Circles Around The Sun: Neal Casal on ‘Interludes For The Dead’

Tahoe Onstage

This photo was taken months before the musicians were named Circles Around The Sun.
Photo provided to Tahoe Onstage courtesy of Neal Casal

As a Grateful Dead concertgoer in the 1980s and ’90s, Neal Casal wandered throughout the stadiums’ and arenas’ floors, fields and hallways during the breaks between sets. Last summer, he went back in his mind to those places and walked a fine line that led to the greatest surprise in his musical life.

“I just tried to put myself back in those places and also drop in the present moment and imagine what kind of music people would want to hear when they’re waiting for the Grateful Dead to play,” he told Tahoe Onstage in 2015.

Casal directed the making of the music that was played during the intermissions of Grateful Dead’s 2015 “Fare Thee Well” performances, the shows recognizing the 20th anniversary of the band’s final appearances with Jerry Garcia. The original music accompanied video by Justin Kreutzmann, and it was played at the concert venues in Chicago and Santa Clara and streamed to millions of Internet viewers.

“You have to play the motifs that are familiar to people otherwise there’s a disconnect,” Casal said. “If you get too far away from the essence of the song or feeling of the music, there’s no way to connect to it. If you go too much into it and just kind of steal from it, that feels wrong too. It’s a very strange and delicate balancing act.”

Casal said he didn’t really know what it was that he had created, and he certainly didn’t expect it to be used as it was.

“We thought it would be low-volume, low-level music that would be heard as if you were in a restaurant and no one would pay attention to it,” he said. “We were totally shocked to find out that it was played loud enough for people to get into. It was played on the Internet streams at home and we were completely shocked when people responded so positively to the music. It’s been one of the biggest surprises in my musical life. With a little bit of distance and

Kreutzmann wanted music that felt connected to the Grateful Dead but not mimicking it.”

perspective now I can see and hear how good that music is.”

What Casal intended to be an ethereal music experience has become the eponymous Circles Around The Sun – that’s the band name given to the artists who made the music, which on Nov. 27, 2015, was released as a more than a four-hour album, “Interludes For The Dead.”

Jerry Garcia’s daughter, Anabelle, came up with the name Circles Around The Sun, inspired from a verse from the song “I Know You Rider.” However, the phrase is not used in the Dead’s version of the song.

Kreutzmann, the son Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, asked Casal to create the music.

“He wanted music that felt connected to the Grateful Dead but not mimicking it,” Casal said. “So it was trying to ride the fine line of doing something familiar to fans but not be too derivative. I approached it from that perspective and I called the right musicians who could help me with that idea.

“(Keyboardist) Adam MacDougall being the first and most essential call because he played with me in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and worked with that cult of friends and musicians. And (the Congress’ drummer) Mark Levy, who has the right feel in every way for that, and Dan Horne, who’s a great bass player. I play with him in Beachwood Sparks. He also plays with Jonathan Wilson. Dan can do the Phil (Lesh, the Dead’s bassist) thing without being too much of a knockoff. He captures the essence of it but always has his own identity. That’s where we were coming from.”

Casal has an extensive solo career, and was with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and often is included with Phil Lesh and Friends.

“I spent years learning to write songs and learning to sing, foraging my own identity as a musician,” Casal said. “I was never in a Grateful Dead cover band. I was always a fan but I never wanted to play their music note for note. It was none of my business. I was doing other things. I was becoming my own man, so to speak. I am coming in through the back door. I am coming in later after I had already established myself as a musician.

“I respect the music and musicians and people so much that whenever I get a chance to play with Phil or Bob (Weir), or getting the chance to do this music for those shows, it’s a tremendous reverence. In order to respect the music properly, you have to bring your own identity.”

The musicians who later would be named Circles Around The Sun had two 12-hour recording sessions in late April in Casal’s small studio in Ventura, Calif.

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Mark Levy backstage at the 2016 High Sierra Music Festival.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

“It was very organic,” Levy told Tahoe Onstage in an interview last summer. “We were all in the same room hanging out listening to records and tracks for reference. Neal was communicating with the rest of us about loose construction and vision that was coming from Justin.

“Casal would say, ‘Justin said he wants some kind of trippy, far out thing that’s in the style of “Dark Star,” so let’s listen to “Dark Star” for a minute.’ We would come up with a different set of chord changes so it wasn’t as if we were trying to cover the song. We were trying to capture the vibe and let Adam and Neal take a few solos and just let it go wherever. Don’t try to force any movement or energy.

“It was very cool musically where the whole thing was coming from because we weren’t necessarily supposed to be the focal point. We were joking that we were the Grateful Dead’s elevator music. We’re going to be the Muzak in the stadium.”

All of the music was improvised, with the exception of a cover of “Mountain of the Moon.”

“The sessions were moving too fast for me to ever be sure that it was any good or not,” Casal said. “(Justin) wanted music that wouldn’t repeat over the course of five shows. … Some of the pieces of music ended up being 15, 20, 25 minutes long that were just epic jams. That was longer than any one of us had ever done before live so we got into some interesting spaces, that’s for sure. But it all happened too quickly to have any perspective on it.

“In the name of making a record, you would pay way more attention to details than we did. You would stop and redo things and be normal perfectionists about it. In this case, things were moving too fast and we weren’t allowed to do that.

“I learned a huge lesson in this. I learned that sometimes you’ve got to cut loose and you’ve got to forget yourself and throw caution to the wind and let your mistakes fly and if the spirit of something is good and the intent is there and the intent is true, then that is more important than the details, and that’s where we succeeded with this music because the intent of it was really sound. We were doing it for others. We weren’t doing it for ourselves. We were thinking of it in terms of fans. It was for a greater purpose.”

The first two Fare Thee Well shows in 2015 were June 27-28 at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium and were followed by July 3-5 performances in Chicago. Both stadiums hold about 70,000 concertgoers.

South Lake Tahoe resident Megan Nickels, who attended both Santa Clara shows, said the interlude music sounded “like a never-ending sunset with many layers of beauty that encompass the air we breathe.”

Another Tahoe resident, Jon Wehan, watched the shows on the Internet.

“I noticed the music and I thought, ‘This isn’t the Dead but it sure sounds like the Dead,” Wehan said. “Everybody I have spoken with, and I’ve spoken with a lot of people, have mentioned it. You feel the connection to the music without it actually being the Dead. I’ve seen Neal so many times at Terrapin Crossroads, that makes so much sense.”

Operated by Lesh, Terrapin Crossroads is a music venue in San Rafael frequented by the Dead’s extended community.

Casal said he has received requests to play the music live and to even feature it on a tour.

“It seems like there’s this big crush to cash in right now on the Grateful Dead’s name,” he said. “I refuse to do that unless it really feels right to go out and play this music live. I’m not sure yet. Part of me wants to just let the mystery be and let the beauty of these recordings live on their own and not touch it because there’s something here that we may not be able to repeat. On the other hand, we could turn it into a cool dance party, turn on some psychedelic lights and let it fly. Maybe we’ll do that.”

— Tim Parsons

Related story: Mark Levy was ready for an opportunity of a lifetime.

Photo by Piper Ferguson

Neal Casal also rocks with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
Photo by Piper Ferguson

  • “Interludes For The Dead”
    Circles Around the Sun
    Release: Nov. 27, 2015
  • Tracks
    Disc One
    “Hallucinate A Solution”
    “Gilbert’s Groove”
    “Kasey’s Bones”
    “Space Wheel”
    Disc Two
    “Ginger Says”
    “Farewell Franklins”
    “Saturday’s Children”
    “Scarlotta’s Magnolias”
    “Hat And Cane”
    “Mountains Of The Moon”
  • Here are images of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s Dec. 5 concert at Crystal Bay:

    IMG_5398 copy IMG_5226 copy IMG_5235 copy IMG_5256 copy IMG_5260 copy IMG_5274 copy IMG_5288 copy IMG_5297 copy IMG_5321 copy IMG_5336 copy IMG_5377 copy

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