HT Interview: Neal Casal – It’s All One Big Band

Consistent with the saying, “In order to be interesting; have interests,” (sage wisdom from the folks at eHarmony) coming up with interview questions for Neal Casal is a breeze – easier in fact than any artist I’ve ever interviewed. He just does so many different things.  He’s cranked out 12 solo albums to date, played with Ryan Adams as a Cardinal, joined Chris Robinson as a sibling in the Brotherhood, coached Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson on their vocals for Starsky & Hutch, become an avid photographer and taken pictures for a number of well-known album covers as well as Rolling Stone and Spin, and collaborated on albums with everyone from Willie Nelson to Minnie Driver. The list just goes on. The questions ask themselves.

Casal embodies the true spirit of the collaboration and approaches music in the best possible way – playing with people because you like each another. In discussing his latest solo effort Sweeten the Distance and all the other elements of his career, Neal Casal said something about his lifestyle as a hard working session musician that resonated, “The whole thing just becomes one big band.” Seems like the way it should be.

Hidden Track: So, obviously you do a lot of different things and work with a lot of different people; I was curious with regard to the solo material, do you approach it any differently and also any voids it might fill in terms of creative outlets you might not get to explore with your other projects?

Neal Casal: Well, I’m a little bit better known for playing with other people than I am for my own work, but the fact is that my solo work is really the truest sign of what what I do, and I’ve done way more solo records than I have other things. You know, I’ve been doing these solo albums for 15 years, so it will always be the foundation of what I do. It’s the well stream of inspiration and ideas. Working with other people has really been from making friends in the world of music over all the years I’ve been in it.

Playing with other people is really just a bonus and these are offers that are too good to turn down. The solo stuff has really always been my home, you know? I just try with every record to do something different, work with a different producer or work in a different place to try to bring something new to it.

It differs quite a bit from when I work with other people, because when I work with other bands, I try to become the guitar player that I would want in my own band. You know what I mean? Since I know what it’s like to to be the lead singer, and the lead guy, I know what makes a good second guitarist. So, when I work with other people, I try to be that person I’ve been looking for myself. I think I bring an interesting perspective on it, which is partly why it’s worked out so well for me. One thing feeds the other and they both work really well together.

HT: On that note, how would you compare your guitar playing in say Chris’s band [Chris Robinson’s Brotherhood] or the Cardinals to the solo setting? Are there any major differences you would point out?

NC: In Chris’s band, I’ve been able to play more guitar than I ever have in my life. Chris completely opened up the field for me to do so much. I mean really stretch out with solos and sounds and ideas. He has such an open approach to the whole thing. That comes from his tremendous love of the Grateful Dead and the whole field of psychedelic music that he loves so much. He laid it at my doorstep and said, “Here, take it.”

At first I was reluctant to do it, because I had never been presented that opportunity so generously before. I’m used to playing really tight song structures and editing my playing down to be as minimal as possible. It’s hard. One of my favorite things about guitar playing is the notes that you don’t play.

The Chris Robinson thing is the opposite. There is a lot of playing and a lot of exploration, and that has been an amazing spirit of growth for me in the last year.

With Ryan’s music, it’s a bit of both. He’s a very disciplined songwriter and the structures are always very solid, and I loved playing within that structure, but Ryan is a sonic explorer as well. There were a lot of those songs that we extended pretty freely. I got into a lot of serious guitar using a lot of noise elements and dual guitar elements. We both love a lot dissonance, so we went down a lot of those roads. And you know, Ryan is a Deadhead too, so at the same time there were a lot of similarities between the Brotherhood and the Cardinals.

When it comes to my own work and my solo stuff, I tend to put my own playing in the background more and let the songwriting do the work. I also do a lot more singing and more textural or supportive things on guitar. I dont really show off too much.

I’m hoping in the future to take some of the stuff that I’ve learned, especially from the Brotherhood, and applying them to my own music and be a little more adventurous on guitar.

HT: In preparing for this, I got a kick out of seeing that you worked with Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller as well as on some other interesting Hollywood stuff like Country Strong (ed note: underrated). I was curious how those opportunities came to be and what like exploring that so-called celebrity world?

NC: Well, the  celebrity world really means nothing to me. I don’t participate in it in any way other than working like that on very rare occasions. Those opportunities have come up purely by accident just by knowing some producers. There is a guy named George Drakoulias who is a great record producer who did the first couple Black Crowes albums and some Jayhawks albums and a lot of things that I really love, and he does a lot of music supervision work in the movies. So, almost all of the opportunities I’ve gotten to work in film are through George, because I do some studio guitar and vocal work for him.

It’s not something I’ve ever really pursued, but I’ve always enjoyed them. It’s fun being a fly on the wall and observing and watching these people work. I come away with a lot more respect for the movie world. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of people, a lot of ideas moving around, and a lot of precision involved.

HT: Also, I thought it was cool that you’ve gotten into photography and put out some pretty well-known album covers and stuff like that?

NC: Most of my photos are interesting because they were taken from places photographers can’t normally get to, because I’m actually in the band or I’m in the studio. I haven’t been invited there as a photographer, but I take the opportunity to document the experience from the very center of it. It’s really from a non-observatory role. It’s from a central role. Most of the time if I’m shooting in the studio, I usually have a guitar in one hand and a camera in the other. It gets to the point when most people don’t even know I’m there and that’s when the best pictures arise, at least in terms of music.

I shoot a  lot of things – street photos and abstract ideas – but it comes from just wanting to do more with myself. I started feeling that music was not enough, so it was no enough. So, it was really just pushing myself as – I don’t know – an artistic adventurer. I find it totally fun and it’s a great release for me. It’s really a companion piece  to music and a function of my daily life.

[Cover Photo by Neal Casal]

HT: In terms of Sweeten the Distance, I was interested in what you were writing about in terms of the lyrical content.

NC: Oh man, it’s always hard for me to answer that question. I don’t really set out with particular goals in mind. I just write the best songs that I can. All of those lyrics comes from a really personal place. You know, it’s an inner place that’s still a mystery to me. I’m sure whatever themes people come up with are probably accurate. I suddenly become very inarticulate when I’m asked that question [laughs].

Songwriting is such a mysterious, elusive process to me that I don’t even really understand it. I don’t know where they come from, you know? It’s just hard to say. It’s hard for me to analyze. I just kind of do it.

HT: I think its interesting you say that, because I think a lot of people actually appreciate when listeners from their own ideas about what it’s supposed to mean. You’re definitely not alone in that.

NC: I’ve had a couple of moments of writing really good songs – and that’s where I hang my hat – but I was just listening to an interview with Joni Mitchell the other day where she was asked these same questions and she can explain in details what each song means, what each song is about, and that just blew my mind. That impressed me so much.

She is such a fiercely focused artist. She knows exactly what she is going after and exactly what she’s talking about at all times. Of course, she’s a genius and I’m not, but I’m pretty good when I have my moments of greatness. I’m just hoping for more of them, you know?  It’s hard for me to talk in detail about each song though. It really is, I don’t know why. I manage to write a lot of them though [laughs].

HT: You touched on this a little bit with making friends and all that, but I thought it was interesting reading through your credits and list of collaborations. It’s such a diverse group of artists – James Iha, Willie Nelson, Minnie Driver, Robert Randolph. It touches on so many kinds of music. So, while you are known primarily for your Americana-type stuff or exploratory rock band work, what other types of music are you really in to beyond that? Sorry, I think I just asked about four questions, but how do you end up around so many different types of music?

NC: As far as music listening goes, it’s all over the map for me. I’m a pretty obsessive music listener. I’ll try just about anything, and I’m into just about everything. I like just about every strain of American music you can imagine from classic R&B to country music. I’m a major jazz-head. Folk music. I definitely love every strain of rock music.

I don’t know too much about classical music, but I have a couple things and a couple people I’ve been trying to learn from. I even listen to electronic records. Everything I can possibly learn from you know, because this is what I do for my life’s work. I have a pretty decent vinyl collection. I’m really into vinyl, more so now than ever.

As far as the collaborating, again it’s just from hanging around and getting involved. You just meet people and become friends and the whole thing just becomes one big big band [laughs]. As long as the music is really excellent, I just jump at it. I want to use my youth and my time on this Earth to make as much music as I possibly can.

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