Circles Around The Sun: Mark Levy, Dan Horne and Adam MacDougall (l-r)

From mid-July to mid-August, the orbit surrounding Circles Around the Sun experienced more than its share of turbulence.  First, there was a COVID outbreak on the Grateful Shred tour, during which CATS members Dan Horne (bass) and Adam MacDougall (keyboards) then moonlighting with Shred, were forced into quarantine.  Next, a positive test closer to home precipitated a cancellation of two August CATS shows in New York.  This latest setback comes during a summer that saw CATS’ new guitarist, Scott Metzger, (a charter member of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead) announce his unanticipated departure, after joining as the quartet’s permanent replacement filling the void initially left by the tragic passing in August of 2019 of founding guitarist, Neal Casal. 

Yet, CATS regrouped, revolving once again, and prepping their newest guitarist, John Lee Shannon, for a short trip to NYC, including a stop at Relix Studios, and a September slate of shows out West.  And, in November, Casal will be immortalized with the release of a multi-disc set- Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal– performed in tribute by dozens of peers and bandmates.  It’s been a “rough” month in the CATS universe, Horne admits, as he took a few moments to offer some daylight.  “There are no real big secrets going on.  That’s the main thing: that there aren’t any.”

Last week CATS canceled two shows in New York: Bowery Ballroom and the Catskill Chill Festival.  What happened?

Basically what happened was, my wife tested positive (for COVID).  And so, I had to take care of the kids.  We have two kids, and they didn’t test positive, so I took them and she stayed home.  We stayed apart for 10 days.  She’s fine.  She didn’t get sick or anything.  But, you get a positive test, you quarantine.  We were careful that the kids didn’t get sick.  They’re six and nine, so they can’t get the vaccine.

And in mid-July, Grateful Shred, with whom you were performing at the time, was at the center of an outbreak incident in California.

Adam and I were both on that Shred tour.  It could’ve been fallout from that, but maybe not.  You don’t really know.  Adam and I had already done our quarantine from the Shred outbreak.  Right when I got home, my wife tested positive.  So it was like, here we go again.

Performing live right now has got to be a difficult choice for musician.

If you remember a couple of months ago, everyone thought that it was safe to be inside, no one had masks on, and we were doing shows.  People were going to the grocery store without masks.  It was like, hey, we’re back, you know?  Then, all of the sudden, we started hearing of breakthrough cases.  The Shred thing- something like eight out of ten of the touring group (tested positive).  It was kind of terrifying.  We thought vaccines were going to make it so that we wouldn’t test positive.  At least not everyone (testing positive).  Now, a couple of months later, nobody wants to stop playing music.  Nobody wants to stop going to shows.  We’re trying to figure out how to make that happen.

What can you say about the experience as a whole?

I learned a lot.  We all did.  Obviously it’s super contagious.  Luckily, because we had the vaccine nobody got really sick.  One of our members didn’t have the vaccine.  And there were rumors going around that he was the one that caused the whole outbreak.  You can’t make that assumption.  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  I think pointing fingers, saying someone’s recklessness caused the whole thing, I just don’t think that’s true.  It would be nice if this was all that simple; going around, pointing blame, and solving all our problems.  But that’s not the case.  There’s really no way to tell.  And that’s the most important thing I learned: that we shouldn’t point fingers and jump to conclusions.

Are you able to remain optimistic?

What’s promising is that masks seem to be working.  When people are wearing masks inside, we’re not seeing outbreaks.  Outdoor shows are great, but there are just not enough outdoor stages or venues.  We want to keep playing, and the new rules- vaccine cards, tests, and masks- are important.

The Shred outbreak made news all over the state of California, and, essentially, nationally online.  As someone who went through it, can you describe the follow-up?

It’s a little disappointing that there wasn’t more of that from the health department, the state, and the county.  It was kind of like, go home, stay by yourself.  They asked questions.  Everyone gets a call.  But I don’t know how far they go with it.  I think up in Santa Cruz they were more careful.  But, I don’t know what they can do.  There’s really no way to know.

Scale of 1-10, how comfortable do you feel with the prospect of musicians playing live and staying safe?

If you want a number, I’d give it a seven.  Personally, I’m confident that if we wear masks inside, and there’s minimal contact; we’re not going to sell merch, or let anyone backstage or on the tour bus.  We’ll wear masks all day when we set-up and talk to the crew.  We’ll try to stay safe.  And the audience should wear masks.  If that happens, I don’t see how it’s worse than going to the store.

How important is it for the live music industry to try to work through this latest wave rather than go back to dormancy?

Music is important.  For the last year-and-a-half, however long it has been, music feels like it’s gotten shoved under the rug.  It’s important to see and enjoy music, and for us to play.  It’s also our job.  We want to go back to work.  Hopefully masks and vaccines can keep it going.

Scott Metzger’s departure from the band seemed abrupt.  What happened there?

Scott was great.  He came in and fit really well.  We did a tour with him and he sounded great.  Right before the lockdown, we were cruising.  It sounded so good, and Scott was super gung-ho about making it work.  At that point, he was saying that JRAD didn’t want to play that many shows; they wanted to go for bigger shows and less (overall).  So Scott thought we could make this work.  He could do both bands.  He was ready to make it happen.  We had started working on a new record.  It was going really good.  Then, basically, when we saw that playing shows is risky…, honestly, I haven’t spoken to Scott about this.  So, I’m somewhat making an assumption and I don’t want to speak for him.  But it makes sense: he didn’t want to jeopardize [JRAD].  They’re important to a lot of people and have a lot of big shows coming up.  CATS was about to play indoors in New York, then some small shows in Los Angeles and up the coast.  I think he was super nervous about any sort of outbreak or quarantine that would prevent him from doing a JRAD show.

In a perfect world without COVID, I imagine you had it agreed upon that shows between the two bands wouldn’t conflict.

We were working the schedules–our managers and agents–so that we could do both things.  Scott was willing to fly a lot (to do both), and I think it just got to be too much.

It sounds like it was an amicable parting, but it also had to be deflating for you and CATS.

There was a lot of that.  Adam and I were sitting in our quarantine shacks, alone, talking on the phone; it was rough.  And it must have been hard on Scott, too, to be honest.  He was really into the band.  We had high hopes.  For us it was one day of total devastation- all the emotions that go with a break-up- and then, wait, what about John?  We called him and he was super excited.  So now we’re back to being super excited.

How far along was the album when Scott departed?

It was in its infancy.  It’s in a developmental phase, kind of up in the air, but we really want to do it.  We have a million new ideas and some cool new directions.

When you bring in a new musician to CATS, is there a stated mission of the group and its music that you make aware or is it left up to the player to create within the space?

There is a mission and we do talk about it, but I think part of the mission is exactly what you said: it needs to create a vessel for everyone to be themselves and do their own thing.  We have a formula in our music and our songs so that people are able to jump in and ride the wave pretty quickly.  Rather than telling anyone what to do, it’s about picking the person that can do the job.

What was it about John Lee Shannon that makes him the right pick?

A lot of it is his personality.  I think he’s super versatile, which is cool.  His musical taste fits in with us.  We still haven’t played any shows together, but it should work out great.

If live shows are ultimately the litmus test for a new member, isn’t that a bit of a catch-22; that you find out if someone is a good fit only when you are in front of an audience?

Yeah, I guess so, but we’ve never had any failures so that’s hard to say.  (Laughs.)  I think one important thing is that we never tried to replace Neal.  That was our goal from the start.  We didn’t want a Neal clone in any way.  Almost, like, less, you know?  We want people to do their thing.  We’ll make it work.  Even with Neal, we’d play the songs differently every time.  They’re meant to change and adapt.  We lucked into a formula that will work with a lot of different players.

How much satisfaction or anticipation do you have for Highway Butterfly and all of the incredible renditions from so many special guests, including Jimmy Herring and Billy Strings sitting in with CATS, that will be released in tribute this November?

The cool thing about the record is that it was therapy for all of us; for us to get together and deal with the loss.  The record, itself, and the making of the record was almost the point of the record; the journey of going through Neal’s music; to see everyone in the studio.  And now that it’s finished it’s going to be so cool that people get to hear it.  It was something that needed to be done.

I’ll ask delicately: The band had so much momentum in 2019- touring, finishing a new album- and then Neal passed so tragically and unexpectedly.  Beyond the responsibilities of the moment, was there thought to stopping CATS?

Definitely, right off the bat, in the first few days and weeks.  It was like, there’s no way (we can continue).  We’re definitely done.  It was pretty hard.  And I remember talking to Adam on the phone and saying, ‘Actually, I think we could keep playing.  And maybe we should.’  Hope comes back pretty quickly.

You have two performances approaching in New York City at the end of August; a Relix studio set and another shot at the Bowery.  Then in September you’ll do a few weeks in California and Colorado.  These are certainly CATS strongholds.  Do you notice a difference between East and West audiences?

That’s a good question.  They’re different for sure, but not that different.  New York audiences feel a little more experienced or something.  West Coast audiences feel like a new frontier-type of vibe.

Included in that West run are a few venues that I like to call CATS clubhouses; where it’s as much a meet-up for new and old fans as it is a concert.  Would you agree?

Definitely.  There are so many familiar faces, the Troubadour is like a family reunion.  Same with Terrapin.  That’s like the center of the universe right there for a lot of our world.  Two of our favorite places to play.

And then the Colorado dates, including a show at Red Rocks.

The Boulder Theatre is another cool, classic venue.  They love music out there.  And everybody wants to play Red Rocks, right?  We’ve been looking forward to it for so long.  And we love playing with Greensky Bluegrass.  They’re such cool guys.

So, on the other side of a lot of recent adversity, these are reasons to be cautiously excited.

I’m super excited.  There’s a lot of unknowns.  Uncertainty.  Tons of excitement and hope.  I think we can do it.  I think that it’s necessary.  People need music.  We’re ready to do what it takes to make it happen.  We’re going to be careful and safe, and I hope it’s going to be great.