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Mark Karan Interview, 6/19/98

I was fortunate enough to see the 6/4/98 debut of The Other Ones, and was able to interview guitarist Mark Karan via telephone a couple of weeks later. I found him to be very polite and genuine, and I think y'all will enjoy his playing this summer on the Furthur Festival tour.


Geoff Gould
GDF sysop


Mark Karan


Geoff Gould: I want to go backwards, and start at the end. I went to the 6/4 concert, and I thought you really nailed the St. Stephen situation, and am curious if you are familiar with all those tunes.

Mark Karan: The older stuff I'm more familiar with. I'm 43, and I grew up in the Haight/Ashbury. I moved to Marin when I was about 18. So from the time I was 11 or 12 until I was about 21, the Dead were a pretty strong influence on me.

GG: So you're no stranger to the old material.

MK: Not to the old stuff. Around Mars Hotel and Wake of the Flood was when my interests started shifting elsewhere. I always held a huge spot for the Dead, but I wasn't really following them anymore.

GG: But you're pickin' up, obviously, on some of the new material, so are you coming at that from a new listener standpoint?

MK: Certainly as far as the specifics of the songs, yeah. Not as far as the mentality; the music's certainly evolved over the years and incorporated some jazz influences and all kinds of wild and cool stuff that wasn't really there in the early years. But, the sensibilities seem to have stayed the same, you know, the musicality over A-B A-B type form stuff and mania over hooks and that kind of commercial crap. The freedom to jam and take the song to a new place every time you play it, those kinds of things seem to have stayed pretty much the same throughout the band's whole career.

GG: Yeah, well I guess you could say that it's a pretty simple formula that has a wide open possibility.

MK: To me, it's almost the very simplicity that leaves room for the possibilities. Something that's more structured, you pretty much have to execute the same every time.

GG: Let's backtrack a little more now. For the people who don't know who the hell you are......and I think there are a few out there who don't.......

MK: I think there are a lot of them!

GG: Well, let's talk about that. Who the hell are you?!

MK: That's a huge question; can we get more specific?

GG: Well, when did you start playing guitar?

MK: Well let's see, I'm 43, I really started playing guitar in probably '63. '64 hit and the Beatles hit, and that's when I started taking it really serious. That's when I pretty much knew that this was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life, that music was who I was.

GG: And you live in L.A. now right?

MK: Yeah

GG: So did you play in any bands in the Bay Area before you moved to L.A.?

MK: Oh yeah, I lived in the Bay Area all my life, until like 7 years ago. That's why it cracks me up when I see this stuff flyin' around on the net that calls me some L.A. session guy! I mean, I grew up my whole life in San Francisco, and then I spent twenty years in Marin County. Then I go to L.A. for 7 years because its really hard to find music to play in the Bay Area, and I have to pay my rent! And then all of a sudden I'm an L. A. cat with no history in the Bay Area.

GG: San Francisco's kind of a "back-water town" economically in a lot of regards. A lot of great musicians, but the work here, it's kind of slim pickins I think.

MK: Yeah, and for better or worse, that's what I chose to do as my passion, but its also what I chose to do to keep my rent paid. So, at the time that I moved from Marin about seven years ago, uh, I'd broken up with my girlfriend, work was really slow in the area, and I thought "what the hell, I've never been down there." I'd never thought I'd want to be down there, but I'd always have a big question in the back of my mind, so I went down to check it out. When I was up here [the Bay Area] I used to play with Alex Call from Clover, I played with Jesse Colin Young for a little bit. That was actually right after I moved to L.A., and I was coming up here and working on a record with Jesse. I played with a lot of bands that nobody had ever heard of in the Bay Area. I played with a girl named Sara Baker; we used to play around Marin Co. and Sonoma Co. a lot. I played with a band called Spyz, and I played with a band called The band of Loons around Marin forever that was basically doing what Weird Al wound up doing and making a lot of money at, only we never made the money at it, we just did it. You know, we were doing like song parodies and political satire, and that kind of stuff. And I played in a lot of cover bands and a lot of straight up blues bands doing the four sets in a bar-make your fifty bucks and have a great time but not much of a career thing. To me, in a lot of ways, those are still the most fun gigs.

GG: But if you gotta pay the rent ya know.....

MK: But I really enjoy a blues gig. I'm not particularly into the cover tune thing; if they're well selected I enjoy good songs no matter what they are. But when I do a blues gig for four sets in a smoky bar, I love it because I love the intimacy, and I love the immediacy of the crowd, and the ability to stretch for four hours at a time. That's one of the things I dig about being able to play with the Dead, you know, here we are about to set out on a tour, and rather than that sense that I'm going to be involved in something for the next month where we do the same music the same way every night for an hour or an hour and fifteen minutes or something, I'm looking forward to the fact that we actually get to play two or three hours at a time, stretch, take some chances, play some music, and not repeat ourselves. And that's real different.

GG: Absolutely. So, when you went to L.A., I've read some things on the net, you've been doing session work and playing with bands?

MK: Basically doing the things that musicians who do it for a living just do, which is, you do everything. I've been doing everything from......when I get lucky I get a call to do a session for somebody's record, but I also do a lot of $50 and $100 dollar demo sessions for singer/songwriters that probably are never gonna get heard by anybody. I did a tour with Sophie B. Hawkins, I did a record with the Rembrandts. But the things I've done that I really loved down there are things like playing with Delaney Bramlett from Delaney and Bonnie, because I grew up on that music, and that's another era of my life where I had huge influence from the Delaney and Bonnie, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker thing. I also did a tour with Dave Mason when I first got down to L.A. and that was cool because I'd always been a Traffic fan and I loved his first solo album. So I did actually get to do some music things that were just musically cool when I was down there also.

GG: Well it doesn't sound like you've been too unlucky, then, in moving to LA.

MK: In a work-sense, it's worked very well for me. In a personal sense, boy am I ready to come back..

GG: No, I hear you..

MK: Not to 'dis LA, I can't really insult it, LA's been good to me. I've had a lot of good opportunities; I met the love of my life down there. Unfortunately, she decided to leave about 2 months ago, so, that was about the main thing that was keeping me in town. Then I got the call for this, and it was like, having been in Marin county for the last 3 weeks, I am so ready to sell my house and come home!

GG: Well, we will welcome you back, certainly, the last LA question here is: have you been on any really good jingles?

MK: (laughs)

GG: Well, that's where the money is, isn't it?

MK: Well that's one place where the money is. . .I really never got called to do any jingle work as a guitar player. I sing also, I sing. . .as in. . .I sing lead not just like the usual guitar player, "oh yeah, I can go "la" and I did get hired to sing a couple of jingles while I was down there. I did a jingle for Old El Paso Salsa and Michelob Golden Draft. Actually the Michelob commercial is the really ironic one, because I'm fourteen years sober.

GG: Well, that's cool; ok, enough LA stuff, but you said you sing, though, and I didn't see any microphones; are there any plans to let you sing in this new group?

MK: Yeah, there will be a mike on the road for me. There really hasn't been, truthfully, enough time to work me up in the backup vocal stuff and Phil and Bobby and Bruce kinda had a lot of that nailed and then Dave also from having worked with Bobby with Ratdog.

GG: Yea,

MK: And also, the fact is, that, you know, I'm not that by nature, I'm not a pushy guy. And I haven't, you know I haven't really been pushing to let them know how strong my vocal chops are or whatever, because I figure that when the time comes and it's needed, if the time comes and it's needed, it'll be obvious..

GG: Good, well I think that with kind of, you know, it's one of those "you can't push the river" kind of situations.

MK: Very much so. Ok, I would love to sing some stuff. You know, when I was talking to management, they were saying that as things probably settled in, I might even be able to sing a tune or two. That would be wonderful and I've hinted at it with Bobby, but he hasn't, I don't think Bobby's really heard me sing, so if I'm hinting at singing, he's probably wondering why I would be doing it. You know?

GG: Alright, so, guitar-wise, before we back into the Other Ones, seems like most of the night you were a Les Paul player. I saw a Telecaster once and acoustic, you've been a Les Paul guy for a long time?

MK: I've got a whole shit-load of guitars. The reason that I went Les Paul. . .I brought that guitar up with me for the auditions for The Other Ones and the reason that I had brought it up with me was because when I used to see the guys play when I was a kid around the Haight, in the real early days, Jerry was playing a Les Paul. He had a gold top, and he had a black custom. And there was just something about. . . I didn't want to come and bring a Strat because that's like the really quintessential typical Jerry tone, I didn't want to go there; also the Les Paul tends to be more forgiving no matter what amp you plug it into. It's got a nice big round sound. And I didn't know what amp they were going to have me play through because all I did was come up with a guitar.

GG: So what kind of rig are you going to be playing on this tour?

MK: Pretty much the one that I had at the Warfield show. I've got a Matchless amp.

GG: Oh that's good stuff. . .

MK: Yeah, the setup is pretty simple; I use my Matchless and a couple of pedals and that's it. I've got a wah-wah pedal and an overdrive box and they've got me using an octave box on "Corinna".

GG: Well, you know that's true you know about the Les Paul. I started out talking about St. Stephen and that certainly was Jerry's Gibson days. Coming into this project, is there a really big deal to be "Not Jerry" in terms of your guitar playing or, I imagine that it will relax after a while, but coming into this thing, was there that vibe?

MK: A little bit, but you know, the thing is, that both Steve and I grew up listening to Jerry in addition to whatever other influences we've had, and we've certainly had a lot, but I don't know Steve's childhood that much, you know, I do know mine and I do know that I was an eleven to thirteen, fourteen year old kid running around the Haight/Ashbury and going to see those guys in Golden Gate Park and stuff. I mean the Dead and Quicksilver and this other band, the Sons of Champlin, were huge influences on me musically, and that stuff has gotta come through because it's so basic to my playing style. And when you wind up playing these songs with these guys, because those licks are gonna come through. . ..they're just gonna.

GG: Yeah, I'm a bass player. and, you know, I've never intentionally studied Phil, but I know that Phil has warped my style permanently, and, there is really nothing that I can do about it. Once you get influenced, it just kinda comes through, you know?

MK: Yeah, exactly. I have a myriad of other influences and, ultimately, they all come through, and hopefully they all coalesce into some kind of representation of who I am. But I will say that there's a stronger amount of Jerry's influence coming through in this context, because how can you play this music which was, he was certainly a huge part of just the whole building of this music from the ground up? Having listened to that, to him and his interpretation of these songs music for thirty years, it's gotta come through.

GG Oh yeah. . .definitely, I mean, for example this band seems to be taking great pains; pains isn't probably the right word; to really do these songs up right. For example, I felt the Scarlet Begonias was tighter than I had seen it in over twenty years and there seems to be a lot of fidelity to some of the original "vibe" of the song. You know, what about Scarlet Begonias and how did that come through as an arrangement?

MK: Well the rehearsal style that the band has is really pretty. . .it's pretty loose. . .you know, we go over the song structure, play the song down and generally wind up going off on a jam and having some fun with it. There hasn't been a whole lot of intense focus on copping the right parts and that kind of thing. . .that doesn't really seem to be where they're coming from.

GG: No, but I don't know if you've heard later. . .I don't know if you were exposed to tapes and stuff, like you say that you kinda dropped out of it around '74; '75. You know, the later tapes of that song, for example, got a lot slower and a lot looser and I just felt it was really tight and crisp. . .not that it was note for note like the record, but it was very tight and crisp. The band seems very tight and I was very surprised because the reports that I had heard was that it was only a couple of days before where the rehearsals had really turned the corner and things were really coming together, you know.

MK: That's a tough call, I mean, what did happen a couple of days before was that Steve came into the picture. I had been rehearsing with the band starting, I think, on the 23rd of May and Steve came in on the 30th, I think. So he only 3 or 4 days before the Warfield show, but, at least from my perspective, it had pretty much been sounding good from day one.

GG: Yeah, well I thought it sounded excellent. . .so, let's talk're in this could almost call it a guitar section or at least you guys stand close to each other and you seem to be working well together. . .now, of course, you've been involved in a continuum of rehearsals and practices and I was only at this one gig, so forgive me if I'm focusing on what I've seen, but. . ..

MK: Well, what else are you going to go from?. . .

GG: It seemed to me like you were working well together; what's it like playing with Steve and having more of guitar section role rather than being the "lead Kahuna guy?"

MK: Well, it's different, but none of us really knew how it was going to work out you know, I mean there was talk originally, even of Steve and I taking turns, like me playing for two or three songs and him playing for two or three songs; that kind of thing. Because it had come up that some folks really, really wanted Steve on the gig and we were just going to figure out how to make that work. And what in fact happened was, you know, Steve and I knew each other, shit, twenty years ago in Marin. He used to play lead guitar with a band called The Goodman Brothers. And they used to play at the Sleeping Lady all the time and I used to play there with a band I was in, and so as guitar players, we got to know each other back in those days and then we lost touch with each other and then we knew each other again about ten or eleven years ago when I was with this group called the John Ferree Group and Steve, at the time, I think Zero was forming and he was playing with Cippolina and doing some stuff like that and so, Cippolina was around the Ferree Group also, so we sort of knew each other then. So when we saw each other at rehearsals, it was like, you know, there was this definite gleam of recognition in both of our eyes. . .like. . ."hey, I know you!", you know because there had been all this sort of... . .I wasn't online at the time, but I kept hearing about all this internet flack of people going - "who's the LA hired gun guy?" and how come Kimock isn't just doin' it? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah..

GG: It was pretty funny. It was really pretty funny.

MK: Well, the bottom line is that when he walked into the room, we realized that we were old friends and it wasn't going to be problem. He unpacked his guitar and we set up a rig for him and I don't remember what the first song we played was but it was very obvious from the get-go that there were two major things going on: One was that we had mutual respect for each other's musicality and that there wasn't going to be, you know, a pissing contest over who's dick is bigger than who's, you know, it wasn't going to be about that, it was like, "hey, let's play some music together."

GG: And that's the way it seemed.

MK: And the other thing that, stylistically, I play, sort of more raw I think what Garcia influences that I am more familiar with that are more part of my spirit are his earlier stuff, which was more sort of rock/blues/bluegrass. Certainly with the Spacey orientation, but still, with that stuff, there's more of the roots of it, and, Steve, on the other hand, I think, is just actually a more trained musician than me, I think he knows more - music theory and things of that nature, you know, and is able to go out on a limb experimentally, perhaps, in some ways more than I can. You know, he has, certainly, a broader vocabulary musically than I do. Mine is more intuitive and, at the risk of sounding like some kind of ego-maniac for saying that I do something well, but, you know, if I do something well, that I express myself well with a limited amount of vocabulary.

GG: Well, I mean, expressing yourself is the right thing to do in an ensemble like this,. It's not like you're going to be told. . ."uh oh. . .no, no, no. . .cut that treble down". You know, I mean, its. . ..I think for you two to have already known each other and then to wind up together in this situation, I mean, that's got to be a pretty nice. . .a pretty nice way to "meet up."

MK: Yeah, it really is, and, you know what a great opportunity, and, you know, the timing for me personally couldn't be better, you know, because here I am nursing a broken heart and this doesn't make that go away, but it does make it easier.

GG: Well, hopefully you'll get to play some blues!

MK: There ya go. Well, there are some songs being kicked around that have certainly that leaning, so,

GG: One other thing: you mentioned Corinna, what other songs can we look forward to that we didn't see the other night?

MK: Oh, I don't know if the guys would want me spreading that kind of shit around, I haven't quite figured out the politics around that yet because I know that there is a certain element of surprise for people when they come, and not, not knowing what they're gonna hear.

GG: That's ok.. and if you want me to, I don't even have to mention Corinna!

MK: Oh no, I don't care. . .

GG: It's no big deal, Well, let's see. . .I've got a couple of little simple things. You say that you gre up in San Francisco. did you go to high school here?

MK: I did; I started out going to high school there. I went to Hoover Junior High and Polytechnic High School.

GG: Hoover and Poly. . .ok. . .

MK: Poly's pretty funny, because, you know, we're right across the street from Golden Gate Park so I never went..

GG: Yeah, I think that's not really. . .that Poly I don't think is working any more. . .

MK: No, it's not. But we used to, our daily routine as being students of Poly was to meet at school; it was a good place to meet and then ditch, and spend a day in the park and on Haight Street and stuff.

GG: Well, you know, those were the days for that certainly, but as a parent and a husband of a school teacher, I certainly can't approve but,

MK: [laughs]

GG: I certainly do understand. One of our traditional favorite questions is "what is your favorite ice cream?"

MK: Oh [laughs]. . .uh, believe it or not, and this is has nothing to do with what I'm doing right now musically, but my favorite ice cream is Ben and Jerry's Wavy Gravy.

GG: Ok, just a coincidence.

MK: It's hard to find for some reason.

GG: Just a coincidence, right?

MK Yeah.

GG: Ok, well, you know, I'm sure that I missed a lot of really important things, and I hope I didn't, you know, ask too many stupid questions. . .

MK: Not at all.

GG: But, anything else you would like to say or say hi to the people for?

MK: Not really except to just understand that for those out there having heated debates between, you know, myself and Steve, and, who's the better guy and all that kind of stuff, to put a sock in it because this is about music and it's not about competition and it's not about who's better, who's this and who's that, it's about playing music and acceptance and diversity and things positive.

GG: Yea, I think that's gonna be, and no pun intended. . .a dead issue very soon, because, I mean, I've heard a tape and there have been a lot of tapes going around and I was there, and that is definitely, I mean there are some great bands who have thrived on two guitar players who are, who are egotistically trying to out-duel each other and that's even a good thing in certain bands, you know. But this is not that; in fact, I tell ya, I listen to a tape and there are times where it's hard to tell who is who. . .you guys are really melding really well in a few places and I don't get this competition feel.

MK: Right; well one thing that was kinda funny was Elwood's, I don't know if you read the Examiner's review of the show?

GG: Uh-huh.

MK: He obviously wasn't able to tell who was who either, because I think he heard, definitely, attributed some of the things that I did to Steve and visa versa. . .so there is definitely a bit of that even when you are sitting right there.

GG: Well, even when you're sitting right there, it's kinda hard from my position, uh, half the time Dave Ellis' big saxophone was in the way of you guys.

MK: Right; that won't be a problem anymore; he's going to the other side of the stage.

GG: [laughs] Steve is sitting on this stool, you know, sometimes with his back to the audience. You can't see his fingers moving and, you know, in terms of Steve, I've rarely seen, you guys are very different in this sense, you seem to really be enjoying the music, you're kind of dancing and swaying and mouthing the words and playing along. Steve, on the other hand, seems to be like, he's almost like a turtle. . .he just kind of sits on the stool, sometimes he kind of slowly glides off the school and I don't see a correlation between his body language and what kinds out of the speakers. . .I mean, it's very different, you know...

MK: Oh, he's just very intense person when he's playing music, I think, he's really listening, you know, which I am too, but it's just a different brand of. . .. but like you say, I sway to the music and sing the words. . .I'm very much a songs guy. Not to say that Steve isn't a 'songs guy,' but I think Steve is more of an overall consummate musician's musician.

GG: Well, you're also a singer. . .I just think that it must feel, to have wound up here. Awfully darn good to be sitting on that stage, swaying and singing along to those songs. . .

MK: Yeah, and to occasionally look up off to my right and realize that I'm playing these songs and that's Bobby, and that's Phil and right behind me is Mickey and oh shit!!!

GG: Absolutely, absolutely, well, I've forgotten lots of things to ask but I really appreciate you calling.

MK: Sure, Geoff. . .

GG: And, you know, if you feel like, if you ever feel like doing anything we can arrange with Dennis or something, if you ever feel like doing a "live chat" type-thing where you want to answer some questions, online where people ask things.

MK We could do something like that, yeah, I mean, it obviously is not going to happen until we get back, at this point, unless it happens "on the road."

GG: Well we actually, over the past couple of years, we've actually done that because they have computers on the road and so, we sometimes work things out where we do some backstage chats and interviews.

MK: That would be fine, I would love to do that. This part of it, all the interviews and all that stuff, is all brand new to me, so I'm having fun with it, you know, I'm not, like having done this for thirty years like the other guys, where, maybe, they're a little tired of it sometimes or something, you know.

GG: Well, they're tired, maybe, but they're also, it gets quite in the firestorm and they're, they have to be protected by the handlers, and so on, and it's just the way it is. And oh, one question I did forget to ask, though, what is the connection, in terms of, I mean you've grown up here, and whatever, but how the hell did your name come up? Where did you come from?

MK: I was like a classic example of going around your ass to get to your elbow. You're right, I grew up here all my life and I was right here in the county with the guys, I mean, I used to see Phil at Fairfax years ago at Nave's and stuff like that, and never knew any of them, and my name came up because down in LA I had done some blues gigs and some sessions and stuff with John Molo.

GG: Oh. . .

MK: And when he heard that they were going to be looking into guitar players he said he knew somebody who might be really good, and, so, he gave them my number and they called me.

GG: So, it's Molo?!

MK: Yeah. . .

GG: We can thank him. Well, that's very good. Alrighty, well, you're going back down to LA, I hope we do see more of you up here. You know, if you do decide to relocate. . .but please keep in touch.

MK: Yep, Yep

GG: And, I guess that's it.

MK: Well, thanks Geoff.

GG: Thank you very much.