Versatile musician Peter Kaukonen talks about the Blues, Bohemian San Francisco era, and his travels

"I’d say that the world is round; we all breathe the same air; people who have less can be nicer than people who have a lot and...if you look around you can always find something good to eat and something really good to listen to..."

Peter Kaukonen: World Music Traveler

Peter Kaukonen, San Francisco Bay Area guitarist, has played, toured, and recorded with Black Kangaroo, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, and Johnny Winter. He continues to compose and record the kinds of eclectic and personal music that has attracted and sustained legion of stalwart fans through the years. Now he is pleased to showcase projects spanning the decades, from Black Kangaroo in the 70s to his most recent releases "Going Home" and "Beyond Help!" These projects feature his acoustic and electric guitar virtuousity while showcasing his skills as a composer and producer. Highlighted by emotion, driven by passion, and frosted with whimsy, this is music that's guaranteed to take you on a trip. Peter Kaukonen was born in 1945. His father was a diplomat, a talent that seems to have passed Peter by. He grew up in Pakistan and the Philippine Islands and has lived in  Sweden, Iowa, Italy, and New Jersey. His family was musical and literate, their tastes eclectic, but listening to their records of music from Bach and Bali was nothing like listening to the sounds that he heard coming off of the streets in Karachi.

Photo by Lin Porter

He finished high school in Connecticut, where he started playing guitar, teaching himself to flatpick and fingerpick folk music and blues. In 1963 he moved to California to attend Stanford University. He majored in biochemistry, human sexual behavior, and primitive music, not one of which appeared on the curriculum. He played the Bay Area folk circuit with folks who went on to become the Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane. He has played, toured, and recorded with Johnny Winter, Jefferson Starship, Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Link Wray, and his own Black Kangaroo. Recently "Don’t Fret" became words to live by when arthritis rendered his fretting hand hors de combat for four years. He dealt poorly with the ensuing existential challenges, but recent surgery has corrected the crippling conditions, and he continues composing his deeply personal, engaging, challenging, and eclectic music, which he records in his own facilities. He lives with his wife and twin sons in Mill Valley, California, where he bicycles preposterous distances on and off the road and takes great pleasure in growing roses. Peter's new album "Crazy Quilt", released by Floating Records on February 2018. The thirteen original tracks on Crazy Quilt chronicle Kaukonen's visions, views, and musical musings with the random pattern that defines life. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Peter, you’ve been playing music since you were fifteen and you have gold records and a Ph.D. in psychology: would you talk to me about your creative processes? where and how did some of the material on "crazy quilt" come to be?

Damn, now "that’s a good question" which is, oddly enough, one of the songs on "Crazy Quilt" ... damn, Michael; that’s a great question and one I’m glad you asked ... let’s see ... I built a very comprehensive recording studio in my house a while back ... in it I have three synthesizer keyboards including a Kurzweil 88 key controller and a 1987 analog Roland synth; I have three additional synth modules and an 1896 Steinway upright ebony grand piano ... I have over forty acoustic and electric six and twelve-string guitars, nine electric and acoustic four, five, and six string basses, a 1916 Gibson mandolin; a bouzouki and a kantele and a requinto, along with lots of percussion ...I have some very nice microphones and some very nice tube preamps for them .... what I’m saying is that when I want to tell stories and paint pictures with sound I have a pretty extensive palette with which to work ...so I don’t sit down and think to myself, "lawwwwse, ah’s sho’ feelin’ poorly this mo’nin’! ah gots the bloooze!" instead I might think something about how life often doesn’t turn out for people the way they planned; that maybe getting old means getting lonely and getting isolated and getting sick and getting depressed and dying without love or loved ones (this doesn’t happen to people in America, which is the best country in the best of all possible worlds) ... does this count as "blues?" do you think that’s a little bit more profound than feeling bad because your "baby left you" and you can’t get laid? because that’s what "bobby gets old," which is on the album, is about ... what about having twin boys and being kept up, night after night after night, because of feeding schedules and crying and cleaning the shit out of the diapers? when our boys were born my wife and I just kept going around and ‘round and ‘round and ‘round and ‘round, and that led to "sleep deprived ..." I don’t think that any of your "categories" describe that piece of music which, to me, describes getting up at 1 in the morning and not getting back to bed until 5, and then getting up and doing it all over again ... so ..."Crazy Quilt" is a crazy quilt because it is unlike most recorded albums, which are recordings of twelve similar songs that are generally written and recorded by the same people in a finite period of time, resulting in homogeneity with variation ... "Crazy Quilt" didn’t come about because I thought I’d write some "folk music" and mix it up with some "jazz" and add some "rock;" it came about because there were stories I wanted to tell and pictures I wanted to paint; the pieces are different in instrumentation and recorded sound because they are different stories and different pictures, done at different times with different instruments, with ever increasing familiarity with my studio and its technology: I did them because I wanted to create something, not because I wanted to cut out a jigsaw puzzle piece that would fit into a pre-existing and limiting category and, as we discussed in our previous conversations, what’s really important is the emotion in a piece of music ... I worked to get purity of intent and emotional integrity into the pieces on "Crazy Quilt," plus I wanted them to sound good, and I like to think that I succeeded ... I hope you feel that, too ...

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Payola ... I’d like to see payola come back, when cash and drugs and hookers got you airplay ... musicians have always been ripped off, and I’ve seen my royalties and residuals disappear with the compulsory licensing of all the internet "musical services," but if we could just get back to the old ways, which were the best, it would make me feel so much better, and I’m convinced I’d be selling records again ... digital technology has profoundly changed the way we conceive of, create, consume, and experience music, and it certainly hasn’t been for the better ... it used to be that music was a shared experience, when people would wait for a new release, buy it and run home with it, roll up a number, put it on the turntable and crank it up, while passing around the album cover so they could admire the photos and read the liner notes ... and you had to interact with the music because, after twelve minutes, you’d have to get up to flip the album over ... now? who listens to an artist’s work from top to bottom? who now follows their creative process and experiences the shifting moods that artist created? there is no shared sacrament of music, not as far as I can tell, not when everyone is isolated in their own little disconnected world, listening to music on–god help me!–ear buds! believe me when I say that listening to Hendrix or Led Zeppelin or Bach on my three way JBL studio monitors, driven by 400 thunderous watts a channel, is not the same as listening to them on ... argh! ... ear buds ...

"I hear about all of today’s younger people who are "discovering" the artists and music from those time periods and prefer it to what is currently thrown into today’s musical market troughs ... Jefferson Airplane and the who and Hendrix all wear well: their songs continue to be vibrant, the playing and "newness" remains, and the sound of their recordings is timeless ..." (Photo by Lin Porter)

What has made you laugh from your experiences with Black Kangaroo, Jefferson Airplane, and Hot Tuna?

Most of the funny memories are no longer mentionable because they would imply political and sexual improprieties so, in order not to open myself up to lawsuits and prosecution, we’ll not mention any ... in addition, I wonder about your focus on things that happened over fifty years ago yet have no interest in what a contemporary artist like myself has to contend with in today’s diminished markets ... oh, right; those wouldn’t be funny stories ...

How has the Rock n' Roll counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I don’t know what a rock’n’roll counterculture might be; there might have been one at one time but I don’t think there has been one for decades ... an artist whose goal is to sell a million records and become a household name is not and can never be part of a counterculture, unless that counterculture is part of the upper 1% ... do you think that, if there were a rock’n’roll counterculture, its representatives to the grammy awards would stand up before the media and shout: "topple the oppressors! down with this rotten ass system!" I guess what I’ve observed is that the resilience of power structures and corporations and their ability to absorb, coopt, or neutralize any threats to their power is impressive ...

What are the lines that connect the legacy of American music from 50s-60s and 70s to nowadays generation?

I’m not sure how to answer that either, because I don’t know what the legacy of American music from those golden years might be, except perhaps that the music of those times was always perceived as being deviant and threatening to the status quo ... Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis brought transliterations of black culture and overt sexuality into the repressed consciousness of white America, who retaliated with Pat Boone ... San Francisco groups might not have been as overtly political as the MC5 but their association with drugs and libertine sexuality made them titillating when they were put on the cover of Life magazine ... then again, so many of those groups were sincere, so it might come down to emotion and the integrity of those feelings that the music engenders ... I hear about all of today’s younger people who are "discovering" the artists and music from those time periods and prefer it to what is currently thrown into today’s musical market troughs ... Jefferson Airplane and the who and Hendrix all wear well: their songs continue to be vibrant, the playing and "newness" remains, and the sound of their recordings is timeless ...

"Most of the funny memories are no longer mentionable because they would imply political and sexual improprieties so, in order not to open myself up to lawsuits and prosecution, we’ll not mention any ... in addition, I wonder about your focus on things that happened over fifty years ago yet have no interest in what a contemporary artist like myself has to contend with in today’s diminished markets ... oh, right; those wouldn’t be funny stories ..."

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

That’s an interesting question, because I’ve been evaluating what constitutes "blues" and how it relates to who I am and what I think, feel, and do...I started listening to blues when I was thirteen years old–that was in 1958–and the first records I bought included Howlin’ Wolf’s "Moanin’ in the Moonlight;" "the best of muddy waters" on chess records with "Hoochie Coochie Man;" "Louisiana Blues; "Long Distance Call;" Little Walter’s "the best of Little Walter," also on chess, as was John Lee Hooker’s "House of the Blues"... what a place to start, wouldn’t you say? you understand that these records pretty much defined a sound, a feeling, and a style for what the blues was all about, although I went on to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Peetie Wheatstraw, Gary Davis, and Robert Johnson ... I think that the blues were a critical part of the black experience in white racist America; it was a way of proclaiming their identity and their experience in an incredibly hostile world but...I long ago got tired of black blues musicians lecturing their primarily white audiences: "ah’m gonna tell ya what the blues is all about; it’s when yer woman leaves ya and your mule goes broke ‘n’ another man done stole yer woman ‘n’ yak yak yak yak yak..." well, I’m not black, I’ve never had a mule, and I can’t get my baby to leave me but I do understand that people, regardless of race, experience dark hours in their soul, that they ask questions about who they are and why they’re here...

This is a roundabout way of saying that music is about feeling; good music should make you feel something... when I first started listening to music–and I grew up with a father whose tastes ran from Balinese gamelan music to Bach, from Pete Seeger to Glenn Gould and who loved Ray Charles–listening to muddy waters or Howlin’ Wolf was a focused and intense experience, the same way I listened to Jimi Hendrix ... I cannot think of putting on headphones and listening to "Louisiana Blues" as background music while shopping at the supermarket; these songs, these artists, they’re like going to church; they demand your full attention, your respect, and your submission; if you can do this you’ll be transformed, purified, and exalted...these feelings, these artists should never be a background experience; it trivializes them and what they do...the proliferation of digitized music and the isolating effect of headphones deprives people of the sacramental nature of music, a shared experience in which we lose ourselves in shared feelings, so ...fuck mp3s; they’ll rot your mind...and throw away your smart phone; it only seems "smart" because it’s making you stupid...I think that we’re conditioned to think of "blues" as being a black art form (that’s also now played by white folks) in a 12 bar three chord structure but blues describe human experiences and feelings that are universal and their impact doesn’t rely on words; play Bulgarian chorale music and then listen to a field holler and you’ll know what I’m saying ... these days my challenge is how to write a song that reflects my experience and feelings and does so with integrity...

I am going to be seventy in a few weeks, and I want to be writing songs that reflect my concerns about aging; about losing friends; about losing dreams; and anticipating my death...of course I’d like to be writing songs that are entertaining but I’m working on new definitions of who I am and what I should be saying as a musician and what the blues should be...can I write a blues that isn’t a twelve bar three chord format? as much as I like playing Robert Johnson’s songs, as well as I can play them, I’m not worried about a hellhound on my trail: what’s really killing me is arthritis and how much it fucking hurts... So...what have I learned from the blues? I learned how important emotion is to music, how important music is to emotion, and how difficult it can be to being human...I think that an integral part of blues music, whether it’s happy or sad, is emotional integrity, and that’s what I strive for in the music that I write and the music that I play...those chess records that i got back in ‘57 and ‘58, every one of those songs still rings true today; they are timeless and eternal in their truth and beauty...and I still have those LP’s, and I can still play them on my turntable...

How do you describe Peter Kaukonen sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

When I started playing and performing and recording rock’n’roll it was pretty easy to write a song; you could write about sex or you could write about drugs or you could write about rock’n’roll and it always seemed to work...but that was back then, and that reflected the experiences and interests of a generation...now? all my drugs are by prescription and not one is recreational; fucking’s still nice, but it’s not the only thing I think about now, and I don’t think much of what passes for rock’n’roll these days so...where does that leave me? I have songs that I’ve been playing for decades that always work; they involve me technically, musically and emotionally, and judging by the standing ovation my band and I got at a recent performance, these songs continue to involve the audience as well...

"What have I learned from the blues? I learned how important emotion is to music, how important music is to emotion, and how difficult it can be to being human...I think that an integral part of blues music, whether it’s happy or sad, is emotional integrity, and that’s what I strive for in the music that I write and the music that I play..." (Photo by John Gretzinger)

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of Psychedelic Folk/Rock searches and experiments?

This is a complex question but the simplistic answer is that there was a confluence of circumstances, meaning, it was the right place with the right people at the right time: beatniks had been smoking marijuana and listening to black music (jazz) in the 50s, so there was an awareness of psychoactive substances and alternative (racial) music; as we came into the 60s people were discovering their musical roots–folk music–and this also set them apart from mainstream pop music; the war babies, born in the aftermath of world war II, were coming of age and looking to establish their own identity, separate from their parents; so ... folk music plus pot plus discovering amplified guitars plus the pill liberating women plus the availability of LSD plus being young plus rebelling was all pretty exciting and goddam it was a magic fucking time! It really was! it was special, it was blazing, it was powerful, it was difficult, it was dazzling, it will never happen again–and that’s a topic for another time–and goddam, we were lucky to have been there then ...There is another aspect to that time which needs mentioning, and that is how a generation had impact...here’s what I mean: young people had a coherent identity; rock music was the liturgy, drugs were the sacrament; remember the protests in ‘68? ‘69? in Paris? Prague? New York? Chicago? San Francisco? We transformed the world and reshaped the sociopolitical landscape: civil rights, women’s rights, stopping yet another imperial corporate war...I’m sorry, but sending a tweet just doesn’t have the impact of millions of people taking to the streets...maybe it makes you feel better, but so does masturbating...

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

I am often asked which guitarist has influenced me the most; it’s easy to say that Jimi Hendrix had a profound impact on me; he appeared on the scene when I was playing electric guitar in a rock band and his emotional integrity, his technique, his tonal palette, and his persona were all astonishing but...I’d say that Bill Evans, the great pianist who orchestrated Miles Davis’ "kind of blue," who performed for years in a trio format and who died in 1980, had the greatest impact on me and what I wanted to do musically...I heard him in Stockholm in 1965 and was transformed by what he did; I had the great good fortune to meet him and play with him years later–he was very gentle with me–and the overall lesson i got from him was using tonal colors in time and space to create tension and feelings...you see? It comes down to feelings again, how to experience them, translate them, and communicate them...that’s what’s important...

"I think it’d be great to go back and hear Paul Butterflied or Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore; a whole day? Jeez; San Francisco in the late 60s? Driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles through Big Sur down Highway 1? A different time and a whole different place..."  (Photo by John Gretzinger)

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

So...I’ve been playing for over fifty years; I’ve played all across the United States and through Europe and I’ve played for hundreds of thousands of people but here’s the one that stands out: it was in the late 80s and I was performing solo...it was a club in New York City in the middle of winter; it was cold and it was wet and it was miserable and there weren’t a lot of people in the club but you know, you always put your heart into it and...at the end of my show a young couple came up and the man said, "when we came in here we were having problems and we weren’t feeling good but...your music took us away and made things all right and we want to thank you for that..." that really touched me; I guess that’s what it all comes down to and why I play music: it’s the feeling and how it can affect people...

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I started playing guitar when I was fifteen; that was in 1961...I spent hours and hours a day, week after week, month after month, practicing ...that’s how you learn an instrument: practicing for hours...now? I find it appalling that today people can "make music" without ever picking up an instrument, let alone practicing...they have computer programs that someone else made that lets them cut and paste prefabricated sounds...I recently read about someone who had done a sixty-second video of himself singing to someone else’s tune...sixty fucking seconds! It got popular and a record company signed him up; then they had to teach him how to sing; how to hold an instrument; how to write songs; how to record; how to perform ... and you wonder why today’s music sucks? I miss the integrity and the sweat that went into mastering an instrument, along with all the other skills, that let you get on stage and move people...

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from Johnny Winter and Link Wray?

Johnny’s recent death hit me hard; it was a forceful reminder of how fast the wheel is turning now, how fragile our lives are, and how precious our time is...I did session work for Link Wray; that was a one-time shot and I have no stories from that but playing with Johnny was like...it was like...playing with Johnny meant that every note counted; it was always real, it was always full bore, and it was an honor and a privilege...out of respect for Johnny and what he did I’ll save the stories for another time...

"San Francisco has always had a tradition of being wild and crazy, a city that allowed people to do things when they couldn’t do them in other places ... artists have always been attracted by the city...in the ‘50s there were beatniks; they wrote, smoked pot, painted, had sex, and were part of a thriving jazz scene..." (Photo: Peter Kaukoken, 1964)

What is the impact of Rock n’ Roll and Folk music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Back in the 60s rock’n’roll–as well as folk music--became the expression of a generation’s identity; it represented who we were and what we thought and felt and did, and it set us apart from the previous generation...remember how the who sang "my generation?" but you must remember that radio stations weren’t formatted; they played Motown and the Rolling Stones; the Beatles and rhythm and blues and country...music clearly transcended color, as did being young, and concert promoters like Bill Graham at the Fillmore Auditorium introduced black artists to a young white population...but this was also a time when sociopolitical awareness and activism exploded; we saw the civil rights movement take off as black people fought for equal rights; we saw women fighting for equal rights; we had a generation that stopped an illegal, immoral, imperial war and...you know what? we have to fight those fucking battles all over again, only this time the music sucks: it’s derivative, banal, contrived; artificial, without soul or content, and it’s all become "content" and an entitlement as people isolate themselves with their little ear buds...there is no genre or anthem uniting a generation to stand and oppose the abuses and inequities of an imperial corporate hegemony...what a fucking shame, wouldn’t you say?

A meeting point for people of all ages who are wild at heart, and favorite among hipsters, San Francisco is ahead of its time as it embraces. Why this city was a capitol of avant-garde people?

San Francisco has always had a tradition of being wild and crazy, a city that allowed people to do things when they couldn’t do them in other places...artists have always been attracted by the city ... in the ‘50s there were beatniks; they wrote, smoked pot, painted, had sex, and were part of a thriving jazz scene...I’d say it was a logical progression for young people, in the beginning of the civil rights era, to explore their cultural and musical roots through folk music and, of course, blues ... the folk music scene of 1963 featured people that became members of the Jefferson Airplane; the Grateful Dead; Quicksilver Messenger Service, and more...and, of course, every band included blues in their repertoire...as I’ve mentioned previously, this coincided with increased awareness and availability of substances like marijuana; peyote; mescaline; amphetamine; LSD, plus San Francisco has always been a sexy city so...it just had to be...

You have traveling all around the world (Pakistan, Philippine, Europe, etc.) What are your conclusions?

I’d say that the world is round; we all breathe the same air; people who have less can be nicer than people who have a lot and ...if you look around you can always find something good to eat and something really good to listen to...

"Back in the 60s rock’n’roll–as well as folk music--became the expression of a generation’s identity; it represented who we were and what we thought and felt and did, and it set us apart from the previous generation..."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

That’s an interesting question; it’s a real challenge to be mindful and live in the moment but...there’s a couple of places and times...I think it’d be great to go back and hear Paul Butterflied or Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore; a whole day? Jeez; San Francisco in the late 60s? Driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles through Big Sur down Highway 1? A different time and a whole different place...now; enough reminiscing and philosophizing; I have an album to finish...

Peter Kaukonen - Official website

 

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