Neal Casal Talks Circles Around The Sun, Chris Robinson Brotherhood & More

By Chad Berndtson Jan 29, 2018 1:23 pm PST

Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Eric Krasno, Todd Nance, John Popper, Andrew “Red” Johnson, Jimmy Herring, Rob Barraco, Nicki Bluhm and many more. (A full archive of more than 50 The Art Of The Sit-In features is here.)

In its original conception, Circles Around The Sun was a band that created all-instrumental music to be played during a particular set of set breaks — not something seemingly destined for much more beyond some marvelous, of-the-moment tunesmithing.

But then, most bands don’t find chemistry like this one did. Three years after their sprawling compositions were heard during the 2015 Fare Thee Well Grateful Dead 50th anniversary shows, Circles Around The Sun are now a buzzed-about live unit with more music — and hopefully, shows — on the way.

Circles founder Neal Casal — whose dappled resume includes everything from Beachwood Sparks and the best-known lineup of Ryan Adams’ Cardinals to Hard Working Americans and, of course, the mighty Chris Robinson Brotherhood — isn’t one to over-analyze. Still, even he admits that the Circles Around the Sun band — Casal, keyboardist and CRB compadre Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy — hit upon something special when they released their first batch of tunes, and then played played them live at Lockn in 2016, a year after Fare Thee Well.

Now, with an ever-so-brief break in the action from what will be another aggressive year of touring for the CRB, Casal and MacDougall found themselves with enough time to put together a brief run of headlining Circles shows on the West Coast and in the Northeast.

We’re excited to welcome Neal back to The Art Of The Sit-In, where he chatted us up on the magic of Circles, the ongoing growth of the CRB, and his heartfelt decision to leave another beloved band he helped create, Hard Working Americans.

JAMBASE: The story of Circles Around The Sun and where you’ve arrived to now with actually being able to play runs of shows is really cool. How did you guys decide this music was … I guess concert-ready is the best way to describe it?

NEAL CASAL: The first time we did it, at Lockn’, it was pretty magical. We were on that wooded stage in the forest and got to play just as Phish ended. It was a beautiful summer evening and just the perfect setting for the unveiling of that music. We were nervous because we were wondering if it being instrumental and having no vocals would translate from its recorded setting OK. It’s not something I’m used to, or that any of us are really used to. But it went over great — people seemed to love it. We got so much good feedback that night. It’s been almost three years now since we recorded that music and it still has life, it’s still happening, people are still interested in it and want to hear it live. That night was something I’ll never forget.

JAMBASE: Is the band where you want it to be as a live unit?

NC: We’re getting there. It’s been difficult to get momentum because everyone is in other bands, you know? To really try to break in a band and get something going, you need to give it a full touring life and do a lot of shows, which we haven’t done yet. But that’s not what the project is about. We do it when we can, and when the time is right. It’s really nice now that we have this month to do a handful of shows and also do some recording and breathe more life into it.

JAMBASE: So you’re recording new Circles Around The Sun music?

NC: Yeah, we’re doing it right now actually. We’re in a studio near where I live — we’re in the laboratory, cooking stuff up, improvising, seeing what we can come up with. We’re doing it the way we did the first time and having a really good time.

JAMBASE: When you did it the first time it was for a specific purpose. Now that it’s a thing — people know what Circles Around The Sun is and have heard some of the live recordings or seen you, perhaps — does the music come together the same way?

NC: I think it is, because of the way we play together. What’s happening now happened the first time, too. These four people got together, and something happened, and the combination comes alive. We’re less tied to the themes of the Grateful Dead this time and free to do other things because this isn’t specifically for a Dead-related project, so we do get to expand it. I guess it may have a little more self-consciousness attached to it now because it isn’t the first time, but so far it’s been really fun and stayed exciting.

JAMBASE: As far as improvisation and composition, do you guys just kind of start? One person plays something and the rest of you jump in?

NC: That’s exactly how it works, actually. Someone starts playing something, another person starts playing along with it, another person jumps in, then the drums kick in. In these sessions for example, we played music that lasted like 40 minutes, and then we’d listen to it together and kind of pick out the most exciting parts of it and follow a few of those parts on their own. Often it will work like that. We’ll play for about an hour and record it, and see what pops up. Adam has a couple of pieces of music that are more fully developed and he’s bringing those in. I’m bringing some things in. And Mark, being the well-studied drummer that he is, is bringing in rhythms. Actually, we all are — and we’re starting from rhythms a lot more this time around, which we didn’t the first time.

JAMBASE: Are you apt to be the one to start or do you kind of hang back, listen and let someone else start?

NC: It can be any one of us. Adam has a thing for all these great little riffs, but it can be me, definitely, and Dan, too, he’ll play something interesting on the bass and we’ll follow his playing along to a point where everyone is in. It’s worked well for us. We want this to have a life.

JAMBASE: Speaking of making time, as you said, you guys are all busy and it takes time and tough choices. You made the decision last year to depart from Hard Working Americans. Was that a hard decision?

NC: It was so hard for everyone. No one wanted to see it happen, but it was purely about schedules — about being in two bands at once. It’s amazing we pulled it off for three full years, but ultimately, it wasn’t sustainable. You’re booking tours several months in advance, you know, and those guys were just waiting around for me too much. Eventually, they had to get someone else, but it’s still painful. I miss those guys. I miss the camaraderie. We had such a good time together. Daniel [Sproul] is an amazing guitar player and he’s doing a great job. But it’s definitely tough, being an original member of the band and being there to start the whole thing. I brought Jesse [Aycock] into the band, and he’s still there which is fantastic. That’s the way things go. I’m sure it’ll all come back around again. They have a new record they’ve made and I’m excited to hear it.

JAMBASE: It continues with your full blessing.

NC: Oh, of course! Are you kidding? Look, I told Jesse, the best thing you can do for me is to keep going with this. I want to see it flower. Full blessing. It was Todd [Snider] and Dave’s [Schools] band, really, I just kind of jumped in, but I’m proud to have been an original member and of the music we made and the good shows we played. And I’m proud to see it continues because it means there’s strength in those roots we put down.

JAMBASE: Strength in roots seems definitely to apply to the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. You’re now entering your eighth year with this band, do you still get as much out of it now as you did then?

NC: Oh, I get more out of it now. Barefoot In The Head, our recent record, is our best by far, for me anyway. Everything we’ve been working toward between the psychedelia and the folk and the R&B and the blending of all these styles, I think it’s finally all together on this record. As a live band, we’re far better than we’ve ever been. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished with this band. It was really hard to get it off the ground — it took so much touring and a lot of grinding to make it work. We all have a lot invested in it and we’re all feeling it.

JAMBASE: Do you feel the lineup has settled in?

NC: Oh yeah. Jeff [Hill] and Tony [Leone], what a great rhythm section they’ve become. It’s so solid — you listen to them play and they’re like redwoods, planted there. Tight! You can tell they’re just kind of at a peak of their playing together right now. But we’re all really happy. No one has any doubts about where we need to be and what we want to be doing.

JAMBASE: Are you actively writing for CRB?

NC: Sure, yeah. It’s Chris who comes up with the original ideas but he’s bringing them in and I’m immediately coming up with bridges, B-sections, melodies, and all of us start to work on these things. That’s our process.

JAMBASE: Did that rapport between you and Chris take time?

NC: It was right from the beginning — that’s how we started. The last couple of years it’s gotten better. If you listen to Barefoot In The Head or Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, you hear it. We’ve been more prolific than ever and we’ve already introduced a couple of new tunes again. We’re honestly thinking about getting back into the studio again in the spring to just keep on going what we started now eight years ago.

JAMBASE: You really like to record, I can tell.

NC: I certainly do! I’ve always been a studio rat. Adam’s the same way. It’s cool, I really do like making records and I like that you can mark the years of our lives with records. It’s like you’re building a little house and a yard — you see the changes over time. You listen back to certain records five or 10 years later, and the music can reveal itself in different ways. I still really believe in the art of making records and the art of album making. It hasn’t died yet. Chris does too. We’re record heads — total vinyl freaks and art freaks. We just want to make stuff.

JAMBASE: In the midst of CRB and everything else you are attached to, are you still planning to release any more Neal Casal solo material?

NC: Yeah, it’s gotta happen at some point. I have songs — tunes I’ve been squirreling away for a while that need the right time and setting. Dave [Schools] has been bugging me about producing a solo record of mine, and my friend Brent Rademaker from Beachwood Sparks has also been bugging me. I have no immediate plans, but would really like to.

JAMBASE: The obligatory Beachwood Sparks reunion question — folks always ask!

NC: [laughs] I don’t know, you’ll have to talk to the guys. It does happen once or twice a year — they’re always talking about it. We do talk. Me and Farmer Dave [Scher] and Aaron Sperske and Dan Horne and Cass [McCombs] are in The Skiffle Players. We just made another record, as well, that’s being mixed right now. I wrote a song for it.

JAMBASE: Turning to some recent shows, I couldn’t leave you without asking about the CRB’s New Year’s run at Terrapin Crossroads, which by all accounts was a great time. Including an all-Stones set!

NC: Oh, yeah. Chris, you know — that was his idea. We love breaking that out, and we’ve done it before so it’s kind of becoming this thing we do on New Year’s a bit. This year we did “Time Waits for No One” and that was in our New Year’s countdown. We did “Love In Vain,” that was great. It’s me making my Mick Taylor guitar dreams come true.

[Loving Cup | Captured by nowiknowuryder]

For more from Neal Casal, check out Episode Four of The JamBase Podcast, where Neal tells a sit-in story featuring Gov’t Mule and talks about going toe-to-toe with fellow guitarists Warren Haynes and Audley Freed.

Loading band summary

JamBase Collections