RatDog Guitarist Mark Karan: The Long Road Home
By Blair Jackson
Mark with his Gold Top Les Paul.
Photo: Alan Hess/Shot Live
Note: The following interview was conducted a few weeks before Mark learned of his cancer diagnosis and was forced to drop off of RatDog’s summer tour, to aggressively fight his illness. For Mark’s take on the situation, go to markkaran.com. With Mark’s and his wife Maile’s blessing, though, we decided to move forward with our original plan to run this interview in July. In fact, it now seems like the perfect time to get to know this remarkable guy a little bit better. We know that you all send your love and good vibes his way, and we trust that in a few months he’ll be back rockin’ with the Dog!
Like a lot of Dead Heads, I got my first taste of Mark Karan’s guitar playing on The Other Ones’ tour in 1998. Talk about a tough assignment: Mark and Steve Kimock were essentially tapped to “replace” Jerry Garcia at a time when emotions about Jerry’s death were still running very deeply in the Dead Head community. Both guitarists acquitted themselves well on that tour; Kimock was already familiar to many Deadheads, but who was that other cat confidently tearing through so many of Garcia’s signature riffs and also adding a little spice of his own?
Karan and Kimock played on both Other Ones tours, then a short time later Mark joined RatDog, where he's ably held the lead guitar chair ever since and contributed hugely to that band’s growth the last several years. I’ve liked him since that first Other Ones show, and my respect has only grown over time as I’ve seen how versatile he is—he really can play any style well and he’s become a true master at methodically building crescendos, in that grand Grateful Dead tradition. But he’s also a gifted colorist, bringing all sorts of interesting textural variety to RatDog’s stylistically broad repertoire. If you haven’t seen this band recently, you owe it to yourself to give them a chance—they’re really on a tear these days. And if it’s mo’ Mark you’re after, keep your eyes peeled for the infrequent appearances by his own Jemimah Puddleduck band.
Mark in the living room of his
Marin County home, June 2007.
Photo: Blair Jackson.
Mark’s musical contributions through the years go far beyond the Deadosphere, too: He has played on albums by Delaney Bramlett, Jesse Colin Young, The Rembrandts, the Dynatones, and others; toured in bands with the likes of Dave Mason, Sophie B. Hawkins and Paul Carrack; and been part of a number of film and TV soundtracks as guitarist, songwriter and/or producer (including the forthcoming documentary Guitar Man, by two-time Emmy winner Eric Paul Fournier).
Mark’s a Northern California boy. He grew up in San Francisco, then at the age of 11 or 12 moved with his family down the coast a ways to Montara, near Half Moon Bay. “It was very rural back then,” he says, “but there were also a few country hippie types.” As a member of the famed San Francisco Boys Chorus he learned a bit about music theory and sight singing, and it was at an SFBC summer camp on the Feather River one summer that he first fell in love with the sound of an acoustic guitar one of the instructors had: “So my parents bought me a shitty acoustic guitar and I learned the folk songs of the time, and then The Beatles came onto Ed Sullivan and that was it: I saw those screaming girls and the long hair and the high-heeled boots—“Whoa, I want to be that!”
Photo credit: Alan Hess/Shot Live
Shortly after that, his parents bought him “some fabulous cheap Japanese guitar and a little amp—my parents were always very supportive, but my mom tried to slip me the caveat that music should be an avocation, not a vocation. Yeah—whatever!” he laughs.
On a warm, late spring afternoon up at Mark’s Marin County home, we pick up his saga…
What was your first band?
It was called Joyful Watermelon, when I was 12 or 13; junior high school. We were all going to Speedway [Meadows in Golden Gate Park] and seeing all those bands. We were baby hippies. We had the long hair. About half the parents of my friends I’d say were beatniks on the cusp of hippies, so we had the support of our parents to go to the park and go to each other’s houses and jam as little rock bands.
What were you playing? Beatles and Stones?
We tried to do original stuff; not so much Beatles and Stones. We also did some of the simpler classic rock stuff of the time: [Nail Young’s] “Down By the River” was always a good jam because it was those two chords you could play for about an hour. [Laughs] And the people who couldn’t play lead guitar were happy to be there laying down the bed.
Were you always lead guitar?
No, I didn’t get into that until I was about 15 or 16. I’d started out with the folk thing and the strummy chords and singing songs. And I learned my Beatles songs. “Gloria” was an early fave, of course.
In my high school in the suburbs of New York, everyone thought the guys who played in bands were really cool. It was great that little Bobby Rego in eighth grade could play “Foxy Lady” on this Gibson 335 that was nearly as big as he was.
That’s part of what helped us survive. Because most the muse-o’s I knew were sort of wimps and misfits. If we didn’t have music to be cool, we didn’t have anything to be cool. So you’re right, it helped us in the all-important school hierarchy.
What was your first good guitar?
Oh, this is one of those great vintage guitar sob stories. I was all of 12 or 13 and still commuting to San Francisco, so most of my free time was spent up there, because that’s where most of my friends were. I remember being up near Kezar Stadium [adjacent to the Haight and Golden gate Park] and a little black kid came up to me and asked if I wanted to buy a guitar. “What kind of guitar?” He said, “I think it’s called a Les Paul.” And sure enough it was like a ’52 or ’53 Gold Top with the trapeze [tailpiece] and “soap bar” pickups. I said, “How much?” He said, “Fifty dollars.” Well, by karma or fate or happenstance, I had just painted my parents’ living room and, they had just paid me 50 dollars, so I bought this guitar that was, well…
Perhaps being sold by someone who was not it’s rightful owner?
Well, yeah! [Laughs] At age 12 I didn’t think about it too much, and it didn’t seem like it was probably going to find it s way back to its original owner. So I took it home and proceeded to immediately take out the Jasco paint stripper because I thought, “What’s this old, crappy chipping gold finish? I want to see the natural wood underneath! Whoops!” [Laughs] So I started out with a really great electric guitar and butchered the hell out of it.
Did you repaint it?
I did. What ended up happening to that guitar was my girlfriend at the time had a sister who was a hippie-artist type who worked in oils and whatnot. And she had already painted this fabulous pastoral psychedelic landscape on my and the other guitar player’s amp faces behind the knobs, so I asked her to paint my guitar, too. So for a while I had a fabulous old painted Les Paul. On my first Japanese guitar I’d tried to George Harrison it with Day-Glo tempera paint.
I don’t have either guitar now, but I did end up getting another Les Paul like it: An early ‘50s Gold Top that’s been converted to be more like a late ’50s model.
Who were the people who were influencing you when you really got into playing?
The most obvious were The Beatles, since they were a lot of the reason I pursued it beyond a casual interest to begin with. But as a guitarist it was pretty much the Bay Area guys, with the addition of Hendrix thrown into the mix. But we would see the bay Area guys all the time in the park, and at that point Bill Graham was still offering the freebie Sunday afternoon shows at the Fillmore. Typically, bands would play on Friday and Saturday nights and then they’d play 2-6 on Sunday for free if you were 12 or under, so I went all the time and saw whoever was there, which was often the local groups. I was really into [Quicksilver’s John] Cipollina, in some ways more than Garcia at that point. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Garcia. I thought he was a brilliant guitar player. I also liked Jorma [Kaukonen of the Airplane], of course, and Barry Melton [of Country Joe & the Fish].
Were you a guy who used to go home and play to records?
Sure. I took some lessons, which was the parental influence, but I hated what my teacher was showing me, which was Howard Roberts and Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery-type stuff. I was way too young to appreciate that then. I love it now. I adore Wes Montgomery now. But at the time I wanted Jimi Hendrix. I wanted Barry Melton. I wanted Cipollina, so it was coming off the records. A lick would catch my attention and I’d try to work it out.
When did it become clear that music was going to, in fact, be your vocation and not an avocation?
Pretty much from Day One. I never really had any interest in anything else past 8 or 9 years old. I had always done pretty well in school, but between the Haight blossoming and the music and the perhaps too early discovery of cannabis, I kind of lost interest in what school had to offer and devoted most of my energy to music instead.
Did you have years of beat jobs to support your music?
Not too much. I did a stint as a janitor at an old folks home, which was actually pretty interesting. I got to meet some fabulous older people. I did a fry cook thing at a seafood restaurant. But it was a really affordable era. It was a time when people would rent bedrooms in these big four- or five-bedroom houses and by the time you split it up five ways it was practically nothing. You could live on the beach for 50 bucks a month. I miss that! [Laughs] I also kind of miss living in my truck, which I did for about five years. I had one of those big ol’ diaper service step vans. A sax player buddy I knew had already lived in it and he’d put in a redwood slab counter top and a Coleman stove and a wood burning stove. It was the total gypsy wagon on wheels. I did that on and off for a few years. By that point I was in Marin County and playing both there and Sonoma County in various groups.
Any bands of note?
I guess that would depend on how much you knew about the local scene back then. Nothing that really went anywhere. I played with a woman named Sarah Baker on and off for years. I was also in a group called Boardinghouse Reach that was more out of the South Bay/Half Moon Bay area.
Actually, I remember both of those from my early days as a writer at BAM magazine in the mid- to late ’70s.
Yes, in fact my old tour manager used to call you incessantly to try to get some kind of coverage in BAM.
I believe I used to tell the receptionist, “Don’t take any of his calls! I’m not ‘in’ for him!”
Probably. That wouldn’t surprise me at all! [Laughs]
So were these cover bands?
Sarah was pretty much original. Boarding House Reach was predominantly original, too; we had a few covers.
That was a country-rock band, right?
Pretty much. It was from the Pocos, Burritos, early Eagles mold, I guess. That group had already been together a while when I joined and they were really into that. I was also into that, but I brought in some soul and Beatles influences, too.
So were you influenced by some of the country-rock pickers, whether it was Bernie Leadon of the Eagles or Clarence White during his Byrds period?
I never got into a player specifically, but I got into the style because I was playing a lot of this music. I actually leaned toward the Bakersfield style, but I never copied anyone directly.
Garcia used to talk about how listening to country music and having been a banjo player really affected his style in that he liked hearing cleanly articulated notes and he liked to follow melodies in his picking. Did your flirtation with country have a similar impact on you? As opposed to guys who came up hearing just rock ’n’ roll, who get into the speed thing and the bluesier side of playing?
The riffs, yeah. Well, I always had a lot of blues influence because there’s something in my heart that really connects me to the blues, but I’ve also always been a melody freak for sure. I’ve always been too lazy to learn the really flashy chops; it’s just not my thing. I have a stronger connection to melody and emotional content. And when I heard country I heard melody. I heard a lot of passion in the writing and in the playing and I liked the bendy, stretchy sound of the guitar playing; it seemed really cool.
What was the first band you were in that really felt successful?
That’s hard to say. I’ve been one of those people who all my life I’ve done music, kind of the stubborn mule—even when it didn’t make sense to be doing music I did it anyway. When I might’ve done better to get a day job and be able to be true to my creative music, instead of a being a “functioning musician” or a “journeyman.” I chose the journeyman path because I wanted to play music and not do something else.
Through the ’80s did you make any concessions toward trendiness? Like being in a new wave band, or as we used to call them, a “skinny-tie band”?
Yes, constantly; absolutely. I’m not a big fan of regret, but if I have any regret at all, that would probably be it: There was a pretty long period in my life—probably 15 years—when I was trying really hard to get a record deal and I would play with any band that seemed like they were going to happen. I didn’t care what style of music it was and I’d wear any kind haircut or clothes the band was into. It was Huey Lewis’s doing actually.
Would that be American Express, his pre-News band?
Exactly! I was in American Express very briefly. What happened is they were on the verge of being signed, and Chris [Hayes, guitarist] was incredibly broke, and so was [drummer] Billy Gibson, and they were both making noises like they couldn’t do it anymore; and at one point Chris left the band and they went through several guys and eventually chose me. That’s when I got the “fashion update.” One night we did a show with Van Morrison at Rancho Nicasio [in rural west Marin], and Huey had me over to his house in Larkspur and dressed me. [Laughs] I got the red high-heeled Beatle boots, the skinny tie, the salmon pink, small-collared dress shirt, the pegged British jeans, and [sax player] Johnny Colla’s brother cut my hair. Huey was saying, ‘Rock ’n’ roll is more than the music. It’s a look and you’ve got to have …” and I bought it. And I stayed with that idea for a long time. Because there’s a lot in this business that will encourage that if you choose to take that path. And if that’s what you want, then that’s the right path. So for many years I was doing whatever I thought it would take to get that record deal.
If I can jump ahead for a minute time-wise, I feel ridiculously blessed by the situation and opportunity that’s been mine the last ten years, because I was allowed to have a second shot at loving music for the sake of music. I was still loving music before, but I was also pretty disillusioned in a lot of ways. Caring about the music business took away a lot of the joy of music for me. So when I started doing The Other Ones and RatDog, I no longer had to do what was “popular”; I didn’t have to do what was “current”—the “Flavor of the Month” was irrelevant and it was almost like I could erase the previous 10 to 15 years and reach back to my early sense of inspiration and passion and reconnect with why I took up music in the first place. I also fell in love with playing guitar again and trying to learn more…
Certainly in those new wave bands the guitarist doesn’t do much…
Exactly. Especially the synth-y ones. I was in a group called Secrets where I’d been the lead guitar player for a while but we had two guitarists and I made the mistake of investing in a guitar synthesizer and all of a sudden I was the keyboard player! And I hated it. “I wanna play some rock ’n’ roll, man! I don’t want to play these stupid synth pads!” [Laughs]
So you kept thinking you were on the verge with these various bands?
Right. We always thought they were on the verge of signing a deal or going to the next level. There were always those things that were gonna happen or might happen—that’s what keeps you going. But I don’t know if any of these bands—Spys, Secrets, there was one called Elan that actually won the KRQR-Coors Best of the Bay competition one year—were going to make it. It’s fine to be a draw at small clubs like Uncle Charlies [in San Rafael], or even bigger clubs like The Stone [in S.F.] or whatever, but it still doesn’t amount to much in terms of Big Picture success. You can have success as a hack, as someone chasing trends, but it’s a different kind of success that’s bound to be short-lived and kind of shallow.
Did you try doing studio work?
I did quite a bit of studio work. I did a fair amount in the Bay Area…
Not the best place for it…
Exactly. I did the vanity CDs and demos and that kind of stuff, and then in 1990 I actually moved to Los Angeles because the Bay Area scene had sort of dried up. A lot of people had gotten home studios so they weren’t buying as much studio time and hiring session players. And a lot of the night clubs that had been hosting live music, stopped doing that and hired DJs instead. All of a sudden I was on the verge of bankruptcy and stressing out financially, and I didn’t have skills other than music to go get a different kind of job. So I just said, “To hell with it—I’ve been avoiding L.A. my entire life, but it’s where the music business seems to be focused, so I’m going to check it out and see what it’s about.”
And it was OK. I worked. I met a lot of great people. I played in a lot of clubs. I also learned a lot being in the studio so much, about production and song-writing. I did about three years as a staff guy at a place called Studio 56—I came in as a friend who did some guitar tracks for a needle-drop [production music] library they were making, and they liked what I was doing, so they put me on staff as one of their staff writers and producers. I learned so much about microphones, consoles and all that, and I had free reign to experiment for about three years. It was definitely special, and believe it or not I still get some royalties from some of the [production music] things I did that long ago.
So how did you hook into the Dead’s world around the time of the first Other Ones tour?
This thing all happened via John Molo, which is really bizarre given my Bay Area background and given the fact that I and all my friends when we were kids were, before the term was even coined, Dead Heads. We didn’t follow them around the country or anything. We couldn’t tell you how many times they played “Sugar Magnolia”; it wasn’t that kind of Dead Head, but every time the Dead played in the area we made a solid effort to be there and we saw an awful lot of shows. But even with that connection, I never met a single guy from the Dead, I never had any interactions with them the whole time I was living in Marin County and being an active musician there. And there I am, I move down to Los Angeles, I’m down there for like ten years, my fiancé and I break up and I’m in the doldrums; I’m bummed…
She was no good for you, Mark!
[Laughs] In hindsight and considering how happily married I am now, I’d have to agree with you!
But I was pretty bummed and I was even feeling like maybe it was time to quit doing the music thing because I didn’t feel that inspired and there was no security at all, so why am I doing this? I was almost ready to walk away from it.
But I took myself on a little vacation to Mexico: A sober friend of mine had invited me to go play this place called Sober Villages—it was like a AA-sponsored Club Med week. At the time I was completely clean and sober and had been for many years, so it sounded pretty groovy to me—to be able to go down to Mexico for a week for free and play a little music there. So I went down there to do that, gave myself the gift of not checking my email or phone or anything, and at the end of that there I am, Mr. Bliss, all mellowed out and I’m getting ready to go home and I finally check my messages, and there’s a message from two days earlier from John Molo…
How did you know him?
I knew John from doing gigs in L.A. He’s very much an L.A. guy. We’d met each other at a couple of sessions, and also there’s a whole scene of guys who are into blues and R&B who play in the bars down there. There are a whole lot of guitar players and drummers and bass players who get plugged into these little gigs down there; it’s pretty casual. Anyway, I was one and John was one, and we did several gigs together and really enjoyed each other.
Then, when the [Grateful Dead] guys were putting together the post-Jerry thing, John, who had played in Bruce Hornsby’s band, was brought in because Billy didn’t want to do it at that time. And originally they were going to have this guy Stan Franks play guitar, but I guess he didn’t seem to really connect with the music. So they asked John if he knew any guitar players and he gave them a few names: mine, as well as Lauren Ellis, who used to live in L.A. but now lives in Nashville and is predominantly a slide player, and Tony Gilkyson. And [Steve] Kimock was in there, too.
Initially what happened is they auditioned each of us and chose me, not Steve.
What was the audition like? Obviously you’d admired Garcia through the years but you hadn’t played his stuff that much, right?
As a kid I did a lot.
But you’d never been in a Dead cover band.
I’d never been in a Dead cover band and I hadn’t really played any Garcia stuff in about 20 years, other than if I happened to be playing in some bar band in L.A. and the singer pulled out “Truckin’” or something because of a request. [Laughs]
The audition was at their studio in Novato [Bel Marin]. In general, I’ve never done well with auditions. I’m fairly self-critical and when I get into those situations I’m usually way too busy trying to please instead of making a connection to my muse and to my art. In this particular instance, I didn’t expect to get the gig; I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get it. So I went up there with a different attitude. I had just come out of the Mexico experience. I was totally blissed out and maybe more relaxed and centered than I’d ever been. Normally I’m an equipment dweeb and everything has to be perfect, but for this I had them rent me an old Super Reverb and I just showed up with my Gold Top guitar; I was very casual about it. To be honest, I was thrilled just to be there and to know that I was going to be able to spend an afternoon playing these songs with those guys.
Did you give yourself a crash course in Grateful Dead before you went up there?
No. They told me a few things to listen to and fortunately for me a lot of what they mentioned was older stuff that I was already pretty familiar with. It was a handful of songs, but all from an era I was familiar with. Later on, after I got the gig, they started bringing up things like “Sailor-Saint” and I had no idea what they were talking about! “That was long after I stopped listening to you guys!” [Laughs]
Anyway, we all had a really great time. Someone would suggest a song and we’d just play it. It didn’t feel like a regular audition and I had a ball playing with them. Cameron [Sears, road manager] invited me back to his office afterwards to ask about my availability and some nuts and bolts, and Phil walked over to say to me, “Hey man, I wanted to let you know, we really didn’t know if this was going to be fun anymore or not, and I wanted to say thank you for showing us that it can be.” I was blown away. I was really touched by that. And then to get the official call saying “You’re in,” I was even more blown away.
How did Kimock end up in the band, too?
Well, that’s a bit of a sore point. I showed up the first day of rehearsal and Phil wasn’t there. And the gist of the message was, “I’ve changed my mind and it’s either going to be Steve on guitar or we’re not going out.” So what wound up happening is all the other guys were very supportive of me having the chair, and in classic Grateful Dead fashion, when a choice couldn’t be made, they took us both!
I’ve gotta say, though, that from the very beginning, pre-Other Ones, Kimock’s name was always in the air. Frankly, I was one who thought he’d be a good fit in the post-Jerry universe. I thought that he would provide a needed sense on continuity, because he could play in Jerry’s style somewhat, but also had his own thing going musically. I didn’t know who you were…
No, no. That’s all true. From the public’s perspective, you have this guy over here who’s been in Marin forever and connected to Jerry and already playing that kind of music, and there’s this other guy over here with the rockabilly haircut who played with The Rembrandts and lives in L.A. Who the hell wants that? [Laughs] I understood that, but it still hurt my feelings, because people were making a lot of assumptions based on the surface of what they were looking at.
It was a pretty weird experience. But when they decided to use both of us, I went into it with an open mind—let’s see how this works.
My experience of how it worked is that Steve was an amazing guitar player who didn’t have a whole lot of interest, frankly, in doing a band based on somebody else’s body of work. I really don’t want to say anything detrimental about Steve, because he’s a great guitarist and a good guy, but he also didn’t really learn the tunes. He was sort of like the big gun in the back pocket. I learned all the songs and when Steve wasn’t inspired, I did a lot of the soloing and he sat back there on his chair and then when the moment would take him he’d sort of step down off the chair and step to the front of the stage and knock the ball out of the park. He’s damn good at it. He’s a brilliant guitar player. I love what he does. KVHW was a brilliant band and he was great in Zero, as well.
I think your perception is right-on. He occasionally did some incredible, transcendent stuff in the Other Ones, but when you go back and really break down what was happening in the guitars in that group, more often than not, you’re the one playing the classic recognizable riffs and also handling more of the solos. That was mostly you in “Scarlet” and “St. Stephen” and “China Cat”…
I think a lot of the fans assumed that was Steve playing a lot of that—or maybe that’s just my paranoia [Laughs]
Hey, it’s the Grateful Dead world. Your paranoia is well-founded!
Exactly. But I do think that some of the assumptions being made were that if it sounded good it was Steve. I remember the first night after the Warfield rain forest benefit, reading some things online going on about how great Steve was on “Goin’ Down the Road.” Hello? That was me! [Laughs]
How did it feel to be in the middle of this eccentric musical thing—because the Dead really don’t play like a conventional group—and to be playing this incredibly rich repertoire?
Well, to play the repertoire was—and still is—a privilege, unquestionably. The stuff is so well-written. You’ve got layer upon layer to access and process and to explore melodically; and the storylines and ideas, the mood they put you in to play from—all that stuff is amazing. As far as the musical style, obviously I needed to get better and better at it as time went by, through practical application and experience. But the truth is, as a kid, I’d been to many Dead shows, and probably a third to a half I’d also been on LSD, and I felt like I had really been imprinted by this music—not just the notes, but what’s behind them. I can’t tell you what others thought of my playing, but personally I felt completely comfortable with it; I felt like I was home.
That said, a real life-saver for me on that first tour was having John on the drums, because the way Phil and Mickey play is so unusual, it was nice to have John there tying it all together with a slightly more traditional frame underneath it all. Then on the second tour we had Mickey and Billy together and that worked out fine, too, but then we had Alphonso [Johnson] on bass so that was yet another different ingredient in the stew.
How did you feel about the way the first tour was received emotionally? It was a pretty big deal for Dead Heads…
Well, for me, it ranged from an incredibly positive emotional experience—this amazing embracing of us and a thankfulness and warmth; life-altering stuff that was incredibly touching and validating—to phenomenally vitriolic diatribes against me personally.
“Karan’s a hack…”
Yeah, just ripping me to shreds. I was like, “What did I ever do to you?” [Laughs]
Not to your face, I hope.
No, all in the fabulous world of online. I learned very quickly that in the Grateful Dead world there are a whole lot of very passionate opinions, and people aren’t afraid to get very personal with them. I wasn’t used to that at all. And I’m a pretty sensitive guy—maybe over-sensitive even—and it ripped me up pretty good. It took me a long time to get over it. It’s isn’t easy to read over and over that people think you suck. Or, “It should be Warren [Haynes].” “It should be Herring.” Or this guy John Zias. Everybody seemed to have somebody in their mind who would be better than me in the group, and I’m thinkin’, ‘C’mon people, just give it a chance!”
So what was the second tour like?
Well, in some ways it was easier because there was a little less head-butting among the core guys. But truthfully, I felt like that second tour was as driven as much by cash cows as anything. I think they wanted to go out and play, but it is what it is musically and socially, and to try to run it out there with Alphonso…It was an interesting experiment, but I think the main reason it happened is everyone wanted to go out there again, rather than any kind of joyful artistic statement. It felt a little bit more like a traditional touring thing than the fabulous family traveling circus that was the Grateful Dead.
Did you feel more comfortable second time around?
No, actually I probably felt more comfortable first time around.
So in between all these tours, you’re still doing things in L.A.?
I was still living in L.A. and occasionally doing something down there, but I didn’t need to as much. [The Dead] were fairly generous to me financially, especially on the first tour, so I had a cushion for the first time in my entire life, and that felt very good. So I was hanging out and doing the gigs I wanted to do, instead of the ones I had to do.
When did you hookup with RatDog?
That was actually around the end of that first year. At the end of the Other Ones tour in ’98 all the kids in the lot were telling me, “You should be in RatDog. Bobby needs a lead guitar player. There’s no lead guitar player in that band.”
That was true.
Maybe, but I said, “Well, nobody’s asked me so I’m certainly not going to assume that will happen.” Then, lo and behold, I was called upon to audition, and I went up to Bob’s house and I did an audition for the boys in RatDog, and I didn’t get the gig. It went to a guy named Dave McNabb, who was an East Bay friend of [drummer] Jay Lane and keyboardist] Jeff Chimenti, more from their hip-hop, acid-jazz world. At the time Bob was adamantly still trying to steer clear of anything that seemed remotely Grateful Dead, so he picked the jazz guy. They did a two-week tour with him and then, for whatever reason, when they got home they picked up the phone and asked me if I wanted the gig. So that’s how I got into RatDog.
During those first few tours with them, they were still not doing much Grateful Dead—or just some of Bob’s material, right?
There were just a couple of Garcia tunes at that point; not a lot. And stylistically it seemed Jay hadn’t really connected to the Grateful Dead material that much, so he was trying to sort of force that material into a mentality that had musically come more from a background in people like Prince and the whole Minneapolis funk thing. You could feel that in his drumming at the time—these powerful grooves with the big kick drum, which wasn’t really what the Grateful Dead was about, which was more of a floaty, bouncy thing.
How did they strike you in general when you joined?
Well, great guys, obviously and all good players. But quite honestly I thought there was a bit of a disconnect between all these jazz notes that were flying around that to my ear didn’t fit with the Grateful Dead side of the music. I knew Bob was going for something unique and I respected the intent, but the end result sounded sort of disjointed to me. Rob Wasserman is a really fine guy and really talented bassist, but his thing is really more soloing and improvised music than it is to play the function of a bass player in a song context. So being a real song freak and also being a producer and arranger by nature, it was frustrating to me to hear all these giant jazz voicings in the middle of an obviously bluegrass-based song. But I was hopeful that it would get better, and it did.
Did bringing you in change it, or did it have to wait for [bassist] Robin Sylvester to come in to really make a difference?
Robin was a huge change. I was in there with Rob for a few years and of course Dave Ellis was in there, too, pushing the jazz side. I think I was trying to push it in the direction I wanted it to go, but also what happened is as we got more experienced with each other playing this music it became more natural. Jay started listening to old Grateful Dead and developed more of an affinity for it. So with each passing year there were things that contributed to the improvement of the band. And then, yes, the huge improvement I think was the addition of Robin. Not to take anything away from Rob’s skills and his charm as a musician, Robin is a rock bass player; that’s what he does and he has a strong background in Grateful Dead.
Did you know him from the Marin scene?
I actually recommended him. I knew him years ago. He’d done a lot of session work and been in various bands, and he and I had done things with a weird variety of people, like Little Anthony & the Imperials and The Coasters and The Drifters…
“No original members!”
Or one guy who was part of the original group.
But he was the bassist and not even the singer!
Exactly. [Laughs] There was a lot of that. But Little Anthony was Little Anthony and Mary Wells was Mary Wells. It was the hack, county fair circuit.
Why do you think it took Bob so long to embrace the Garcia repertoire?
I don’t know, really. I think for a while it probably hurt—it hurt to hear those songs and he maybe wasn’t comfortable playing those songs. There might’ve been some fear, too—fear of judgment of the Deadhead community. Like, we do “Stella Blue” now. I’ve wanted to play that song for ages because it’s such a gorgeous piece of music; I feel privileged to be able to play it. But Bob didn’t want to play it for years because I think he wasn’t sure he could live up to it, and I think he was afraid of what the fan reaction might be. “Morning Dew”—I want to play it. I know it’s sacred. Whatever—it’s music! [Laughs] So I think he’s finding the courage and the room in his heart to get past the pain and the loss. As a guitarist who’s a melody fiend more than a flash fiend, I couldn’t ask for better body of work to mess with. And the covers are great, too.
There are shows now where there are more Garcia songs than Weir ones.
That’s true, but that’s by chance. I’d like to see us write some more original material. There’s a danger of becoming too much of a Grateful Dead cover band.
Let’s talk about the original material. There was that big burst that led to [The RatDog album] Evening Moods a few years back, and then more recently there’s been a gradual introduction of some other new tunes. What was that period of writing around Evening Moods like from your perspective?
Pulling teeth? [Laughs] Seriously, Bob moves at kind of a glacial pace. He’s not in a hurry to do anything and he’s willing to trot songs out there that in my opinion are not really ready, but that’s kind of admirable in way—he’s got a lot of balls.
He’s always been like that. He did it in the Grateful Dead, too.
It gives us an opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not working with a song, bring it back into the room and beat it up a little, change what needs to be changed. And the audience has been very supportive always. But this process takes forever. We can have the germination of a song and three or four years later we have the finished product. I’m not used to that. I’m used to: you have a song idea and usually within a couple of weeks you’re demo-ing it. So it was very slow. The band in general spends such a small amount of time in the recording studio, I don’t know if we’re that comfortable there, even now. I don’t know if we can quite capture the thing we have live there.
Gee, where have I heard that before?
[Laughs] It’s a little frustrating. Evening Moods feels a little stiff to me, even though I like the songs on there and there’s definitely some good playing from everyone. But when I listen to some of our better live shows, I definitely hear some spark that I’m not sure is really on that record. I hear inspiration on the live shows, whereas on the record I hear people trying to play the part right.
What songs did you have the most influence on?
“Ashes and Glass” probably. I was still fairly new to the band when it was being done. As I recall, we came home from a tour in ’99 and went right into Coast Recording Studios in San Francisco and set up, hopefully to catch the juice from being on the road. At the same time, Dave Ellis was in the process of leaving the band—I think he didn’t want to go on the road so much, so we had to deal with that right in the middle of everything.
At the time I was still living in L.A. and then after we did a week or so at Coast, when they were re-working things and doing various overdubs, I was down in L.A. so I missed out on some of that. Jay and Bobby and Chimenti and [engineer] Mike McGinn were really into the whole Pro Tools-ing of the record—classic Bob: The whole idea was to go into Coast and lay it down live , but then Bob went in and replaced every note he played! [Laughs]
I remember around that time I did a story on the making of the album for Mix and being up at Bob’s home studio and looking up on the big white board where they had a list of songs in progress and next to a take of “Ashes and Glass” it said: “Mark too much like Garcia.”
What’s funny about that particular thing is at that time Bob was way more into that frame of mind where he wanted to avoid things that were too evocative of Jerry. That’s a tough one. Like I said, that style of playing is part of my DNA. I’m not going to play “Sugar Magnolia” and NOT reference Garcia’s approach. I’m not going to play “Stella Blue” and avoid Garcia’s harmonic approach to the tune. It’s not because I’m trying to clone him; that’s the way I hear that song. Now, on other songs that the Grateful Dead did or that Bobby did that I didn’t grow up formatively listening to Garcia interpret, I probably have a much more unique approach; I don’t know.
Well, I also think of a guy like Jimmy Herring, who adopted more and more of Jerry’s style as he went along playing in Phil’s band or with The Dead. I think there’s something intoxicating about Garcia’s approach and I also think there’s some essential “rightness” about the choices Garcia made for his songs—both in the vocal phrasing and his guitar playing, that’s pretty damn hard to improve upon.
I agree. It’s interesting that you mention Jimmy, because Jimmy and Warren are the two guys who did that thing [with The Dead]. Initially I didn’t really care for what Jimmy was doing in that context. I recognized him as a good player, but not in that context. But the later stuff was great. And Warren always pretty much sounded like Warren, which is fine. I think that also maybe pushed Jimmy to play more of the Garcia stuff.
I think the general perception out there is that the last couple of years of RatDog you guys are really onto something.
Yeah, in a way. For me, what it feels like is we’re starting to relax. What it feels like is we’re starting to feel at home in our own space. This is a group that’s gone through a lot of growing pains—for years really—but now it’s become comfortable; not any less challenging, but I feel like we’re all on the same page more than we were before.
I don’t want to put this in a negative way, but I think that it helps that there’s no version of The Dead out there competing with it, or being compared to RatDog, or exerting some gravitational pull on you guys.
I think that’s true. Even Phil hasn’t been quite as active, so we’ve had our little moment of getting to go out there and be who we are without all the comparisons, like you say.
Are you liking some of the new material you’re playing, like “Money for Gasoline” and “Just Like Mama Said”?
I think they all have a lot of potential. I’m not sure any of them have quite found their sweet spot yet. “Tuesday Blues” is a good tune Bobby and Hunter worked up. We’ve got a couple of others that are waiting in wings…
And could be finished anytime between the next three months and three years!
Right. [Laughs] We’ve got a tune called “Dragonfly.” Another called “ICU.”
And these are co-band compositions?
Yeah. What usually happens is we’ll come up with some sort of musical thing as a group. Maybe as a group we’ll also come up with a concept of what it’s about, or a title. And then, thus far, Bobby will go and work on it with [lyricist] Gerrit Graham or [John] Barlow. So the band tends to write the music and Bobby and someone else will write the lyrics.
Tell me a little about Jemimah Puddleduck. Did that start as something to do when RatDog wasn’t happening?
Kind of. What happened was I got a call from a guy named Ardas Khalsa down in the Santa Barbara area who has a Grateful Dead radio show; this was in 1999, post-Other Ones. “Hey—Merl Saunders is playing at the Ventura Theater; would you like to open the show?” “Sure!” Only I didn’t have a band. [Laughs] So I called Molo and he was into it, and I had a couple of friends—Arlan Schierbaum and another named Bob Gross, a bass player and keyboard player, that I’d done a lot of fun cover gigs around the L.A. area with, but I loved them both as players and as people. And we got together at Arlen’s to jam and get some material together for this one-off, and we taped it. I took the tape home and I was listening to it that evening and I called the guys and said, “I don’t know how you’re feeling about this, but this sounds like a band to me; this doesn’t sound like one gig.” So that’s how it started.
What’s the range of covers you do?
Oh, God, the only pre-requisite is that I love the song, so it can be anything from some ancient thing from the ’40s or ’50s—we do “Makin’ Whoopee”—to a Grateful Dead song, to a Dylan song, a Beatles song, to a Tom Waits song. We pull out old reggae tunes here and there. Whatever grabs me.
But the guys are still down in L.A.
Yes, and that’s one of the reasons the band hasn’t done more. Between me touring with RatDog and John touring with Phil, one of us was always busy. So it’s been catch as catch can. But it’s really fun. And I love singing! In Los Angeles, probably 60 to 70 percent of my income was from vocal sessions.
I’ve always wondered why you don’t sing more in RatDog.
Well, Bobby explained it to me years ago, but maybe it’s time to re-open the conversation. Back then he could tell I was sort of chomping at the bit to get to sing a little bit, and very uncharacteristically for Weir, he just kind of put it flat-out to me: “Look, I know you’re a good singer, but every band I’ve had, whether it was the Grateful Dead or the Midnites or Kingfish or whatever, I’ve always had to share the stage and the microphone. But this is the first band I’ve had that’s really about me exploring my muse, and I want to keep it like that. Nothing against you. I just want the room to explore.” Okay. That’s cool. He was honest about it. I can live with that.
But you still want to sing.
Yeah! It may change; you never know. Things have definitely opened up in a lot of ways the last couple of years, so it could happen.
What are your favorite guitars these days? You’ve got a few to choose from…
I do. My number one has really settled into my ’61 SG Les Paul. I’ve got a Les Paul Gold Top that I adore, but it’s a little rich-sounding. It’s very big-sounding and takes up a lot of room in the mix. The SG gives me something similar to what it offers, but with a little more thinness, so it fits in the mix better. Then I’ve got the ’62 Strat, which for certain Garcia-approach things is sort of my go-to guitar. It can be little bite-y, and a little too thin. The SG is like a compromise between those two worlds.
How has Bob’s playing in the group changed through the years?
My take on his playing style in general and how it’s developed over the years has been that it’s more responsive-reactive playing than generative-leading playing. My sense is that it developed through the years with him responding to what Phil and Jerry were up to. So here he was filling in the holes and finding the cool little places to dart in between what they were saying, and adding cool little chord voicings that really brought out the interesting and odd things they were up to.
Earlier on in RatDog, before we as a band really had a handle on what was going on, he was trying to play in a way that would help guide us, which was not necessarily his strong suit. But more recently he’s relaxed into how he would normally play guitar—what’s natural to him, and in that respect I think he’s gotten better. And a lot of it, I’m sure is that we’ve all gotten better as a band so he can relax more.
I remember going to The other Ones in 98' in Charlotte and VA and liking it so much that I went out to Vegas, Irvine, and Shoreline for my first west coast trip in 7 years. I really loved the new band but I didn't know either guitar player and I remember all the rumors just as mentioned above. Having seen over 300 shows I could hear the difference between the guitar players as they were in the middle of a context that I had intimate knowlege of. I always felt that though Kimoch was very talented, he was too technical for dead and I always felt more of a connection with Mark even way back then. So I don't know who was writing that stuff on the web back then, but it certainly wasn't me. Great interview and I hope you are feeling better soon Mark. Peace,