Neal Casal is a beloved guitarist on the scene known for his psychedelic, bluesy Americana with Chris Robinson Brotherhood. However, in 2015, he was given the monumental task of creating the set break music at The Grateful Dead’s legendary Fare Thee Well concerts, adding to his already enviable musical resume. Casal created Circles Around The Sun, a groovy four-piece featuring keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne, and drummer Mark Levy that’s become known for their psychedelic twists on Grateful Dead tunes.
Circles Around The Sun was never intended to become a full-fledged band. However, the immense fan response kept the project alive and well, and the group will play another six shows in January of 2018. They will play their first show of the year on January 5th at The Troubadour in Los Angeles and will finish at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, on January 20th.
Live for Live Music had the opportunity to talk to Neal Casal before Circles Around the Sun’s upcoming shows. We asked Neal about Circles Around The Sun, the psychedelic experience, his favorite Rolling Stones album, and more. Read on below!
Live For Live Music: How did you get into music?
Neal Casal: It was just something I always felt. It was this inner feeling I had from the time I was a kid. I was just attracted to music, plain and simple. My grandfather had been a professional musician all of his life. He died when I was pretty young, but I was aware that music was in the family, you know? I would hear songs on the radio and the melodies would stick in my head and my imagination would run wild. I would be taken away by music—transported. It left an impression early on, and it just became a part of my DNA. As I got older, I started playing and it went from there. It was an attraction to it from a very young age.
L4LM: Did you learn guitar traditionally? When did you delve into improvisational music?
NC: Right away. I can’t read music. I just started by ear. I took a few lessons, but my ear developed fairly quickly. I was improvising right from the start because I never played in formal school bands or anything. I was just jamming with friends.
Neal Casal with Joe Russo’s “Friends With Benefits”, 5/31/2017
L4LM: That’s interesting that you can’t read music.
NC: No, I can’t. I can’t read musical notation. I can read some charts and stuff, but I can’t read musical notation.
L4LM: We read The Rolling Stones heavily influenced you. What was your favorite Stones album?
NC: If push comes to shove, I would say Exile On Main Street, just because of what it did to me when I was a kid. I loved all of their eras. I loved the early Brian Jones era, and I think there are cases to be made for a number of their records. Let it Bleed or Sticky Fingers are arguably their best, but it’s hard to pick with a band that great.
L4LM: As a photographer, were you drawn to Exile‘s album cover?
NC: Oh yeah. Those Robert Frank images were actually a huge part of the impetus of getting into photography later on. Those images were a huge, huge part of it.
L4LM: Circles Around The Sun was birthed after you were recruited to do the music for the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows. You said you wanted to create music people could dance and trip to. Was LSD a part of your creative process?
NC: I took LSD at a pretty young age for the first time. I was fifteen, I think. It definitely influenced me in some way. The psychedelic experience is a huge part of rock ‘n’ roll music. In some way, it only takes one completely life-altering trip to do the trick, if you know what I mean, because in some ways you just sort of chase your tail after that.
It was the first trip I ever took that completely altered my life, and I’ll never forget it. I can still remember exactly what it felt like now, all these decades later. I never really had a trip quite like it, and it did influence my music and my life in every way possible.
Circles Around The Sun, “Gilbert’s Groove”
L4LM: Specifically, did you take LSD when you went in to record the Fare Thee Well music?
Neal Casal: No actually. I did not take any at all. There was a lot of pot-smoking and maybe some shrooms, but LSD was not a part of it, as a matter of fact. We had so little time to make that music that we didn’t go there, but our collective experience was definitely involved, if you know what I mean.
L4LM: Were you surprised by the positive reaction Circles Around The Sun has received?
NC: The reaction was a total surprise because when we made the music, it was not with the intention that it would ever be released. It wasn’t supposed to go any further than those Fare Thee Well shows, so it was not like a band. We weren’t thinking about it in those terms at all—it was just a project. So when all those people reacted to it so beautifully and so strongly and so positively, it was a total shock. Then the music being released and the fact that we have more coming up now is just incredible. We are going to record again.
L4LM: How hard is it to create improvisational material that you can then replicate?
NC: Yeah. That was a challenge. We didn’t even want to play live for a while because we weren’t sure if we would be able to successfully recreate it. But then, we discovered when we went to play it live, there was more structure to those tunes then we had thought. We just used the intro themes as a starting place. We take off from there and end up back at the intro themes to end the song. It is a cool and very interesting way to work. The music translates much better live then I thought it might.
L4LM: With those songs, how do you know when to finish a song?
NC: Hmm. It’s hard. Sometimes it’s because things are going so perfectly, you don’t even have to think about it. Other times, it’s because things are going badly and you have to get out of a jam. It’s hard to say. It’s a very in-the-moment thing that determines what will end a tune. How inspired you are in that moment, the sound. It’s so many things.
Circles Around The Sun, “Kasey’s Bones”, 7/28/2017
L4LM: Do you get ideas when you are working with Chris Robinson Brotherhood that you utilize with Circles?
Neal Casal: Yeah, sure. The bands, though different, do have a lot of similarities. Adam [MacDougall] and I are part of both groups, so we’re certainly transferring ideas from one band to another. There is a lot of mutual influence going down.
L4LM: Has working with Adam [MacDougall] in both bands strengthened your musical relationship?
NC: For sure. We have been building this relationship together since the beginning of the band. That laid the groundwork—that’s the fabric of Circles. We are reaching for more, for how we can further our sounds and this relationship.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood, “New Cannonball Rag” & “Tomorrow Blues”, 5/17/2017
L4LM: Are you excited to play The Capitol with Circles?
Neal Casal: We are a little bit worried about filling that room, but I am looking forward to it. We are psyched about all those shows. It is going to be a charged time.
L4LM: Why is music important?
NC: We all need to dream. We all need a little relief. We all need to dance, and we all need poetry. We all need a bit of wonder in our lives, and excitement, and melancholy. We need a way to express all these things, and music is the perfect vehicle. It’s the perfect platform for everything you go through to express itself and find a voice. It is so important. It fulfills a place in our lives that nothing else can really touch.