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Published: 2000/05/15
by Dean Budnick

Mark Karan’s Menagerie: From Ratdog to Jemimah Puddleduck

Few individuals within the jam band scene were familiar with Mark Karan prior to his initial appearances with the Other Ones in the summer of 1998. At that time the story that immediately surfaced was that Karan had performed on the theme to the TV show Friends (not quite true, see below). Rumors aside, over the course of that run, Karan began to garner the allegiance of some notoriously demanding fans. Following the tour, Karan joined Bob Weir in Ratdog, a role that he occupies to this day. More recently, the guitarist has formed a new group, Jemimah Puddleduck, with fellow Other One, John Molo and two additional players (Bob Gross on bass, Arlan Schierbaum on keys). The following interview with Mark touches on all of these topics and looks to the future as well.

DB- Let’s start with the Others Ones. How did you get tapped for that gig.

MK- That was through John Molo pretty much. It’s funny, it’s kind of assbackwards. I grew up in the Bay area, listening to the Dead as a kid and I moved to Los Angeles about nine years ago. I’ve played with a lot of different bands down here and I do some sessions, whatever it takes to get by in the music world. John and I had crossed paths a bunch of times on some gigs and once in a while in the recording studio. We just enjoyed each other’s music and each other’s company. So when Stan Franks didn’t work out with the Other Ones, John was there because of the Hornsby connection [Molo has performed with Hornsby for more than 15 years]. He just gave them my name.

DB- You mentioned that you saw the Dead quite a bit as a kid. When was your first show?

MK- I don’t remember the first show. It may have been on my birthday at the Fillmore in 66. I know I went to see the Dead on my birthday but I can’t remember if that was the first time I saw them or not. But me and my little junior high friends we all used to go see the Dead: at Speedway Meadows and Golden Gate Park at the Panhandle and Polo Field. Bill Graham used to put on Sunday afternoons from 2-6. He offered the same show that had happened Friday and Saturday night and if you were under twelve you got in free. We were all too young to be part of the Haight-Ashbury scene, we were all eleven, twelve years old but we were wannabes like crazy (laughs). We were the little baby hippies running around with long hair and our little batik jackets with fluorescent painted peace signs on the back, wanting to be as much a part of it as we could. After a couple of years I practically lived at the Fillmore, Fillmore West, Winterland and all that stuff.

DB- So that must have been a heady experience taking the stage with the Other Ones.

MK- It was definitely a mindfuck to play the music that I had grown up with and cut my teeth on and to look around on stage and there’s Phil and there’s Bobby and there’s Mickey. It’s like, “Wait a minute, the real guys, and I’m up here doing it.” To be playing that music, especially St. Stephen/The Eleven was just a total rush. I really felt blessed and thrilled to be where I was, and where I am, it’s been a great two years.

DB- What was the dynamic like on stage, with so many players, and three guitarists?

MK- I think that the general consensus was that the Other Ones was a bit cluttered and I would have to agree with that. On the other hand, I don’t think it was particularly anyone’s fault. When you have that many musicians playing together and they haven’t had that much time to work out, it’s inevitable. But I think that for all the strength of personality and whatnot that everybody was pretty considerate. There were definitely some toes that were stepped on here and there because everybody can’t be vigilant at all times musically. You’d pick up a thread that someone had going and not necessarily notice that another person is going somewhere else. Overall, I think people were pretty considerate and did the best they could to play together given the amount of preparation time that was available.

DB- How much was worked out in advance in terms of setting out who would play leads?

MK- Not much and coming from the place that I come from in terms of my musical background, I probably would have been a little more comfortable if we had done that. If we had more or less delineated who was going to play where. I think that would have helped out with the clutter. But the B-side is that it would have taken away a lot of the spontaneity and the true nature of improvisation. I think that what everybody was after was to go for it and whoever happens to jump on it there it is.

DB- What were the standout moments for you on that tour?

MK- There were a lot of moments, I remember the feeling of being in them but I couldn’t tell you what night they were. Those were the times where Steve and I would find ourselves locking into that sweet spot where we weren’t being overly accommodating nor was either one of us steeping on the other and we were able to find that place where we were able to really weave the music. I guess probably my favorite show was Alpine. The setting was just amazing and the vibe on stage was really great. I’ll never forget the moment at the end of the show when we came out for an encore. The way that place is set up there’s that grassy hill almost perpendicular to the stage, so there’s just this wall of audience. And we came out and the houselights were down and they all had their Bics going. It was pretty surreal.

DB- What do you think of the Strange Remain [the two disc set that documents the tour]?

MK- I think I can be honest here. I don’t really like the sound of it that well. I have a lot of audience tapes and in a lot of ways I enjoy listening to them more because I find them to be better documents of what actually happened. Certainly it’s well recorded and well mixed but everything sounds overly separated and disembodied. When I listen to the show tapes it sounds more like a band.

DB- And the Ratdog gig followed?

MK- Right. Ratdog pretty much came as fallout from the Other Ones. I did the Furthur 98 thing in the summer and then out of that- you know Bobby hadn’t had a lead guitar player. I guess after touring with the Other Ones he redeveloped an appetite for having lead guitar in the mix. Actually a lot of people thought I would be a shoo-in but they looked at several different people and a guy named Dave McNabb had the gig for the first two weeks of that fall tour. Then for one reason or another he didn’t seem to fit what they were looking for. He might have been too straight-ahead acid jazz and Ellis had really been pushing for me. So they just called me and said, “Dude, you were probably the right choice all along, will you come out now?” And I said, ‘Of course.”

DB- Before we get to Jemimah Puddleduck your current project, let’s talk about your background. The one tidbit that surfaced prior to the Other Ones tour…

MK- Let me guess…

DB- So did you play on the Friends theme?

MK- No, although I toured with the Rembrandts [who recorded the song]. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a fan of theirs. I like pop music. I started out playing music because of the Beatles, and as awesome as they were, the Beatles were all about three minute pop songs. So I have a real soft spot in my heart for that kind of stuff. For me, the Rembrandts, pre-Friends theme, were always this band that wrote good Beatles-influenced pop tunes with Everly Brothers style harmonies. They had three albums prior to then but the Friends theme killed the partnership between the two guys that were the Rembrandts because one of them thought they had this punk ethos and that they had lost their credibility.

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