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Published: 2008/06/25

‘Life Really Is About Balance’: A Reader Interview With Mark Karan

In June of 2007 RatDog guitarist Mark Karan announced that he would take a medical leave from the band, after a lump on his neck was diagnosed as cancerous. Karan swiftly began treatment, which prevented him from gigging with the group for the remainder of the year. However, as the spring of 2008 arrived, Karan was given a clean bill of health and resumed performing with RatDog. Soon after that tour began, readers sent along their questions for Karan, the subject of our latest reader interview. Here the guitarist (who is out on the road with Bob Weir and Company once again) talks about his health, his influences and the fate of that elusive next RatDog studio recording.

Before we get to the reader questions, I’d like to jump in and ask about your appearance with Phil Lesh & Friends during their Warfield run. Can you talk about how that came about?

MK- Phil and Jill [Lesh] and I and Kathy Sunderland made a pretty powerful connection coming through my cancer. Phil has had his own health issues over the last several years, Jill has had some and their dear friend and tour manager Kathy Sunderland has had some. So we bonded in that community of caring human beings and healing and made a pretty powerful personal connection that maybe hadn’t been there previously.

We had played some music together but not a whole bunch and we hadn’t really ever hung out. Then they reached out when I got sick and let me know they were there for me, offered support and we developed a friendship. That’s how I ended up sitting in with them over the summer and some of the other things that have happened. So when they were getting ready to do this run to close out the Warfield they gave me a shout and said, “Hey, would you like to come down? We’d love to have you come down and do a little sitting in with us.”

You performed on Live Dead that very first night. Did you know well in advance what Phil had planned for those shows?

MK- No, not at all. That would be very non-Grateful Dead, man. In the morning that we were getting ready to go down there Phil and I swapped emails and he let me know that they were going to do Aoxomoxoa and Live Dead. It was my call to pass on Aoxo because I hadn’t worked on it and I didn’t want to butcher those great tunes. So I said, “How about I just come up for the second set and do Live Dead with you guys because that’s one of my all-time favorite records. So that’s what we did and it was a ball. He mentioned that maybe I could join Jackie singing on “Lovelight” and that worked really well.

Okay, let’s step back and talk about your health if you’re comfortable with that. A number of our readers asked very delicately-phrased questions about the discovery and treatment of your cancer. As I understand it, you had a lump on neck that a doctor initially told you was benign?

MK- Yeah that did what they call a fine needle biopsy and they pulled out some fluid from the lump and they biopsied it. According to that information they said it was benign and that if I wanted to have it removed I could but it would be strictly cosmetic. I’m not big about going under the knife so I wasn’t going to do it for cosmetic sake, it wasn’t that big of a lump. Then we were in vacation in Hawaii last May and I started running a fever and my whole neck swelled up. We got very nervous and it just didn’t seem right. And so rather than go to the original doctor, when we got back from Hawaii we went to UCSF and we met the head of oncology who came in, looked at my throat and within about 5 minutes gave me this grave look and said, “I’m really sorry but this doesn’t look like anything benign that I’ve ever seen.” And that is kind of where the whole ride started.

In terms of your treatment, a number of our readers had questions about your approach, which was rather broad and all-encompassing. Can you talk a bit about that?

MK- It was actually pretty amazing. There’s a whole myriad of ways people can respond to news like that and for me personally I didn’t go through a whole lot of anger, “Why me?” and that kind of stuff. I was stunned and then truthfully I was taken by a real sense of calm and a real sense of purpose and a sense that I needed to connect to anything and everything positive in my life experience: spirituality, emotional healing, improved diet, better self-care and self-attitude, all of it. I did a little post out to the community when it first happened and I referred to building a multi-headed dragon and that’s kind of what my wife and I did. We jumped full tilt into the western medicine stuff but we also jumped full tilt into acupuncture and body and energy work and meditation and spiritual healing stuff. My thought was, “I don’t know what’s going to work but I know it’s not my time to go so I need to figure out what I need to do to go through this process and what the heck it is I’m supposed to learn from it.”

It’s kind of weird to say but at the end of this I’ve come very powerfully to the conclusion that in many many ways cancer was one of the best things that’s happened to me in my life. It sounds weird to say but I’ve has do much spiritual growth, so much emotional growth, healings of ancient resentments and losses. Ex-girlfriends and lovers with painful break-up that I never thought I’d hear from again or contact again reaching out to me from out of nowhere. Real life connections to spiritual doctrines and whatnot that I had a strong intellectual connection to but hadn’t really embraced in my life suddenly became part of who I really am. It’s really weird to say that but it’s been a good thing in my life.

“What role did music play in your treatment and recovery process? Was there anything specific that helped you through the more difficult times?” Chris D

MK- Well straight music versus music community, not as much as one might imagine given my passion about music in general in my life. Certainly when I was going through radiation, one of the things that made it palatable for me was every single day when I would go under this mask and have this experience of being radiated, I would go through my CDs and I would select some wonderful old CD generally, things that had an emotional connection for me, a comforting connection, a fond memory that kind of thing. Then I would go into the radiation and listen to that music and feel my heart opening up the experience and lend my mental and spiritual energies to the healing that was going on and that was assisted by that musical connection.

But then there’s the community part. The music community was a whole other ball of wax. Those people really showed up in my life and I’m getting pretty choked up just thinking about it. The outreach from the Grateful Dead community, the family at large, was pretty phenomenal. We daily received numerous cards, people sent me cool little stuffed animals or wonderful little pieces of stone or crystal that had some special meaning to them that they felt would help me with my healing process. There were several really heartfelt letters, paintings and drawings. People sent pictures wearing wonderful t-shirts that they made, Get Well MK T-shirts and things like that. A couple of times people left messages on our answering machine with chants and things that were done, for example at the Gathering of the Vibes. They called on their cell phones so we got to hear the crowd wishing me healing. There was just so much

“I enjoy listening to you and RatDog often, and am glad you’re back. Since you had to face cancer, are you coming back to the band with any different sense of conviction to do something you haven’t accomplished? Any new songs you yearn to play?” Jim M

MK- Yeah, I would say there’s a renewed sense of conviction and connection to life in general and as a direct result of that to music, both RatDog music and my own music outside the realm of RatDog. So definitely I feel like I’m playing in an even more connected fashion with RatDog. I feel even more passionately about a band I was already passionate about because I feel that way about life. I feel thankful to still be here and be able to play music. I don’t think there’s any particular RatDog or GD songs that I’m really attached to although I keep needling Bobby that I want to do “Cryptical” just because I loved that song so much when I was a kid. Also we’ve been threatening to do “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” which I’m going to continue needling him on because it has a particular poignancy for me now.
But I’d say really as far as that kind of attitude is concerned it turns up more in my life and music outside of RatDog where I have a renewed fervor and a renewed interest in finally finishing my record. I’ve been threatening to make a Mark Karan or Jemimah Puddleduck record for twenty years. I’ve been on lots of people’s records and never made one for myself and now we’re making some real forward progress in that. That’s a pretty big focus for me, a pretty big inspiration coming out of this. I want to complete it because I don’t know how much time I get, every day is a gift at this point. I don’t want to leave the planet whenever that happens without some sort of sense that I added it all up and left something behind.

A number of people wanted to know what sort of recording and touring plans you might have for Jemimah Puddleduck in 2008.

MK- I think 2008 is pretty much out of the picture, more or less. Who knows what a one off here or there might be but as far as Puddleduck doing any kind of a tour or anything, I think that’s pretty unlikely. RatDog has a pretty full plate this year and we’re diving into it with both feet so I don’t think I’m going to have a whole lot of time or opportunity to book live stuff outside the realm of RatDog. However, we’ve made some pretty good progress with the recording part and I’m certainly going to continue along those lines. I did some sessions a few weeks ago right before the RatDog tour went out and I think when we get back from summer tour the same thing’s going to happen. I don’t know exactly when it’s going to be finished because for one thing I’m not really quite sure when my singing voice is going to be back in to its full form and I want to deliver the goods on my first record.

“Can you talk about the feelings and emotions you experienced upon returning to the stage with RatDog? Did you find it overwhelming or was it more like, Hey, it’s back to work?” Steph B

MK- It’s funny, a little of each. Throughout the evening I ran the gamut of emotions about it. At times it felt like putting on a really comfortable pair of old shoes and at other times a little more mind-blowing and I’d look around and realize what was going on and it almost had that same sense of wonder or maybe even a little bit more of that sense of wonder than back in 98 when I first did this, looked over to my right and there was Phil and Bobby. I’d be like, “Sheesh, man” So there was some of each.

There was actually a show, I’m not sure what show it was. It was one of the first 4 or 5 shows and I’m not exactly sure when it happened but all of a sudden I was completely overwhelmed. Something happened, something connected for me with the experience with the audience and everything that was going on and I just started bawling. I really connected to the experience of being back and to the love and acceptance and support that all of the RatDog family had offered me through my whole process and I just busted up. It was during a song and it wasn’t brief. Obviously I didn’t completely lose it, it kind of stayed with me for a while. I was teary and very emotionally raw for a good portion of that show.

But then the truth is by the end of tour not to appear cavalier about the whole thing but by the end of tour it kind of felt like rolling off a log. Well we’re back in this aren’t we? Okay fellas, let’s go.

“What is the difference between your playing between 1998 Furthur/RatDog and the present?” Scott S

MK- When I came into this whole community I had a strong sense of self and what my musical identity was. I’d been doing a lot of work for a lot of years and I was already in my early 40s so I was no spring chicken. But when I came into this community initially there was a lot of questioning and I sensed, at least from my perspective, a lot of judgment, a lot of doubt in my right to be there. It shook my confidence for a quite a while, so that in those first few years I feel like some of my playing in this community was a bit tentative which was awkward for me because I had been a strong confident player before that but I had never really had anybody be as vigilant and critical as the Deadhead community can be. Nobody had watched what I was up to that closely and had such potent and powerful opinions about it that they were so freely expressing all over the internet for me to look at and go, “Oh my god, these people hate me.” (laughs)

It took me a while to kind of get over that so when I look at what’s going on now, I’ve developed more of an sense of confidence in my playing, I’ve developed a thicker skin about those people who feel a need to be critical, I have made a strong connection with my brothers in RatDog so that we’ve learned to explore one another musically and emotionally on stage and really have a conversation that matters rather than a weak imitation of what the Dead might have been up to. Also I’ve learned to stretch beyond my limitations and open my head up musically. I’ve gotten a little deeper about what jamming is about and what improvisation is about and where I can go with that. But on the other hand, that came naturally to me a in a lot of ways too because I grew up on that as a kid. I was seeing the Dead in 66 and 67 when it was all very new along with Quicksilver and all those band so it’s kind of in my DNA too.

In terms of picky Deadheads, oftentimes it’s more about them that it is about you in many respects.

MK- I’ve learned that but it took me a while (laughs).

“What balance do you strike in playing leads so deeply associated with Jerry Garcia versus offering in your own style? Has this changed over the years?” Alan E

MK- It’s a good segue because like I was saying, that music and that approach to music is pretty deeply burned into my DNA, it’s in there pretty good. At least the Grateful Dead through Blues for Allah was music I was pretty passionate about as a youngster so that sound, that approach to soloing, it’s impossible to get away from it, it’s impossible for me not to reference it. I used to worry about it, I used to worry that I was being too Jerry in my approach or not Jerry enough for what the fans wanted to hear from me, all of those conversations and insecurities and questions and whatnot were going through my head and frankly, getting in the way of playing music. Where I finally have arrived is I’m the sum total of whatever my influences are, I’m the sum total of whatever it is I love to do. So there are going to be particular songs or particular times within a song where the influences and the references that I draw from may be the Beatles or wonderful guitarists like Amos Garrett or some of the other guitar players that I’m really passionate about. There are going to be other times where the music from the first album up through Blues for Allah is burned into me with Jerry’s approach, Jerry’s melodicism, Jerry’s modalities that there’s no way that I can be true to myself and let my thing flow and not be referencing the hell out of Jerry Garcia at that point. I’m never copying it and it’s never intentional. I’m never setting out to be Jerry-like but if it ends up sounding a bit evocative of that, it’s because that’s what burned into my subconscious, that’s just the way I hear that music and so it comes out in my playing.

“Where would you say the RatDog sound has moved or evolved, if anywhere, over the course of your involvement with the group?”

MK- I think a couple things have happened to RatDog in the past few years. As much as I love Wasserman, when we made the switch to Robin Sylvester I think the band really gelled because Rob is really cool, unique guy but he’s not a strong rock electric bassist. And when we got somebody in the band who really held down that role, it really shifted what our whole approach was and where we could go, so that has changed our whole thing. And then I think also the fact that we’ve been together with the same membership as long as we have, it’s just gelled more. I think there used to be more of a disparity between the more jazz-influenced musicians and the more rock-influenced musicians in the band. Now I feel it’s more like a really good blend of everybody’s influences because we’re all really gotten to know each other and hang out together and play music for a long enough time that we can get a little bit of that same sense, not to get weird here, but that same sense of telepathy on some level that the Dead used to share, where you know each other well enough to read where the other guy is going and go there with him.

“The impression I have from past interviews with RatDog members is that Bob Weir usually sets the tempos for songs, or at least has a preferred tempo for the band to play the song. Is it me or does it seem like RatDog tends to play songs at slower tempos? The band has their own signature approach to the groove. Was it conscious decision to approach the music like that? Any tips on playing slow tempos, but still capturing the energy of the song?” Scott W

MK- I can’t speak for Bob, I’m not in his head and I don’t know what he thinks or feels but my sense is that early on the Dead was what it was and as it developed in later years, it morphed into something else, as anything would. My sense is that as they were playing more stadium gigs and got bigger that their tempos did get broader. There was a power in some of the slower delivery of the stuff and I think Bob’s pretty connected to that set of tempos and that kind of approach, as opposed to some of the earlier more up-tempo dancey stuff that really came from a period when they were playing more dances and dance halls as opposed to stadiums full of 60-100,000 people. So I think that’s where Bob’s desire to play lot of that slower stuff comes from.

As far as how to dig in at the slower tempos, I don’t really have any advice other than the same advice I give about pretty much anything musically and in particular improvisation, to trust the moment and trust the music and understand that you can play pretty much anything at pretty much any tempo if you really give yourself to that tempo and trust it. But if you’re resisting it, if you’re feeling somehow in your head this is too slow or too fast, then you’re fighting it. But I think the key to playing good music in general and in particular to improvising music, is not to fight, to try out of get out of your own way and let it come to you, let it happen.

“Are there any signature tricks or rules that Ratdog commonly uses for segues? Like resolving the song down a 4th into the next song?” Scott W

MK- No. that’s completely all bets are off. We don’t know what the heck we’re doing between songs. Sometimes it’s a train wreck and sometimes it’s magic but that’s what makes it special.

That’s pretty much Weir’s turf although we’re certainly welcome to have our input. If any of us has a particular desire to play a particular song, Bobby’s more than happy to hear from us and if it strikes his fancy to include it, he’ll do it and he’s usually pretty great about that. For example my wife loves “Sitting in Limbo,” so if I know she’s going to be at a gig I might say, “Hey, can can we do Sitting in Limbo’ because I know Maile’s going to be there.” And 9 times out of 10 we end up doing Sitting in Limbo.’”

A little of this a little of that. Sometimes Bobby will come in with a little list of however many songs as we come into rehearsal prior to a tour. He’ll come in with a list of maybe 5 or 6 tunes that’s he’d like to pursue screwing around with and see whether or not we make friends with them and want to take them out on the road with us. And sometimes one of us may say, Hey, this is a really fun tune I’ve always wanted to do, how would you feel about tackling this?’ And he’s usually game. He’s a fairly open-minded guy, he’ll take a shot at pretty-much anything.

“In your December interview with David Gans, you spoke of the possibility of working with Robin Sylvester on some projects of your own before RatDog began touring again this Spring. Have you had the opportunity to get anything started this past January or February?” Jenny

MK- Yeah we went into the studio. I love having relocated back to my home area in Marin County, having done my time in LA as it were. One of things that I missed is I met John Molo when I lived down in LA and the guys that had been involved in Puddleduck are Southern California-based, so it’s been difficult for us to have a sense of continuity, especially given the fact that John has his Phil commitment, JT has his Hornsby commitment and things like that. So it’s been tough to do but yeah but we did some tracks with some of the guys in Puddleduck and some of the local guys in the Bay Area about two weeks before we went out on my post-cancer tour and took a good shot at four or five tunes that we had been wanting to mess with and I had four or five in the can previously from all the guys in Puddleduck. At this point the plan is to go down to Los Angeles after summer tour and do some more recording with those guys and maybe a little more recording with some other people just for variety, just to see what happens. I love playing music with all the guys from Puddleduck and I love playing music and everybody’s got a different voice, so it’s nice to explore different combinations of people. So the short answer which is too late to give you is yes we did do some recording and yes, it’s starting to formulate.

My upper register and my control and my resonance and stuff aren’t quite there. I’m able to cover most of the background vocals with RatDog that I’ve been able to cover historically but not all of them yet. I’ve been working with a vocal coach, a guy named Roger Love of all things, and he’s pulling notes out of me as we’re working together that frankly I didn’t have before I had the cancer. So over the next couple of months, I’m hoping that my voice is not only going to come back powerfully but potentially come back stronger than it ever was.

And the most popular questionsimply put, when will RatDog record its next studio album?

MK- (Laughs) Yowsa. It’s funny and tragic and all that wrapped into one. It’s kind of like the Puddleduck record in a way. That’s something that all of us have wanted to finish for many years and yet what we’ve done has sat in the can for four or five years since we got together for the first session.

We’ve got several songs in RatDog that we’re certainly ready to take a stab at in the studio and all of at various times have talked about wanting to get in there. Sometimes Bobby’s chomping at the bit when we’re on the road and saying, When we get home we’re going to record’

The intention is there to make a record, absolutely. The desire is there make a record, absolutely. We’re very aware that these songs want to be documented and that the kids who love the band want to hear new material from us but truthfully we’re always so busy with tour that when we get home we wind up needing to take care of our home lives and reconnect to our families and have some quality of living to do. So the studio thing gets backburnered. So yeah, I think there’s a record yet to come. It may happen soon, it may not. I wish I had an answer but I don’t.

Thanks for taking the time and being so forthright about your your illness and its impact.

MK- Frankly it’s turned into one of my great passions want to share my successes and my fears with the community and the world at large because other people are going through this and oher people’s experiences might help them get through their own process. I’ve got a couple friends who dealt this situation who were not as blessed as me and didn’t have the good medical insurance that I had, so one of my soapboxes these days is artists need medical insurance. They’re not working a job that gives them a benefits package. My treatment was literally a million dollars at the end of it, I am not exaggerating. If I hadn’t had the kind of insurance I had then I would have lost my home, I probably would have been in bankruptcy and I would have been at the back of the line for all my treatments. I might not be here.

How can that be addressed?

MK- I guess I’m socialist at heart or something along those lines but I do feel it’s kind of the government’s responsibility to take care of its people. I think it’s criminal that the health situation is the way it is that people in one of richest nations if not the richest nation in the world.

I’m not a political expert and I don’t claim to have the answers. I just know that it sits really really wrong for me and something needs to be done to strike a balance. That’s really at the back of all this, what I’ve come to is that life really is about balance. There needs to be balance in everything and it’s not a balanced picture with those extremes.

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