Mark Karan: From RatDog to Rambler
For many years, Mark Karan was best known as RatDog’s guitarist. But since Bob Weir has shifted his attention from RatDog to Furthur and TRI, Karan has retained visibility as a member of the extended Grateful Dead family. In recent months, he’s not only played a few RatDog reunions, but also toured with Grateful Dead singer Donna Jean Godchaux-Mackay, played with JGB keyboardist Melvin Seals and participated in various Phil Lesh & Friends events at San Rafael, CA’s new Terrapin Crossroads. He’s also hosted numerous ramble-like events of his own during his residency at Mill Valley, CA’s new Sweetwater Music Hall. During his busy summer, Karan discussed these gigs, his own solo work and Marin County, CA’s current renaissance.
I’d like to start with your residency at Sweetwater. How did that run of shows first get started and what was the process like of choosing the residency’s core players?
I’ve been doing the Jemimah Puddleduck thing for a lot of years, and it’s just a buttload of fun. I really love that band, I love the guys and I love the music that we make. But we all live pretty far apart, and we’ve run into a lot of difficulties with getting together on a regular basis. I just wanted to play more, frankly. I wanted to play more regularly and music is kind of what I live for. So when Sweetwater opened, I got a hold of them, and I had this idea that I wanted to do a residency. Initially, it was really just kind of an excuse for me to meet some new musicians and try some new ideas, which it still very much is. It’s kind of turned into a whole thing—much to my surprise. It started selling out and a lot of buzz came from it. I thought I was going to be doing this low-key, mid-week thing and it has turned into something pretty special. I called up my drummer I’ve been using for the last couple of years with Puddleduck—a guy named Billy Lee Lewis—and then the rest of the guys are pretty new to me.
I’ve been using Danny Eisenberg, who plays with Mother Hips and who used to play with Ryan Adams. I met him, actually, when I sat in with the Hips. We really enjoyed each other’s company and decided to start playing together a bit so he’s been playing keyboards. Then, there is a local guy here named Paul Olguin, who I’d heard a lot about as a bass player. I called him in to be part of the core thing. So it’s sort of been those four guys with some variation as the core band every week. I kind of look at different tunes and different flavors of tunes. Maybe we’ll have a somewhat acoustic orientation one show or one week might be a little more guitar oriented, and I’ll bring in an extra guitar rig down and invite some friends to play guitar. I’m just trying to keep it really honestly musical and fun and different every week.
The idea was to have something midweek which was early and a blast and inexpensive. In this economy, especially, I think people need a good time. They need to be able to go out and have fun without having to buy a 25 or 30-dollar ticket. And that’s kind of all what I’m all about. You know, music to be available for all of us. It’s turned into a very cool thing. I’ve had people as diverse as Huey Lewis, blues hero Tom Castro, some of the Furthur singers, some of Bonnie Raitt’s guys and the guys in Mother Hips and ALO. I had Jackie Greene’s keyboard player the night before last. It’s been a real kick.
You’ve mentioned that this is an opportunity for you to play in a lot of different settings. Have you been using it to kind of introduce some of your own new material? Or have you been mostly focusing on the canon of songs you’ve played with your variety of projects in the past?
Well, I haven’t had a whole lot of new material to introduce recently in terms of my own. I’m not what you call a prolific writer. I write but I’m not one of those guys that can’t live unless I’m writing five or ten songs a week. New material often winds up being, “Hmm… what would a cool, obscure cover I haven’t even thought about in years sound like if we tried it?” or, “What’s a song that I just heard recently that’s got me all lit up and excited? I wonder if we could interpret it differently and have fun with it.”
So the material has been less important than what we do with it. We just gather up tunes each week. I certainly sprinkle it liberally with my own stuff—I’ve been doing that for quite a while, and we just approach that however it winds up being that week and then, liberally sprinkle it with other stuff. When Levon [Helm] passed, we worked up a couple of extra tunes from The Band and whatnot. When my dog died recently, we kind of had a send off for her there and did “Will the Circle [be Unbroken]” and stuff like that so it’s different every time and the material is really a springboard.
The Marin area is quite the hotbed of local jam sessions with TRI, Sweetwater and Terrapin Crossroads. Have you noticed the emergence of a new community of musicians?
Lately yes, and I’m stoked about that. I was in L.A. for about twelve years when I first hooked up with the Grateful Dead scene and all that, but I grew up in the Bay Area—most of my life was spent in the Bay Area. One of the reasons I had moved to L.A. was because the music scene in the Bay Area—the places to play and stuff—had really shriveled up and blown away. And now it’s great because there are all these new venues opening up and, even right here in Marin County, I think there are currently five or six happening music venues. It’s wonderful.
Speaking of those venues, you’ve been also a regular at Phil Lesh’s Terrapin Crossroads, playing in all different kinds of settings. Can you talk a little bit about that experience? Are there formal rehearsals for his Rambles or is it a more loose jam session?
It’s a lot of fun but it’s also a whole boatload of work because of what Phil does at the Rambles every week. It’s a new series ech week and a new combo of guys each time. Some of us have a handle on some Grateful Dead songs and some of us don’t. Some of the guys that he calls up haven’t really played much Dead stuff in the past. And even for those of us that have a long history of playing Grateful Dead music, it is different—my history is with Weir. So then playing with Phil, it might be a song I’ve played for 12 years with Weir but, all of a sudden, I’m playing it with a new key and Phil has some different ideas about how the arrangement should be or how to approach the song overall. Maybe, suddenly I’m having to learn a new vocal harmony. So even songs that we’re already familiar with are a pretty good challenge for everybody. And then there is always brand new material that none of us have ever heard before: Ryan Adams and Zac Brown and all kinds of really interesting sources for material. So every time there is a Ramble series, there is a series of several days of rehearsal where we put in a lot of hours getting to know each other and getting to know the tunes. And then we generally have a pretty extensive sound check before the show. So it ain’t loose. It’s a lot of fun but it’s also a whole lotta work.
It takes a lot of preparation to have a loose Ramble.
Well, yeah because he’s kind of reinventing the band every single week, you know? And additionally, when you think about it, we’re doing three Rambles a week generally speaking and, in the Grateful Dead tradition, no repeats. So for a Ramble series each week, each musician is working on somewhere between 60-75 songs.