‘I’m a lucky guy,’ says Jorma Kaukonen, who will bring solo tour to NJ for three shows

jorma kaukonen interview '24


Jorma Kaukonen has shows coming up in Parsippany and Red Bank.

There are several octogenarians from the chaotic world of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll who are still recording and touring. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards typically come to mind, right? But another prominent name on that sadly dwindling list is Jorma Kaukonen. One of the founding members of Jefferson Airplane and, later, Hot Tuna, Kaukonen, 83, swings through New Jersey this month on his latest tour, performing at The Mt. Tabor Tabernacle in Parsippany on April 16 and The Vogel at The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, April 17-18.

We chatted with Kaukonen, who lives in Southeast Ohio, by Zoom last week about things such as his favorite albums from a career that spanned blazing electric guitar workouts during the heyday of psychedelia to old-timey-inspired folk on his own albums. We also wondered why Hot Tuna will no longer do any of its famed electric shows. And we have a scoop: Kaukonen told us that a long-lost recording of his earliest fingerpicking from 1960 was recently unearthed and those songs may get release.

Q: Thanks for making the time and sorry I’m late. We just had an earthquake here in New Jersey.

A: Oh, that’s okay. I’m glad to say we didn’t have any earthquake here. But give me a second while I let one of the dogs out.

(A minute or so later …)

Q: My first question is about longevity. I can’t help but notice you’re one of a shrinking number of folks who rose to fame in the ’60s and is still out there playing and releasing music. Not everybody just keeps going.

A: After the first of the year, I did my annual doctor appointments. I am so fortunate I’m as healthy as I am. My doctor said to me that I owe my mom and dad a big thanks. It seems genetics has played a large part. But to do what I do at this age and still sound acceptable, to me, is awesome.

You know, I got a chance to see Segovia and Pablo Casals at the end of their lives. It was an incredible honor to see Segovia, but he visibly and audibly was not as sharp and it was kind of sad. Casals was playing cello and he was sharp. Anyway, to play up to standard is incredible. I remember (laughs) Grace (Slick, of Jefferson Airplane) used to bellyache at seeing people sing or play over 50, and I wish I was still 50. But here we are.

Jack Casady, left, and Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna.

Q: But of course, you are making a significant change. You and Jack Casady (his bass-playing counterpart in both the Airplane and Hot Tuna) recently announced you’ll no longer tour as Electric Hot Tuna and stick to just doing Acoustic Hot Tuna. What’s behind that?

Q: Jack and I aren’t retiring. The acoustic thing, the electric thing … I love it all. I’m a lucky guy. I’ve had a long professional career and never played with a guy I didn’t like. But to be honest, because I spend so much time with an acoustic guitar, there are aspects that are more creative for me. Obviously, on an electric tour, I get into it and have a great time. It’s rock ‘n’ roll, and all that is great. But the acoustic is more emotionally connected for me. The electric is just different.

For example, I’ve got a teenager, she’s 17, and she and some friends have a band and they rehearse every day for three to four hours. We never rehearse. We just went out and played. One reason is that we all live in different places, which makes it harder to rehearse. But I’m connected to the acoustic guitar every day no matter where I am. So in terms of creative juices flowing, it’s much easier, although that’s not to say I’m not close with the band.

Playing rock ‘n’ roll is seductive. It’s a lot of fun. But also, I’m going to be 84 this year and wearing a 9-to-10-pounds guitar while standing up for two hours or more … well, you’re ready to take that thing off afterwards and need some CBD before you go to sleep.

Q: Let’s go back in time. What was your favorite song from when you were in the Airplane, and why?

A: Hmm. That’s a good question. It would probably depend on which incarnation (of the band). And the band had a pretty short career. Off the top of my head, I was always fond of “We Can Be Together” (from Volunteers), but also “The Other Side of This Life” (from Bless Its Pointed Little Head). The first one, “We Can Be Together,” was a long song with six or seven parts. There’s the beginning in 2/4 time and then major key interludes, which made it really interesting to play. And “The Other Side of This Life” was a great song. I was a huge Fred Neil fan (he wrote the song) and it was one of our epic numbers. There were always lot of places to go there, and jam with the band.

Q: How about Hot Tuna?

A: Again, it would depend on what incarnation you’re talking about. But if you strip away all the guys I played with (besides Casady), I would have to say “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”

Q: And from your solo albums?

A: Well, there’s a rotating song list. There are songs I’ve written … But I would have to say “Things That Might Have Been,” which I wrote about me and my brother.

The cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” album.

Q: Okay, and now, which albums from those eras are your favorites?

A: From the Airplane, I would say Volunteers, because of some of its oddities. It has some strange idiosyncrasies, not just rock ‘n’ roll stuff. From Hot Tuna, it would be Burgers. And of my own albums, it would be Quah.

You know, I still have all the originals in shrink wrap. I’m not a nutcase with records, but you need three. One to play, one to keep in the shrink-wrap and one to trade.

Q: I would imagine you’ve owned a lot of guitars over the years, but which one is most special to you?

A: Well, it depends on the time period we’re discussing. But I would say the Gibson J-50 that I got in 1959 — it just defined what an acoustic guitar should be to me. But then, back in the mid- to early 2000s, Martin made a signature Jorma model that I played for several years. And then, there’s a guy named David Flammang, who makes custom, hand-crafted acoustic guitars and lives in Green, Iowa, a little unincorporated town. I’ve been playing one of his for the last five or six years. And I never thought I’d play anything other than a Martin again. But I also love this Gibson J-35.

I’m a sick pup. I don’t need all these guitars, but I love having them. Although I don’t have as many as some of my friends.

Q: How many do you have?

A: I have under 20 guitars, which might seem like a lot to a lot of people, but I know people who have a museum full of guitars. When it starts to feel like a lot of guitars is when you have to change the strings on all of them.

Q: You’ve recently recorded a couple of albums with this fellow John Hurlbut, one of which will be out on Record Store Day this month. How’d you come to work with him?

A: It goes back to ’83 or early ‘84, actually. I was working a show in Columbus and he had a record store called The Record Connection. His friend produced that show and we ended up getting introduced and became friends forever. Fast forward to probably around the late ’90s and we always spent time playing together, but when everything shut down with COVID quarantines, we found ourselves sitting around an empty ranch (Kaukonen runs the Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, where he does shows and runs guitar camps). So we just kept playing guitar and we came up with a repertoire. He would bring interesting songs to me but nothing I would ever have played by myself. So we thought we might as well make a record and, over time, we did a two-part record … And there’s another one coming out now. There’s no movie magic, no overdubbing. It’s just us on real acoustic guitars.



Q: Who’s influenced you and who do you spend a lot of your time listening to?

A: Not a lot of newer artists. I love Mary Chapin Carpenter. Her album Between the Dirt and the Stars is one of my favorites. Lots of time I listen to weird, old-timey stuff nobody’s ever heard of. Like Washington Phillips, who was from Texas and played this weird instrument called the dolceola, which was sort of like a zither with a keyboard on it. It’s weird. There’s also Rev. Gary Davis, John Hammond, certain Ike & Tina Turner songs. There’s a song from ’72, “Hully Gully,” where Ike Turner takes one of the greatest rock solos of all time.

Way before I was playing guitar, one of the things that made me aware of the instrument and that rock ‘n’ roll was a new art form was Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” Most of the early rock ‘n’ roll records weren’t really guitar records back then, although there was Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly. When I was a kid, I didn’t realize how sophisticated a guitar player Holly was. That sort of hooked me on the guitar.

But I listen to Tidal and, every now and then, the algorithm throws something at me to see if I’m going to like it. And I like Jason Isbell’s Weathervanes. There’s a nice little picking kind of song on that called “Strawberry Woman.” So all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, I’ve become a big Jason Isbell fan.

Q: Some pretty interesting archival stuff was released in the past year or so. A 2003 album from a solo show you did at The Bottom Line in New York, and then there was The Typewriter Tape, those early 1964 recordings where you played guitar with Janis Joplin singing. Any more archival stuff going to come out?

A: I’m lucky. I’m surrounded by people who care about that kind of stuff and, ultimately, that somebody is my wife. But I never know when something will surface. I didn’t know the Bottom Line tapes existed until somebody brought it up. I’ve got a bunch of good people on my team. Anyway, the answer is hopefully if we can find more stuff, but I’m not the one who looks for it.

But speaking of old tapes … my buddy Jack found something from the summer of 1960. I’d been fingerpicking for four or five months. I’d just gotten off some job at a hospital in New York and my dad was ready to go to The Philippines (he worked in the U.S. State Department). When I came back, Jack recorded me playing all the songs I knew at that time and kept it. At some point, these absolutely embryonic tapes from the summer of 1960 will see light of day. Maybe within the next year or so. There are lots of projects kicking around, Hot Tuna re-releases.

The cover of Jefferson Airpane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” album. Top row from left: Jack Casady, Grace Slick and Marty Balin. Bottom row from left: Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner and Spencer Dryden.

Q: You’ve seen a lot. Done a lot. How has the music business changed for you?

A: You know, I don’t really exist in the modern music business. One of the things, generally speaking, when we were coming up was that to be able to cut a record was a really big deal. I don’t have any facts to support this, but now my dog could cut an album on the iPhone if she wanted to. Today, you can cut an album any way you want it. There are lots of ways to skin this cat.

Another thing is that my daughter and the kids in her band play so much better than I did at that age and the bar is constantly being raised. They can really play. And I think the bar should be getting raised all that time. They’re listening to a lot of people and they’re putting the work in. Not everybody can be a Taylor Swift, but you have to start somewhere.

But me … I don’t think I ever wrote a song until “Embryonic Journey,” which was the first original thing that saw the light of day. It’s an instrumental that I wrote in ’62 or ’63 (and released on the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album in 1967). My bandmates in the Airplane were writing all the time and they encouraged me to write all the time … If I wrote a song, it got on the record. We fought about a lot of stuff, but not about the art … But I started out as a solo artist, and what Jack and I do, and what John and I do is keep things small. I like the intimacy of a small group … This works for me, and things have changed. I’m not used in commercials, for instance.

Q: Sometimes I cringe when I hear classic songs used in commercials.

A: I find stuff like that intrinsically humorous. One song … it wasn’t from my band, it was from a later version (Starship), which had a hit with “We Built This City.” It was used for a toilet commercial. There are men and women dancing around with toilet plungers. It may not get better than this.

But it begs the question: Would I like one of my songs to be used (in a commercial)? I’ve got a daughter going to college next year and it’s not cheap. But it’s not a choice I’ve had to personally make, so I can stand back and enjoy it.

Jorma Kaukonen will perform at the At the Tabernacle series at the Mt. Tabor Tabernacle in Parsippany, April 16 at 7:30 p.m.; and The Vogel at The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, April 17-18 at 7:30 p.m. For more about him, visit jormakaukonen.com.


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