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Whether he was playing pop and rock with Jefferson Starship or Starship, or smooth jazz and New Age instrumental music as a solo artist, guitarist Craig Chaquico says he was always drawing from the blues.

On his latest solo album, Fire Red Moon (Blind Pig Records), Chaquico takes a much more direct approach to that blues core. In addition to seven blues-rock originals, Moon also features Chaquico’s take on blues standards that go back to Albert King, Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.

“I’m finally getting a chance to actually do what people call a blues-influenced record,” Chaquico says, “but really, it’s part of the same artist evolution for me. It just seems logical and natural.”
Chaquico recently checked in from his home in Oregon to talk about transitioning from Starship to a solo career and his latest solo album. Give or take a few years, you’ve been a solo artist longer than you were a member of Jefferson Starship and Starship. Looking back to the early 1990s, was it twice as hard as you expected to transition from a band to being a solo artist and also moving from rock to more jazz-flavored material?
Craig Chaquico: “Yeah, it was definitely harder. It was like leaving a day job and going off to join the circus (laughs) or write the great American novel.

“That was the only job I knew, so for me to leave that security was very scary. When it happened, my first vision was to do something a little more guitar-based, so I gravitated toward a more rocking ensemble approach of a band [Big Bad Wolf] that was reflecting the music that I was drawn to. The music eventually got released in Europe and found a market there that was into melodic hard rock.

“[While my wife was pregnant], I noticed that the acoustic became a lot more welcome around the house than the electric, and little did I know that it would lead to this career that’s lasted longer than the Starship [and has been successful] beyond my wildest dreams. I was pretty discouraged after leaving the Starship, not getting this other rock band [off and running]. The same thing happened with my acoustic stuff. … [Keyboardist Ozzie Ahlers and I] came up with the idea for [1993’s] Acoustic Highway, and we took that album to all of these different labels to see what would happen. People kind of remembered me from the Starship, and here was a record that was completely different — no electric guitars, no vocals, no hit songs. … I was kind of getting bummed out, and finally this label Higher Octave — God bless them — put it out, and it really went through the roof with sales. And then the next record [1994’s Acoustic Planet] was nominated for a Grammy, and it also knocked Yanni from the top of one of Billboard‘s charts.

“That was such a relief and so much more enjoyable because it was difficult. Was it twice as difficult? No, it was 10 times as difficult.”

So did anything in particular prompt you to go in a more obviously bluesy direction with Fire Red Moon? Or was it just a natural evolution for you?
Chaquico: “My happiest [Starship] sessions were when we had Rob Nevison producing us. He really featured the guitar in a lot of his productions, so songs like ‘Jane,’ ‘Stranger’ and ‘Find Your Way Back’ were songs that really featured the guitar, but to me, that was still blues-based. That was me learning to play guitar when I was a kid listening to Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter and ZZ Top.

“Progressing from that into the smooth-jazz thing, there were still, to me, a lot of those influences, even though it was perceived as jazz or New Age. … Live, I noticed if I did a jazz concert with, say, George Benson and Larry Carlton, and we did one or two Starship songs that did feature the guitar in that blues vein, people really responded. Even though it was a jazz audience, they grew up with those songs and heard them as hits before, a little more rock- and blues-influenced. So it [occurred] to me, ‘Why not do a record now that really does fulfill that joy that I have playing that kind of music and do something that’s more rock-blues-based?’ That’s how that came about. The jazz thing has been great, and the New Age [stuff] is fun, and I still like doing those concerts. And I’m really getting off playing some of the Starship stuff, but that was written 20, 30 years ago — so how about something new that lets me still express that?”

Five studios were used to record Fire Red Moon. What attracted you to them — prior use, recommendations or was it a matter of logistics in terms of the other musicians and their schedules?
Chaquico: “It was a little bit of all of the above. I had been using my own studio in Mill Valley [California] that got moved up here to Ashland, Oregon, for all of my guitar parts. I’ve always used another studio with whatever keyboard player I’m working with, and in this case, [Moon co-producer and keyboardist] Bill Heller had been working with me on my smooth-jazz instrumental records for the last 10 years, in addition to my [other] keyboard player [Bill Slais]. The other different studios came into play mostly [due to] using three different singers. … There were a lot of sessions where we were all hanging out — ‘Hey, I’ll be right back. I’ll go get a Coke’ — and then we did actually walk into the same room. But a lot of it was done via the magic of the Internet.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior