Kaukonen finds his groove onstage with his Gibson SST acoustic-electric. Photo by Barry Berenson

Jorma Kaukonen Q&A

So why a studio record now, after 20 years?

I just got off my lazy ass and made a record—which doesn’t make for an exciting interview quote, but that’s what happened. Things just lined up and it seemed like the right time. I wrote six or seven new songs and co-wrote with Jack, [producer] Larry Campbell, and [mandolinist] Barry Mitterhoff. We were thinking about making the record ourselves, but Red House Records said they wanted to do it, and Larry said he’d produce.

Given your lengthy discography, I don’t think the word “lazy” is quite apt.

My friend [guitarist/singer/ songwriter] Chris Smither is full of witty aphorisms, and one thing he said is, “I like having written songs, but I hate writing songs.” Once I start a project, the songs flow pretty easily, but I’m such a procrastinator that I need deadlines for me to write. We committed to doing this record, and in the process we wound up with built-in deadlines. I had one song, and then as deadlines approached, I started collaborating. I’ve never collaborated on this level before, and I had a great time doing it. It was a growth spurt—a really late-in-life growth spurt.

So, as far as collaborating, you decided to make a change and see what would happen?

I have lots of friends who write songs and I’ve had the opportunity, but I haven’t done it before. In the past, I’d look at somebody else’s song and say, “I like that, but that’s not really me—I’m not comfortable in that zone.” For whatever reason, the songs that Larry, Jack, and Barry brought around this time flowed in an organic way. We were all on the same page of vision and poetry, which made it very easy for me to work with. It was like having a bigger brain [laughs].

What’s the key to good collaboration?

First, you have to be friends. The other thing is that you can’t be self-conscious about putting yourself out there. We recorded a song, “Angel of Darkness,” that Larry wrote a verse and a chorus for. It was about a woman who had been abused. He asked me to write the rest of the song, but I didn’t really pay attention to what he had written, and the lyrics I wrote were about someone totally different. I wrote about the wrong woman! So I had to get to know the woman in the song and write from her point of view. You have to pay attention to what the song says— and you have to be able to not feel like a moron if you’re called out for not catching the song’s original intent.

With your various projects over the years, what makes Hot Tuna Hot Tuna?

The presence of Jack Casady. Someone asked me to get Jack to play on my solo record River of Time, but then it would have been a Hot Tuna record. Jack is one of the great bass players, and his presence on a recording is undeniable. The rhythm section is the most important part of any band—us guys who play the melody and the lead would be lost without a good rhythm section. Jack and our drummer, Skoota Warner, like each other so much personally and musically that they just lock in. This record has many different kind of songs, with many different kinds of beats, and Jack played in a way that I haven’t heard him play since the Airplane recordings where we did a lot of different material.

I teach a lot, and the importance of the rhythm section is one of the things I teach. In my solo guitar playing, my strength is my thumb—my rhythm section. The same is true when you get more than one person making music. The rhythm is what people feel without thinking about it.

You know you’re playing well when you’re playing and you see the audience moving.

Yeah! As a guitar player, you can obsess about minutiae, that you think are brilliant, but nobody but your friend who is a guitar player will give a rat’s ass about that. If the groove is self-sustaining, you’re there.

Is there something about Jack’s playing that brings you together—in addition to his friendship?

There are a number of components to Jack’s playing. One is his inventiveness as a soloist. I have a finite number of zones that I can draw my solos from, but Jack amazes me. When it comes time to blow, I never know where he’s coming from—it’s like he channels this inexhaustible fountain of creativity. And that’s exciting. Another thing is that when it comes time for him to be a traditional bass player, he’s totally there. He’s tuned into the other musicians. When we play in our quasi-acoustic setting, he has many different meanderings he can do in that format, but when we play electric, he needs to lock in with the drummer. He’s able to do both without sounding self-conscious, and his creativity shines because of that.