Made In Mill Valley: CD
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Mark Karan Interview by Rob Kovell
Mark Karan has walked through the fire. Several times. He’s lived the artist’s life, with all the highs and lows that come with that. He's been in several bands, including Jemimah Puddleduck, The Other Ones, and Bob Weir & Ratdog where he held down the lead guitar spot for over a dozen years. He’s worked as a studio musician, and worked with a list of greats too long to name here. He’s also had financial struggles, and had to overcome succumbing to the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle. He’s lived the life of a professional musician.
By age 15, Karan was working as a guitar player. Throughout his twenties he was a member of several promising bands, and enjoyed the perks of being a young, up and coming rock musician. Sometimes too much.
“I was a drinker. I started drinking as a teen and discovered cocaine in my late twenties. It was the '80's. Everyone was doing blow and drinking and it really got out of hand and ruined a lot of good things. I had to stop.” Karan recalls of that early time in his career.
He did stop and got his life back under control by the age of 30. In 1989 the local bay area scene was struggling and Karan, then 35 years old, decided to move to LA and try his luck. In addition to his years of live performances, Karan had quite a bit of bay area studio experience, but was still nervous about competing with all the ‘big boys’ in LA.
“I knew there were a lot of talented guitarists working in LA and I didn't know if I had anything that these cats weren’t already doing. I did find one thing that really separated me…I showed up for every session, sober, prepared and on time and it turned out a lot of people really liked my particular musical approach.”
Karan spent the next decade playing countless live shows, while also establishing himself as an in demand session player and learning studio craft. He became known as someone who could play guitar, help with production, and help artists find cool and creative ways to present their songs.
“I have very strong sensibilities about parts and arrangements, a good creative sense of how interlocking parts work. And I love working with an artist to really draw out of them what they want from their song.”
Karan was going about life as a session musician and playing live shows backing up various artists when he got the call to audition with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead.
“I’d been living in LA doing the music thing and never even considered I might [be asked to audition for the Grateful Dead]. I didn't know any of the guys in the Dead. I’d grown up in the Bay Area and gone to a ton of their shows in the early days, but I’d never met any of them. I stopped going to shows around ’75, and got into listening to other music. In LA I’d been playing live shows and doing some studio work with a guy named John Molo. One of them was a straight up cover gig and every so often we’d pull out Truckin. We'd get to the instrumental section and just open it up and let it go…. We’d end up smiling at each other like, we just gave LA some of this psychedelic shit!”
When Jerry Garcia died and the surviving members of the Grateful Dead were forming a new band, they needed to find a guitar player to fill the slot. They asked some close friends for names of guitarists who might be able to step in. One of these friends was John Molo, and he suggested they call Karan.
“I didn't think I’d get the gig, I’ve always had horrible luck at auditions. I freeze.” Mark said, “But in this case, because I didn’t think I’d get the gig, and because the music we were fucking around with was stuff I’d been listening to since I was eleven or twelve, it was burned into my brain, and so I just had fun with them. Because of that I got the gig.”
Over the next twelve years Karan played with first The Other Ones, and then, for over a decade, with Bob Weir’s Ratdog. He played the lead guitar parts in the classic Dead songs, managing to make them his own while still evoking the vibe of Jerry's playing.
“With Ratdog or The Other Ones, it was always really fun for me because I was always given permission to play like myself. They actively told me to play like I’d never heard Jerry Garcia. That kind of permission to be yourself and be creative is rare in the music business and I embraced it. In session work, I had fallen out of the habit of stretching out solos and taking risks... being willing to go for it and maybe fall down. It was fun to rediscover that world and play in that sandbox… especially with those guys!”
Given that freedom, I asked Mark if he consciously thought about trying to sound like Jerry and play the songs the way Dead Heads expected them and how much to make things his own.
“I kinda consciously didn't allow myself to think about that part of it. I figured, right or wrong, in the tradition of real Grateful Dead, that honesty was the deal, taking chances was the deal, that whatever it's going to be was the deal.”
The deal turned out to be a good one for fans; Karan delighted Dead Heads all over the country playing lead guitar in Ratdog. It was also a good deal for Mark because with a little more financial security and some time between tours, he finally had time to work on his own music.
“One of the huge gifts I got from Bobby, in addition to the door to the Grateful Dead world, which was revelatory and a serious gift on many levels, is that the steady bread that came with Ratdog allowed me to finally explore writing and doing my own thing…I formed Jemimah Puddleduck and people dug it, which was great.”
Life was trucking along until 2007 when Karan received another life changing call. He was diagnosed with stage four B throat cancer. Although his (now ex) wife never told him at the time, the doctors gave him about a 10% chance of survival. He missed two Ratdog tours while undergoing intense chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
For his first treatment the doctors told Mark he would have to stay in the hospital for the whole week so they could observe how his body tolerated the aggressive treatment. His first night in the hospital, waiting to start the fight for his life, he wrote a song.
“I knew I was there for a week so I just moved in. I brought a guitar, I brought a computer, paper and pen. I’d been in that bed for about twenty minutes, maybe a half an hour, and my wife was settling into the chair next to the bed and suddenly I got this flash. I asked her to hand me my guitar. She did. I started noodling around with this chord progression. I don't know where it came from, it wasn't something I’d been fussing with but all of a sudden there it was. It was one of those songs that I really live for, because for me the best songs, the most rewarding songs, I find am not writing them. I am delivering them. They are being given to me and I have to get out of the way for them to be written. I asked my wife to hand me the pen and paper.”
Twenty minutes later Karan had written Walk Through the Fire, the title track from his debut solo album, which would come out in 2012. The song is about the reality of what he faced lying in that hospital bed that first night.
Sometimes you got to walk through the fire
Put your feet down on the coals
Freedom's in the fire
Throw resistance on the pyre
And free your soul
One listen to the song and you can hear and feel its authenticity. One listen to the album and you quickly hear that Karan is not just one of the top jamband guitarists playing today, but also a talented and diverse player able to utilize many styles to create his own. His playing evokes Eric Clapton and many other great guitarists as often as it does Jerry Garcia, and also has a musicality to it that is truly his own.
“I am so thankful to the Grateful Dead community for that whole experience, but I’d had a full music career even before I’d met and joined those guys, so the Dead's music has never been my sole focus. I was 44 years old by the time I got the call to play in The Other Ones in 1998.”
All his experience pays off on Walk Through The Fire. Karan is not just a master guitarist with a band, but a bandleader who plays with his band.
“I’ve got certain things I’m pretty committed to artistically and musically. Honesty and integrity are primary among them. I want to believe in what I’m doing, I want to really feel what I’m doing. If I am going to sing a lyric I want to be emotionally connected to it, and committed to it so that someone listening feels that experience and maybe can relate to it.”
Karan plays live shows with his ever-evolving cast of great musical talents (in support of Walk Through the Fire). When I ask him what he thinks someone coming to see him for the first time would get out of it.
“I hope that people walk away with the sense that they've just seen something very real. Hopefully they have been touched, moved emotionally by something at some point. I hope they are inspired by the spontaneous creativity that happens.”
With all these skills and experiences Karan certainly has the ability to be a bandleader, but is open other musical experiences as well.
“I could see myself finding another Ratdog like situation, a band where I am not the focus, or singer songwriter, that’s good for me too, I thrive in those situations, I like being part of a team. I like to put myself out there and play with new people. I actually like to be a sideman.”
Karan has also spent time in the booth as a producer lending his passion and experience to helping others find their musical ‘voice.’
“I’ve got a fair amount of experience behind the glass, I’ve been in and out of the studio since I was 18. I’d like to do more. I’m actually about to produce a record for a band called The Sound Field.”
Karan is currently writing and gathering songs for a follow-up to Walk Through the Fire to be released by newly launched record label LilyJam. One song from the new album is called Breathing Room and Karan has been performing it for about a year already. It has the same authenticity as Walk Through the Fire.
“That is a song I wrote with my most prolific writing partner Deb Grabian. We’ve written several songs together that have worked their way into my repertoire. Usually what happens is she brings in a set of lyrics, I change them around to things that work for me and write some music. Interestingly, that particular song, I read the lyrics and just about cried. I could’ve written them myself. The music just poured out of me and we didn't change a word.”
Karan also has another fifteen to twenty songs he is considering for the album.
“I’m not a prolific writer so, while I’m definitely writing and listening to older songs I’ve written, I've also asked songwriter friends to submit things and I listen to them and wait to fall in love. I have about forty songs I’ve listened to so far and am narrowing them down. I have no ego connection to being the source, the songwriter, I just want to make the best record I can and be as emotionally, artistically and energetically connected to the song as possible.”
So Mark Karan walks on through the fire, carrying with him the experiences of three lifetimes creating music that is real. Let’s hope he walks on for miles.
See Mark Karan at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley this Friday, February 13.
Made in Mill Valley
Made In Mill Valley: CD
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Life on the Water
Peter Rowan Documentary
There are only a few Blue Grass Boys still around that played with the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. Peter Rowan was a Blue Grass Boy in the 1960s for only a short time, but Bill's influence and musical knowledge still resonates with Peter. Even as he branched out into his own music after leaving Bill's band, his bluegrass roots were never far away. This portrait of Peter expands beyond his music to his artistic and spiritual endeavors spanning four decades, giving the viewer an in-depth look at a true legend within our Americana musical history. His lyrical quality and melodies are memorable, and Peter influenced the next generation of musicians, sharing what Monroe taught him and what he has learned while being a troubadour and traveling the world.
South 40 Films and Floating Records produced The Tao of Bluegrass - A Portrait of Peter Rowan. The film was accepted and screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October 2013 to a sold out show. We were thrilled to have it in front of an audience that appreciated Peter's talents and to have Peter there with us.