Circles Around the Sun’s (CATS) fourth album “Language” officially completes the changing of the guard on guitar for the band. John Lee Shannon has cemented himself as the replacement for CATS founder Neal Casal giving the band a consistent sound and direction after eight years of chaos and uncertainty that would have sunk any project, musical or otherwise.
Shannon sparkles as he continues the cosmic disco groove the band created in their 2020 self-titled release. CATS initially turned to jam band heavyweights Eric Krasno and then Scott Metzger to fill in for Casal after his passing in 2019. Both musicians left their unique stamp on the band’s sound in their brief time and kept CATS moving forward. With two seemingly ideal replacements for Casal, scheduling and an unprecedented global pandemic created two immovable roadblocks that would end both musicians’ journey before they had a chance to get started.
Those are just two roadblocks that have caused CATS to stop and start multiple times since their formation in 2015. Ironically, after all the roadblocks, wrong turns, or dead ends, Shannon was Casal’s choice to replace him from the start. According to keyboardist Adam MacDougall, Casal let it be known he wanted Shannon as his replacement in a note he left for the band before his passing.
In Part 2 of Slide&Banjo’s in depth interview with MacDougall, he reflects on the early days of CATS with Casal and how they were able to trampoline into the middle of the jam band universe. “It’s amazing considering we didn’t tour much for most of our career. Neal and I were in Chris Robinson Brotherhood and that band stayed on the road a lot. We didn’t have time to tour with CATS. We were super lucky that hundreds of thousands of people were listening to the Fare Thee Well shows. We had a huge leg up and the band couldn’t have existed without that. We could tour nationally without having to make a name for ourselves. We could get a couple of hundred people into a club in the middle of the country without any real legwork. We had been a band for two years before we played ten shows. It wasn’t until right before Neal passed, we started taking it seriously.”
MacDougall continues, “The beginning was literally a bunch of guys who had never played together in a room trying to find a couple of chord changes we can bop around on for the next 15 minutes. We never did that again. The second record was more composed. We had a lot of ideas from touring after the first record. We were coming up with lots of stuff from soundchecks. A lot of the jams from the first record were turning into things. We were like this jam section is totally new. It’s not on the first record. We can make a new song out of this. That’s how the second record happened.”
As the band buckled down and hit the road, their future was literally traveling in the same van. “That’s how we met John.” MacDougall remembers. “That’s why it took me a while to see how he can do what he’s doing in CATS. John and (current Grateful Shred guitarist) Zeph Ohora came on tour with us. I had only known John playing acoustic. They opened for CATS. After every show he would sit there and play this nylon string guitar for hours. Neal would sit there and drool on that shit he couldn’t do.”
With two albums and several tours of their trippy take on the Grateful Dead, CATS met up with drummer Joe Russo in the studio. The resulting 2019 EP “Circles Around the Sun Meets Joe Russo” (Royal Potato Family) was a dramatic departure from the extended spacy jams the band had been creating. Instead, the improvised studio session created a tight, super fast paced sound the band had never approached before. It was an eye opener. CATS was way more than a one trick pony only capable of trippy “Interludes for the Dead.”
MacDougall points directly at Russo for getting the most out of everyone during those sessions. “That was all Russo. We were trying to get it going in the studio. Nothing was happening and it was lame. We were listening to stuff in the control room. Russo gets up and goes “C’mon guys, fuck this shit.” He riled us up. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.” And that’s when it happened. He got frustrated with us being, is this cool or is that cool. He was like, “Fuck you guys, let’s go play.” He was so aggressive about playing, we all fell right in. He literally yelled at us and all the stuff we used on the record happened after that.”
Casal passed in August 2019 at the same time this EP was released. Unfortunately causing one of CATS best musical efforts to go unnoticed as the music world mourned the loss of one of its most well respected ambassadors.
If not for a note Casal left for the band expressing his desire for CATS to continue, things would have shut down right here. The band that was never meant to be a band had a good run. They created their own genre of music. Rode its wave for a bit. Now they could go back to their pre-CATS musical ventures. But Neal’s instructions were clear, and MacDougall, Dan Horne, and Mark Levy were set on finding a replacement and fulfilling one of Casal’s last wishes.
The trio first turned to Eric Krasno to cover the tour dates they had on the books. As the calendar moved into 2020, Scott Metzger took over on guitar. CATS third life set out on a winter tour filled with great music and a great atmosphere each night. With Metzger on board, the founding members were sure they had found Casal’s replacement. They could fulfill his wish and keep CATS rolling.
Just when life looked like easy street for the revamped band, Covid stepped in, and the world along with CATS latest version shut down. It wasn’t lost on MacDougall at that time how the band’s sound was constantly changing as frequently as the lineup. “The band is completely different depending on who the guitar player is. As tragic as the Neal departure is, it’s an interesting experiment to see what happens to three players of a four-piece band when you keep interchanging the fourth member. We were a completely different band when we played with Eric Krasno. We did a couple of tours with him. Then we got Metzger, and it was a completely different band with Metzger than we were with Neal or Kras. The Metzger thing was cool. It was New Yorkey and hip and out there. It was way more intelligent. It felt like we were in a snazzy sports car with Metzger. It was super fun to play with him.”
While the world lived in social distance mode, the Scott Metzger version of the band hit the studio in New York. The first time without their founder and leader Casal. MacDougall recalls these sessions that created enough material for an album but has never seen the light of day. “We had Metzger in for a New York session. He’s hot at New York sessions. It was great stuff. We had a day in the studio. Scott was like, “Cool. I’ll do all my overdubs.” He’d do one and was like “Next song, let’s go. Next song.” I was like, I just want to roll a joint and take a break. He was “No, next. Let’s go.” It was really cool. We had started a record with him. A bunch of ideas we came up with him. We got together for a couple of days and just played. We came up with riffs and motifs. Then we got together again later in the same place and recorded some basics. It was way looser obviously than what we just released. The band at that point was looking to do something more like the first record which was literally jamming in the room. Then going back and doing some overdubs. Sadly, the scheduling thing didn’t work out. JRAD took up too much of Scott’s time. When Scott left, we had to ditch things. We were trying to do something more open and rawer with Scott. So somewhere out there are some cool recordings.”
With Metzger no longer available, CATS turned to Shannon, the same guy who amazed Casal in the tour van years earlier to take the helm at guitar. The results instantly justified Casal’s faith in his protégé. The band’s cosmic disco sound is Shannon’s sweet spot. This was obvious when CATS fourth life toured to support 2020’s “Circles Around the Sun.” Shannon cannonballed into the CATS pool meshing perfectly with the band and the disco sound they were focused on.
MacDougall says Shannon’s passion has opened his own ears and created several musical roads he wants to explore. “John has a huge fascination with disco. I only scratch the surface on it. He gets deep in that shit. I’ve been getting more obsessed with percussion. We played all our own percussion on the record. I’d love to add a percussionist to the band.” He adds, “With Metzger, that version of CATS may appeal to people who like Bill Frissell. That’s gone. We’re embracing that disco sound and I’m really into that. I’m coming back to the stuff I did when I was a kid in high school. I wanted to be in a band like Funkadelic. I wanted to make people dance all night and have fun doing it. So, I’m back to it after a 30-year run of trying all kinds of other things. Just trying to get people in a club to dance.”
As the latest version of CATS ventures into a world without Casal’s musical contributions, his presence in the band is everlasting. “Neal is always on my mind.” MacDougall reflects. “We’re still using his gear. We have his pedals and amps. It’s there. John and Neal were real buddies. He really looked up to John immensely. He was producing records John was playing on and his greatness was tripping him out.”
MacDougall has a clear vision for the future. “My dream with CATS, is the same I had with Neal. I really thought it would happen and hope it still does. We opened for Greensky Bluegrass in 2017 or ‘18. We got to play the Beacon in New York. I’m from New York and went to high school there. The Beacon is one of my spots. It’s beautiful and sounds good. This was a time when CATS had a bunch of wind under our sails. It was about a year before Neal passed. I was sitting there thinking we should be headlining this place, not opening. I think we were in a place where that could happen in a couple of years. Then everything crumbled. It would be a dream to headline that place.”
He concludes, “The rhythm stuff John brings in is a big move for me. I like the same stuff. Focusing on the rhythm not the leads. It’s hard to do that with a band with no vocals. We’d love to see more people come out. In a perfect world, it would be like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” A place where people feel comfortable wearing weird shit. Doing whatever the fuck they want. It’s a dance. Take whatever you want to take. Wear whatever you want to wear. Hang out with who you want to hang out with and boogie. There are no heavy themes. Nothing political. Get sparkly. Have a good time. No shame. No guilt. That’s us.”