By ERIC SCHELKOPF
Iconic band Hot Tuna does not feel pressured to churn out a new album every year.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that it took 20 years for the band, lead by Jefferson Airplane founding members Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen, to release a new studio album. "Steady As She Goes" was released in April on Red House Records.
Kaukonen will perform solo May 7 at the S.P.A.C.E., 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston, www.evanstonspace.com.
The show starts at 10 p.m., and tickets are $25, available at www.ticketweb.com.
I had the chance to talk to Kaukonen about the new album and his various other activities.
Q - You are busier than ever these days. Probably a lot of people have been wondering what took the band so long to release a new album.
That's the obvious question. I guess the moment really wasn't right. I started talking to my friend, Eric Peltoniemi, president of Red House Records, about a Hot Tuna record, and he was really excited about it.
We had some new guys in the band, the drummer, Skoota Warner and mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff, and it just seemed right. We got Larry Campbell to produce it for us. It was like a perfect storm for making a record.
Q - And of course you recorded the album in Levon Helm's studio. Was it a good vibe in there?
Oh, absolutely. I live in a very rural part of the country. Woodstock is not quite as rural as where I live, but it is definitely country. Levon's place is in the middle of a pine forest. It was very cool.
Q - You've played with Jack Casady for more than 50 years. What makes the relationship work?
I think what makes it work is the fact that even when we were kids - we have played together since Jack was in junior high school, he's a little bit younger than me - we've always respected each other as artists and men.
I think that's always carried us through everything.
Q - How does the collaboration work? Do you both toss out ideas and rummage through them?
Pretty much. What happens is that Jack brings an idea to me, or I bring an idea to him, and we start playing around with it, and then we see where it goes.
Q - How long did it take for Hot Tuna to write the songs for this album?
Well, it's sort of different for different songs. "Smokerise Journey," the song that Jack and Larry wrote the music to, they did the music in an afternoon. The next morning, before breakfast, I wrote the words.
That doesn't always work like that. I'm not recommending that as a way to write songs. Sometimes I just sort of digest things.
My metaphor is that it's kind of like following the rabbit down the hole. If you see him go down the hole and you don't jump in to follow him, you will never see where he's going.
So as soon as you get an idea, as soon as something pricks your creative curiosity, you really have to jump on it immediately.
Q - I know you are going to be solo at the May 7 show. Are you going to be playing songs from this album?
I will. Obviously not the songs that require a rock band, but there are a number of songs that I wrote solo and that I will be able to play solo.
Q - Do you need that as a musician, to sometimes play solo and with a band as well?
I think it is better for me. I'm a really lucky guy, because I can do that. I grew up playing by myself.
It makes me appreciate each one of those moments perfectly. I love playing with other people, because when you play with other people, there's no question that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
But every now and then, it's just nice to sit back and play the song yourself.
Q - Do you see yourself as an icon?
Of course not. I see myself as a guy who has been very fortunate.
I have had a lot of longevity in the music business for whatever reason. Us older guys are just trying to do the same thing as the younger guys are doing, and that's to be creative and to be heard.
Q - Who are your biggest inspirations?
There are so many of them. To go back to when I was a folkie, obviously Reverend Gary Davis was huge. There were some people that I knew that are not well known but they were there, like this guy Ian Buchanan in New York in the late '50s and early '60s.
He really never got outside of the area much, but he really taught me so much. You probably don't hear it in my music, but Joan Baez certainly inspired me along the way.
Having grown up in the '50s, so many of those classic real rock 'n' roll acts of the time inspired me, guys like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, all those classic Chicago guys.
Chuck Berry. How can you be in my line of work and not pay homage to Chuck Berry? He wrote the poetry of my youth. I don't know if he personally realizes how important he was to so many of us.
Q - Speaking of that, the music business has changed so much since you got into it. Do you think it is harder or easier to make music these days?
Well, that's a good question. When I came up in the business, you needed a record deal to record because you couldn't do it yourself.
Now of course, anybody with a computer and a little bit of computer literacy can make a great project.
So back in my day, in order to be heard, you needed to have some big company say they believe in you and to put up money.
However, once you did that, they kind of took care of the publicity and distribution and stuff. Once you did that, you were kind of guaranteed to be heard, at least for 15 minutes.
Today's artists are a lot freer than we were, because they can make stuff on their own, they are not beholden to corporate entities.
But once they do it, it is a little bit harder to break out on a national level. But in another way, because of the way the Internet is, you don't know what's going to happen. It could go viral, and all of sudden, people in Zimbabwe heard your song.
So anyway, it goes both ways. And of course none of us really know what's going to happen with all this stuff.
Q - But have you tried to embrace technology?
On a minor level. All my stuff is downloadable, our Hot Tuna live shows are available on iTunes, all our records are downloadable. And that's pretty much as far as we've gone.
Q - You and your wife started The Fur Peace Ranch in 1989. Has it met your vision?
It's vastly exceeded our vision. We are able to do what we wanted to do in the beginning, which is to provide a musical community for like-minded spirits, to play and to listen in an unintimidating atmosphere.
And it's more than exceeded those expectations. We're not a large business, and we want to keep it that way. And then when I'm working at the ranch, I get to go home every night, which is nice too.
Q - Do you see Jefferson Airplane ever reuniting again?
No. The main reason is that we have all sort of gone off in different directions. But the real reason hinges on Grace Slick.
Grace doesn't sing anymore. And without Grace, there is no possible way to have a Jefferson Airplane band.
Q - You've worked with so many different people over the years. Any dream collaborations?
Well, I just had a dream collaboration with Larry Campbell twice. And we're getting ready to do four shows, and he's going to be in the band for those shows.
I would love to do something with Eric Clapton someday. I have so much respect for him as an artist. That would be really cool.