Mark Karan is of impressive musical pedigree. He has recorded and toured with artists varying from Albert King to the Rembrandts. But when he was brought in by The Other Ones (the surviving original members of the Grateful Dead) to play lead guitar in 1998, many people were not familiar with him and his abilities. He certainly had some big shoes to fill, as this was the first collective tour of Grateful Dead members playing as a single unit since the passing of lead guitarist and vocalist Jerry Garcia.
Ultimately, the tour was a huge success and fans were very pleasantly surprised; Karan, along with Steve Kimock, did a marvelous job sharing the lead guitar spot. Following the tour with The Other Ones, he was offered the lead guitar role in Ratdog, Bob Weir's band. Four years later, Ratdog has evolved, and continues to evolve into Bob Weir's vision of music and improvisation. In addition to his work with Ratdog, Karan also fronts his own band, Jemimah Puddleduck. JP features John Molo (Bruce Hornsby, The Other Ones) on drums, JT Thomas (Bruce Hornsby) on keys, and Bob Gross (Albert King, Delaney Bramlett) on bass. JP released their debut CD in 2000 and continue to record and tour when Mark isn't playing with Ratdog. JamBase had the opportunity to catch up with Mark Karan before his spring jaunt with Ratdog in late February.
PK: You recently returned from a stint on Jam Cruise II. Tell me about that experience and your musical collaborations on the boat.
MK: Jam Cruise was a blast! 1,000 music fans dancing all-night and swimming in crystal blue water all day. It was pretty much all we'd hoped for. I had toured with, or been on a bill with, most of the bands at one time or another with Ratdog, but oddly enough, we don't always get much chance to hang out. It was great getting to talk to a bunch of new folks and playing with some new people in some feels and styles that were outside of my comfort zone. Michael Franti & Spearhead were a gas. Great energy! Michael is really a force and the band's right there with him, just pulsing and dancing. He's got such a great message. People really connected there and it felt good participating in that. New Monsoon was a band I had just started hearing about. We jammed on one of their tunes that wound up morphing into "The Other One." (What is it about that song? It's everywhere!) They're a really cool band that did some fine exploratory stuff and still honored their songs. I also sat in on a tune with Particle, which was really cool. They seem to kind of have these basic "heads" for tunes and they just keep kind of exploding them out and inverting them and just finding the flow and going. They're all really good players who obviously have spent a lot of time playing together. They were very gracious with me, just gave me the total freedom to groove.
Karan with Spearhead by Maile Hatfield
On the last night, I sat in with Galactic. Whatta groove! I really enjoy their trip and they were way cool in that they invited me to sit in on a tune I had never heard before and we just grooved until they said, "Go!" and they let it get pretty out. It was really fun and in the midst of all that, the third day was my birthday! All in all, it couldn't have been better...
PK: Before the Ratdog spring tour, you had a few gigs with the Avalon Allstars. Who are the Avalon Allstars? Describe these gigs. Can we look for more of them in the future?
MK: The Allstars have shifted personnel a lot. Initially it was with John Kadlecik from Dark Star Orchestra, Melvin Seals, and a few others. I'm not sure who all did it. This last show was Melvin Seals, John Molo, Bobby Vega, and I. It was a great combo and I think we may do another one sometime soon.
Mark Karan by Alan Hess
Tell us about the new forthcoming album from Jemimah Puddleduck and what you hope the future brings for the band.
I don't really know what to say about the new album. We've tracked a few tunes and are about to track several more. We haven't had a lot of together time to write, so that may be what I'm looking forward to most. We'll do studio versions of all the stuff we've been doing, do some jamming and writing, and then throw it all against the wall and see what makes the coolest picture. I don't want to try to predict what a Jemimah Puddleduck record will be because I don't want to restrict the possibilities. As to the future, we're looking at some festivals this summer. I just want us to play... a lot!
In Jemimah Puddleduck you have the freedom of being the only guitar player. Explain how this differs in technique and style from playing with Bob Weir and Ratdog.
Guitar-wise the main difference is that with fewer instruments it's easier to pay attention to what everyone else is doing in detail. I think my playing may be interactive in Jemimah Puddleduck. Because this is a band of peers, I may get more opportunity to lead jams or be more influential as to what kinds of musical territory we explore. Also with fewer instruments, each player can say more without stepping on anyone else's toes. I have a lot of freedom in Ratdog; I just have more room in Jemimah Puddleduck.
Mark Karan by Alan Hess
On September 19, 2003 you sat in with The Dead at Shoreline Amphitheatre for "Space" > "Dark Star." What was that like? What are your views of the latest version of The Dead? In what ways does this grouping differ (or is similar) to The Other Ones whom you played/toured with in 1998 and 2000? In my own opinion, I strongly think The Other Ones 1998 was by far the strongest post-Grateful Dead grouping, in large part thanks to your guitar playing.
Sitting in with all the fellas again was great, although I would have preferred a more structured song to jump into cold. "Dark Star" is a great song, but works best with people that really KNOW each other musically. I hadn't played Phil Lesh in nearly six years and had never played with Jimmy Herring before.
As to the music and grouping, the first year (1998) was the best for me. Having Phil there was really cool and John Molo kicks ass! It was cool with Alfonso Johnson and Billy Kruetzmann in 2000, but without Phil that Grateful Dead flavor never really happened. Billy and Mickey do something very unique and special and when it connects with Phil, it's magic. With Alfonso, I never felt like the rhythm section really connected. I would have loved to hear Alfonso Johnson with John Molo.
Mark Karan by Susan J. Weiand
As to the current line up, truthfully, it doesn't feel like the "good ol' Grateful Dead" to me, but I'm happy they're doing what they want to do and that I still have the opportunity to play with Ratdog. I now have more time to pursue Jemimah Puddleduck, so it's all worked out pretty well.
Looking back on your tenure with The Other Ones, do you wish the band had continued to make music?
I'm definitely disappointed the boys seem to have decided not to really commit to a permanent line up. I thought the '98 line up could've gotten really good given the time and opportunity. The Grateful Dead had over 30 years to cook their stew. We got five weeks and then it was time for a change...
Mark Karan bu JC Juanis
Ratdog had a very successful fall tour in 2003. What were the standout moments on that tour?
I can't remember anything specific that stands out other than I felt like the band was really in its element. Somehow it's all just REALLY connecting and it feels great! I love the band these days.
What are your thoughts on Ratdog shows being recorded and sold through Ratdog Live?
I have some mixed feelings, but overall, I think it's great. The tapers can still tape the way they always have. There's just an additional option now. The only thing that's changed is that soundboard patches, which were always pretty protected, are now off limits. The only real objection I have is that Ratdog Live has been down for a long time and the shows have actually not been available through Munckmix. Waiting like that takes a lot of the fun and immediate reward out of ordering music that you're excited to hear.
Mark Karan by Susan J. Weiand
The general consensus with Robin Sylvester seems very positive. As a lead player with Ratdog, describe the transition from Rob Wasserman to Robin Sylvester. How has this affected the band and its sound?
It's a huge difference and a major improvement. I love what Wasserman does. In "Bob and Rob," he fit really well. Even in the early days of Ratdog, when it was a trio, it worked well, but the more the band became a full-on rock 'n' roll-type band, the less Rob's style fit. He was frustrated and so were we. It was a completely musical and mutual decision. I've heard some of what he's been doing and I totally dig it. In Ratdog, however, Robin plays more like what he is--an electric bass player with a rock 'n' roll band playing orientation. That's what we needed and it's kicking us in the ass. We're grooving and rocking harder than ever!
Mark Karan by John E. Scwarzell
Overall, how does Ratdog's sound continue to evolve?
That is, to me, an indefinable thing. The band's sound is just becoming more cohesive and defined as we play together more. It's an organic process of development that's ongoing... the nature o' de beast.
Thanks a lot for taking the time to speak with JamBase. It is greatly appreciated.
My pleasure. See you out on tour. Take care.
JamBase | California
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