Within the music world, there are rare beings that seem to be able to lay hold of sounds and concepts that are seemingly ignorant of time and space. Jorma Kaukonen is one of those.
Jorma exudes a humble confidence. The Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane co-founder, whose signature style of play earned him a slot on Rolling Stoneâ€™s top 100 most influential guitarists of all time, continues to not only play the time tested tunes in his vast repertoire, but is actively creating. With a stellar new Hot Tuna offering released last month, the omnipotent sound crafted by Jorma and Jack Casady has been somewhat reinvented while staying true to its roots origin, proving that the Fur Peace Ranch teacher can just as easily slip into the role of student.
The story of Jorma and Jack (Casady) is not one that was born yesterday. In fact, it is over 50 years old, and therefore gives them a unique perspective not only into the world of music but into the life behind it. Having seen everything from Woodstock in the morning to the dissolving and eventual renewal of an era, Jorma speaks with a glimmer in his eye about the past, but never fails to pay appropriate respect to the present.
It was an interesting thing to sit down with a legend, because typically, true legends do not see themselves as such. With Jorma, it is clear that he has moved from the realm of “rock star” and into the role of unassuming teacher. Â He does not relish in the fact that he has crafted such gems as “Embryonic Journey” and “Genesis.” Instead he stays grounded in the fact that he is a 70-year-old father of a five and 14 year old, and tells stories that candidly share his experience.
Jorma took a moment while at Wanee Festival to share his unique perspective on where he has been, where Hot Tuna has been, and where they collectively plan to go. Here is what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and music statesman had to say. (See below for the audio in its entirety from the chat)
Honest Tune: [Hot Tuna] have got out the new record (Steady As She Goes) which is you guys’ first record in nearly 20 years. It seems like you guys are going at a 15-20 year clip with these records.
Jorma: (Laughs) Yeah well, I never thought about it like that, but you are absolutely right about it. I don’t know about the previous 15 or 20 year gap. I can’t attest to that, but I think what happened with the last [gap] honestly was that when the time was right, we did it. It was sort of a perfect storm. I mean, getting Levon [Helm’s] place to do it at, getting Larry Campbell to produce it for us.
HT: What has that been like working with Larry, a Grammy Award-winning producer, recording the record at Levon Helm’s studio? Â What was it like going into that place? I have heard stories about that place but would love to hear your story.
Jorma: Â I did my last solo record there with Larry also. You know Levon’s space, have you ever been up there?
HT: No, I have not.
Jorma: Well, it is really magnificent. It is a huge timber building, like 24×24 timbers and all this kind of stuff. So the sound is really great. The atmosphere is great. You’re in the middle of the woods. It’s not a control room studio. The control room is in a loft area. All of the basic cuts were cut live and you just…it’s like playing in your living room except you only have Levon’s dogs bothering you, not your own. It’s just very relaxed, very intimate in a productive kind of way because very intimate can also be very distracting too. It’s not like that. We just really get a lot done. I don’t know whether it’s the vibe or whether it’s the fact that we are all a little more mature than we were when we used to fool around in the studio.
Larry [Campbell] is just the best. He is one of these guys that in addition to being such a talented multi-instrumentalist, when he produces somebody, he doesn’t mold them the way that many producers like to do in our business. He just perceives who they are and sort of just becomes part of that musical family. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
HT: No, it makes perfect sense.
Jorma: But it really works. He did it with Levon. He did it with my solo record. The Hot Tuna thing is different from what I do myself and he just…everything was just painless and smooth. You know, Jack [Casady] hasn’t done a studio record like this in a number of years and I think he had some…not trepidation, but just didn’t know what to expect. I remember I said “you’re going to love Larry,” and of course, if you talk to [Jack], you can’t get enough of that because he had such a great time. Larry makes everyone feel right at home. He gets into the tunes. He knows what’s right for them. He doesn’t make you do stuff that’s not you. But he might make you do some stuff that is you that you never did before.
HT: And Larry, though I don’t want to spend the whole time talking about Larry, but I think that it is an interesting thing because Larry has been in so many live circles. Whether it was with Phil Lesh Â and I think there was a time when he was a member of Bob Dylan’s band. Is that correct? I remember seeing him I think.
Jorma: Yeah, he was with that band when it was Bob Dylan, him and Charlie Sexton. That was a great band.
HT: That was a great band. So he is able to really meld into various types of things.
Jorma: Absolutely. I mean, you know it has been a number of years but he was in Cyndi Lauper’s acoustic band for awhile.
HT: Never knew that.
Jorma: Yeah, it isn’t something that he runs up a flagpole, but you can bet that when he was with her, he was on her team.
HT: Â You walk around and you see what is going on out here (at Wanee) and at other festivals of today. I wonder, from your perspective, as a guy who we all rightfully recognize as a pioneer in this scene… what do you see when you see the way that the scene has evolved to where it is now, or devolved, as the case may be?
Jorma: Since I don’t hang out on the street, I can’t tell you whether it has…it has probably evolved. There are a lot of people here. First of all, one of the funny things when we pulled up is I saw some people I know and they look like they had been here since we were here like two or three years ago. So, nothing has changed since we were here and you look around and you kind of see that.
But what’s changed from my perspective is…I mean we are sitting here on a bus. I wouldn’t have had a bus back in the day. They didn’t have rock and roll buses back in those days. Country guys did but we didn’t.
What I see is better organization. There are a lot of people here and it seems to be working with a minimum of “don’t eat the brown acid” kind of warnings. Everything just seems to work and that is a positive thing.
I think on the other hand that…you know like I said, I am not hanging out in the campground so it’s a little bit different. I am sitting here on the bus. But on the other hand, I think it’s…I mean, the culture, all this stuff was new when we did it. Â And very definite, in a way the culture has evolved. I’m not sure that is a bad thing. It is just the way it is.
I was doing an interview recently and somebody started talking about Woodstock. I went “look, I know that it was an iconic festival. It was earth-shaking on many levels, for a lot of different reasons. But if you worked a festival like that today, you would hate it because the PA wouldn’t have worked or there wouldn’t be any bathrooms. I mean there’d just be all these petty little logistical things that nobody really cared about back then.”
HT: You recently had your big birthday bash which looked like a lot of fun.
Jorma: It was a lot of fun.
HT: A lot of people showed up. What is it like for you guys and you in particular to have gone from being young men and women too to now having matured into many different things?
Jorma: It’s interesting. You know, in a normal world, I’d have grandchildren. But in my world I have children. I have a five-year-old daughter that we adopted from China. Stuff like that really keeps you grounded. And I have a 14-year-old son who I was just talking to, who lives with his mom in Virginia. So I have kids you know and that really keeps you honest in a real kind of way. You can’t bullshit with them…not the 14-year-old and not the five-year-old either, because they don’t care about any of this stuff.
I mean, if they were here, they would be having a great time. My daughter would want all kinds of cool stuff that they’re selling and my son would be wandering around looking at girls and whatever. But they don’t care about what we’re talking about. That doesn’t matter to them and that kind of helps keep it real.
The good news is that, Chris Smither, a singer songwriter friend of mine, and I were talking about the music business and he said “I fell into it as a kid and I never fell out of it.”
HT: So where do you see the progression of Hot Tuna at this stage in the game?
Jorma: Yikes. It’s an interesting question because Jack and I have been playing together for well over 50 years and Hot Tuna itself has been around a long time. We are really excited. I mean the answer is that we don’t really know because who really knows what’s going to happen. But we’re really excited about the energy that infected us in this project.
Like, normally I don’t co-write with people. I co-wrote a bunch of songs [on the album]. I co-wrote my first song with lyrics [on the recent record] to a melody that Jack and Larry wrote and I had never done that before. And it was all so exciting. I mean, guys that are like tunesmiths that write songs for a living… I mean, I have written a lot of songs over the years, but I don’t go to the mailbox as much as JJ Cale does. But you know what I mean; it was just all really exciting.
We are getting ready to start touring with the band and playing the songs from the new album and I’m already starting to think about writing more songs so that’s exciting for me. But at the same time, because we haven’t really toured with the band behind many of the new songs yet, I’m excited about…because you know when you record something; you forget it the minute you’ve done it. So we’ll have to go back and study some stuff.
My thing also is when we play live, it has never been about trying to clone what we did on the record because you can’t really do that. I mean, you know if you can afford the big bands like the country guys do or whatever, you can do that. Â But we are going to make it happen in a more organic kind of way because that is more fun for me. So we are excited about that.
I mean, we’d all like to stay healthy. We love playing music. I was just talking to Jack before we got here. We are so lucky to be able to do what we do after all these years. Â It doesn’t get any better than that.
HT: Well, you guys began as a live act and you are talking about not wanting to recreate what you do in the studio in the live setting. When you go into the studio, are you wanting to create what you do live?
Jorma: Â Right. One of the things that happened with this record which was so interesting to me was that because of co-writing stuff with other people and having Larry and Barry [Mitterhoff] playing a lot of their electric instruments for me to play with…in the past with other Hot Tuna things, I did all of the guitar work. It made it all very predictable for me when I did leads. There were no mysteries. So having other guys to do that in a way reminded me of doing Airplane Sessions where I have weird stuff to play with because I didn’t do it myself. Â So that’s going to be fun.
We’ve got Larry coming out with us for our four debut dates..Larry and his wife and that’ll probably be as close to the album as it ever gets becayse when I start playing all the parts, it’ll evolve is some bizarre Jorma way and that will be that. I mean, I don’t play like Larry. For example on “Angel of Darkness,” that’s Larry playing rhythm guitar and I’ve learned the part, but it’s me playing it so it doesn’t really sound the same. But to me that’s all good because I love that aspect of live music. Even with stuff you’ve played for decades , you almost never know what’s going to happen and I like that.
HT: I guess the last question that I want to ask would be in reference to songs like “Embryonic Journey” and “White Rabbit,” those were musically driven numbers…even “White Rabbit” was to me. Where does that writing come from and what do you see as being an “Embryonic Journey” of today if that even makes sense?
Jorma: That actually makes perfect sense and believe me, if I had a real answer to that question, we’d have an “Embryonic Journey” on every album.
One of the aspects of the music business, and I do a lot of teaching and when I am talking to people I go “look…talent’s important but it’s not everything. Practice is always important and luck is really important.
When we did Surrealistic Pillow, I remember we were finishing up the album and I was sitting out in the office talking to one of the guards playing “Embryonic Journey” and a producer guy came out said “you ought to put that on the record.” I thought “get outta here. Nobody wants to hear this stuff. It is a folky thing.” He says “no, I think it is a really good idea.” So we put it on the record and it sort of popped up as an oddity in the rock and roll world.
Well, everything has grown so much since then. It’s really hard to have an oddity on a record. I mean, it’s a good song, but it’s a song that I just lucked into. I was just fooling around and fortunately I had a tape recorder on or I never would’ve remembered it. That lucky thing…it just means so much.
HT: (Laughs) That is organic as hell.
Jorma: Yeah, it is organic as hell. And most of the instrumentals that I come up with are like that, but I’m not sure that another one will ever have that kind of impact. You know, there are so many great guitar players out there now – and I am a guitar nut – so I love all that stuff.
HT: (Sarcastically) Oh really? You are a guitar nut?
Jorma: Yeah, I know and I love all that stuff, but it’s really hard to hear something these days… I mean, you hear guys and your jaw drops, but to hear that thing that is so different that you just haven’t heard before…and I am not saying that it’s not out there. I’m just saying that it has been awhile since I’ve heard it.
I find myself swimming in a sea with these really great artists, but I think we are all waiting for the next big thing, or the next “Embryonic Journey.”
It could happen.
Hot Tuna and Jorma both have upcoming tour dates. For more information, click here.
For More On Jorma, Log On ToÂ www.JormaKaukonen.comÂ
For More on Hot Tuns, Log On ToÂ www.HotTuna.comÂ
Listen to the audio from this interview below…