Circles Around the Sun: A Cosmic Kaleidoscope

  The California-based instrumental groove rockers Circles Around the Sun have just released their first official LP, Let It Wander, and they are set to hit the tri-state area this week for a trio of shows. The band — formed by Chris Robinson Brotherhood members Neal Casal and Adam MacDougall — originally came together with a singular purpose: to compose and record the music which was played between sets during the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well performances in Chicago in 2015. That music was so well received that the group — known throughout the scene as CATS — decided to take their cosmic explorations even further.

  Recently, I spoke with Neal about the group’s origins, how he first came to discover the music of the Grateful Dead, and how CATS’s collaboration with Public Enemy’s Chuck D. on the group’s latest single, “One for Chuck”, came together.

For our readers that are just learning about CATS now, can you tell me a little bit about how the group came together?

  Yeah, sure. In 2015, I was approached by Justin Kreutzmann, who I had become friends with through some Grateful Dead-related projects — Justin was one of the producers on the Bob Weir documentary, The Other One.

That’s a great documentary.

  Yeah, and I scored that movie for Justin, and it went well. So, we had developed a good working relationship. When it came time for those Fare Thee Well shows a few years ago, they needed an instrumental soundtrack to go along with the screens — you know, for the set breaks and the pre-show, they had big screens on the side of the stage, and they needed music to go along with the visuals … all the archival Dead footage, the psychedelic light show, all that stuff.

  Justin approached me to come up with some music for him, so I put together a band with Adam MacDougall from the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Dan Horne on bass, and Mark Levy on drums. We just set about the task of making music. My approach was, if I was walking into one of these shows, what is the music I’d wanna hear. And Justin asked that it be similar to the Dead in vibe — but not covers, obviously. So, we tried to make music that had the spirit of the music and the feeling of the band without mimicking.

Were you surprised when Justin asked? Like, what was your emotion at the time? It must have been a thrill.

  Yeah, it was a huge thrill. It was massive, you know? I was surprised, I was honored, blown away, all of that. I was a little bit frightened about being able to come up with the right music, and you know, like, for the task at hand. But it was a thrill, and we kind of used our collective experience, having worked with Phil [Lesh, Grateful Dead bassist] a lot. It was like we got a chance to apply all the knowledge we gained from working with him in the past.

You’ve written and recorded music with people like Chris Robinson and Ryan Adams who are very passionate about the Dead. Everybody comes to the Dead in their own way, but I was just curious about what draws you personally to their music and history.

  I was always drawn to it. You know, growing up in New Jersey as a kid, it was during the ‘70s and early ‘80s I suppose when FM rock radio was at its peak. You had amazing stations like WNEW and WPLJ, and the Grateful Dead were pretty ubiquitous on the radio at that time. It was Jerry Garcia’s singing voice that really drew me in. I’d hear songs like “Friend of the Devil” or “Casey Jones” … all the popular tunes, and later songs like “Shakedown Street” …

  There was something about his singing voice that appealed to me — the charm, the vulnerability, the uniqueness of his voice, and just the quality of the songs. So, I was always into them. I had a copy of Steal Your Face when I was a kid, and I would just sit there and look at the pictures on the inside of that record, and they all looked so cool. I just wanted to know what their lives were like, you know?

Definitely. So, when did you guys decide to write an album beyond Fare Thee Well, and what led to Let It Wander?

  Well, the music was so well received at that time, which was a complete shock to us. You know, we didn’t make the original Fare Thee Well music with the intention of it being released.

You didn’t know the music was going to be included in the Fare Thee Well box set?

  To be honest, we had absolutely no idea. We only made the music for the shows. There was no record deal, no boxed set — there wasn’t even a name for the band, because it wasn’t really a band, it was just a one-off project. People reacted so positively to it that Rhino Records came to us and asked to release it, which of course we did. Then we came up with a name for the group, and that lead to playing some shows, and people liked it enough for us to continue. And the band itself has really good chemistry — we had the desire to make more music, and so we did.

Awesome. You know, the Fare Thee Well project almost seems like it was similar to scoring a film.

  It was very much like that, except that we didn’t have the visuals to work with, because they weren’t finished. When you score a film, you’re watching the film and playing to it.  In this case, we were imagining what the film would look like. So, we were working blind, really. We were just going on feel and instinct and just imagining what people would want to hear. By some stroke of incredible luck, we hit the mark.

Did not having to mandate this time with Let It Wander change the vibe at all?

  No, it actually freed us in a certain way. I mean, there was a little trepidation in terms of what we’re going to do, what we’re going to write, and what it will sound like. But, like I’ve said — the Grateful Dead melody aside — this group has a sound of its own, really. It has an identity of its own. And really, that first Fare Thee Well music we made, we didn’t sound like the Grateful Dead, actually.

I would agree with you. It didn’t sound like the Dead, but it was perfect for threading the needle between the sets each night.

  Right. The spirit was there, and some of the sound — I have a little bit of Garcia in my playing, there’s no question about it. But, you know, we only referenced Grateful Dead melodies directly a few times. So, once we broke away from that, it was just a matter of writing our own material, which we managed to do pretty easily.

I was going ask you about that — what was the process like? Did you guys jam to come up with ideas together, or bring in parts as individuals?

  Mostly collective jams in the studio. Adam had brought in a couple of prepared pieces of music, but most of it was collaborative. We recorded in the same studio where we had done the first music, and beyond that, we just went in there and did what we did the first time, honestly. But we did work a little bit longer on the sound and the mixes, and we did some overdubs this time. The first time there were no overdubs and we just did it all in two days. So, this time, we spent a little more time with it.

Cool. I think the interplay between Adam and yourself has really grown over the years. Would you agree?

  Oh, yeah, for sure. He and I have like this language together that we’ve written over the years in the CRB. There’s a way that we kind of weave our sound and phrasing together. We’re kind of similar players in a lot of ways on our respective instruments. We kind of weave a tapestry together.

I wanted to ask you: the collaboration with Chuck D. on “One for Chuck” — how did that come together?

  Chuck lives in the same town that I live in, in California, and it’s also where the studio is. He works at that studio occasionally, and one night while we were making our record, he stopped by — I think to pick up a hard drive, or maybe he was dropping something off with the engineer. But he stopped by, heard us playing, heard some of our recordings, and he hung out for a couple of hours just talking to us. He was really complimentary about the music. He told us, “You guys are real musicians, you can’t be replaced — don’t forget that.” He was really very positive about what we were doing. And when he left, we all came up with this idea that maybe he could, like, do a little toast at the beginning of one of our tunes. We asked him, and he said yes right away. It was such an incredible honor to have a guy like that on a song.

Yeah, I love Public Enemy. They’re one of my favorite bands of all time. Are you a big fan?

  Oh, of course — Chuck is like the Bob Dylan of hip-hop, you know?

Most definitely. I’ve actually met him a few times, as well, and he’s just an awesome human being to be around.

  He really is such a nice guy. He’s so cool.

So, what can folks expect from the upcoming live shows?

  Well, people can expect some good grooves to dance to, and a good cosmic instrumental experience. We’re really a groove-oriented band, we’re interested in just getting audiences engaged and sort of swaying, you know? Our songs are long, but they’re not noodley — we’re always aware of our audience, and we want people to stay engaged and keep dancing, so it’s just a good night.

Cool, man. I’m looking forward to it.

  Excellent, man. Thank you.


Update – Wednesday, August 22: Circles Around the Sun have cancelled their East Coast dates due to an urgent medical issue.