A chat with Circles Around the Sun's Adam MacDougall
By Keith Hadad
Circles Around The Sun is one of the most electrifying and accessible jam bands on the scene today. If you’re having a bad day and just need to get up and dance, or take a few hits and zone out to a beautiful sunset, this is the music.
The group began as a Neal Casal side-project that was originally intended to create some incidental music for the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well concerts in 2015. It quickly took on a life of its own. Since then, the band has cut a handful of killer records and become a big hit on the festival circuit as their popularity has grown.
Even after Casal’s tragic suicide in 2019, the remaining members of the band, Dan Horne (bass), Adam MacDougall (keys) and Mark Levy (drums) pressed on, wowing audiences with a series of different replacement guitarists until they found a permanent axe slinger in John Lee Shannon.
With their new LP, the prog-funk epic Language finally in shops everywhere, it was an opportune time to sit down with MacDougall to discuss the history of the band, their latest recordings and what he would define as the perfect smoke session music.
Heads Lifestyle: The band initially formed as a result of Justin Kreutzmann asking Neal Casal to create interlude music for set breaks at the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows. Do you know why Justin felt the need for new music when most people would have just thrown on some Dead album cuts?
Adam MacDougall: I can't speak for him, but it's way cooler to curate your own thing. I think that was basically it. It was a perfect idea. I don't think it had really been done before. He called Neal because he had used him on some of his movies. He made a documentary about Bob Weir, and Neal scored that. So I think Neal was just a first call because he worked with him before and Neal's awesome.
To be fair, the band was created after the shows were played. We had no idea that anyone was going like the music. It was not a band; it was just a two-day studio session. Neal got the call from Kreutzmann, and he called me and said, I got this call to do this. Why don't you and I do it? And I said, Great! Then he said, Cool, I'm gonna call this dude Dan. From there, I said, Great, I'm gonna call this dude Mark. We got in the studio and that was it. We didn't think anything more of it. We just recorded for two days straight. We never even listened back to it; there was no time.
I think they played it a bit loud. Neal and I were at the Levi Stadium shows—the two California shows before the Chicago ones—and I remember we were going, It's too loud! People are really gonna hear this! We didn't think it was that great. We had just been in the studio playing with whatever we could. We were running out of ideas. It was six hours of instrumental music, and we were scraping the bottom of the barrel by the second day. We weren’t expecting it to be something that anyone would pay attention to. It was just the music for when you go to get beer. You don't pay attention to it, but everybody paid attention.
I remember looking around Levi Stadium and there were 70,000 people and everybody was dancing. At that point, Neal and I were like, Wait a minute, this might turn into something. Then all of these people started talking online: Who is this? They were trying to guess who the artist was, and everyone thought they knew. Oh, these are lost Jerry tapes with this other keyboard player that nobody knows, etc. Everyone had their ideas, and we were sitting there laughing because we're like, No, it's just us!
By the time we got to Chicago, we were like, We could actually put a band together. So there wasn't a band until there was a need for one. Then we just threw something together.
Circles Around the Sun (left to right): Guitarist John Lee Shannon, bassist Dan Horne, drummer Mark Levy and keyboardist Adam MacDougall.
HL: With the Dead being so connected to the band’s origins, does it ever feel like there is some sort of continuation of their spirit in CATS?
AM: Only in the way of trying to keep the music fresh. I think that is, from what I can tell, a primary goal of the Grateful Dead scene. To try every time you perform a song that you might have played many times before, to throw something in there or approach it from a different angle. I think the Grateful Dead catalogue—and this is going to come out weird maybe—but it's the closest that a bunch of white dudes can get to having their own sort of jazz movement, you know what I mean?
It's music that can be interpreted in different ways, which I think can be said of a lot of the standard jazz catalogue. The thing about jazz music is that you can play a standard song in so many different ways, yet the soul of the song is still there. You can interpret it in different time signatures and different keys with different instrumentation, with different whatever, but the song is still there. I think Grateful Dead music is like that. It's the one American songbook that different bands can make their own. A Latin band can do a cover of a Dead song. A polka band can do it. Because it's so heavily improvised on by the band itself, the Grateful Dead catalogue is open for interpretation. In that way, I think that's the spirit. That's the key that unites all of the bands involved in this jam scene—the willingness to interpret their material and have the material interpreted in other ways than originally intended on the albums.
HL: How did you initially get into playing keys and what were some of your early influences?
AM: When I was about five or six, my grandfather sent my mother an upright piano that he couldn't play anymore because he had scoliosis. So we had a piano in the house and she got me lessons. And that was it! So as far back as I can really remember.
I think probably one of my biggest influences was my piano teacher, Joe Kerr. He was a jazz guy and my mom would take me to see him. He was great at classical too. He studied in France, so he could teach all that. He invited me to play one of my dumb classical pieces when I was 10 at one of his shows. Somebody gave me a tip—like $10, I think—which was, in the mid-eighties, a lot of money. So that was cool! It became a no-brainer to me. It was like, Well, that's what I wanna do. He does it. He gets paid. I got paid. Cool!
My mom would listen to a lot of jazz people like Fats Waller and Oscar Peterson—that kind of stride piano, real flowery. You hear it and go, It's impossible that only one person is playing that! Herbie Hancock is such an unbelievable case. From the minute he first got on a record, he just sounded like that, you know? I saw him play the Hollywood Bowl, and he was incredible. He is in his eighties, but he plays piano like he doesn't have a lick of arthritis, and there's no way that he doesn't have some finger pain at this point. I have always taken a real shine to Hancock and Thelonious Monk. Then as I got into my own stuff, I got turned onto Hancock, McCoy Tyner and other modal stuff, and later I really got into Keith Jarrett.
When I heard Funkadelic—then it was Bernie Worrell—that got me into the funk and rock world. I got really into Pink Floyd. My perfect keyboard mix is Richard Wright and Bernie Worrell.
"I think the Grateful Dead catalogue—and this is going to come out weird maybe—but it's the closest that a bunch of white dudes can get to having their own sort of jazz movement, you know what I mean?"
HL: Initially, how did you get to know Neal, and what was it about him and CATS that made you want to be a member of the band?
AM: I started playing with The Black Crows in 2007, and spent a lot of time with Chris Robinson. Then Chris started the Chris Robinson Brotherhood band, which I was in, and that's how I met Neal. It took us a few months to figure each other out before being able to hang and stuff. Then we became super fast friends. We did a lot of touring and a lot of writing.
Neal was such a Rolling Stones guy, and The Rolling Stones have this beautiful tapestry between the guitar players. That's the sauce in that band. It's between Keith and whoever is the other guitar player. That's the way Neal was used to playing. He had played with the Cardinals, and Ryan Adams is a great guitar player, and I think they had come up with a real cool way to mesh those guitars in a Stones-y way or a Faces way. You know, that cool talking thing that those bands did?
Since Chris was just starting to play guitar in the CRB, he wasn't really adept yet at weaving between guitars. He got better at it. So Neal looked at me and was like, Well, now we have to do the same thing I'm used to doing with guitars, but with keyboard and guitar. We ended up writing this whole language that we used to play together. CATS was pretty easy because by the time we went to record, we were already so good at just musically tossing the ball back and forth to each other. We could do that for hours.
CATS already had a voice because Neal and I had been working on that voice with the CRB—two sets a night, five nights a week—so we had a complete language. That's what made CATS.
HL: After Neal's tragic passing, was it hard to start again with other guitarists, including John Lee Shannon?
AM: It was hard because of Neal's passing. But it's never hard to play with great players.
We had a memorial show at the Capitol Theater in September, which was a month after he had passed, and we played some songs with Eric Krasno. It was cool, so we ended up doing a little more with him. Then we did some shows with Scott Metzger. Both guys are really great players, and know what they're doing. They have their own vocabulary already. So all we had to do was adapt to somebody who's really great.
It was interesting to take a rhythm section and a keyboard player that had been playing for a while, and see how another great guitar player drops into the band and makes the other three people change. It's pretty amazing how different a band we were from Neal to Krasno to Metzger to Shannon. It's a terrible reason to do that, but the study itself was interesting.
"CATS already had a voice because Neal and I had been working on that voice with the CRB—two sets a night, five nights a week—so we had a complete language. That's what made CATS."
HL: Right, absolutely. That leads right into my next question. Over the years, you have incorporated everything from the Dead to funk and disco and even spacey ambient music into your sound, and the latest record has a strong prog Pink Floyd/Hawkwind vibe going on. What led you down that particular musical path?
AM: I don't think it was that much of a conscious decision. There's always a bit of Floyd in the music because I'm so obsessed with Richard Wright's synth and organ playing, even though we don't use much organ anymore. Third Sunrise Over Gliese 667 was definitely me being like, How close to the prize can I get without being burned by the Pink Floyd sun?
That was an experiment and I didn't know if the band was going to even want to do the song because it's not a four-on-the-floor banger. It's a completely different vibe. But they were cool with it. We definitely needed material, because we didn't have a lot, so we gave it a shot.
This record probably came out exactly the opposite of what we had discussed. I think the initial goal was to try and do something that was way more free and less screwed down into song structure. To be more open like the first record. That first record has no overdubs, no anything. Like I said, we didn't even listen to it. It was just us in a room and that’s it. We were thinking it might be fun to get back to that.
There's boogie in all of the music that you're talking about. Even Floyd boogies. They have their own weird boogie, but all prog music like that boogies. With all this music we love, I think it's important to remember that through the 60s, 70s and on into the 80s, there was this need to have a little bit of some sauce. Even if it was a ballad, even if it was a waltz, there's just a little stank on it. I think that's why we can be Floyd-y and Funkadelic-y and sort of Dead-like. There’s a bit of funk in everything.
HL: That mix of styles makes for a damn fine smoking experience. And that makes me curious about what music do you prefer to smoke to?
AM: It really changes all the time. I have a lot of records and they're not in any particular order, so oftentimes it'll just be what I pull out. They're all good. So if I just walk up to a wall of records and pull something out, it'll be that. Recently, though, as cliché as it is, I'm a big Miles Davis head. He's kind of my guy. I have a lot of his records, a couple of cubes of him. One of my favourite Miles Davis records—even though it's the one that everyone loves—is Kind of Blue.
Language's ethereal title-track featuring harpist Mikaela Davis.
HL: You can't go wrong there!
AM: I love the way it sounds. It was when modal music started to really come into play and these songs are so simple. They're just sketches. They're just little ideas, and it's really about how Miles and the band transform these tiny melodic phrases into epic modal pieces. It's super great to smoke to, because it has so much space in it. You can hear when the drums switch from brushes to sticks, and you can hear how he's picking up one stick with his right hand first and the brush is still in play in the left. You can hear all of that in the recording because there's so much space in there.
A big part of the smoking experience for me is the Miles catalogue—all the stuff from ‘68 to until he quit. Some Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way, On the Corner, into his early 70s stuff. Man, even when he came back with The Man With The Horn. He was having fun. Then he did that tour with the crazy guitar player, Mike Stern, and Marcus Miller and Al Foster. That record is sick!
Another record I love listening to while stoned is Hymns and Spheres by Keith Jarrett from the mid-70s. You can really hear all the space in it.
HL: I love that record. It’s like acoustic ambient music.
AM: He's playing on some of the oldest pipe organs in Europe and getting sounds out of them that no one's ever gotten out of a pipe organ, because he’s putting all the stops at halfway positions and making that instrument do sounds it has never done in 500 years.
What I love about that record is that you hear the room. That's the beautiful thing about pipe organs—it's not just the organ, most of the sound that’s cool is the room. It's the shape of it. So when he's doing his crazy sounds, he's using the actual physical space as an effects pedal. It's a big stoner record for me because you can really get lost in all the sonic textures.
Then, you know, Floyd's always a great one. If I want a dramatically stoned record, I go for Atom Heart Mother. The second side is really beautiful.
Do you really want to know what I do when I smoke a big joint? Do you know Jan Hammer? He was the first keyboard player for Mahavishnu Orchestra. He became really famous for the Miami Vice theme song in the 80s. He also played with Jeff Beck on that album, Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group Live. I love this dude. He's an insane synth player and a great pianist. He's insane. The record is called The First Seven Days and he plays everything—all the synths, all the keys, and he’s the drummer too. That is a really good weed record.
HL: What is your ideal setting for getting high?
AM: Well, I'm an Indica guy, I think. I was a Sativa guy early on. I've always smoked it ever since I was about 15. I was really, really pro-weed because I would see my older friends getting drunk and I was like, You guys are idiots! I don't want anything to do with alcohol. So I was just a pothead and felt that was the way to go. Then I got drunk one day and realized that it was also fun, and then spent way too much time doing that. I don't do that anymore, though. Weed—I guess it's like the Snoop Dogg thing. I like a blanket, a cozy, cozy space to view the world with a bit of humour in your own bubble.
A confessed "Indica guy" MacDougall says he's always smoked it ever since he was fifteen.
HL: So what's the perfect session for you?
AM: There are a couple of scenarios I really enjoy. It depends on the venue, but some clubs have really great backstages that are super vibey and they don't mind if you smoke weed. There's a venue called The Pour House, which is a little club in Charleston, and they have an old school bus as their backstage. It's super vibey. I like sitting on their little couches in the school bus and just smoking a giant joint before going on stage. That's a good place for me in everyday life.
Another great time is on a tour bus when everyone's gone to sleep and it's just you and the driver cruising at four in the morning right before the sun rises. There's not a lot of traffic. You put on your favourite music and sit in the front lounge with a big joint and watch the road. That's a nice one.
HL: That sounds like a cool vibe for sure.
AM: Yeah, you’ve got to have a tour bus for that. We don't have one of those right now. We're still in a van, so that fantasy is gone. I used to get to do that with The Crows and CRB, and other bands that had a little more budget. Once everyone has gone to their bunks, everything’s quiet and it's just you and the driver, and you smoke a joint ‘til you start to see the sun rising. Then you go to bed, and it's really peaceful.
Being in nature is great, too. California is beautiful. I take drives out to places in the mountains and bring a joint. You just park off the side of the road and scramble down some rocks and find a little place to sit and watch the sun go down. I watch the hawks fly around and stuff. It's pretty neat.
HL: Thanks for the chat. It’s been inspiring!
Circles Around the Sun's latest Album Language finds them oscillating through hybrid strains of disco-funk, soul jazz, and psychedelic rock, harnessing their stylistic lanes into a singular, intoxicating brew. Available for purchase here
More about Circles Around the Sun here
Follow Circles Around the Sun on Instagram at: @circlesaroundthesunofficial
See Circles Around the Sun live on tour.
6/29 - Quincy, CA - High Sierra Festival
7/1 - Scranton, PA - Peach Fest
7/28 - Charleston, SC - The Charleston Pour House
7/29 - Charleston, SC - The Charleston Pour House
7/30 - Charleston, SC - The Charleston Pour House
8/13 - Richmond, VA - JamPacked Craft Beer & Music Festival
8/18 - Wellston, MI - Hoxeyville Festival
Listen on Spotify
A 26 track collection of outer-spacial dance grooves that influenced the creation of the Language LP. All with a little stank on it! Check out the 'Language of the Sun" Mix on Spotify.
About the Author
Keith Hadad is the creator and author of the Record Crates United blog. His work has appeared in The Terrascopædia, Elmore Magazine, TheWaster.com, and a multitude of other web and print publications. He hosts RCU’s webradio show, The Record Crates United Mixtape, on EM-Radio.com every Wednesday evening. You can follow him on Instagram @Recordcratesunited, on Twitter @RecordcratesUTD and on Facebook at @RecordCratesUnited. He lives in New Jersey with his wife Sarah and dog Miles.