Set-break Souvenirs:
Neal Casal Talks Circles Around the Sun

Words by Corinne Casella
Photo by Joe Russo

The Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well run was a memorable experience for fans of all ages. The shows brought the musical circus back to town – on stage and off, including original set-break music written and recorded by Chris Robinson Brotherhood guitarist Neal Casal. The band created for the experience, Circles Around The Sun, received such positive feedback that Rhino Records decided to give the music its own time in the spotlight, releasing Interludes For The Dead, in November of 2015. Most recently, the group shared a video for “Gilbert’s Groove”, directed by Mark Wiitanen, capturing the stand alone genius of the collaboration, and as a testament to the ongoing legacy of The Grateful Dead. We had a chance to talk to Casal about his reaction to music’s success, and his own history with the The Grateful Dead.

When did you start listening to the The Grateful Dead?

Neal Casal: I’ve been a Grateful Dead fan for a very long time, since I was a kid in the late 70s. The first Grateful Dead record that I ever owned was, surprisingly enough, Steal Your Face. I can’t remember, but somehow I acquired a copy of that record. So began my obsession with the Dead. It was a cool record because it had an amazing album cover – that’s where that image really first appeared. It’s such a striking image. It sort of burned its way into my system. The pictures inside that record, it’s a centerfold, and there’s some old pictures of the Grateful Dead from the ’60s in there, but there’s also photos from the current time when the record was made in the ’70s. So I kind of got a lot of visual ideas about the Grateful Dead from that record and also great songs on that album. It’s not a highly regarded record in the Grateful Dead canon, but I didn’t know that at the time. It was certainly good enough for me. That’s what gave me my start. And then I saw them play a lot in the ’80s and ’90s, so I definitely have my history with them.

How has their music influenced your own career?

NC: Yeah, sure. I think that if it’s not overt, it was certainly subliminal, subconscious. I think the Grateful Dead influenced everyone who came after them in some way, because they innovated so many things from PA systems to guitar design to the way records were made to the way tours were set up. The entire model of how rock bands run, the blueprints were partially written by The Grateful Dead, so I think the influence is far-reaching, even to people who don’t know them that well. And me being a fan, yes, their influence is certainly prevalent n my life.

When you were approached to do this, what basis did you use to select the member of Circles Around the Sun?

NC: How did I choose them? Well, Adam McDougall, he’s the keyboard player of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood with me, and a very close friend. He and I both play with Phil (Lesh) on occasion, and we played with Bob (Weir) a couple times too. That made perfect sense. As far as the bass player, Dan Horn, he plays with our friend Jonathan Wilson who has also done a bunch of work with Bob, and a little bit with Phil too, so a lot of related friends. Mark Levy, the drummer, he’s also part of this same scene with us. So, it’s really just gathering together a group of friends who get it – who get the music, and get the experience. We all made the music for the shows, and all went to the shows together.

Bit of a family affair then. I know you guys went in and wrote this stuff collaboratively. How is that different than going into the studio with different musicians with pre-written material? That must be a different experience.

NC: Oh yeah, it was much different. This record, it’s really just a collection of improvisations. The really important thing to know about this music is that we didn’t make it to be a record. It was never intended for release. The release came later. The only reason that Rhino picked this music up and got interested in it is because it was so well received at the shows. The original intent was not to be a record, and I’m glad that it wasn’t because if it were, we wouldn’t have written a bunch of 24 minute songs.

If you were making a record, the first thing you would do is go in being aware of time. Your time limitations on how much time you can fit onto a piece of vinyl or a CD even, even though we just kind of think in terms of vinyl these days. But it was never – part of what makes music successful and what gives it that really free feeling that it has is because we weren’t making a record. So that’s the biggest difference.

And then of course, there was no real song, they’re simply a group of improvisations based on Grateful Dead motifs. So the idea was to make music that felt familiar to fans, so when they were walking around at the shows, they would feel that they were musically in the ballpark of what they were there to see. But not hearing something so closely mimicked that it made them feel uncomfortable that they were listening to some kind of cover band. If the music was too different, it would be a disconnection from the Dead experience. So, my goal was to make music that felt familiar to people who were there to hear the Grateful Dead, but not to just do some kind of tribute, you know what I mean? So, it was like bringing an original twist to familiar motifs. I’m personally not in the business of being in cover bands or mimicry. I’ve made my own records for over 20 years, and have worked pretty hard at developing some kind of musical identity of my own here. So it was just working on that balance between familiarity and originality.

Got it. And it seems like you guys nailed that. Do you have any future plans? I know you have your own very successful careers, but do you have any plans for the band going forward other than this recording?

NC: Well, it all went so well that we’re certainly talking about trying to do some kind of live shows in the future, or at least record again, because the group of people have such good chemistry together, but at the moment, we’re all in other bands that come first basically. The Circle thing was such a surprise that nobody had made time for it. You know what I mean? It wasn’t something we were planning on, so we already booked our year in our other bands prior to that. The short answer is, we’re talking about it, but not at the moment.

It’s something new to think about maybe going forward.

NC: Yeah, I think so. The reaction to this music was the real shock to us, you’ve got to understand. We didn’t think anyone was really going to pay attention to it at all. We just thought that it was going to be a bunch of background music that went ignored, so when people kind of flipped out on it, we were all really surprised. We thought that we had made some good jams, but we didn’t think that there would be attention on it and certainly didn’t think that the record label that releases a Grateful Dead catalog was going to approach us to release it, so it’s just been such a great surprise, and such a nice, positive thing to happen out of unexpected circumstances.

Pick up Interludes For The Dead here | Fare Thee Well