A Conversation with Neal Casal: A Glimpse Into the Mystery

Paul Caparotta
Neal Casal performing with Circles Around the Sun (Photo: Kate Haley)
You’ve probably enjoyed Neal Casal’s work—even if you’re not familiar with him as an artist. Neal was last here in the Bay Area with his band, Circles Around the Sun, for two shows in Half Moon Bay in September [Ed. note: you can find our review for the first of those shows here].  And he'll be back with CATS for a show at the UC Theater Cornerstone next Wednesday, Nov. 21st. Tickets for that show can be found here, before he returns again in December for a 3-night stint at the Fillmore (12/14-12/16) with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Tickets for the CRB Fillmore shows can be found here. We had the chance to speak with Neal last week and below is a recap of that conversation.

Beyond his eight solo albums, and seminal songs with Ryan Adams & the Cardinals and the previously mentioned Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Casal has contributed to releases by artists ranging from Mark Olson to Tift Merritt.

His recent work with Circles Around the Sun however, showcases another aspect of his sound as a composer and multi-instrumentalist. Expanding on Interludes for the Dead’s (iTunes) extemporaneous sessions for Phil Lesh, Let it Wander (iTunes) expands on Interludes’s themes with varied sonic layers and very interesting syncopated rhythms.

“[With Interludes] We were trying to make five hours of music in two days—it’s what created the band,” says Casal.

“This time around we had little more time to do the overdubs, to mix. To further the ideas a little bit. To raise the bar in terms of sonics and composition.” It shows.

The songs off Let it Wander are shorter than CATS work on Interludes. In many cases, that forces the band to be more melodic, more concise in their approach.

That efficiency drives some great tunes, including the Chuck D-inspired "One for Chuck." The energy of meeting with the hip hop icon, their take on his style, is apparent.

“To have someone like that take a real interest in our work drove us to push ourselves a bit further,” Casal recalls.



While Let it Wander epitomizes much of the band’s current approach, the album closer, "Ticket to Helix NGC 7293," captures them within their loose, freewheeling style off Interludes.

On 'Helix', Casal says that it captures the band’s, “Love of psychedelic music, that interstellar sound.”

Let it Wander is definitely a journey, something Casal is looking forward to bring to the Bay later this month.

The November 21st show at the Cornerstone in Berkeley is one of Casal’s many trips to the Bay. With both Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Neal has played some legendary shows including a particularly great set at the Greek during 2007’s Easy Tiger tour.

When asked about some of his favorite moments recording on Ryan Adams' Easy Tiger, Neal mentioned how "'The Sun Also Sets' is still a hell of a song."

"Pearls on a String" also brings back some great memories, with Casal recalling, “I was tinkering on the banjo in the studio one day and Ryan was like ‘what is that song?’ I said ‘I don’t know’ he said ‘keep playing it!’”

The foundation of the song was developed in ten minutes with all other parts written and recorded in one hour.

When it comes to playing live, Casal tries to bring that same level of experimentation to the stage. Like most artists, it’s important to use the right tools for the job.

During the upcoming tour you can expect to see Casal with his Scott Walker Santa Cruz guitar—an instrument that is in itself an homage to California. Casal is also a fan of a robust pedal stack—something that contributes significantly to the sound on Let it Wander.
Neal Casal performing with Circles Around the Sun (Photo: Kate Haley)
Meandering through San Francisco is nothing new to Casal, “The Bay Area was a mysterious world that I was looking to get a glimpse into as a kid. All the music that was created there seemed so far away to me—it had a mystique about it.”

Casal does a good job of synthesizing and expanding on his influences. If you’re looking to get some insight into Casal’s solo career, a good departure point is his 2005 album, Return in Kind (iTunes).

While it’s compelling to hear his interpretation of Royal Trux "Yellow Kid" or a solo piano version of "It’s Not Enough," a song like "Debris" really reveals some of Casal’s strengths.

“Every once in a while I hear a particular song where I feel that I can embody that song; I can own it in one way,” recalls Casal.

We expect to see Circles Around the Sun deliver another measure of their individual sound later this month in Berkeley. And be sure to catch Neal again in December with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood!

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