen they’d never had anyone on who played so loud.

That’s all about to change, as the 82-year-old guitar legend tells the Catalyst.


St. Pete Catalyst: You wrote your autobiography a couple of years ago. Was that cathartic, in a way? A way to put all that stuff down, once and for all, and not have to think about it any more?

Jorma Kaukonen: I guess cathartic is probably a good word, although I don’t think I set out to do that. I’ve been journaling and stuff for years, but that’s not the same thing as writing a book, even close. I found it, in a way, releasing to be able to tell the story like that. There were no earth-shaking revelations or stuff like that, but on some sort of a level, to be able to tell your story, get that off your chest AND have people like to read about it, is good stuff.  


So why is this the last Electric Hot Tuna tour?

There’s a lot of reasons for it. You know, in a normal world I’d be a great-grandfather, but I’ve got a teenage daughter that’s just getting ready to go to college, etcetera etcetera. And over the last 17 years, I’ve seen her age out of all kinds of stuff. And that’s just the way it is – like she doesn’t play volleyball any more. Not that she hates it, she just doesn’t, y’know? So I think I’ve just kinda aged out.

We’ve been having a lot of fun on this tour. It’s not that I don’t like to play electric music; I just don’t find it as multi-dimensional, for myself, as playing acoustic music. When you’re doing it, it’s no less satisfying, don’t get me wrong, but I think the fact that illustrates this best is: I almost never pick up an electric guitar, except when I’ve got a project or a tour coming. Whereas the acoustic guitar gets played multiple hours, every single day.


If I remember my history, in the earliest days of the Airplane, you were an acoustic player and you didn’t want to play electric guitar. Isn’t that a famous story?

Yeah. Well, once I got into the Airplane I realized that was gonna be the gig. But had it not been for the Airplane, honestly, I doubt if I would’ve gone in that direction. That being said, I was so lucky to be not just in a band that became really famous for 20 or 25 minutes – it was a really interesting band with a lot of disparate creative characters. And they really forced me, and Jack – well, Jack played electric for years.  – to find our way in a world I probably wouldn’t otherwise have thought about. And as a result a lot of that stuff back into my acoustic playing. So for me, it’s been a very satisfying experience.


So you’re not going to miss turning it up to 11?

I’m sure I’ll miss it. There’s a physical component to it. But one of the other things that’s happened, and this is an absolute, undeniable fact: Playing loud electric music beats you up. And I’m not a kid any more; in the evening, I’m beat up. And it’s not that I hurt, or I’m feeling miserable, but … it’s time for me to go to bed.

Jefferson Airplane: RCA publicity photo, 1967. From left, Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner, Spencer Dryden, Grace Slick and Jack Casady.

Hot Tuna is more than 50 years old now. Why have you and Jack prevailed, as musicians, as friends?

That’s a good question, and there’s a really simple answer: Jack and I became friends in 1958. I was friends with his older brother first, but he and I had a common interest in music. We played our first gig in ’58. And we’ve never had a band meeting. We are very different people, but we’ve never argued about our differences. And we listen to each other. I guess the best way I could put it, I guess that both of us have respect for each other, not only as people but also as artists. That’s what we bring to the table, and we like to work together.


Looking at old Airplane or Hot Tuna clips … I can see you reading each other. Like watching the Dead work, watching others – one guy knows what the other guy’s gonna do. How long has the telepathy been there, since the earliest days?

Nobody’s ever mentioned this before, but you’re right. From the very first time we started to play music that was there.


Will there still be Acoustic Hot Tuna tours?

Absolutely. In fact, we were just talking about it yesterday. I think it’s gonna open up a bunch of other dimensions for us with the acoustic music. For example, Jack’s got this cool acoustic bass, but Jack is such a fluid, lyrical artist, and a lot of stuff he can’t execute in the same way because of the nature of the instrument, the acoustic bass. And I was just telling him, when we go out and play acoustic, I’ll be playing acoustic guitar. At this moment, I’m not interested in pedals, but I’m also a realist – I haven’t closed my mind to them.

But I said you should bring your electric bass, because some of these solos that you take, they’re just tougher for you to do on acoustic bass, because the scale’s longer, and a lot of reasons … why limit yourself?


Historically, is there anything left to say about Jefferson Airplane?

There’s a certain not only a zeitgeist, but a mindset, of not just the Airplane but artists in general in San Francisco, it’s going to be difficult to replicate that kind of freedom of creativity. Me and my buddies in the Airplane, we wanted to be successful, professional musicians. It wasn’t like, ‘I’m an artist and I don’t care if I get paid or not.’ We wanted to get paid. We wanted to do all that kind of stuff. But we weren’t part of the music machine.

This is not a value judgement in any way, shape or form, because I think artistry comes in many forms. But I don’t think we were constrained by the industry trying to bend us to its will. But for whatever reason, we got national visibility really early in our career. And RCA Records, for better or for worse, even though they would have liked to have shaped us, basically they let us do what we wanted to do. And that’s so rare.

I’m not part of the big wheel music industry any more, so I don’t know what’s going on any more, but I suspect not much has changed.

Find tickets for the Oct. 4 show here.





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