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Published: 2009/07/31
by Brian Robbins

Mark Karan: Tempered By The Fire

BR: That’s one of the tracks that Wally Ingram is on … was there a conscious thought to include him as part of the “brotherhood” – a fellow cancer survivor?

MK: Well, that’s definitely not the only reason, ‘cause Wally’s such a great player. But, having said that, yeah – I was aware of Wally and really liked his work, but we really didn’t know each other until the throat cancer experience. He offered me a lot of support where he’d just gone through it himself; he was able to give me a heads-up about what to expect when things were starting to get a little rough. Wally’d say, “Yeah, this is part of it, but it’ll get better again – hang in there.” So we developed a friendship from there and when the time came to work on the album, Wally was the obvious choice. I always loved what he did with David Lindley –

BR: Oh, man – those two together … you listen and ask yourself, “How many arms do they have between the two of them?”

MK: (laughs) Exactly – exactly. Classic drums and ethnic drums and weird little toys and things that he finds … he just makes all these great sounds happen.

BR: And you play bass on that cut, right?

MK: Yeah – and there’s an interesting little story that goes with that: Hutch played bass on the track when we cut it and for whatever reason, it just wasn’t the feel I was after for the song. I ended up doing a scratch take on bass myself just to get the approach. Robin Sylvester tried playing a bass part using my ideas and his version was great, but I think because it didn’t start with him, it didn’t have the same feel, the same connection to the track. I ended up saying, “Well, screw it – I know what I’m hearing in my head.” I punched in the parts that were kind of lame on my scratch track and ended up doing the bass track myself.

BR: The song has taken on a different meaning over the years, hasn’t it?

MK: Since I originally wrote it? Sure – definitely. There are a couple of these tunes that I massaged the lyrics before I went ahead and laid the vocal track down. If you listened to some of the older, live versions you’d probably notice that some of the lyrics are slightly different. One reason is they were first drafts and I’d never done any rewrites; I’d never gone back and grabbed some of the lines I didn’t like and massaged them. Also, years have passed and some of the lyrics were from the perspective of a younger, maybe angrier or less secure kind of a person. I was able to come at them now with a little more mature perspective … which probably came from surviving the cancer and whatever else I’ve been through in the last 10 or 15 years.

BR: “Bait The Hook” has you doing a sweet acoustic guitar part underneath it all … you just kind of sat back and let JT go at it on the keyboard.

MK: Well, I figured between what he was up to and what Molo was doing on the drums, I had a choice of either getting in the way (laughs) just for the sake of “look at me – look at me!” or saying “This track is really working; what can I do to support the mood?” Between everybody, we created a good place for me to sing the song. It was a real opportunity vocally and lyrically for me to connect with the song that I wouldn’t get to do at a gig.

BR: And then Gloria Jones and Jackie LaBranch from JGB are in there on vocals, too …

MK: Oh, man – meeting them was a thrill. They were definitely a pleasure to work with.

BR: Now, do I have the story right on the title track, “Walk Through The Fire” – you wrote that as you were starting your chemo treatments?

MK: Yeah, they had me do my first session of chemo in the hospital so they could keep an eye on me – they’re basically introducing a lot of poison into your system and they want to see how you’re going to react, you know? And we checked in with books and guitars and pads of paper and pens and all kinds of crap because we knew we going to be there for a week.

So that first day, I’m in my bed and my wife Maile is sitting next to me and I asked her, “Honey, can you hand me that guitar?” So she handed it to me and I started poking around on it. And then it was, “Honey, can you hand me that pad and pen?” In about 15 or 20 minutes I had the whole damn thing – it just sort of barfed out of me. It was one of those things that was like a gift; not like “I had to do this and it was hard work,” but more like “I had to make this happen by being available when it was offered.”

BR: I hear you. It’s like when you’re writing – especially fictional stuff – and it’s as if you’re just watching the movie in your head and trying to keep up with it.

MK: Exactly – and not let it outrun you.

BR: What are you playing for a dobro on that track?

MK: It an old 1930’s National Style O that I found about three years ago at a guitar show here in the Bay Area.

BR: It’s got a great sound …

MK: Yeah – and older than my mom, too! (laughter)

BR: It feels like there’s a couple different levels to that song: there’s the acknowledgment of what you had ahead of you at that point, plus it feels like you’re shedding some old skin, as well.

MK: Absolutely. It’s like the old thing about the sword in the flame – tempering the steel in the flame, you know? “Walk Through The Fire” means a lot of different things, really.

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