“It’s true. The future catches up to the past.” It was a statement about something else entirely, but that moment stood out as key coming from Jorma Kaukonen, a jocular, heavily tattooed man of imposing presence belied by his large mustachioed smile which reveals a single gold tooth; disarming and playful all at once.
Kaukonen is one of the founding members of seminal blues rock and folk band Hot Tuna along with his cohort and collaborator bassist Jack Casady and along with Hot Tuna’s mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff the two of them agreed to allow Dish to join them for the short three hour trip from Nashville to Lexington, KY for a chat about their work and to catch their performance that night on the Lexington based Woodsongs radio show.
The statement from Kaukonen was in reference to the band’s newly released special edition double vinyl version of their current and first Hot Tuna release in 20 years “Steady As She Goes” - something special that their label Red House Records cooked up for the album in the final days of their current tour. Pressed on 180-gram audiophile vinyl with half-speed mastering, the 12 tracks of the album are cut into the first three sides of the double LP and the 4th side features a truly unique etching artwork of Jorma and Jack’s faces. This premier quality collector’s item also features photos from the studio not included in the original CD package, a CD version of the record (in white paper sleeve) as well as the Hot Tuna temporary tattoo!
“It is great being with a record company that would think of doing something like that,’ explained Casady. “ There are only three pressing plants left in the US so they went through a long process of many weeks to get it right.”Get it right they did. The double LP is a gorgeous collector’s item that should be in any audiophile’s collection.
“I’ve never really seriously done much co-writing like so many people down here do but on Steady As She Goes I did a lot of it and I really dug it,” said Kaukonen. “It takes a lot of pressure off of you. Sometimes working on my own can be like pulling teeth but working with someone else someone always has an idea. When it comes to the creative dynamic I am not one of these guys who see the script and sticks to it. I really like the evolving chemistry. It’s all about realizing that a lot of my art is defined by my shortcomings and not just my talents.”
The LP isn’t the only place in Hot Tuna’s world where the future is catching up with the past.
Some of the harder working members of the live music world, Casady & Kaukonen began playing together while growing up in the Washington D.C. area, where Casady’s father was a dentist and , Kaukonen’s father a State Department official. Four years younger, Jack continued in junior high, then high school — while playing professional gigs as lead guitarist at night before he was old enough to drive — while , Kaukonen (who had played rhythm guitar to Casady’s lead) started college in Ohio, accompanied his family overseas, then returned to college, this time in California.
Along the way, Kaukonen became enamored of, then committed to, the finger-picking guitar style exemplified by the now-legendary Rev. Gary Davis. Jack, meanwhile, had taken an interest in the electric bass, at the time a controversial instrument in blues, jazz, and folk circles.
In the mid-1960s, Jorma Kaukonen was asked to audition to play guitar for a new band that was forming in San Francisco. Though an acoustic player at heart, he grew interested in the electronic gadgetry that was beginning to make an appearance in the popular music scene — particularly in a primitive processor brought to the audition by a fellow named Ken Kesey — and decided to join that band; soon thereafter he summoned his young friend from Washington, who now played the bass.
Thus was created the unique (then and now) sound that was The Jefferson Airplane. Kaukonen even contributed the band’s name, drawn from a nickname a friend had for the blues-playing Jorma. Jack Cassady’s experience as a lead guitarist led to a style of bass playing which took the instrument far beyond its traditional role.
“My father realized I had a real life job when we got on the cover of Life Magazine,” Kaukonen laughed as he told the story. “We kept trying to tell him and he just wouldn’t listen until then.
While in The Jefferson Airplane, putting together the soundtrack of the 60s, the pair remained loyal to the blues, jazz, bluegrass, and folk influences of the small clubs and larger venues they had learned from years before. While in San Francisco and even in hotel rooms on the road, they would play together and worked up a set of songs that they would often play at clubs in the Bay Area and while on the road, often after having played a set with the Airplane. This led to a record contract; in fact, they had an album recorded before they decided to name their band Hot Tuna.
“The name Hot Tuna came from a song by the great Blind Boy Fuller called ‘Keep On Truckin’, Mama’ that has a lyric that says ‘what’s that smelly fish, oh baby?’ explained Kaukonen. “We were talking about that one night in the car and some witty soul said Hot Tuna. Well, it was the late ‘60’s it was like ‘wow, that’s a great name for a band!”
“Do you remember where we were when that name popped up?” Kaukonen asked the grinning Casady sitting next to him, a thinly gaunt man the physical opposite of Kaukonen. “ We were in a Ford LTD Station Wagon.”
“What else at the time?” Casady answered with a smirk.
“Right. No bus back then. We were driving to St. Mark’s Place in New York City.”With the record deal in place and an all new distinctive moniker, they launched on an odyssey which has itself continued for more than 35 years, always finding new and interesting turns in its path forward. But, despite all their success, Hot Tuna still has run into a few snags here and there.
“Our publicist lives in Austin, TX and the people from Austin City Limits told her they weren’t interested in us because we were too retro for them,” Kaukonen said. “It’s really a contradiction in terms.”
This is highlighted by the fact that almost all of ACL’s participants – especially the Americana acts - do retro styled music of one type or the other.
“I don’t know what to tell you except that our fans dig it even if they don’t,” Said Kaukonen. For the last few years, the duo have been joined in most of their Hot Tuna performances by the mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff.
“Barry could be a treasure in the Smithsonian Institute,” Casady interjected. “His knowledge of the number of songs, the genres and the backgrounds and history of songs is phenomenal. “A veteran of bluegrass, Celtic, folk, and rock-influenced bands including “Tony Trischka and Skyline” and “Bottle Hill,” Barry has found a new voice in working with Hot Tuna, and the fit has been good — watching them play, it’s as if he’s been there from the beginning and they’re all having the time of their lives.
“The more I am in it the more it is the same,” Casady said as the bus pulled into Lexington. “ People always talk to me about The Great Old Days when I first got into the business. But It has always been a business and our record companies weren’t too interested in us unless we sold records. If you sold enough records where you could expand your art form and do things that weren’t essential to the pop music market then you were lucky to be able to practice your art. But for the business it was always about sales.”
“With all the new outlets that are going on and the Mogul Industry being more diverse there is still that element in pop music today,” Kaukonen added. “But the important thing is this: Can you go into a room, invite some people, take out an instrument and make it work? At the end of the day artists still make their living on the road from touring and playing in front of people.”