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Neal Casal Talks Circles Around The Sun, The Album That Grew From Fare Thee Well

Neal Casal may be best known for his role as guitarist in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, but he gained some attention for leading the charge on the instrumental music that was played during the set breaks at all five Fare Thee Well concerts. With that music finally being released as its own album, Interludes for the Dead, Casal sat down with L4LM to discuss the various musical, and not so musical, projects that he’s been working on.

With Circles Around The Sun, Casal was able to take in the direct inspiration of the Grateful Dead, while adding his own compositional flair to the music. Read on for Sarah Bourque’s exclusive interview…

L4LM: How did you get involved with the music for the Fare Thee Well shows?

NC: I got involved through Justin Kreutzmann.  He is a film maker, Bill Kreutzmann’s son, the drummer for The Grateful Dead, and does many things outside of the Grateful Dead and has his own film making career outside of that. He does work for the family on occasion, for obvious reasons. I have known Justin for a few years. I’ve worked with him on a few things. Most notably he hired me to score the documentary, “The Other One,” about Bob Weir. I did all the music for that film. It went well, and Justin and I became friends.

He was then put in charge of creating the visuals for the Fare Thee Well shows. The two large screens on either side of the stage projected visuals both during the show and intermission. He wanted some music to go along with the visuals for those gigs, so people weren’t entering the stadium in silence. He wanted “walk in music”, so he asked me to create original music to accompany the visuals on the screens at those shows. That’s how this came to be.

I called a few of my friends, who are excellent musicians [bassist Dan Horne, drummer Mark Levy, and keyboardist Adam MacDougall]. We went into a studio and wrote about four and half hours of music in just a few days. Very quickly we recorded all this music, not thinking that it was ever going to be released on an album. It took on a life of its own and here we are now about to see the release of nearly all the music we made in a few days. 

L4LM: When Kreutzmann talked to you, did he discuss the direction that he wanted the music to go? 

NC: Yes, he discussed some direction. He gave me loose guidelines and wanted music that sounded familiar to Grateful Dead fans. He wanted the shows to be able to connect to the music. If it was too far out of the Grateful Dead realm, it would be a disconnect. He also didn’t want music that was just mimicking The Grateful Dead. It had to sound like them, or give a feel of the Dead experience, without actually copying it. There was a delicate balance we were after. He gave me a few rhythmic directions, or themes. For example, he would say, “Give me something that feels vaguely similar to Eyes of the World, Casey Jones, Truckin tones. Touch on some of the main themes in The Grateful Dead canon without getting too close to it. Create a vibe for Dead Heads.”

L4LM: Was the music a collaborative effort or did one person have the majority of ideas and you went from there?  How did you come up with each song?

NC: Some of the songs are so long we couldn’t really fit them on a side of vinyl. I was the project leader, so to speak. I put the band together, found the studio and the engineer. I did everything. I was certainly the leader in terms of music and its direction; the kind of keys we would play in and rhythms we were after, but, all of the music was written collectively. When we were in the moment of writing the music, we did it together. All of the credits are split four ways and everyone had an equal part in making the music. It’s part of what makes it so good to listen to, because it wasn’t just one person dictating what was happening. It was a collective effort.

Some of those really long pieces of music, the ones over twenty minutes long, there was no rehearsal for that. There was no planning that at all. We would just start playing a theme and just follow our noses, really, and follow our collective inspiration. Those things ended up being longer than we ever could have anticipated. We wrote things in the moment, and on the spot, reacting to each other. One person would play a certain riff or group of notes and the next person would follow. It was all just a matter of listening, collaborations and inspirations. 

L4LM: How did you come up with the name, Circles Around the Sun, as well as each track?

NC: The name of the project? We didn’t have a name for it. One thing that’s important to know is that it wasn’t created originally as a record. We weren’t thinking in terms of making an album. We were only thinking of the music to be played on the screen at the shows. This was never intended for release. If you were recording, intending it to be released, you would never come up with a 26 minute song.  Nobody would do that because when you’re thinking about making records, you have to keep certain song lengths in mind. There’s constraints.

We had absolutely no constraints and that’s what makes this thing so cool. It’s what makes it free sounding. It’s so liberated from the normal boundaries of record making. Once the idea came up to turn it into a record, because so many people liked it, I had to come up with a name for the project. I had a lot of trouble doing that. When you’re being spontaneous, it’s easy. When you have to think about something, and actually put your attention on it, you can’t come up with anything.

I am somewhat friends with Annabelle, Jerry [Garcia’s] daughter, through the Fare Thee Well shows, and a couple of other things. I’ve become friendly with her, and expressed to her my difficulty in coming up with the name, and asked if she’d help. She was totally into that idea. She came up with tons of names, a lot of ideas. My favorite of those was Circles Around the Sun. There’s a line, “throw my arms around you like a circle around the sun”, that is a common line in a lot of old folk songs. It’s also a line in the song, “I Know You Rider”, which is a cover. It’s a folk song that the Grateful Dead have played since their earliest days. Phil [Lesh] plays it, I’ve played it.

The Grateful Dead never sang the verse that contains the line, “circle around the sun.” They left that verse out. A lot of old folk songs are really long. People would arrange them differently. Some leave certain lyrics or versus out of their arrangement. It’s a common thing in folk arranging. I thought it was really cool to take on the name from a Grateful Dead song, but it’s a verse that they never sang. Sort of the missing verse or the missing lyric. It made sense to name it Circles Around the Sun, as a continuation of The Grateful Dead story and our little part in that, respectfully. Annabelle Garcia gave us our name. That was a nice feeling to have someone directly connected to the legacy help us with that. 

As far as song titles go, there were certain things, like “Gilbert’s Groove.” Gilbert Shelton is a great artist. He did the artwork for The Grateful Dead’s Shakedown Street album. That song “Gilbert’s Groove” is a nod to “Shakedown Street.” We did choose certain titles that would be a tip of the hat to The Grateful Dead songs that they reference. There’s another song called “Hallucinate A Solution”, which is the first song on the vinyl. I got that title from Phil Lesh. One night we were about to go on stage, and one of the musicians in the band asked Phil how we were going to make a particular transition from song to song. He had an idea in mind, but it was a bit of a stretch of how we were going to get from one song to another, and required some musical tight rope walking. One of us asked Phil, “how are we going to make this transition?” He responded with “I don’t really know, but when the moment comes, let’s just hallucinate a solution.” I thought, “what a cool thing to say.” It gave me a lot of insight into The Grateful Dead’s mindset. That’s what they did. That’s the story of that band. They just hallucinated a solution for themselves. It started out just by starting the band. This group of friends in the mid-60’s needed a solution of how they were going to live their lives creatively as artists. They collectively hallucinated a solution to enjoy a way of life. That was a title that I could not pass up. 

L4LM: A lot of fans are excited to have this music released and it’s received a huge, positive response. How shocked were you when you realized the response fans had to the music that you had no plans to release as an album?

NC: It was total shock. It’s been the biggest surprise of my musical life, no question about it. I thought it was going to be very low volume music that would be played, like in a restaurant, music that you didn’t really hear. It would add subliminally to the atmosphere and no one would specifically pay attention to it. It was a complete shock. I think I was a bit naive though in thinking that nobody would listen to it, because Grateful Dead fans are an incredibly sharp lot, in general, and very perceptive people. It was wrong of me to underestimate them, but again, it was just denial. I was a bit overwhelmed by being put in this position. I chose not to think about it so much. Also, just the sheer number of people. There were hundreds of thousands of people at these shows, so of course somebody was going to hear it. It was a total surprise. It still is and always will be. I really can’t express in words how honored we are to be a part of this and to have this happen. Not only is this music being released on it’s own, but it’s being released within the Fare Thee Well box set. Of course, Jerry is no longer with us, but we’re a part of a Grateful Dead release, which is just unthinkable for someone like me who’s been a fan since I was a kid. It’s hard to even believe that we’re a part of this. 

L4LM: In addition to the music, there are fans that are interested to know if there will be a tour, in addition to the music from the show, and if more of that music will be released?

NC: As far as touring goes, it’s not possible right now because we’re all in other bands. We’re just overcommitted. I’m in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and none of this would have happened had I not been in this band. The CRB is the genesis for all of the good things, musically, that have happened to me over the past few years. We’re very much a living, breathing rock and roll entity that has a lot going on. We’re touring. We’re making a new record soon.

I’m also in Hard Working Americans and have a couple of other things going on that will make it impossible to tour extensively for the Circles Around the Sun stuff. We talked about doing some live shows, but nothing concrete yet. It would be really hard to do, and it’s certainly an interesting idea, but it would take some preparation and testing. It’s an instrumental project. I don’t really know how it would translate. It’s everyone’s favorite background music at the moment, but if you brought that music to the foreground and actually shined a spotlight on it, I don’t know what it would be. I don’t know what kind of show it would make. I don’t know if audiences are really ready to hear a number of twenty minute instrumental songs. In a way it may be better to let the mystery be and let it exist as it is.

The one thing I can’t be about this music is opportunistic. It was created in a beautiful, truly organic way, and I don’t use the word organic lightly, as it’s an annoying word. It does apply here. There was something about it. We made this music while no one was looking. We weren’t even looking. We weren’t trying to make a record. We snuck into a strange opening in the universe that doesn’t happen all the time, and I really don’t want to disturb any of that. The live show idea is an idea, but not a reality yet. I don’t want to feel, or appear, that I’m capitalizing on something. There’s all this Grateful Dead fever right now and everyone is on it. That’s not what I’m about. It’s not what I’m into the Grateful Dead for. I don’t want to capitalize on anything. I don’t want to capitalize on them. I want to make sure that whatever motivations we have are of a pure intent. 

The bottom line is, we’ll see. 

L4LM: Along with being a musician, you have a love of photography. How did you get into that medium and are you currently documenting any of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood shows while on tour?

NC: My interest goes back to seeing the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street album artwork for the first time. I was intrigued by the provocative and moody Robert Frank black and white images.  That’s what first got me thinking about photography but it didn’t take hold until about 12 or 13 years ago. I was several years into my touring life when I realized that I was starting to forget a lot of the places I’d been and the things I’d seen. It started to feel like a crime to me not to document my life and experiences.

As a musician I get to do a lot of things, and see a lot of things, a lot of other people don’t get to do. I started to feel like I could do this. A voice started to rise out of me that needed expression and I just listened to it. I picked up a camera and just started documenting. With that, I didn’t have any great aspirations for it at first. I didn’t think it would go anywhere. I was only doing it for myself. Then I started putting some of my tour photos on my web site and they got a really great response. Then it turned into what it is now. My photographs appear, occasionally, on a record, or occasionally in a book or magazine.

It’s not something I pursue to make a living but it’s almost as important to me as music. It makes my creative life so much broader. Music and photography go so well together and I find that I get to be in a position, as a documentarian of music, that no one else gets to share because I’m in the band. You can’t get any closer to the music then by being a part of the music. A lot of times I have a camera around my neck, and a guitar in my hand, and I will just take pictures while the music is being created. You can’t get any deeper into it than that. It’s a great thing to do. I believe in photography when it’s done right and used for good, and not evil, like it’s done so much these days. When it’s used for beauty, good, and illumination, then I’m all for it. I love being a part of it. 

L4LM: Between the tour dates with The Hard Working Americans and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood that are coming up in December, how do you find balance? Especially with the holidays thrown in?

NC: I go surfing. That’s my thing. I’m into the ocean. When things get out of balance for me, I turn to the ocean, to the water. It always restores my balance in pretty short order. The ocean is one hell of an instructor; one hell of a teacher. 

L4LM: You’ve played with quite a wide range of musicians. Is there anyone that you haven’t yet played with but would really like to?

NC: I never really think of music in those terms. There are so many people. I can’t name them but they’re all over the place. I’m always just looking forward to the next record or experience around the bend. I will say that I’ve been working a little bit with Kyle Field. He’s Little Wings’ songwriter, and also a brilliant painter and visual artist. He’s an incredible lyricist and has made some amazing records. I admire him greatly. I’ve been working with him on a recording project just a little, tiny bit over the past year, but it’s far from finished. The thing I’m looking forward to the most, right now, is working with him in a deeper capacity. 

L4LM: If you could have any guitar to add to your collection, what would it be?

NC: What I want the most right now is add another Scott Walker guitar to my collection. Scott Walker is the creator of the guitar that I currently play on stage with the CRB, the Hard Working Americans, and when I play with Phil. It’s a fancy looking round thing with all these switches and knobs and different electronic devices. Yeah, the thing I would like the most right now is another Walker. I’m about to order one but they take close to a year to get, so I would love to speed up the delivery time of my next Walker. 

L4LM: What plans do you have going into next year? What projects are coming up?

NC: The first thing that I’m doing next year is making a new record with the CRB, and that’s what I’m really excited about. My writing collaborations life with Chris [Robinson] is a big deal to me. It’s kind of the center of my musical life over the past few years. We have some new ideas, and new songs, we are ready to put down. That’s what I’m most excited about. We’re going to make our new record in this very cool house up in Northern California. We’re going to hole ourselves up in this house for three weeks, forget the world for a while, and get deep into the recording of the music. That’s what I’m most excited about.

The Hard Working Americans also have a new record coming out next year. It’s also very exciting to get to work with Todd Snider, who’s such a brilliant songwriter. I have a lot going on next year.

L4LM: Fans are curious to know if Ryan Adams and The Cardinals will ever get back together, even if for just a reunion show.

NC:  There has been absolutely no talk of that. If I know Ryan at all, I would very much doubt that. Ryan is the kind of person that is always moving on to the next idea and is always living very much in his present moment. He’s such a highly creative person that I really can’t imagine him wanting to go back. He’s not someone who looks back much and is always looking forward. That’s one of the most inspiring aspects of his personality. I would doubt it. We certainly haven’t talked about it because everyone’s doing their own stuff now. I will say that being in the Cardinals was one of the very best experiences of my entire life. For a few years there, we were a truly great band and were so cohesive and strong live. To get to play his extensive body of absolutely incredible songs was just a thrill. The guy is one of the most talented people that you could ever hope to run across. 

L4LM: In closing, is there anything else you would like to say out there to all of your fans?

NC: The only thing important to me right now is, with the Circles Around the Sun release, I would like to see the highest number of people get the best quality music that’s available. Meaning, thousands of people already have that music because it was ripped off of YouTube around the time of the Fare Thee Well shows. It got passed around, and people have it, so they’ve already been listening to this for months. It’s a much lower quality, shitty digital rip off of YouTube, and that bothered me a lot.

I’m trying to get people to buy this record, not because I want their money, but rather, I want them to have the best quality version of this music. I’m just encouraging people that like it, to buy it, so the best version of this music makes it’s way into the world. I’m hoping the low quality YouTube version recedes into the background, eventually disappears, and is replaced by the best quality version. Everyone who had it on YouTube, it wasn’t mixed or mastered properly. We’ve gone back and mixed and mastered it properly, the way a record is supposed to be done. It’s up to our standards and we’re ready to present it to fans.

For more information on Neal Casal, visit his website for tour dates, photos and more.

Words by Sarah Bourque. Follow on Twitter.