Q&A With Americana/Alt-Country Zelig Neal Casal



EDITOR’S NOTE: Upon hearing the sad news that Neal Casal has passed away at the too-soon age of 50, we are re-posting our 2012 interview with him. DISCUSSED: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Owen Wilson, Sweeten The Distance, Chris Robinson, Beachwood Sparks, Fade Away Diamond Time, talking music and art and life with Keith Richards around a table for six hours, and getting stoned with Willie Nelson.

BY TONY ABRAHAM Neal Casal is a renaissance man. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve heard him – believe me. Since the release of his solo debut Fade Away Diamond Time in 1994, Casal has been everywhere. Seriously, his resume reads like the A-list of alt country. From playing in Ryan Adams & the Cardinals to working on Willie Nelson’s 2007 record Songbird, Casal has been on a gradual rise to low-orbit stardom. As if music wasn’t enough, Neal is also a remarkable photographer – you know the cover of Ryan Adam’s Easy Tiger, where our boy is hunched over a dressing room bench apres-gig, all black leather and sweaty bangs, pensively smoking? Yeah, Neal shot that. Even Hollywood recognizes his talents – he voice coached Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn through Starsky & Hutch and contributed to the soundtrack. More recently, he served as a guitar instructor and even cameo’d in last year’s Country Strong, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow.

For his 10th and most recent release, Sweeten the Distance, Neal teamed up with legendary Americana producer Thom Monahan and with a little help from some very talented friends, created a brilliant record that serves as a culmination of Casal’s 20 years of hard-won growth as a singer, songwriter, and musician. Jon Graboff, who worked with Neal during the reign of the Cardinals, contributes his masterful pedal steel and guitar work. Drummer Dan Fadel and bassist Jeff Hill, hailing from Hazy Malaze (among others), one of Neal’s old bands, make up the backbone that supports the record. John Ginty, an original member of Robert Randolph and the Family Band, contributes his organ skills, while Amanda Shires, an accomplished solo musician herself, plays strings and lends Neal a hand on vocal harmonies. In advance of his performance tomorrow night at the Tin Angel, Phawker got the chance to talk with Neal about his past work and his new record, about the time he hung out with his idol Keith Richards, and even about how he and Willie Nelson ran the train on some Mary Jane.

PHAWKER: There was a documentary made right around the time Anytime Tomorrow came out about your influences.

NEAL CASAL: Oh God, that was a long time ago.

PHAWKER: Could you tell me a little bit about those influences? Who they are, what made them great to you, maybe what you learned from them?

NEAL CASAL: The first big influence and will always remain the most important influence for me because it started everything was the Rolling Stones. I got into them when I was really young, I got obsessed with them and their records and the entire culture that surrounded their band and the scenes they were into. I got so into them that I read and collected books on the Stones and read every single word I could find that they had said. I obsessively read about their influences which was a really big deal for me – not only were they a great band themselves but they were great teachers because of all the great music they were into. Of course these guys had really great taste so all of that is what affected me. I would read about the blues records they were into, the R&B records, the soul records, the Jamaican music scene they were a part of and the country music and people they hung around with – how all those different forms of music crossed into each other and that’s what started it all for me. So through the Rolling Stones, I went straight back to country blues from the late 20s and 30s that I would never have gotten into if I was into whatever other bands were around. The Stones were great educators for me because they gave me an amazing education in a lot of forms of American music – jazz, blues, R&B, folk, country, Jamaican and Carribean music, and a lot of English folk music too – I took the things I learned from them and expanded outward from them. Of course I’m into a million other things but that’s where I started.

PHAWKER: Have you ever met any of them?

NEAL CASAL: I got to hang out with Keith Richards one day, I spent an afternoon talking to him. It was cool because it wasn’t at a Stones show or recording session, it was completely off hours. It’s a long story but I ended up sitting around a table with Keith and one other person for five or six hours talking about music and art and literature and books and all the things that interest me. It was a pretty amazing thing to have happened.

PHAWKER: It’s a frightening thought hanging out with an idol or muse. Were you nervous before? Was this an impromptu meeting or was it planned out?

NEAL CASAL: I had a few hours wondering what was gonna happen – yes I was nervous but I did my best to settle into it all and after a very short time, Keith was so welcoming it put me at ease and it ended up being a great time. I understand it can be really disappointing when you meet one of your heroes and they weren’t what you thought they were but in Keith’s case, I think he’s a really transparent person. What you see from him publicly is what he’s really like privately, too. Keith was no disappointment to me, I actually came out of there liking him more.

PHAWKER: I don’t know how sensitive a subject this may be but what happened to Ryan Adams & the Cardinals? Why did the plug get pulled?

NEAL CASAL: You’d have to ask Ryan about that. For me to talk about that – everyone has their own version of that, I’ll just say it was Ryan’s decision. It wasn’t mine and it wasn’t the rest of the band’s either.

PHAWKER: You guys still presumably keep in touch?

NEAL CASAL: Yeah, we do. I play on a few songs on his new record Ashes and Fire actually. Ryan doesn’t live too far from me and I’ve seen him since. I saw him quite a few times when we were making our Chris Robinson Brotherhood record because were were both working in the same studio.

PHAWKER: I wanted to ask you about your photography. It’s really striking. Who inspired your thinking about taking pictures?

NEAL CASAL: My big photographic influences started with Robert Frank. The Americans of course was an influence on me just like it was so many other people. A guy named Garry Winogrand was really a huge influence for me. There’s a book of his called The Man in the Crowd, it’s a book of his street photography. And as far as music goes, Jim Marshall, just really the greatest music photographer ever. Those are three really big ones. I just started taking photos to make life on tour more liveable and it’s a great way to make more art, make more stuff. Kind of increase and expand my artistic life. Music and photography go so well together that once I got started I got obsessed and couldn’t stop.

PHAWKER: So as of last spring you’re a member of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, right?

NEAL CASAL: Yeah that’s right, we’ve been a band – actually yesterday was our first anniversary of our first gig.

PHAWKER: I’ve heard it paralleled to a kind of Allman Brothers for the 21st century, do you think that’s kind of true?

NEAL CASAL: I don’t really, I don’t think I agree with that. There are a few similarities I suppose just because of our roots, but no, I only see a few of those stylistic similarities. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate, I think it would pigeonhole us way too much. We have different things going on than the Allman Brothers. But playing with the Brotherhood is amazing, it’s brought really great things out of me that I didn’t know existed before. Chris has pushed me to play more guitar than I ever have, really stretched my limits there which has been a great thing to find out. We play really long shows, three hour shows that are really demanding. We play a lot of music all night long. That in itself is amazing, you have to make a real commitment to play in this band, you have to be ready to play long shows and really go deep with your music. That’s a great thing I’m grateful to Chris for. I get to write songs with him which is amazing, sing harmonies – there’s a full commitment in this band. We don’t play a 50 minute set, do an encore and then the night is over – we dig in deep for two long sets of music. When you come to one of our shows you have to be ready for that and want that. Just being able to play with a singer as great as Chris is such a joy every night, the guy is truly one of the best singers in our field of music in the last 20 years without question, I feel very fortunate that I get to be around that.

PHAWKER: You were a voice coach for Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in Starsky & Hutch – I get this visual of you with a whistle making Owen and Vince drop down and give you 50.

NEAL CASAL: It didn’t work exactly like that. It was a lot looser environment I’ll tell you that. What was cool about that was to witness really excellent actors at work and people who are really great at what they do. I got to see Vince Vaughn doing some voiceover stuff in the studio and he was required to do some improvising. I got to watch him do multiple takes of something he had to improvise and he would make up a different story each time he did it, it was all relating to the same scene but everything he came up with each take was different and he had to think of those things on the spot as he was doing them. I was so impressed with his ability to do that and how funny each one of those things were even though they were so different. That was really impressive to see these people at the top of their game working at that level.

PHAWKER: In 2007 you played on Willie Nelson’s Songbird – did you inhale?

NEAL CASAL: Yes, I inhaled fully and freely and generously. And you can print that.

PHAWKER: What was it like working with Willie?

NEAL CASAL: It was amazing to work with Willie. First of all, you know, you’re working with one of the great singers in American music history, really. To be in close range to that kind of voice, the way he phrases songs, the laid back style and patience he has in approaching music was a really big learning experience for me. His guitar playing is really something to behold because it’s totally erratic and on the verge of collapse at all times. Somehow it remains held together by this really thin invisible piece of universal tape, you know? His guitar work is like art in itself. It’s very hard to follow along with and I had to play with him so I had to watch him and listen to him really carefully to stick with him but I managed to do it and that was a big learning experience there, to be a part of the abstract way he plays guitar. One of my fond memories of that session was cutting the song for the title track “Songbird” – Willie didn’t know the song, it was Ryan’s idea to cut it. Ryan asked me to sit at the piano with Willie and teach him the song. So for about an hour I sat next to Willie Nelson at the piano and taught him how to play a song. He kept stopping and he’d ask me, “How do you phrase that line again?” and I’d show him how to sing it. To have a moment like that was a really beautiful memorable thing that as time goes by, I mean none of us are gonna last forever but Willie’s gonna be gone before you and me are, but when that day comes, a memory like that, an experience like that becomes even more profound.

PHAWKER: You and Thom Monahan, who produced Sweeten the Distance – it seems like a match made in heaven. How did you guys end up hooking up?

NEAL CASAL: I used to play in this band called Beachwood Sparks [pictured, below right], a really brilliant band from California who had made a few very great records. Thom produced one of their records so I got to know him through the Beachwood Sparks connection. We also have a few other mutual friends, we’ve known each other for a few years and talked about doing things a lot but never really got to it until now, and as it turns out we just have so many mutual people out here in California. We’re part of the same scene, you know? Working with Thom was an incredible experience, I can’t say enough good things about him. Just a massively talented guy. Brilliant producer and engineer, great ears and aesthetics. He’s so deeply committed to music and the records he makes that it’s just inspiring, really.

PHAWKER: This is your tenth release since ’95. How do you feel looking back on that first record and then seeing Sweeten the Distance after recording it and hearing the progress?

NEAL CASAL: Luckily I feel like I am making progress and that my best days are ahead of me and not behind me. Some people peak really early in their lives and their constantly trying to chase what they’ve done previously or trying to top what they’ve done previously. For me, I’ve been on a slow curve of evolution and improvement over the years. I feel like my new record for the most part is better and it really does show a lot of improvement. I love my first records, there was a certain freshness and energy about the first record that was really unique and I get nostalgic for it sometimes but it’s something I can never recapture. It’s like your first love, it only happens once. But I’d much rather be where I am now. I certainly wouldn’t want to relive any old days or go back to anything I was doing then. I know I’m a better player, a better singer, a better songwriter now – my ideas and concepts have evolved so much so I think I’m in a much better place now.

PHAWKER: The songwriting has definitely matured.

NEAL CASAL: Oh yeah, there’s no question. And the singing, too is a really big thing. My singing is so much better now. My voice did well by having a little bit of life experience behind it. Some people’s voices just get wrecked and shattered as they get older but I think mine as of this moment has settled into a really nice place where I still have some of the range and sweetness of my younger voice but there’s more maturity in it now. A bit more of a lived-in quality and a confidence you can just get by getting older. I think right now things are looking pretty good.


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