A Chat with Neal Casal

By: Dennis Cook

Neal Casal
By Angela Izzo
It’s in the small details that many truths reside. Sure, it’s the broad strokes and all the gesticulating motion that surrounds most things that snags our attention, but it’s in the nuances and unspoken elements where understanding usually lives. Neal Casal has made a career out of observing such small details, his songs veined with workaday truths offered up with painterly grace, very much the child of 70s golden era singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Jackson Browne but touched with the broader poetic bent of The Beatles and Badfinger. However – like contemporary kindred spirits Tim Bluhm, Dawes and Nathan Moore – there’s no nostalgia to his work, which feels unremittingly present, moments that hold true in whatever time and place one encounters them. Casal excels at ensnaring the thoughts and feelings one usually only encounters in their own solitude and transforming them into music that sticks like a poignant kiss or a lingering careless word that echoes in one’s head.

In recent years, Casal’s profile has risen substantially in the jam scene because of his role as lead guitarist in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, where audiences have also been exposed to his smoked honey voice – as perfect a harmonic foil for Robinson as ever heard. Others may know Casal from his years filling a similar role in Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, but the truth is he’s been a prolific solo artist since his 1995 debut, Fade Away Diamond Time (one of the finest first outings rock has witnessed). To date, Casal has released ten studio albums under his own name, three with his funky power trio Hazy Malaze, and made studio guest turns too numerous to recount. Heck, we’ve been championing Casal for years [check out our first talk with him from 2003], and it’s heartening to see real talent like his win out over time and reach more folks.

New Album
Throughout his ever-expanding songbook the impressive craftsmanship and emotional honesty he exhibited from the start has never wavered or waned, a fact resoundingly clear on Casal’s latest album, Sweeten The Distance (released April 10 via The Royal Potato Family), a work that assesses where he stands right here, right now with clear-eyed intensity and emerges with more than a glimmer of hope for the future despite all the bumpy, grumpy days littered in his past. Wisely advising one to try not to make too many enemies, it begins with the spirited push, “Nothing is gonna stop you now/ Everything you want is coming in good time/ No one is gonna bring you down/ This took too long to find.” It’s a sentiment that reverberates in a larger way for Casal, who seems on the verge of breaking through to bigger U.S. audience, and we were delighted to sit down for an extensive talk with him about his music, working with the CRB, and more.

JamBase: Let’s dig into the meat of your work a bit. After all these years, you still seem to gravitate to an emotional ground that’s real. A word that always comes to mind when I listen to your music is bittersweet. The highs are there but they’re tempered by reality, though there’s a pronounced increase of positivity on Sweeten The Distance.

Neal Casal: The title cut is one of the most positive things I’ve ever written, and that leads off the record.

JamBase: You’re no longer singing about bleeding right through your clothes like on The Sun Rises Here (1998).

Neal Casal by Betsy Winchell
Neal Casal: No, no…I would hope I’ve moved on from that place. Sometimes the sound of my records – at least this [new] record – can be somewhat misleading. People think it’s really sad but in fact it really isn’t. The title Sweeten The Distance sums it up. It’s about finding something good that will bridge the distance between people.

Hope crops up all over this record. “Reach out and grab a star tonight” is kind of a magical phrase, and the sentiment of “Let It All Begin” has real upswing to it. Nothing is too obvious, but actual hope has to sneak up on us a bit.

That’s right. I’m hoping these things come through on this record. It’s not just this melancholy trip for me anymore. I’ve changed as a person, and I’m actually a lot more positive than I used to be. I had a much bleaker outlook when I was younger. I made a turn a few years ago. There was a point in my life where I realized, “How is this going to go?” I realized I was getting older, and nothing gets easier as that happens. There are things about aging that are liberating, but in other ways it’s really, really hard. Every move you make is a lot more important because as you run out of time, you run out of latitude for mistakes.

You begin to see the ripples from the earlier decisions you’ve made, and you understand that each new choice will send out new ripples. Understanding the ramifications of one’s past understandably makes one more cautious about new decisions…

Alan Forbes Poster
…and also a lot more purposeful. When I look back at my work and my records I’m proud of most of it, but I also see a lot of mistakes and things I could have done better, especially if I was more patient and more appreciative of those around me. I made unconscious decisions before and somewhere just before making Sweeten The Distance I started making more conscious ones. I just made this turn where I decided I wasn’t going out in a negative cloud – I’m going to hang in there for this and not give up. From this point onward, I’m hoping to move with more awareness, more purpose and more appreciation – more intent and focus in general.

The sentiment “sweeten the distance” is just a good thing to think and say. In my work and in all aspects of my life really, I’m trying to add value. That’s a theme that runs through this record. As I move on in life having left a lot of people and eras behind, I now have friends all over the world. To put one sweet thing in the path between me and one person I’m far away from or I haven’t seen in a while is valuable.

There’s value in open letters like these new tunes. They let people know they aren’t alone and that they are loved and cherished in some ways. I feel buoyed, lifted up, whenever I finish listening to Sweeten The Distance, and I can’t explain exactly why that is. And that’s good because if I can get too intellectual about it I’ll probably find a way to undercut that feeling [laughs].

The impetus for the record, the song that I instantly knew was the centerpiece and inspiration for this record, was the title track. That song is an open letter, as you say, to the world. Not like in a “We Are The World Way,” but as an offering to do my best to reconcile my past with my present, to deal with all the mistakes we’re talking about and get okay with where I’ve been. It’s a beacon for moving forward in a better way, and hopefully others can draw light from that, too.

Cardinals by Philip Andelman
(Chris Feinstein 2nd from right)
There’s other tunes [on this album] that get a bit more pissed off – we’re dealing with a gamut of human emotions here so it’s never going to be just one thing – but running through all of it is the feeling that title track kicked off. I wrote the song “How Quiet It Got” for Chris Feinstein [Cardinals bassist who passed away suddenly in 2009]. It emerged through thinking about him and the idea of death as a release rather than this horrible, negative thing. When it says, “Every man has his price/ It comes around once in your life/ If you get lucky just open wide, open wide,” that’s talking about the open portal and release that death – something we’ll all experience one day – can represent.

My buddy Todd Snider says that when we realize we’re doomed that’s when the real dancing begins.

Yeah! Now we can get to work here because we’re not so caught up in egotistical thinking…or whatever else you’re fuckin’ worried about! Knowing where your head is at is a liberating factor towards doing your best work and doing things with purposeful abandon.

You really work with great musicians on your records, too. It’s hard to believe more people aren’t aware of – and nuts for – keyboardist John Ginty.

Thom Monahan in his Natural Habitat
If anyone is paying attention they’ll notice that John has been on every one of my records for 20 years now. He’s been a cornerstone of my records since the start. And Jeff Hill (bass) and Dan Fadel (drums), these two amazing guys have played on my last three solo records and we’ve made three records together as Hazy Malaze. Amanda Shires added some beautiful string parts and harmonies to the record, too, and I can’t say enough about [producer] Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Papercuts, Gary Louris, Devendra Banhart). He brought so much to this record just due to his aesthetics, his sound, and just how hard he pushes for things to be great. He produced the [upcoming] Chris Robinson Brotherhood record(s) as well. He’s been such a source of inspiration to me to keep making records. His intelligence is impressive. He’s so deeply involved and committed to what he’s doing that it’s mind-blowing. His records all come across like one smooth language being spoken, but if you listen really hard they’re so dense and there’s so much going on.

It’s cool to see Jon Graboff (pedal steel, electric guitar) playing on Sweeten.

One of the many great things to come out of my Cardinals days is my friendship with Jon. Before that I didn’t know him, and now he’s like family to me. He’s such a great player and such a great musical soul. He’s doing studio work and he’s on the road with Shooter Jennings right now.

One of the challenges you’ve faced in getting your work across in America is that you don’t make one-man folk albums. You make lushly textured, artfully crafted pop-rock records, and it’s hard to get that across by yourself with a single acoustic guitar in the live setting – which is how you’ve had to tour largely out of necessity.

CRB by John Margaretten
There are reasons for that. I’ll spend 10 months making a record with that attention to detail and that full, rich sound you describe, but then I’ll be caught between a tour with another band and then I can’t work solo long enough to put together a proper band to present this music [in concert].

In a way, your deftness as a collaborator has often put your own work on the sidelines. It’s a testament to your great skill as a bandmate that you’ve excelled in working with Chris Robinson and Ryan Adams – two legendarily idiosyncratic musicians.

I don’t really know how that happened [laughs]. I had both those guys on my energetic radar for a long time. Chris’ music meant a lot to me. 20 years ago, The Black Crowes’ music was big for me. They influenced and inspired me a lot, and it turned out that he and I had a lot of mutual friends and were just a few steps away from each other. Eventually, it just seemed natural for us to work together. Ryan was the same thing. Jim Scott produced records for both of us, and we had all these other musical connections. It seemed like there was this magnetic pull that was beyond me that drew us together. It’s a similar feeling in both cases really.

In both instances you’ve told me that working with the CRB and Cardinals felt like real bands, which is in contrast to some of the extensive studio work you’ve done where you’re brought in to fill a specific role and that’s that. In both the Cardinals and CRB, you’ve been a full-fledged collaborator.

CRB by Alissa Anderson
Oh yeah, I can’t do the other way anymore, just being the guy who’s just in the touring band. I have no interest in that anymore. I want to help write the songs and form the band. Life’s too short and I have a lot more to offer than just being a touring guy.

What’s it like to write with Chris and Ryan? Not many people – even with all the musicians they’ve played with – have gone that extra step and composed with them.

With Chris, he sees all the things I do and he respects that and is cool enough to let me into his process. I love working on music with Chris. He’s so passionate as a music listener, and he’s just SO into it all day long. He’s so intelligent and so energetic about it all, and we have a lot in common with the music we both like. I just have a certain way of communicating with people that he appreciates. I love writing songs with him. It’s so fun!

Ryan seems like someone who likes to keep a pretty tight grip on the reins.

Uh yeah [laughs]. Chris does too, but in such a different way. It doesn’t look likely that there will be more Cardinals stuff. Ryan seems to have completely moved on.

One thing the Chris Robinson Brotherhood has done is make people more aware of you as a guitar player. Folks are calling you a shredder now, and rightfully so.

Neal Casal w/ CRB by John Margaretten
Chris drew that out of me. There’s no question I have him to thank for that. When he formed this band he had a certain sound in mind. He wanted this really expansive thing with instrumental sections and a band that could roll along all night without worrying about concise 3-4 minute song arrangements. There’s a lot of jams – for lack of a better word – and we all share a love of those bands that come to mind when you hear us [laughs]. He said to me, “I’m mostly going to play rhythm guitar, so you’re the guy here.” I really resisted it at first because I’m not used to that. I’m more used to doing something more concise – two-note solo and 8 bars will keep me happy the rest of my life. I’d never really thought I could do [what Chris wanted in the CRB]. The idea never occurred to me, and I’d never even really wanted to be that kind of player. There are so many great bands on the jam scene who own that kind of playing, and I never felt ready to step into that world, but Chris drew it out of me. He said, “You’re gonna do this.” And I said, “No, I can’t,” and he insisted, “Yes, you can. You’re going to do this. You’ll be amazing. Don’t worry.” So I tried it, but the amazing part remains to be seen [laughs].

It’s a much more extroverted style than one is used to with you but it’s really cool.

I went into it reluctantly but I had his amazing force of will and character behind me. I went in a lamb and came out a lion with it. It started to pick up steam as we did more shows, and by the end of [last year] I was saying, “I can do this! I am doing this! I love this!”

It’s put you in contact with some of the pillars of the jam scene. You’re playing with guys from the Grateful Dead with some regularity.

CRB w/ Phil Lesh by Jay Blakesberg
I was in the studio recently and my phone rang and the person sitting next to me said, “Neal, it says Phil Lesh on your phone.” I looked in disbelief because he never calls me and I answered. “Neal, are you in L.A.? We need a guitar player for this show tomorrow and I wanted to invite you up.” What? [laughs]. A call like that would never have come if Chris hadn’t drawn this stuff out of me. Being around Chris has expanded me over the last year. It’s one of the best things to come out of the CRB for me. Chris’ adventurous, fearless spirit has brought new things out of me I didn’t know were there. I guess I knew I could do this deep inside but it took someone like him to push me over the cliff.

Tell me about translating what the CRB built at 118 shows in 2012 into studio work.

We just approached the studio exactly as if it were a show. We brought the same battered gear we’d been dragging around with us for a year into the studio, and we made a rule that we weren’t going to use anything else. I think the record sounds like an enhanced gig. It sounds like the band people know and love. It sounds really true to what we do with a little sweetening.

It’s an unexpectedly cool combination of musicians. Each of you has been great in other settings but I had no idea initially what the mixture would sound like together.

CRB Studio Debut (arriving June 5)
It’s a hilarious little band of Merry Men. It’s an unlikely cast of characters to make the sound we have. It was kind of daunting to go into the studio and play some of the songs we’d played so many times onstage. I’d never done that before, and usually it was the opposite where you write a song, play it a few times and that becomes the record that you go out and play live, where it finds its personality. With the CRB, we’d played most of these songs so many times, and it was the exact opposite thing. The only way to approach it was to not over-think it. And you can’t be too precious about anything or worry about recreating some magic moment from Des Moines back in August.

That’s not the nature of this type of music. It’s not the template you’re playing with. It’s a different kind of song structure. The CRB taps into some of the same musical ground that Grateful Dead explored because they wrote songs to be open-ended experiments. The studio version of “Dark Star” bears almost no resemblance to live versions but the logic at their core is consistent. I don’t think the CRB is doing the exact same thing but I do think this band is engaged in making malleable shapes together.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s some super cool moments that come out of this kind of rock.

It’s weird that 10 solo albums in – plus two Best Of collections – that this may be the time that the general public realizes that you’re more than that guy who plays with Chris or Ryan.

Neal Casal by John Margaretten
There is a certain irony in the way things are looking for me, like this is the beginning [laughs]. There’s this funny feeling right now that I just reached square one, just got to this place after 16 years of record making and touring. It’s hilarious actually.

You have recognition in England, France, Japan and elsewhere, but in America you’re still viewed as a “new kid” in terms of your solo work. Do you have any theories about why that is?

I may be too close to it to have any accurate theories [laughs]. It’s a certain shift in my consciousness that’s hopefully going to change that. For awhile there I was making records that I never got to do anything with in the States. Two of them came when I was super deep in the Cardinals world [No Wish to Reminisce (2006) and Roots and Wings (2009)], but the bigger picture is somewhat beyond me.

In some ways, the music you make isn’t classic rock enough for what’s left of FM radio to slot in next to Tom Petty, and yet it’s also not indie rock. You’re not trying to be the next Fleet Foxes.

Neal Casal by Jeremy Charles
It’s also not straight Americana and not straight up folk. So, it’s not really any one thing specifically but it encompasses elements of lots of things.

I think that’s part of the reason writers use classic touchstones like Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell in talking about your work. One could be a rock musician rubbed shoulders with other genres and still be a viable commercial artist. Diversity wasn’t a scary thing, but in this era of compartmentalization and marketing minded thinking it’s much harder.

I guess I am one of those people that work the middle and pull in influences from a bunch of different places so it doesn’t add up to one specific thing. You can call it American Music, I guess. For awhile there I was making a lot of music but I was kind of afraid to play out live. I had some issues that kept me from being really ambitious and getting a record out there like you’re supposed to. But I’m ready for that now. I like the studio world a great deal, but I’ve learned that this is what I do and it’s worth the legwork to get the music out there. Sometimes I think of doing [that work] not just for myself but for fans and the people at my labels that believe in me and are willing to go to bat for me. It’s important that I recognize and honor that. It’s a little bit of growing up. It’s part of my appreciation of where I’m at and how grateful I am to be doing what I do for a living.

Nice version of “Sweeten The Distance” over here.

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