Adam MacDougall on the Future of Circles Around The Sun

Larson Sutton on September 23, 2019
Adam MacDougall on the Future of Circles Around The Sun

photo credit: Stuart Levine

It’s been an exceptionally emotional past six months for keyboardist Adam MacDougall. In spring he left the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a group for which he was a founding member. He turned his full-time attention to Circles Around The Sun, a band he co-founded with guitarist Neal Casal, bassist Dan Horne, and drummer Mark Levy, that formed as a conceptual ensemble initially charged with creating set-break music for 2015’s Fare Thee Well Grateful Dead reunion performances.

The quartet had blossomed from concept into working band, and spent part of this summer recording a third LP, working with Grammy-winning producer Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Tedeschi Trucks Band) at Scott’s Southern California studio. They turned in a captivating late-night set at the Lockn Festival in late August, and also finished prepping an EP, recorded with a guesting Joe Russo on drums, for an October 18 release. Just days after their turn at Lockn, on August 26, Casal committed suicide. 

It was a shocking tragedy for MacDougall and his bandmates, but also for a community of music fans that had grown to appreciate Casal as a rising talent, and CATS as one of the scene’s most exciting and progressive artists. MacDougall not only lost his best friend and musical partner, but was also left with the questions of how, or if, to move forward with Circles Around The Sun.

MacDougall, Horn, and Levy agreed to continue, asking guitarist Eric Krasno to appear with the band at an upcoming memorial for Casal at the Capitol Theatre on September 25th, as well as on the band’s scheduled run of fall tour dates. Of Krasno, MacDougall says, “It’s nice to have someone we trust to step in.” From his studio in Los Angeles, the keyboardist spoke about Casal and his influence as a friend and musician, the hard decision to carry on, and the next two CATS releases- their final recordings with Casal. Understandably deliberate with his answers, MacDougall expressed his thoughts during this difficult time with a noticeably conscientious and subdued tone. 

I have feelings of confusion regarding Neal’s passing.  Is there anything you can say to those of us who are confused as to why this happened?

No, I don’t think so.  I think everybody’s confused.  I’m equally as confused.  I don’t think there is anyone out there saying it makes sense.  A lot of people are in pain over it.  People get down.  You can see it.  You can feel it.  Everyone’s just confused as to the extent of what happened.  I don’t think I’ll ever have an answer for that one.  I’ll miss him every day and I don’t think I’ll ever know why this happened.

On the weekend following his passing you sat-in with Chris Robinson and his Green Leaf Rustlers band.  How was that?

We played together and everything’s great with us.  I love the guy.  It was a terrible way (for us) to come close, but, yes, that was nice to play with him.  It was nice to be around the members of CRB that were there during those shows.  I hadn’t seen (CRB drummer) Tony (Leone) in a while, and it’s terrible circumstances to see him.  For people who really understand having those connections, us hanging out together- to be around people who lived with Neal in a bus for close to a decade- it’s good to be with people that were close with him.  That was nice, and helpful.  I really felt terribly for the people that knew him well and were out-of-state or in places where they couldn’t be with someone that also knew him.  It’s very lonely to go through that by yourself.  My heart went out to those who were alone.

Circles Around the Sun was working on a new album when Neal passed.  What’s the status of the record?

I’m in front of my keyboard rig as we speak because we are finishing the record.  We got Neal to a certain point and we are going to finish it.  I’m not sure exactly when, but it will definitely come out; probably beginning of next year, if we remain on schedule.  That was something we felt we had to do because it was close to done.  We’d gotten some really great stuff out of him.  He’s here, on the record.

You have enough of Neal’s recordings so that he will be the only guitar on it?

As it stands, yes, that’s the way it is.  We all agreed we want to keep it clean; to him.  We’re going to do our best to make it all work.  Luckily we had a day out of him at Jim’s place so there are overdubs and ideas that Neal wanted to have.  So now it’ll go to mix pretty soon.

Did you ever think about continuing just as a trio?

We definitely went through a lot of thinking about that, and if it was something we should even think about.  It was really tough.  We’re going to go on with Eric Krasno, one of our good friends and great musical companions, who has stepped in to be a part of the shows we have coming up. 

You sound like you are getting more comfortable with the idea of continuing on.

It’s definitely a process, but we love this music.  The three of us- Dan, Mark, and myself- we really love it and really don’t want to stop playing it.  I don’t want [our decision] to come off in any other way than based on the fact we really, really love this band so much.  We had done sideman gigs for a long time- especially Neal and I had.  We would always sit around and talk about the dream: the feeling of what it was like to be a teenager and start your own band.  It’s your band, with everyone pulling their own weight, doing their part.  It’s yours.  But, then you have to make a living and that feeling goes away.  You do learn a lot from playing other people’s music.  It’s great.  It’s amazing.  But, this band felt like being in high school again.

I’ll say this delicately: Implicit in your decision seems to be an assurance that you had from Neal to continue on in his absence.

Yes.  And to finish this record, as well.  Those were his wishes.

And Eric will start with you this week and continue on for the fall dates as scheduled?

We’ll play this memorial for Neal at the Capitol Theatre.  And there’s another memorial out here in California on the 30th.  Eric is going to do the Capitol memorial and be a part of our shows this fall.

The guest list for the Capitol memorial is growing in numbers and diversity of artists.

It speaks volumes of Neal as a musician and as a person.  A lot of people have known him for a lot longer than I have and played with him for a lot longer, too.  For me, just in the nine years or so that I have, he’s been a huge musical mentor.  And, my best friend; my person to go to dinner with after soundcheck and all that.

Give me an example of that mentorship.

He was a musical guru in a way.  He studied records in a way that I had never really seen.  He knew why every note was cool, and how it was done.  We used to go record shopping all the time on the road.  He’d always come up with a bunch of records I had to have, and they were always great.  He did that for a lot of people.

And as a musician?

He had some of the biggest ears musically of someone that I’ve ever played with.  He was my partner.  We could pretty much finish each other’s musical phrases.  He would really listen to what I was doing.  He did that with everybody.  That’s a very beautiful and sensitive trait.  He touched a lot of people.

As you see it, what is Neal Casal’s legacy?

Oh, man.  In addition to his guitar work, he was also a prolific, beautiful songwriter.  And an incredible singer that you could use as a lead voice.  And he was an unbelievable background singer.  He wasn’t just a guitarist on so many sessions; he was also a session singer.  He had such a great ear for harmony.  His legacy is so huge, I don’t know how to pinpoint it.  He studied music and records in ways that were kind of staggering.  He was a really deep, thoughtful musician.

Circles is a group of four individual voices working collectively to form one greater voice.  Does that present the ultimate challenge to anyone that comes in to the group- to be a strong enough individual voice, but respectful of the collective?

The band is almost a concept.  No one is going to come in and fill Neal’s shoes.  The dynamic will, of course, change.  The music is very free.  Add another character to the plot and it will be different.  But, the spirit of what the band does, in moving energy around the room, will remain: to go and hear good music, have a good time, and dance.  That will still be happening.  It will never happen again in the same way.  It’s impossible.  Yes, everyone’s voice is very strong.  The guitar needs to hold its space as much as any of the other instruments.  We’ve had some really good jams with Eric.  He is able to hold the space, and we can all weave together.

Speaking of adding a character to the plot, you have a new four-song EP, Circles Around The Sun Meets Joe Russo, coming out in October that features Russo guesting with the band.  Tell me about that experience.

We did that in March in New York.  We didn’t really have much prepped.  We had two days in Brooklyn, and it was awesome.  Russo is incredible.  He was a kick-starter for us.  He has ideas and knows how to make something happen.  If we were sitting scratching our heads, he was ready to go in the room and start playing something.  He was a catalyst for creativity.

What was it like having two drummers?

It was really cool.  Russo is very aware, when it’s double-drumming, that you shouldn’t have too much redundancy between the kits.  It made Mark really creative.  It was fun to watch and to listen to.  It was a lot of jamming.  Only one of the four tunes was something that was written.  The rest was outtakes from the hours we were having fun.

Did the EP inform or affect the new album in any way- whether the timing of the release or the way you played?

Everything worked out.  The release date for the EP was always set for October.  The EP is a very special moment in time.  Having Russo in the room made everyone play in a certain character.  Everyone put on a different hat for those two days.  I really like it.  It’s very free.

For those that carry on the memory and the music after a tragedy like this, they have to be the recipient of everyone’s well-intentioned condolences in each city and town as they return to the road.  So, they often have to go through that sadness again and again.  Are you prepared for that?

Yes, of course.  It’s going to be with me forever, and definitely with everyone in CATS forever.  As we go forward, it’s part of the DNA now.  It’s terrible what happened.  Neal was my musical partner and he’s gone.  He was really close to everybody so, yes, were going to be “there” about it; be present about it.