CIRCLES AROUND THE SUN – ” Circles Around the Sun “

Posted: May 29, 2020 in CLASSIC ALBUMS
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Track By Track: Circles Around The Sun’s Final Studio Album with Neal Casal

“Trying to finish this record was really hard because Neal passed away as we were about to go into the overdub stage,” keyboardist Adam MacDougall explains, as he describes the push to complete Circles Around the Sun’s third full-length studio album.

The project originated in 2015 when director Justin Kreutzmann asked guitarist Neal Casal to create some original music for the films slated to screen at setbreak during Fare Thee Well. Casal then enlisted MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy for what they all believed would be a one-off session. However, the response was so overwhelming—and the musicians’ camaraderie was so resonant—that they decided to revisit the collaboration, first on the road and then in the studio.

Circles Around the Sun could have ended following Casal’s tragic death this past August, but, in a note he left behind, the guitarist encouraged his bandmates to continue. MacDougall reveals, “It was a very long letter—a half-an-hour read. This was not something he scribbled down at the last minute, which makes it really heavy. He touched on every person in his life, every piece of gear. So this is something he was revising and working on for a long time. The perspective is deep.”

The week before Casal took his own life, Circles had tracked the tunes that would eventually end up on their self-titled album at Jim Scott’s PLYRZ Studios in Valencia, Calif. The guitarist laid out specific plans for these recordings in his final message.

“There’s a whole paragraph on how he wanted us to finish this record and have Jim Scott mix it,” MacDougall discloses. “He said, ‘I want it to come out, and I want you guys to keep playing.’ It was the whole stupid thing where people get stuck thinking, ‘I’m the problem. You guys would be better without me,’ which is just ridiculous.”

After much contemplation, the band elected to honour Casal’s memory by both completing the album and returning to the road, with Eric Krasno and then Scott Metzger assuming guitar duties.

As for the album, beyond Casal’s entreaty, MacDougall credits Scott for helping the band bring it on home. “It was really hard for me to put this record down,” the keyboard player acknowledges. “If it wasn’t for Jim saying, ‘Here are the dates that I’m going to mix the record, and it has to be finished by then or I’m going to pull you out by your hands,’ I probably would still be working on it. I just couldn’t let it go because of the Neal thing. Nothing was good enough. I was trying to make everything perfect and overthinking everything, and I had to get out of that headspace. Jim was really cool about it but said, ‘It’s done. I’m going to mix this record. You guys did great. Let it go.’”

Babyman

Babyman is a cat who lives in a studio in Detroit. Almost a year ago, we had a couple of days off in Detroit during a tour, and Dan had a buddy who had a really cool studio, so we thought, “Rather than sit around, why don’t we just go into the studio?” We had a couple of ideas that we’d been running at soundcheck, and “Babyman” was one of them. At first it was just some chords that I had, but Neal came up with the verse guitar bits and Dan came up with an epic bass line. We also thought it would be cool to use a drum machine and make it a disco-ish song. It quickly became the first of the new songs that we started playing live.

One great thing about instrumental songs is that, because they have no lyrics, you can name them anything you want. So, yes, there was this fat studio cat whose name was Babyman. We just thought, “Perfect.”

You Gotta Start Somewhere

We did some demos at Dan’s studio out here in Echo Park and continued on with the drum-machine thing. We didn’t necessarily think it was going to be for CATS. Dan and I are neighbors—I mean, in Los Angeles, we’re neighbors. I’m 10 minutes away from him. He has this really cool, old Sequential Circuits drum machine at the studio. I was like, “What if I come to your studio, bring my gear, use that drum machine and try and make some weird, electro-funk stuff.”

We recorded a version of this song and then, because we were starting to get ready for the album, Neal came down from Ventura. He heard what we had done and said, “Wow, that’s cool. We could turn that into one of our tunes.” So he played guitar on the demo. And it ended up being a song we recorded for this album, although the initial intent was just for me and Dan to mess around and make some electrofunk music for fun.

Leaving (Rogue Lemon)

As far as writing goes, that was a stand-alone for me. I was dealing with an emotional relationship at the time and feeling very sad about something. I just sat at the piano and this one came out fully born. I sat down and played it, then recorded it on my phone and went, “OK, that’s done.” For me, at least, that’s a rare thing. I know there are people out there who can instantly write a fully formed song, but I usually slave away on something and come back to it. An idea might sit there for weeks or months, until I hear a melody in the shower that works with it. But “Leaving” just happened. That one wrote itself.

I wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate for the band but, during our second to last day at Jim’s, I said, “Look, I’ve got this piece. I don’t know if it’s appropriate for us or not, but here it is.” And it turned out to be totally appropriate, and I’m glad we did it.

I should point out that Jim is amazing. Instead of saying, “Do this or don’t do that,” he would have me come into the control room and he’d say, “Listen to this, man. What do you think?” And then I’d come to my own conclusions. He leads you in the right direction, but he sets it up in such a way that you think it’s your idea. And that is the sign of a true, amazing producer and engineer. You don’t feel like someone’s on your case or saying that you’re not playing well. You don’t think that you’re doing the wrong thing. You go back into the live room to recut the track going, “Man, I’ve figured it out. I know what I have to do.”

He really understands what it means to make music and how people can get stuck in their heads or in a bad place. He’s really aware of that at all times, even if it doesn’t ever really seem like it. He seems lik

he’s your favorite uncle, but he’s always thinking one step ahead. That’s the best way to work with weird, sensitive musician types who can be complete idiots.

Detroit Dos

This was a soundcheck piece. Last summer, we started messing around with it in Asheville, N.C. It was one of those times when we wondered if we could really pull it off because it was pretty much straight disco. We also recorded it in Detroit—that’s how we came up with the name.

We wanted some rave-ups and that was a rave-up, just like “Babyman” and “Money’s No Option.” So that was us going, “Alright, we’re going to do this. We’re going to go full four-on-the floor disco.” Dan is great at doing that late-‘70s disco octave bass stuff, but he doesn’t do a lot of it because there’s not much of a call for it. So we decided to go for broke on this song and make it into a full dance thing because we need those types of tunes in our set.

We have all these gorgeous, dirge-y midtempo things, so it was cool to just blast off on the disco train for a bit, and then come back to the mid-tempo stuff. It gives us more ammunition to make a cool set.

Landline Memories

The title for this song was given to us by a guy named Ben Knight, who plays in a band called Beachwood Sparks. He’s also a schoolteacher and just a really rad dude. He was good friends with Neal [who also played in Beachwood Sparks] and had been around the Chris Robinson Brotherhood scene for a while. He just said, “Landline Memories.” Neal and I were like, “Whoa, that’s a great title.” I’m in my mid-40s and Neal was 50 when he died, and we would often look back at the days of answering machines and phones—when you still could escape the world for a bit.

You weren’t tied to your cellphone and if somebody wanted to meet you somewhere, you’d get a message saying, “We’ll be in the Lower East Side tonight. See you there.” There were no specifics. Without any technology, except for your answering machine, you would just end up meeting up with your buddy. That was a really beautiful time. You could float a bit and still find the people you wanted to hang out with. If you didn’t, you didn’t. And if you did, you did. But the only way to know if somebody was trying to get in touch with you, unless you had a pager, was your answering machine and your landline.

That title just nailed it. It wasn’t even a song at that point; it was just a phrase. A “landline memory” is what it was like before we were all stuck to our personal computers. Now, everybody is expected to let everybody else know where they are and what they’re doing. This song is not necessarily about that, but it seemed like there was something in the tune that evoked that idea—the choruses are joyful and the verses are kind of mournful.

Pete Jive

One time we were on tour and had an opener that was touring with us. I forget where we were, but the venue didn’t pay attention to the fact that we had an opener, so they hired one to play with us. When we drove up to this gig, the marquee read “Circles Around the Sun with Pete Jive.” And we were like, “Who is Pete Jive?” Then he showed up in his van, with his stuff, and was like, “I’m playing with you guys.” And we had to go, “I’m really sorry. It’s a snafu. You’re not opening because we have an opener.” I hung out with him a bit, smoothed it out and that name just stuck with us.

The song sounds a bit like go-go music. When I was coming up in New York, gogo bands used to play all the time. Chuck Brown would play at this place called Tramps that doesn’t exist anymore. I love that go-go feel. It’s over-swung to the point where it’s almost silly.

“Pete Jive” began with a little riff that we came up with at soundcheck. Then, when Dan and I were messing around in his studio with different drum machines and other stuff, he came up with that drum beat. The song actually [features] Dan playing pedal steel on it, which is cool. It’s a fun romp and the name just fit.

Money’s No Option

I love Stuff—Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Chris Parker, Eric Gale, Cornell Dupree and Gordon Edwards. Their first record, with the Looney Tunes logo on it, is a big one for me. And I love the fact that they were a bunch of top session guys that kept ending up at the same sessions and finally said, “Let’s just get together and play.” So they ended up being a cool instrumental band, though they hadn’t intended to be. Obviously, I’m not in the same category as Steve Gadd or Richard Tee or any of those cats—none of us are. But it felt similar to the gradual way that we came about. There was no real intent to be a band. It just happened. We enjoyed playing with each other so much that we said, “We can’t stop doing this.” So that felt similar to us and I completely ripped off Stuff for this song. [Laughs.]

The title is just stupid because the thing that people actually say is that “money’s no object.” I got that wrong once at a dinner. Dan has a band called Grateful Shred, who I play with sometimes. We were at the end of a tour, driving back to LA, and stopped at a nice restaurant that had one of those $125 seafood towers. I looked at the menu and said, “Money’s no option. Let’s go.” I said it wrong and it was hilarious. After that, we just ran with the theme forever because it sounds like you’re saying “money’s no object.” So the person you’re talking to might think, “Oh, cool, they have the bread.” But, actually, you have no money. So that became the schtick. We’d be like, “Another round of martinis—money’s no option.

The song is a sunset for Neal. It felt like the perfect last song on the record, given what had happened, because it’s pretty much just a guitar solo from start to finish. It felt like a good way to drive off into the sunset.

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