Photo by Stuart Levine
Neal Casal is the lead guitarist for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. During his downtime he also plays lead guitar with his side project, Hard Working Americans. We recently caught up with Neal and here’s what he had to say about music, photography and being asked to sit in with the Tedeschi Trucks Band.
You were born in New Jersey. What brought you to the West Coast?
I was born in New Jersey, but our family moved around quite a bit when I was a kid. I lived near San Diego, California in 1976 and 1977, and got a taste of the California lifestyle. This was about the time that skateboarding was booming and the mid-70’s rock music culture was in full swing, and the California vibe just got under my skin. Then we moved to Georgia and eventually back to New Jersey. The California thing really stayed with me and I knew that I would get back here one day. I’m proud of my East Coast roots, but musically, artistically and emotionally, I’m better suited for the West Coast.
The music you listen to as a kid, that certain song you heard on the radio, the ones from the West Coast or from England, those are the songs that really grabbed me. I love New York music, but I never really gravitated towards the New York music scene. My ultimate dream was the West Coast, the mythical land – the Westward journey, so to speak. I started coming to Los Angeles in my early 20’s, when I was developing record deals and writing my first solo songs. I’ve been here for a while now and it’s every bit as good as I hoped it would be, especially the last 5 to 6 years, which have been the best of my life.
You’ve associated yourself with high-caliber musicians throughout your career. How did you get involved with Ryan Adams?
Jim Scott produced my first solo record around 20 years ago. Then a couple of years later Jim produced the first Whiskeytown record. So Ryan became aware of me through working with Jim and having heard that record. I actually met Ryan at a SXSW in 1997, when Whiskeytown was starting to get some attention. We would run into each other over the years, and we jammed informally once. During that session there was some recognition that we could probably make good music together. So a few years go by, I was living in New York, and ran into him on the street and he said, “Hey, I’ve been looking for you… do you want to join my band?” and I said “Yes!” on the spot and off we went. There’s no way you turn down an offer from a talent that’s that good.
Did joining the Cardinals change the way you played?
Playing with the Cardinals deepened the way I played and brought more depth to my game. Without trying, Ryan pushed me really hard by the sheer force of his talent. When you’re around someone that talented, they raise you up, and being around Ryan for those years was incredible. The guy wrote great songs in front of me. We made all those records and had a really intense work ethic. And we were not a lazy band; we worked our asses off – in the studio constantly, always recording and on tour a lot. The Cardinals were a great live band and I definitely walked out of there a much better musician that I was going in… no question about it.
So, let’s transition to where you are now. How did you meet Chris Robinson? Were you a Black Crowes fan?
Yeah, I’ve been a Black Crowes fan from the very beginning. My friend Gary worked for a record company and had received a promo copy of Shake Your Money Maker. He called me and said “Man, have I got a record for you… you are going to love this band.” He played me that first Black Crowes record and I completely flipped out. You could really tell where the instruments were coming from. At the time there were some bands that were trying to do that, but not successfully. All of them fell short somewhere; The Black Crowes were a band that fell short nowhere. They had the riffs, they had the tunes and they had the swagger… they had it all together and they had great songs as well. I was obsessed with that record.
I first saw the Crowes open for Junkyard in Atlanta at The Center Stage in 1990. I was blown-away and was an instant convert. It’s funny, over 20 years later I end-up playing at The Center Stage with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, so it came full circle. I was a huge fan and saw them many many times. Then Southern Harmony came out and it was completely mind blowing because they came really far in a short time. They got so serious and were going for it so hard; it was an inspiring band and record. Within a year they had transformed into one of the best bands in the world. Although we had a mutual friend in NY, I didn’t know the Crowes during those years. I got to know Chris in 2001 while the band I was playing in (Beachwood Sparks) opened for The Black Crowes American tour [for the Lions album]. We starting hanging out and realized we had mutual friends and mutual interests in music, books and art, and we became friends. When I moved back to California, we started running into each other a lot – the same scene, and same musician friends and… there he is again. Now I’d known this guy for over 10 years, and when he had the idea to do the CRB, he called me up and asked “Do you want to join”? The answer was an immediate “Yes!”
So being a Black Crowes fan and knowing Chris, it seems like a natural fit.
Yeah, it was a natural fit. Chris and Adam had an idea of how the band should sound: the expansive instrumental sections—not just playing a straight songwriter trip. Those guys had been talking about it for a while before they called me, and I was down for the concept instantly. I was really happy to know Chris didn’t want to make a band that sounded like The Black Crowes. That would have been less appealing to me, because that’s just not my thing. I can play hard rock and roll, but I’m more suited to other things. So when Chris told me he wanted this to be more of a cosmic sounding band, that really appealed to me. The idea to do a California residency and start the band touring was also very appealing and such a smart idea. I think you’ll remember that the first two months were California-only shows. We would play a different city every two weeks: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and all these places in between. That’s where we developed our fan base and our sound. We put the whole thing together by staying close to home and making it a California home grown thing—great idea. I was immediately on board and I’m still here.
How does the songwriting process work with Chris? Do you start with his lyrics or chord changes, or do you go with the melody first?
Sometimes Chris comes in with a finished song, which is cool, but the collaborative part of our process is when Chris starts the song—he usually has the main riffs and some verses, or maybe a chorus. It all depends. Sometime he’ll have developmental ideas for a song, or other times its three-quarters complete. Chris brings them at various levels of completion and we’ll get together and knock some ideas around and see what sticks. If we’re on the road we’ll make a demo on my phone or computer, and just kick it around until it feels right.
Is it mainly you and Chris, or do you bring in Adam, Muddy or Tony to collaborate on writing?
Tony is new to the band so we really haven’t explored that but it’s mainly been Chris and me so far, and Adam adds parts as well. The riffs, lyrics and titles all come from Chris. I help with the bridges, melodies, chords and arrangements, and the rest of the band helps pull it all together.
”Roane County Banjo” is a new song that’s coming out this year. What’s the back story on that song?
It’s close to completion and we hope to break it out live during this tour. It’s really exciting to have another one of our songs see the light of day. Last year we didn’t play any brand-new songs that we were working on, just songs from the new record. This year, people will hear the songs that are in progress being played at our live shows. These songs will grow up in front of people, like all of our songs did. There’s only one way to flesh them out, which is by playing them live. This can be awkward at times, but well worth it. I think it’s a healthy process to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and people hear them go through different arrangement and developmental changes. It’s somewhat interactive and involves the audience in a deeper way, rather than writing your songs and not playing them until you record them. We’ll play it if it’s half finished, we just have to work it out. There will be a lot of that this year.