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Published: 2012/08/24
by Mike Greenhaus

Mark Karan: From RatDog to Rambler

It was a similar thing for Jerry. He was choosing songs that he loved and he related to and that he didn’t have a platform to play in the Dead.

Exactly. You know, one of the things that I’ve noticed that cracks me up is that I fancy myself eclectic. I fancy myself as kind of an arbiter of unusual music or music that sometimes goes forgotten or un-played or didn’t get played that much in the first place. And so whenever I’m looking for cover tunes to some degree anyway, I try to look at having at least a third or half the material be material that hasn’t been done to death. Even if it’s a great song, if fifty bands do it every night of the week, the song gets a little tired after a while. And when I find myself looking around at new material and kind of racking my brain for some song I haven’t thought of for ages or whatever, I’ll come up with something and go, “Ah! Awesome! I bet nobody has covered this in centuries!” And, I’ll look it up on the internet and sure as hell, either the Grateful Dead or the Jerry Garcia Band has covered it at some point. They’ve just done everything under the sun. The breadth and scope of cover material that’s been done in that scene is amazing.

I guess you have to keep going to Ryan Adams and Zac Brown Band and Jackie Greene to get new material.

Well, I think that what Phil’s been doing is whatever song he stumbles across that lights him up he will play. It doesn’t matter if it’s a classic from 30-40 years ago or a hundred years ago or if it’s something that’s just come out last week, if somebody has happened to turn him on to that and lit him up, he will play it. And I’m sort of the same way. There’s a song called “The Story” by Brandi Carlile, and I believe it was at my very first Sweetwater show; I opened the show with that song solo acoustic. I don’t know, I might have had a couple of people looking at me sideways. I didn’t have any idea but I loved the song and I didn’t really care.

That’s great, it kind of opens up everyone’s mind.

Yeah, that’s the hope. I think a lot of times, at the risk of say biting the hand that feeds, and I mean this in the most loving way possible, Deadheads can kind of limit their options. They get so wrapped up in the ‘Grateful Dead thing’ and the Grateful Dead music being the only thing that matters, so they wind up missing an awful lot of other wonderful, wonderful stuff. And I’ve always been on a mission—while embracing the music of the Dead and being incredibly thankful and grateful that I was brought into this family and that I’ve gotten to spend all of this time playing this great book of music—to try to remind everybody out there that there is a whole buttload of other music and that the Grateful Dead were first and foremost music fans. Those cover songs that they do didn’t just come out of the ether. They respected the music of other people enormously. That is why they did so much of it. I’ve said this before in interviews, but it always cracks me up. I’ll be talking to some really hardcore Deadhead and they’ll tell me they hate country music. I’ll just start cracking up and I’ll say, “Well, who do you think ‘Mama Tried’ came from?”

Exactly! All this is originally American roots, country and folk.

Yeah, exactly. But somehow if it isn’t done by Merle Haggard or Buck Owens, it’s, “No, no, no, go back to the roots man.” Check it out! You know, the tree isn’t very strong without its roots.

Speaking of Americana and country music, the other band that I see you’re playing with that I wanted to talk about a little bit is Great American Taxi. Have you played with them before?

No, I’ve never played with them before. In fact, we did several shows in the early days of RatDog with Leftover Salmon and that is about as close as the connection gets. I was very surprised and pleased to get the phone call. It just came out of the blue. My booking agent reached out to me and said, “Hey, these guys have expressed an interest in having you join them for this show,” and I said, “Hell yeah! Let’s dive in!”

Was that a similar way that the Mother Hips connection came about?

No, that’s more because I had met Tim and Nicki Bluhm—I think around the Jackie thing. Tim had come down to a few of the Phil things I’d been involved with and also Jackie’s Fillmore birthday shows that I had been involved with. We hit it off; he enjoyed my playing and whatnot. So he invited me to come sit in with the Hips at a local theater called the Mystic, and we really enjoyed each other and that was how I met Greg Loiacono and Greg and I wound up doing a bunch of stuff together. He’s been down to two of my Sweetwater things now.

I guess this kind of brings us back to what we were talking about earlier: Because all these new venues have popped up and this sense of community seems to be kind of reemerging, there’s been so many new projects emerging.

Oh, thank God! Like I said, I grew up here and my history is around this place. There have been a couple of dry spells. Like I said, I moved in the late ‘80s early ‘90s to L.A. because it got so dry around here, shocking to say. Right now it’s really, really fruitful, and I’m really enjoying it because that’s how high I hold this area. That’s what this area has always been for me. It’s been a hotbed of culture and music and art and sort of forward thinking culture, and I like to see it coming back into full fruition.

You guys did those two RatDog reunion shows earlier this year. Can you foresee any RatDog shows or revue-style performances in the near future?

You know, that’s a question for Bob, frankly. I’d love to see it happen. I think most of the guys in the band would love to see it happen—if not all the guys in the band. We had gotten to be pretty close friends and brothers on tour, and I’m sure we all miss each others’ company. We had developed a pretty extensive language as a band after spending 12-plus years together, with basically the same combo of guys. I miss that sort of enlightening musical communication that we had developed. That sort of insta-mindmeld. I would like to see that happen. I just don’t know if it’s what Bob has in mind and, frankly, it’s his baby so he can do with it what he will.

How is Robin feeling? Have you spoken to him recently?

Yeah, I just played with him last night in fact. One of the other things I’ve been doing around here, and it’s been a lot of fun, is that there have been, almost by default, a couple of bands that have developed. One being the Ghosts of Electricity, which is an all-Dylan kind of a revue-thing I’m doing with Stu Allen, Mookie Siegal, Greg Anton, Robin and Pat Nevins. It’s just a really fun band of all Dylan stuff.

The other is a band called the Rock Collection that we put together at Oregon Country Fair last summer. For the original gig, we had a guy called Paul Lamb play bass but we were going to do it as a one-off and now it developed into something that we are actually taking out and doing a few gigs with. We brought Robin aboard and we actually did a show with him last night, we’re doing another one in about a week and a half.

Robin is feeling better. He’s still a bit under the weather and, of course, he’s still awaiting a transplant so he’s not going to be feeling optimum until that happens. But he is definitely feeling better, he is definitely playing a lot more music and, like a groundhog, he’s sticking his head above ground and seeing what’s going on.

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