JBO Talks Candidly With RatDog Guitarist Mark Karan | JamBandsOnline.com

JBO Talks Candidly With RatDog Guitarist Mark Karan

September 28, 2009

Mark Karan

Article By Charlie Walker

Mark Karan truly has Walked Through the Fire – and emerged on the other side stronger than ever. He’s energetically keeping a blistering schedule of promoting new album, Walk Through Fire, with a rich mix of original tunes and tribute-filled covers, while on the road with RatDog, his musical home for the past 11 years. And don’t forget about Mark’s own band, Jemimah Puddleduck.

He’s been a musician for 30 years and he first connected with the Grateful Dead family when he brought his axe to join The Other Ones and has been on the roller-coaster ride since.

But his interest in music began long before then. In fact, he’s yet another talented and driven musician inspired at the beginning by seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show back in the 1960s.

Here, Mark waxes philosophical, and displays his wit and wisdom and insights with skill matched only by his guitar prowess.

He shares his thought on how the album came about, his battle against cancer, being a part of RatDog, Jerry Garcia’s legacy and even the jamband scene as a whole, in this interview with Jam Bands Online writer Charlie Walker.

JBO: Can you talk a little bit about “Walk Through the Fire”? You said you wrote it while going through your first round of chemotherapy. But what was going through your mind at that time? What inside of you gave rise to this creative outpouring?

MK: Well, I don’t know that I could define what was going through my mind. The truth is I was working pretty hard at staying OUT of my head. My brain (like most) can be full of fear and old thinking and I was really concentrating on trying to let go and trust, to have faith that I could still have a life. There I was, sitting in the hospital bed awaiting treatment to begin and feeling extremely nervous but pretty positive that I was going to live through the challenge — but that I was meant to come away with a life lesson of REAL value if I only paid attention. I asked my wife (Maile) for my guitar and a minute later for a pad and pen, and the song just kinda poured out. I wrote the whole thing in about 10 minutes!

JBO: So many people were touched and pulling for you. During RatDog shows of that period, you were always introduced as the band’s guitarist – as part of a “filling in for …” acknowledgement. There was never any question you were an important part of the band, even if you couldn’t share the stage that night.

MK: That’s certainly true. The amount of love and healing energies that the extended family of RatDog fans and Deadheads was a huge part of my healing. It’s pretty hard to deny or “miss” that kind of support.

JBO: You said the new record was composed of “little nuggets” you’d gathered over the years. But were you also inspired by a feeling a getting a second chance, perhaps even a new lease on life?

MK: Some of these songs are from as long ago as when I was about 19 or 20! They’ve never previously had a reason to be recorded because I’d never previously done a record that wasn’t as a sidemen/backing vocalist or part of a group effort “band” thang.

As to a new lease on life… ABSOLUTELY! and that’s EXACTLY how/why this became a “Mark Karan” record rather than a “Jemimah Puddleduck” record. We’d been “working on a record” for four years (!) when I got sick. Between Bobby, Phil and Hornsby’s tour schedules there just weren’t a lot of opportunities to get together… especially with everyone except me living in L.A. 

Post- cancer, I sort of had a spiritual, artistic directive to “just do it”… not to wait… that LIFE is NOT about waiting around for the perfect moment. It’s about diving in and DOING it.

 JBO: The record itself has an all-star cast of performers and songwriters, a testimony to the respect your fellow artists accord you. But how did you pull it all together? Was it in pieces, or was it a more organic collaboration?

MK: I guess you might say it was kinda piecemeal. I started with the tracks we’d done w/JP (Jemimah Puddleduck) originally… post-cancer, Molo wasn’t available when I wanted to try another batch and so we got together with Jimmy Sanchez and tracked “Walk Through the Fire,” “Love Song” and “Memphis Radio”… then a month or two later, Molo was available but Bob Gross wasn’t, so we got together in L.A. and finished up the tracking with Hutch Hutchinson (from Bonnie Raitt) on bass.

After the basics I took the tracks home and started living with them, listening and hearing my mind/heart where I wanted them to go or what I thought MIGHT be cool. So ideas like having great doo-wop vocals (The Persuasions), playing w/some cool friends I don’t often get to play with — Billy Payne (Little Feat) for example, or adding a second/duet vocal w/my dear (recently departed) friend, Delaney Bramlett on “Love in Vain”… it started coming fast and furious and I just started trying stuff out and seeing what worked.

Where it all began 

JBO: You’ve been playing 30 years. When did you first decide you were going to grow up and become a rock’n’roll star? How did you start – with a garage band? Ever take lessons? When did you merge with the jam band scene, or has that always been your home? Are you living a dream?

MK: Wow! Several big questions all gathered up into one! “Grow up” — has that happened? I don’t know… maybe a little bit, having come thru the cancer. But I’m still working on “growing up” LOL.

I knew this is what I wanted really early though, that I can say for sure. I was about nine when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I was already learning folk guitar and that sealed the deal for me: Electric guitars, high-heeled boots and screaming girls? Heck yeah!

Yes, I started with garage bands. Many, many garage bands. “The Joyful Watermelon” was our kid band when I was about 12 or 13 and Haight-Ashbury was in “full flower.”

Jamb and scene… hmmmm… can I say “what’s that?” LOL. The music defined by that term has gotten so disparate it seems like all it means anymore is bands that play festivals. I played a lot of more free, psychedelically influenced music as a kid, but had spent most of my life learning about record making: What went into production, writing a “hit,” etc. And playing sets with original bands that were going for the ever-elusive record deal in the sky. 

Coming around to the Grateful Dead family was like coming home to a freer, truer kind of relationship to music that (I thought) wasn’t about celebrity or “what’s popular this week” — but the truth is it’s pretty much the same in the jam scene as it is elsewhere in the music biz. It’s not so much about art or passion or “realness” as it is about the money, celebrity, etc. And that’s been a bitter pill sometimes. But after all, it IS a business and people will always focus on the profit more than the product quality when it comes to “business” I guess.

 JBO: Tell me just a little bit about how you hooked up with RatDog.

MK: I was playing in the first Post-Jerry band, “The Other Ones” and got invited to try out for RatDog.” I actually DIDN’T get the gig initially — LOL. But after a week or two with the guy they picked I got a call and they asked if I’d come play with the band after all. It will have been eleven years this October!

JBOHow did you swipe J.T. Thomas and John Molo from Hornsby for Jemimah Puddleduck? 

MK: I didn’t meet either of those guys thru Hornsby directly. Molo was already no longer doing a lot with Bruce as I recall, but had been brought along to play drums for “The Other Ones” because (Bill) Kreutzman wasn’t into it at the time. We already knew each other so it was a natural progression. Molo introduced me to JT when our original keyboard loony (Arlan Shierbaum) left the band.

JBOWhen did you first hear of Hornsby? Who did you listen to growing up, and who do you listen to now?

MK: I first heard Bruce via “The Way It Is,” like most folks.  I think I knew OF him because I knew Huey (Lewis) and those guys and Huey and Johnny Colla produced Hornsby’s early demo tapes, but I hadn’t heard the music until it hit the airwaves.

Advice for up-and-coming  jamband musicians 

JBO: You’ve sat in with some of the real up-and-comers on the jam band scene. What advice would you give to aspiring jam band musicians? 

MK: The only advice I’m OK offering is “play what you love because you love it.” That way if you “make it,” great. If you don’t –STILL great, because you’re doing what you love and what could be better than that?

JBOHow does the jam band scene differ from the traditional “get signed and sell or else” approach to music?

MK: Sadly, these days I’m not sure that (behind the scenes) the “jamband scene” really IS all that different. I think the younger, smaller bands are able to be true to a more spiritually, artistically “pure” relationship to their music, the scene and the fans. But at that level all of life (eating, paying rent, buying fuel) is a struggle to “get by” and as soon as a band gets a bit known and starts being an “earner,” it all seems to change and folks that are driven by profit and celebrity step in. Like I said earlier: It’s very hard to keep a “business” endeavor pure. After all, the nature of “business” is to make money, not to touch hearts and souls.

It’s probably why I’m not more famous or more financially well-off. I took my entry into the Grateful Dead family as an opportunity to reject all the ole “music biz” models and stopped caring about rock stardom and caring WAY more about music. It’s heart and soul and authenticity.

The Jerry Factor  

JBO: Jerry.  We all miss Jerry. What did he represent to you? 

MK: Well, that depends. As a kid he was a really cool local guy in this awesome band that we loved (alongside the Sons of Champlin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the (Jefferson) Airplane, etc. I LOVED his playing and the way band jammed and got weird! But there WERE no “Deadheads” yet then.

In more recent times he’s become a bit of an icon. That can get weird when it becomes: “What Would Jerry Do?” cuz he was a wonderful man, but he was just a man, not a god. That said, I feel he is a shining example of a man who, in spite of his personal demons, embodied living life in truth, living with a connectedness, a love and respect for freedom (musically and spiritually/socially). He was a great man. Wish I’d been able to know him.

JBODo you see yourself as helping to continue the tradition? 

MK: Yeah, I guess I do. We all are in RatDog. I feel like this band — and my band, Jemimah Puddleduck for that matter — plays from the same philosophical place and art/heart place that the Dead connected to back in the day. We’re a real “band” because the guys have all been playing together and getting to really know each other for a lot of years, and that breeds connection and intuition: Two HUGE components of the original Grateful Dead’s approach (in my humble opinion).

JBOHow much does he influence your playing style, especially when you’re performing classic Dead songs?

MK: That differs night to night, moment to moment. Certainly on the early GD tunes that I grew up listening to (often on LSD, so they got pretty burned into my brain cells!) the languaging– what scale/mode/approach to melodic expansion/exploration –is strongly influenced by what I heard seminally. But at times I think I also draw from earlier, pre-GD sources — MAYBE even the ones Jerry himself drew from. I consider myself (like Garcia) an eclectic music listener who loves ALL great American music… country, blues, rock’n’roll, bluegrass, jazz, cajun, folk, ragtime. I try not to pigeon-hole what’s gonna happen and rather to just listen to what’s being played and go wherever “there” is.

On more latter-day Dead material (I remember having NO idea what “Sailor/Saint” was in “TOO” rehearsals because it came out after I’d lost track of what the Dead were up to after 1976 or so). I may show less Garcia influence because his musicality and approach weren’t burned in into me the same way because I didn’t grow up on those songs. That material may get a “purer me.” I can’t really say. I don’t think I’m objective.

What does the future hold?

JBO: Where do you see yourself five years from now? Ten years from now?

MK: I have no idea. I mean, if you’d asked me if I’d get cancer later that year in early 2007, I’d have said, “HELL no! Are you CRAZY???” But that’s exactly what DID happen and it was completely unexpected. We don’t get to know what’s coming in life, so I’m doing my best to learn to be in and to appreciate each day, each moment. “One Day at a Time” as they say. In five or ten years I HOPE to still be playing music, loving my wife and my dogs and living in our warm, lovely home in Marin County. What more could I ask for that that?  But as to what will really happen and where I’ll be… who knows?

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