Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Jefferson Airplane made an indelible mark in the musical history books for their uniquely energized take on the Blues and psychedelic rock.
Airplane co-founders Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady have long since departed the band, but they continue to work and tour together as Hot Tuna, which formed in 1969.
The pair recorded their first album of new material in 20 years during 2013, Steady As She Goes, and have launched an ambitious tour showcasing that work as well as material from their extensive catalog in the New Year. The group rolls into the Ridgefield Playhouse January 7
In separate interviews with The Newtown Bee, Casady and Kaukonen acknowledged they are both still very happy to be getting up in the morning, never mind heading out to play the kind of music that is keeping their blood pumping well into the 21st Century.
The two musicians said they were equally excited to be bringing both well-known, and new material to audiences who have supported Hot Tuna through thick and thin over the years. Steady As She Goes, was recorded at Levon Helm’s studio in upstate New York and produced by Grammy-winning artist Larry Campbell.
Both Kaukonen and Casady were eager to talk about how their new album captures the energy of the group’s live performances, and how well their chemistry meshed with supporting players Barry Mitterhoff, who will be joining the tour on mandolin; drummer Skoota Warner (Cyndi Lauper, Matisyahu, Santana); as well as Campbell who not only produced, but contributed songwriting, guitar, fiddle, organ and vocals.
Newtown Bee: Does Steady As She Goes consist of songs that Hot Tuna has been collecting over the years since your last studio project, or is it all relatively new material?
Jorma Kaukonen: When Jack and I got the green light from our record company to do this project, we looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, we’re going to need some new songs.’ I had already been working on a few songs and Jack brought in an unfinished song that Larry and I were able to finish up for him. Jack is not primarily a songwriter, but he brings in great ideas. It’s different depending on what’s going on. The recording process was really a lot of fun. As I tell my students, the more you do something, the better you get at it. And if I really worked at writing songs, I'd probably have more songs.
Newtown Bee: The press advance for the new album describes a couple of songs - "Easy Now Revisited," and "A Little Faster," - as "hop on your Harley free spirit jams." Does this mean they were inspired by a motorcycle ride?
Jorma Kaukonen: Well, the original "Easy Now" was an old record about a motorcycle trip I never took. But "Easy Now Revisited" was about a trip I did take a couple of years ago down to the Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee. I didn't write "A Little Faster," John Hurlbut wrote that. But I think it sounds like a metaphor about life. He originally wrote that about 20 years ago back when he thought we weren't ever going to grow up. But he's since updated the lyrics because for better or worse, we all have grown up. It's a great song. Every now and then you end up doing a song you wish you had written, and I probably could have written that song.
Newtown Bee: How much did your session mates, Skoota and Barry have on the finished product?
Jorma Kaukonen: We are sort of a Gestalt organism in the studio. We all throw ideas into the ring and all contribute ideas and try stuff. I trust Larry's musical taste so implicitly, I run every song by him to ask if the songs work as well as I think they do. And once in awhile he thinks of something else to add. The best part of co-writing or working creatively is you don't have to worry about getting your feelings hurt because you didn't come up with the perfect formula. I've discovered over the years that the sum of the whole is always greater than its parts.
Newtown Bee: What made you decide to bring Skoota into the mix? He's worked with a diverse range of artists, but they don't have a lot of stylistic overlap to Hot Tuna material.
Jorma Kaukonen: Skoota is a pro, and he just fell in love with the fact that we are something of an eccentric rock and roll band. In a lot of respects we're a lot more free and easy than most of the artists he's worked with. He brings a lot to the table, his musical taste is practically flawless, and he's just a really great drummer.
Newtown Bee: You also seemed to lean on Larry Campbell a lot?
Jorma Kaukonen: Here's the thing - Larry was my friend first and foremost, and that's a great way to start working together. He's such an interesting guy. He plays so many things so well that any one of them could be his only instrument, and he's a great arranger as well. So when you work with him, it's almost like he's been in your band for a lifetime. He doesn't try and impose his vision on your work, he finds what your vision is and then he just fits in. I've worked with some great producer, but it was almost like I couldn't see him as just a great producer. It was almost like he was a band member who spent a lot of time behind the board.
Newtown Bee: How much did being there working in Levon Helm's studio affect the recording and song development process?
Jorma Kaukonen: I'd been friends with Levon - may he rest in peace - for many years. And his studio is fantastic. It's out in the country, and it was a really comfortable place. I'm not sure I can quantify the magic that leaked in and out of those walls, but it was the right place to work. I felt very comfortable there. When Lee was still alive, he would wander through with his old dog, and he would sit and listen, maybe play a bit. He played on three cuts on my last project. It was kind of like working with family, and working in that setting made me feel really good.
Newtown Bee: When I saw the song title "Mourning Interrupted," I imagined a tear jerking ballad, but this is a funky, upbeat tune - even a little irreverent.
Jorma Kaukonen: It's a wacky little song. You know I started with a groove on that and the song came very easily. Sometimes the songs you write reflect something very profound about who you are, and sometimes there are songs you just enjoy writing. When I wrote that one I sent the lyrics to my wife and she called me back and asked if I was ok. And I had to reply, 'Honey, it's just a song, I like it.' It's not a manifesto or anything.
Newtown Bee: Do you just flip the switch and hit the road, or is there still a degree of preparation to ensure you have the energy to sustain a tour over several months?
Jack Casady: I think any good player is always working on the craft aspect. Jorma teaches and plays regularly all the songs we play as Hot Tuna. But when I get ready to start a Hot Tuna tour, I go over all the material here at home, not only for the muscle memory, but also for muscle structure. It’s one of the necessary things you do to make sure you don’t start having tendon issues and things like that. I practice all of the songs we're going to play, which I keep on my iPhone, so when we start the tour, my memory is refreshed. But you have to remember that each night is different - the tempos may be a bit different and you have to be in the moment. I think that's what gives long legs to Hot Tuna and the way Jorma and I approach the music. I hope each audience feels like it is really that's been created special for them each night.
Newtown Bee: With 40-plus years on the road together, do you ever find you want to modify the arrangements, especially on those early stage Hot Tuna tunes?
Jack Casady: When I was a kid and I was listening to players like Bix Beiderbecke and Jelly Roll Morton and the Reverend Gary Davis and even Segovia - what you appreciate about those players is their individual tone. That's what you work on your whole life. We bring that culmination of who we are, and all those years of playing right to that moment on the stage. Since we have lots of material already, and now we have new material, we have to fold that new material in in place of maybe some of that old material that has been played too many times. We try not to play the kinds of songs that are too lick oriented, or rigid, in a way that makes them sound dated. It's like folk music in that it's not associated with a particular moment in time. We bring different things, and the universal truth and quality of those songs still keeps them fresh. As you get older, sometimes those songs take on different meanings, and perhaps more substantial meanings the older you get.
Newtown Bee: Hot Tuna plays in a variety of configuration - electric and acoustic - and from a duo to a full band. Is it more fun, or more challenging when there are fewer musicians?
Jack Casady: It’s a different craftwork mindset than when you are out with a full band with drums. But when we go out as an acoustic trio, you’ve gotta be in the moment and play to what the sound is on stage. With Mitterhoff, who is a brilliant player, we give a lot of the melody sections over to him, while Jorma and I essentially are playing back up to that. The more personnel you have, it's like a sport with more men on the field. You have to orchestrate things differently so you don't get in the way of the other players. If I have a full band with drums, I'm working rhythmic patterns to anchor down the band and to set up the verses and the choruses for the singer. At the same time, I'm playing off Jorma or one of the other instruments to get that spontaneity going on.
Newtown Bee: Hot Tuna is something of an anomaly in these days of writing and producing songs by e-mailing and "drop-boxing" various pieces and weaving them together to get a finished product.
Jack Casady: We recorded our first Jefferson Airplane album on a three-track machine, and that was really hot stuff at the time. We previously only recorded on a two track, so now you could re-record or overdub the vocals or bounce down to one track. And four-track brought on another layer of things you could do. Today, you are almost unlimited in what you can do. However, I think there will always be musicians who want to bring in their personal craft in to the level that they can sustain themselves for the length of an entire song. How's that for politeness? In the pop world, utilizing the latest technology to craft a finished piece of music in piecemeal fashion is different. And the musicians used to do their journeyman work for years before they ever got into the studio to begin recording songs. That doesn't happen now, that's why I think today you don't have singers who hold their own in concert. A song becomes a hit, and the singer has only sung in a studio in front of a microphone in low volume situations. They haven't trained to project their voices out in clubs or rooms with mediocre sound systems. And in studio, you can use advanced compression and pitch correction to make a vocal much more sturdy on record. But then you get to the concert and you're not hearing that. When Jorma plays by himself, it's complete music -- like two hands on a piano. When we come together, a lot of what he does on the guitar, that melody he plays, I can play on the low wend. But the combination of our two instruments create a unique element. That's why audiences still love to see that interaction with Hot Tuna. That's what our career is, going to the people.
Newtown Bee: What will audiences be hearing on this winter tour?
Jorma Kaukonen: What you’re going to hear is a retrospective of stuff that spans all our collective careers. You’ll hear stuff from the Airplane like "Good Shepherd" or "Third Week in The Chelsea," to Hot Tuna stuff, to things from my own albums.
To purchase tickets to see Hot Tuna January 7, call 203-438-5795 or visit RidgefieldPlayhouse.org.