Mark Karan: RatDog Guitarist Walks Through the Fire to Put Out First Solo Album
By Blair Jackson
It might have taken Mark Karan 30 years, give or take a few, to put out his first solo album, but that’s OK—it was definitely worth the wait for his many fans.
Walk Through the Fire, on the Dig Music label (run by Jackie Greene’s manager), is a wonderful and uplifting slice of rock and soul music that reveals much about Karan as both a supremely talented musician and a remarkable human being. The emotional title track, for instance, was written in the hospital when he was undergoing treatments for the aggressive throat cancer that could well have taken him from us when he was stricken in the summer of 2008. Other originals touch on different aspects of his life and career, and there’s also a slew of great cover tunes, including Alex Call’s wonderful “Annie Don’t Lie,” Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain,” Joe Jackson’s “Fools In Love,” Robert Hunter/The Dead’s “Easy Wind,” and more.
Throughout, Karan’s strong and soulful lead vocals and varied guitar textures carry the day, but he is also very ably assisted by a gaggle of excellent players and singers—besides cohorts from his part-time solo band Jemimah Puddleduck, he also enlisted friends/colleagues such as keyboardists Bill Payne (of Little Feat fame) and Mike Finnigan, long-time Bonnie Raitt bassist Hutch Hutchinson, percussionist extraordinaire (and fellow cancer survivor) Wally Ingram, and some amazing singers, including Delaney Bramlett, Chris and Lorin Rowan, The Persuasions, ex-JGB singers Gloria Hones and Jackie LaBranch, and several others. The songs range from gospel-tinged rock to heavy blues to R&B-flavored workouts, and there isn’t a weak track in the bunch. Ever the band player, the tracks are notable for the solid interaction of the players, and surprisingly “wank-free” for a so-called solo album. With Karan’s illness and amazing recovery as a catalyst, and his enforced “vacation” from RatDog because of this spring’s tour by The Dead offering a window to complete the album, this labor of love by this warm and compassionate lover of life finally came to fruition.
We’ve talked to Mark about his career and his life with RatDog in previous interviews, so this time around we focused on the making of Walk Through the Fire. We hope you all support Mark by purchasing this excellent CD!
When I put the CD on for the first time and “Annie Don’t Lie” came on, I immediately thought of ’70s Ry Cooder. With the accordion on there and The Persuasions doing the backups, it had the warm and friendly vibe of albums like Ry’s Paradise and Lunch and Chicken Skin Music…
Sure, that’s my favorite Ry period. I’ll take that as a compliment…
But it’s also kind of Little Feat-ish, too, as are a couple of other tunes. Who are some of the other influences on this album?
Oh, God, everything! I don’t know where to start. On the tune “Love Song,” for example, that was originally an acoustic guitar thing, sort of my attempt at a James Taylor song, and I hadn’t done it in years. I even played it for my wife at our wedding. More recently I sort of re-connected with it, but I didn’t want to do it the old, corny James Taylor way, so on that song I tried to evoke elements of what I dug about The Beatles and some of Eric Clapton’s more pop stuff, and also some of the kind of stomp-walk Stax/Memphis type of R&B from back in the day. I wanted to see if I could smush those two worlds together and treat it like that kind of love song instead, instead of the pretty white-boy love song. [Laughs] So there’s the influence of old soul and Beatles music.
You said you wrote that a number of years ago. What’s the timing on the other original songs? Obviously “Walk Through the Fire” is post-recovery.
The record is a pretty good time-line actually. Half the record is tunes that I wrote, and you could almost say that my life is in the arc of those songs. I’m not a prolific writer. I’ve gone through prolific periods when I’ve had some place to put songs as I’d write them, but when I don’t have any place to put them—and there’s not much room for my contributions in RatDog, for example, because that’s Bob’s baby—I haven’t had that much drive to write. So this record was sort of gathering up all the little nuggets I’d written over the years that had never made it to any kind of a record. I wanted to give those songs an opportunity to exist so I could say, “Well, here’s me up until now, and from here on, who knows what’s gonna happen? Should the unthinkable happen and I check out early, or whatever the story might be, here’s me.”
Who’s Susan Sheller, who wrote “Memphis Radio”? I really like that song.
I love that song. She’s an old friend of mine from Southern California. We did it with her in her band down there, way pre-RatDog. This was predominantly a cover band, but we did some original songs. This is when I was still living down there and eking out a living doing everything from playing blues gigs, to cover bar gigs, to whatever sessions were around; whatever it took to pay the rent. And Susan was one of the blessings of that era, because she was a really cool singer and writer. When we first threw Jemimah Puddleduck together, the first time we did the gig in Ventura—which we’re actually coming up on the ten-year anniversary of—we needed material, and I asked Susan if she minded if we did that song, because I loved it so much.
I also really like your reggae invention of “Fool in Love,” the Joe Jackson tune. How did that come to you?
I don’t really remember, other than it was a really good song and not something that everybody in their brother had already covered. I mean, I love the classics, but everybody does ‘em. [Laughs] One of the things I like to do is take songs and present them sort of out of context. With a song like “Fools in Love,” I was a freak in the ’80s for Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson and Graham Parker—the intelligent punk-pop thing. The Jam—I loved a bunch of those bands. So I wanted to find something out of that era to bring into the music I was doing today, and that song—actually that whole album [Look Sharp!]—was always one of my favorites.
You mention taking things out of a context, and I think you do that a bit within the song “Time Will Tell,” which seems like its going to be a fairly conventional blues, but when you get to the big solo at the end it turns into this weird, angular thing that doesn’t go where you expect it to go. It’s a cool juxtaposition of approaches.
Thanks. That song actually started back in the ’90s. I was working as a writer and producer at a studio in L.A. and that’s one of the tunes I came up with. When I initially wrote it, it was kind of a Stevie Ray Vaughan mid- to uptempo blues, but I think it works better this way.
And your “Love in Vain” with Delaney Bramlett—is that more from the Stones version than from Robert Johnson? I feel like I hear the Mick Jagger pronunciation on the word “vain.”
[Laughs] Right. For me, it’s definitely more Stones-derived than Robert Johnson, and I think for Delaney it was probably more Robert Johnson-derived than Stones. Since I produced the track, I’d say the track is probably more Stones than Robert Johnson, too, but in truth, a lot of the production on that track was more influenced by the later British blues stuff—the psychedelic part of Cream—where I start layering in all the electric guitars and all the counter-lines and all.
How about that great Randy Newman song, “Think It’s Gonna Rain”? That’s been covered by a lot of people over the years…
I was familiar with the Randy Newman version, and I think I’d heard Nina Simone’s version a couple of times, but actually that song is one of the few that didn’t originate with me, in terms of suggesting we do it. We showed up for a couple of days rehearsal at J.T.’s house [that’s Puddleduck and Bruce Hornsby keyboardist John Thomas] and I don’t know where he’d heard it, but he fell in love with the chords and the string arrangement, and he’d transposed the string arrangement to ensemble rock ’n’ roll quartet. And the fact that he did that and the fact that I’ve always loved Randy Newman, and we’re always looking for new material with Puddleduck, it was like, “Hell yeah, let’s dive in and do this!” And since we were rehearsing at his house, ands he’s got a studio there where we were going to be doing some recording, we recorded that track. The version of that song that’s on the record is probably only the second or third time we’d ever played that song, and there’s no overdubbing at all on that track, and the vocal is the one I cut at the end of that day as a scratch [temp] vocal.
Did most of these tracks start out as small band productions and then get expanded in the overdubbing process?
Yes. They all started out as guitar, bass, drums and keys [Mark, John Molo or Jimmy Sanchez on drums, J.T. on keys, Bob Gross or Hutch Hutchinson on bass], and then we built from there. Some of the songs lent themselves to being mostly that—a quartet—with maybe the addition of an acoustic guitar to flesh things out, or perhaps some backing vocals we couldn’t pull off live.
I’m impressed with how much space you’ve given to the keyboards particularly…
Well, my vibe is more of a band thing, always. I’m not really into the “Look at me, check me out, aren’t I badass guitarist” thing. [Laughs]
Still, I like how in-your-face the guitars are. They’re not drenched in reverb or anything and the parts are tasteful but still hot.
Well, frankly I modeled this record after a lot of my own favorite records that were cut in the late ’60s and early to mid-’70s—Crosby, Stills & Nash records, Van Morrison records, old Allman Brothers records, Workingman’s Dead; that kind of stuff. Immediate, honest, authentic, emotionally connected records.
Tell me about writing “Walk Through the Fire.” Obviously that’s the most blatantly autobiographical song on there, and it sort of brings us up to date, as it were, from when you first diagnosed with throat cancer. Was it tough to write, or did it come easily?
It came ridiculously easily.
The good ones often do.
That’s exactly right. They checked me into UCSF [hospital] for the first week of treatment—I was going on chemo 24 hours a day for a full week and the first time around they wanted to keep me in the hospital so they could monitor what was going on. So we moved the whole damn house in—“Bring down guitars, bring laptops, bring everything you got!” They got me all settled in the bed, and I asked [his wife] Maile to hand me my guitar, and I started noodling around for ten or 15 minutes and I started playing this chord progression. Then I said, “Honey, can you pass me that pad and pen?” She did, and about 15 minutes later I had that whole song. I didn’t write that song; it came through me. And now I’m giving it back! [Laughs]
That must be somewhat emotional for you.
Absolutely. I did it for the first time in public ever when RatDog went down to Jamaica [in January 2009]. The first night we were down there [1/28] they threw a little welcome soiree and I played a couple of songs solo and then one by one Robin and Jay and Jeff came up, and so on. So I pulled out “Walk Through the Fire.” I stood up with just an electric guitar, feeling extremely naked, and played it. I was busting up. Somebody shot some video that night and…it’s cool, but it’s also a little embarrassing because I’m choking back tears and I’m having a hard time singing it.
I was thinking you should get a copy of that song to Bonnie Raitt. I can totally picture her singing that.
It’s interesting you should mention that, because Hutch [Hutchinson] being the bass player on a lot of this record, and Bonnie’s bass player for so long, is planning to give her a copy of the record.
How did you know when the album was finished? With technology being what it is and no deadline looming, it seems like you could fool around with parts forever. But nothing seems overdone to me, and I like the way you’ve maintained a nice balance between the guitars and the keyboards.
I like to have it so that each part sort of stands on its own—you could maybe mute the other part and the song would still work. And I like to have parts that interlock, so they’re not just going at the same time, but instead there’s more contrapuntal and counter-melodic stuff going on. For my ear, the only way you can successfully achieve that is if you keep things simple: Fewer instruments, or if you’re going to use more instruments, instruments that are supporting a part in kind. So for me, it’s constantly listening to make sure that it still sounds kind of open. If it starts to sound too dense, I know I’m getting too precious and too clever.
You’ve got some great folks helping out on background vocals, from The Persuasions to Jackie and Gloria. Were these all tracks that were essentially done and then you “cast” them by song?
It wasn’t really that they were done and then the backing vocals were an afterthought. In fact, in all those cases, the background vocals were highly present in my mind early on. In fact, in some cases, the backup vocals were more important to me than the parts, so once I had the idea of what the backup vocals were going to be doing, then I could put together what the rhythm parts were going to be doing. In terms of who and why… Well, I chose the Rowans [for “Leave A Light On”] because I wanted something that was Beatles/Crosby, Stills, Nash, so who could be better than them? With The Persuasions, we had the connection of them having toured with RatDog and riding with us a bunch. Both “Annie Don’t Lie” and “Rock Your Papa” had always had these wonderful old soul/doo-wop vocals in my mind’s eye, so The Persuasions were obvious candidates there. I grew up with The Persuasions, from KSAN and KMPX days.
I see you have Bill Payne of Little Feat on here. Have you known him long?
Yeah. I’ve played with Little Feat several times; they’re great guys. Little Feat is one of my all-time favorite bands; always have been.
Obviously you’re making a strong personal statement by coming out with this album now. You must have a tremendous sense of accomplishment just for having made this.
It’s a huge sense of accomplishment, because the idea of making my own record has been rolling around in my head for probably 30 years, and it started to get real sexy to me in about the mid-’80s, when they came up with things like sequencers and home multitracks. Yet, I still didn’t do it. Even this record first started coming together about four years ago and it was not making any giant headway toward completion. So the catalyst for me was, quite frankly, the cancer. At the end of the cancer I felt like, “I’ve got these tunes in the can, and there are at least four of them I can build on, and that gives me a foot in the door, and at this point I’m just not willing to wait.” In fact the first post-cancer batch of sessions was one did up here, and those are the ones Jimmy Sanchez played on because John [Molo] wasn’t available. That was chapter one in Mark and Maile saying, “OK, we love Jemimah Puddleduck, but post-cancer we can’t wait on anybody anymore.”
Having come through the cancer, I won’t say that I walk around with the specter of death over my shoulder, or anything silly and dramatic like that, but I do walk around with a brand new sense that I’m not entitled to be here. That I could split at any time, whether I want to or not, and so I thought, “I’m not leaving this planet not having laid these down and left them behind for everybody.”
With what’s going on in the record business and the economy, to any kind of conventional wisdom this is probably a really dumb time to be releasing a record, but for me this was the perfect time. We probably spent more on it than we might have if we’d been more budget-conscious, but we didn’t care. We wanted to get the job done whatever it took this time. We can be more budget conscious on the next record. This was the opportunity of lifetime for me—literally. And the culmination of a life’s work. So whatever happens from here is a mystery. Obviously, we hope the record will be a success, but at the same time we don’t want to be overly attached to the notion of financial success, because really, the success is in the making of it.
For more, go to www.markkaran.com.
Mark will bring lots of unreleased music along - Ratdog, Jemimah Puddleduck, and other recent highlights. Spread the word, please - we're gonna have a good time!
It is really awesome that he got his solo album. It really doesn't matter how long it took as long as it happened. This man is an inspiration, or at least should be and we can all have hope in our dreams as well. casino en ligne
Bt the way I'm listening by chance to your Puddleduck album whilst I write
Got the new album the day it was announced and it is outstanding !!!!!
Glad to hear health is better and have my pos vibes for its continuance!!!!
(like how i said album when i got it from Zune digitally boy I'm old and likin it)
The real story here is persistence. Mark does what he does because he loves music. When you love something with a passion your career is not work. It becomes a great hobby that you get paid for. How many of us would have given up long before 30 years of effort? Not Mark. I would think he figured it would come eventually, and it did. casino online