Mark Karan's Inferno: An Interview
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2009, Volume 16, #8
Written by John Metzger
Thu August 6, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
Mark Karan has always managed to find ways of keeping himself busy. For a while, it was a matter of necessity. An affable guy with a wealth of musical knowledge, he long has played the role of a sideman, helping others to bring their creative visions to fruition, both on stage and in the studio. This kind of lifestyle, however, doesnít tend to produce a regular stream of income, at least not one that is sustainable. Nevertheless, itís hard to imagine that Karan knew how much things would change after he was enlisted by drummer John Molo, his pal from the Los Angeles music scene, to join The Other Ones, which was the first post-Jerry Garcia incarnation of the Grateful Dead. This immediately led to his current slot as the lead guitarist in Ratdog, Bob Weirís outfit.
For the past decade, Karan has continued to spend his downtime in the studio working on a variety of other projects, from film and television soundtracks to albums by Delaney Bramlett. He also founded Jemimah Puddleduck with Molo and bass player Bob Gross. Yet, until the recent release of his new studio album Walk through the Fire, Karan hadnít really envisioned himself as a solo artist. Even today, he remains modest about his goals and objectives. "I donít really have any grand desire to be Mark Karan, the solo artist, per se," he said in an interview in late July. "I have a desire to sing and front on occasion, but I donít have any grand desire to run the show."
Karan has been tinkering with Walk through the Fire for a long time. Two of its tracks ó the funky, New Orleans-infused rock tune Bait the Hook and Love Song, which was a "corny little paean to some girl I had a crush on" that he recently rewrote for his wife ó were penned when he was in his early 20s. "You could hypothetically say that Iíve been primed to do a record for 30 years," Karan stated with a laugh.
Even so, Walk through the Fire almost never came to pass. To put it bluntly, over the past few years, Karan has been to Hell and back. On several occasions, he had met with his doctor about a lump that had appeared in his neck, but he repeatedly was assured that it was nothing about which he should be worried. In 2007, however, while on vacation in Hawaii, he developed a low-grade fever, and his neck became severely swollen. Still, he was told not to fret. It was only after he sought a second opinion that he discovered that he did, in fact, have throat cancer. He also learned that it had gone undiagnosed for so long that it had metastasized and invaded his lymph nodes.
At first, things looked rather bleak, but Karan persevered through several rounds of chemotherapy, while also pursuing a variety of alternative healing techniques. In the process, he temporarily lost his voice and frequently was unable to speak, let alone to sing. When asked if he had recovered fully, Karan replied, "Thatís what they tell me, and Iíll take that. Cancer is never a sure thing."
Considering his health scare, it is something of a miracle that Karan sounds physically unaffected by his illness. He not only resumed his role as Ratdogís lead guitarist, but he also completed Walk through the Fire, an album that originally began as a vehicle for Jemimah Puddleduck. "That record was just taking forever," said Karan. "Thatís kind of how I wound up diving in and finishing it as Mark Karan rather than waiting around for JP [Jemimah Puddleduck]."
"I donít know how long I get," he explained. "Everything is fine for now, but everything changed in a second before."
"The directive that I got in my heart, coming out of the cancer, was just to finish [the album]," added Karan. "Donít worry about what it costs, what itís going to be, how to market it, or any of that crap. Just finish."
So, Karan returned to the recording studio with a renewed sense of urgency. He revisited the tracks that he had completed with Jemimah Puddleduck, which, in addition to Molo and Gross, now includes keyboard player John "JT" Thomas. When it was possible, he brought them into the studio. When they were busy with other projects, however ó Molo is part of Phil Leshís band, while Thomas performs with Bruce Hornsby ó Karan elicited help from his other friends, including The Rowan Brothers, Little Featís Bill Payne, fellow throat cancer survivor Wally Ingram, and The Persuasions. Said Karan, "Every name that is on [Walk through the Fire] is there for a reason. And the reason is because of the music and what the song called for."
The final tune that Karan wrote for Walk through the Fire became the albumís title track. The song eloquently captures the thoughts and feelings that raced through his head as he lay in a hospital bed, waiting for his first round of chemotherapy to begin. It is immediately followed by a cover of Robert Johnsonís Love in Vain, which Karan performs as a duet with Delaney Bramlett. In fact, it likely was the last thing that Bramlett recorded before he passed away in December. "While my guitar and voice are very present in the beginning ó very intimate ó when Delaney comes in heís sort of distant, in some reverb," explained Karan. "Itís almost an otherworldly sound. It was a trip."
"We mixed the song before Delaney died. Hearing it now, though, it projects this sense that Delaney and I are singing together, but that heís kind of singing from the other side," Karan continued. "It was spooky to hear that for the first time after he had died."
Indeed, Love in Vain initially does exude a ghostly presence, but as it nears its conclusion, Karan alters the mood considerably by leading his backing band into a gritty, urban blues groove. The air of death-stalked desperation that had clung to the song during its early moments quickly dissipates to reveal a man who sounds defiant and determined. In a way, it echoes the sentiments expressed in the title track. Karan didnít mean to make this connection, but he is pleased with the results. "Iím a big believer in having a lot of intentions in life that arenít necessarily conscious," he stated.
Karan had grown up watching the Grateful Dead perform in San Franciscoís Golden Gate Park, but after settling into the Los Angeles music scene, his work largely revolved around recording and arranging pop songs. When he joined The Other Ones, he had to alter his approach. "My head was really about little, eight-bar guitar solos and well-crafted nuggets of music that were four-minutes long," said Karan. "My style changed through the years to accommodate a lot more stretching out and a lot more improvisation, which for me came naturally because it was a means of reconnecting to the playing that I had done as a kid."
Not surprisingly, there are moments scattered throughout Walk through the Fire that wander onto terrain that is familiar to followers of the Grateful Dead and Ratdog. As wide-reaching as it is, though, the Grateful Deadís repertoire can be a confining obstacle. Said Karan, "I get a whole lot of The Grateful Dead approach with Ratdog. So, itís not something for which I necessarily have an unfulfilled, burning desire that needs filling," said Karan. "Even sitting in with Jackie Greene during these last few gigs when he has been out with us on tour, Iíve asked him, ĎHey can we do something thatís isnít the Grateful Dead.í"
In effect, Walk through the Fire gave Karan the room he needed to define himself on his own terms. Consequently, although he orbits the genre-bending mannerisms of Ratdog and the Grateful Dead, the bulk of the album steps into some very different spaces. The stylistic permutations of combining everything from blues and rock to R&B and gospel are endless, of course, and given complete control, Karan has a tendency to gravitate toward the piano-driven music of New Orleans. Part of this is the result of accompanist John "JT" Thomas, but this also is a reflection of Karanís disposition. "I donít have any grand personal connection to New Orleans. Iíve never lived there or anything like that, but Iíve always had a huge love for that music," he said. "It was bound to come through on the record in some way."
The other factor that weighs heavily on Walk through the Fire is how much it sounds like a vinyl recording from the 1970s. "That was intentional," said Karan. "[Music] has become a commercial commodity rather than an art form. We very carefully mixed, mastered, and recorded [Walk through the Fire] with the thought in mind to make it a musical, emotional experience, not a commercial success. If it gets commercial success in spite of all that...cool."
Karanís philosophy shows through every aspect of Walk through the Fire, too. The album is an intensely personal statement, but rather than getting bogged down in Karanís recent troubles, it finds the healing light that has allowed him to survive. When asked what he wanted his fans to take away from Walk through the Fire, Karan responded succinctly, "Some joy."
Then he added, "I did it for me, and I did it for the fans. I hope everyone that hears [the album] walks away with their own thing, whatever that might be."
Of Further Interest...
Walk through the Fire is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright © 2009 The Music Box