Circles Around the Sun originally formed with the sole purpose of constructing instrumental music to play in between sets at the Grateful Dead’s 50th Anniversary Fare Thee Well concerts. Did you know early on that this was a project you wanted to continue afterward or was the warm reception of your music a catalyst to you realizing that you had something special?
Neal Casal: We came together to make music for the Fare Thee Well shows and had no plans to turn this into a band at all. We had no band name, no plans to release the music, we only had time to think about FTW and that was really it. It was a completely spontaneous, un-calculated project. We weren’t even sure if people were going to truly hear it at the shows. We just thought it would be background music that no one paid attention to. So when the music got the overwhelmingly positive reception that it did, then we started to think more seriously about turning it into a living project. It’s been a great thing to see our band grow into a serious touring and recording unit. We’re doing lots more shows and are making our third record this year.
Your band members are involved in other musical groups in addition to your work in Circles Around the Sun. How does playing in Circles Around the Sun differ from your other projects? Does playing in CATS give you a chance to let loose?
Neal Casal: It’s different simply because it’s an instrumental band, so that changes everything. It’s really challenging to create instrumental music that can hold a listener’s attention and keep them engaged. It definitely gives me a chance to let loose but there’s also a surprising amount of discipline required in this band. In a way, our roles are pretty strict and personally, it’s something I really like. It’s like being in James Brown’s band or The Ramones or something. I’m not comparing us to those bands in any way at all, I’m just saying that there are strong roles we have to play, and musical parameters to play within, and when we do that, we make our most powerful and focused music. Don’t get me wrong, we certainly make some free-flowing music that is just fun for its own sake, but it’s the rhythmic aspects that are the most interesting to me these days. This band has the ability to make people dance and possibly move larger groups of people and I’m into exploring that. Having that rhythmic discipline brings out my best playing and is simply more fun for me, and all of us I’d like to think.
You’ve played LOCKN’s Wood Stage back in 2016, and this year you’ll return for another late show in Garcia’s Forest. The forest has a particular vibe that makes for total sensory immersion. How will you reinforce that vibe with your set?
Neal Casal: We’re just going to go for it and try to give people the best experience we can. We’re a much different band than we were back in 2016, a much better band I believe. I mean, Lockn’ ’16 was the first time we ever played in front of an audience, and it was a beautiful way to kick off our career. What an incredible first show y’know? The audience was so supportive and cool, it was one of the most memorable shows I’ve ever played in my life. It was such an amazing vibe that night. So we’re going to try and make it even better and more immersive this year and engage the crowd even more. We may have been a bit tentative in 2016 as it was our first show, but we’ll be having none of that this year. We’re going to put our experience to use and make it a better show this time around.
Neal, you’ve said that Let It Wander, your second album, was “a band growing into its own sound,” and it’s definitely clear that you were no longer composing music specifically for the Grateful Dead’s setbreak. How do you expect this evolution in your sound to continue as you go forward and continue to make music?
Neal Casal: I’m looking for deeper rhythms and stronger melodies as we move forward. Adam is really coming into his own as a songwriter, and I want to be there for him however he needs me as a co-writer and arranger. Dan is just hitting his stride as a producer and visionary, and his bass playing gets more powerful and creative every day. Mark is just scratching the surface of what he can do as a drummer and percussionist, so there’s a lot more to be discovered with this band. We just have to get to work and do it. Our schedules are clearing up so we’ll all have much more time to devote to it. It’s finally becoming a full-time thing for us and I’m really excited about that. We’ve already started making our third record so the wheels are in motion.