One of the most distinctive bass players in rock history, Jack Casady came to prominence with Jefferson Airplane, but his resume stretches back to Little Anthony & the Imperials and forward to Danny Gatton, David Crosby, Warren Zevon and a memorable collaboration with Jimi Hendrix. And, of course, there is the longtime collaboration with his close friend Jorma Kaukonen, in Hot Tuna. Benito Vila got the normally quiet Casady to open up about all of these things, and more.
It’s the quiet ones who have the most to say. So it is with bassist Jack Casady. He’s let his instrument do most of his talking since the late 1950s, playing with the likes of Little Anthony and The Imperials, Danny Gatton, Jorma Kaukonen, Jimi Hendrix, David Crosby, Warren Zevon and Ivan Neville. While audiences may think Casady doesn’t say much––he rarely speaks into his microphone on stage––he’s known to be energetic and animated with fellow musicians backstage. Even there, he’s typically not the one attracting a crowd––except for when he starts talking about music.
Casady has both a sharp and a subtle presence. He came on stage in November for an electric Hot Tuna show, and stood solo at the center, dressed in black, awash in purple light. It was a straight-up, unpretentious I-am-here moment, his fingers reaching down to his strings and juicing the audience up with a few I-am-ready tones. His bandmate, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, walked on quietly, seemingly aware Casady had already stolen the moment. Casady’s fun-loving, matter-of-fact I-am-here-ness continued for much the night, his determined playing, foot stomps and facial expressions creating a spirited foil for Kaukonen’s trilling voice, spidery fingerpicking and howling guitar runs. The interplay between the two is born of a long history and a unique trust; the pair grew up near each other as kids and both are eager to play together as often as they can. This summer they’re on the road again, celebrating Hot Tuna’s 50th anniversary of touring.
After that show, I met Casady for the first time. We talked briefly about biker artist Gut Terk, who in 1969 designed the first Hot Tuna record and Jefferson Airplane’s Volunteers. I found him entirely more interested in the here-and-now, with how the music sounded, with what my experience was like. It was clear: he’s not into chatty bullshit; he’s playing now; this moment; this night: it’s the music he’s creating today that’s driving him.
Surprisingly, Casady is rarely interviewed, despite being a significant character in the immense narrative that is counterculture music and having developed a playing style few can even mimic, much less copy. I caught up with him on the phone in April the night before his 75th birthday, a few days after I saw an acoustic Hot Tuna show in Brooklyn. Again, I found him focused on music––he was leaving his Los Angeles home later in the week to go into a Sint Maarten studio with oud-player Yair Dalal and guitarist/composer Daniel Masson.
When he started using the word “sonic” late in our talk, it occurred to me Jack Casady listens to music differently than most people. He hears it with dimension and music creates detailed landscapes for him. The funny thing is––for someone not known for saying a lot––he describes those non-verbal realms nearly as well as he can play his way into them. And, because of his sonic sense, it’s easy to understand why Casady was the one Jimi Hendrix wanted to record with when it came to taking blues guitar to a far-off place.
PKM: What are your first memories of music? What drew you in?
Jack Casady: [Laughs.] That’s a great question. My father was a dentist––I come from a family of doctors and lawyers. But there was always music in the house. And my father was also an audiophile. He played a little guitar and banjo and a little bit of piano and organ when he was in college in the late 1920s, and also in medical school in Washington, D.C., where I grew up. He loved jazz and big band music. He also built HiFi equipment and helped me with my first amplifiers.
My first recollection of music is being about three-and-a-half years old: it was summer time and I can see my little rocking chair, a kid’s rocking chair, a hardwood floor, and a RCA Victrola, a standup one––they were about four or five feet tall, with a hood on top––this really dates me––with a 78 and 45 player above, a radio below. I parked myself right in front of it and listened to a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday afternoon concert. It was folk music Saturday afternoons––Burl Ives, storytelling folk music––and classical music on Sundays.
I got rheumatic fever that year; I was required to keep still, not run around. That’s how they treated it back then. I didn’t really come back full force until I was seven, in 1951, when I spent a good part of that year at a children’s hospital in a trial program for penicillin. During that whole period of time, I remember listening a lot to music. One of the things they did in those days when they treated you with penicillin––which they weren’t sure was going to work to treat heart disease––is they kept you in bed. I hardly moved for six months. I was really underweight, just skin and bones. One of the ways I amused myself was listening to music.
Of course, this is “pre-video”; there were no images to go along with the music, so my mind was active, imagining the orchestra parts or associating the music to various people or animals. This was a very personal world for me. It was great I could do it by myself, that I didn’t require another person; I was so isolated by my circumstance. That’s how I remember getting pulled into music––those were my first recollections to being carried away.
PKM: Did you have any sensation of what the sound was doing?
Jack Casady: Yes, that’s very interesting. It’s almost a dreamlike state, that being halfway between being awake and being asleep. It’s a very fertile time for the mind. If I was listening to music with lyrics, I let the lyrics take me to a certain place, along with the drama of the music. When I mixed those two together, I had my own feature film going on in my mind. That fed my imagination more and more. If you like to read, you need to read more and more. That’s what it was like for me; I needed more music.
The art of listening, I think, is to allow yourself to not only absorb what is being done by the composer and the lyricist, but at the same time, to invent something of your own to go along with it––rather than be shown. That’s part of what I find is the great loss as people become accustomed to “watching” music. I’m told by my engineer that 90% of all music is now downloaded and seen on YouTube first. That’s such a huge change from where music was before, that musicians are compelled to put up a video with their music before the music ever comes out. In that sense, it’s a shame that you’re shown images before you even get to make them up yourself.
That was the unique thing about listening to music for me––I really “owned” the music that way. As I started to collect records, buying music for myself, that was another part of the joy of it––I owned it myself that way, too. I really lived with a record; I would play it over and over, and over again. Today, people are used to a compressed and hurried listen because there are nine million other titles to listen to it right behind it. My Yes Indeed Ray Charles album, my first B.B. King albums––I played those so many times I knew every nuance and arrangement. I knew what the horn section was doing; I knew what the rhythm section was doing; I knew the lyrics. Every time I listened, I tried to hear something I didn’t hear in it before. I did that rather than just move on; I stayed with it. That’s what teaches you depth within a piece of good music.
PKM: When did you start to play an instrument? What instrument was it?
Jack Casady: It was a guitar at age 12. I found it up in the attic––a Washburn classical guitar that only had four strings left on it. My father put it up there, along with a pair of speed skates and a banjo. I started plucking around on the four strings; then the guitar just disappeared sometime before Christmas 1956. I didn’t think too much of it at the time.
That Christmas morning, I came down the stairs––along with my two brothers, a younger brother and an older brother––and there’s the Christmas tree and the whole bit. I looked around. I got a little po-faced because there wasn’t much there for me, while the other guys got toys and presents. But there was an envelope on the tree. It said “Jack” on it. I pulled the envelope off the tree, opened it up, and found a letter inside that read something like: “Dear Jack––This entitles you to 12 guitar lessons up at the so-and-so music shop. We took the Washburn guitar and had it strung with steel strings, but they have to do some work on the guitar and it wasn’t ready in time for Christmas. It’ll be ready in a few days.”
That started me off. My parents heard me plucking around and wisely whisked me right into a situation where I started learning from an instructor. My first instructor was Harry Voorhees, a big band guitarist who played with many of the bands coming out in the late ’30s, early ‘40s. He was the local guitar teacher.
The art of listening, I think, is to allow yourself to not only absorb what is being done by the composer and the lyricist, but at the same time, to invent something of your own to go along with it––rather than be shown.
PKM: What were you dying to play on your guitar?
Jack Casady: He was teaching me things like [Ziegfield Follies’] “Peg O’ My Heart” and things like that from the Gibson Guitar Course. I still have the book in the other room right now. When you open it up, there are pictures of banjo bands, guitar bands, ukulele bands, and all that kind of stuff. I’m walking into my library. Let me turn on the light. Here’s an old notebook, the kind we had as kids where we drew tanks and Messerschmitt on it. At any case, here it is––The Gibson System for Guitar, Part One: “Melody Lane: Start Right, Play A Tune”.
[Laughs] Have you got FaceTime?
Jack Casady: Hold on a second, I’ll FaceTime you. You’ll love this.
[Editor: the rest of the interview was done via FaceTime; it makes for a different sort of conversation.]
Jack Casady. Okay, cool, check this out. Here it is; it’s all in shambles. It was 1956 when I got this; I was 12. Here are pictures of Gene Autry, Glen Gray, The Hoosier Hot Shots––you got to love The Hoosier Hot Shots––George Smith, The Murray Sisters. It starts you off with your hand positions and all that. [Reading from the book] My Lessons. The Importance of a Good Teacher.
This is fantastic stuff. After the Washburn, the first guitar I got was a Gibson ES-125––[pointing] similar to this one. [Reading] Happy Days for You. The Proper Holding of a Pick Technique. There you go: the course study; all my notes. The underlined stuff I practiced. That’s how I started out.
PKM: He was teaching you the standards. What is it that you wanted to play?
Jack Casady: I started bringing him Gene Vincent “Woman Love”, “Be Bop A Lula”; Carl Perkins’ “Mystery Train”; Elvis and a lot of the rockabilly I was hearing at the time, shit like that. I remember I bought him Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q”; that’s James Burton at age 14 playing on that. Harry Voorhees didn’t play fingerpicking; I remember him liking that as well as the other stuff I had, like Link Wray “Rumble”.
I start bringing in those songs, and I get passed on to another teacher, a teacher I thought was cool because he had a Stratocaster. He taught country technique and I worked with him for a while. Then I pretty much moved on my own. I started going around town listening to every band I could––any band that would come through town. There was so much music in Washington, D.C., in those days, in rockabilly and rhythm and blues.
Eventually, I found another teacher, Bill Harris; he was fascinating. In the center of town we had Sophocles Papas, a classical instructor who was a protégé of Segovia. He taught the real stuff, you know. Sophocles Papas had a student, Bill Harris, an African American who was the guitarist for The Clovers. Bill Harris started a career on his own playing classical style technique, with a thumb and three fingers, but working out jazz compositions for that. He had, unfortunately, a rather short life; he died in his forties, but he was one of the first African Americans to meld classical technique in with the world of jazz.
I started taking lessons from Bill Harris when I was about 16. He gave me a much broader chordal knowledge. I remember we used the Mickey Baker Jazz Guitar book––Mickey & Sylvia “Love is Strange”, look it up. That Mickey Baker book––it’s still sold today. It’s one of the best for jazz technique. That was the guitar world I was in.
PKM: How did you get to finding the bass?
Jack Casady: I brought in a guitarist buddy of mine, Danny Gatton, who was a year younger than me and also from Washington, D.C. We moonlighted in each other’s bands because there were club circuits––country club circuits, rhythm and blues club circuits––that we both played in, in places that had names like The Champagne Room and what not. We played in tuxedos and did adult music, so to speak––Louis Prima, what was hot in Las Vegas, swing and all that.
In late spring of 1960, Danny had his summer gigs already lined up and his bass player got sick. He asked me, “Do you know of any electric bass players?” There were very few then. All the rockabilly bands were standup bass. All the rhythm and blues, Ray Charles, that’s standup bass. The few guys you were hearing in that period of time who played electric bass were in country bands, or started in country bands before going to rockabilly.
I’d never tried the bass; I was playing guitar. He said, “Listen, I can’t find anybody. My bass player is going to have to be in the hospital a couple of weeks. Why don’t you do the gig?” I said, “I’ve never played the bass guitar.” He says, “How hard can it be? It’s only got four strings.”
PKM: [Laughs] That was your first bass?
Jack Casady: That’s the classic line. Anyway, I borrowed his bass player’s Fender Precision Bass. The Precision was a sculpted back, with a wide-neck single pick up; it had come out a few years earlier. Most of the guys played them with a pick; it’s really a bass guitar. I played the gig and I fell in love with the instrument––the sonic aspect of it. That gig got me off on the bass.
I had trouble playing it though because my hands aren’t really that big. That year Fender came with a jazz bass that had a more narrow nut at the top, and two pickups, allowing for more tonal variation. I bought myself one with the money that I was making playing gigs on weekends and in the summer. I started working in bands pretty much full time when I was 15. By the time I was 16, I was working almost every night throughout the year. In my final year of high school, my schoolwork suffered greatly. I would be out three or four nights a week, get home at three in the morning and get up for school at 8:30 or 9.
In any case, that first Fender jazz bass was a game changer for me. I found it to have a unique voice. I love classical music. I love its low end, the cacophony from the strings, from the bass into the cello. It was just a natural for me.
[Ed. Note: Danny Gatton was a D.C. guitar-wunderkind, going on to acclaim as a session player in Nashville and later becoming known in certain circles as “the world’s greatest unknown guitarist”. Rolling Stone and Gibson both rank him among the best guitarists of all time. Gatton was a Grammy nominee in 1991 for his album 88 Elmira Street.]
PKM: It’s serendipity––something happens by chance and it turns out to be “the thing”.
Jack Casady: It is, and it does. Honestly, I think I would have made an OK guitar player, but not a great one. But I think I’m a pretty good bass player, with a little different approach.
PKM: In Jorma Kaukonen’s autobiography, Been So Long, he describes you two being in a band as kids in the late 1950s––you as the lead guitarist, with his playing rhythm.
Jack Casady: There was no bass in our first little band. That was about a year and a half earlier; that was before I found the bass. I had a Fender Telecaster I bought for $115 brand new with money from my lawn-cutting business and my newspaper route. We played rockabilly kind of stuff, with Jorma on acoustic rhythm guitar, playing with a pick. He finally got himself a Fender Solid Body to strum on. When we had the so-called full band together, a friend of ours, Mike Honeycutt would take his Country Gentleman [guitar], tune the bottom two strings down half or a whole a tone and use that to kind of thumb the bass parts.
PKM: How did you come to play with Jorma?
Jack Casady: I met Jorma through my older brother, Charles Casady, “Chick”, who was a year older than Jorma. Chick met Jorma when Jorma was a junior. By then, Chick and I were collecting blues records––we’d go down to Waxy Maxie’s Quality Music Store, near The Howard Theater, and get all kinds of blues 78s at first and then blues 45s, and rhythm and blues, and not to mention a lot of country stuff. Chick, Jorma and I had record listening sessions, and we played together, too. In retrospect, our band was rather unusual because I was in junior high school and Jorma was then a senior. In any other setting, we wouldn’t be hanging out together but because of the music, we did. After we started playing some, we formed a band together.
PKM: How did you guys get gigs?
Jack Casady: I’m trying to remember. The way it goes, I think, is some girlfriends, some friends that are girls, are hanging out with us and all of a sudden one of them says, “Let’s have a party.” There’s a picture somewhere of Jorma and I playing with a drummer, Warren Smith––it’s October 1958. It’s a Halloween party in the basement of a house. We got paid six bucks. That was our first gig.
PKM: [Laughs] What could you buy with six bucks?
Jack Casady: Plenty. Listen, gas was 19 cents a gallon––six bucks could get you a long way. Those six bucks could get you down to The Hot Shoppe. You could have a hamburger, a couple of beers and still have enough for a half a tank of gas. You were doing just fine.
PKM: You guys were playing mainly rockabilly?
Jack Casady: Yes. I would say, mostly. Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash “I Walk the Line”, that kind of stuff.
PKM: You’re playing the whole D.C. circuit and Jorma goes out to California…
Jack Casady: No, he goes to college. He’s three years older than me. I’m still in junior high school––junior high was grades seven, eight and nine. When I get to the beginning of high school––high school was grades ten, eleven, twelve––Jorma goes to his first year at Antioch College. That’s where he met Ian Buchanan, who taught Jorma the fingerpicking style. When he came back that next spring, Jorma showed me what he’d been working on. It was just fantastic, all this music coming out rather than just when the strumming starts. That playing style sent Jorma off into the folk world.
By then, I was working regularly in a number of bands in the D.C. area playing mostly rhythm and blues, but also in country bands and rockabilly bands. I was also dabbling a little bit in quasi-jazz stuff––jazz blues: Jimmy McGriff; shuffle blues; Bobby “Blue” Bland; Ray Charles and all that kind of stuff. Your question jumps ahead a little bit. Jorma transferred from Antioch out to the West Coast in 1963 to finish up his college. Before we start playing together again in 1965, I’m still in D.C., going to college to keep from getting drafted. [Stops.] You smile and laugh; you’re younger.
PKM: I was four then.
Jack Casady: Exactly. The draft was a big thing for us guys who were older. Once we became 18, you finished high school and either you pursued higher education, or you were in the Army. That was it. Period.
Our band was rather unusual because I was in junior high school and Jorma was then a senior. In any other setting, we wouldn’t be hanging out together but because of the music, we did.
PKM: That all comes from drawing tanks and Messerschmitts when you were little.
Jack Casady: Exactly. Messerschmitts were all around us back then. When Jorma and I reconnected in 1965, I was enrolled in Montgomery Junior College. We had seen each other a number of times in the early 60s, mostly in New York when he had a work furlough thing from Antioch. I would take a train up to New York, and we’d go to Greenwich Village to see Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee and all these great blues folk players. It was all part of the folk revival that Bob Dylan grew out of.
By 1965, the folk rock thing had started to happen, with people in the folk world putting together bands that were more electric but still presenting that older music or variants thereof. So, I was talking on the phone to Jorma at a friend’s house and he asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “The usual thing: staying out of the army, going to school, working in clubs.” He told me, “I’ve just joined this folk-rock band in San Francisco.” I thought he was joking: “You? The purist.” And he said, “Yep, but this really great; we’ve got a manager. He promises to pay us 50 bucks a week, whether we work or not.” He also said, “We’re looking for another bass player.” I told him, “I’ve been playing bass all this time, since I was 16.” Jorma didn’t know, or if he sort of knew he wasn’t exactly sure. I know he’d never heard me play; let me put it that way. He said, “I could use an ally out here, why don’t you come out?”
They flew me out in October of 1965. The band had been together for two months. Just before I left, I had a gig where I left my bass guitar; it got stolen. I came out there without a bass, borrowed the other guy’s bass and auditioned for the gig. I got it; he was gone and I was in. It’s a brutal world. The first show I played with those guys was in Harmon Gymnasium [University of California, Berkeley, October 30, 1965; the band was Jefferson Airplane].
PKM: Can you describe the scene?
Jack Casady: It was completely alien. All of a sudden, there were people with long hair. That was an effect of the early Beatles stuff in ’64; that had started to change the club scene. It was no longer purely what the older generation wanted––stuff like rhythm and blues, bands with three horns––you could see more and more bands evolving to being guitar bands with vocals.
I didn’t quite know what to expect from this group [the other original Airplane members: Signe Toly Anderson, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Skip Spence]. As we started to play in rehearsal, I realized this was a fairly nutty band. And, if you went to put a band together, this was in a funny way of doing it, because everyone came from different walks of life. Paul loved vocal harmonies, like The Weavers, and played the 12-string guitar, which gave us a signature sound. Jorma hadn’t really played much of the electric guitar, not in a lead format. He was learning as we went, and he didn’t use any of his fingerpicking stuff when we first started out. And, with all my influences, I wasn’t a typical bass player. But between us all, we had this really tight harmony, with Signe, singing solo and being a strong alto between the two male voices, and Skip on drums. It all worked.
He told me, “I’ve just joined this folk-rock band in San Francisco.” I thought he was joking: “You? The purist.” And he said, “Yep, but this really great; we’ve got a manager. He promises to pay us 50 bucks a week, whether we work or not.” He also said, “We’re looking for another bass player.”
PKM: Whom else did you play with, besides the Jefferson Airplane, when you got to San Francisco?
Jack Casady: That was it, at first, because that’s what you did––you played in your band. Later on, as I got settled in, I met all the other [Bay Area] musicians and any chance I got to jam and play, I did. San Francisco was unique then in that it wasn’t a cutthroat world, like the East Coast or Los Angeles were.
We were different, too. Everybody was an equal member in our band. It was a democratic operation––that really didn’t exist up until that time. Back then, if you got signed by a record label, you had a recording crew down here in Los Angeles doing all the songs. Or, you would have the pro studio guys in New York, Nashville or Philadelphia doing them. Then the lead singers would put a band together to go out on the road. In The Airplane, everybody was responsible for writing all their own stuff; nobody dictated how you played or what you played, and you were free to break out all these different influences.
PKM: You were the bass player on Jimi Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child”.
Jack Casady: Yes, that was long after that.
PKM: How did you end up playing with Hendrix on that?
Jack Casady: Hendrix went to England and sort of reinvented his sound there, coming back as The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Bill Graham became our manager after that first year. Bill was also running The Fillmore Auditorium, so we played there regularly. When Hendrix played the Monterey Pop Festival , he came up to play the Fillmore and we were on bills together. That’s how we became friends with him, and that’s how I became good buddies with [Hendrix’s drummer] Mitch Mitchell.
The Airplane had a rehearsal hall next door to the Fillmore and musicians came over, hung out together, and checked each other out. Again, that was a great period of time in San Francisco. There was some competition, but the English guys had competition in a whole different way––they were into a lot of the stage-show stuff––they were all trying to outdo each other. The American guys weren’t quite involved with that. In any case, when Hendrix and I got a chance, we jammed and played.
In 1968, Jimi was working on his Electric Ladyland album in New York, and we came in to do The Dick Cavett Show or some show like that. We taped that early in the evening and then Jorma and I went over to Steve Paul’s Scene, which was a small underground club [on West 46th Street], literally, half-underground; you had to go down a set of steps to get in. Traffic was playing there. We’d heard their first record and this was their first stateside tour [with a band line-up of Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason, Steve Winwood and Chris Wood]. In those days, I always carried my bass and Jorma always carried his guitar; we’d drop a hat for a chance to play. That night we really went to listen.
Anyway, Hendrix walked in to hear the show, because he knew the Traffic guys from the London scene. After Traffic played, a bunch of us piled over to Jimi’s studio. We watched him do some tracking the rest of the night. You’ve got to understand it’s maybe 4 in the morning, maybe 5, 6. At about 7, he says, “Let’s do a blues.” I said, “Sure.” For some reason Noel Redding [Hendrix’s regular bassist] wasn’t there. There was no setting up for this. The drums, a bass amp, a Hammond organ [for Winwood], and another amp for Jimi, were just sitting on the floor there. Jimi’s engineer; help me out here.
PKM: Jimi’s engineer?
Jack Casady: Yes. Who did the sessions? Come on, who did the Electric Ladyland sessions? He’s done a thousand interviews on it.
As we started to play in rehearsal, I realized this was a fairly nutty band. And, if you went to put a band together, this was in a funny way of doing it, because everyone came from different walks of life.
PKM: I’m on Google.
Jack Casady: This is embarrassing.
PKM: Recording and production, Chas Chandler. Engineers were Eddie Kramer and Gary Kellgren.
Jack Casady: Eddie Kramer, OK. Now, Chas; that was the part of the deal, too. Chas had gotten fired by Jimi at the beginning of the sessions, and Jimi was now producing the album. That’s why there was a scene all night long. Chas wouldn’t have gone for that. In the morning, we did a long blues, a 15-minute “Voodoo Child”. I think we got halfway through it, or a quarter way through it, and Hendrix broke a string, and then we noodled around for a while. Then he changed the string and then we did a full version of it. I think was the only full version that we did.
We packed up our stuff and got it in our LTD station wagon––which was the transportation of choice for bands at the time––and drove down to D.C. because we had a gig that night. We were young. We could stay up all night long and do that. A couple of months later––I’m not sure exactly how many months later––I was in rehearsal at the house at 2400 Fulton Street, the mansion The Airplane had bought in San Francisco––and I got a phone call. It was Jimi Hendrix asking, “Listen, do you mind if I put that long blues on the album?” I said, “That’d be great, but are you nuts? It’s 15 minutes long.”
What was really great was that we were all starting to produce our own music after our initial hits. That happened for the Airplane, too, after Surrealistic Pillow, with “Somebody to Love”, “White Rabbit” and all that. When we renegotiated our contract, we renegotiated having some control in the studio. Hendrix did the same thing when he renegotiated his. I think that was some of the friction with Noel Redding: Jimi wanted to experiment more in the studio and use that studio environment to create different sounds, to see what he could create. Before Electric Ladyland, he was always looking at the clock, with his producers saying things like, “Listen, the record company is telling me to knock this baby out in a couple of weeks.” The early studio sessions for us, recording Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, were just like that. We did that album in four days because that’s the music we played in person. We walked in and, basically, the studio producers set it up; it was on a three-track––two tracks to record, one to balance out vocals.
After Traffic played, a bunch of us piled over to Jimi’s studio. We watched him do some tracking the rest of the night. You’ve got to understand it’s maybe 4 in the morning, maybe 5, 6. At about 7, he says, “Let’s do a blues.” I said, “Sure.”
PKM: Three tracks?
Jack Casady: That’s what we had. The next album was on a four-track, like The Beatles used for Sgt. Pepper’s, where you could start to overdub a little bit and experiment more. By the time we got to After Bathing at Baxter’s, our third album, the studio had eight tracks and we really spent a lot of time noodling around with that one.
Anyway, but that’s how that all happened. We played the blues and it made it onto his album. People have often asked me, “What was it like to play with Jimi?” But they don’t seem to want to know he was a very gracious guy, soft spoken, with no histrionics or any of that kind of stuff. You know, musicians want to play together. Sure, I was excited to play with him, but he was my contemporary––I wanted him to hear what I could do and I wanted to see and hear what he could do with it.
It’s never like writers think, or the way the great tidy eyes of hindsight would have it. As it’s going on, it’s a little more chaotic. But don’t confuse that with our not having a clear idea of what we were trying to do. People like to think “Voodoo Child” was a jam. It wasn’t. It was worked out. I mean, certain things were worked out: the lyrics were worked out and then you take the whole thing from there––you’re professional, you’re supposed to use the knowledge that you have to get the music aligned, put together––you want what you do to be unique and you want it to be alive, fresh and all that.
PKM: You guys are pushing each other on “Voodoo Child”?
Jack Casady: Absolutely. You always do; everybody does. Jorma and I push each other every single night. Just like we did a few nights ago when you came to see the show. Up on stage, we want the best from each other because that’ll make the best of both of us. People ask me all the time, “Oh, you’ve been playing together 61 years, you must know everything he’s going to do.” Absolutely not. It’s the opposite of that. I don’t want to know. I want to listen harder every single time; I want to pay attention; I want new things to come out. I can only do that if I’m right there in the moment. I treat it like it’s the first and last chance I’m ever going to get.
The early studio sessions for us, recording Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, were just like that. We did that album in four days because that’s the music we played in person.
PKM: It’s almost like you peeked down and answered questions I was going to ask. How did Hot Tuna evolve for you and how is it evolving now?
Jack Casady: Well, yes, that was part of the answer. Hot Tuna evolved through a love of playing music, an appreciation of craftwork and just working really hard at it––you want what you work on to bear fruit. Hot Tuna came about because of Jorma’s unique finger-style playing––and because we loved the Blind Blake world, the Reverend Gary Davis world; we wanted to interpret all that in our own way. Some of those techniques then fell into something new, with Jorma creating songs and writing songs. His lyrics are a huge part of all this; Jorma doesn’t write bubblegum lyrics. He’s not writing about teenage angst or love stories. That content is a huge element for me to come up with different stuff on the bass.
You know, Jorma can play these songs as a complete unit by himself on stage––it’s complete music, unto itself. As we started playing together as bass and guitar, Jorma adjusted, realizing he can do certain things because I’m there as bass player to do other things. The harmonies and the melodies make us play together like two hands on a piano, or like two instruments in an orchestra. We orchestrate parts out–where I can move up into the cello range on the bass in a really light approach that it’s not so heavy handed that knocks his acoustic guitar. That’s how we’ve developed Hot Tuna in the acoustic world and we’re just really “getting it” now.
Jack Casady: Now, in the electric world, Jorma takes those elements over to a Chet Atkins electric guitar, where he can do that finger-picking stuff. Then on electric bass, I do some stuff for the first tone, adding in some distortion and sustain. We put all that together with drums in a melodic fashion––it makes for that good ol’ driving rock sound and it opens up other worlds in that sonic direction. That’s the power of electric music.
Hot Tuna has had many different forms, adding different people from time to time over the years and getting different takes on things in order to shake things up a little bit. Recently, we’ve gone back to the electric trio, although once a while we have some guests. Few people do an electric trio anymore; we like that. It’s a whole different sound from acoustic. We really have two units of Hot Tuna going on out there, one in the acoustic world and another in the electric world.
People have often asked me, “What was it like to play with Jimi?” But they don’t seem to want to know he was a very gracious guy, soft spoken, with no histrionics or any of that kind of stuff. You know, musicians want to play together.
PKM: With hindsight, what do you think is needed to sustain a musical relationship for 60 years? Or, to sustain a band for 50?
Jack Casady: Jorma says it’s because we’ve never had a band meeting. [Laughs] But the real reason is the respect we have for the music that we make. I’m serious about that. We’re not playing hits from the ’60s or something, and we’re not out there going through the motions. We’re not a cover band of our own selves. It’s vital to us the music be in the moment and real. The best show is the one I’m about to play. People ask me that all the time, “What’s your best show?” It’s an absurd question. Naturally, there are shows that were high points, but they really don’t mean much to me more than the shows we played last week or the ones we’re about to play.
As far as keeping the music alive between us, what’s really important, friendship-wise, is that we respect each other. We’ve watched each other closely, through a litany of personal situations and business situations. Our reference points go back to being teenagers and observing each other’s households and how we lived. Back then, there wasn’t anybody breathing down our necks for us to be a success––it was quite the contrary. I mean, now, parents school their kids to be musicians and groom them for success as pop stars. We were expected to find a real profession. This [music-playing] was OK to do on the side. That drove us, I think, to really make something of ourselves and to make a commitment to being the best we could at our craftwork.
PKM: In a two-man band you and Jorma trade off the rhythms, the solos, the melodies. How do you do that? I mean, how do you listen to each other? Is there something you listen for in all that?
Jack Casady: Yes, you listen for opportunity of where to make it right. If you don’t personalize it so much, it’s not about me doing it as much as…[trails off, pauses]…it’s like a painter with colors to choose from. Music is an odd art form. It’s the only art form that you can play by yourself or that you can have combinations of people coming together, creating harmony. In general, you don’t see six painters going up to create something in front of an audience.
I like to say when Jorma and I play as a duo, a ghost appears above us; it makes a triangle. You have the left and the right and you have the point in the middle that meets the combination of the two. That’s the sonic sound that only exists when you listen to the combination of the sounds being made. It isn’t just a trading off whether I do a melody part that was covered by a guitar a second ago, or whether we play in unison or make harmonies together. That’s all the technical aspects. I––we both––search for the sound and then we put the piece in place that’s needed “there”. It’s not about Jack Casady doing it, or Jorma doing it. You might see it in that in a Jack-and-Jorma way from afar, from the audience––that’s the music coming from the artists and the personalities you associate with it. I think we see a little more as: Here’s the sonic landscape before us. What can we do with this and how are we going to do it? On stage, we’re working that out. And, yes, we know “how” to do it––we’re hitting the strings, but it’s the mind up here that’s doing the work.
It’s vital to us the music be in the moment and real. The best show is the one I’m about to play.
PKM: Isn’t that sort of a music-plays-the-band thing?
Jack Casady: Well, yes, you look to that. I hope for that flow. People think we don’t have to rehearse, but it always takes a while for us to get our vocabulary back if we haven’t played for a while. We can lose that in a couple of nights. We take four nights off and it’s strange because we get so used to being in that world. I feel like when we’re “there”, we open up and go beyond the ninth planet. Those sensibilities are hard to get to. Once you’re “in there” you don’t want to leave. You don’t want to close the door behind you. But it always closes. You go back to your hotel room; you get on a bus; you travel; your life is happening. When you go back out to that on-stage world, there are two chairs, a bass and a guitar. That’s all you got; then sonically, you try to get into that “other” world again. That’s why we do sound checks. We want it to be as sonically right as possible so that we can get there as soon as possible. Hopefully, we bring the audience into that world. It’s like, “Here we are playing in a big bathroom. It sounds great in here. Come and join us.”
PKM: Playing acoustic the other night, it seemed like you were picking your notes very carefully, even more carefully than when you’re playing electric.
Jack Casady: What I’m really dealing with are different sonic worlds. It isn’t about how many notes you play. Things have changed in the acoustic world where we can now sonically be more articulate because the audience can hear more of what we’re doing. Before it was lost a lot because the sound systems couldn’t pick up the subtleties of the instruments quite right. Realize, Jorma is not playing “unplugged”; he’s not taking all his electric guitar stuff and plugging it into an acoustic guitar and playing the same way. Acoustic is a different world. He’s a true acoustic guitar player, and in that world as you listen to the overtones and subtleties that can be done on that instrument. Those can’t be done on an electric instrument. But now, we can present that a lot better than we ever have before.
Yes, I’m very careful about what I play, but I’m also now playing in a true acoustic bass guitar I’ve developed, called “the Diana Bass”; it’s the one I’ve been playing for the last four years. I commissioned it knowing there were really no good acoustic bass guitars out there that could hold the sonic against an acoustic guitar––one that I can just sit across in the room and have the fluidity of the instrument but have the tonal characteristics that don’t make you want to plug it into an amp in order to get full low end. That Diana Bass has been another game changer for me, because now I can work in that acoustic guitar world and sonically enhance the tonal aspects of the combination of the two instruments. Yes, I’m picking my notes more carefully, definitely.
I like to say when Jorma and I play as a duo, a ghost appears above us; it makes a triangle. You have the left and the right and you have the point in the middle that meets the combination of the two.
PKM: Is there anything that you think to yourself as you go on stage? Is there a mantra that you say? Anything that gets you started?
Jack Casady: Well, nothing specific. People ask, “Do you get nervous?” I don’t get nervous, but I get very alert. I want that alertness; I want all of me to be there in that moment––I want to absorb and draw from who I am at that minute. I’m not the guy I was 30 years ago. I am who I am today, and I want to bring that to the table.
[Editor’s note: This conversation covered a lot more than what’s here, with Casady coming to decidedly simple conclusions on a few topics: when it comes to fashion—everyone ends up in black; when it comes to drugs and alcohol—they’re more anti-social than social; when it comes to walking as a form of exercise—it’s not for everyone, but everyone is better off for doing it. When it comes to summing up what Casady does on stage and in the studio, it’s fitting to give his Hot Tuna bandmate Jorma Kaukonen the last word: “I can’t say enough about what Jack brings to the table as a bass player, because his bass lines are complex but the groove is always as deep as the Grand Canyon. He’s not screwing around. He knows what he wants, but the groove is absolutely always there.”]