Circles Around the Sun LIVE at Zoetropolis!

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Circles Around the Sun:

Three years ago, guitarist Neal Casal formed Circles Around the Sun (CATS) with keyboardist Adam MacDougall (his bandmate in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood), bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy to record some Grateful Dead-influenced instrumentals to be played during the set breaks at the Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” concerts. “That was supposed to be the end of it,” Casal says.

Instead, there was an album, Interludes for the Dead, followed by several acclaimed live performances. The response was so positive, and the band was having so much fun making music together, that they agreed to keep it going. Few albums have the creation myth of Interludes For The Dead by Neal Casal’s Circles Around The Sun. The 10 instrumental jams that encompass the release were commissioned by Justin Kreutzmann, the filmmaker son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, to accompany the biographical visuals he was compiling to be shown during set break at the “Fare Thee Well” concerts the living members of the Dead played in the summer of 2015.

As guitarist in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and a sometime participant in Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Phil & Friends jam sessions, Casal was a natural for the project; he, in turn, brought on Brotherhood keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Dan Horne and drummer Mark Levy. At the shows, their music was a smash sensation: deeply familiar to the reunited Deadheads in how it tonally, rhythmically and melodically mimicked the Dead’s songs, yet possessing its own weirdo majesty.

It took nearly three years, but CATS – finally returned to Castaway 7 Studios in Ventura, California in 2018 to record a new double album, Let It Wander.

The players and the studio were the same, but Horne says the band’s approach to the music was completely different. “We were chasing a particular sound the first time around, so the process was slightly more structured. For this record, that map was gone, and we were on our own.”

One of the highlights from Let It Wander has to be “One For Chuck,” which was the first track the band finished. While they were in the studio playing back the song, Casal says Chuck D – the charismatic leader of the legendary rap group Public Enemy – unexpectedly stopped by. “When the track was over, he said: ‘You guys are real, organic musicians. You can’t be replaced. Don’t ever forget that.’ It was amazing to get that kind of encouragement from an artist we all love. We asked him to record an intro for the song and he was kind enough to do it. That’s how the song got its name.”
The other song titles are more enigmatic, but according to the band they do have their own internal logic and sense of humor. “Tacoma Narrows” started out as the bridge in a different song, so they named it after the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State. “Immovable Object” is a reference to the melody that MacDougall plays on the Rhodes electric piano at the start of the song. Even as the chords change around it, the melody line stays the same for the entire song. The ancient city of Halicarnassus was home to a beautiful mausoleum that was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The song “Halicarnassus” is played in 7/8 time, which means there are seven beats in every measure. “A little time signature humor to make the music nerds smile,” MacDougall jokes.
Even if you’re not a music nerd, there’s plenty to smile about on the new record, from the easy-going groove that keeps “On My Mind” grounded, to the celestial symphony that sends “Ticket To Helix” into orbit. “More than anything, what you hear on this album is a band growing into its own sound,” Casal says.