Article by Miles Hurley
Photo Courtesy of Calabro Music Media
Today, psychedelic jam outfit Circles Around The Sun have released their second set studio album, Let It Wander, on Rhino Records. Available on vinyl, CD, and all digital formats, this is the band’s first studio work since 2015’s Interludes For The Dead. The record release comes as a big accomplishment for this veritable musical supergroup that was, just a few years ago, figured to be a one-off deal. After their impressive Fare Thee Well performances and their highly-received initial run of live shows, the band has stuck around, and grown to flourish into what sounds like its true potential. Let it Wander is, as Circles describes it themselves, an expansion upon a signature, personalized sound. The band will follow up the record release with a brief run of shows, starting next week on August 23 at Asbury Park, NJ’s Wonder Bar.
In our anticipation for the new record and the upcoming shows, The Poke Around talked briefly with Circles Around The Sun’s lead guitarist Neal Casal about his band and his own inspirations. Check it out here below, and to get your copy of the new record, see tour dates and more, head to https://www.circlesaroundthesun.com.
You’re on the road a lot this year with Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and that’s where you play with (keyboardist) Adam McDougall all the time. What will it be like for the two of you to transition now to CATS?
Neal Casal: Honestly, the music between the two groups is not that dissimilar. It’s kind of in the same genre, the same mode. The discipline for Circles is definitely different. Our pieces of music are longer, and there’s no vocals, and it’s a different kind of pacing. But it’s not that hard to transition. We’re all kind of playing all the time, so as long as you’re limber, you can do it. With CRB, there’s certain song structures. When you have vocals and melodies happening, it confines you a bit more, because with a ‘sung’ song, there’s only so much you can do. Because once it’s written, you do have to play those parts, to get that tune across, right? Every time you play it. With Circles, it’s just more of an open canvas. There’s a lot more free space to explore, musically. But, at the same time, it can be difficult because some of our pieces are based around one chord. So you have to constantly come up with interesting things within very simple patterns. And that can be really really tough, it’s a constant challenge.
Simple Patterns leading to unexpected destinations are what I’m liking about the new record, Let It Wander. But the sounds on the album are as enticing as the musical ideas themselves. Do you use lots of funky audio tools?
I have a pretty extensive pedal board, which has an awful lot to do with the sound of this record. So those were a big thing, and I only use a couple of guitars, two or three guitars. But as a guitar player I started out with no effects at all, I was always one of those people who just plugged straight into the amp. That’s how I learned, and how I got my touch and feel. And this was also in the eighties, when there was nowhere near the availability of pedals and pedal boards that there is now, you know? Extensive pedal boards were something for the REALLY successful bands, you know? Hahaha. So yeah, I developed my tone, it comes from the hands. These days, I use pedals to help color sections of a song in a way I like. But it was good to learn to play without them.
When it comes to writing the ideas, and starting them off in a jam setting, are all members of CATS equal contributors? Was there any particular point of inspiration for “Electric Chair (Don’t Sit There),” the one with that cool Afrobeat vibe?
Yes, absolutely. We write together, mostly, and that’s how it works. On this record, Adam sort of took charge as the lead writer, in a way. “One For Chuck” is mostly his, and “Immovable Object” is entirely his composition. So he really stepped forward this time. But generally, we write as a band. “Electric Chair” was just a jam, pretty much, that was created there on the studio floor. Yeah, adding percussion to that one is I think what really made it special. We were thinking of cutting it from the record, until we got the percussion on there. And then it really changed into something interesting.
You guys describe the album as feeling like your real first record, in the way it seems to have found more of a signature sound for the band. Does that mean it looks like there’s more music in CATS’ future?
Well, it’s tough to say. You sort of let the muse decide for you, let the songs tell you what’s going to happen. It’s really hard, in some ways, to decide for yourself what’s going to happen to you, you know what I mean? I find that whenever I try to do that, it ends up somewhere else entirely. With this group, we’re just going to take it one record at a time, one tour at a time, and just see where the ideas lead us.
What are you spinning right now that’s inspiring your playing?
Well, it’s off the Circles subject, but John Prine’s new record, I think, is an absolute masterpiece. And there’s also a record I discovered, a seventies African record, from a band called Amanaz. It’s just called Africa. It’s blowing my mind. That, and, do you know the record by Pat Martino, called Baiyina (The Clear Evidence)? He’s an incredible guitar player, and that’s a record that’s really…well it’s far more advanced than Circles, but it’s been a big inspiration for Circles, and for me. Check that out, you’ll be knocked out.
What advice would have for up and coming individuals trying to learn to play and create music in an improvisational setting?
Well, it’s a matter of staying open. You have to drop your preconceived ideas of what music is supposed to be, and what a jam is supposed to be. I’d say that beforehand, learn as much as you can. Listen to as much as you can, all decades, all styles. Open your mind to what’s out there, because sometimes we can get stuck in what we think something is supposed to be. And when you let all that go, and let the music lead you where it wants to, you can end up in places you never dreamed. That’s what Circles is all about for me, for all us. I started out as a singer-songwriter, you know, years and years ago. I never ever envisioned myself being in groups like this. I mean, I was always into strong playing, but it was all about songs and singing, for me. For decades, haha. But then something led into me playing with Phil, and getting into this world that we’re in now, but it’s just something that I never saw for myself. But I just stayed open over the years, and that’s why we’re here. It’s all about staying open, whatever that means to the individual.