Guitarist Neal Casal helps fuel Chris Robinson Brotherhood's cosmic journey
With his easy smile, bushy beard and laid-back manner, Chris Robinson Brotherhood's Neal Casal looks like your friendly hippie next door. Humble as he may seem, Casal is easily one of the most impressive guitarists touring today. With an accomplished resume including stints in Ryan Adams' band The Cardinals, Phil Lesh & Friends and super group Hard Working Americans, as well as a dozen solo records to his name, Casal seems content to stand off to the side of the stage and either help his frontmen shine or completely outshine them, depending on how you see it. It's often the latter based on his mastery alone.
While he may not yet be a household name, Casal's skills have not gone unnoticed by those in the music world. In 2015, he was tapped to write and produce five hours of psychedelic instrumental jams to be played during the breaks at the historic "Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead" concerts — an honor to say the least for the longtime fan.
As lead guitarist for CRB for the past six years, Casal is as vital a part of the Brotherhood as its namesake. If the band's fourth album, Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel, and its companion EP, If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now, are any indication, this cosmic musical bus is in high gear with no sign of slowing down any time soon.
The next installment of CRB's Betty's Blends live album series, Volume 3: Self-Rising, Southern Blends, is set for release on May 5, with tracks from the Southeastern leg of the band's 2015 tour, recorded and mixed live by legendary Grateful Dead engineer and archivist Betty Cantor-Jackson. It's also the first live album featuring the band's new drummer Tony Leone, who joins Robinson, Casal, keyboardist Adam MacDougall and bassist Jeff Hill.
CRB makes a stop in St. Louis on Sunday, April 2 to play the recently opened Delmar Hall for the first time. I chatted with Casal by phone in advance of the band's Spring Tour kickoff about CRBs journey, being schooled by Phil Lesh and his second career as a photographer, among other topics.
Amy: What has it been like to work with Betty Cantor-Jackson on the Betty's Blends series? How did that relationship come about?
Casal: That relationship came through Chris. He likes to honor the greats who have come before us and pay them the respect that they deserve, especially people like Betty, who are less known to music fans, but equally as important. Betty's recordings help us and she makes us sound great, of course, but the purpose is also to shed light on her career and work and the fact that, even though she's done all these legendary recordings since the '60s, she's still around now making beautiful recordings and still working at her craft that she's perfected over decades.
There's so much to be learned through Betty and we're all ears when she speaks. On a technical level, when we master the Betty's Blends records, I've often gone in and sat in on the mastering sessions, and I listen for her experience and try to pick up what I can from her because it's vital information and you can't get it through looking it up on the internet.
And through her, we've also gotten to know Kidd Candelario, who was a longtime Grateful Dead crew member and he makes all our cables for us; he makes our pedal boards too So we're working closely with a lot of these people that are still around and have so much knowledge to offer.
Amy: Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel is I think the most complex and diverse CRB album in its styles and influences. How has the band evolved over the past six years with regards to songwriting?
Casal: We've evolved just by doing it; by sticking with it and never letting up for even a day. When the band started, there were some relationships and friendships there, but we were all very new to each other really. Chris and Adam had been in the Black Crowes together, but the rest of us had a long way to go to deepen our friendships, and it takes a few years to do that. So several hundred shows later, and a few records later, it took us a while to truly find our groove.
Chris and I have had a nice songwriting partnership right from day one, but even that had to evolve, and a few years in, we found ourselves in a deeper groove than when we started and the momentum has really helped us. Some bands peak early — their debut record will be their best and they're chasing that for the rest of their lives; but in the case of CRB, the opposite is coming true in that we're finding momentum as we go. Our first record was very good and a nice way to get started, but the best, amazingly, is yet to come with this bunch of old dogs.
Amy: I understand you recorded the album and EP in a unique home studio. That must have been quite a stimulating environment.
Casal: Yeah, there's a house high on a hill in Marin County that some friends of ours turned into a studio. It's a really amazing house that was built out of remnants of San Francisco bridges that were torn down. This guy had access to these materials and built with his own hands this house — literally built out of San Francisco — and it overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It's quite a scene. Some friends of mine turned the place into a recording studio and lots of bands are going there.
It's an amazingly creative atmosphere. The band loved it. Chris particularly found it very easy to write there. He can just take a walk around the grounds and stare into the woods with his notebook and come back an hour later with an incredible set of lyrics for a song we're working on. So it's great for him — great for all of us. We get to live there, live communally, make our meals there in the kitchen and sit down at the table together to eat, and right in the same space, we're recording. That really does inform the writing and the sound and the authenticity of the music.
Amy: I would imagine being self-produced allows for greater creative freedom as well.
Casal: It does if it's the right group of people. It can be a complete nightmare if it's the wrong combination of personalities. The lineup that we have now is really comprised of a bunch of producers, because we've all made our own records for so long. We all know what a good take sounds like. It's not a huge mystery. We've all been through many of those trials and we're all back at that simple place where it comes down to the question, "Is this good or bad?" And we can all reach a consensus on that very quickly. This group is able to self-produce.
Amy: Speaking of experience, you've played alongside some of the best musicians around, including Chris, Ryan Adams, Phil Lesh and the guys from Hard Working Americans, who are all very different from each other. What have you gained from that combined experience that's helped you be the player you are today?
Casal: As different as those groups and people are, there's so much commonality there as well. Whether it's Chris or Ryan or Todd or whomever I might be around, all of us in the music community, we're all after the same things. When it comes to being a songwriter, Ryan's and Todd's lyrical style is completely different, and Chris' too, but I can tell you what's the same about all those guys — you can find them every morning at their desk or a table or the lounge of the bus and they're grinding away at their notebooks, pressing their pens to the page as hard as they can digging for the next song. That's what I respond to. I'm just there to help them find that.
Amy: Growing up a Deadhead, it must have been a bit surreal to be asked to write and perform the break music for the "Fare Thee Well" anniversary shows. How did you even begin to tackle that daunting task?
Casal: Well, what was great about tackling that is that there wasn't much time to think about it. If I'd had more time to think about it - what's that Dylan line? "If I'd thought about it, I never would've done it; I guess I would've let it slide." That's completely true for me with the "Fare Thee Well" stuff. I got a call from my friend Justin [Kreutzmann] and I said yes, of course, and then I asked, "How much time have we got?" And he said, "None, really." So okay, we're making music for the visuals that will be on the screens on the side of the stage, so I asked, "Can I see the visuals?" And he said they weren't done yet; so I said, "We've got no time and I've got no visuals, what do you want me to do?" And Justin just said, "Go make some music that will make you feel good. Just imagine yourself being at the show and approach it from that perspective."
So I thought back to my days in the '80s at Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia Band shows when I was a kid and imagined what kind of music I would want to hear if I was walking around before the band started and before the set break, and then I called some of my best musician friends that I thought would be right for it and we jumped into a studio very quickly and just improvised for two days. We just wrote everything on the spot and felt our way to something we thought people would enjoy and, much to our shock, people overwhelmingly liked it. The entire project and that music has had a much longer life than I ever thought it would. To be embraced by this Dead community the way we have — I can't even find words for the gratitude there.
Amy: You pulled it off remarkably well, considering.
Casal: We did our best to honor them with that music, but the idea was to do our own thing with it and improvise and do something weird and let the moment take you where it's going to take you. Let the music play you. We got a little of that magic with that music. Sometimes when you're torn out of your comfort zone, the best things happen.
So much of that, too, was the preparation we had by getting to play with Phil [Lesh] for the last few years. For Adam and I, that was a big deal because Phil taught us about improvisation and musical courage and being able to hang in there with a jam for more than a few minutes. Those guys were the masters — they'd hang in here for 15-20 minutes, and that takes incredible focus to do that convincingly. It really blew my mind when I played with him because I realized that a guy in his 70s could outlast any 30 year old. So we got our asses handed to us by Phil and it really was humbling, and I've been a dedicated student since I've been able to hang around that guy.
That connects to the CRB as well, because Chris takes that stuff very seriously. We are a band that plays two full sets every night. We don't mess around. It doesn't matter where we are — if we're in St. Louis at a small show or at a big festival, we're always trying to get there. We're a strange bunch that way. There's no day or show that we want to waste or phone in. It actually means something to us still. When Chris gets that smile going — it's not show business.
Amy: So, what's next?
Casal: We just made another record, actually, that will be released later this year with 10 new original songs. With that one, Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel and If You Lived Here, You'd Be Home By Now, we'll have released 23 new songs in the past year and a half, which is pretty cool. Our rhythm section has changed a bit over the past year, but we're better than ever.
Amy: In addition to your music, you're also an accomplished photographer, and you have quite the Instagram following for your photos from the road. What do you love about the photography medium, especially as it relates to music?
Casal: Because it relates so well to music. I find myself in these situations that no other photographer can get to — no one can get the access I have; and I started thinking it would be a shame to waste that access and it would be very easy for me to have a guitar in one hand and a camera in the other. It broadens my artistic life and adds more to the overall picture.
I've always been a fan of photography. Jim Marshall is one of my heroes, and I got to meet him a couple times and I've met Henry Diltz. I just try to emulate those guys in a way. There's just something so inspiring when you see Jim Marshall's photos; the composition, that black and white look. It lights me up. So part of my artistic life is trying to make moments like that myself. And when you have people like Chris in front of you, you can't resist trying to make something of it.
It's also a nice thing to do with my days when I'm not playing, and the nicest things have happened from it. I never expected to have a book of photography, which I did. When I started taking pictures, I wasn't trying to land album covers or anything — I was just taking photos to do it. And then, like the Easy Tiger [Ryan Adams] album — the fact that one of my photos became a cover was incredible, and the fact that they've appeared in magazines and books and on records - wow, what a nice thing to add to my life.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood will play Delmar Hall on Sunday, April 2.