Jorma Kaukonen: Too Hot to Handle
By Toni A. Brown
Jorma enjoys change. In recent years, his hair has seen several shades of red and black. He switches from electric to acoustic guitar without a moment’s hesitation. But one thing that never changes is his magnetic presence. His own brand of country-inspired blues guitar work has made Jorma Kaukonen one of the great guitarists of our time.
I was able to meet with Jorma during his hectic schedule of touring. San Francisco to New York to Chicago to Boston…the tall, slim, blue-eyed master never stops.
In this recent interview, we discussed some of the recent projects Jorma is involved in, as well as the old days.
RELIX: During your 1983 Hot Tuna reunion tour, things didn’t work out quite as well as a lot of people had hoped. How would you explain the success of Splashdown? Do you think your audiences would’ve preferred acoustic Hot Tuna?
JORMA: It’s not just the acoustic. Certainly the old songs played in the old way by the old people, with the old feeling—which only some of us have managed to maintain.
RELIX: What brought you up to WQIV-FM in New York back in 1975?
JORMA: I believe we were doing an interview. I don’t really remember. I don’t even think that’s my guitar I’m playing. I think someone lent it to me. And in those days, Jack didn’t go anywhere without his bass.
RELIX: The gigs you did in New York surrounding the WQIV broadcast included a date at the Central Park Skating Rink. People were mooning your limo while you drove down the pedestrian pathway. But you couldn’t see it from inside. One guy leaped up on top of the limo and took his pants off and mooned everybody.
JORMA: I didn’t see it. Too bad—it sounds good. The last time I was driving across the country, my friend Richie mooned half the state of Nebraska on Route 80 eastbound.
RELIX: Back then, you didn’t do too many acoustic shows.
JORMA: Actually, to put this all in historical perspective, in 1974, Jack and I did an acoustic tour together where I played a J-50 with a clamp and a microphone. I think we did a couple of tours that way.
RELIX: It seems that acoustic Hot Tuna has a certain mystique to it over electric Tuna or even acoustic Jorma over electric Jorma. Why?
JORMA: I don’t know. It’s a good question. Maybe I’m on another cosmic scale or a better acoustic scale than electric. It’s my roots, man.
RELIX: You’re playing acoustic exclusively now for this reason.
JORMA: I guess there are a number of reasons for it. One of them is that I’m doing it pretty good right now. There are economic reasons, popular reasons, logistic reasons, fun reasons, all of the above.
RELIX: It’s probably easier to haul around an acoustic guitar.
JORMA: It is, although when I have my druthers, I have the guitar, a microphone, a couple of delay units and my little board. So, it gets fair to middling heavy.
RELIX: Tell us about the album you’ve just finished recording.
JORMA: It’s an all-acoustic album. There are a couple of old things and a bunch of new things. It was recorded live at Symphony Hall in New Haven on a Mark Levinson recording system, which is to say it’s absolutely flat, no over-dubbing, no EQ, no noise reduction. Hi-Fi buffs are going to love it. Some fine new material will be on the record. There are a couple of things I’ve written in collaboration—one is called “Broken Highway”. There are a couple of songs written by a friend of mine—one is called “Radical Sleep”, the other is called “Too Hot to Handle”, which will also be the title of the album. The lyrics will define the inspiration for that one. Then, there’s one called “Ice Age”, which I’ve been playing for quite awhile, but never recorded.
RELIX: What was your inspiration for “Ice Age”?
JORMA: “Ice Age” is another one of those state-of-the-world statements, too many years and interpersonal relationships. “Radical Sleep” is another one where content defines inspiration. “Broken Highway” is just the way things are at the moment.
RELIX: What are your musical influences?
JORMA: I think everything I listen to influences my music. I’ll cop licks from anyone. I’m not proud.
RELIX: With your frequent tour schedules, you’ve developed an avid following. How do you deal with the enthusiasm of your fans?
JORMA: I love it. In a way, it justifies my existence.
RELIX: It hasn’t gone unnoticed that when you write, you’re left-handed, but you play right-handed guitar.
JORMA: The guy who started teaching me guitar showed me right-handed. Later on, when I got to thinking about it, it seemed like the fretting hand did the most complicated business…and that’s how it worked out.
RELIX: San Francisco music aficionados are always looking for collectable tapes. Are there many old Hot Tuna and Jorma tapes stashed in the can, hidden in your basement?
JORMA: Actually, I probably have fewer tapes than anyone. I do have some, but I’m not the tape person. I think as far as collectibles and stuff that only I have, I’ve got some Hot Tuna band outtakes that no one has ever heard. Then, I’ve heard a rumor that there’s going to be an eventual release by somebody, I’m not sure who, of Janis Joplin, myself, Tom Hobson and Steve Mann. These are just home tapes from 1964. Excellent quality.
RELIX: Speaking about old tapes, there’s a tape I’m sure you’ll remember—it’s all over the place. They call it the “typewriter tape”.
JORMA: In early 1964, Janis and I played a benefit at the Coffee Gallery. Ralph Gleason reviewed us highly at the time. Anyway, she used to come to my house and we would rehearse. One day, my old lady was typing a letter while we were working. There’s some good material on those tapes, even though they were only rehearsal tapes.
RELIX: Any plans for electric music in the near future?
JORMA: There are, but nothing concrete. I’ve been talking to some people, but these things rely on economics and what-not. It’s bad to talk before you actually tie things down, but I’ve spoken to Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. But that’s still in the preliminary excitement stage.
Jorma is enthusiastic about the release of his upcoming album, Too Hot to Handle. Watch Relix for release date and availability.
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