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Lead Guitar - Bob Weir & Ratdog
    Exclusive Interview
Mark Karan
Go to a Ratdog concert and you'll find a west coast culture that is still thriving after 40 years.  A sea of Tiedye clothing and sandals sway to the music and the scent of insense is in the air.  In the middle of that music is Mark Karan.  Bob Weir's right hand man on lead guitar.  Stricken by throat cancer, Mark hade left his post for 9 months and has made a remarkable recovery.  He was given a clean bill of health from his doctors on Valentines Day '08 and is back doing what it is that he loves.  Detroit Music Notes was priviledged to catch up with Mark following his first show back on tour with Bob Weir & Ratdog in Milwaulkee, WI.  Welcome back Mark!  Ladies and gentleman... Mark Karan.

DMN – How was your first show back with Ratdog in Milwaukee?

MK – It was good; it was great to be back on stage.  I’m still knocking the rust off but that is to be expected after having 9 months or so away from it all.

DMN – How did it all start?  How did you get involved with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead?

MK – Well, it was about 10 years ago and I was living in southern California.  I used to do a fair amount of gigs around town and recording sessions and all that sort of thing; and  one of the guys that I used to bump into was John Molo who at the time was Bruce Hornsby’s drummer.  When the boys of Grateful Dead wanted to put something back together after Jerry Garcia passed away they didn’t have a lead guitar player.  They didn’t know of a lot of folks in terms of freelance musicians, so John had given them three or four people’s names that lived in Los Angeles.  I was given the opportunity to get up there and jam with the boys.  They liked what they heard and I had a ball.  The next thing I knew, they had asked me to go on tour with them and ‘The Other Ones’. 

DMN – What is your favorite song to perform?

MK – Oh God!  There are way too many!  There are probably at least a dozen that are my favorite song to play.  I never know what to say when people ask that.  I mean a song like The Other One takes on its own personality every night when we play it and playing in this band, is kind of similar.  You never really know what the hell it is going to do every night.  On the same token, I like playing songs like Half Step Mississippi because I like the changes in that song. 

DMN - How long have you been playing guitar, what led you to guitar and what was the first song that you learned to play?

MK – Well, I’m 53 years old and I’ve been playing for about 44 years now.  I was brought up in a music listening household.  Not much for a playing household.  There was always great music in the house growing up.  My parents listened to a lot of jazz like Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins and great vocalists like Billy Holiday, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughn and stuff like that.  When I was 8 or 9, I was in the San Francisco Boy’s Chorus and we used to have music camp in the summer.  It was sort of like Boy Scout camp but we would have music theory classes while we were there.  There was this guy there that was way ahead of his time.  Remember that this was 1963 or 64 and this guy had a pony tail and a beard before the hippie thing hit town.  He would play folk guitar and I was really attracted to it and he started teaching me some folk songs.  I think the first song that I learned was called ‘Old Sinner Man’ which I recently heard done as a reggae song.  And then the Beatles happened about a year after I started playing guitar and that cinched the deal for me. 

DMN – Let’s talk about your gear a little.  What is your main guitar?

MK – Well that’s a toss up between my Fender Stratocaster and my Gibson SG.  I have a 1962 Fender Strat and a 1962 SG.  They are both great guitars and it depends what voice I want for whatever song I am playing.   As far as tunings go, I am a standard tuning guy.  I mess around with E and G tuning at home but mainly all standard. 

DMN – You have had the opportunity to work with many talented people including Randy Meisner (The Eagles) Huey Lewis, Bob Weir and many more.  What has been your favorite experience?

MK – It’s hard to nail just one.  There have been so many great ones.  I was just telling someone the other day that I have been so blessed as an adult to have such an interesting experience to go back and be introduced to a lot of my favorites from my teen years and wind up playing music with them.  I was on tour with Dave Mason for almost two years and I was a huge Dave Mason and Traffic fan when I was a kid.  I also did a lot of work with Delaney Bramlett.  I was a huge Delaney Bramlett fan and Delaney and Bonnie fan.  I was into Joe Cocker, Leon Russell and all that sort of gospel rock.  I got to tour with Paul Carrack who I always thought was one of the best rock and roll vocalists around.  It was really a trip to be able to tour with him.  And then of course all these guys from the Grateful Dead and the spin offs from that.  The New Riders got back together a couple years ago and I sat in with them several times and we really enjoy each other and that’s always a ball.  I met Little Feat through the band and I sat in with them numerous times and we always have a great time together.  It’s a lot of great stuff but like the song question, there are too many to nail just one as the best. 

DMN – What is it like touring with an icon of The Grateful Dead and also touring with The Grateful Dead?

MK – Well, when I toured with ‘The Other Ones’ it was quite a rarified experience.  I mean, it was kind of unreal to basically step out of working in nightclubs and session work in Los Angeles as an unknown guy to suddenly playing in front of 20,000 people in amphitheatres and such playing music that has been my ‘life’s blood’ as a young teen.  So that was pretty amazing.  Comparing to playing with Bobby now, we’re just friends.  We’ve been together for 10 years now so any sort of roleplay type stuff that may have been in place or hero worship or any kind of stuff has gone by the wayside through the years and we can relate to each other as people and good friends and we just enjoy playing together now.

DMN – Was it difficult getting back on stage after 9 months?

MK – It was both hard and incredibly easy.  It was one of those situations where I was really nervous because I had been gone for a while and feeling a little unsure and shaky because I haven’t played lead guitar much.  When I am home I don’t play lead guitar.  I may play songs but I don’t keep my lead chops up because that is something I do in the context of the band.  So, I was a little nervous about that but at the same time it felt so good to be back doing what I am supposed to do; what I am here to do in the first place.  It’s pretty hard to argue with that.  I definitely got off on being there and being able to be there again and seeing all our friends and fans out front there with all their overflowing enthusiasm!  It’s a pretty great experience.  The band isn’t taking it easy on me either!  There were a couple of things thrown at me where I said ‘Wow, Ok, trial by fire!’

DMN – For someone who hasn’t experienced a ‘Ratdog’ Concert, what can they expect?

MK – The unexpected!  We keep things in rotation so there are not a lot of repeats.  And generally speaking, at least until we have been on tour for a few weeks or whatever and have some sense of what songs are finding their way in the rotation for a given tour, we don’t even know what we are going to be up to.  Bob Weir is kind of putting the set lists together right now and it winds up that there are, usually, about 100 songs actively in rotation on a given tour out of the 200 songs that we know now and that is only a guess.  Bob figures out that stuff by looking at what we did the previous year in certain cities and what we played over the course of the previous week so we can avoid being repetitive in each place we go or each time we come. 

DMN – What do you see in the future?

MK – Truthfully, probably more of the same.  I don’t see this suddenly sparking into some sort of fabulous new growth with a surprising new direction or anything anytime soon.  Although, there has been a resurgence of classic artists revising themselves and making remarkable comebacks but between you, me and the fencepost and I guess anyone reading this interview, I like the size of the places that we do now better than the really big places.  I like the sound better; it seems to be more controlled and I like the sense of intimacy.  I feel like I can make somewhat of a connection with an audience of a couple of thousand to three thousand people.  It much harder to look at 20,000 people and not see just it as a giant blob that has an entity itself and not make a connection with it. 

DMN – Will you guys just be touring or are there any plans for a studio album?

MK – Well, with Ratdog, it’s hard to say.  The last studio album we did was about 6 years ago or so.  There’s more tunes around waiting to get done but who knows when they will take on a life of their own enough to where we get into the studio with them.  I, myself have been in the studio lately tracking a bunch of stuff and it’s my intention to do a studio record.  If my voice cooperates, post cancer, I want to have it out by the end of the year.  It’s taking me a while to get my singing voice back in shape, so, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to pull that off or not.  I had throat cancer and I just got a clean bill of health from the doctors for Valentines Day. 

DMN – If one wants to play guitar ‘In the Style of Mark Karan’, what tips would you give them?

MK – Pay a lot of attention to songs.  Pay more attention to songs than chops or licks.  Think about playing lead as an extension of the song and an extension of the lead vocals.  I can respect the hell out of someone with chops and licks but what really moves me and gives me emotional response is when I hear someone who is passionately connected to the emotion behind the song and doing something melodically that moves me on the level of singing that has that kind of melodic content.  To me, if you are treating your instrument as a voice, for example, Elliot Easton of ‘The Cars’ was always one of my favorite soloists because you could actually sing his guitar solos.  They were relatively simple, but creative.  They really fit the song and they were melodic and you remembered them.  Opposed to someone like Joe Satriani,   who I think is a brilliant guitar player, but I could never sing you one of his solos. 

DMN – How much vocals do you carry in the band Ratdog and how has your throat cancer affected it?

MK – In Ratdog, we all sing.  If I have to be honest, some sing a little more strongly than others but we all have made it our business to sing backing vocals and the end result has been pretty powerful.  I have always held up my end of the bargain in that mix.  I think I mentioned earlier that with my own stuff I am the lead singer and I have to really hold down the fort there.  So the cancer affected it pretty drastically.  In my lower register, I still have most of my tone and I can sing but I have very little upper register and I can’t sing falsetto anymore right now at all.  While I am certain that it will come back in time, it’s pretty frustrating right now because I want to dive in with both feet and give it everything that I’ve got.  Truthfully right now, I am unable to do that. 

DMN – You have collaborated with many, many people during your career.  Who would you like to work with that you have not yet had the chance?

MK – Well, I’ll give you what my instant reaction was but I don’t know if it is really, really true… but as soon as you said that, the first thing that popped in my head was Paul McCartney.  I am a huge Beatle freak.  The opportunity to collaborate with somebody like that would be pretty amazing.  I would also like to work with Eric Clapton.  He’s still one of my favorite guitar players even though he has become a little sedate.  He is actually coming back into bloom again.  It’s wonderful to see him play with all these young players.  Music like that is timeless

DMN – One final question.  When it is all over, what would you like to be known for?

MK – If we’re talking about music, probably passion, soulfulness and being melodic.  If we’re talking about ‘the big picture’, I would like to be known for being a guy that expanded consciousness and awareness and being a loving guy.

For more information on Mark Karan visit his website at: