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Published: 2014/06/21
by Nick Hutchinson

Mark Karan Keeps the Flame Burning

While Mark Karan has played with many artists over the course of his career, he first became known to readers through his work with The Other Ones and then RatDog. He’s also loaned his musical skills to a diverse host of performers, including Huey Lewis, Dave Mason, Delaney Bramlett and Jesse Colin Young. He is a cancer survivor, a road warrior and an inventive guitarist whose style ranges from R&B, blues and pop to psychedelic and beyond.

How are you doing these days?

I’m feeling good man.

You live in Marin County. Is that where you grew up?

We lived in a few different places when I was growing up, so it kind of depends on what period of my life we’re talking about. Technically, I was born in Los Angeles, though I only lived there for three months after my birth. We moved around a bit. But if I had to say I grew up somewhere, I would say San Francisco.

How’d you first get into music?

Well I’ve always loved music. My dad was a jazz trumpet player and we always had music around the house. I couldn’t really imagine a life without it. I played folk guitar as a kid and I listened to all kinds of stuff on the radio, including groups like The Ronettes, The Shirelles and The Chiffons. I loved the popular music of the early ’60s. But when I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time I had a flash. I was like, “Yeah, I’ll be doing that all my life.” (laughs)

At what age did you first pick up the guitar?

When I was about 9.

What kind of guitar did you have?

It was a horrible guitar called an Orpheus (laughs). My parents bought it for me. Of course they had no idea it was horrible, they just wanted to buy me a guitar. They found out later that it wasn’t that their kid was whining and didn’t want to practice. My guitar teacher tried to play the guitar and was like, “Uh, we’re gonna have to do something about this.” (laughs).

You’ve been playing a bit with Melvin Seals and the band Terrapin Flyer recently. How has that been going?

It’s going pretty good. We usually go out for about three to five days at a time. Most of the gigs are around the Midwest. It’s a Dead cover band based out of the Chicago area. One of the guys in the band, Doug Hagman, originally reached out to Melvin several years ago and brought him in. And then about two or three years ago Doug asked me to join them. We tend to lean towards JGB material because Melvin knows more of that. It’s definitely fun to get out and honor my connection to the Dead with these guys and I love any project that allows me to play with Melvin.

In terms of Dead covers, I’ve heard you remark that “All roads lead to ‘The Other One.’” Was that a joke?

It was a joke in a way, but also not. Something about the African-based cadence of that jam and the open musical architecture of it makes it so that any groove that you’re having could wind up going there. It doesn’t matter what key either. It doesn’t have to be in E. I’m specifically referring to the jam part of the “The Other One.”

What other Grateful Dead songs really resonate with you?

I have about two dozen Dead-related songs that I really like to cover. But just off the top of my head, a few songs that I feel a strong connection to include “Deal,” “Easy Wind,” which I liked enough to include on my last album, “Friend of the Devil,” which I really enjoy singing, “Death Don’t Have no Mercy,” “Turn on Your Lovelight,” “Tennessee Jed,” “Loser,” “Ship of Fools,” “Sugaree,” and “New Speedway Boogie,” of which I do an interpretation.

What is it about those songs that draws you to them?

It’s usually that the chord progression, the melody and the lyrics move me. A good song will capture my attention. Something where the progression provides a font of ideas for my guitar playing and the singing is in my wheel house. For me, that applies to music by any one. If I like a song and I can connect to it, I’ll do it, whether it’s by the Grateful Dead, Joe Jackson, Peter Tosh or whoever.

Do you ever feel limited by your association with the music of the Grateful Dead?

I believe in making art that is unique, and I definitely don’t like to be pigeon-holed or typecast as someone who plays just one kind of music. I like a lot of different kinds of music. When I first started playing with The Other Ones, I actually hadn’t played a bunch of Dead music since I was a kid and was learning to play with friends who were Deadheads. I’m never gonna be the kind of guy that is 100 percent satisfied playing someone else’s sound book and mimicking someone else’s musical style, but I love the Dead’s material. I find it especially fulfilling to play Dead music when I’m playing with members of the Dead, because they are the guys who created it and it’s fun to be a part of developing their sound. I’m thrilled that I have a connection to that world. My years with RatDog were fantastic. More recently I have loved playing with Phil (Lesh). We’ve been playing a fair amount together since he opened Terrapin.

Indeed, you’ve been playing at Terrapin Crossroads in San Rafael and the Sweetwater in Mill Valley quite a bit. Can you share some thoughts about those venues?

I think both Phil and Bob both did a great job with their venues. And since they have opened their places, a few other live music spots have cropped up in Marin County as a result. They’ve really done a good thing for the local music scene. They both put a lot of time and energy creating cool places with a good vibe and good sound systems. They’re just really fun places to play. I enjoy the Grate Room at Terrapin quite a bit. Phil completely re-did the sound there and made it into one of the best sounding rooms in which I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. And of course the Sweetwater is a blast too and has its own special vibe.

Are you still playing with The Ghosts of Electricity?

Yeah, it’s a Dylan cover band that I do with Stu Allen, Robyn Sylvester, Pat Nevins, Greg Anton and Mookie Segal. It’s always a blast to play with those guys and dive into the Dylan songbook.

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