"It's hard for me to accept that there's something I'm gonna miss," says Neal Casal from his new apartment in Los Angeles. The singer-songwriter speaks with the subtle drawl of a Californian, though he splits his time between the golden state and New York City. Finally unpacking his belongings after nearly two years on the road, he's struggling to get everything done before his next stage call. As with his music, he's engaged and lively no matter where the talk turns. He's managed to hold onto a child's curiosity about the world and it bubbles over in every sentence. Of late, he's caught up in a Hazy Malaze that's taken him a long ways from the Laurel Canyon crooning of his solo work and out onto a new rocky road.
Well, you're knockin' on my front door, sneaking around the back
Busting out all my windows, giving me a panic attack
Face down on the pavement, acting like your crying
Honey, just grab that bottle and come on back inside
Hazy Malaze is a happy accident to come out of Shannon McNally's touring band. While holding down lead guitar duties for the up-and-coming country singer, Neal met Jeff Hill (bass, vocals) and Dan Fadel (drums, vocals). Left alone on stage a few times they began to swing on a few funky chords that seemed to fall from the cosmos. Before anyone quite knew what was happening they were a ballsy rock trio that evokes the crusty denim charms of the James Gang or a blue-eyed Meters playing snaky, hip-loosening gems. A two-month stint opening for Robert Randolph & The Family Band cemented the deal and gave them a chance to build on the oh-so-good foundation of their dandy self-titled first album.
"It was the last thing I expected to happen to me," states Casal. "We're a real band that functions like a real band should. We write all the music together. I still come up with the melodies and the lyrics but I've never made music with people in this way before. I've always had the rock 'n' roll in me. I started out as a guitar player. I didn't even want to be a singer. I just wanted to play rhythm guitar like Keith Richards or Malcolm Young. Those were my guys growing up." He continues, "That side of me has always been there but I've never had a proper way to bring it out. It amazes me everyday because I thought I'd never be in a real band. I've been doing this a long time and this magical chemistry just passed me by. The minute I gave it up and finally and truly forgot about it was when it came to me."
Inspired by a pair of gifts in his thirteenth year, namely his first guitar and a copy of Exile On Main Street, Casal dug into being a primo songwriter in his twenties. His earlier releases hum with the thoughtful buzz of vintage Neil Young or a more together Gram Parsons; sunset hayrides full of introspective lyrics and magnetically catchy tunes. His songs crystallize all those little things we don't say to each other but think just the same. A self-proclaimed photography nut, he has an eye for details that stay with you. Images resonate because they're the same ones we've seen in our own heads but never managed to mangle into words. There's also a thread of honest hope that runs through his catalog, making for some quiet anthems for the world-weary.
Everybody knows a little bit of something
Everybody's got the time to make it last
Even if tomorrow's looking like a daydream
It ain't enough to slowly watch it pass
Throughout his six full-length solo releases there's a strong California feel. Neal says, "It's hard to explain. I've made most of my records out here and I know I'm going to live out here for a good portion of my life. It's the whole feel out here, the way light falls on things, the architecture, proximity to water and desert is a big thing, proximity to mountains, the weather, proximity to all the elements. Always felt connected to this part of the Earth." His recently-released anthology is even titled Maybe California after one of his best compositions. It's a bang-up spot to start exploring Neal's music but for the full story one needs to check out classics like Fade Away Diamond Time, The Sun Rises Here or the starkly beautiful Rain, Wind and Speed.
Another California contribution to his work is the tangible influence of early Jackson Browne. "Jackson's first couple of records are huge for me and I don't mind saying it," states Casal. "The pacing, the lyrical angle definitely had an effect on me. He had a certain soul in his voice and writing. That affected me as a young songwriter. I didn't want to have to scream anything, I still don't. Jackson helped me find a voice."
Which brings us to Hazy Malaze, a living soundtrack to fantasies of hauling ass down some strip of lost highway in a convertible with a blonde far too lovely for the likes of you. This group brings out something new in Neal's voice, a sour to counter the sweet, a bit more wolf under the sheepskin than many might have expected. There's a lasciviousness that will quicken pulses and spark lighters in concert halls from La Jolla to Timbuktu. Hazy Malaze drips sex. If his solo work has concentrated on head and heart this material drifts down below a big brass belt buckle and digs around in your jeans with a grin.
By Danny Owen
"The funny thing is what I'm hearing now is people for ten years were telling me to rock out more and now that I've done it are like 'Oh what happened to the singer/songwriter, we love your acoustic stuff'," explains Casal. If people stop to actually listen to the Malaze what they hear may surprise them.
"There's a thousand rock bands out there but what separates us is we can play the soul music, too. Our pockets are deep. We can play rhythms in ways that most rock bands can't muster. It's very sexual music. There's a thickness at the bottom of our grooves, in the heart and soul of it that's different than most bands," says Neal. "It does harken back to groups that had an understanding of this. We're not trying to be retro but it's a sound very few bands can make. We never talked about it. It's just how we played from the very first day. That slinky sexy underbelly was there on the first day."
By Danny Owen
The roots of this sound lie in a shared passion for old blues and soul artists. Neal states, "Jeff has a little old record player with a built in speaker that we had on the bus and we would bring it into our room every night and we would buy records every single day. We'd all split off to record stores and come back with the same stuff. We'd yell 'Hey man, you got that Booker T. record! I got some Meters,' or whatever it might be. We'd all end up around that record player every night, listening and talking about music."
Faced with the idea of playing in front of 700 people a night as Randolph's opening band and having no repertoire whatsoever, the trio started rehearsing two days after McNally's tour ended. Initially they wanted it to be an instrumental band. Casal didn't want the pressure of writing melodies and words but quickly the new songs were "screaming through his brain." Their debut album was recorded and mixed in a lean eleven days. That immediacy permeates every track. Wonderfully ragged around the edges, it announces the arrival of a feisty new rock 'n' roll unit with a kick-ass moniker spray painted on their kick drum.
"The name of the band has nothing to do with the feeling of the band. It was a strange issue for me for a while," Neal tells us. "Sean McNally, Shannon's brother, during a two month stretch playing six nights a week, he said, 'I don't know what day it is. I don't know what time it is. I don't where I am. I never know what state or city we're in or what the hell is happening. But you know what? I don't care. Lately there's this hazy malaze that's come over my life and I suppose it doesn't really matter what happens to me.' I walked to the back of the bus saying hazy malaze, hazy malaze, hazy malaze. Then Jeff heard it and said hazy malaze. Then Dan heard it and he walked around saying hazy malaze. Then Robert Randolph's band started saying it." Casal laughs continuing, "Two months before we formed, the band was named."
I will come to see you every Sunday morning
I will bring the flowers and I will sing some songs
And all the things that we don't say no more
Well, they won't mean a thing
One thing that hasn't changed with his new gig is living life on the road most of the year. When asked about the effect of this nomadic life on the creative process, Neal responds, "Always just been one and the same to me. People talk about it as the cliché but maybe they have a different kind of life. For me it's always been real. I lived in so many places by the time I was ten years old. It's part of the reason I became a writer in the first place and the writing reflects what I'd been through."
By Danny Owen
So how does being home feel? "Weird, really really weird. I got home and this is a new place. I had moved into this apartment during a four-day break in March. Before that last tour started I dropped the last box in here at midnight, got five hours of sleep and started the next tour. When I got here after another two months of being on the road it was like a foreign country. It feels like home now. I got my studio set up the other day and it sounds good, it feels good. Music sounds great in this apartment." He continues, "I like it down here. Where I live now I feel like it's my neighborhood. I don't see 50 hipsters when I look out my window. A working class neighborhood and that suits me better."
One place Casal visits regularly is Europe, where his music has been embraced in a way that still eludes him in the States.
"Europe has kept me alive for years now. I have a really good audience over there and it's growing. I wish it could be the same here. I will say that, just to have a bit more recognition here," he says. "I decided a long time ago I would just go wherever people want to hear me. After my first record and getting dropped and all that heartbreak, this label in Germany, Glitterhouse, said we love your music. We want to record you, will you come over here and tour. I said I will. As soon as I started playing over there people embraced me. I don't know why, I don't know if they're different than Americans. We could go on all day about that. People are just the same to me everywhere. They're just doing the best they can. Some people are cool, some are assholes. I don't care what country they live in. I still can't figure out those differences. To speak of it in any other way is to make sweeping judgments or generalizations, which I try not to do. It's not really fair. Like asking something like what are people like in France? They're great. I was there in January. Everybody thinks they hate Americans but they don't. I was fine. I was there for a month and had the time of my life."
From fireworks and peaches
To weed, speed and bluegrass
From buses that burn
And barns that lean down
As far as my memory reaches
Since I fell on hard times
I haven't known where to go
Besides his bounding enthusiasm for Hazy Malaze, Neal is all set to record a new solo record, his first since 2000's Anytime Tomorrow. The rhythm team on the album will be his compatriots from the Malaze and he's got the songs ready to go. But don't hold your breath waiting for a release date.
"It's a financial and logistical problem. It's hard for me now because I have champagne tastes and a beer budget. I know what it takes to make a great record. I'm not going to sit here and record it on my computer like everyone is doing now. It ain't right," states Casal. "So many people, I would say the majority of my European fans, would say my first record Fade Away Diamond Time is my best. I agree with that partially. There's a reason for it. That was the one record where I really had the means to make a record. It only took a month and I had just enough money to do it right. For me to make a record again I don't see how I can do it with any less than that. The next solo record I make has to be great. It has to be at least as good as that. I get tired of trying to do it on 15 grand. You go through that in a couple days. The music will suffer for that. I'd rather not make one right now if it means I have to compromise too much."
In the meantime, he's got a rock band to nurture. He calls Hazy Malaze "a true inspiration." Neal continues, "I was happy to feel that and to feel that with other guys. I could never sing it this way, get it across this way, without these two guys."
He considers himself lucky to be a working musician. It might not always be a feast but it isn't quite famine either. "I come from working class people. I know what real work is, man," says Casal. "I know what my dad did for a living. And I know from the bit of it I did that when I start complaining I just have to think about that for ten seconds."
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