A Q&A with legendary axeman Jorma Kaukonen, of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane fame

Electric Hot Tuna performs at Wanee in Live Oak this weekend.

Kevin Tighe: Looking at your tour schedule made me exhausted! I know you take a lot of pride in never "phoning in" a performance, but how do you keep it fresh night after night after night?

Jorma Kaukonen: I guess it's just because me and my buddies I play with, that's what we love to do. One of the things that's kind of funny is I've got a 5-year-old daughter and when I'm home and I'm taking her to school and picking her up from school, you talk to the parents at the school and they go, "Oh, I can't believe that you do all this touring." And I go, "Look, I've been doing this all my life. This is my going to the office. I can't believe you go to an office from 9 to 5 every day." That's just what we do. And the good news is, I really love doing it.

Jorma back in the day
  • Barry Berenson
  • Jorma back in the day

And you just got back from Japan and China, correct? I bet it's nice to be home but I imagine the trip was a blast.

It was really exciting. I've been to Japan before, and Japan is a cool place to go. I've never been to China. It was incredibly exciting. I'm amazed — you know, in Beijing there were more Chinese folks in the audience, in Shanghai there were more American expats. There's a lot of Americans over there because there's a lot of money to be made. But when you go to China and you walk on the street as an American, people ask to have their picture taken with you because it's so odd to see westerners there still. People came down from Mongolia to see me and Barry play, and it was so bizarre and really cool.

Was somebody always keeping an eye on you [in China]?

Oh God, no. You do have to have somebody there to translate for you because nobody speaks English. I mean, listen, I'm not a political expert, and people say China's a communist country. Well, that's possible. The hotel that we stayed at was at the Workers Stadium. And in the courtyard of the Workers Stadium was a Lamborghini and a Lotus dealership.

They've got it all, you know. I mean, it's a different world than ours to be sure, but there's a lot of stuff going on, it's growing, it's really exciting. And like I say, all these people from other countries are showing up there because there's money to be made.

So the people you dealt with are just people, just like anywhere else.

Absolutely, just folks. We were in two big cities. China, as we all know, is a huge country. I don't know what's going on in the countryside. We would have been like Martians in the countryside. But in the big cities, as odd as we are, people are aware of what we do. This one guy who came to one of the shows, a Chinese gentleman, he goes, "I can't believe I'm seeing somebody who is alive and playing in the 60s." Here we are!

Congratulations on Hot Tuna's newest album, Steady As She Goes. The track that really stood out to me was "A Little Faster." It reminded me of you.

Something else is funny about that. I've got this buddy who works for us at the ranch, John Irwin, who wrote the song, and he wrote it a number of years ago. Really, when we were looking for songs, I was talking with my wife, and it just felt like it had the flavor of that sort of psychedelic acid era. So when we went in, in a way, it was like recording a Jefferson Airplane song. Different from the kind of stuff I normally do, so it was really exciting to do overdubs. A lot of times when you're overdubbing your own material, you kind of know what's going to go on. It's hard to build that excitement. But with that thing, it was a flashback for me, let me tell you.

Jorma & Janis
  • Jorma & Janis

You recorded with the young and totally unknown Janis Joplin on the so-called Typewriter Tapes. What was your impression of her before fame came her way?

When you say "you recorded with," that sort of sounds like we did projects together. I was very fortunate because I met Janis in the fall of '62. I went to a Hootenanny in San Jose, she was there. A lot of the people that became notable characters later on were there - Jerry Garcia. A bunch of those guys. And Janis, she played music I was familiar with, I'd just come from the East Coast. So when she would come down the peninsula, because I lived in Santa Clara, and she needed somebody to back her up, I would be there if she didn't bring somebody with her.

There was a benefit at the Coffee Gallery, now a defunct folk place on Grant Street in North Beach. And Janis and I were supposed to play there. We weren't even headlining the show, we were just two of many. And she had come down to Santa Clara so we could rehearse a couple songs, and I was one of the few guys back in those days that bought a tape recorder and I just used to tape everything. So the good news is that it's taped. But like I said, I don't think of it as "recording with."

One of the funny things that happened, though, I got to know Janis' sister Laura a little bit. See, I only knew Janis in that folk period, I didn't really know her in the rock and roll period because her world was changed by then. So my memory of Janis is the blues singing folky. But Laura said Janis was constantly reinventing herself.

A nice person?

Absolutely. What you see in movies, her talking and performing, what you see is what you get. There was no bullshit with Janis. That's who she was. But as far as being a nice person, absolutely.

You grew up in Washington DC and then you went to college in Ohio and lived in New York. What drew you to the West Coast?

I went to a number of colleges and I wound up graduating at Santa Clara. And that's why I went to the West Coast, because I wanted to finish school, and that's the school that would have me. I wasn't an exemplary student. The funny thing about this is, Leon Panetta is a notable Santa Clara alumni. I'm probably not quite as notable as him, but I guess it depends on who you're talking to. When I went there, my dad was complaining about the $1500 a semester he had to pay for me to go there. Now it's $40 grand.

Jefferson Airplane, circa 1967, featured (clockwise, left front) Jorma Kaukanon, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Spencer Dryden, and Paul Kantner.
  • Jefferson Airplane, circa 1967, featured (clockwise, left front) Jorma Kaukanon, Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Spencer Dryden, and Paul Kantner.

I grew up with the Jefferson Airplane. I'd catch you guys at the old Fillmore East in New York. I just saw the footage you posted of the Airplane playing on a rooftop in New York City.

That's a funny thing. You look at stuff like that, and you know when you do it, you never think how significant as a historical document it might be. Jean-Luc Godard, the French filmmaker, was making a movie that he never got finished that he was going to call One. And I believe he used, was it the Malles Brothers? I forget, some documentary filmmaker whose office was across the street, and that footage was somehow going to be in the movie. To make a long story short, there's professional quality footage — although they were handheld cameras and stuff — and all these years later, there we are.

When I saw the footage, the first thing that popped in my mind was the famous Beatles' Abbey Road rooftop concert. I didn't know if your rooftop performance inspired that or vice versa.

I don't know if we inspired them or not, but historically we were first, we did it first.

As a member of the Airplane, you played some iconic 1960s events like Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Does it all seem a bit surreal looking back at it now?

Oh sure, absolutely. When you think that… I mean, you never know how stuff's going to play out when you're young. You go places, you do things, you're excited about everything, you know? But in retrospect when you think that we were at Monterey Pop — we were also at Monterey Jazz before that, too — but Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Altamont, it's kind of like the trifecta of festivals back then.

Speaking of Altamont, which was captured in the brilliant documentary, Gimme Shelter, there's that one scene where the Airplane is playing, a fight breaks out in the audience, it spills onto the stage and Marty jumps into the audience. What's your recollection of that day?

It was heavy stuff. Once again, this was a long time ago, but you'll notice when you see that footage that until we got pushed over on the drum set, Jack and I never stopped. Oh, God. Well, what else were we going to do, you know? I'm not going to pick a fight with a Hell's Angel.

Yeah, I think that was a good call ... The Fur Peace Ranch just celebrated 15 years, congratulations on that. You've described it as a ranch that grows guitars. For people that read this who aren't familiar with the Fur Peace Ranch, can you tell them just a little bit about it?

The guys we learned from, the older generation, basically their attitude was, "You'll never get this, this isn't for everybody." And our response was, "Oh yeah? I'll show you." And it worked for me. But you know something, that's not the best way to teach, and music is for all of us. So that was my thrust when I got into it. We have so many great teachers that come and teach, and everybody's approach is a little bit different, but basically our goal is to make it accessible, affordable, and un-intimidating. Our weekends are from Friday morning to Monday morning, and in that span of time, all we do is play music, talk about music, and on the more geeky side of things, talk about guitars and gear.

How long have you been in Ohio now?

I've been there for almost 21 years now.

Your fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Eric Clapton calls Ohio home now, too.

Yeah, he has a house in Columbus. Actually, that's one of my bucket list items, is to get Eric to come down to the Ranch. It's probably not going to happen, but you never know.

I'm a big Clapton fan. I read in one of your interviews that he was a major influence on you?

I'm a huge Clapton fan also. He was a big influence in what he did with Cream. It's funny, because I've met Eric a couple of times, we don't really know each other, but back in the '60s when we talked, I got the impression that aspect of his music, that power trio thing, wasn't really who he thought he was. I remember when The Band's Music from Big Pink came out, he said that's the kind of music he wanted to play, and in a way, that's the kind of music he plays today.

But to look at what him and the guys did with Cream, I think that as an electric band, they're the most successful people to have taken traditional blues and put it into the contemporary sound of that time, capturing signature licks and all that stuff. If you listen to Disraeli Gears, so many of those songs were off Yazoo collections. They took these songs, like "Outside Woman Blues," and did absolutely, in my opinion, eternal versions of these songs without losing the flavor of the original.

So as far as how he influenced you, not so much technique as the idea of…

His sound also. I mean, we don't play anything, our technique is really different. But I think what he influenced me with was the sound that he got from his guitars and the way that he approached jamming around those traditional forums. I can't really put my finger on it but I know it was important to me at the time.

Jorma with Jack Cassidy

You and Jack Casady, your longtime comrade-in-arms from the Airplane and Hot Tuna, will be playing at the Wanee Festival in a few weeks as Electric Hot Tuna. You two have known each other basically forever.

We've been playing together since 1958. We've known each other longer than that.

Jack's older brother introduced you guys. I heard he was ill. How's he doing?

He had a really serious heart attack and he's not going to be running marathons. But they thought he was going to die, and Jack talked to him the other day, he didn't even know whether he was going to be able to speak again. So I guess in the cosmic scheme of things, he's doing okay.

Good to hear. What's Jack like? I get the idea he's maybe a little more cerebral as far as music goes?

In some respects, yes. Perhaps a little more cerebral and a lot more anal. He is such an anal guy. We really are the odd couple of rock and roll.

He also teaches at the school?

He does. If you look at our teaching styles, it says a lot about both of us. My teaching style is very anecdotal, and the style of music that I teach, it's sort of an approach more than specifics. As a bass player, bass players don't get the full round like us guitar players do. If you go to a music store you might see a book that says "101 Fun Strums on a Guitar," you will never see "101 Fun Strums on a Bass."

The Fur Peace Ranch will also be doing workshops at the Wanee Festival?

This is correct. It's something new for us. Jack and I actually do what we call a double dose workshop. It's going to be small. It's going to be limited, and we're actually going to work with guitar players and bass players and show them some of what we do in order to play together. Obviously in the time allotted to us, we can't go in as deep as we do when we're at the Ranch, but we're going to do the best that we can. We're also going to have some Q&As. Warren Hanes is part of it, Adele Burbridge, we're going to have a blast down there.

One of your blues heroes, Buddy Guy, is going to be at Wanee.

I'm really excited. Actually I'm there all week, so I'll get to see him. In Buddy's generation, there was nobody that was, in my opinion, more adventuresome as a lead blues guitar player than Buddy Guy. His fills and his vamps and his singing and all that stuff, there was nobody else like him. Nobody.

Electric Hot Tuna performs at the Wanee Musical Festival with The Allman Brothers, The Tedeschi Trucks Band and Buddy Guy, among many other phenomenal bands. Click here to get your tickets now. I will be capturing Wanee in photos and posting them to the CL site the week that follows the fest. Stay tuned...

click to enlarge Jorma Kaukonen & Jack Cassidy - Scotty Hall
Scotty Hall
Jorma Kaukonen & Jack Cassidy

Jorma Kaukonen was a founding member of two legendary bands, Jefferson Airplane and the still-touring Hot Tuna. A Grammy nominee who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Jorma has left an indelible mark on rock music and was rated among Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Rock Guitarists, though he's also well-respected for his mastery of acoustic fingerstyle guitar. In the midst of an active performance schedule, Jorma operates Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp with his wife out of Pomeroy, Ohio. He is, for obvious reasons, the most requested instructor there.

Jorma performs as part of Hot Tuna Electric at the Wanee Musical Festival in Live Oak from Thurs., April 19 to Sun., April 21. He visits the Straz Center in Tampa as part of Hot Tuna Acoustic on Sat., July 14.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Jorma by phone this past week. Check out highlights from our conversation after the jump.

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