Instrumental psych-rockers Circles Around The Sun started out in an unconventional way.
Back in 2015, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart were joined by Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby and Jeff Chiment for a series of Concerts titled “Fare Thee Well,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band.
Singer-songwriter Neal Casal was tasked with forming a band to play during the intermissions.
Casal brought together keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy to hash out some musical ideas, which eventually became the foundation for the band’s existence.
Sadly Casal died back in 2019 at the age of 50, but Circles Around The Sun is still operating with John Lee Shannon jumping in on guitar. On Saturday, Jan. 28 at The Warehouse in Fairfield, the band will be taking the stage with Nashville singer-songwriter Rich Ruth opening up the show at 7:45 p.m.
Horne and I had the opportunity to talk about how Circles Around The Sun became what it is, memories of being in a band with Casal, a new album that’s due out in a few months and what people can expect from it when it’s released.
RD: How did Neal get everyone to come together to play this role for the “Fare Thee Well” shows in the first place before the band actually started?
DH: Neal got asked through his friend Justin Kreutzmann, who is Bill’s son and was also doing the visuals for the shows. He assembled a crew of myself, Adam [MacDougall] and [Mark Levy] just based on who he thought would be best to do the task of creating a few hours or separate music for the intermissions. He called us up, we were available, we met up at a studio and recorded as much music as we could for that project.
RD: What was the experience like being in a band with Neal before his passing? What was he like to collaborate with and what are some of your favorite memories of him?
DH: Neal was kind of like a larger than life figure. Everybody admired him, he was a bit mysterious and he always brought a creative energy, spontaneity and fearlessness to jamming, writing music and playing. He was pretty driven, one thing I noticed about Neal was how he never played a wrong note. When I asked him about it, he said something like how he gets prepared, really gets in the zone when he’s playing and gives it his all.
RD: Awesome, that’s great. You guys have an instrumental, funky, space rock sound, so when it comes to songwriting and arrangements, how do you, Adam, Mark and John go about filling the space that would usually be reserved for a vocalist? Does Adam’s keyboards and synths play a big role in that?
DH: A lot of times we start the songwriting process like we would with a vocal arrangement where we come up with a groove, a jam and an idea while feeling an inspiration. We’ll play around with that for a while to get a form going and then once we get something that we like either Adam or John will start to work on a melody and one of them will come up with it whether we think it should be guitar, keys or whoever comes up with the idea first. Sometimes it goes back and forth, which is good too. It’s not that different from writing with a vocal, we just skip the words part (laughs).
RD: Would you say that it’s a very improvisational approach with the four of you when it comes to making music together?
DH: Yeah, a lot of it starts with improv and just messin’ around, but sometimes it starts with somebody writing something at home on their own or during a soundcheck. We usually set up spots for improv in each song, we have markers and stuff that we go by based on cues for everyone and all that stuff. It’s somewhat subliminal and somewhat planned out, if that makes any sense.
RD: It does. You guys have a new album called Language coming out this spring, so what was the experience like writing and recording the music for it?
DH: We recorded it in my studio in Los Angeles. I also record other bands & artists there, it’s kind of what I do when I’m not touring. We set aside some time, got together, laid down a bunch of ideas that we’d been tossing around for the last few months or whatever. We compiled all the ideas, went through it all and came up with an album. It took about two months of work.
RD: What can people expect from the upcoming album when it’s released? If you had the album in your hand and you wanted somebody to listen to it, what would be your description & selling points?
DH: It’s like you’re taking a jaunt to another planet, another civilization and after a slow trip, when you arrive there’s a party there waiting for you.
Circles Around The Sun
with Rich Ruth
70 Sanford Street, Fairfield, CT