Adam MacDougall of Circles Around the Sun: A Band Beyond Description April 24, 2019 13:58
Words by Josh Hettermann
Photo by ontheDL Photo
Not long into a conversation with Adam MacDougall, the keyboard aficionado who has played with The Black Crowes and The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, he remarked, “This is without a doubt the most serendipitous band I’ve ever been in.” It takes a deeper understanding of Circles Around the Sun, the outfit MacDougall was referencing, to fully comprehend that statement.
The group, popularly referred to as CATS by fans and industry professionals alike, assembled in 2015 and recorded Interludes for the Dead, which was broadcasted at the set break of the 5 Grateful Dead 50th anniversary shows that year. Joined by his CRB bandmate Neal Casal and veteran musicians in bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy, MacDougall and the group recorded what he readily admitted, “Wasn’t really an album... but more a reflection on iconic Grateful Dead tunes that were danceable and fun.”
The response from the hundreds of thousands of fans both at the shows and those streaming at home was influential in the band’s decision to pursue further musical exploration together. Acknowledging this, MacDougall quipped, “So whenever everyone was sitting there packing their bongs or making cocktails or whatever at set break, we were strapped on to the back of those shows. It was huge.” After cutting their teeth with a few live performances in the following year, the foursome reconvened at Castaway 7 Studios in Ventura, CA in 2018 to record their sophomore album Let it Wander.
The record is not an enormous departure from Interludes for the Dead, but it most certainly displays the band’s growth as a cohesive unit and their desire to create a more original sound. If Interludes was a rhythmic dip in a tide pool, Let it Wander is a journey into the waves and depth of the ocean.
Touching on the serendipity that MacDougall referenced earlier, a notable track from the record is “A Song for Chuck,” which features a toast from the legendary Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, who records at the same studio. Chuck stopped by while Circles was laying down one of their rhythms for the new album and liked the sound, so studio head JP Hesser asked him if he wanted to come back and add his voice to the track’s intro. Chuck happily obliged. Despite whatever title for the track the band had in mind, “A Song for Chuck” just fit better. Such is the benefit of recording instrumentals.
Let it Wander was released to universal acclaim and has coincided with the band’s steady rise as a major player in the current live music scene. When speaking of this success, MacDougall credited the group’s potentially risky decision to open for the tour de force that is Greensky Bluegrass for a dozen shows in early 2019. “You don’t open shows to make money... but once we saw some of the venues we would be playing (with Greensky), like the Beacon in New York, we couldn’t turn it down.” A highlight of that stretch of shows, undoubtedly, was when Adam and CATS’ guitarist Neil Casal sat in with Greensky at the iconic Tabernacle in Atlanta.
The success of that stretch lead Circles Around the Sun to book their first major headlining tour, starting this Saturday in Austin at Antone’s Nightclub. While this two month tour will hit many of the similar Southeastern markets that the group played with Greensky, it also includes new markets, “Like Texas... which is scary!” It also includes a stop at the up and coming Aiken Bluegrass Festival in South Carolina, where they will join fellow Greensky tour opener Cris Jacobs Band as one of the only non-bluegrass bands on the lineup. MacDougall doesn’t see this as a challenge, though, stating, “If we can make people dance for a few hours, that’s all we really care about.”
Adam MacDougall has an enviable enthusiasm about being a part of this band. “I get to play with really great friends and great people. I’ve known Mark forever and Dan is an incredible bass player, and Neal and I have built a musical language for almost a decade now.” Circles Around the Sun is undoubtedly one of the hottest acts in the current live music scene. “This is my retirement plan,” said a laughing MacDougall. “I could easily sit back in an easy chair with this band for as long as people will have us.” He better get comfortable in that chair... Circles Around the Sun have only just begun to rise.
Check out Circles Around the Sun's "One for Chuck" here: