Neal Casal has been around the block a time or two. He’s played with some of the most legendary musicians of our time, and continues to make top-notch tunes in his role as guitarist in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Recently Neal was cool enough to take some time out of his insane schedule to answer a few questions about songwriting, recording, and a few lessons he’s learned along the way.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood has been firing on all cylinders the last couple years, releasing three LPs and touring all over the country. Casal elaborated on what this band has done for him, saying “This band has changed my life completely. I had never co-written songs before CRB, so it’s nice to have a co-writing partnership. As far as my playing goes, it has expanded my musicianship beyond recognition.” If you’ve heard Casal play, you know just how versatile of a guitarist he is. He expanded on this idea, adding, “I have just never toured so heavily in my life. We play around 120 shows a year, and we play for three hours a night. I’ve never played so much music in my life, but it makes me a better musician, better guitar player, better writer, better everything.”
Check out our interview with Neal Casal from 2012 about his solo career and touring with Chris Robinson, Willie Nelson, and Ryan Adams.
With so many shows a year, it’s a necessity to perform different sets each night; you might go crazy playing the same show over and over. Casal explains how any given CRB show might come together: “Chris writes the set lists. We basically look at what we played the last time we were in town and change the set according to that. If someone has an idea, we’ll throw it in, but Chris leads the way, which is what he should do, and the rest of us chime in if we have to.” It’s crucial to keep shows interesting for the crowd, and it really helps to have three new albums to draw from.
Speaking of their newest album, Barefoot in the Head was produced by the band rather than using an outside producer. Casal spoke about the differences, explaining, “Everyone in the band is capable of producing. We’ve all made so many records. So it just made it quicker, a more direct process. We all generally know what a good or bad take is, we all generally know a good or bad song. We know when the magic is in the room and when it’s not. It’s not that big of a mystery, so we actually had no trouble. I think some bands might end up in fights, but not us. We’ve been around a while, and when something gets too intense, you take a walk around the yard, come back and sort it out. It wasn’t a problem for us.”
The environment a record is produced in can have a direct impact on the finished product as well. For Barefoot in the Head, the venue of choice was Brotherhood Arts Laboratory. Casal describes the effect it had on the music, saying, “It’s a house in northern California that overlooks the Pacific ocean. It’s a really amazing place where we got really inspired to write and record. Also everyone lived there while we were making the record, and that’s a communal process, so it helped with the record-making a lot.”
With so much going on, one might wonder when CRB has the time to write all this material. It appears to be pretty much a constant affair, as Casal states: “We write on the road all the time; sound checks, hotel rooms, planes, airports, everywhere. At home, Chris and I will send each other phone recordings, anything that can help us get a finished song. We play all the time, every day.”
And when Casal says “all the time, every day” he means it. Not only does he play with CRB, he’s also a member of Hard Working Americans and Circles Around the Sun. This author actually witnessed Casal perform with four different bands over the course of last year’s LOCKN’ Festival: the three mentioned above as well as a set with Phil Lesh and Friends. So he really is playing all the time, every day.
When asked if that ever got to be too much, Casal explained, “[It’s] not musically overwhelming at all, because the music I can handle between all the different groups. It’s sort of familiar ground for me. But the scheduling, the travel, over the past few years got pretty insane at times. Kind of exhausting, but I love it. It’s never a problem for because I love playing music so much. It’s all I want or need to do, so I am happy to exhaust myself in the name of playing with all these great bands.”
With a breadth of experience that spans decades, and an expansive knowledge of the different aspects of the music world, Casal has some gravitas to comment on the state of the music industry as it stands today: “For bands like us, you know, rock bands, there’s not much of a chance for real profound success anymore, because the marketplace doesn’t really have a place for big rock records anymore. The culture has just shrunk massively, so I think it is much harder for a younger musician now to have a career or a life doing this. But that said, there are other ways to do it, there are multiple ways to have a career and a life doing this. In a way, you have to ask the young bands. I’ve been around for a long time, but it’s not like I’m established for the rest of my life. I grew up in an era where rock n’ roll was a much different beast, so I would imagine it can be much harder for people now.”
From ‘80s southern rock to shimmering psychedelia with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Neal Casal has remained a stoic figure in the rock n’ roll world, and he doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down. Don’t miss CRB when they’re in town, and get out there and rock!