All Things Neal Casal: One of America's Most Intriguing Guitarists October 19, 2018 12:46

Interview by Jordan Kirkland: Live & Listen

Photos by Craig Baird: Home Team Photography

When I finally decided to put Live & Listen into motion four years ago, one of my many goals was to create a valuable platform for up-and-coming bands. Through this, I would attempt to line up a variety of artist interviews, in an attempt to learn more about the music that I love. Thanks to a tremendous amount of love and support, this outlet has grown into what it is today. 

In July of 2015, I musically peaked at Soldier Field in Chicago. This would be the closest experience I would ever have to a weekend with the Grateful Dead. The core four members would join forces with my favorite current musician, Trey Anastasio, as well as Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chimenti. Entering the weekend, there was a notable buzz about the music and archival Dead video footage being played. It had a strong Garcia sound to it, but no one knew exactly who was behind it. 

The world then learned that the band would be called Circles Around The Sun, which was led by guitarist Neal Casal. The response to this music was so strong, that the band officially took form in the summer of 2016 and have been pushing musical boundaries ever since. Earlier this week, I caught up with Neal to discuss this whole experience, his previous solo work, touring with the likes of Ryan Adams, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hard Working Americans, and much more. 

Let's start off with some background info. How did you get started playing music? When did this become a reality as a career?

Neal: I started playing music when I was twelve. I started playing guitar and was inspired by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and all the great English blues/rock bands. I joined some bands in middle school and high school. I was just obsessed with music, you know? It just took over my mind at a very early age. I couldn't stop thinking about it. It became a real obsession. 

I guess it was around by junior year in high school when it comes time to speak with your guidance counselor to start deciding what your future is going to be. While all the other kids were deciding on colleges, I was deciding that I was going to live this gypsy life and make a life in music somehow. I set out to do it, and I did. 

I'd say that was a pretty good decision. 

Neal: Well, it was a good decision in many ways. In other ways, it's a pretty scary, unstable decision. There are a lot of things that people have at my age that I don't. It can be a risky thing. If you don't get really successful in music, it can be a tough road. There's no guaranteed stability or security in it. Those things get important as you get older, so it's hard to navigate if you haven't set those things up. 

I don't regret my life in music though. I've certainly accomplished a lot. I've made people happy through my music and made friends all over the world. I made a lot of the dreams I had come true, so that part is cool (laughs).

I think that's a common misconception among music fans. They start seeing their favorite bands playing bigger venues and festivals, and they just assume that you're living the "rock star life."

Neal: That's true. Mine hasn't really been a rock star life. Granted, I've gotten to travel the world and see a lot of things that other people haven't. Some of the other life building events that people go though...I haven't had some of those things. It gets harder as you get older. I've definitely had an amazing life in music. That's for sure. I've gotten to make so many records, tour, take photographs, write songs, meet new friends, and all of that. 

That's great. I know you touched on this topic just now, and you've probably answered this one many times, but I can't help but ask about your influences. Your overall tone and style of play is amongst my favorites.

Neal: Oh it's just an amalgamation of all the guitar players that I love. Starting with all all four of the Rolling Stones' guitarists: Mick Taylor, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Brian Jones. Then you have Neil Young, Steven Stills, Buffalo Springfield, Spirit, The Byrds, and all the California country / psychedelic rock stuff. Ry Cooder is a great slide player. Peter Green is another guy. The Grateful Dead is certainly in there too. 

I don't know. I guess just listening to so much music for so many years, and having it all kind of synthesize into hopefully my own. I think you can hear pretty clearly the different influences that I carry with me. Maybe the combination that I've put together is a little bit different than others. I haven't invented anything as a guitar player. I've definitely put together a kit of influences that is pretty user friendly. 

As a lead player, Mick Taylor was probably my main influence. There are all the great rhythm players, even the AC/DC guitar players. There's all the weird stuff, like the experimental sonic youth style music. Glenn Branca and all of those avant garde players that I wouldn't compare myself with. I do take some of that on, as far as atmospherics and damaged / chaotic sounds. I could go on and on. It's a long list.

I can imagine. Correct me if I'm wrong on this, but you released six solo albums between 1994 and 2000, right?

Neal: Yeah. That sounds right. 

I was wondering how this experience leading your own project early on prepare you for your future work with Ryan Adams, Chris Robinson, Hard Working Americans, and others?

Neal: Well those were years spent learning to be a songwriter, you know? At the end of that day, no matter what kind of player you are, every player needs a song to sing or play. Those were the years I was learning to sing, write songs, make records, and play guitar in a record making fashion. Not really as some type of virtuoso instrumentalist, which I'm not and never will be. Learning to use the guitar as a songwriting and record making tool, rather than a focus of instrumental prowess or experimentation. 

At that time in the 90's, I wasn't jamming so much as I was really trying to make good records and write good, concise songs. Three to four minute songs. How to really write a tune. How to compose and make good sounding records with good ensemble playing. Yeah, singing as well. Harmony singing, lead singing, all of it. 

Those are the foundation of all of my skills really. I took those, of course, into playing with Ryan (Adams), because Ryan is a songwriter first and foremost. That's really his thing. He's a great singer, great guitar player, but ultimately, he will be known for his songs. I stepped right in and had the ability to play his songs and sing harmonies with him. My record making experience prior to that all came in handy. 

With Chris (Robinson), it was the same thing. He's a singer and a songwriter. That's what sets us apart from some of the other jam bands out there. We're really a song and harmony band. All that stuff from the 90's, it keeps informing me now. It informed everything I did with the Hardworking Americans as well. Same thing. Todd Snider is a songwriter. I know how to play with singer songwriters, because I learned to be one when I was younger. 

It's strong foundations to work from. I've become sort of known as this guitar player over the last few years. Being a part of this scene with Phil (Lesh), CRB, and Circles Around The Sun, but I'm not a virtuoso guitar player. I never have been. I was never known as one. I can't compete or keep up with a lot of these people I've gotten to play with and come to know. Jimmy Herring, Scott Metzger, and all of these really great guitar players on this scene. I don't consider myself one of them really. 

I'm a good guitar player for sure, but I come from a different background. More of a songwriting and singing background. Just being in a band, you know? Rock bands, really. 

Well let's talk about Circles Around the Sun. I was lucky enough to attend Fare Thee Well in Chicago. There was already a buzz about the set break music by the time we got to Soldier Field. How did this all come together?

Neal: It came together over a series of events that took a few years to gestate. It came about through a guy named Justin Kreutzmann, who is Bill Kreutzmann's son. Bill is obviously the drummer for the Grateful Dead. Justin is a great filmmaker, and he was put in charge of the visuals for the "Fare Thee Well" shows. This meant that on each side of the stage there were those big screens. They showed archival Grateful Dead footage and psychedelic montages going down to keep the audience entertained while the band wasn't playing.

I was asked by Justin to create an instrumental soundtrack to go along with those images. The reason he asked me is because we first met back in 2012. There was a film project called Move Me Brightly. It was done for what would have been Jerry Garcia's 70th birthday. That was done at Bob Weir's TRI Studios. Justin and I became friends at that point, and a few years later, he asked me to score Bob Weir's film, The Other One

That went well, so Justin and I had been building on this relationship for a few years. He asked me to step in and do the music for the Fare Thee Well Shows. So, I put a band together. I asked Adam (MacDougall) from CRB, as well as Dan Horne and Mark Levy. We had very little time to prepare. We had no time to prepare, actually. We didn't write anything ahead of time. We just stepped into the studio and did everything on the spot. 

We just tried to imagine the kind of music that we would want to hear if we were at a Grateful Dead show and hanging out at intermission. So we just imagined it and made it up on the spot. Just improvising a bunch of music over the course of two days. We got very lucky in the fact that people liked it.  

Amazing. From what I recall, that ultimately led to the band's formal announcement and first performance at LOCKN', right?

Neal: Our first performance was actually at LOCKN' the following year (2016). But yes, when we did the music, there was no band name or intention of releasing it. It was music made for the purpose of those shows. People got really into it, and then Rhino approached us about releasing it. It all took on a life of it's own, because people liked it so much. We had no idea that people would like it at all. We didn't know that it would ever get that type of reaction. It was a huge shock to us, as a matter of fact. I wasn't sure if anyone would like it or think it was any good at all. We weren't sure if it was good. The fact that people flipped out the way that they did was an amazing surprise and a great bit of serendipity, you know?

The band released it's second album, Let it Wanderback in August. I've read that you guys feel like it was more like your first release. Can you elaborate on that a little more?

Neal: When we formed the group for the project, we had no idea if it would work. Would we have any chemistry? There wasn't much thought of it going past that Fare Thee Well project. As it turned out, we really sounded and felt like a band. There was really no reason to let it end there. That first batch of recordings went so well. Then we started doing shows, and those felt good too. We started coming up with song ideas and sound checks, and it just seemed natural that we should try it again and make another record.

As good as the first record was, it was actually really rushed. We did it in two days, and we didn't really mix it properly. It felt like just the beginning of something, so we decided to see if we could take it further and make an even better record. We went back to the same studio, wrote a bunch of material, and did it. 

Honestly, I think it is superior to the first record. I really do. I think we furthered our ideas, refined them, and honed them in a lot better. I think this is a much more focused record, and sonically, it's a lot better as well. The first one was really just introduction to what we could do. We want to take it as far as we can. Take expectations and smash them through the roof, you know?

Watch the music video for Circles Around The Sun's "One for Chuck" here:


Absolutely. So you've continued to be one of the busiest guitarists in the scene, leading this band while also touring with CRB and formerly Hard Working Americans. I know there are other projects in there as well. Where do you begin when balancing your schedule?

Neal: It's gotten a lot easier, because now it's just CRB and Circles. Hard Working Americans made it really hard for a few years. That made it tough, because CRB and HWA were both playing a lot of the same venues and touring all of the time. That was really difficult, but now that that has ended, at least for now, CRB and Circles are much easier to manage. Having that third band in there made it tough. 

Two bands...I can handle that. I'm in another band called The Skiffle Players with Dan Horn, the bassist for Circles. Skiffle Players are an amazing group, but we don't play a whole lot, so it's not that hard to navigate. 

Well, just to finish up, soon you'll be gearing up for a big January run with Greensky Bluegrass. How valuable will this exposure be for you guys? What else can we expect from CATS in 2019?

Neal: Well, we're going to have a very short set each night. 45-50 minutes each night, which will be interesting. Circles music, as you know, takes a long time to unfold, so it's going to be interesting to see how we can do our thing within a really condensed amount of time. We've never had to do that before, but we're very excited to play with that band and get in front of their audiences. Hopefully, it will be a good fit. We're honored that they're taking us out. Hopefully, we can make us some new fans and generate some momentum for more shows and recordings.

I'd like to get back in the studio and make another Circles record next year. I just want to keep pushing this thing as far as it can go. I think we have a lot of music in us, and I love the idea of being in an instrumental band that can just weave these sonic tapestries of people. After years of being just a singer songwriter, it's really interesting and challenging for me to push myself in this direction. 

Mark, Dan, and Adam are such amazing players. It's just a great opportunity to make these interesting sounds for people. They either pay attention or forget about it. Use it as background or foreground music. Maybe go to sleep to it, or wake up to it. Whatever you feel like doing. It's cool music. I just find it to be an interesting concept. There is something very satisfying about our sound. It lets me play guitar that I never have before. Those guys support me in a way that I've never experienced, and I hope I do the same for them. It's a cool group. We're just gonna keep going until we've said all that we have to say, I guess. 

I couldn't agree more. I loved everything from the first release, and I'm getting much more familiar with the new album. It's great to hear more about the band's vision, because there is a tremendous amount of potential. 

Neal: Yeah, there is a lot potential. There's some Krautrock influences that we didn't really have at all the first time. Creating music for the specific purpose of getting people to dance is really cool. I like having a direction in that way. We're not out there to give people our message through lyrics. It's only a rhythmic and energetic message. I'm really into that. It's like sign language or something. It's a different way of communicating.

That's really interesting. I've never thought about it from that perspective.

Neal: It's a way of speaking. It's a different language. You're not doing it through singing or words. You're doing it through this other means. It's cool to see if you can get through to people in that way. I like it. At Circles shows, when things are really going right, everyone gets into this sway. I can look at the audience and see them moving back and forth. If we can sustain that motion for an entire show, then we have succeeded. There's just a feeling about it that when it's working, there's this particular motion that I notice in a crowd. It's a really positive feeling. It's something that I want to do more of. 

I can imagine that's a pretty rewarding feeling.

Neal: It's cool, for sure. 

Watch the music video for Circles Around The Sun's "Gilbert's Groove" here: