Interview with Deadhead musician Mark Karan - where the soul mixes psychedelicized sounds of Americana

"Have faith in yourself and your music. Do what YOU do and don’t give up."

Mark Karan: Walk Through The Fire

Mark Karan is best known for performing with the extended Grateful Dead family. For the last twelve years, he has anchored the lead guitar slot in Bob Weir & RatDog, playing hundreds of shows to thousands of fans year-round. Before crossing over into the land of the Dead, Mark worked his guitar and vocal voodoo for the likes of Dave Mason, Delaney Bramlett, the Rembrandts, Paul Carrack, Huey Lewis, Jesse Colin Young and Sophie B. Hawkins.

Mark also tours with an array of amazing musicians on his own, where his soulful blues-based vocal stylings and inspired guitar work meld with the remarkably creative and responsive playing of his friends in a passionate delivery of the psychedelicized sounds of Americana. This is where rock meets R&B and country and mixes with the soul of New Orleans… with healthy portions of reggae, folk, funk and whatever else the muse might bring. In addition to his originals, as well as those of songwriter friends, Mark covers a range of eclectic songs from Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "You Can Stay (But the Noize Must Go)" and Peter Tosh's "Don't Look Back", to the Kinks’ “Lazin’ on a Sunny Afternoon” or Joe Jackson’s “Fools in Love” -- his unique musical taste and song choices are the hallmark of these shows, and always crowd pleasers for his nationwide, loyal fanbase.

Mark’s debut album, “Walk Through the Fire” was released in 2009 to critical acclaim, and features very special guests Delaney Bramlett, Bill Payne, Mike Finnigan, Pete Sears, John Molo, Hutch Hutchinson, The Persuasions, The Rowan Brothers, and many more. In recent years, Mark has performed live with Allman Brothers, Trey Anastasio, Joan Baez, Dickey Betts, Delaney Bramlett, Larry Campbell, Clarence Clemons, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Galactic, Gov’t Mule, Jackie Greene, Sammy Hagar, Levon Helm, Bill Kirchen, Chuck Leavell, Little Feat, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Phil Lesh & Friends, John Popper, Derek Trucks, Narada Michael Walden and others. (Photo by Alan Hess)

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Mark Karan sound and progress?

lol... I never know how to answer a “broad” question like that... I guess my “sound” is just a combination of all the crazy, eclectic influences & fav-o-rite musics I’ve listened to and been excited by throughout my life... the Beatles, the Stones, the psychedelic ‘60’s stuff, soul and R&B, the blues, New Orleans music, funk, new wave/punk, “old school” country, reggae, the great ‘60’s/’70’s singer-songwriters, African high life, gospel music... so many different and wonderful flavors are available to us and as we take in what we love as individuals it becomes our “style” or “sound”... I believe there’s actually very little that’s entirely unique.

What characterize your music philosophy?

Basically I guess I’d say trying to be as open to all flavors of music as possible and to be entirely committed emotionally and creatively to whatever I do.

"I hope the general public begins to appreciate and support artists/musicians again. This idea that all “should be” free is BS. How can those of us who devote our whole lives to the arts survive if no-one’s willing to pay for our work? We don’t ask doctors, gas station attendants, lawyers, etc. to do their work for free."

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

It would be impossible to say. I’ve been blessed to have had MANY really interesting chapters in my life... from being around for the Beatles’ arrival (my main inspiration for deciding to make playing music my life’s ambition) to growing up around San Francisco and the Haight Ashbury as an adolescent... to living through the amazing time for music that was the ‘60’s & ‘70’s... the Band, CSN&Y, Van Morrison... so many great artists and so much timeless music... to years in a variety of bands – learning the crafts or writing, arranging, recording, performance & production... to having played w/many of my musical heroes (Dave Mason & Delaney Bramlett) and of course my more recent and well-known chapter of being in and around the grateful dead family and scene for over a dozen years.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I don’t think in absolutes, so these questions are tough to answer... but certainly a couple of the best moments are easy to come up with: for example the encore at Alpine meadows in 1998 with the other ones... where we came back onstage to a darkened amphitheater and 20,000 lit Bic lighters it was the first time I’d ever seen that happen in honor of a band I was in and was a real rush... or any of several times I heard Delaney Bramlett tell other artists or music professionals how highly he thought of me and my playing. I was blown away that someone I was so influenced by and had so much admiration for felt like that about what I had to offer.

The worst? hmmmm... I don’t know. I haven’t had a lot of bad moments in music. I guess I could say the times when people I was playing with were too “under the influence” to play well or times when a gig that I really wanted for myself didn’t come my way... but that’s pretty typical stuff. I’ve been very blessed that most of my musical moments haven’t been anything I remember as “worst”.

"To continue to play, sing and write with my friends and contemporaries as long as I’m walking around above ground (and to make a decent living at it)." Photo: Mark and Phil Lesh

Do you remember anything funny from Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Phil Lesh?

“funny”...? Well, nothing comes to mind specifically but there was certainly plenty of fun to be had on tour! LOL...

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

That’s another question that’s impossible for me to answer. I have been in SO many great jamming situations. I’d have to guess it would be something w/Bob Weir & Ratdog because that band was really a “band” and a lot of our jams were really honest, exploration, intuitive music being created “on the spot” and that’s what I live for... or maybe something with one of my bands (Jemimah Puddleduck or Mark Karan’s buds). I have been blessed to find some incredible, deep, intuitive and FUN players for those bands and we have made some music that has COMPLETELY lit me up... more often than not!

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The Alpine meadows gig I mentioned earlier was amazing. So was playing shoreline with the other ones... especially the night Bonnie Raitt sat-in. the first time I played the Fillmore or the great American music hall were both a rush... and even moreso the first time I played those venues w/my own bands/music. THAT was amazing! Playing with Delaney was always great... the closing of the warfield... Deadheads for Obama... I’ve had so many great gigs in my life. I’m loving writing this stuff because it’s really making me appreciate my life/experience more than I normally have.

"Emotional honesty (I know theres plenty of genuine music still being made – I just see a lot of crap getting the most visibility), rawness... so much has become over-refined and 'slick', 'real' audio quality... I love great sound." Photo: Deadheads for Obama

Are there any memories from Dave Mason, Billy Payne, and Delaney Bramlett which you’d like to share?

Delaney – a couple from him. “D” was being interviewed for the (to be released) film “guitar man” and the interviewer/filmmaker asked him about all the great guitarists he’d worked with... listing Clapton, Hendrix, George Harrison, Duane, Dave Mason... and he said (I swear I’m not making this up!), “yep... and that’s the best one of ‘em all rite there”, pointing at me... I couldn’t believe it (of course I don’t agree – but WOW, how flattering).

It was also amazing travelling to the crossroads (as made infamous by Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil) in Clarksdale, MS to play and film a show for (eventual) release on the TV program “juke joint jams”... such a cool place to be with the man who originated there and playing so much music that came from the area. 

Dave Mason – when we toured in 1991 we had a very young kid (guy diamond) on keys who also played guitar. the two-handed fretboard technique was popular at the time and it cracked me up that he had NO interest in old school lead guitar weaving with me (as he’d done years ago w/Winwood on Mr. Fantasy) but was really excited to learn that 2-handed MTV rock style! LOL...

Bill Payne – Bill and I have become friends thru the years. He’s a great guy and ridiculously talented and musical. When he came to my studio to record the Wurlitzer piano track on “rock your papa” (from my 2009 record “walk through the fire”, he just happened to be in town recording with the doobie brothers and dropped by... we mostly hung out and talked, getting caught up as friends... and took about a 20 minute break for him to hear the song for the first time and lay down one of my fav-o-rite tracks on the record... what a guy!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Meeting and playing with so many of the musicians I grew up admiring... Delaney... the guys from the Dead... Greg Allman... Dickey Betts... meeting (and playing) with Chuck Leavel, Levon Helm, Little Feat, Dave Mason...

"Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain..." (Photo: Mark and Dickey Betts)

Why do you think that the Rock and Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Honesty, passion, history, accessibility.

What is the best advice ever given you?

Have faith in yourself and your music. Do what YOU do and don’t give up.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

Emotional honesty (I know theres plenty of genuine music still being made – I just see a lot of crap getting the most visibility), rawness... so much has become over-refined and “slick”, “real” audio quality... I love great sound. I can’t stand what digital files/MP3s etc have done to the SOUND of te music we’re hearing...

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

I hope the general public begins to appreciate and support artists/musicians again. This idea that all “should be” free is BS. How can those of us who devote our whole lives to the arts survive if no-one’s willing to pay for our work? We don’t ask doctors, gas station attendants, lawyers, etc. to do their work for free. As a pro musician I’ve studied for 1,000’s of hours, worked paying dues for very little money, and honed my skills/craft...

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

What’s touched me emotionally is all the love and support the fans/extended family showed me when I was sick with throat cancer and also letting me know how much I’ll be missed in the newly revamped Ratdog.

"I guess my 'sound' is just a combination of all the crazy, eclectic influences & fav-o-rite musics I’ve listened to and been excited by throughout my life..."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Bluegrass and continue to Jazz and Acid Jam?

At some level it’s all just artistic personal expression thru creativity... and “we” (humans) have been doing it with sound & rhythm since the caveman days. The “what” or “how” isn’t nearly as important as the “why”...

Which incident of Grateful Dead history you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting with you?

Interesting question. I’ve never thought about that... perhaps the original acid tests?

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Another interesting question. Thanks for being thoughtful and creative! That said, jeez I don’t know. I’d sure love to have seen the Beatles play live...

How you would spend a day with Ken Kesey and what would you like to ask Rick Griffin?

With Ken I guess I’d listen a lot. He seemed to be a very interesting and deep human being, so I’d like to be quiet and just hang out.

I don’t know about Griffin. I loved his art since the “Murph the surf” days! I guess I’d just want to say “thanks”. I’m not sure there’s anything I’d specifically want to ask him.

If Hendrix was a poet who would he be?

No idea... I don’t think my mind works that way. I’d say he qualifies as a full-blown poet in his own right.

"I have been blessed to find some incredible, deep, intuitive and FUN players for those bands and we have made some music that has COMPLETELY lit me up... more often than not!"

What is your music DREAM?

To continue to play, sing and write with my friends and contemporaries as long as I’m walking around above ground (and to make a decent living at it).

What turns you on? Happiness is……

Playing great music, enjoying nature, my girlfriend, my dog, great food, friendship... pretty standard stuff I guess. I like being alive...

"Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it's about learning to dance in the rain..."

Mark Karan - official website

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