Interview with Neal Casal

By Josh Danson, Contributing Editor

One of the photographs on guitarist/singer/songwriter Neal Casal’s website, attributed to the musician himself, shows the faded facade of a feed and grain store somewhere along the fabled Hwy 49 in the Mississippi Delta. The shot of the “Delta Farm Store,” depicting an age-worn brick storefront that Casal took sometime during his many years on the road can be seen as a window into the soul of a musician who lives and breathes American roots music and whose playing provides a taste of what he’s seen on countless highways and byways over the years. It was at the junction of US 49 and Hwy 61, of Bob Dylan fame, that Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the Devil. The road cuts North to South, right through the heart of the Mississippi Delta and through some of the most fertile soil for the music and mythology that once inspired the likes of the Rolling Stones, Ry Cooder, Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead, and now, bands like Chris Robinson Brotherhood and others who are keeping the connection to the heart and soul of American music alive.

Casal’s playing is rooted in blues, rock and Americana, with a touch of psychedelia to keep you guessing, and it seems to bring out the best in the musicians who seek him out as a collaborator. Folks like Ryan Adams, with whom Casal played in the seminal alt-country/indy rock band, The Cardinals. And like Chris Robinson, formerly of the Black Crowes, with whom Casal has been collaborating since 2011. In addition to his work with Chris Robinson and his own excellent solo efforts, Casal has also worked on movie scores and recently gained a new level of acclaim for his work on the Circles Around the Sun project for which he was tapped to create the perfect mood music for before, after, and set breaks of the now legendary “Fare Thee Well” Grateful Dead farewell shows.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Neal over the phone in advance of CRB’s upcoming shows at the Fillmore and asked him about growing up in New Jersey, what some of his early musical influences were, why he embraces photography as an alternate means of expressing himself and what it was like working on Circles Round the Sun. I also learned about the making of CRB’s most recent albumBarefoot in the Head, and got some insights into what we can expect to hear at the Fillmore this weekend.

CRB are playing this coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday night (Dec. 14-16) at The Fillmore on Geary Street in San Francisco. You can purchase tickets here.   

BissList: I was doing a little research in advance of our call and I saw that you’re originally from New Jersey, as am I. I feel like the Garden State is pretty fertile ground for music and musicians, did you take advantage of the proximity of NYC clubs and go to see all the touring acts that came through and played places like MSG, Brendan Byrne, Arena, etc.?

Neal Casal: Oh God man, that was it! The Garden, Nassau, Giants Stadium, The Meadowlands, all of those places. I saw Dead shows at the Garden… yes, absolutely.

BL: Nice. We were probably rubbing shoulders at some of the same shows. You’ve recently become closely associated with the remaining members of The Grateful Dead through your work on the Circles Around the Sun project, playing with Phil, etc. Sounds like you were something of a Deadhead growing up in NJ?

NC: Yeah, I was into the Dead as a kid, for sure. Maybe not as devoted as others. I didn’t go on tour or anything but I saw lots of shows and I had the records and I loved the songs and hearing them on [W]NEW and [W]PLJ growing up. All those New York FM stations always played the Dead, you know? I was into it, for sure, and I saw the Jerry Garcia Band too. So I put in my time and learned it. Like I said, there’s bigger heads than me, definitely… but I was into it.

How I ended up playing with Phil and being around Bob and all these associations is just a total shock to me.

BL: Well that’s perfect because it brings us right to my next question, which was... How did you get tapped for the Circles Round the Sun project and what was the creative brief you were given? I remember sitting in my seat at the Soldier Field show and thinking “What is this incredible music!?” The songs were so familiar sounding and yet it was like they’d been completely reinvented and inverted.

NC: Justin Kreutzmann, Bill’s son, is a filmmaker and I had become friends with him back in 2012 making, “Move Me Brightly,” which was a project to mark Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday. I got to be friends with Justin then, and he asked me to do the music for the Bob Weir documentary, “The Other One,” and that went really. So then he tapped me to do the music for Fare Thee Well, and he and I collaborated on it.

He gave me some very loose guidelines of what he was looking for in terms of sound and familiarity, in that he wanted something that would sound familiar to Deadheads. Because if it was music that was too far away from the Dead it would have been a disconnect. But yet if it was too close, that’s a disconnect in its own way.

BL: A pretty challenging assignment, if you think about it.

NC: Right. We had to get close, without sounding like a copy but still touch the right nerve. And somehow we hit the mark.

BL: Did it come relatively easy, despite the challenge, or were there a lot of fits and starts along the way?

NC: It happened very quickly with no planning at all, actually. We didn’t have much time, so we booked some studio time and went straight in without writing anything in advance and just went in and did it and lucked out. We did it in two days.

BL: Wow!

NC: Yeah, I don’t think we could ever repeat it. We’re about to record again soon and I don’t know what we’re going to do, because that was a magical time. Now that we’re more aware of ourselves it sort of changes everything, you know what I mean? But I’m hoping for good results. We have a great band, so… We don’t really have to follow those same guidelines so I’m expecting some cool new things to happen.

BL: Expecting the unexpected.

NC: Yeah, exactly.

BL: So who are the players on the follow-up album?

NC: It’s Adam McDougal on keyboard, who also plays keys in CRB. Mark Levy is the drummer, he lives in Colorado [Levy was formerly the drummer of the up-and-coming Denver-based band, The Congress, and is a cousin of Miss Biss herself, Pamela Gerstein!], and a guy named Dan Horne who plays bass. He’s in The Beachwood Sparks and also plays with Cass McCombs and is just a fantastic, multi-talented musician.

[Circles Around the Sun recently announced that they will be playing six shows in January. One show each in LA and Washington, D.C., and two each in San Francisco and NYC].

BL: You’re currently on tour with Chris Robinson Brotherhood in support of the band’s most recent release, Barefoot in the Head. How did you first meet Chris and begin your longtime collaboration with him?

NC: I met him a long, long time go… like 2001. I was in a band called the Beachwood Sparks who opened up for the Black Crowes. We met them and realized we had a lot of mutual friends, in LA and New York in the music scenes, and we just kept in touch through the years. But it wasn’t until 2011 after hanging out a bunch of times and doing some jams that he called me and said, “Hey, I’m starting this band, do you want to be in it?” You know? And I said… “Yeah!” [Laughs] And seven years later here we are.
We just started writing together right away and really hit it off and had a good working relationship and friendship right off the bat and it all just clicked. Then we started making records and touring and got super enthusiastic about all this, and we’re in it man!

BL: And the rest is history.

NC: Yep, it’s really good.

BL: Barefoot in the Head is CRB’s fifth studio album and really shows off all of the musical elements that people have come to love about the band: soulful, bluesy, psychedelic, all tied together with a down-home Northern California rootsiness. What was the thinking going in as to how you were going to approach the songwriting and instrumentation on this album – I know it was kind of an “almost acoustic” sort of thing. Did you come in with that mindset, that approach, or was it more just, “Let’s see what happens?”

NC: Well, there was a lot of, “Let’s see what happens,” actually, because we didn’t have any finished songs. So there was that. Chris just wanted to take a big chance on it heading in. He had some ideas. We had a couple of kind of half-finished tunes. But we had just come off of a year on the road and there was a lot of belief, you know, and a lot of steam and momentum with our lineup and Chris just wanted to get in there and let it fly. His stipulation being that it was going to be an acoustic record and that we couldn’t use any of road gear, our road equipment, it all had to be kind of unfamiliar instruments.

So we went in with that and it ended up being more of a hybrid electric-acoustic record. It didn’t stay only acoustic, because you know, the songs kind of tell you what they’re going to be and you can’t really impose that many rules on them if they don’t want that kind of treatment. But we did end up using lots of different instruments and different kinds of guitars and that changed the sound a bit, I think. And somehow – God, I don’t know how! – we finished the entire thing in two weeks. Wrote all the tunes. Chris got on an incredibly inspired lyric-writing run and we finished the record. I thought it was going to take… I figured get the kind of “bones” of the record in two weeks, but then we’d have to go somewhere else and finish it, but that’s not what happened. It all got finished. All of it. Not the mixing, but all of the writing and all the recording in two weeks. I’ll never get over that. Because it was just such a surprise and it was such an amazingly inspired period of time.

Q: You’ve got some great collaborators and guests on this album. Local favorite Barry Sless on pedal steel, along with Alam Khan [son of legendary sarod master, Ali Akbar Khan] on sarod on “Glow,” which is just beautiful, by the way.

NC: Yeah, we recorded in Stinson, so…

BL: Funny, I was just about to ask where you recorded and if you recorded live, or if it was more of a standard studio album?

NC: Yeah, it was more like live in the studio. We all play together. We don’t separate our stuff too much. We do our share of overdubs, but in order to get to the soul of the live track you gotta’ get it in the moment, with the whole band. In Alam’s case we cut that song live in the studio with him. He did not overdub his part at all. The whole thing was all – lead vocal included – was all done in the moment. So it’s a completely live take, which is pretty cool.

BL: Yeah, you can tell.

NC: Yeah for sure, and with a musician like that you’re not going to put them through too many overdubs. They don’t need it, you know? He just blew our minds, really.

BL: How did that association come about? How did you guys get hooked up?

NC: Through Derek Trucks actually. We wanted that instrument on our record and Chris spoke to Derek who said, “You gotta’ talk to Alam,” right away.

BL: You’re obviously very grounded in the musical aesthetic of “Americana” and the Laurel Canyon Sound – from your work with Ryan Adams as a member of The Cardinals, to your solo albums like Fade Away Diamond Time – what is about that aesthetic that continues to appeal to you and who were some of your biggest influences coming up as a guitar player?

NC: Who were my guitar playing heroes? People like Ry Cooder. David Lindlay. Those were some of my guys growing up. I think Ry Cooder is an incredible window into American music, for people of our generation. His records were just amazing, biblical contributions to blues, and jazz, and R&B, and folk music…

BL: World Music, even. Such a range.

NC: Yeah, for sure. Even more obscure strains of rural American music. So he was a big deal to me, for sure. And honestly, English groups could teach you more about American music than just about anyone else. You know, the Rolling Stones were my most important educators when it came to American music. They’re a band that turned Americans on to their own Blues that they had been ignoring for a long time, you know? So I really learned some of my most important lessons about American music from a bunch of English guys. Because the Stones always talked loudly about the American music that was important to them growing up, and they named the artists, they named the records. So I went out and found them as a twelve year-old. I was getting into Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. And more obscure people like the Reverend Robert Wilkins, Skip James, stuff like that. That all came from The Stones.

BL: Yeah, they definitely turned the mirror back on us and allowed a lot people to discover stuff that they might not have heard before.

NC: Yeah, well they did for me. And, you know, The Grateful Dead were also amazing at that. Because, I mean jeez – they were the group that fused it all the most successfully and in the most original way. The most playfully and creatively without being too reverent. It was all original, but you could hear their blues, you could hear their jazz, you could hear their ragtime. And you could hear the acid [laughs], and you could hear the weed. And you could hear that they were a dance band and even a little bit of surf in the very early days. You could hear so much and it’s still there to find. You could hear the banjo, by the time they got around to American Beauty you could hear the folk music – Jerry was a banjo player first, you know? And then you could hear Mississippi John Hurt and all that stuff. It goes on forever.

Q: One of the musical elements that ties a lot of your music together is the interplay between your guitar and some of the great pedal steel guitar players you’ve worked with over the years. What is about that instrument that brings out the best in your playing and do you write songs specifically with that interplay in mind?

NC: Well the steel always blew my mind. I’ll tell you – it’s another Stones thing, but I’ll never forget this – it was the day that I got my first guitar. On the same day I got my first copy of Exile on Main Street and I took my first guitar lesson that day – it was right before Christmas and I went home and listened to Exile, but I accidentally put on side two first and the second song on side two is “Torn and Frayed,” and there’s that legendary, world-stopping, steel solo by Al Perkins on Torn and Frayed. And when I heard that song and I heard that solo and I heard that sound something in me changed forever and my lifelong romance with the steel started in that moment and I’ve just been pursuing it ever since. I’ve gotten to know great players like Greg Leisz and Barry Sless, and all these other great guys that I’ve gotten to be around.

BL: Yeah, I’ve always loved that sound too and I love how you’ve integrated it into so many of your projects over the years.

NC: Yeah, it’s always been there. I mean there’s some records where I don’t have it because, you know, not every song calls for it, and not every record calls for it, but it usually won’t be long before I return to it.

BL: You’ve released a number of great solo recordings in addition to your acclaimed work with Ryan and Chris. Do you have any solo projects on the horizon or currently in the works, and what do you enjoy most about working solo, versus working alongside guys like Chris and Ryan?

NC: You know, I don’t actually. I have songs and I kind of gather them up and save them for a rainy day, but right now CRB and Circles are taking up most of time. I’m also in another band called The Skiffle Players, with Cass McCombs, who’s another Bay Area dude and who’s absolutely one of the greatest songwriters to be found anywhere right now. And we have a record coming soon. So I’m pretty tied up with my other projects, but one of these days a solo record will happen again.

BL: So, the band is called The Skiffle Players? Like Liverpool, 1960, or whatever?

NC: Well OK, that’s the name, but we don’t make actual skiffle music…

BL: Yeah, I get ya’, I just wanted to make sure I got the name right.

NC: Yeah, that’s correct. We have a record out. Or first record which we put out a couple years ago. You should check it out, it’s really excellent. It’s on a label called Spiritual Pajamas. And we have an EP coming out and another record that we’ll be putting out this coming year.

BL: Right on, I will definitely check that out. So, it turns out we have a mutual friend in the photographer John Margaretten, who sends his greetings. I know you’re also a photographer with a number of album covers and magazine credits to your name. How did you get into photography and how does it let you express yourself in different or maybe similar ways to how you express yourself through music?

NC: Oh yeah, I love John. And as far as photography versus music, it all feels kind of similar to me, oddly enough. A guitar and camera, they’re just instruments, and I find my songs sound like my pictures and vice versa. I have a particular artistic aesthetic and I guess that just kind of bleeds through whatever it is that I’m doing. That was interesting to find out, when I first started taking pictures, I was like, “Wow, they kind of look like some of my songs.”

So that was a cool realization and it’s also just something that’s great to do when you’re out on the road. I feel an obligation to document my life and all the travel, you know? I mean, if you’re out there and you’re getting to see all these things that other people might not on a regular basis, then I just feel like it’s my duty to record some of it. It’s that simple really. With photography, all you have to do is get a camera, you know?? And take it from there all on your own. It’s something you can do by yourself/. You don’t need a team of people. It doesn’t require anything, really. I mean, there’s nothing better than film, because I learned to shoot on film, but with digital photography we all know how easy and quick it can be to get a decent shot. Of course that can be abused, and it is, but if you do it right and stay artistic, you can build up a beautiful body of work all on your own. At very little expense. So I find that it’s my obligation, as a travelling musician, but it’s an obligation that I love. Document it all. Record it. Get it all down. Because 20, 30, 40 years from now looking back at pictures from today, it’s going to be mind-blowing.

BL: And you never know, maybe one of those images could end up being the inspiration for a song as well.

NC: Yeah. And think about looking back at your photos from the early Nineties now, when you were younger. That was a time when there were no cell phones, no Internet then… so these photographs mark the eras in our lives and you can see the changes in culture, and in our world, and in ourselves. And it’s amazing how modern things felt then, but you turn around and 25 years have gone by and it’s incredible to see how things have changed. There was a picture of me from the early Nineties in a video editing room, and to see the equipment and the screens, you know, that were state-of-the-art back then, and they look hilariously out of date now. So I like photography for those kinds of reasons as well. Because of the changes that it shows in our world and in ourselves.

BL: Yeah, for sure, the historian’s perspective.

NC: Yep.

Q: How’s the current tour going and do you have anything special planned for the upcoming shows at the Fillmore?

NC: Well, Chris always plans cool encores and setlists and stuff for San Francisco, so I think we’ll definitely be doing some special covers, you know?

BL: Very good. And then you wrap up the tour when? Before New Year’s? Are you guys playing a New Year’s gig anywhere?

NC: I think so, but I don’t think we can announce that right now [Laughs].

BL: Alright, I won’t press you for the scoop.

NC: Yeah, so there may be some local shows, but I’m not at liberty to say. But these Fillmore shows are the end of our “official” year.

BL: Well thanks a lot. It was a great pleasure to speak with you and I look forward to seeing you at the Fillmore.

NC: Alright, thanks a lot man.

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood are playing three nights at The Fillmore in San Francisco, Thursday, Dec. 14th, Friday Dec. 15th and Saturday Dec. 16th. Click here to find out more and to purchase tickets.