Jorma Kaukonen is a genuine musical journeyman, a man whose trajectory has all but ensured his musical immortality. As a member of both the Jefferson Airplane and its bluesy offshoot Hot Tuna, which he formed with bassist and longtime friend Jack Casady, his name is forever ingrained in the annals of rock history. On the eve of his 73rd birthday, he remains as active, enthused, and eager to pursue his muse as at any time in his 50-year career.
Kaukonen first met Casady, the man who would become his lifetime musical partner, when they played together in a Washington, D.C., band dubbed the Triumphs. By the mid-'60s, the two men were on sturdier footing when they joined the fledgling Jefferson Airplane. Despite Kaukonen's appreciation for traditional folk blues — artists like Howlin' Wolf, Son House, the Reverend Gary Davis, and Muddy Waters — he and Casady became an integral part of that band as it made its transition from folk rock to the high-flying psychedelia that typified the Airplane at its peak. Though never a particularly prolific songwriter, several Kaukonen compositions became staples of the band's repertoire — "Hey, Frederick," "Embryonic Journey," "Feel So Good," and "Good Shepherd" among them.
Even as the Airplane flourished and later floundered, Hot Tuna's own efforts picked up steam, thanks to a well-received string of early albums and live performances that would often stretch over several hours. After a steady influx of auxiliary players coming in and out of the band's ranks, Kaukonen and Casady agreed to call it quits in the late '70s, only to re-form a few years later. Although Kaukonen still pursues a solo career, Hot Tuna itself is now as active as ever.
We caught up with Kaukonen by phone from his home in Southeast Ohio that doubles as the Fur Peace Ranch — a weekend music camp he and his wife, Vanessa, have managed for 17 years.
New Times: Hot Tuna has put out a slew of live albums over the past few decades, but in recent years, the band's studio output has been scarce at best. Your last album, 2011's Steady as She Goes, was your first in 20 years.
Jorma Kaukonen: In the last few decades, we haven't had a record deal. It costs money to go into the studio. A lot of the kids today, they do a lot of that stuff on their own. But I'm not that kid. So we did a lot of live stuff because it was easy to do. But I've done some studio albums on my own. I did Blue Country Heart in 2002, and then I did The Stars in My Crown and, more recently, River of Time.
As I got back to working in the studio and having a good time with it, I went to the folks at my label, Red House. I was supposed to do another Jorma record after River of Time, and I suggested doing another Hot Tuna record instead, and they were very excited about it. In today's world, you don't have the absurd budgets that you did in the old days. But you want to know something? It's a good thing. Because you don't waste time. And we had a really good time playing. So there will be a new Jorma record after the first of the year and then later on in the year, or the first of the following year, there will be a new Hot Tuna record. We're back in the saddle.
I guess the bad news was, we didn't have people looking for that next studio album. But the good news is — and it is good news — that we didn't have that pressure to do two albums a year. If I was a young artist, I'd probably thrive on that. But as an older guy, I like not having that pressure.
What is the divide that separates your solo material from something you might do with the band?
Sometimes people ask me when I do a so-called solo album — by the way, when you do a "solo album," it usually takes eight or nine people — why don't I use Jack. Then it would be a Hot Tuna album. The interaction that Jack and I have is a different thing altogether. It's about the songs, but it's also about the interaction between us. When I do a so-called solo record, it's always about the songs.
Is it a challenge not to repeat yourselves?
[laughs] Of course it is. I remember reading an interview with ZZ Top where they asked, "How do you guys keep it fresh?" And their answer was, "Buy new gear."
So can we assume that would be your response as well?
There is some truth to that. Sometimes you get a new guitar and it will give you a new perspective on your music, whatever that music is. A lot of things happen. I'm listening to a lot of different kinds of music, so I'm always looking for something new. I'm always jotting lyrics down, because you never know what will come, something that really smokes your shorts. Obviously, me and Jack are always going to sound like me and Jack, but I think there were some growth elements to Steady as She Goes, and I like that. It sounds like us, but it also sounds like us a little more.
Hot Tuna has had some shifts in personnel over the years, so that probably contributes to the variety as well, no?
Absolutely. It's like fertilizing the field. I love outside influences, a new way to look at the same thing. Maybe the same way to look at a different thing. Whatever. It's important to always keep your mind open. The metaphor that I use when I'm teaching guitar is, "You've always got to keep your mind open to playing familiar chords in unfamiliar ways."
Let's talk about your other band, Jefferson Airplane. The 50th anniversary of its founding is right around the corner.
We didn't mean to age you there.
That's OK. It beats the alternatives.
Is anything planned to mark the anniversary?
No, not that I'm aware of. I stay in touch with Grace [Slick]. I haven't talked to Paul [Kantner] in years. Marty [Balin] has been to the ranch, so I do talk to Marty. So my mind's open. We'll just have to see what happens. A couple of months ago, I did call Grace up. It occurred to me that I needed to tell her what an honor it was to play with her back in those days, because she's one of the great voices of our time. And I think she really was surprised, because that wasn't the way we talked to each other. [laughs] We busted each other's balls relentlessly back then. But it's really true. What a cool band.
Given all you've accomplished in your career, have you ever considered retirement?
I was the grasshopper, not the ant, when I was younger, so I need to keep working. Besides, whenever I think about retiring, it's like, retire from what?