Interview: Jack Casady

Jack Casady played bass guitar for the Sixties band Jefferson Airplane, which is best known for the hits “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit”. Their albums Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing At Baxter’s, Crown of Creation, and Volunteers are amongst the best of the psychedelic rock genre. Casady also played on “Voodoo Chile” with Jimi Hendrix, and “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” from David Crosby’s first solo album. As the Sixties wound down, Casady and Jefferson Airplane lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s attention shifted to their new band Hot Tuna, which focused on acoustic and electric folk- and blues-based music. (L. Paul Mann photo)

This interview was conducted by phone on 12/29/11.

Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at your upcoming concert in Santa Barbara?

Jack Casady: Jorma and I have been doing a lot of playing this year. As you know, we released a new album Steady As She Goes, and we’ve been touring that album and playing all the material off that album, either in our electric format or our acoustic format. So in this acoustic format with David Bromberg, a long, long time friend of ours, we look forward to featuring a lot of the new material, and having a good full night with Barry Mitterhoff at our side playing mandolin and many other musical instruments of acoustic picking for the fans and the audience to enjoy.

JM: Am I correct that David Bromberg has guested with Hot Tuna before?

JC: Yeah, we’ve done quite a few shows together, aside from really being longtime friends. Both Jorma and David have done a bunch of tours together, and Hot Tuna – Jorma and myself- and David have done some together as well. David just joined us in New York City for two nights at the Beacon Theatre, on the 9th and 10th of this year. And we had a ball. We had a ball. He’s really just an amazing performer and player, and we can’t wait to get in the same room together and do some more. And who knows, there may be some surprises during the evening.

JM: Hot Tuna has played with a huge number of guest musicians over the years. Are there any favorites for you to play with?

JC: Well, I think whenever you change the mix a little bit with a different performer, your music takes you in a slightly different direction. So I think when we do that, we always look forward to the new personality to see where it’s going to lead us. It’s kind of like an artful stew, and you listen to each other and see where it’s going to take you.

Barry has been playing with us now for quite a few years, and Barry brings so much to the table. His knowledge of music, his classical background, but also his knowledge of many forms of ethnic music, bring such a uniqueness to the format, that we really just can’t wait to play with him all the time.

So there will be Jorma on acoustic guitar, myself Jack on bass, and Barry on mandolin and sometimes ukulele, sometimes tenor guitar, sometimes banjo, all kinds of things like that.

JM: Going way back, I was interested to read that before Jefferson Airplane you played in the backing band for Ray Charles.

JC: I think what happened is there is a lot of incorrect information out there. I don’t know how that one worked out, but I did back up Little Anthony and the Imperials for a two-week stint when I was about 16 years old, or 17. It was pretty much early in my bass playing career, and I got that job through a drummer that had played with James Brown in the D.C. area. Of course, James Brown went through quite a few drummers. But that drummer got me a lot of R&B gigs in the Washington D.C. area. But no, I never played with Ray Charles.

JM: Of course, nowadays with the internet these things propagate.

JC: I’m glad to set the record straight.

JM: Excellent, I’m glad to as well.

JC: I’ve seen Ray Charles many times, and I saw him at the Howard Theater in the late Fifties, when I was 15 or 16 years old. I’d go down to the Howard Theatre and see Ray Charles and many other artists of that genre.

JM: Moving forward a little bit, how did you get involved with Jefferson Airplane?

JC: Actually, my involvement was a direct result of a conversation with Jorma. Jorma’s three and a half years older than I am, and we had a high school band together in 1958. When high school finished, he went to college. We kept in touch, and I continued in the various R&B and sometimes country circuits in the D.C. area.

We kept in touch all through the early Sixties. When he moved out to California from the East Coast, in the early Sixties, from time to time we’d talk about stuff. But one of the conversations we had over at a mutual friend’s house, he said he’d just joined a folk-rock band. And I said, “You, the purist? I didn’t think you’d be playing anything electric,” you know? And he said he’d just been approached a month earlier, this was was late summer of 1965, to join this group of people. And he asked me what I’m doing, and I said I’m playing guitar, and going to school, and playing a lot of bass. And he said, “Bass? I didn’t know you were playing bass,” and I said, “Yeah, I’m playing bass.” So he said, “Let me call you back. I’m gonna talk to these people.” So he went and made his pitch for me, and then I flew out to San Francisco and, essentially, I guess I auditioned for the Jefferson Airplane. In any case, he always told me he wanted an ally in the band, and I said “You’re on!”

So we played a gig. I think we rehearsed a couple of days, and we played a gig. The first gig was I think at Harmon Gymnasium on the 16th of October. And I was in the band. I replaced the first bass player, who was a stand-up bass player in the band. I had a Fender Jazz Bass, that’s what I played.

JM: I understand that you were the one who essentially recruited Grace Slick to join the band. Is that correct?

JC: Yeah. Well that was much later. Much, much later. We made our first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, in early 1966. That following summer Signe Anderson, our singer on the first album, wanted to leave the band. She was pregnant, and she wanted to leave the band and raise the child. So Grace was one of the other female singers in the local music scene of San Francisco, and I approached her and asked her if she’d join the band, and she said yes. So there you go.

JM: And she brought some songs to the band as well. I was listening yesterday to The Great Society’s version of “White Rabbit”, and the Jefferson Airplane version is certainly different. Of course your bass is quite prominent at the beginning. Do you remember how the Jefferson Airplane arrangement came together?

JC: It came together like most of our arrangements. I mean, we fleshed them out – get the material, start rehearsing, and move things around. Working with those changes that were reminiscent of Bolero, the kind of rhythm that snare would play in that, I just transferred it over to the bass and started playing it. So then we decided to start the song out with that, kind of a low atmospheric feeling. That’s how the arrangement came together.

You know, everybody has their own personality, and the great thing about the Airplane and what we were doing at the time was – compared to what I’d been doing in the Washington D.C. area, which was a lot of cover songs – the atmosphere in San Francisco was to create your own music, write your own lyrics, write your own songs, play your own parts, you know, write your own parts. And so it was a very healthy atmosphere for a musician to break away from mimicking songs that had been put out to being responsible for creating and writing your own material.

JM: On the album Crown of Creation, it seems that your bass playing is particularly inspired. Somehow there’s an openness to the songs on that album that allows the bass to really come through. Could you reflect on that album specifically?

JC: That album was an interesting album. I think we had done a fair amount of moving our style forward to a much more aggressive and open feeling onstage, and we wanted to get some of that on the album. The interesting thing about those years is that each album really reflects a different stage in the development of not only the musicians, but also the songwriting and the way you play. So I thought that album, for a studio album, represented where we were headed at the time, for a more aggressive sound, and a much more open sound. Both for the singers, and rhythmically and melodically for me as a bass player.

JM: On that album your bass is credited as “Yggdrasil bass”. What does that mean?

JC: [laughs] I haven’t the slightest idea of what it means. We had a lot of friends at the time who were clever with words, and so I had a friend, Owsley Stanley, who would join the sessions from time to time, and I think he came up with that phrase as some sort of a description of the growling nature of what I was doing. So that sort of stuck.

A lot of things back in those days didn’t necessarily make sense. They were often done to not make sense.

JM: You mentioned the live experience [with Jefferson Airplane]. How would you compare the studio recordings versus the live experience?

JC: I think the progress that you can hear through the albums, from 1965 to, say, when the band stopped recording in ’72, was to capture more of that fire and energy that we were experiencing and developing as a live band. But at the same time, we were able to use the studio as a means to multitrack, and as a means to experiment with sound and tone, and the quality of the sound.

Don’t forget, it isn’t like today where everybody has their own studio in their MacBook Pro. The only way you could get into a studio was to get a record contract, basically, unless you had the money to pull together for a session independently. But that was pretty much it. You didn’t get a chance unless you were a signed act and you were able to get in the studio in that atmosphere. So that’s what the unique thing was. That was what was also so exciting.

I really always have enjoyed the studio atmosphere. For some it’s a very frustrating thing, if they don’t get exactly what they were getting live. And I certainly had moments like that. But at the same time, I would have a lot of fun with multitracking, and sometimes putting a song together and putting the bass on last, you know, in order to pull the song together. Things like that, that you just couldn’t do when you presented music as a full ensemble.

JM: I’m a huge fan of Jefferson Airplane, but it’s also cool that you played with Jimi Hendrix on “Voodoo Chile”. How did that come about, and what was it like?

JC: The second question first – it was great. It was a lot of fun. Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, and I had become friends. Particularly Mitch and I. I really enjoyed his drumming style.

Bill Graham was our manager for about a year and a half in the early years of Jefferson Airplane. We had a rehearsal hall next to the Fillmore Auditorium, and sometimes we used the Fillmore to rehearse in. In any case, when various acts would come through, quite often when we were in town we got a chance to meet the musicians, and that was always really exciting. Cream was a very exciting band to listen to, and Jimi Hendrix was an exciting band, and I struck up a friendship with Jimi and with Mitch.

So a year or so later, when he was recording in New York City, and we were doing a TV show – I think it might’ve been the Dick Cavett show – when we finished our work we went to hear Traffic, and Steve Winwood was in the band along with all of the other guys. Jimi had taken a break from recording what was to become a double album [Electric Ladyland], and we hooked up in the club, Steve Paul’s The Scene, and he had invited us and a whole gaggle of other people over to the studio to watch him do some work, listen to him do some playing. After most of the night being spent in various ways, at daybreak he said, “Let’s play a version of this song, in kind of a slow blues format”. We fleshed out the chord changes, and did it in about a take and a half. I say a take and a half because we started to play it and I think he broke a string, and we noodled around a while, then put the song together and basically did it as a one take song.

It was very fun. He was a very generous musician, just what another musician likes when they’re playing together. It’s exciting, you get down to business, there was nothing else but the music to deal with. So it was a great time.

We played the song, and we all got into our station wagons and drove down to D.C. for the gig the next night. So I didn’t really think much about it, and then I got a call from Jimi about a month or so later, and he said, “Would you mind if we put this track on the album?” And I said, “Oh great!”

It was quite different, because nobody put a fifteen minute track on an album. I think, except on a jazz album. So that was one of the progressions of bands getting more artistic control as their records sold, and they’d renegotiate their contract. Part of the renegotiation was that they’d start to produce themselves, and have more control in the studio, you know. And for better or worse, that allowed us to spend much more time in the studio in our following albums, and do more of that experimentation in the studio.

JM: A bit later you produced Jorma’s first solo album Quah, an album that really resonates with me. Could you reflect on that album?

JC: That album, I thought, was really essential for Jorma to do at the time, and present his acoustic guitar work, which was always the beginning of any songs we started out with Hot Tuna. We would work on material, and he would be playing the acoustic guitar, and he’d play it in the [fingerpicking] style with his thumb and two fingers. And I was always amazed by that approach, because it’s complete music. You know, the thumb is keeping the rhythm and doing bass lines and a pulse, and a melody comes off of the first two fingers and/or combinations thereof. I always likened it to two hands on the piano. It was complete music.

When we started putting together some of this music drawn from folk and blues and Piedmont-style blues players, like Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Blake, people like that, we would work together to try to find out how to marry the sound of the bass guitar and the guitar. What was interesting, because that pulse was going on with the thumb, it allowed me to also extend the range of the bass without necessarily the pulse and the bottom end falling out of the song. So that style of guitar playing really freed me up as a bass player. We were able to take some of the elements that had come out of jazz and ragtime and other music, and kind of merge them together into where we were as young players, and see where it would take us.

When we added drums later on, Jorma would use that style on some of the music, for the fingerpicking stuff – he was using Fender Stratocasters at the time. Of course, then, he would play a regular electric guitar style with a flat pick. Later on, he would move those styles around, and pretty soon he was playing electric guitar with finger picks, as well. So he really changed a little bit of the traditional approach of the way we entered into the songs, and it made for, what I thought, was a fascinating approach which we still work on today.

JM: You’ve been playing with Jorma off and on since the late 1950’s. How would be describe what Jorma brings to your musical collaboration?”

JC: In the earlier years, it was that uniqueness of having the fingerstyle approach, as well as that really interesting stabbing, melodic approach on the electric guitar. But really, what has slowly developed throughout this whole process is his songwriting ability. The chord structures, and the lyric content of the songs that we write, really get us into different musical areas, as well. For me, that was great. I always had something new to work on, some new atmosphere to create with the songs. To me, I think it’s really important in each song to create that world. And that’s what he brings to it. He brings that opportunity for me to do a lot of things on the bass, but also to try to create interesting atmospheres.

JM: I had the pleasure of talking to Jorma before the last Hot Tuna visit earlier this year, and I asked him about you, and he marveled that when you do bass solos you never play the same thing twice. How do you keep it fresh after all these years?

JC: You know, I had my period of time listening to really great jazz players. I got to hear Roland Kirk, and I got to hear Charlie Mingus, Yusef Lateef, and Eric Dolphy. I think Eric Dolphy really had a large impression on me for a period of time. But as well, a lot of the Twenties and Thirties players – Jelly Roll Morton, people like that. Those players, they always seemed to draw something new every night, and I think my philosophy is I try to really put myself into the particular night I’m in.

When I teach at the Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio – the Jorma Kaukonen Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp – I’m asked how do you improvise. And I think the nature of improvisation is to pay attention to what you just played, to tell you where you’re going to go. It’s almost like looking in the rearview mirror as you drive down the road, looking forward at the same time. You listen to those combinations of notes you’ve put together, and the melodies, and you let it bring you to the next stage. And when it’s successful, hopefully you concluded in an artful manner, so that it completes a thought. It’s not always successful, and sometimes you’re left hanging out over the edge. But I think the nature of it is you have to be prepared to fail at the same time. That’s not your aim at all, but you have to enter into a bit of that world of danger.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

JC: Well, I think nowadays there’s so much opportunity to investigate music. When I was a kid, I would get on a bus in Washington D.C., and go down to the Library of Congress. You’d get signed in, and you’d get to pull out records and take them into booths, and listen to world music – that it’s called now. Music from all over the world. Later on, in the early Sixties they started to be put out in collections on albums. But nowadays you have the Internet, you can do so much exploration of music from all over the world, and I think that’s really fascinating for any young musician, and to hear music from all different time periods. I mean, you’ve got recorded music for a hundred years now, so I think that offers a tremendous opportunity to expand your horizons, and hear different approaches, and to be intrigued and inspired to work on the music yourself.

There’s that aspect, and then there’s the good old know your instrument, know the theory. It always pays to take lessons and explore the harmonic aspect of your instrument as well as music in general. I tell my bass players, you should play another instrument that has chords. You should at least play a guitar, and learn piano. It would expand your horizons terrifically. Particularly in songwriting, and writing music in general.

JM: Thanks for taking the time to chat. One last question, where am I reaching you at?

JC: I’m at home. I live in Los Angeles, so I’m just down the road from you.


One comment for “Interview: Jack Casady”

  1. I watched and read a lot of things about Jefferson airplane this is one of the best interviews I’ve ever heard of one of their members. Unfortunately you don’t hear nearly as much about Jack Casady so this was a real treat to read, something more in depth about Jack Casady I learned a lot from your interview thank you very much

    Posted by Mark | September 13, 2018, 3:02 pm

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