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Casady (left) plays his custom "Diana" acoustic bass, built as a tribute to the wife he lost to cancer in 2012.EXPAND
Casady (left) plays his custom "Diana" acoustic bass, built as a tribute to the wife he lost to cancer in 2012.
Erik Kabik Photography/ MediaPunch

Jack Casady Keeps Hot Tuna Fresh for Over 50 Years

Bassist extraordinaire Jack Casady spent most of last year commemorating the 50th anniversary of his blues band (and Jefferson Airplane side project) Hot Tuna.

"Yeah, you noticed," he laughs.

Lucky for us, the band's two members, Casady, 75, and Jorma Kaukonen, 79, are still around to blow out the birthday candles. This weekend, Phoenicians will get two servings of acoustic Hot Tuna inside the intimate confines of MIM Music Theater. We recently checked in with Casady ahead of the show.


Phoenix New Times: When Jorma invited you out to come out to San Francisco to join Jefferson Airplane, he'd never heard you play bass before. When did you switch over from the guitar?

Jack Casady: I first started playing bass at age 16 in 1960. Danny Gatton was a good buddy of mine in Washington, D.C. Summer started, and his bass player got sick. Danny said, "I got a great gig coming up." I believe it paid $115 a week, six nights a week, five sets a night, which was great money back then considering that gas was 19 cents a gallon. I filled in for a four-week stint and fell in love with the instrument. Fender had just come out with the Jazz Bass, which had an easier reach-around than the Precision I'd borrowed. It also had two pickups on it, which gave it more tone variation. So I ordered one. It was a huge amount of money then: $225. Once I got that bass, my work order went up exponentially.

Before Hot Tuna, no other band had ever done a spinoff while still maintaining the mothership. How did that evolve?

The Airplane didn’t tour extensively because Paul and Grace weren’t road dogs, nor did not they want to tour a lot. So Jorma and I found ourselves with a lot of time on our hands. Being young and wanting to learn as much as possible, we wanted to play as much as we could.

Hot Tuna was formed from the fact that Jorma and I loved a lot of the music that we became known for, but didn’t fit into the format of Jefferson Airplane. So we would do our Jefferson Airplane show, and then go off and play all night long. I just had my electric bass with a tiny amplifier, and he had this acoustic guitar. We started finding a unique arranging voice because I could not only do the rhythmic support aspect of the bass but also do a little more melody and contrapuntal work with Jorma’s fingerpicking style with his thumb and two fingers.

How do you account for the fact that the Airplane wasn't able to stay together, but you and Jorma have this ongoing partnership?

First of all, there are only two of us. Second, we've known each other from junior high school to high school. We had a band together in ’58 when I was 14 and he was 17. We respected each other as men first, and we’ve seen each other’s lives play out before us. It’s important that we have a friendship and a business together, but we’ve never let the business come between the friendship.

When most bands form, they’re not friends first. It doesn't usually work that way. When the pressures of the business hit and people want to vie for different power positions in the band, you see a lot of animosities. Plus bands start when you’re young. As you move through your twenties and thirties, you’re changing. You need different things or search for different things. Everybody doesn’t do that at the same time.

The longevity with Jorma and I is that we love the genre and try to respect it every night we play. I think that’s what the fans get too, particularly when we play acoustic Hot Tuna. We invite them as if we’re playing in the bathroom, where it just sounds great, and we’re into our world. You hear the overtones and instruments and the delicacy and the interaction, and the communication between us creates a third entity, the ghost. It forms a triangle, and where Jorma and Jack meet is in the middle of the triangle.

Hot Tuna are scheduled to perform at the MIM Music Theater on Friday, February 14, and Saturday, February 15. Both shows are sold out.

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