RatDog comes to St. Augustine: An interview with Mark Karan

“When I was eight years old, my brother taught me how to tune a radio and I knew at that moment that it was music. I knew that that was what I was going to amount to.” Bob Weir, original member of the Grateful Dead, never really looked back after he tuned that radio. He toured with the Grateful Dead continuously for 30 years. After Jerry Garcia’s death, Weir formed his own band, RatDog, in 1995 and has been on the road with them every year since. Weir has even, on occasion, gotten together with his Grateful Dead bandmates as The Other Ones/The Dead. The Dead played the last show in their spring tour on July 4 and Weir was back out the very next day to kick off the RatDog summer tour in Columbus. All accounts of shows so far indicate that RatDog has been on fire. Dano, from Pottstown, PA, said on RatDog.org, “RatDog sounded real good down in AC on Saturday night…this band just gets better with time…Mark Karan’s playing was the best I ever saw him play…Jeff, Kenny, Jay, Robin, and Bob were on.”
RatDog is coming to the St. Augustine Amphitheatre with moe. on Sunday, July 19. The advantage of going to a RatDog show is that you get to hear the music in smaller, more intimate venues. The amphitheatre seats approximately 4,000, as opposed to the 20,000-person venues played by The Dead this spring. You’re sure to hear tunes not played before by RatDog or ones that have been played very little, such as “Dance in the Streets” by Martha and the Vandellas, played only four times by RatDog – one of which was last night in Atlanta. RatDog played “Friend of the Devil” last night in Atlanta too, so while you likely won’t hear that tune in St. Augustine, you’ll hear other favorites from the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Weir’s solo material or any number of sources.
EU had a chance to chat with RatDog guitarist Mark Karan, who’s been known to refer to the band as “Bob Weir’s Rolling Boys’ Club,” before their Friday performance in Atlanta. Karan was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2007, underwent treatment and was back playing with the band in March 2008. He also plays with his own band, Jemima Puddleduck, on occasion and has just released a solo studio album called Walk Through the Fire.
EU: Well, how is “Bob Weir’s Rolling Boys’ Club” doing in Atlanta today?
MK: (laughs) …
MK: Fine! It’s early yet, but we’re on our way to do a gig today with moe.
EU: So, this is your 11th year with RatDog and the 6th since the lineup has stabilized with Robin Sylvester. Are things still evolving…the music, the group dynamic?
MK: Well I think so, yeah. I mean, it’s sort of the nature of the beast. You know, I don’t know that there’s a conscious effort being made to evolve per say. It’s just sort of a natural state of affairs as we play together and a natural state of affairs of playing music that’s pretty heavily based in improvisation. So each tour tends to wind up with its own flavor, it’s own song focuses, maybe some themes and things that wind up happening through the tour. So, yeah, it’s constantly evolving and changing.
EU: And I’m wondering also, do you feel like the band was any different in any way once you came back?
MK: No, not really. I will say I experienced a fair amount of nervousness coming back just because I’d been away from it for so long. But my desire to play was really strong because it’d been a long time since I’d played period, you know? And we’d been doing this for so long as a band, we’ve developed such good communication, so much trust and friendship that it really was a lot like just rolling off a log. (laughs)
EU: Well, now that you’ve played several shows on this ’09 tour, how are you feeling about your voice?
MK: Pretty good! You know, actually the day before we started this run we did a Mark Karan and Jemima Puddleduck thing at this place called Nelson’s Ledges that had a festival called Gratefulfest. And, you know, in that band I’m the singer and primary songwriter, so I needed to have a voice! And I did and everything was fine. So, yeah, I feel pretty good.
EU: Yeah, I was wondering how your illness and recovery might affect your plans for further solo work. So, you’re still planning on working with Jemima Puddleduck?
MK: Well, I’m planning on playing out. You know, sometimes it’ll be Puddleduck, sometimes it may be just under my own name or it may be MK’s Buds or Mark Karan’s Buds or something like that, but yeah I’m definitely planning on getting out and about.
EU: You were just talking about your strong bond with RatDog and particularly with…I know I’ve read about your relationship with Bobby. Since you’ve come back, do you find that they’re more protective of you? Are they asking how you’re feeling all the time or have things kind of normalized?
MK: No, far from it in fact. Initially, everybody was sort of like that. You know, I think when anybody gets sick and comes back, everybody’s a little cautious and wondering how it’s all going to be and all that kind of stuff. But I’ve been really, really fortunate. I’ve known a lot of people that did not do as well as I did – some that did not survive; others that did survive, but perhaps didn’t survive as intact as I wound up surviving, so you always have that. But the thing is that I’ve been so lucky and everything’s come together so well for me that I think now, unless we actively bring it up or something happens to bring it to their attention, I think everybody just sort of accepts me as being completely recovered. You know so, no, there’s no special treatment involved.
EU: Well, I’d like to ask you more about your solo stuff in a minute, but some things that kind of have a bearing possibly on the show in St. Augustine on Sunday and the music…RatDog broke out “Oh Boy!” by Buddy Holly and Noah Lewis’ “Viola Lee Blues” the first night…
EU: When you guys broke out those two songs the first night at Penn’s Peak this past Tuesday, what inspired the band to break out both of those songs on the same night together like that?
MK: You know, I hate to burst anybody’s bubble that any of us, including Bob, are thinking in any kind of, like, wonderfully, magically connected presentation kind of frame of mind. But, in truth, I’m not sure where the idea to do “Viola Lee” came from. We hadn’t even rehearsed it as a band, so we were all pretty shocked when we saw it as the opening song for the evening, but it was like, “All right, what the hell…we’re game.” So we dove in. We had discussed it when we had a couple of days of run-through prior to running out on the road again, but we hadn’t really even run it down in rehearsal. And then the “Oh Boy!” thing was, you know, Bob and myself and Jackie [Greene, who has been playing a lot with RatDog this year] had talked about trying to get together sort of an acoustic way to kick off the second set that would incorporate Jackie, and he just got this wild idea to do a couple of Buddy Holly tunes. You know, we already do “Not Fade [Away]” and he just got this idea that it might be cool to do “Oh Boy!” because I guess he and Jerry had done it once upon a time.
EU: Oh, right. So you talked about how you guys had discussed how to do that, so how does the group dynamic influence what songs RatDog breaks out for the first time?
MK: It kind of doesn’t. I mean, once in a blue moon if somebody has some song that maybe, for whatever reason, they really feel a hankering to play, that person may ask Bob if he has any interest in playing that tune, in learning that tune. If the stars happen to line up and Bobby is inspired to take that tune on too, then we’ll work it up. But he’s been playing this book of songs for a long, long time and, I can’t speak for anybody else in the band, but my sense is he’s got kind of a methodology and a way he likes to get the vibe going on stage and his own perspective on what makes a set list work and what songs work for him and what not. So we kind of just go along for the ride with whatever he wants to do unless there’s something that’s really important to us.
EU: So if Mark Karan could pick any song or any artist for a RatDog breakout, what or who would it be and why?
MK: Oh, God! Unfortunately, I’m going to give you a really horrible, boring answer. I don’t have one. There’s no artist or song that comes to mind that I really would like to see introduced. I guess the one thing I would say is, when I was a kid listening to Grateful Dead, when we would go to a show in the late ’60s and they would break out with a “Cryptical [Envelopment]” > “[The] Other One,” we always felt pretty well-treated by the show. And so I’ve been trying to interest Bobby in RatDog doing “Cryptical” ’cause we’ve been doing “The Other One” forever. I’ve been trying to interest Bobby in doing “Cryptical” for quite a while now, but he just doesn’t seem all that inspired to do it. So it may happen at some point, but I’m not holding my breath.
EU: So, it’s kind of nostalgic for you…that particular song?
MK: Yeah and somehow, in my mind, because of what I grew up hearing, the two songs are just really, really paired. They really belong together in my mind and in my heart somehow.
EU: I’d like to turn kind of more towards you now. In reading about how you coped with your diagnosis…things like, “Okay, I’m not ready to check out, so what do we do now?” and the mantra of the Chinese character for crisis also being the one for opportunity…those are really positive, constructive responses. And I know also in reading about that period of addiction in your life when you felt a lot of anger and frustration, you had kind of not-so-positive, constructive responses. What about your life or people who may have influenced you or your experiences do you think formed the basis for that positive response to your health crisis?
MK: Well, you know, if I wanted to over-simplify, that could probably take up a good hour-long interview in and of itself, so I’ll try to nutshell it a little bit. I’ve been interested in spiritual development and psychology and human growth, openness, working towards being a more spiritual person and all that pretty much all my life since my late teen years or early 20s or whatever. Even with all of the detours into cocaine and alcohol abuse in the ’80s and even with the detours into being a complete slave to whatever I thought pop music was going to get me a record deal. Through all of that, I’ve had that part of me. And I’ve spent a lot of time with various spiritual teachers, reading self-help books and spirituality books and things of that nature. And it’s always been a part of my life – a pretty powerful part of my life that maybe I didn’t have a lot of discipline to really apply. So, you know, I had a lot of intellectual connection to it, a lot of experience around it. I understood a lot of the languaging, I got the concepts, but I wasn’t necessarily living that way. And, for me, I think the cancer was a smack in the face to wake the hell up and do something about it. The intellectual grasp of all of that sort of thing was really not serving me or anybody else. You’ve got to actually make it yours and live it, really internalize it and be experiential about it, not intellectual about it. And the shock of the cancer, the immediacy of need to be and do in the moment really begged of me to step up and, fortunately for me, I was able to do that.
EU: Right. Well, you said you wrote the title track to your new solo album Walk Through the Fire in 20 minutes. That’s some serious inspiration. Do you think that was connected with the slap-in-the-face crisis, do-it-now kind of thing?
MK: Well, the whole record is sort of coming from that. It started out life as Jemima Puddleduck’s record that was taking forever to get together because of everybody’s busy touring schedules with Phil and Brucie and Bob and everybody. There was a sense of immediacy to get it done post-cancer, but as far as the song and the 20 minutes and all that…You know, it’s funny, there are certainly songs that I’ve spent more time on crafting and what not, but I really feel like the best songs that I’ve ever written (I’m not that prolific to begin with.) are songs that I look at as little gifts from the universe. I don’t really take credit for them. So, in the case of Walk Through the Fire, you know I was sitting there in my hospital bed and got an inspiration to play guitar – I just felt like playing. I asked my wife to hand me my guitar and I was plunking around and all the sudden I started playing with this little chord progression and I started getting these little words forming in my head and I asked her for a pad and paper and…Are you familiar with the term “automatic writing” at all?
EU: Sure.
MK: Okay, well it’s almost like that. I won’t be as mystical as to say I went into a trance or anything like that. It wasn’t anything that exciting. But I do feel, in terms of writing, or even in terms of playing improv. stuff on stage or in the studio, if I can get out of my own way and make a space, the universe will usually put something really cool in there. If I get hung up on being the guy who’s in charge, I’ll put something that’s maybe pretty okay in there, but it’ll never be as cool as what the universe would’ve given me if I’d gotten out of my own way. And that was the deal with that song…I got out of my way and it was given to me. At least that’s the way I look at it.
EU: You called the album, Walk Through the Fire, a “labor of love” and “an offering in gratitude.” It’s kind of a nice mix of some older songs, then, of course, the new title track and also some posthumous material from your friend Delaney Bramlett. When you say that it’s an “offering in gratitude,” you’re giving thanks for something. So, in your own words, what are you thankful for with this album?
MK: Oh, God! Everything! I’m thankful to still be alive, for one thing. Like I say, I know a lot of people that, as we’ve come to say, have joined the club nobody wanted to join and many of them have not fared as well as me, so I’ve got plenty to be thankful for just in that. Not to mention that, you know, not belittling the skill or talent involved in winding up where I’ve wound up, but there’s a whole lot of really wonderfully skilled and really wonderfully talented people out there that haven’t been as lucky as me in terms of being able to support themselves playing music and being able to get out in front of a sizeable audience and that kind of stuff and I’ve been given that gift for whatever reason, you know, and I’m pretty damn grateful for that. I’m grateful for the fact that I have a wonderful, wonderful wife who really, really loves me and really, really cares for me and really helped bring me through the cancer. I’m grateful for my friends in RatDog. I mean, I’m just grateful for my life.
EU: Well, speaking of gifts, I know you’re donating the proceeds from the title track to the Oral Cancer Foundation. What does that organization mean to you and what are your hopes for it in making that donation?
MK: Well, I don’t have as much of a connection with the organization itself, interestingly enough, as my wife does because she’s actually done more of the talking to Brian, who runs the organization, than I have. But what it represents to me is certainly huge because their mission is to educate the public on getting screened and how easy that is and how kind of common [oral cancer] is getting to be and wanting to reach out and give people the opportunity to catch it early because, as is the case with all cancers, early detection is key to treatment. So, given that I am the beneficiary of the most current treatments available and the most current knowledge available and given that those are the people that are making it their mission in life to spread that knowledge and share that knowledge – from that perspective, the organization means a whole bunch to me.
EU: About the studio experience itself, you put out Jemima Puddleduck nine years ago based on live recordings. Now you’ve come out with this studio record. What prompted you to create Walk Through the Fire as a studio album as opposed to, like Jemima Puddleduck was, a compilation of live performances?
MK: Well, certainly the whole studio concept is an extremely different process. I’m sure that anybody reading this would know that the experience of putting on a CD that you love and sitting there and listening to it or driving around with it blasting in your car is a very, very different experience emotionally, sonically, energetically from being at a live show. You know, recorded live shows do their best to capture what they can of that experience and translate it to the listener, and that’s fabulous. But there’s a real art to recorded music. It has nothing to do with live performance. The sound of a record, the process of making records, doing tracks individually, overdubbing vocals, mixdown and mastering…none of that has a whole lot to do with the live experience. It’s pretty much apples and oranges. The reason Puddleduck recordings up till now had been live is because that’s all we had. We hadn’t been in the studio to do anything.
EU: RatDog put out it’s only CD, Evening Moods, nine years ago as well and then, of course, you’ve just come out with this recent studio project, so does that give you any interest in approaching the band about doing another RatDog studio CD or has the band shown any interest in a new studio album?
MK: The band’s shown a lot of interest and Bob’s talked about it, but, for whatever reason, I don’t think it’s at the top of his list of things that he wants to focus on.
EU: I wanted to ask you about your relationship with the audience and with your fans. I’ve seen an interview where Bobby said when he’s on stage and the bond is strong between the band and the audience…he talks about a higher truth being injected into that bond and all…Well, I know you’ve always been known to come out at the after-show meet and greets and sometimes wander around the parking lot before shows. Do you feel that spiritual connection with fans and with the audience? How would you describe your relationship with the people who come to watch you play?
MK: I absolutely feel that connection and I would have to say that, in a lot of ways, that kind of goes back more to…I can reference it more powerfully through the cancer treatment and the whole experience around that because the kids really stepped up when I got sick. I mean, I got literally hundreds of cards and letters and e-mails and people sending little hats and t-shirts and crystals to give me good energy or little books on how to do Reiki therapy or whatever they felt might help me. Not to mention that I had people call me from The Gathering of the Vibes that year and hold up their cell phone while they did a big “om” chant that they dedicated to me. So, the outreach, the amount of support and love and acceptance that I felt from our fans, from our family and community, absolutely, I believe, helped me have the results that I had coming through cancer treatment. So I feel a very, very strong connection to that community and I feel very well loved. Frankly, that was a big part of my healing.
EU: One more question that kind of came out of a conversation with a fan: RatDog fans, I’m thinking of RatDog.org for example, have ensured that the band has had a substantial Web presence from the beginning. There’s nothing around, that I’ve seen, that indicates that you guys are twittering from the bus, though. Is that something any of you would ever consider?
MK: You know, if somebody wants to do that, that’s certainly their right and privilege. I’ve got nothing against Twitter and Facebook and all of that stuff. It’s just…for me, personally, my life’s pretty full. I already spend too damn much time on the computer and the internet between e-mail and my addiction to guitar gear and constantly poking around about who’s inventing new amps and new pedals and things like that that I want to hear. So, if I were to get off into Facebook and Twitter and all of the various things that are currently available online for social networking and the like, I’d never get off the damn computer and I’d probably be crippled by tendonitis. So it’s not going to come from me! (Laughs.)
EU: Do you have any expectations or anything you’re looking forward to or not looking forward to about St. Augustine on Sunday?
MK: We always enjoy Florida, so I’m certainly looking forward to playing in Florida … ’cause I dig the weather and people seem to be pretty warm and welcoming and it’s kind of a “What’s not to like?”
Tickets are still available for RatDog’s St. Augustine show with moe. at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre on July 19. The show starts at 5:30 p.m. and ticket prices range from $32.90 to $39.


may, 2022