In 2015, four musicians came together to create six hours of filler music for the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary shows. No one in the seemingly temporary quartet believed that the background music would lead to a follow-up record and cross-country tours. While pianist Adam MacDougall and guitarist Neal Casal filed into the stadium, they realized that guests were dancing to their tunes, not shouting orders over their groovy beats for beer and other assorted boozy beverages.
Shortly after the 50th anniversary project, Neal, Adam, Mark Levy (drums), and Dan Horne (bass), established themselves as Circles Around The Sun, or CATS. In 2018, the musicians created their second album, Let It Wander, and are now touring across the States to share their funky “elevator music for stoners,” as Adam put it.
I was lucky to have had the chance to speak with Adam as the first leg of the tour took off. He filled me in on the history of the band, the special surprises that popped up along their journey as CATS, and his recent departure from his former project, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
You guys are on tour now! How’s it going?
It’s going really good. It’s our first real tour. We usually have done a handful of dates every five or six months or so. But this is our first run and then another two-week run at the end of the month, but it’s good. It’s our first time in a lot of these markets, and it’s been a lot of fun.
Great! How’s the reaction been?
Reaction’s been really good. We’ve played in a couple of places; we’ve played in Atlanta and Nashville when we opened for Greensky Bluegrass at the beginning of this year. So, we came back to those. We hit Texas. We did a bunch of other places. New Orleans. The reactions have been pretty good. You know, they hold up their phones and they dance all night, which is what I want.
For the people who don’t know, CATS has an interesting story. Could you explain how this all happened?
Well, for the Grateful Dead 50th anniversary shows, the son of the drummer, who has worked with our guitar player, Neal Casal before, he’s a filmmaker and knew Neal through some soundtrack work. He said to Neal, ‘Look, I’ve got some footage, rare footage from the Dead, and we’re gonna put it on big screens when people walk in and during the break and we want new music without vocals. Can you put about five or six hours of music together?’ Neal called me, I called Mark, our drummer, and Neal called Dan Horne, our bass player, and we just went in the studio for two days and jammed without any real concept of what we were doing. We just jammed tunes that we wrote on the spot and made about five hours of music and that was it.
Then, the shows happened and Neal and I went to those shows and we realized that there was a stadium full of people and they were all listening to our music and dancing and people seemed to be having a good time. The reaction to that was amazing and because they live-streamed the shows, everybody at home also heard that music during walk-in and separate times. It was kind of like elevator music for stoners and sort of had a really good reaction. So, we decided we should probably form a band. So, it wasn’t a band until after those Grateful Dead shows and we decided that we could do something with this.
That’s pretty unique. You don’t get stories like that.
It’s serendipitous. Everything just—it’s the most serendipitous situation I’ve ever been in. Everything just kind of lined up without having to really work at it that much because we’ve all been working on other projects for the last three or four months. So, we haven’t had much time. This has managed to keep alive and now we are going to focus on it and see where we can take it.
And the music is kind of different from some of your other projects—for example, lyrics. How is writing with lyrics different?
For me, because I’m not much of a lyricist—I’ve tried here and there in my youth and once in a while I try to just sort of write things down and see what happens—it wasn’t that much of a stretch because I’m an avid jazz listener and I’m a jazz faker, so I’ve always written tunes that I was playing the melody instead of singing it. For Neal, he’s a troubadour songwriter person so for him, I imagine it’s different for him to write tunes that he’s not singing. But for me, it’s probably the easiest.
Hey—awesome for you.
So, you’re jamming to create a new song. How do you remember what you’ve played? Do you record? Write it down?
A lot of times we’ll come up with stuff during soundchecks at shows. We’ll usually have an hour to just play around while the sound engineer is dialing all the tones for the night. We’ll just record stuff on our phones, little grooves and ideas. That’s kind of how we’ve done everything, just have little snippets that we think are cool and then we’ll go back to it. Like, ‘That was cool let’s try to extend that.’ And then there are a couple of pieces that I think Neal and I have sort of sat down separately and worked out.
But the band has such a voice in each player that you don’t want to set things in stone beforehand. That kills everything. But other projects, you have a song and you know exactly what you wanna hear and you can tell other people what to do. With this band, everybody has such a strong voice, it’s split. There are four people making four, equal contributions to the sound. It’s kind of better to come in with a vague sketch of an idea and let other people decide what they wanna do with it and then it turns into something.
How do you know when a song is finished? Your new record has some five-minute songs and then there are songs that are 17 minutes.
(Laughs) Well, that record we did have some tunes that we knew how they were gonna go—sort of. And I hate comparing us to jazz because none of us are jazz players. But some more open jazz is that you have a theme, you can easily start the tune with the melody with some chord changes and then each person gets to improvise over that. If it’s more free you can take it to places where you just all sort of agree in the moment that, ‘Okay, we’re just going to stop playing the chords here. Break it down into an ambiguous key, or we’re gonna lose the drum beat.’ That sort of just happens on the fly.
So those long pieces are just something that we started out doing and we just said, ‘Let’s play it ‘til we know that we have run out of things to do.’ And sometimes that takes a long time. And those tunes, we initially thought, ‘Well, okay, we’ll just edit them.’ But then we listened back, and it was kind of interesting, so we left it. But we don’t really say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna do this one long, and this one short.’ It’s sort of whatever happens of the take that we get. We just take it and we keep it.
How do you feel about this record?
I really like that record. The first one, we literally had two days to make six hours of music. And then once there was interest, we got a record deal and the record company said they’d like to release some of these songs. So, we looked at the five hours and came up with two LPs-worth, but we only had two days to record that, so we didn’t even listen to what we had done. The first time Neal and I had ever heard anything from the first record was when we were at the Grateful Dead shows. We never listened to it. After we left the studio? We never listened to it; we didn’t think about it. It was just something that we thought was gonna be background music and no one would care. So, we didn’t invest any thought or any energy into it and as soon as we were at the shows, we thought, ‘Oh. This might be something.’ So, the first record was done really quickly, the second record was done in two weeks. So, we had more time to add some more colors, add some more melodies, think about stuff a little more, which was nice. It helps to have a little more thought.
So, I guess that’s why your second record feels more like your debut?
Yeah, ‘cause the first one—it was never intended to be a record. It was just to fill space while people got beer. But yes, our second record is really kind of our first record.
And Chuck D. from Public Enemy recorded an intro to one of your songs. That’s pretty cool, too.
Yeah. I mean, I’m in my 40s and I grew up in New York City, so that was a big part of the tapestry at the time. He lives in the same town where our recording studio is and our engineer J.P., who also helped produce the records—Chuck D. uses his studio to record his vocal stuff. He does his tracks elsewhere but when he does his vocals, he uses our buddy’s studio. So, he just popped into the studio while we were recording to pick something up or work on a schedule, and he liked what he heard and then he left.
And then later when he was working with our engineer, he said it’d be cool if [Chuck D.] could do a little intro or something to one of our songs and he said sure. We had named a song after him because he had walked into the studio while we were recording. I wasn’t actually there when he recorded the toast, but I did get to meet him because he came in and he liked what he heard. Again, very serendipitous. We weren’t looking for anything like that. We never thought there would be vocals on anything. It just happened. We got lucky.
For sure. Now, news recently broke that you and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood have parted ways. Would you mind commenting on that?
Yeah—well. It’s a beautiful band and everyone learned a lot from each other and had a great time. I think it was getting to—I think it just ran its course. There’s no regrets, it was wonderful, I learned a lot, I found out about a lot of interesting music and tried to play in different styles that I had never played before and it influenced who I am as a musician and I’m very lucky to have done it. It just ran its course.
Catch Circles Around The Sun as they pull into Brooklyn Bowl in NYC on June 1. For more on these groovy guys, visit their website: circlesaroundthesun.com