When Circles Around the Sun (CATS) founder Neal Casal passed away in 2019, it was clear his wish was for the band to keep at it, a big challenge for a band that was never meant to exist. When the dust settled after Casal’s death, bassist Dan Horne, keyboardist Adam MacDougall, and drummer Marc Levy followed their leader’s wishes, and kept the music going.
Casal formed CATS in 2015 as intermission music for the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well shows. Like most things Casal had a hand in, the final product came out better than expected; the “background” music was so well received, CATS hit the studio and the road, expanding on a genre of music they were creating at the same time.
After Casal died, the band chose Scott Metzger to take over the late guitarist’s spot. Metzger was a well-known and respected guitarist with plenty of range to cover Casal’s parts in the mix. The revamped quartet hit the road in late 2019 and early 2020. Then, Covid hit. With the world shut down in 2020 and the band not being able mesh schedules with Metzger, CATS 2.0 amicably came to an end before it really got started.
Faced with the same hole to fill, the band looked to John Lee Shannon to take over the guitar spot. Prior to his passing, Casal worked with Shannon, taking him under his wing while producing Zephaniah Ohora’s album “Listening to the Music.”
With Shannon on board, CATS hit the road in fall 2021, and to no one’s surprise, Casal’s confidence in Shannon was well-founded. The band instantly clicked, and the sound was stronger than ever.
Slideandbanjo.com spoke with Shannon and MacDougall about the latest version of CATS, and despite being interviewed weeks apart, the synergy between the two musicians is obvious. They tell the same tale of how things came to be.
Adam MacDougall: “We’ve got John. He’s in and going to give this thing a run. John was one of Neal’s favorite new guitar players. Neal was producing Zeph Ohora’s record, and John played guitar on that session. Neal kept talking about him. John opened for CATS (with Ohora) as an acoustic duo, so he had been on the road with us.”
John Lee Shannon: “Neal came into picture with Zeph’s album. That’s when our relationship began. We became fast friends and spent a lot of time chatting. We just became buds. When Zeph and I did a handful of shows opening for CATS, I met the other guys in the band. We hung quite a bit because we were on the same bus and everything. We kept in touch after the tour. We have so many of the same people in common. It’s like we’re in the same atmosphere.
“At the end of July ‘21, I got the call from Adam. We had been wanting to work on something together. He said, ‘we’ve got these gigs. Do you want to play with us?’ It was pretty loose. We got together and played for a couple of days before. We did a Livestream and show at The Bowery in New York. Then we went out west and did a two week tour. The rest is history.”
MacDougall: “Every time we change guitar players, it changes the band. It changes the way I play. Neal and I talked the same language for nine years. It’s been interesting to play with three different people. We were starting to get to know Scott and develop our special code. It takes a while to get that, and John had it on the fall run.”
Shannon: “It’s been super comfortable. It’s great. It made sense after we spent a couple of weeks together. We realized the personal factor and ability to hang with someone is as important as the musical compatibility. You’re gonna be on the bus with these people for days and weeks. We’ve had a great time. Both tours have been the same. When we got to the last show of the tour, everybody was bummed. I really felt like part of the band and at home during the November run.”
MacDougall: “I’m really looking forward to getting John out to LA to begin working on the new CATS album. His harmonic stuff is great. His playing is great. We have the same taste so I’m excited to see what the next record will be. I’d like to see it spacy with more of a dance thing. I’ve been really obsessed with Pink Floyd lately. The keyboard player I wanted to be was Rick Wright from Floyd. He and Bernie Worrell are my perfect combo. Floyd’s mid 70s stuff would have lots of themes which stayed consistent throughout the record. It tied the album together. It’s not a lot of information. It’s how it’s spread out. It’s luxurious on the record. Lots of moments of peace. It’s a cool way to see music.”
Shannon: “The process of getting adjusted to the music has been great and is still ongoing. It’s fun because it’s a broad stroke. It’s not very intricate. It’s open and meant to be long form. No peaks too high. No lows too low. The most interesting thing to get used to is learning how to play, and not what to play. Working as a sideman, I’ve learned other people’s music. You can build that muscle. When it came to learning this material, it was basically the same process. Learning, transcribing, and repeating.”
MacDougall: “The first record we wrote on the spot in the studio. The second record came from soundcheck jams while we were on tour. Those albums were pieced together at the last minute. The next one probably will be, too. We’re performing at Panic in the Playa in late January 2022. It would be great to have the new album sewn up by then.”
Shannon: “We’re ready to start writing and see what happens. We’re ready to continue the evolution of what the band did on its last record. You know, including the drum machines. We definitely don’t have a blueprint yet. We’re getting it together. Working on ideas that will materialize as we go.”
MacDougall: “John has really been getting into his sound and character. You’ve got to be a character in this band. You’ve got to invent somebody. People do that all the time in real life. For CATS, sometimes it’s cartoonish. So, you need to be a character and do some weird stuff. Especially on a bigger scale. It’s only four people so when it’s time to do your thing, you have to find a concept and go with it.”
Shannon: “Filling a role that’s already existed is an interesting thing, in terms of my judgment and deciding how to handle that musically and professionally. It’s important to have the different colors and textures. It’s part of the DNA of the music. Neal talked to me about this. He thought the guitar and keys should be one big thing. He had the philosophy of being able to listen to all four of the instruments and members. Finding the proper sound effects made a lot of sense after that. To have so many colors on your palate to create more vibes is the way to go.”
MacDougall: “The Covid break was a bummer for the band. Personally, I needed a break after being on the road since I was 19. The break was good for me. The music feels the same way it did before the pandemic. We did a run (with Metzger) into March of 2020 and it was great. Everyone was excited. I’m just as excited after this last run with John. We’re planning a big run in the spring. Now that we have John and an open schedule, it frees us up. 2022 will have more touring than we’ve ever done. We’re trying to get out there and hit it hard for five or six weeks straight.”
Shannon: “Everything happens for a reason. I’m sure there’s a specific reason why I got to know Neal and got to know the rest of the guys. This has been exciting and unexpected. Especially after a year and a half of nothing going on musically. It’s been fun. It’s an opportunity I’ve been seeking for a while. It’s awesome. No complaints.”