By: Rick Landers
Photos by Mike Shea
Legendary bass player Jack Casady has fired up his bass guitar on stages with the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Jimi Hendrix, Warren Zevon, John Lee Hooker, Rusted Root, John Lee Hooker, members of The Grateful Dead, Gov’t Mule and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Working with Jorma Kaukonen, Grace Slick and the rest of the crew of Jefferson Airplane, Casady laid down bass lines for such monumental songs as “White Rabbit,” “Volunteers” and “Somebody to Love.”
Rick Landers: Hot Tuna’s keeping heavy schedule…
Jack Casady: Well, that’s the career. That’s what you do. How do you manager your career? You do it! [Laughs] This year we started out with doing a two-month tour with Charlie. Jorma and I and Tuna do about a hundred shows, it depends on how the year goes. This year we started out with a two month tour with Charlie Musselwhite and Jim Lauderdale, a blues tour. We just started out of the gate right after we recorded an album. We did almost an eight week tour, then we did a couple of other tours and we did a mid-summer tour. And the first time in 20 years we have a new studio album to support with that, but regardless, we’ve released many live albums of course throughout that period of time. And the time is right with this collection of people. Barry Mitterhoff and Scoota Warner, myself and Jorma are the core band with Larry Campbell on guitars and a number other instruments to record this new album, which we’re extremely proud of and very happy with.
Rick: You recorded it at Levon Helms place, right?
Jack: Yes, we did.
Rick: So did you guys record it all on site or did you patch some things together?
Jack: There’s very little patching at all. We recorded on site. It’s one of those open-air tall barn-like structures where the control booth is above and to the back, but open and you look down on the studio. So, we just set up in a circle with the basic baffling but not anything that would isolate us too much. The tracks had to be right, so there was very little overdubbing.
Rick: What tracks you did particularly like playing?
Jack: I’m a song oriented bass player so I like songs. So to me, the particularly interesting part of my career is really to figure the song out, listening to the song and choosing the right notes. I had so much fun on every song and on every song I had a different direction. As a bass player, I certainly enjoyed putting together the funkier songs, like “Goodbye to the Blues” and another one, “Morning Interrupted,” was a lot fun.
To listen to them, they’re basic bass parts, but they kind of harken back to my R&B roots back in D.C., trying to really get in the pocket and put up a really good bass line. There were fun songs too, a little faster, and I did a little 16-bar solo, as everybody did.
But then the ones I’m really proud of, that I really enjoyed, are the things I did with a song “Things That Might Have Been.” There’s a section for the instrumental parts and Barry did the first half of that, and then Larry came along later and laid down a steel guitar that went along with the melody that I wrote for the second part of the instrumental. And to hear all of that come about in a culmination when it’s finally done, that is a pretty cool process.
Rick: Do you find that your songs change a lot between the time you first write them and their final production?
Jack: I think what happens is that they don’t change as much as they develop and broaden out, and you get more of a landscape of songs and a depth to the songs with the instrumentation, the voicing and the arrangement. That’s kind of what you do. On “Things that Might Have Been,” Jorma and I were working in a hotel room in Alaska and I charted it all out and he said he wanted me to played a melodica part in the section. We worked it out between Barry and I, and then I basically put that song away and didn’t really play it. I worked on the changes and I worked on the idea, where I wanted to go with it, but I didn’t lock myself down too much more than what I did with the chord changes. So, when we got in the studio it was fresh but somehow kind of familiar, so I wasn’t afraid to try things on it with spontaneity. But I was still familiar enough so I didn’t screw up the chords.
Rick: What about the lyrics?
Jack: I wrote a song with Jorma called “Smokerise Journey,” and I showed it to Larry and he came up with a great musical bridge. Then Jorma took that back and worked really hard on that and worked on the lyrics. When the lyrcics came up on it, I was really moved. They expressed what I was thinking at a point and period in our lives. That kind of creative process worked on a number of songs, and that process to me is the creative process that happens in an intense time period. This was eleven days in the studio, and that process is what I love about the studio atmosphere. It’s really intense. Everybody’s really geared up, and you just immerse yourself. I think it brings out the best in everybody.
We certainly had a great time and we had a lot of fun with it, but it was important for everybody that we all made a statement as to who they are in this particular juncture of our lives. Then with Teresa Williams lending a different vocal atmosphere, it was really important for me to lay down some good bass parts that supported the vocals and bring Jorma’s vocals out. He really worked hard on these vocals, and I think they’re the best he’s ever done. Like I said, this is a solid album, and not by going back with Pro-Tools to tidy it up. I think everybody just gets to the point in their life that they play clearly, solidify their thoughts and put them down. That’s the idea.
Rick: So you’re looking for studio perfection rather than…
Jack: No, it’s not studio perfection. You want two things: you want to use the studio to capture the clarity of your thoughts, and you want to solidify that you don’t want any fifteen-minute cuts. You wouldn’t do that live; you want that spontanaity. So when there’s time for improvisation and spontaneity, you want that to happen naturally. And for the arrangement parts, they were worked on very carefully so that when you play stuff together it came out really tight and well.
Rick: I was particularly impressed with the new album cover.
Jack: Kevin Morgan at the Kevin Morgan Studios in Athens, Ohio has been working with the Fur Peace Ranch at their teaching facility and concert hall, and he’s been working with them for a while and working on their website. He comes up with terrific concepts, and he’s the webmaster at the teaching site in Ohio. And Vanessa [Jorma Kaukonen’s wife and business partner] and I were talking about what’s happening to album covers since they were done for vinyl and how everything was reduced down to CD and now your iPhones, which is something like five centimeters square. So, you’re supposed to see album art in that, you know? When you’re scrolling to look for an album and when you go in to play it, you have about an inch square. So we were thumbing through some of my records and we were looking at album art that could be reduced where you could still see it and it would still be striking. I wanted something that would work. Kevin came up with something here that was just fantastic with the tattoos and Hot Tuna, and it’s all inside the facial tattoos. He got the classic photos of the tattoo lady and inserted all of the Hot Tuna artwork in there. It’s creative, and it’s fun.
Rick: The last time we met, you and Jorma were celebrating playing 50 years together.
Jack: Now I guess it’s 53! It started in 1958 , basically. I was in high school, and I was 13 and a half or 14 and playing guitar, and I had a Telecaster guitar that I’d bought with my newspaper route money for $115. I wish I had that guitar! Jorma was three years older in high school, and he was a pal of my older brother Charles “Chick” Casady. We struck up a mutual friendship and a love of music, and we started up a band together doing cover songs of Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly and stuff like that.
Rick: No surf music?
Jack: We were in the East Coast, so there was no such thing. Surf music was on the West coast.
Rick: With people collaborating on their music, there can be strong opinions or feelings about musical direction. How do you handle those kinds of disagreements?
Jack: You know, it usually doesn’t arise. If you have musical disagreements it’s usually worked out with the notes you play. It’s not really like assembling a box. You realize there’s give and take, and you realize that the others’ opinion carries some weight. I think essentially, if you have patience for how the song is going to develop or see where the writer wants to go with it or a songwriter who has a vision for the song, you will often see where it’s going by listening to the musical input of the other musicians. It really gets bogged down if you get too involved with the word explanations of the musical ideas. You should have your musical ideas stated.
It’s not really about entering the room through different doors and trying getting your way. No, that’s not the conversation. And that’s the uniqueness of the people coming together to see what develops. He and I don’t have to spend a lot of time talking about the music. After all, that’s what music’s suppose to be about; it’s not the talk.
Rick: Let’s go back in time a bit. I’d like to ask you about some musicians that you may have know and the impact they may have had on you or what you think of them as musicians or friends. Janis Joplin?
Jack: Janis Joplin was one of the few singers in the scene of San Francisco within that realm of bands that played there in the mid-‘60s to the early ’70s, as young musicians were developing. Some of these musicians had played a fair amount in their careers and some had not, who were just starting to play out.
I was one of the few with experience because I had been playing for 8 years before coming out to San Francisco. I had been working in clubs in D.C., in various R&B bands. We had charts to learn, sax sections, although it was all cover songs of various R&B bands.
But Janis was one of the singers that could capture a true blues feeling, blues vocal performances, that mostly you’d hear from black vocalists singing in the blues genre. So she was a surprise in that she could convincingly work within this mode and stir up such emotions. She was such an emotional singer that there was no way you could walk away from listening to a night of Janis Joplin and not be moved by the intensity and the power that she had. She was had a really sweet pretty voice when she wanted to use that, a delicate voice. But with the advent of the bands and the volume getting louder and louder, you heard that a little less. She was a unique singer of the times and still is, and a lot of singers who have come after emulate her approach to singing.
Rick: Bill Graham
Jack: Oh, Bill Graham was the greatest. He was our manager for about a year. I think he also managed the Grateful Dead for a while. And aside from being our version the P.T. Barnum, he really a loved to interact and engage himself with every aspect of putting on a dance concert. The dance concert was something he helped develop along with Chet Helms in the San Francisco Bay area. Bill had the ability to work the necessary business aspects to keep a facility open and functioning and also putting together concerts together with bands with a variety of different backgrounds. He may have a poet or a jazz musician or a rock band. So he was able to add the element to keep the audience interested. He had a great ability to do that.
He was a very smart fella who had gone through a lot in his personal life. I think a lot of people when they were younger didn’t realize what he’d gone through to get to that spot in time. He was a little bit older than most of us, so he had some experience and wisdom that we sometimes didn’t appreciate. But, he was really something special.
Rick: Jimi Hendrix
Jack: We did a bunch of jamming together during a period of time. As I said, Bill Graham was our manager, and we had a rehearsal facility next door to the Fillmore, so when Jimi Hendrix would come through with Mitch Mitchell and Noel as the Jim Hendrix Experience, we’d usually be in town and hang out and share the bill together. We struck up a friendship, and when it was possible I’d sit in with him.
I sat in when he was in New York to play the Electric Ladyland song “Voodoo Chile,” a 15-minute slow blues cut with Stevie Winwood, myself, Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix. That was a lot of fun. I didn’t really expect to see any of it on the album. When he asked I’d mind if he put it on the album, I said “That would be great!” That was certainly a thrill for me.
It was good, so that when he’d come to town to Winterland or Oakland Coliseum and he invited me on stage to play, I had song to play that we’d recorded together. Plus, we played a couple other blues songs together.
In any case, it was a lot of fun. I thought he was a very gracious musician. Just playing with him in a room, it was really easy, because as it is with most good musicians the idea is to play and get into music. I made friends with Mitch Mitchell as well. I really enjoyed his drumming. God bless him. God bless them both. It’s too bad they’re not with us now. It would be interesting to hear how they’d play at a more mature stage in life. It just didn’t happen.
Rick: I don’t think many people realized that he had quite a background, a lot of experience as a musician before he exploded on the stage in Monterey.
Jack: Absolutely. Well, you know perceptions are really interesting. At that time everybody was so involved in those scenes, the Los Angeles scene, the San Francisco scene, and the London scene. As an American musician, he went to London the year before and put his band together, and then became part of the so-called British Invasion here, which was pretty funny. But yes, he worked in the R&B field and backed up little Richard and all kinds of people. What’s interesting is the way he heard music and the way he was able to develop. I don’t think if he stayed in the R&B field he would have developed that way, the uniqueness of his sound. Part of the contribution to that sound I believe was from putting himself in that environment in England for a while, playing with musicians who weren’t in the tightly controlled R&B scene at the time, and playing for audiences who weren’t on the R&B circuit. He was able to develop his own way of hearing things, and the result was really fantastic.
Rick: I think he opened up for The Monkees?
Jack: Yeah, it’s funny when you look back on it, but a gig is a gig.
Rick: Making money, you’ve got to survive.
Jack: Well, not just making money. But, yeah, I think everybody wants to make money and survive. You’ve got to pull a band together. You got to figure how you’re going to survive from one week to the next. A gig is a gig. For most people it’s not an easy profession to sustain and make your living at.
Rick: Are you still in contact with Grace Slick?
Jack: Yeah, she lives in Los Angeles, and I call her every couple of months. She sounds like she’s happy. She’s painting a lot and she’s doing pretty well.
Rick: Any chance of Grace Slick joining Hot Tuna on stage at some point?
Jack: I don’t think so. She doesn’t really sing much anymore, and that’s fine. She hasn’t sung for about ten years. Anything is possible, but I don’t think that any of us are looking for that to happen. She had such a tremendous impact on singers to follow, not only in style, but also in her impact as a female singer who can take control of the stage. Back in San Francisco in the ‘60s, Janis and Grace were really strong personalities in an era when women weren’t expected to have strong personalities. I mean, they could get up on stage and sing sweet songs, but they weren’t expected to get up and get in your face. [Laughs]
Rick: What drove you to the bass guitar?
Jack: I played in Washington in all these various clubs and in a number of different bands at the time, all cover bands. They were the kinds of clubs where you were wearing a different colored plaid tuxedo every night, but doing a lot of R&B covers. It was sort of a separate musical scene, and it wasn’t a scene where you were encouraged to write your own music. While I was playing guitar, a good friend of mine named Danny Gatton who was a year younger than I called me up. A lot of times we’d trade positions in various bands for different gigs if there were conflicts. Danny said that his bass player had been very ill, and he had a gig lined up to play a club in D.C. for I think two weeks, and he wanted to know if I could play bass. I said I’ve never done it, and he said, “Well, you can play this bass.” And so I asked how much, and I think it was something like a hundred and fifteen dollars a week and I said, “Hey, I’m on!”
So, I played the bass. I think it was a 1960 Precision. So I did that gig in 1960. I enjoyed it so much, I went and bought a bass. There’s something about the fact that I had twice as much work, if not more. But I bought a jazz bass the first year it came out with concentric pots on it. I really enjoyed that instrument. So, I played bass and guitar in different bands. Then I went out to San Francisco in 1965 at age 21, and I joined the two month old Jefferson Airplane at Jorma’s invitation and stuck with the bass, as far as playing professionally.
Rick: Did you ever work with Danny Gatton again?
Jack: No, because I was out in San Francisco doing something else, and that was really my watershed opportunity to develop my playing. I was writing all my own bass lines and creating arrangements and bass parts for a band that wrote their own material. So that, to me, is an important step in the growth of any musician, to cut the cords of playing other people’s music and start being responsible for writing your own music. And I think if you wait too long, you don’t hear it anymore, and you hear somebody else first. So, that was my opportunity to make that cut.