Craig Chaquico should write a book. The former lead guitar player for Jefferson Starship, who now has a thriving solo career, has lots of great stories; some of which he shared with Glide when he called in to talk with me about his new album Fire Red Moon.
Blessed with a lovable affability and an affinity to tell his stories with a youthful excitement, it is apparent just how much he loves what he does. Starting his musical journey as a kid sneaking out to see concerts, then playing in a band with musicians twice his age while still a fresh-faced teenager (in a fake moustache), Chaquico was nabbed by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Paul Kantner to play on their solo projects before officially taking his place next to Pete Sears and David Freiberg as the guitar players for the rebaptised Jefferson Starship, a band Kantner and Slick took in a whole new, harder rocking direction.
Upon leaving the band, which went through yet another incarnation simply called Starship that had a few pop hits in the mid-80’s, Chaquico formed a short-lived rock band called Big Bad Wolf before finally finding his niche in the acoustic guitar world of jazz and new age which he sprinkled with inflections of blues, folk and rock. His sophomore release, Acoustic Planet, in which he collaborated with keyboardist Ozzie Ahlers, received a Grammy nomination for Best New Age Album, while one of the tunes, “Just One World,” became part of NASA’s Ark Project that currently orbits the Earth full of music, poetry and other arts projects.
But with a recent itch to dabble back in his rock and blues roots, Chaquico’s new album retains a much faster heartbeat than what he has been doing since the early 1990’s. Along with some personal favorites like Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” and Albert King’s “Born Under A Bad Sign,” Chaquico has also included some originals, both with and without vocals. “Lie To Me,” featuring Noah Hunt of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s band, “Fogtown Stroll,” which has a hint of Duane Eddy’s twang, and a smoky “Bad Woman” encapsulate Chaquico’s desire to keep his music fresh, fun and exciting. And it works.
So if you haven’t kept up with the long-haired mustached kid who played killer riffs on “Jane” and “Stranger,” you have been missing some great music with heart and soul, and Fire Red Moon is definitely a great start to reintroduce you to this talented musician.
I first saw you in 1981 on the Modern Times tour, which was Grace Slick’s return to the band.
Yeah, exactly, she had left. We went through a lot of transitions there where Marty Balin, our original male lead singer, Grace Slick and our drummer were all taken out of commission in the same year. We had this big riot in Europe and then we did one show without Grace at Knebworth – you know, it’s like a hundred thousand people or something and I think Tom Petty, Devo, Atlanta Rhythm Section, and I know I’m leaving some great bands out, but it was us and then I think Genesis closed. And that was the first show we did without Grace live and we thought, well, we’ll get back, see what Grace is up to, get back to the States and start rehearsing. And then Grace bowed out of the band and then Marty said, “Well, I’ll see you at rehearsal next week” and we never saw him for about six months (laughs). Then our drummer got in a really bad car crash. He drove his Porsche off the road and hit a Redwood tree. That was John Barbata and this was probably around 1978/1979. Then we got Mickey Thomas that replaced Marty and Grace because Grace didn’t do that next album, which is Freedom At Point Zero. We got Aynsley Dunbar on drums to replace John.
So, Mickey Thomas came into the band, we didn’t have Marty and Grace, and our original drummer was pretty banged up in the hospital. At that point, which was sort of a change of direction for the band because with Aynsley on drums and a different lead singer, we also got a new producer in the mix, Ron Nevison, who had done a lot of stuff with Zeppelin and The Who, Michael Schenker and UFO, of which I was a big fan. I don’t know if the rest of my band was that much aware of the more guitar-oriented bands like that but I was a big fan. So when we got Ron Nevison, who had experience working with Townshend and Jimmy Page and all these guitar-based bands and he’d done Bad Company and everything before us, it was like an interesting transition for the band because the opportunity there was to emphasize different elements in the band that had been there before but really never had a chance to be featured as much as when Ron started producing us.
Plus with a great new singer and Aynsley on drums – with his history with Journey and Frank Zappa and everything – it all kind of fit together and coalesced at the same time so those first recordings with Ron were a lot more guitar-oriented and a lot more hard rock sounding, which is kind of my roots a little bit. With Jefferson Starship and Starship there were so many different songwriters and styles, I had a chance to play a lot of different styles on guitar and wear a lot of different hats. But I felt the most comfortable and had a lot of fun playing the hard rock stuff. So when Ron started producing us we had more of that element on songs like “Jane,” that I helped write, and “Find Your Way Back.”
Find Your Way Back” was on the Modern Times tour where Grace actually came back and started playing with us again. I think she heard “Jane” on the radio and said, “God, who’s that band?” realized it was us and came to a show. She was in disguise so nobody would recognize her and she saw us play and thought, “Well, I’d like to join that band,” and it was sort of like, “Well, you’re already sort of are in the band, you just kind of took a break.” (laughs) So Modern Times was kind of that big hoopla of having her back and it was a really great period of time to have her back in the band where it was possible the band could have broken up without all the main singers and drummer. But we got lucky with Mickey Thomas and Aynsley and a new producer and we kept on going, so it was kind of nice to get her back in the fold for the next few albums too.
Do you miss the moustache?
(laughs) Well, I used to have to wear a fake moustache and lie about my age before I joined the Starship and I was playing in nightclubs and stuff at the age of fourteen. And sometimes it would fall off in my drink and I’d see this hairy caterpillar looking thing in the ice cubes and it’d kind of freak me out. “What the heck is that?” And then I’d realize, “Oh, it’s my moustache,” and I’d have to go and glue it back on. But then I actually grew a real one for a long time. I don’t miss it that much but it’s kind of funny, I just saw some old pictures of me where I still had it but I don’t miss it, no. Sometimes it comes back and I have a little beard and sometimes the moustache is back and sometimes it’s not (laughs); mostly not.
And you don’t miss the tight pants either
(laughs) No, but you know my baggy pants start to get tight on me and I’m wondering what’s going on with that (laughs)
Tell us about those early days of Jefferson Starship.
I had been playing, like I said, at an early age and lying about my age, playing with older musicians and stuff for a while and the little band I was in was actually formed by my English teacher, so everybody in the band was a lot older than me. But I didn’t know my English teacher was a pretty famous folk artist and lyricist that happened to be an English teacher. He had fans that were in the Jefferson Airplane. They used to go see him play before they were famous and I didn’t know I was in a band with someone that was that well-respected. So I joined his band and started playing around, playing through California and opening for different bands. To me, it was great. To somebody older it would have felt like a lot of hard work but when you’re fourteen/fifteen/sixteen and you’re in high school and you’re able to lie about your age and wear a fake moustache and play on a stage that has an actual riser and some lights and a PA, when you’re that age, you’ve hit the big time. I mean, that’s like a huge step going from your garage band that plays at the high school concerts to actually playing little nightclubs and that was huge (laughs). Of course, I was still riding my bicycle to school but I was getting the chance to play and learn chops from guys that were a lot older than me. I mean, everybody in the band was fifteen/twenty years older than me.
When Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, and I started seeing Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady come to our concerts, one thing sort of led to another where I started being asked to do these recording sessions on some of the solo projects, apart from the Jefferson Airplane material. Paul and Grace would do solo records and they would invite their friends to play so their friends would be like a who’s who of San Francisco Bay Area musicians. There’d be people on their albums that I used to basically worship and go to concerts and stuff. I would be on the same song with Santana or Jerry Garcia or John Cipollina or Pete Sears, who later ended up in the band with me. We were guest musicians on a lot of these records and then when Jorma and Jack started doing Hot Tuna and stuff, Paul and Grace still wanted to tour. So after being on about three of those studio albums over the years and by the time I graduated from high school, I’d already had the chance to get to know everybody and do the studio thing. I was starting college and still in the band with my English teacher and we got a recording contract on the Jefferson Airplane label and we did a little album that got us out on the road playing here and there. So we actually hooked up on a tour where we opened for what was called Jefferson Starship.
Now the funny thing was I was in both bands. I was in Jefferson Starship and the band with my English teacher, which was called Steelwind, by the way, and we opened and we would play every night in Steelwind and then every other night quote-jefferson starship-unquote would play and it was Jorma’s little brother Peter Kaukonen, another Pete (laughs) playing bass guitar and actually he was a tremendous guitar player. I learned a lot from him. So that first tour, I was actually in both bands. After that, I expected to go back to college and I was asked to maybe stick around for a few months and move to San Francisco and do the first Jefferson Starship record, which was as an official band, which included Pete Sears at that point and everybody else from the Airplane.
What was is like recording that first album? Because they had all been through this before and you were kind of a greenhorn.
At that time, John Barbata was playing drums in the Airplane. He had played with Crosby Stills & Nash before that and a lot of studio sessions, so he was a fantastic drummer for me to be able to play with for one thing. Plus, he really improved, well, I don’t know if you could say improved, but he changed the direction and the focus of the recording to be a little bit more, I don’t want to say professional because there was a looseness about the San Francisco sound that was really great too, but John had a lot of experience in the studio and doing sessions in LA and stuff so he kind of brought a little bit different approach. Because making a record is a little different than playing live. So John brought this kind of studio sense to the band which was really valuable, I think.
So when the first album came out, Dragon Fly, with John and me and Pete taking the place of Jorma and Jack, it actually went gold. And the next record, Red Octopus, was like some kind of huge multi-platinum album and none of us really expected that. I don’t ever remember having a band meeting saying, “Ok, are we going to make hit records?” (laughs) We just wanted to make the best music we could make and we got really lucky to have just that combination of all the planets being lined up the right way or something and we went on from there. So for me being that young, I was a greenhorn and I felt very much so lucky to be in a band with all these experienced players and people I’d actually seen in concert. I was at Altamont and I saw Grace Slick and Paul Kantner and John Barbata play on stage. And I saw David Crosby and Graham Nash play. And I saw all these people play that I would later be on albums with, which is sort of ironic. Looking back on it, it feels like it happened overnight but it was a course of several years. I was still in high school through some of it and then I was in college and bouncing back and forth between recording sessions and doing stuff. I never really thought I would get a chance to have music be my day job (laughs) But it turned out to be that way, turned out to be my higher education cause I never went back to college.
You were actually at Altamont?
I was another kid in the crowd. We had this thing when I was growing up where a lot of us were music fans and we only lived a couple of hours from San Francisco but your parents are pretty strict about letting you run off at thirteen or fourteen years old and go to these concerts. So we’d lie to our parents and tell them we were staying at each other’s friends’ houses and then we would have older friends with vans and we’d pile into the van and we’d all make these caravans to Winterland and see these great bands play, come home at four in the morning and our parents would all be calling each other, “I thought he was at your house.” “Well, I thought he was at your house.” (laughs) Then we’d get grounded and that wasn’t so bad because little did our parents know, grounding was fine because we had just seen all these bands we really liked, bought all their albums, and then while we were grounded we’d stay at home and listen to them. Instead of going out, I would stay in my room with these new records that I just got turned onto and learn how to play guitar listening to my record player and playing guitar along with it. So getting grounded wasn’t so bad.
And Altamont wasn’t that much of a stretch, you know. We jumped in the van, we went the night before, we were all camping out; it was like a literal gathering of the tribes, which later turned out being a title of one of my songs. But to me, at that age, being fourteen/fifteen, it was a tremendous adventure because you’re outdoors under the stars, there’s all these counterculture people in tents and sleeping bags and camp fires. It was pretty magical, actually. And then the next day to have this concert unfold, and of course it turned out to be this tragedy at the end of it, but being in the audience I never knew that anybody got killed until I got home and saw it on the news. So anyway, to answer your question, I was a fan in the audience with binoculars looking on the stage at the people I’d end up recording with a year or two later.
How surreal is that?
You know, I will tell you something that is even more surreal and I almost don’t like talking about it because I feel like people will go, “Oh, he was hallucinating or he made it up.” (laughs) But I was actually on the tarmac. Altamont Speedway was a big concrete speedway and the actual concert was in this little natural bowl, amphitheater, down in a field surrounded by these little hills and the stage was down below there. So everybody just gathered around on the hillside and made this natural coliseum, this outdoor amphitheater. But it was pretty claustrophobic when you’re in the midst of tens of thousands of people, all on blankets or whatever on a field waiting to hear all these bands play. So I kind of left the crowd at one point and climbed up the hill and got on to where the actual raceway was, which was actually this big asphalt area. No one was there. I mean, everybody was down in the little bowl watching the concert. And so I’m walking around this sort of wide open space and I see this helicopter with, I think it was KFRC, the radio station from San Francisco, hovering over the speedway. When it landed, I just went up to it as a fourteen year old kid never having seen a helicopter before up close, thinking, wow, this is really cool.
So I’m looking through the plexiglass at all the dials and stuff on the helicopter. I had no idea some of the Rolling Stones were going to get out of it. So I was there in front of this helicopter that had Keith and some of the guys in the Rolling Stones actually walk out. I had to get out of the way to let them out of the helicopter and I just stood on the side and looked across this raceway and all of a sudden it was like a tsunami of people running towards the helicopter and I was there during the whole time. Now, I’ve gone back and watched Gimme Shelter and I think they must have taken shots or reenacted cause when I was there nobody was taking any pictures. I don’t think there is any footage of me but there might be an outtake somewhere. I think there is another video, several videos, with different shots of that concert, so I’m going to go do my homework and see if I can’t find some long-haired hippie-looking fourteen year old kid on the side of the helicopter cause that’s me (laughs).
I feel like Almost Famous Part Two. I mean, I was at all these events and I saw the Rolling Stones get out of the helicopter, I was a roadie for Jimi Hendrix at a concert in Sacramento where basically I’m an art student that got hired by the promoters to paint this backdrop for Hendrix. There’s an American flag in some photos of Hendrix playing and I painted that American flag, I was the one that painted that American flag. So I have that photo up in my studio. I was in the audience and there is an article on the web about Jimi Hendrix playing Cal Expo in Sacramento that talks about me and one of the other art students, who later became a published famous artist who does posters and cards and all this kind of stuff. But we were just kids with paint all over us painting the backdrop and at the last minute the promoter said, “Hey, we don’t have enough crew, you got to help these roadies.” So we ended up helping Jimi Hendrix’s crew unload the truck and put all his amps and stuff up on stage and just kind of help the crew do simple stuff. They told us what to do and then I got to be on stage and watch that show. Somewhere there’s probably a photo of this same hippie kid with long hair that was at Altamont and now he’s on stage with Jimi Hendrix. And later I ended up being the lead guitar player for Jefferson Starship. Go figure.
You know, part of that is why I called the new album Fire Red Moon. Because that comes from a Hendrix line on “Voodoo Child” where he says, “The night I was born the moon turned to fire red,” which to me is fascinating because it reminds me of an eclipse. When the moon goes into the shadow of the Earth it turns red before it eclipses and I’ve always thought it was neat how the blues and music has this kind of supernatural voodoo kind of vibe to it. You think of the fire red and yet it’s got a scientific backdrop because that’s the astronomical event but music sometimes falls in the middle between the voodoo and the science, between the science and the spirit, and the magic and the music and karma and coincidence; it’s all kind of somewhere in the middle.
So for me to kind of resonate with Jimi Hendrix after all of this and put it on an album with Fire Red Moon as the title is sort of a full circle for me. To do an album that is really inspired by all those years of going to see bands play and rock bands and being introduced to the blues by the rock bands of the sixties. It wasn’t till years later that I realized Cream didn’t write “Crossroads” or they didn’t write “Born Under A Bad Sign,” which are two of the songs I did on my new album. I thought the first time I heard it, I thought Clapton and Cream did it. Later I found out that these songs come from the history of blues in America, to Robert Johnson and Albert King and Booker T and William Bell, who wrote the original songs that were later interpreted. Now I reinterpret them, sort of a third generation of it, on my new album so my take on the blues kind of comes from the rockers take on the blues in the sixties who I grew up listening to. So this album is really a full circle on a lot of ways. That’s why I wanted to tie in the Jimi Hendrix element to it as well.
You kind of do different elements every time you’ve done a new album. This time, you went towards those blues.
I really did and I’ve wanted to do it for a while and I have so many of the Blind Pig records in my record collection anyway. When they had mentioned possibly doing a record years ago, I thought, man, I have so many of their records I would love to do it but I don’t know if I have the credibility to be on the premier roots blues label on the planet. I mean, I don’t necessarily know if I’m a blues roots guy, you know. And they said, “You are, really, because the blues is something that is handed down from generation to generation and you’re younger than some of these folks, so your blues roots are going to be different from a guy that is eighty years old that grew up in the Delta; or your roots are going to be from rock & roll.” So they encouraged me to do the album even though it might not be the traditional roots blues for some people’s tastes. It’s a lot more blues-rock oriented than a lot of stuff I’ve been doing lately.
It’s ironic, I consider jazz and blues to be so much an American invention. I really think those are truly American art forms that started here with the blues and jazz and crossed the planet and oceans a few times and each time, because it is handed down through generations, each time it comes back with a little bit different spin on it. So this is my spin on it. It’s still pretty true to my blues roots. I mean, there is a lot of classic rock influence on these and like you’ve said, I’ve had a chance to do a lot of music that is a little different along the way from jazz to rock to pop and now this blues record, which is probably my favorite album right now, that I’ve done (laughs) So I’m kind of enjoying getting on the road now and playing stuff off it.
Noah Hunt, who sings for Kenny Wayne Shepherd, sings on a track on the new album. He has a wonderful voice.
Oh my God, I know, and he added so much to the song “Lie To Me” that we just felt blessed to have him on the record. Originally, the concept of the blues record was to be half instrumental and half vocals because a lot of my solo material for the last twenty years has been all instrumental. I’ve been doing these jazz shows for the last twenty years, I can play with Larry Carlton or George Benson or the Rippingtons or all these great musicians that I’ve enjoyed and had their records for years, and then I found myself saying once again, “I can’t believe I’m on stage with these guys.” Same thing happened to me with the rock stuff. So now I’m touring with these jazz guys and over the years I started bringing some of my Starship songs into my set. Not a lot but just a few. And I was surprised how many times the jazz audience people, like me, had kind of grown up with rock & roll. And as their musical tastes broadened, you find yourself listening to other stuff but you still can appreciate some rock tunes. So I would bring some of my Starship hits into my set and a lot of people didn’t know I was in that band. “Oh, I didn’t know you did that. I thought you were a jazz guy.”
So we started having a lot of fun putting my singer, Rolf Hartley, in the audience as a plant and having him come up to the front of the stage at some point towards the end of the night and going, “Hey, why don’t you play some Starship.” And we started having fun with this little gag where I’d pretend I don’t know him. Like, “I’d do those songs, I wrote them but I don’t sing them.” And the guy in the audience would go, “Well, I can sing them.” And of course the rest of the audience is thinking, “Who is this crazy guy in the audience?” and then I kind of turn around to the band as if, off the cuff, “Well, I kind of remember this song.” And I’ll start “Jane” or something and the audience recognizes the intro thinking we’re just kind of going over it off the cuff. And while that is happening, this guy in the audience is now climbing onto the stage. And by the time they get to the verse, he grabs the mic and nails it. I mean, that’s a hard song to sing, if you’ve ever noticed, that is a really hard song to sing, and he nails it and for the first twenty or thirty seconds, the audience freaks out cause they think this guy out of nowhere just happened to get up on stage and has this voice from hell that is amazing (laughs).
So we’ve had so much fun with that and I thought, man, let’s put that on this new record of mine. Luckily, besides Noah Hunt, I have my singer Rolf Hartley singing three of the tunes and of course he sings those live now as well as a few of the Starship hits that I do now. Then we had another fantastic singer from Nashville, Eric Golbach, that helped me out on one of the tunes. So it was kind of neat how it came together between all these studios and all these places around the country with Noah and then Rolf in the Bay Area, my friend Eric in Nashville coming together. Five of the vocal songs have three different singers on it and each singer has a very unique quality. You don’t get them confused with each other, you can tell these are different singers on different songs. Then the other five songs are instrumentals. Working with Noah and the other singers really brought the album together for me in a really interesting way that I haven’t done in ages, having this many singers on one of my albums, so it was really neat to do that and get back in touch with that.
Now live it’s interesting cause I can play the hits I wrote with Starship with a singer who can definitely sing them plus I can do my instrumental stuff on my acoustic guitar and electric. Then the blues album is again another version of all of that. To me, it’s all the same. There are only two categories of music for me: good and bad and they all hopefully kind of fall into the good category (laughs). Call it what you will. But now I feel like I get a chance to play material from the last five decades of my musical career and for me as guitar player, I couldn’t be happier than to be able to do all that stuff now.
I wanted to ask you about Grace Slick because she gets such a bum rap about her personality. What is she really like?
Oh man, I am so glad you asked that question. I don’t know if anybody has ever really asked me that question and I don’t get the part where she gets a bad rap. I mean, I can say this because I was in a band with her for twenty years plus. I first met her on my sixteenth birthday. So I’ve known her for a long time and I always thought that she was the most down-to-Earth person that I had ever met. Even though she has her idiosyncrasies obviously but, you know, Grace, to me, for someone who is that famous, never felt like she acted like a prima donna or a superstar. She was just another creative hippie chick that could sing her ass off that was beautiful. I never got her as being anybody that had a difficult personality. Again, she is pretty eccentric and fun and crazy, which I thought was cool, but she was always, not to sound kind of chauvinistic, she was always one of the guys. She was never like, “Oh, I’m such a big star.” She never did that and I’ve been around a lot of people who have done that and Grace didn’t do that. I really liked working with her. To this day I think she is one of the sweetest, nicest people I have ever met. So I don’t know where people get the bad rap part, unless they just think because she was kind of eccentric in a way. I never got a bad rap vibe from her at all. I know that there were times where you kind of wished she’d show up for a rehearsal or a gig (laughs) Like in Europe. But that only happened once and I just think, she’s got a bad rap and it’s undeserved. I really like Grace a lot.
You and Pete Sears had a great rapport playing those solos together. And Pete is so underrated.
Oh yeah, you know, Pete too is another really great, just as a person, a great guy and when I first started joining the band, I was coming from kind of a club band scene and I got a chance to do some sessions and I met Pete, and Pete had already played with Jimi Hendrix and did the Rod Stewart Gasoline Alley. I knew who Pete was. He had played with some of my favorite musicians in the Bay Area – Stoneground, Copperhead, some stuff with John Cipollina and Quicksilver. I kind of looked at Pete as an older brother almost because we weren’t that separated from age and we had real similar musical tastes. And I was just in awe of him because he could play great guitar, he could play great bass and he could play great piano. The people that know music know Pete.
But like you said he might be a little underrated in the sense that the public might not consider him a household name but, damn, being in a band with that guy in it and everybody else, you have to imagine, this is like being someone who is a musician and like going to the highest level of, seriously, higher education. It was like playing with all those guys was such a creative inspiration and learning experience. You know, someone like that who is that good, and all these guys were that good, could kind of have a snotty attitude, I guess if they wanted to, but they never did. When I was around them I always felt they appreciated what I brought but if they could sort of help me or point me in the right direction with a musical idea, they always did it in a real nice way. We always felt like we were all in the same team. It was never like working with a bunch of dickheads, you know (laughs). And I really liked that. And Pete, for me, getting started, I feel like I owe him so much. Just working with me as a fellow musician and being able to be treated like an equal among these guys was very inspiring. And to this day, I still can go to any band that Pete plays in and listen to everything he plays and feel like I’ve seen a whole concert, just listening and watching him.
Working with Pete, we were sort of the soloists in the band, along with Papa John Creach, which made for a very unusual band. We had a lot of people from Jefferson Airplane and John Barbata the drummer, he was the original drummer for the Turtles, he played with Crosby, Stills and Nash, played with Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane; David Freiberg had already started playing with Airplane but before that he had been the lead singer, bass player, keyboard player, guitar player with Quicksilver Messenger Service. So already you’re getting this kind of synergy going of these guys from the Bay Area coalescing in one band. Then you grab Pete Sears from England and you got me, this California hippie guitar player kid playing lead guitar and I’m still a teenager. Then you add Papa John Creach, who is this older black violin player and you’ve got all these lead singers – Grace Slick, Marty Balin, David Freiberg, Paul Kantner – everybody writes songs. So you’ve got eight people in the band and all this energy is in one band at the same time and it was amazing for me because I’m just looking around at all these guys and I couldn’t believe it, surrounded by all this amazing talent.
Then of course we started doing records together and tours, having albums go to number one and knocking Elton John off the charts four different times during the summer, bouncing back and forth between number one. My head was spinning (laughs) and I wasn’t even twenty-one yet and all this stuff was going on. So I was pretty amazed and the part that cracks me up the most is it was an unlikely combination of bands cause I don’t think you would ever find a radio executive or A&R guy that would sit down at a table and go, “Hey, I’ve got a great concept for a band. We’ll get this old black guy who plays violin from Ohio and we’ll get some guys that were in the Jefferson Airplane and this hippie kid and we’ll put them in a group.” I could just imagine them looking at all of us lined up going, “No, that’s never going to work.” And for some reason it did. Lucky for me that I got to be part of it.
Jefferson Starship was this huge band, like you said. When you left to do your solo career where it was just you and your guitar basically, how did that feel? Were you nervous about going out there alone or did you have that confidence?
Boy, that’s a great question, because you’re right, being in a huge band like that is kind of like leaving your day job to go do something different. There’s a certain level of security there but the reason I got in the band wasn’t for security, it was about playing really good music and stuff and being in a band and that was why we all start playing music, I think. So towards the end, all the people that I had enjoyed playing with had already really kind of left. After being in that band, I’m the only one on every album, believe it or not. I was the kid in the band and I ended up being the elder statesman, I guess you could say (laughs). So having been on every album and the only one on every album, I’ve seen so many people come and go. But I always enjoyed the idea that it was a band and you always had this synergy between different people, like when Aynsley and Mickey joined the band, that added so much new energy to it. So towards the end people were leaving but nobody was replacing them. It wasn’t a band anymore. It was me and one of the singers, Mickey Thomas, left and we were the last two guys and I was the only original member. At first it was a little bit like what you said, that confidence thing of, “Man, this really isn’t a band anymore and I know it’s kind of scary but I’m going to go out and do my own thing.”
So I started with a rock & roll project that was called Big Bad Wolf that really went nowhere. We started doing this right when grunge was happening so the idea of a band that reflected that more “Jane” kind of idea or “Find Your Way Back,” that kind of music was pretty much not popular, kind of passé. So my first kind of confident “Oh I can do this” excursion was a little bit of an eye opener because that music, I liked it but it really wasn’t that popular with the public. We gave it a valiant effort and the album was eventually released in Japan and Europe and did well there for people that liked that style but it wasn’t much in the United States. We even had Mike Clink who produced Guns N Roses and some great albums, he was a second engineer for Ron Nevison when we were doing some of my favorite songs in Starship with the more rocking songs like “Jane” and “Find Your Way Back.” Mike Clink was a part of that too and then he later went on to be a fabulous producer and a friend. We were on the same page musically and that’s when I started working with Rolf Hartley, who is now my singer, and we did this like melodic hard rock album that was like me being all confident and it didn’t really do anything. That was a little bit of a disappointment but it’s funny how life works because at that point in time, my wife became pregnant and the acoustic guitar became a lot more welcome around the house than the electric (laughs) – funny how that works that she finally got pregnant after all these years cause now I’m not on the road anymore, I’m home a lot. It’s like, “What do you want to do tonight, Honey?” “Not that again.” (laughs) It’s kind of funny, now a musician is home, somebody’s going to get pregnant, one way or the other.
And that’s how your acoustic career started out.
I started working with Ozzie Ahlers, who was Jerry Garcia’s keyboard player on a lot of live tours from the Bay Area and we had no idea that this would lead to number one albums, Grammy nominations, million selling solo career. We had no idea and that’s where you start to get in that mode where, like you said were you really scared and was it frightening. And yeah, it was, because I’m doing something nobody expected. Like, “You were this lead guitar player in this big rock band and now you’re going to play acoustic guitar with Jerry Garcia’s keyboard player and there’s not going to be any vocals? Who’s going to buy that?” Little did we know, it actually was pretty well-received. I mean, my God, knock on wood, I pinch myself that I had a solo career that’s lasted twenty years based on that. It was scary because the first album was probably like if we had gone as a new band with Jefferson Starship with Papa John and Grace and all that line-up of eight people and kind of went to different labels, they’d probably all go, “No, that’s just too weird.”
And I think I got a little bit of that with my solo career because they’d say, “Yeah, we hear some rock in there but we hear a lot of blues and new age and jazz. If you sounded more rock, we might sign you.” I’d go to a blues label and they’d go, “Well, we hear some blues but if you sounded more bluesy we’d sign you. Why don’t you go to a rock label or a jazz label or a new age label.” And I thought, well, I just did that. So I tried a jazz label and they said, “Well, we hear some jazz in there but if you sounded more jazz, if you sounded more like Larry Carlton, we’d sign you.” The rock label would say, “If you sounded more like Hendrix or something, we’d sign you.” The blues labels would say, “If you sounded more like Stevie Ray Vaughan, we’d sign you.” So this was very discouraging and very frightening. It was like starting all over again. Then finally a label, Higher Octave, said, “Whoa, we like it just the way it is, because it is different.” They put it out and it became the number one independent album of the year and blah-blah-blah. It was number one in Billboard. All these things happened that nobody expected. I feel like the same thing almost happened with Jefferson Starship there for a while with all those number one records. We certainly didn’t expect it as a band. So here I am, scared to death that all these labels have passed on my album, what am I going to do? It’s not like you can go put a resume together and get a corporate job somewhere. Like, “You guys need a guitar player there at General Motors?” (laughs) I felt, like you said, a little scared going off on my own and it was a reality check again but luckily I guess the planets lined up one more time musically and I got to do this whole new style of music that a lot of people just didn’t see coming. I certainly didn’t. Luckily this one record label did and put that out just the way it was and I get to do what I do now because of that.
With that first solo album, Acoustic Highway, what were you going for?
It was all acoustic guitar. It was all instrumental and it was inspired by places you would visit on a motorcycle through northern California. That was the inspiration. It was songs about the beach, the mountains, the Redwoods. It was very in touch with the environment. It was songs about getting out and camping. It was a real departure for me but because the album was Acoustic Highway, I sort of consider that my long strange journey, the road I’ve been on musically that if you think about the highway analogy, you can be on Highway101 in southern California and it’s called the Hollywood Freeway and it’s surrounded by all these skyscrapers and lights and traffic. But if you stay on that same road long enough, it turns into the Redwood Highway, which is surrounded by the Redwoods and trees and nature and it’s quite a different environment but it’s the same road. And I felt that my musical career has kind of done the same thing. I’ve been on the Hollywood Freeway, I’ve been on the Redwood Freeway with my music and now I’m kind of taking a scenic turn to kind of visit the blues.
The thing that is really interesting to me is that a good buddy of mine at Harley Davidson, cause a lot of this is inspired in a weird sort of way by motorcycles and being able to be a musician and ride bikes and I’ve had some great adventures on motorcycles that have ended up on my songs. So my friend who is a retired executive for Harley Davidson just wrote a book and he quotes a few people from the Doobie Brothers and me in there and he always had an expression of riding bikes and his philosophy of big business – he’s actually a very successful businessman and gives lectures about this. But he said, “Sometimes when you’re in a motorcycle group of people and everybody is going in the same direction and whole motorcycle pack decides to take this exit, sometimes it’s kind of nice to not turn right when they turn right and maybe go a little further down the road and take a left, because you’ll have the whole road to yourself, it’ll be a different view and you might stand out a little more in that environment than if you were another guy in the pack.” And he said that musically – and I took this to heart cause I kind of did the same thing with my music, leaving the Starship and doing something different – and he was right. By turning left instead of turning right, where people thought I’d play electric guitar with singers and vocals and rock, I did something totally different and played instrumental acoustic guitar with no vocals. I’m really glad I took that turn. I went left and luckily nobody was in that lane (laughs) so I feel really lucky but to answer your question, yeah, I felt all those feelings: a lot of pride and confidence at first and then kind of oh shit and then doing something different and then finally having that actually be a really good choice, even though it was very scary at the time.
Going back to your youth, when you were trying to learn Duane Allman’s parts, the slide parts, you didn’t know it was slide so you learned how to do it with your fingers. Is that true?
Yeah, I did. I saw the Allman Brothers and they were one of the first bands I saw when I would lie to my parents (laughs). I think they might have even been called a different name. They might have been called Allman Joys at the time but I remember when the Allman Brothers came out, that sound really got me. But I had no idea that Duane played a slide so some of those licks, if you think about it, you can actually learn it on the guitar. I love whipping that out sometimes when nobody else has a slide and they think, “Where did that slide guitar come from?” and it’s just me screwing around with my fingers.
I get inspired by other instruments sometimes, like saxophone and violin, because a lot of guitar players might not think in terms of those phrasings but I get some ideas from these guys. There is a lick on “Ride The Tiger,” one of the first Jefferson Starship songs I played on when the band formed on the Dragon Fly album, that has the guitar solo where the riff, I go higher and higher on the neck and then I run out of frets and I start using my fingernails on the strings to go higher and higher past the frets to get these higher notes that I couldn’t get. And I got that from Papa John because he used to do that on the violin because he didn’t have frets and he’d go higher and higher on the violin. And when we’d play solos, as we were the soloists as me and Pete Sears would always trade off solos and a big part of the band was instrumental music, as Red Octopus has two instrumentals on it – a lot of people don’t know that or remember that – but it did so instrumental stuff was a big part of our live show. So when Papa John and I would do solos together, sometimes we would trade licks. You know, this young teenager and this old black violin player out there rocking it out, and then when we’d get to the climax of the solo, Papa John would kind of do this one lick that I could never duplicate. So I would figure that must be the end of the solo cause I can’t top that. One day I was thinking, wait a minute, why can’t I just turn my fingers over and use my fingernails instead of frets and I did that on stage and Papa John practically fell over when he saw me do it (laughs).
So the same thing with the slide. You know, it’s kind of ignorance in a way as a guitar player, like, “How can I do that?” Just figuring out some way to put it together and I did that with the slide so nowadays I can walk up to the mic stand and play guitar with the mic stand but I can actually play it better with my fingers and still have it sound like a slide. Sometimes people think I’m doing the whole thing with the mic stand but that’s your and my secret that I actually do it with my fingers (laughs).
You were in a really bad car accident when you were twelve.
Yeah and just a funny little point that I bring out, it’s not really an accident, it’s a car crash because the person who hit us was drunk. I mean, I like to drink as much as anybody else but I think when it comes to driving, I take it pretty seriously and I’ve worked with some organizations, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and they pointed out years ago, they like to call it a crash when someone decides to drink and get behind a wheel because it’s no accident that they decided to drink. It just makes people a little more aware. I broke both of my arms, my thumb, my wrist, my leg, my ankle and my foot.
Did you see it coming or did all of a sudden you just woke up and didn’t know what happened?
I didn’t see it coming but I remember sitting in the front seat and the inside of the car lit up, which I can imagine was the guy’s headlights cause he hit us head on. The next thing I remember was being pulled out of the wreck by a cop. Then I remember being in the hospital and my mom visiting me and they must have shot me up with morphine or something because everything was broken and I kind of came to for a second and saw my mom and distinctly remember laughing, saying, “Oh Mom, don’t worry, it’s great” (laughs). And then I woke up in the hospital, finally. Well, actually, I remember one instance in the operating room where they were going to set my leg, I think they were going to set my leg, cause I kind of came to and there was this huge syringe with a needle that I saw that looked the size of a baseball bat in my vision. And I remember going, “No, no shots!” and I remember somebody going ok and they went to set my leg and when they touched it I felt so much pain I remember screaming. Then I saw the needle go in my arm and last thing I remember was this scream that sounded like something off a Led Zeppelin album where Robert Plant hits this note and it just fades off into the echo. That was my voice going into unconsciousness (laughs).
The next thing I knew I woke up and I looked down and my legs were underneath the covers and I was afraid to look cause I didn’t know if I had any legs left. I looked under there and I had this cast that came up to my hip, both of my arms were in casts and my fingers stuck out a little bit. But it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. You’re twelve years old, you don’t have to go to school, you get a tutor, you get ice cream every day, and the first thing I ask for was my little acoustic guitar even though I could only reach one string with the way my fingers stuck out of the cast. I played my guitar in the hospital. I think my doctor knew it would be good for my circulation and stuff to keep my fingers moving but I think she also knew it would be good for my heart and my soul and my spirit to have music be a welcome companion through a terrifying time.
I actually wrote a song for my doctor. Her name was Elizabeth and I could only reach the high E string on the guitar so I wrote this little song all on one string called “E-Lizabeth’s Song” that she heard over and over again whether she liked it or not. And that ended up being on one of my solo albums, the Grammy nominated solo album, years later.
And now you’re a big supporter of music as a way of rehabilitation and therapy.
I truly am and when I get a chance to play little mini-concerts in hospitals while I’m on the road, I’ll do it. I’ll go in and sometimes I’ll bring a little backing track set-up so I can play songs off my album without the guitar in the recording and I will play the guitar live. I play for geriatric patients, pediatric patients, psychiatric patients, Down Syndrome patients, Alzheimer’s patients, criminally insane patients. And that’s just at my concerts. Then I go to the hospitals and play for those same people (laughs). No, I’m kidding. I like going to places where people can’t get out to see music cause I remember what that was like for me and since then I have learned that music has a huge profound effect on healing. Besides the fact that it just brightens your day being in the hospital just because it’s something different. But besides that it actually helps, they’ve shown scientifically that it can help calm patients down, reduce heart rate, do things without the use of drugs, without the side effects, or at least enhance some of the therapies and help people recover from brain injuries or a disease that might affect the brain like Alzheimer’s. They’ve shown that playing music can help reconnect with those pathways and help people.
You know there is a great story about a guy who had Alzheimer’s and nothing worked to bring him out of it, they couldn’t reach him, until at the suggestion of a music therapist somebody played some music that he used to listen to when he was dating his wife and she was there in the hospital when they did it. Up until then he had no recollection of his family really but when he heard that music, he looked at his wife and a tear ran down his cheek and he smiled and he got up and he danced with her. He remembered her. That lucidity that the music brought on lasted for a long time after the music and they’ve found that people with head injuries like that, they teach them how to hum or sing to songs like Christmas carols or things they used to know and it actually helps the process of reconnecting those pathways so they can remember their family and remember stuff. If I ever get Alzheimer’s, just play me some Led Zeppelin and I’ll come right out of it.
You’re also working with another interesting company called Beamz that helps people with injuries.
People with physical injuries, you can talk and move and stuff to music. I’m going to be at this big music trade show in LA called the NAMM show and there’s this company called Beamz that makes a laser beam musical instrument that I actually play on stage. You run your hands through the laser beams and it plays all this sample music. It sounds like real instruments. You actually play guitar or saxophone or drums or bass by running your hands through the laser beams. It plays the right notes but you just choose when to play and how long to play. The computer makes sure you’re in the right key and you just play whatever you want. But for kids in the hospital setting who have limited dexterity or mobility, it’s a great way for them to experience and interact with the music. It encourages them to move. Same way with me when I was in the hospital. I was encouraged to play my guitar. This way you can just wave your hands through the laser beams and you play music. Besides being a great thing I like to bring to hospitals and stuff, it’s just fun for people who have always wanted to play music and never really took lessons. To stick your hands through these laser beams and instantly start playing along. It’s got like Eagles music, Zeppelin, all this great classic and modern music, Lady Gaga. It’s just this incredible musical instrument that anybody can play. I really enjoy working with this company in that sense cause it’s fun and a great little gag live. But it’s also something that really works well in the context of like therapy and in hospitals and things like that.
I hear that you have a song that is orbiting the Earth right now as we speak.
Indeed I do. My first solo album had come out and a journalist was doing a piece on me for USA Today. We got to know each other because they did, I think, a piece on Starship somewhere where we went to number one and then when I flew with the Blue Angels, they did a piece on me, so I stayed in touch with this writer who is a great guy. But anyway, they were sending a communication satellite up so somewhere along the line they were putting together this little time capsule CD of recordings and art and information from all over the planet. They were doing stuff from Kindergarten classes and finger painting and symphonies and music and poetry and all of this stuff from Earth; recordings of stone age tribes that still do the music that had been handed down from generations through thousands of years, just real primitive Native American stuff as well as modern recordings like Peter Gabriel and things like that. Coincidentally, they had mentioned it to this journalist and he said, “Well, I just did an interview with Craig Chaquico, who has a band called Starship and he has an album called Acoustic Planet and he has a song called ‘Just One World’ that has like Native American stuff in it.” So they’re like, “Oh, we would like to hear the song.” So I sent it to them – and it’s like a really long, about twenty minute piece I did that incorporated songs from my solo album and everything – and they used a short part of “Just One World” with all this other stuff. And I thought that was so cool that one of my songs was in this communication satellite now that is in a geocentric orbit around the Earth. It was called the Space Ark Project and I’m a big science-fiction fan so I thought it was so cool to have that.
I can’t say that I was the first to ever do this. They put Chuck Berry on Voyager, I think, and sent that thing out which went through our solar system and it may be entering intergalactic spaces at some point where it’s beyond all the orbits of the planets and the influence of our sun on the solar system and of course it has Chuck Berry on it. I’m not on that (laughs) I think that someday aliens just might find that and trace it’s orbit and trace it back to our solar system after hearing Chuck Berry and they might find this Space Ark satellite and hear me someday. And I can just see that happening where they communicate with Earth and they’ll go, “Hey, you guys make some great music but send more Chuck Berry next time.” (laughs) “Send some more Eric Clapton. We like Craig but send some more Chuck Berry.”