The still-brief story of Circles Around The Sun is marked by equal parts unexpected triumph and unfathomable tragedy.
In 2015, Neal Casal was recruited by Justin Kreutzmann to compose and record set break music for the Grateful Dead‘s 50th-anniversary Fare Thee Well shows. Casal rounded up his Chris Robinson Brotherhood bandmate/keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne, and drummer Mark Levy—the group now known as Circles Around The Sun—to help with the task.
“It wasn’t a band,” Adam MacDougall reminded Live For Live Music when he sat down for a conversation aboard Jam Cruise 18 back in January. It was just an idea, a concept, an exercise: “Make something that feels a bit of how some of the iconic songs of the Dead feel without being able to point your finger at it and be like, ‘That’s that.'”
“So we just kind of sat in a room and thought, ‘Alright, let’s think about a song,'” MacDougall continued. “We thought about a song. ‘Let’s just play some stuff and make it up with that in mind.’ Don’t try and do anything that’s close to it, just think with that kind of feeling in mind, trying to just play some music. That’s what it was.”
Due to the massive scope of Fare Thee Well, which boasted five sold-out stadium shows and countless viewers streaming from home, the little project debuted to an enormous audience—a far cry from the dive bars and tiny venues where most bands make their names. “We were so lucky to get all those people that heard our music … We didn’t even realize it was going to be like that. I mean, the livestream stuff,” he added of the widely-viewed Fare Thee Well webcasts, “There were hundreds of thousands of people sitting and all just rolling a joint or getting another beer while this music is playing over their computer or their TV. We didn’t even think about that. That was like winning the lottery. How do you have that? You don’t even have a band or a record out and already, like, hundreds of thousands of people hear your sh*t.”
The positive response to the Grateful-Dead-turned-inside-out psychedelic jams they created was so overwhelming that the music was released as an album. A tour soon followed, then another album. This summer, Circles Around The Sun revisited those initial sessions and released them for the first time in their entirety as Interludes: The Complete Set-Break Recordings.
“We got really, really lucky. We shouldn’t have a career, honestly.” MacDougall reflected. “From starting as just doing instrumental music, as not a band, and then everybody being so busy—you know, me and Neal with the CRB. I mean, I don’t think we played more than four shows the first year after that came out. We shouldn’t have survived any of this.”
As such, Circles Around The Sun came to embody a hopeful future for its members. Casal and MacDougall would discuss at length the doors the project had opened for them as musicians: “Get out of the sideman gig. Have your own band. Own your material. Own your name. Own everything. Own your merch. Make it yours. Get out of this, like, working for somebody else. Don’t work for the company store anymore. Own your business. [Circles Around The Sun] was the first time [for us].”
By the summer of 2019, Circles Around The Sun was not just a real “band,” but an outstanding one with an ever-growing touring schedule on the books, a collaborative EP with Joe Russo in the wings, a third, self-titled album in its final stages of production, and a clear road ahead. On August 26th, 2019, however, the feel-good story of Circles Around The Sun took a turn for the devastating when Neal Casal took his own life at the age of 50.
Adam MacDougall’s voice wavered as he prepared to discuss his departed comrade. He paused often as he searched for the right words, his earnest yet measured responses coming across as part on-record comment, part personal affirmation. He would offer up a rhetorical question, then answer it himself; sum up one emotion, then rethink it entirely. While he was open and gracious in approaching the painful topic, the shadow of conflict and disbelief cast over his face as he spoke served as constant reminder that the wounds were still fresh.
“Besides just losing my best friend and musical companion for a decade of my life, just the idea of being, like, ‘You idiot. We had it. We had it made. We got our own band. Everything we talked about for 10 years, hustling around the country, working for other people…'” he trailed off. “We finally got the damn thing we’d been talking about. Now!?”
“First, it was just shock. I mean, just absolute… shock. Can’t believe it. And still, I still don’t think it’s processed. There’s still certain things that happen in my life that only him and I would have a connection to. You know, you have a tight friend and something will happen and you immediately want to call them and say, ‘Guess what I just saw? You’re the only person I can tell this to.’ That happens to me still—three, four, five times a day. Something will happen and I’m like, ‘Oh, man! I’m just going to…’ Can’t do it. Can’t call him. So I think I still haven’t processed it yet if I’m still going for the phone a couple times a day,” he laughed. “I’m still there…”
“The amount of music he had lined up—not just us, but other records he was going to do and people he was going to play with and stuff that was happening. His back catalog of his own material was about to be put out. He was playing with Oteil a bunch. He was finally turning into this kind of ‘elder statesman’ of music. I think he always saw himself as, like, ‘the hot guitar player kid,’ you know what I mean?”
“But you’re 50, you’ve got to move on… But he was moving on. He was playing with great people. He had a great band of his own. He had a great catalog, a great past. He had a great future. So yeah, then, I was really, really pissed. Even besides all the other people that were his friends and musical companions … his close buddies in his band—the three other people that had given up everything—we’d all said, ‘Cool, this is it. Cleaning everything off. This is our retirement. I don’t want to do anything else unless I want to. I don’t want to have to do anything else for the rest of my life. This is going to be it, and I want to make this be the thing that allows me to do whatever I want. And I thought that’s where we were. So now, it’s kind of… Now, we have to start from scratch again without our best friend. So we’re pissed, I’m pissed… Yeah. I’m still pissed.”
When news of Casal’s death broke, it was widely reported that he had left behind a lengthy letter—the same letter in which he asked that Circles Around The Sun continue in his absence. A portion of that document was projected onscreen at The Capitol Theatre a month after his death when friends, collaborators, and fans alike came together to mourn his loss. The most striking characteristic of that passage was its aura of peace, acceptance, self-actualization. It sounded almost hopeful—a strange emotion for such a letter to exhibit:
Have an epic party for me and play my favorite records, and remember all of the good times we had, the music, images, and waves we caught. That’s all. Play Exile On Main Street from beginning to end, and especially, play Moonlight Mile. It’s my song, always has been, it’s me. I used to lay with my headphones on and listen to that song over and over again and it would make me cry and inspire me to live and create. It’s beautiful and elegant and tough and sad and hopeful all at once. Everything i ever wanted to be.
While this was just a short piece of a much longer letter, MacDougall winced slightly as he thought about it. “I mean, we were very, very close for a long time on the road,” he explained. “We talked about all sorts of stuff. It was a total surprise to me. The letter didn’t really clarify much more than I already knew. I just didn’t think it would get to that place.”
“I also think that it’s pretty common that people in that situation, the friends and family and people around, will often say, ‘He seemed fine,’ or ‘she seemed fine’—even, sometimes, ‘they seemed happier.’ I do believe that a lot of that has to do with, once you’ve made up your mind to do that and you know that’s what you’re going to do, then you don’t have to worry about the future anymore. Therefore, I think that’s why it’s very common that people often say, ‘Why now? They were doing so well. They were so happy. I just saw them. Happiest I’ve seen them in a long time.’ Well, yeah. Because they don’t have to deal with another 30 years of this life.”
“I mean, he did say in his letter—and I don’t believe this is true because I know him and I know things were a lot deeper—but he did say that life on the road… He sort of warned against it. Like, it’s always something that you dream of as a teenager or whatever, and when you finally get it, you’re super into it. But after a long time of doing it, it takes a certain toll on you. I know that’s true. I don’t think that that’s the answer or the reason. But I do understand that it does lead to having a life that sometimes people look at it and they go, ‘Man you so lucky, you get to do all this stuff’… and f*ck yeah!”
“But I think,” he continued, “For people that look at musicians, they see a thing, a cliché version of what it is. They’re like, ‘That would be so cool to do that.’ We [musicians] see a cliché version of a perfect life where it’s like, you’re fulfilled and you have a beautiful home life … you have children, you have a legacy, you have someone that you love and that you trust and that trusts you. You build a life together. There’s plenty of musicians I know that manage to balance that, but there are plenty that didn’t or didn’t even try. … I think he believed that this particular type of life can lead you to at some point just kind of being alone.”
In the days and weeks that followed his death—and, particularly, on that night at The Cap—it became abundantly clear that Neal Casal had been far from alone. For his decades worth of collaborators, the many admirers of his vast catalog, and the countless people with whom he’d forged personal connections, his suicide was a catastrophic blow.
“He’s missed by people that didn’t even really know him.” Adam explained, “He was a different cat. He made an impression on people that may have only met him for ten minutes. He just had a gracious way of communicating. He was always approachable to anybody who was interested or had questions—his pedal board or which strings does he use or what cables or what to do, how did he write that song? What about this?—He’s like always more than happy to talk about that stuff, so I think people made connections with him, even over a small period of time. … It was such a crater that he left with that. He was known by so many people. He made damn CNN in France, because he was big in France. I don’t think he had any idea that this would be… I mean, I guess, when you’re at the point where you’re willing to do that, you’re obviously not seeing things clearly.”
“A big takeaway from this for me,” MacDougall continued on the topic of suicide, “Was it’s not an option. It’s just not. Everyone’s thought about it, but when someone really close to you does it and you see what a hole it leaves and what a selfish move it is—and what a violently selfish move it is, to have somebody find you. It’s a violent move. It’s the end-of-your-chain kind of situation where you’re so… you just hit a point where that’s an option. But going through it personally, myself, you can’t. You can’t do that. There’s too many people. There’s too many people you didn’t even know about. You don’t do that checklist. If you did an actual checklist, it would be hundreds and hundreds of people. Everybody affects so many people. Whether they know it or not. Whether it’s even through other people. Whatever it is. … So if you take yourself out brutally like that and [you’re] just gone, you leave such a bigger hole than you could possibly ever imagine. I don’t care what you do or who you are. It’s just not an option. It’s not.”
In the wake of Neal’s passing, the Neal Casal Music Foundation was established to help fund mental health organizations for musicians like MusiCares and Backline—the latter of which was conceived in part with Neal’s death in mind—and to provide music lessons and musical instruments to children in Casal’s home state of New Jersey.
MacDougall stared out the window as he mentally reconciled the once-hopeful essence of Circles Around The Sun with the stark reality of Casal’s suicide. “I think it’s definitely part of me moving forward. I think it’s part of the DNA of the band moving forward. It’s just part of the story now. It’s a terrible chapter, but being that we are going to keep going, it’s just part of the thing. It’s a terrible thing. People come up to us [now] and we can tell that they want to say something [about Neal]. It’s okay to talk about. It’s okay. It happened. It’s alright. … It’s part of the DNA.”
With Neal suddenly gone, the band’s once-bright future was cast into question. Could they go on? Was it even Circles Around The Sun without Neal Casal? Or would the late-night set in LOCKN’ Festival‘s Garcia’s Forest just days before Casal’s death be the final CATS show? The three remaining band members weren’t sure that it would work without him.
“Right before LOCKN’, we were in the studio making the [Circles Around The Sun] record. So that was where we were. LOCKN’ was just a blip. We were just going to fly in, do LOCKN’, and then come back and finish the record. So we were in that mindset. LOCKN’ was great. It was cool. I stayed around a little bit and watched Neal play with Oteil and stuff. Yeah… and then, basically, got home to him not being around anymore.”
“So we initially just thought, that’s it. That’s done. But over the course of a few weeks or a month or so, I think we talked together as a band and just thought, we really believe in the music and these songs. We don’t want to stop playing it. It may be selfish but, like, the three of us have a certain feeling when we play that we don’t get anywhere else.”
“It’ll never be the same thing,” MacDougall surmised, but it could still be something.
MacDougall, Horne, and Levy began to try out some stand-ins, but kept running into the same problem: authenticity. “If someone’s going to try and come in and do Neal,” he explained, “Then it’s just an impersonation and it’s sad. It makes us really sad. There’s no point. We had had that a couple of times and we were just like, ‘Nope. We’re done. We’re done.’ [We needed] someone who’s got the confidence and the musicality and the strength to come in and just say, ‘This is what I do. What do you guys want to do with this?’ And then it changes the way us three as a band play. That’s when it works. … Somebody who’s got their own voice, and their own way of saying things, and is reverent to the idea of the music but not trying to be somebody else. Not trying to replace, not trying to do stuff that Neal did, not trying to even be anywhere near that.”
That lesson harkened back to the genesis of Circles Around The Sun, the initial mission at the core of the project: Don’t try and do anything close to the underlying inspiration, just think and play with that kind of feeling in mind.
“The only time I ever thought there was any hope was I kind of last-minute called Eric [Krasno],” MacDougall continued. “Because we had just said, ‘Alright, if we’re going to try to make this work, then we may as well keep some of these dates that we have in October.’ We said, ‘All right we’re going to do them,’ but we still didn’t know how. Last minute, I just said, ‘Look man, there’s one dude. He’s in L.A.,’ because Kraz lives in L.A. now. So, if he can just come by and play with us for a few hours and see what that feels like… Then, we did it with Eric and he just, in the best way possible, was not reverent to the material. He just was like, ‘This is how I would do this.’”
Even beyond the way his playing meshed with the rest of the band, the choice of Krasno as the initial replacement for Casal felt like it was keeping things in the family. As Adam noted, “I think Kraz was the last person [Neal] played with, at the Oteil show [at LOCKN’ 2019]. That was him and Kraz. That was the last moment.”
At Casal’s star-studded memorial show at The Capitol Theatre in September 2019, Circles Around The Sun performed for the first time since that final late-night set at LOCKN’, this time with Krasno on guitar. It was the first time the band had played live without Neal. While his unique presence was sorely missed, this brief but remarkable performance affirmed that Circles Around The Sun was still one of the best live bands on the road.
[Photo: Jason Charme – Adam MacDougall/Circles Around The Sun with Eric Krasno at Jam Cruise 18]
“Playing the memorial, that was just two songs and it was just like, ‘Whoa what just happened?’ But after we did a run with Eric, it became apparent, like, ‘Alright, we could probably do this.’ As long as the person has a strong voice and is confident in what they do and great at what they do, then it could be anybody. Could be a horn player. Could be a keyboard player. Could be anything. It’s never going to be Neal, Mark, Dan and me—the band that it was—[so] we may as well play around with it.”
“We’ve also subsequently played with Scott Metzger. He does the same thing. [Krasno and Metzger] are very different players. They make the band play very differently. It came from a serious tragedy but, you know, Eric and Scott are really great players. We all are lucky that they’re even interested in doing it. So it’s cool. It’s like a revolving door thing.”
The goal of a successful future remains for Circles Around The Sun, but MacDougall still couldn’t quite wrap his head around the evolution the band would have to undergo in order to get there. “The really creepy thing that really freaks me out is,” he paused, fumbling for the right words, “As the band moves forward, when we start getting fans from now on, they’ll never have heard that band. They’ll maybe go see the band and then go, ‘I want to check this out,’ and Google it and it’s like, ‘Oh, there was a tragedy in this story.’ But there may be, if we keep going and things work out, a bunch of people who love the band that are just a different era of that thing. That’s what’s weird.”
Adam likened the situation to that of Circles Around The Sun’s spiritual inspiration, the Grateful Dead, whose early lineups were lost to mortality before many current fans had been turned on. The Dead forged on through loss after loss, eclipsing the levels of success attained with original members like the late Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. “A lot of bands have had tragedies of that nature, losing somebody,” he explained. “For the ones that have gotten through it, there’s no reason to hide it or anything. It’s part of the thing.”
Just five years ago, Circles Around The Sun was not a band at all. It was just an idea, a concept, an exercise. Today, it’s a true band with a meaningful repertoire, a common goal, and a real story filled with unlikely wins and sobering losses. With Neal Casal, Circles Around The Sun wrote the first chapter. With his memory, they’ll continue telling the tale as the Earth continues traveling around the sun. One circle down…
In loving memory of Neal Casal (11/2/68 – 8/26/19)
[Photo: Dave Vann – Neal Casal’s final Circles Around The Sun show – 8/22/19 – LOCKN’]