Photo by Dean Budnick
With a sleeve of vintage tattoos and a head full of rock and roll experiences, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen carries the legacy of two monumental rock bands: Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. Sitting on the upper decks of Jam Cruise 17, after two excellent electric sets with Jack Casady and Steve Kimock, Kaukonen was more than happy to chat about everything from his passion for flying drones to a potential Hot Tuna record (helmed by Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools, no less). Looking much younger than his 78 years, Kaukonen still has the fire of a true musician, and he happily basks in the healing powers of playing live. “[Performing] is still a lot of fun and I need to do it as long as I can,” he grins. “And I probably will.”
I heard you’re a big fan of flying drones. Is that true?
About two years ago, my daughter gave me an entry level, Phantom 3 and I fell in love with it immediately and wound up blowing a bunch of money… The one I’m flying now is a lot more expensive than the one I got in the first place.
The hardest thing is keeping perspective when it’s coming at you, knowing which way to turn. You need to shut off all the safety devices to crash it. Which I’ve done.
Does that passion for technology carry over into your guitar too?
In a way. You know I’m not a gearhead in the same kind of way that Steve Kimock is. I mean he’s a really deep cat. Everything that he does, he’s really thought about, he’s not fooling around. My approach tends to be a little more haphazard than that. I just plug a bunch of stuff in and when I like it, I keep it. He actually thinks about all that stuff. When we’re playing a show, he’s always messing with the stuff on the floor. That’d drive me crazy. I couldn’t do that.
Let’s talk about your autobiography. How did that come about?
I’ve been journaling for a long time, but there’s really a big difference that and writing a book. Back in the early 2000s, I had an offer from a publishing company and they wanted me to do an autobiography, but they wanted dirt on people that were more famous than me. I just wasn’t interested in that.
So, somebody I knew worked for St. Martin’s Press and they basically let me do what I wanted to do. One of the things that they did pester me about for a while was that they wanted more stories about Jerry and Janis but I had to say, “Oh look, I love those guys, but we weren’t friends that way, we were colleagues. And sad to say, I know what you’re looking for. I don’t have those kinds of stories.”
The actual writing wound up being really painless, because it’s really an honest book. At this point in my life I don’t have any secrets anyway, so what the heck? Once I got into the flow of the things, it was actually interesting.
Hot Tuna invited Leslie Mendelson out for a few songs on Jam Cruise. How did you guys get linked up with her?
Leslie is awesome, man. I’m a huge fan of hers. I think I met her through Steve [Kimock]. Her attitude and her love of music just makes it so much fun. I mean first of all, she’s so good. And from that, she’s just so easy to get along with, you know? When we saw that she was one the boat, we absolutely wanted her to do something.
Was she the one who suggested you play a Jefferson Airplane tune [“3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”]?
No actually. I suggested that one because we’d done it before, but she jumped on it like a big dog on a bone. And she does a great job. Marty—may he rest in peace—he would have been thrilled with her version of it. We picked that one because some of the Airplane songs are so eccentric and complex that they really would have taken a lot of rehearsal. But that’s a rock-and-roll song, so she really nailed it. I was thrilled to be on stage with her.
Speaking of Jefferson Airplane, what’s your take on all of this Woodstock 50 stuff that’s floating around? Have you been involved in anything?
I have not. And we haven’t been invited to Michael Lang’s thing. And I think that if we were, unless it was really a lot of money, I’d probably decline. First of all, we did that Airplane tribute thing in 2015: Rachel Price was my Grace [Slick] for some of the songs and Larry Campbell’s wife Teresa was my Grace on others. That was an amazing band.
And the other thing, too, is that even though I’m an old guy who plays old music, I don’t consider myself an oldies artist. And there’s sort of that oldies feel to that show. I wish them nothing but success, but I don’t feel it’s the show for me. Now, if they do something at Bethel, I’ve played there a couple of times, I’d be more than happy to do that.
What do you think about all this looking back on the “Woodstock that was”?
I almost posted this on my website, and then I came to my senses and didn’t, but I was going to post: Look, I’ve known Michael Lang for a long time…I mean we’re not buddies, but he’s a good guy. When he and the guys set out to do Woodstock, they planned on making a lot of money. Now it didn’t happen because of a bunch of other stuff, so the magic that happened at Woodstock had nothing to do with the promoting the show. If we could bottle that, we would, but that ain’t going to happen. When people think about what happened at Woodstock, you couldn’t script that in a million years. So, that’s not going to happen again, you know? I mean, the Airplane played the Atlantic City Pop Festival with Janis like a couple of nights before Woodstock. And even though, I think that the people were beginning to descend on Bethel, nobody had any idea what was going to happen.
If they were to do an Airplane tribute at one of the Woodstock 50 events, would you give them your blessing?
You mentioned Marty a little bit earlier and I wanted to touch on that. My condolences.
There’s no good time for bad news. We knew that Marty had been sick, but he and his wife, they really did keep a lot of shade on themselves, so we didn’t realize how sick he was. And it’s not for me to say, but if there is a better place, he’s in a better place now.
Do you have moments on stage where you feel Marty’s presence?
I think in a way, I almost had one of those moments last night with Leslie singing that song. I really think he would have loved that, I really do. Because he appreciated quality.
You have a batch of acoustic shows on the calendar…
I do solo acoustic shows all the time. I’ve gotten to a point in my life where in a normal world I’d be a great grandfather, but in this one, I have a 13-year-old daughter at home. It’d be nice to spend more time at home, but I just can’t say no to a job. And she gets it too, I care about her. You like those horseback riding lessons? You like that piano? That’s part of the deal, you know?
To be honest with you, I’m busier now than I’ve ever been when I was younger.
Why is that?
Well, first of all, it’s still fun. I really enjoy it. There are a lot of factors involved. When I was younger, I was the grasshopper not the ant, so I don’t have like a bunch of money stashed away, so I need to keep working to do that. But the other thing is—to keep my playing at a level to make me feel good, practicing doesn’t get it. I need to interact with other people, so that’s part of it too. Anytime someone wants to hear me play I’m honored and it’s a good thing.
How often do you pick up a guitar?
Well, when I’m home I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t play. But—see we can use Steve here because I’ve spent a lot of time with Steve—Steve is almost never not practicing. I mean, he’s really an animal with that…and that’s not me. I play every day but it’s not the same as playing live in front of somebody.
Do you have any plans to go into the studio at all?
Hot Tuna was with Red House Records, and we owe them an album. Red House was taken over by Compass, Garry West and Alison Brown own Compass records. I don’t think they completely get what it is that we do. But, we owe them a record. Normally I write songs in the studio, but I actually want to do the grown-up thing and have it prepared before we go in there, so I can plan it for next time. And if they’re interested in doing that, then we’ll do an electric record.
I talked to Dave Schools of Widespread Panic because we’re buddies and he gets us, he understands Hot Tuna. He’d be a great producer, that’s my dream project, if we get a budget to do that. If we get to do an electric project, Schools is my first choice, absolutely.
That’s great to hear. The last thing I wanted to talk about was that you’re doing these birthday shows for Jack. Are you excited about that? Are you razzing him a little bit?
All the time. One of the secrets to any band staying together for any period of time is being able to bust each other’s balls and still remain friends. We’ve been buddies forever, and yeah, of course we razz him about it. Naturally.