It’s impressive enough that the “official” history of Hot Tuna as a living, breathing band begins in 1969. The fact of the matter is, you can actually trace Tuna’s roots back another 11 years – as 1958 marks the first time that bassist Jack Casady and guitarist/vocalist Jorma Kaukonen played music together … and plugged in or unplugged, there’s no Hot Tuna without Jack and Jorma. While the band’s roster (and sound) has grown and shrunk (and grown and shrunk) over the years as many talented players have shared the Tuna experience, the one constant has been Jack and Jorma’s long-standing friendship.
2011 sees Hot Tuna fired-up and sounding better than ever. The present core line-up of Casady, Kaukonen, mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff, and drummer Skoota Warner will be touring the US beginning in late January, followed by the release of a new studio album (the first in 20 years) in April.
Jambands.com recently had the chance to talk with both Jorma and Jack about their new album ( Steady As She Goes, to be released 4/12/11 on Red House Records) and the current version of Electric Hot Tuna on the eve of tour, which kicks off at the Bergen PAC in Englewood, NJ on Friday night.
Part I – Jorma Kaukonen
The long-limbed, wild-haired, gold-toothed, furry freak of yesteryear is now a slicked-back big ol’ bear of a man – but Jorma Kaukonen’s passion for life has only intensified with time … and there’s still plenty of freak left when he goes deep into a jam. When not at home with his family on his Fur Peace Ranch (a music mecca in its own right), Kaukonen continues to tour the world with guitar in hand and a smile on his face.
The kind of musician blessed with the ability to make the largest of venues seem like an intimate living room, Kaukonen recently celebrated his 70th birthday at New York’s Beacon Theater with an impressive roster of musical guests. We began our visit with a discussion of age.
BR: Before we start on the upcoming Hot Tuna album, I wanted to extend a belated “Happy 70th” to you. I wish I’d been at those birthday shows at the Beacon Theater in December.
JK: Those were amazing nights; they truly were.
BR: Do you remember a time early on in your life when you thought about what you might be doing when you were 70 years old? Or even, say, 40?
JK: (laughs) I remember when I was first starting to play fingerstyle blues and stuff, I perceived myself as a “seasoned bluesman” and at that point in time, my parents were … oh my gosh … they were probably just barely 50, right? (laughter) They were ancient, you know? (laughter)
BR: Oh yeah – for sure!
JK: It’s funny stuff when you look back on it – very funny stuff.
BR: So not only are you alive –
JK: I am! (laughter)
BR: – but making music and enjoying life, as well.
JK: Absolutely, brother – absolutely.
BR: And 50-years-plus since you first met, you and Jack are still … well … you and Jack.
JK: Well, exactly. We’ve been buddies for a very long time and it’s just how it is. There’s no way you could script this, but we’ve been friends since he was in jr. high and I was in 10th grade … and that was very definitely a few years ago. (laughter) We’ve been playing music together since 1958 – and that’s unbelievable, really. Jack and I are different people, but we’ve always respected each other as men and as artists even before those concepts ever meant anything to us … we just did, and that’s how it was.
Jack’s an amazing man, he really is. His commitment to what I perceive to be purity in his art is the way it ought to be.
BR: The last time we talked was after you did the sessions for River of Time [Jorma’s 2009 solo album] and I remember how much you loved recording in Levon Helm’s studio and working with everybody there. I wasn’t surprised to find out that you went back to Levon’s to record the new Hot Tuna album, Steady As She Goes.
JK: One obvious question – and I thank you for not asking it directly, although I would’ve happily answered it – that I get get when I talk about this is, “Why did it take so long for another Hot Tuna project?” It’s kind of a tricky question and there’s a lot of levels to it.
First of all, to answer your question: yes, I really have been looking forward to doing a band project at Levon’s. You know, Jack and I have never stopped playing together, but now we have a group of guys – this core band of Jack and I with Barry Mitterhoff and Skoota Warner – that all of us are extremely happy with. I’ve been doing more writing and I like where I’ve been going with it.
And, my interaction with Larry Campbell and his circle of family and friends has really opened some doors. Larry’s a great guy; we’ve been friends for a long time. River Of Time was such an easy album to make – we did it in, like, five or six days. For me, the chemistry is just fantastic working with Larry – and I just knew before Jack and the rest of the guys met Larry that the same would be true for all of us. And it was.
So, a lot of synchronous events just sort of came together to really make it be the right time. And to be honest with you, we didn’t have a record company before and that had a lot to do with it, as well. For awhile, we were just thinking about doing it ourselves. And then a year and half or so ago, I was talking with Eric Peltoniemi, who’s the big dog at Red House and an old friend of my family. I told Eric, “Look, I’m happy to be a solo artist with you guys, but I’m just going to throw this out there because we’re friends – and if the answer’s no, that’s fine. What would you think about a Hot Tuna album?”
They got excited about it; it just seemed like the stars were aligning in a perfect way, you know?
BR: Things happen when they’re supposed to.
JK: They do – they really do.
Many people put a lot of emphasis on planning every move in their lives and it sort of comes across like a military operation, you know? But even military operations don’t come off like military operations. (laughter)
BR: Justin Guip, the house engineer at Levon’s Barn – he’s awfully good at what he does, isn’t he?
JK: Justin’s another great team member.
BR: I’ve enjoyed talking to him about past projects. He talks about the Barn like that’s his instrument, you know?
JK: And it is – that’s a great way to put it. Justin is a consummate professional in his own right; and he simply loves the music. He’s also a great drummer, by the way – he played on my River Of Time album.
BR: I remember that. He swapped off with Levon and the energy never lagged. He could make a career just out of his drumming.
JK: Absolutely. Any band that works with Justin is going to benefit from it; and when he’s on board, he’s like another member of the family.
BR: So on the new album, Steady As She Goes, it was the core four of you, Jack, Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin, and Skoota Warner on drums – any other guests?
JK: Really, the only other people were Larry Campbell and his lovely wife Teresa Williams, who did some singing on some of the tracks. Believe me, if I could afford it and she were available, I’d have Teresa around making me sound good every time I opened my mouth. (laughs)
We got there and began doing some stuff and Larry asks, “Do you mind if I play guitar?” And I’m going, “I’d love for you to play some guitar.” So I’m doing the leads and Larry plays some rhythm guitar and some fiddle … which I haven’t even heard yet, as he did that after I left.
Once again, it was one of those things where whoever Larry’s working with – whether it’s Levon or it’s us or whoever – he knows who we are. Larry has that rare talent as a producer/musician to totally understand the guys who he’s working with and become part of their little family. It’s really unbelievable – it’s like he’s been part of the band forever.