Jefferson Airplane followed Surrealistic Pillow with a string of acclaimed albums, and Casady garnered personal acclaim for his stormy, melodic bass lines, a highlight of the Airplane’s work. In 1970, Casady and Kaukonen formed Hot Tuna as an outlet for their more bluesy material. When Jefferson Airplane disbanded in 1973, Hot Tuna endured, and after nearly 40 years, more than 20 albums and various stylistic revolutions—at one point, what began as a blues group was playing metal—they remain active today. In recent years, Casady has also designed his own Epiphone Jack Casady Signature Bass, gives bass lessons online at breakdownway.com and released a solo album, Dream Factor, featuring such collaborators as Kaukonen, Paul Barrere, Ivan Neville, Warren Haynes, Box Set, Fee Waybill, and Doyle Bramhall II, among others. Casady is still active with Hot Tuna, playing about 120 shows a year. In addition, Jack currently tours with Moonalice, which features G.E. Smith and Pete Sears, and teaches regularly at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio.
Michael Balzary, better known by his stage alias Flea, was born on October 16, 1962 in Melbourne, Australia. Following his parents’ divorce, Flea headed to New York with his mother and sister. His stepfather’s career as a jazz bass player landed them in Los Angeles. Flea sat in on jam sessions and was influenced by jazz artists. As a trumpet prodigy, Flea had no interest in rock ‘n’ roll until high school. In 1979, his friend Hillel Slovak asked him to join his band and taught Flea to play bass. Flea took to the instrument immediately and soon developed his own slap-bass style.
In 1984, Flea, Slovak, Anthony Kiedis, and Jack Irons formed the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band endured several lineup changes before attracting attention, including Slovak’s tragic death due to an overdose in 1988, and Irons’ departure soon after. Flea and Kiedis decided to continue, and hired guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith to record their fourth album, Mother’s Milk, released in 1989. This album was the Chili Peppers’ break, and 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik catapulted them into mainstream consciousness. It also marked a change in Flea’s bass technique. Feeling that his slap-bass trademark was too often imitated, he decided to try a simpler, more melodic approach. Flea considered a solo album, but ultimately chose to work with a wide range of other artists as a session musician while still remaining a Chili Pepper. In 1999, the Chili Peppers released Californication, their most successful album to date, in which Flea incorporates more funk into his playing, and made headlines by performing naked at Woodstock. The band’s latest, the double album Stadium Arcadium, was released in 2006.
In 2001, Flea and childhood friend Keith Barry started a non-profit music school, The Silverlake Conservatory of Music, in LA. Currently boasting some 600 students, the school provides free lessons and supplies instruments. Flea teaches every Monday, and participates in the annual fundraiser, recently playing bass on Bach’s cello concerto in D Minor. Over the years, the event has included Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, Tracy Chapman, Charlie Haden, and Snoop Dogg, “It keeps me in touch with the kids, gives back to the kids, and gives the teachers a place to teach. It’s a place for me to be academic, too, because I’m talking about the nuts and bolts and math of music,” said Flea. “My friend is the Dean, and we play classical and baroque music for a couple hours before we start teaching. Bach—that dude is fuckin’ heavy. It’s really relaxing for me to play that kind of music; I play trumpet and it’s good for my chops. The school is a huge part of my life.”
Elmore: What are you listening to right now?
Jack Casady: I listen to a lot of stuff . What I have up right now is O. V. Wright, who I’ve always loved his stuff , I’ve always collected his stuff . The original one I got was an album called “A Nickel and a Nail,” on Backbeat Records. I always like to hear people, hear they can really pull it off and do it. They can hint at a lot of melodic work, but they don’t spell it out. So, all they have to do is go into a little melodic movement and it’s there and they keep that right in the pocket.
Flea: Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force. I’ve been listening to Schoenberg recently, amazing to me, the way that all those different elements can weave in and around each other in such a wild way, and keep it up and keep it dynamic for so long. I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock’s Fat Albert Rotunda, which is a beautiful album.
EM: What was the first record you ever bought?
JC: The first record I ever bought might’ve been when I was five or six or seven, Burl Ives, some “Streets of Laredo” folk music. My father belonged to the American Jazz Society. Every month he used to get jazz records that I listened to from him: Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, early jazz combo stuff done in the ’20s and ’30s. My father was an audiophile. Jorma and I, back in 1958-’59, used to go down to the rec room he’d built in the basement, and listen to his hi-fi setup.
F: Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five
EM: Where do you buy your music?
JC: Lately I’ve been downloading music like everybody, it’s much easier than carrying stuff around. I’ve got a quite vast vinyl collection and would like to transfer over into a form that I can carry around more easily. I haven’t bought much vinyl in a while, I haven’t been fortunate enough to have that much leisure time to do it—last year I was on the road 229 days. I used to buy my vinyl at Waxy Maxie’s Quality Music Store. I still have many 45s and some 78s of various blues artists: Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins. I could pick through these kinds of records that wouldn’t show up on the local radio station that was playing Teresa Brewer, or “How Much Is that Doggie In the Window.”
F: Amoeba in, LA, a phenomenal record store, a whole city block of records. They have every kind of music, and they cover it pretty well. On tour I’ll just download it. I use CDs for the car, but mostly I buy vinyl. I like to hold it, I like to read it, I like the sound of it, I like the record player, I like the way it spins around, I like everything about it. It’s a more beautiful thing, and it sounds better. I love to read liner notes and look at big pictures.
EM: What was the first instrument you played?
JC: A guitar when I was 12 years old.
F: The first instrument was the piano, for a minute, drums for a minute, and then the trumpet, the first one I took seriously. I just wanted to be Louis Armstrong. At about 12 years old I really foresaw a career as a trumpet player, and it kind of panned out because I still play trumpet. I played the National Anthem for a Laker game, and played a Charlie Parker riff in the middle.
EM: What brought you to the instrument you now play?
JC: Jorma is three and a half years older than I, and went off to college. I stayed, playing guitar in clubs at 15. A good buddy, Danny Gatten, was a guitarist and we’d play in each other’s bands, and we’d often vie for the same jobs. His bass player got very ill, he asked me to fill in, so I started playing bass as well as the guitar, and fell in love with the instrument. I don’t think I could compete with Danny’s level of guitar prowess, but there was something about the bass I really enjoyed, and I carried a lot of the guitar stuff into the bass, and also a lot of what the piano players were doing with their left hand.
F: A man named Hillel Slovak, who was playing in a rock band called Anthym in my high school, and he wasn’t feeling the bass player they had, so he told me to learn the bass and take his place. I got a bass and two weeks later I was playing the bass in that band. It was a real U-turn for me in terms of my approach to music, because with trumpet, I was playing in orchestras and the LA Junior Philharmonic and reading and studying music from an academic point of view. When I started playing in a band, that all went out the window. I was more into what kind of pants I was wearing.
EM: Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?
JC: I’m not a prolific writer as such, but songs have always given me my inspiration. I tell my students at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Guitar Camp, when I listen to music, I almost never pick the bass player out, never tear the music apart in sections, I just hear it as music, and the first thing I hear is the lyrics and the melody and the singer. Those are the things that inspire me as a bass player. The core element to me has always been the songs—that’s the name of the game. If I was going to write with someone, I’d like them to be good songs.
F: I’m not a singer, so I think about composing with singers. The first who come to mind are Neil Young and Nick Cave, but they’re such great songwriters that they would never need me. I’m enjoying writing by myself right now. I’m taking a big hiatus from the Chili Peppers right now, and composing by myself without getting into someone else’s concept.
EM: What musician influenced you most?
JC: Emotionally, very early on, I would have to say Ray Charles, in 1959, with the Yes Indeed album, before the hit “What’d I Say?” and Champion Jack Dupree. There weren’t many bass players who influenced me except Charles Mingus. I was fortunate enough to hear him several times in a small club. At 16, 17, 18 I parked myself right in front of him and heard this tremendous, huge, sweet tone come out of his bass. Although I never played bass viola, that quest for good tone by great stand-up bass players has always influenced me. Jimmy Giuffre played clarinet, but his guitarist was Jim Hall, and that intimate sound, just the trio, bass, guitar and clarinet. I think that gave me an atmosphere to work with Jorma as just a duo or trio, without any drums to be able to work with the rhythm patterns in there without the rhythm being stated by the drums.
F: Jimi Hendrix. The virtuosity, the simplicity, the soul, the passion, the gentleness, the intensity; the ability to reach for that place where you let go of yourself, get out of the way and let the music rule you.
EM: What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?
JC: There were many. By the time I was 15 and playing clubs regularly with fake ID that said I was 18, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. My father was a dentist, and his brother was a doctor, and my mother’s side all being lawyers, though they were all behind me, it was “Playing is nice but don’t you think you should go to college so you can get a real job?” At seven I had rheumatic fever and was hustled out to a hospital on my back getting this new treatment called penicillin. I had to learn how to read music and listen to music because I was not allowed to move or walk, and music presented such a special world. Close your eyes and listen to the music. That was pre-video; people weren’t showing you what the music was supposed to be, you used your imagination. I’d listen to whatever was on the radio, from Burl Ives to Tchaikovsky, and it always took me to a special place, but when I got to participate by playing the guitar or the bass, then I was in the world that was mysterious and out-of-reach to me before. There wasn’t a Rolling Stone manual on how to become a rock star.
F: There are two moments. I saw music as this magical thing. When I was a little kid, five or six, I was walking past this alleyway, and these kids all had sticks and brooms and trashcan lids, and a radio hidden somewhere and they were air guitaring and air drumming, and I wasn’t sure, but I thought they were actually doing it. It was magic to me “Whoa! How do people do that—make music?” Then when I was eight or nine, my mom remarried a jazz musician, Walter Urban, Jr., a jazz bass player, and he used to have jam sessions in the living room, and they’d play Bach, and standards, jam the day away. This time I was sure they were doing it, but it still seemed magical. Making an elephant appear on the roof of my house would not have been as magical as making this sound come out. It made the world seem so much less drab.
EM: Who would you like in your rock and roll heaven band?
JC: Oh Lord Almighty. Almost everybody I’ve mentioned. I’ve been very fortunate to hear so many good musicians. Rather than being my band, I think I’d just want the chance to go hear them again, just to hear them do what they do in real time.
F: Igor Stravinsky, Elvin Jones, Billie Holiday, Jimi Hendrix, Artie Shaw and Joe Strummer. And in Heaven there won’t be any problem with a rock guy playing jazz or a jazz guy playing rock.
EM: What’s your desert island CD?
JC: I would have to say it might be Reverend Gary Davis. If you’re going to be stuck on a desert island, it might behoove you to have a spiritual foundation, because you’re going to need it.
F: Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis.