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Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna Discusses Levon Helm and Music's Original Social Network

Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna
Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna
http://hottuna.com/

Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady go back. Way back.

Before the two joined San Franciscan psychedelic outfit Jefferson Airplane they played together in a group called The Triumphs. After (while Airplane morphed into the subsequently cheesier and cheesier Starship), the two formed Hot Tuna, and expanded on the soulful blues and folk roots of Jefferson Airplane with a couple of canonical boogie rock records.

Along the way, Kaukonen took solo detours, crafting the exquisite, folky, and underrated Quah with Tom Hobson in 1974. Produced by his longtime bandmate Casady, the album was unique enough to get rejected in its original form by RCA (eventual re-issues would see it restored to its intended format).

He teamed with the late Band drummer Levon Helm for the traditional River of Time in 2009, and when it came time for Hot Tuna to get down to Steady As She Goes (2011), their first studio record in 20 years, it made sense to return to Helm's studio with its laid back vibe.

"The studio is Levon's house, so he's always around," Kaukonen says. "When we were doing River of Time, Lee played on a couple of the songs on that. We had a drummer on this one, so he's not on it, but he was always dropping by with a cup of coffee and his dogs. May he rest in peace."

Kaukonen discussed his folks roots, the new record, and how bands like Hot Tuna and The Grateful Dead pioneered peer-to-peer music sharing and social networking.

Hot Tuna, Burgers
Hot Tuna, Burgers
Grunt Records, 196?

Up on the Sun: You guys are doing the Hot Tuna acoustic thing here in Phoenix, correct?

Jorma Kaukonen: Yes, we are.

You've balanced acoustic and electric sounds your entire career. What do you like most about the acoustic sets? What does it give you room to do that electric sets don't?

Well, it's apples and oranges in some ways, even if you're playing the same songs. I mean, for me when I'm playing acoustic guitar I actually play more guitar than when I'm playing electric. With a band you don't have to do as much. The electric music is incredibly seductive and a lot of fun, but I think the acoustic is closer to my heart.

Steady as She Goes features moments of both formats.

Absolutely. Totally.

Are you playing a lot of the record at these shows?

Yeah. Obviously some songs on Steady As She Goes that are really pure electric stuff, but we do anything that's even vaguely acoustic we do in the live show.

You recorded that record at Levon Helm's studio, correct?

Yeah, we sure did. That was my second project there. My first one was a solo project, River of Time, and I had such a good time with that one when we got the opportunity to do a Hot Tuna project I said "I wanna do it at Levon's."

Hot Tuna, Steady as She Goes
Hot Tuna, Steady as She Goes

Was Levon around at all?

The studio is Levon's house, so he's always around. When we were doing River of Time, Lee played on a couple of the songs on that. We had a drummer on this one, so he's not on it, but he was always dropping by with a cup of coffee and his dogs. May he rest in peace.

The records recorded there really seem to have an interesting quality.

It's a fabulous room. The room itself is unbelievable. Aside from the vibe, just being with Lee, but the room is really unbelievable.

Your projects, Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, share an interesting commonality with The Band. Though you were never afraid to get psychedelic you were always entrenched in traditional American music. Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Blake, sounds like that. You've covered those artists, on your solo records and with Hot Tuna. What about that music speaks to you and do you feel like it connected to the San Francisco scene?

I think, first of all, I loved that music when I discovered it in the '50s, and I love it no less today. I mean, it's not just the musical aspects. The sheer truth of that music speaks for itself. I think that so many of San Francisco bands that you think about -- us, the Dead, or even Big Brother -- most of us came up through the folk world. So that music was really a springboard for wherever we went with what became psychedelic music.

I think it meant a lot to us. If you think about some of the popular music of the time [the '50s and '60s], when we were young teenagers, a lot of those songs were clever, almost like jingles. They really didn't have anything to do with reality. Whereas all that folk music, the blues music, that was about real subjects.   I'm a big fan of your first solo record, Quah. That's an interesting record -- any chance that one is going to see its way back into print soon?

You know, it emerges periodically. Usually some company from the British Isles will re-release it [with varying degrees of legality]. And I hope it does. It's a record I'm proud of, and a lot like the traditional stuff we're talking about, I think it bears that out quite well.

It's a record that has aged well. The sort of thing that people didn't get at first, and now they're coming around to it, you know what I mean?

I do know what you mean. My buddy that I split the record with, Tom Hobson, he was a really interesting guy. If he were alive today and still playing, he'd be a quirky alt-country singer/songwriter. Back in the day, he was too weird for the people at RCA to get at all. I was really lucky that I held my ground. He was such an important figure in my life. He was a little bit older than me. When I came to San Francisco, he was married and had an apartment. His wife would always cook coffee and he was one of these folky guys who really knew music, and knew it very deeply. I was glad I was able to hang to that and make sure he was included in the album. Because they didn't want to do that.

Some of his songs were cut from the finished release though?

Yes. There was a Quah re-release a couple of years ago, that has his outtakes on it. It's cool stuff.

I've got to get my hands on that, because I've just got a couple of the original LP.

Yeah, it's around. It's out there somewhere.

Hot Tuna always encouraged taping at live shows, but you've recently reversed your policy. Is that just so you can control the taping, and make sure that well-recorded documents get out or is it something beyond that?

There's a lot of discussion on that, and maybe there's still taping regardless. To be honest, when something surfaces that I didn't tape, I'm kinda glad they did it. But we sell Hot Tuna stuff through iTunes, live shows, so it's turned into a little business for us. That's really what it is.

It makes sense; at this point all those famous Dead bootlegs are available for purchase. With the Internet it's easier to get that stuff out to people. I don't know that people wouldn't have paid for it in the first place.

I'm inclined to think you're right about that. In the beginning, it just wasn't available, and that taping [scene filled that void]. And the whole taping sub-culture really was amazing. I don't think it's that way today. But it was incredible, and people were just in love with the music. It was a more modern version of what me and Jack [Casady] and my buddies did in the '50s. We didn't have taping, but we'd hang at the record store and pour through records, and talk with your friends about music.

A lot of people talk about the way social networks have revolutionized the music business, but in a lot of ways the Dead and Hot Tuna had organic versions of the social networks we talk about now, before the Internet, where sharing and dissemination of the music really popularized it.

That's a really good point. In a lot of ways, bands like The Dead and us were made for Internet.

Hot Tuna is scheduled to perform Wednesday, July 25, at Mesa Arts Center.
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