Q&A: Mark Karan of RatDog Plays Funky Buddha Tonight

Mark Karan is a somewhat late comer to the Grateful Dead family -- he first took the stage with the Other Ones in 1998 -- but his trip has been long and strange indeed. Today, he's become a well loved character among the Deadheads.

His Dead resume includes stints in Phil and Friends and Micky Hart's Planet Drum, though he's best known as the guitarist in Bob Weir's RatDog. Karan filled that slot, accompanying Weir in the reinvention of Dead classics as well as original material, without interruption from 1998 until 2007 when he was sidelined with throat cancer. Fortunately, Karan rejoined the band the following year and is currently cancer free. Recently, RatDog has taken a hiatus which has allowed Karan to focus on solo projects including working with his longtime side-band Jemimah Puddleduck, and releasing his debut solo album, 2009's Walk Through the Fire. Currently he is on a tour which brings him to Boca's Funky Buddha tonight.

County Grind had the chance to chat with Karan as he was gearing up for the tour opener in Charleston, SC. He had some beautiful stuff to share about his experience dealing with cancer, and about playing outside of RatDog. 

County Grind: How's the band?

Mark Karan: So far so good, but we haven't played a note yet [on this tour].(laughs) Everybody's been really into it, and we've been having a really great time. We've done probably twice the number of gigs in the past year or year and a half than we had done in the previous eleven years, or something like that.

John Molo is no longer playing with you on the drums?

Sadly we had to part ways musically, but we're still good buds and all that kinda stuff. But, it's been kind of fun because I've been able to explore a whole lot of different drummers that are good buds of mine and guys that I really enjoy musically. And that's been a trip because every time you put a new drummer in the chair the music takes on a variant of personality. It's very interesting.

How does it feel to not be playing with RatDog?

I love RatDog and all and I'm really thankful for my time with that band and I look forward to whatever we do in the future. But, as much musical freedom and as much warmth and camaraderie as have existed in that band, it was still really about Weir's music and the Grateful Dead's music. And as much as I love that stuff, I wasn't generating that stuff. It didn't come from me. So this is pretty nice. It's pretty artistically and personally rewarding to be out doing music that I had a hand in writing.

Was songwriting something new for you? 

To one degree or another [I've written songs] since I started playing guitar [when I was nine]. With that said, I've never been a prolific writer. Mostly, I'm lucky if I get a song a year in. I tend to wait for inspiration to strike.

From what I've read, the writing of "Walk Through the Fire" came from you having run into some serious inspiration.

Yeah, the song was written when I was in the hospital during my first week of chemo treatment. That one was my favorite kind of song to write, actually. It's kind of esoteric to say, but I don't think in terms of writing that song, I think in terms of that song being given to me. Like, I was in the right place at the right time, having the right experience, and the universe or God, or however you like to think of it, gave me this gift. One minute I wasn't thinking about writing a song at all, and the next minute I ask my wife to hand me my guitar in the hospital bed and within about 15 or 20 minutes that whole song had come out pretty much completely formed.

Wow. Beautiful.

Those are my favorite kinds of songs. You can labor over somehting and you get really good craft work going, with regards to writing, but if you can find some true inspiration, that's where the real magic lives for me.

How is the experience of playing that song now? Powerful?

Yeah, it is. And I can feel a shift too as time goes on. When I was first out after going through the cancer treatment performing the song was incredibly, powerfully, emotionally connected for me because the whole cancer experience was still fresh. On a couple of occasions I actually kind of broke down on stage while singing the song. Then, as time has gone by, and I've gotten a little bit of distance from the cancer experience and been able to dive fully back into life, I still have a very powerful emotional connection to it, but it's wound up feeling a little more universal. It's not necessarily my story, and it's not necessarily about cancer. It's about any time that one of us, as humans, feels challenged; comes up against something that's a real crisis that we're going to have to stand up to and deal with, and walk through that fire, you know? So now I feel like in addition to singing about myself and being very exposed, I'm also reaching out to other people and saying "Hey, it's all good. Walk that fire. You have the strength. You can do it. We can all do this. We're all here for each other."

Has your experience lead your whole musical experience to be like that? Do you feel more connected?

Yeah, I think maybe so. I feel more connected to life in general, if that makes sense. Certainly music and any art is a huge part of that for me. So yeah, I feel like my guitar playing, my singing, everything got uplifted a bit by the experience. More connected to my core. A little bit more realism. A little bit more urgency, or something.

Well, that's really lovely of you to share, man.


Mark Karan and Jemimah Puddleduck. 9 p.m. Friday, November 5, at Funky Buddha. Admission cost $15.  Click here

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Travis Newbill