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Published: 2012/08/24
by Mike Greenhaus

Mark Karan: From RatDog to Rambler

You mentioned something I was actually going to bring up. You have a long history playing Grateful Dead music but most of it has been associated with Bob Weir and his various projects. You have played with Phil and Friends and the Other Ones and in other settings, too but can you talk about how Weir and Lesh approach their bands differently?

Bob and Phil approach “Help/Slip/Franklin’s,” particularly “Help/Slip,” very differently. Also, Phil and Bobby do “Mississippi Half-Step” in two different keys and there are a lot of chords in that song. After having played it in Bob’s key for twelve years, it was kind of a challenge playing through all those chords in a completely different key and not just sort of autopilot-referring back to what I’d done for twelve years.

It’s like learning a language in two different dialects.

Exactly. And it’s been quite a bit different playing the stuff with Phil because, in addition to the general cast of characters, [Furthur guitarist] John Kadlecik has come down and [Dark Star Orchestra’s] Rob Barraco has played some shows. Quite a few of the people that we normally associate with Grateful Dead-flavored music are there, like Furthur/RatDog keyboardist [Jeff Chimenti], and they have their own ways of playing this music. Then, you have people like Jon Graboff from Ryan Adams’ band and Chris Robinson and some of the guys from the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. It’s been cool because there’s a bunch of guys that have been coming in that don’t necessarily come from Grateful Dead music, so they have a very different way of interpreting those songs.

It’s interesting that both in terms of your residency and a lot of Phil’s residency, Ryan Adams and members of the Cardinals have become such a core part of the Dead family. In a lot of ways, they feel like they’ve been living a parallel existence for the last couple of decades and, ever since Phil played with Ryan and the Cardinals at the Jammys, those two worlds have combined. Everyone’s covering each other’s material and people like Jon Graboff, who come from a different background and world, are now associated with this material.

Oh yeah. Jon and I really hit it off. I have a feeling that we may do something together when I head east. I’m always trying to figure out ways to get back to the East Coast, and I think that’s the most viable way to do it these days. I have more or less let go of Jemimah Puddleduck, like I said earlier. I think I will be able to pull it out as a special events thing, but keeping it together as a viable working band just doesn’t work. So what we’re thinking about quite a bit, frankly, is coming east and hooking up with players who are already back that direction. Maybe doing something with somebody like Jon, maybe pulling in somebody like Andy Hess. Whoever it works out to be. This Ramble stuff has been really good for that, too—I’ve been meeting all these players that I wouldn’t otherwise know for when I head back there.

Looking at your schedule, you have quite a diverse mix of projects coming up with a lot of different players. I guess while we’re on the Grateful Dead, you are playing with Donna Jean this summer, filling in while Jeff Mattson plays with Dark Star. Can you talk a little bit about how you guys first connected and a little bit about your history and experience of playing in that band, which incorporates a very different side of the Dead and also Jerry Garcia Band?

I actually don’t remember when Donna Jean and I first met. It’s been quite a while I now. We always hit it off. Right from the very beginning there was a real warmth and sense of camaraderie and kindred spirits. So when she first invited me to come back east a few months ago—or a year ago or whatever it was—I was like, “Heck yeah! I don’t know what the music is gonna be like but I get to go hang out with those guys! How fun!” That’s the way it’s been, that’s the way it’s developed. It’s nothing that we are taking terribly seriously because, as you mentioned, Jeff is her normal guy. I’m just sort of filling in and it’s great because it feels good, and it’s not a lot of hassle and work. We’re doing material that we’re all pretty comfortable with. It’s really just a chance for me to get back east and hang with my friends and play good music.

And would you say with Melvin Seals, it’s a similar type of connection? That you guys knew each other over the years and it just made sense to do some gigs and some touring? Because I know you’ve been on the road with him as well.

Yeah, we have connected through the years. There was a period a few years ago when we briefly did a bunch of shows with Bobby Vega and John Molo under the moniker Avalon Allstars. But in recent years, Melvin and I haven’t had much opportunity to play together because he’s pretty busy doing the JGB thing. I sat in with them a couple of times just as a one-off but, generally speaking, that guitar chair is pretty well covered. So Melvin and I haven’t had a whole lot of opportunity to do stuff together. So when I got called a few months ago to go to the little run with Melvin, the guys from the Schwag and Terrapin Flyer, I jumped at the chance because it was a chance to go play with Melvin and also a chance to get out to the Midwest, which I don’t do very often these days. We had a ball. And then out of the blue, I got this outreach from the Grateful Garcia Gathering, saying that they wanted to add me in as sort of an additional member there.

I’ve read some interviews in the past about your long association with Grateful Dead music and you’ve said that when you were first were getting into it, it was some of the early ’70s and late-‘60s material that was the music you first learned as a fan. In terms of the Jerry Garcia Band stuff, did you have as deep of an understanding or has there been a learning curve to understand that side of Jerry’s playing and Jerry’s repertoire?

Well, interestingly, when I was a kid, I grew up being around the Haight. I was 11 years old in 1966 and hanging out with all my pre-adolescent friends in the Haight, and we would get to go see the Dead and everything in Speedway Meadows, and we were there when they closed off Haight street and had the concert that’s depicted inside Live/Dead and stuff. So, you know, I grew up listening to those songs. But I also grew up listening to all the music of that era. That was my era as a kid and a teenager. And that is mostly what Jerry was culling from for material for his band: a lot of Motown stuff, cool old R&B tunes and cool old bluegrass tunes. So a lot of the songs they do with JGB, I don’t know them as JGB songs but I know the songs. So not a huge learning curve for me in that sense because they’re all songs that I really love and all songs that I can really relate to.

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