Circles Around The Sun drummer Mark Levy talks Heartbreak, Honoring Neal, and Keeping the Circle Together.

Published on March 18, 2020

Circles Around the Sun is a band convened by guitarist Neal Casal, specifically to record set break music for the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary Fare Thee Well shows.

Casal was joined in the studio by keyboardist Adam MacDougall, a fellow member of Robinson’s Brotherhood and Phil Lesh and Friends. The balance of Circles Around The Sun consists of bassist Dan Horne (Beachwood Sparks, Jonathan Wilson, and Grateful Shred) and drummer Mark Levy (The Congress). All of the music was written collectively – with nothing prepared beforehand or added afterward. The resulting music captivated the audiences attending the Fare The Well concerts.

Grateful Music met up with Circles Around The Sun’s drummer Mark Levy prior to their March 6 show at the Ardmore Music Hall. The video from the show is embedded at the end of his interview.

We’ve all experienced heartbreak over the loss of our beloved Neal Casal to suicide. Today, as our world struggles with a difficult health crisis, and with the music industry being in lock down, musicians suffering from depression need to be identified and supported more than ever.

Please set some time aside to read what Mark has to say about the history and current state of Circles Around The Sun. He’s a good man who often wears his heart on his sleeve.

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GRATEFUL MUSIC: This is the fifth time you’ve played at The Ardmore Music Hall?

Mark Levy: I think it’s the fifth time. We had Wavy Gravy’s birthday back in the summer. That was the last time, last time CATS was here with Neal. Before that, two shows with CRB that I was filling in for Tony Leone. I’m pretty sure Circles has played here one other time. Four or five for sure.

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GRATEFUL MUSIC: When and how did Circles come to be?

Mark Levy: Well, I guess it depends on how you look at it, but Circles technically as a band came to be when our recordings from Fare Thee Well were released, standalone recordings. Because that’s when we actually were dubbed Circles Around The Sun. And then we actually used the tune titles and everything. Before that it was just an unnamed, unknown recording project that you could only have heard at Fare Thee Well.

So, I don’t really think that … When we were doing those initial recording sessions, the two days that we recorded all this stuff for Fare Thee Well, I don’t really think that we became Circles Around The Sun then. But maybe, I mean that’s where the music started.

But it wasn’t a band. I guess like I started saying, I think it depends on where you put the perspective of forming the band. I mean, I met Dan 12 hours before we started tracking on that first of the two days.

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GRATEFUL MUSIC: Who brought everyone together for those first recording sessions?

Mark Levy: Neal did. Neal got the call from Justin Kreutzmann, who came up with the idea and then cleared it with Peter Shapiro. Then it was sanctioned by Fare Thee Well. Then Neal got the call to do the commission. He first asked Adam, his band mate in CRB at the time. Adam suggested me as drummer. And Adam and Neal both knew Dan on bass. That’s how the band was convened for those two sessions.

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Really, that second day of the recording session, Neal made it very clear that everybody was to be equal and everybody was to share everything. And be on a even playing field. Because he saw how important that approach is for a band of our nature, the way that we make music. I think it’s important for everybody to feel they have an equal say in the matter, whether it’s musical or otherwise.

So, I think Neal was very wise, had some forethought. Obviously I’m a little biased … But Neal, he was certainly not being selfish when he made that decision. Because he could have easily just taken the sort of classic, “I’m the band leader, you guys are hired, you’re going to make a flat fee. I’m going to take all of the publishing royalties.” Or whatever. All of that stuff. The business gets, can get messy fast.

I think he just spent so long in his career dealing with that kind of stuff, being the sideman, that he just made a very intentional decision that that wasn’t going to be the case for this band. When he left, passed away this last summer, I think that … His decision then and the way that the band was up to that point, led a huge role in us being able to transition to where we are now and move forward without Neal. Even though he was our leader, really. Or, sorry, he was our front man. And I mean, nobody will ever be able to replace him. And we’ll always miss him every day.

We’ve had a very organic existence I’d say with this band. We’ve never really tried very hard to create opportunities, or be something, or cultivate a specific niche sound or anything like that. We could kind of just let the music and the opportunities organically kind of present themselves as … We call it soul move. You want to make the soul moves, to do things for the right reason. We tried to do that.

But the business gets messy fast. It is what it is. I mean, it’s been hard … It’s been terribly hard since Neal left. It wasn’t easy before Neal left either. You know? It’s being in a band, trying to make a living as a musician is not easy. But having said that, I think we’re all very grateful to be doing it.

I know I am. The other guys seem to really be on the same page. And it’s a labor of love. But having come through the experience losing Neal, it’s really interesting. I don’t know if we, if any of us have fully processed what it means.

I think we’re doing it every night, honestly. The music is incredibly cathartic and it’s beautiful to get to keep playing it. He’s with us all the time in spirit. And especially when we’re up there on stage playing the music. Hopefully it’s cathartic for the listener too.

I think Scott Metzger is doing an incredible job filling the space on guitar in this band. And regardless of Neal, and his musical legacy or even his playing in this band alone, I think Scott just really holds his own beautiful space, just am super grateful that he is with us.

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I mean, night nine here, night ten tomorrow, straight through. So, it’s amazing, it feels fresh every night, still. It’s not like we’re diving deep for inspiration. It seems to come really naturally with this group. Yeah, just really grateful that Scott is who he is, and came to us, and his own really special and cool path, and just his skill set on his guitar, and just as a spiritual being is really a beautiful fit.

I think we’re all very, very grateful that Scott’s with us and hope to play a lot more with him. That being said, Kraz is also amazing. We’ve done quite a few shows with him. We’re just trying to figure out how to be a band going forward. Still don’t know what that means, but we’re figuring it out for sure.

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GRATEFUL MUSIC: I was at the Capitol for Neal’s Celebration night, the memorial night. And it was an incredibly moving, cathartic, sad and beautiful evening. And you guys came out with Kraz, and it didn’t take long for you all to put a big musical hug around him. And he just took off. I was blown away by the performance of you guys that night. I don’t know what you felt as it was happening, but it was remarkable.

Mark Levy: I have an interesting relationship too with that room, I think we don’t need to get into that. But it’s always powerful playing on that stage. I think it boils down to what I was thinking there. But having it be the first time we performed in front of anybody without Neal, at this memorial for Neal, playing with Kraz … I guess that was the first time we performed with Kraz too.

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So, yeah, there was a lot. I mean, yeah, I don’t know. I think honestly the fact that this band is very much … The roots of it have always been you just go and you do what it is you’re going to do. Just be real about it. Give it a lot of good energy, put your all into it. That’s kind of the guiding principles.

And then don’t worry about everything else. I personally think it’s important, preparation is very important. Whether you look at it on a macro scale, I’ve been preparing my whole life for every performance that I do. Or whether it’s the day leading up to the performance. Or whether it’s the hour before or whatever. It’s like the four agreements. Always do your best. I think musically I’m always trying to do my best.

With this band, we’re just trying to approach it from a real place. It’s kind of warts and all. From the very first recording, from the Fare Thee Well stuff, the interludes for the Dead album, there’s zero edits, there’s zero overdubs. Whatever you hear on that recording is exactly what happened in the room at that moment. All four of us playing at the same time.

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Really, it’s in our DNA. And I think we’re fortunate to have a sort of a DNA that started the band. Because we didn’t have much of a say in how it was done because it was a process of necessity. We had a massive amount of music to pump out in two days. I mean, recording five hours of music in two days is absurd. It’s, like, totally insane.

Most people spend months and months on 45 minutes or 60 minutes of music, 80 minutes, whatever it is. But it’s also, again, a totally different animal. The nature of that music, and the recording, and the project, and the band and everything … It’s important to be there in the moment, be honest, be present, be open to whatever’s happening with the other guys on stage.

And honestly the energy in the room, for better or worse. I mean, sometimes it’s throwing a ball against a brick wall and it bounces back and gives you a ton of energy. Sometimes it’s like you throw a ball into a wall of molasses or something. But that’s also a beautiful thing to jump into. And you’ve just got to, again, be there with that energy and it just kind of is its own journey.

And that’s, I think, definitely a fundamental thing that we are always aiming for in this band. We’re going on a musical excursion. Little mini journeys in each tune.

And sometimes we’ll string the tunes together and it’ll be like 45 minutes of sonic journey. And with no lyrics, and there’s lot a space to be there and just let things be very honest and open.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Is there a story or a theme you try to tell? It’s like, okay, here’s the basic chord structures we’re opening with.
Then we’re going into an exploration.

Mark Levy: It depends on the tune. I mean, there’s definitely … You’ll see tonight where we’ll weave things together. I think, yeah, we try to tell a little bit of a story. It’s more of a sectional thing or phrase by phrase thing. So, we’ll be aiming for sort of this blast off where we’re starting at a normal kind of tempo and then it’s slowly getting faster, and faster and faster. Then it just kind of eventually breaks through the atmosphere and you’re in zero gravity, kind of floating there in space.

We do that. It’s kind of a blast off. Also the form of a lot of our tunes is kind of similar to jazz structure. We’ll play the head, then we’ll play some solos over the form and then we’ll come back to the head. Maybe there’s a bridge in there, but really pretty traditional compositional makeup.

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But we are definitely decidedly leaving a lot of space in certain areas to go wherever it goes. And have ways to bring it back home. If that’s the direction it’s going. Or we’re going out into space. I would say it’s more, it’s definitely more rare for us to not know where eventually we’re going. We will definitely not know how we’re going to get there. But eventually we’re usually all aiming at the same target, which helps a lot. I think it’s an important thing for improvisers to have at least a shared concept.

You don’t have to talk about the ins and outs because it kind of defeats the purpose of improvisation, right? But to have some sort of … When I was in school in Boston, we had these different techniques, one of them was called grove and another was called forest. Grove was more structured rhythmically and in tempo. And maybe there was some other rules that you could apply. Forest was random, and spread out in different patches of things, so it’s a different approach to the improvisation.

Things like that can really guide the improvisation or the section, the phrase, whatever. The whole tune. But it’s fun to be able to play around with those concepts and techniques. It’s like a sand box, you know?

Grateful Music:   Are there songs that your fans look forward to hearing and that you look forward to playing?

Mark Levy: I don’t know. I mean, I can’t speak for them. But I definitely do look forward to playing … For example, we played One for Chuck, and it’s a very, kind of a tight in the pocket, I like to call it stop the chop, I don’t play fills really at all in that song.

Then it just goes to a place in the guitar solo where it’s the total blast off. And it doesn’t go out of time or anything, but it just gets really kind of insane and big. And then it just comes right back down, like, a million miles per hour, straight back down to Earth.

I think that’s always a fun moment. It’s like, you get launched and then just sucked right back down, you know, like, on the drop elevator.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: That’s cool. I love that about our jammy music. Melodic start, into madness, but I know it’s going to come back home to that infectious melody.

Mark Levy: Yeah, yeah. Right on. Yeah, it’s fun to dive into the chaos and not know. I mean, I can say for us, it’s definitely fun to just totally let it go, let it … Because a lot of the time, especially as a drummer, it’s my job and my purpose to provide a steady hand, a steady beat, a carpet for others to dance on, whatever you want to, whatever metaphor you want to use.

So, then to be able to break out of the box and just totally … Almost improvisational dance. I’m just moving my body and listening to what else is going on and just reacting. That’s really great too. So having a mix of the total nebulous kind of avant garde, almost free jazzin’ it, meets straight ahead funk, pocket, kind of soul and seventies disco sort of synth sounds, we’re looking at the intergalactic disco. It’s kind of where we’re living.


GRATEFUL MUSIC: Intergalactic disco. That’s a good way to describe your sound.

Mark Levy: Especially the new stuff.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Tell me about the new stuff. And the single.

Mark Levy: Well, we very consciously decided we wanted to make a dance record. And that started just from our experience out on the road playing for crowds. Then we demoed a couple of the songs when we were on tour. We weren’t in Detroit, but we went to Detroit and spent two days there in a studio instead of two days off on the road. And we demoed Babyman and I think Detroit Dos. And Dos like two, because it was Detroit number two. Babyman was one and Detroit Dos was two. There’s other … Some people might read into Dos, like it’s a dose or whatever. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. But it literally, yeah, I guess it’s a little bit of a pun.

Those two tunes were the beginning of the new record, basically. But then we re-recorded them in California. So, it was all done in a session in that last week with Neal. And yeah, it’s like, the longest tune I think is 7 and a half minutes versus 18 on previous records or something like that. There is a drum machine track present in every song. Sometimes you can’t hear it. But it’s always there. If you listen for it, you can hear it. So, that kind of anchors the whole record in more of a club sort of vibe.

Or, like, a house music vibe I guess. Even though it’s really not … That’s not what we were … It’s just, like, a dash of that in the soup, you know? It’s not a prominent flavor. Really, I mean, Neal even in the letter that he left us, referred to the record as Adam’s masterpiece. I would agree. I mean, it’s really a beautiful expression of Adam, and his writing and his playing. We all contribute our parts to the music. But yeah, it really is a synth and keyboard heavy record.

And it’s just, that’s the last thing that Neal ever recorded in the studio. As tragic as it is, it’s beautiful and it’s heartbreaking. But he was also proud of it and wanted us to release it. And wanted us to make it sound as good as we possibly could. And wanted Jim Scott to mix it, the guy that engineered it. So, that’s what happened. And yeah, I think we’re all really proud of it.

And we’ve been getting some really good feedback on the songs live. They’re a ton of fun to play. You’ll hear the drum machines live tonight too. So, yeah – It’s an intergalactic dance party.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Neal left a letter and I believe part of the it was made public. I’m not sure. I recall seeing a quote on the screen

Mark Levy: Oh, at the memorial.

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GRATEFUL MUSIC: Yeah, yeah. That was at the memorial. He took care of you guys in every way but staying around.

Mark Levy: Yeah. It would have been a lot better if he just stuck around, you know? But also, that’s my selfish perspective. Because I also … From reading that letter, have more insight into just the extent of the suffering that he was experiencing on a constant basis. I also, I have to just have love and respect for my brother Neal. And believe that he did his best, and that he loved us, and that he wanted to stay but he just couldn’t. He just couldn’t do it.

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I don’t know, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about mental health, and suicide and our industry in particular. But our society as a whole as well. Maybe thoughts for another conversation. But ultimately, it’s really hard out there. No matter how high or low you’re born, or what kind of opportunities or not you’ve had. And just to be able to be there for people, be open, and honest, and vulnerable, I think it’s really important. Just, like, the act of being vulnerable, and open and honest to somebody might make it so they would feel more comfortable coming to you. Or maybe get inspired to cultivate that themselves. Or maybe not at all. But you’re not going to know unless you try. And I know from experience that it’s not easy to always treat people like they’re your kin, or you know, part of your family.

But I do know also from experience that it is the best way to live. Staying open. I say that having … I practice every day too. But being around somebody I thought I knew so well like Neal, and having lived with him on a bus and worked with him closely in music, which is so emotionally involved, to get hit from the side like that, having no real-

GRATEFUL MUSIC: You had no clue.

Mark Levy: Yeah, I mean, it’s just like … We knew that Neal was having some issues with some personal things in his life, he likely was stressed out over it. A year before he passed we took a week off that we were supposed to be touring up here, actually playing a show here I think on that tour. Opening that tour here.

So, you know, it wasn’t like … Nobody would have ever thought that he would be a guy that would do that. Because he was such a loving, and caring and thoughtful person. And he was also a Scorpio, so you know, secrets for days, miles. But it doesn’t mean I love him any less. Man, if I could give him a hug again, I mean, fuck. I remember, I’ll always remember just the moment I saw him last and said goodbye to him at the hotel outside of LOCKN’. Never in a million years did I think that would be the last time I saw him.

That last week we spent with him, he seemed so happy, so present, excited about our future as a band, excited about the recording, so pumped on how it was sounding. Really excited about, like, everything had … At the time we already had … Jam Cruise and Playing in the Sand were booked. It was like, we had these tours that were being planned. You know, we’re still now trying to recover from the shock and not knowing if we were going to be able to continue. Either logistically or emotionally. And honestly, we’re still not … I mean, we hope that we can. But it has certainly been financially stressful.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: A few shows does not-

Mark Levy: No. Is not a living. And we’re in the midst of … We had just recorded a record, in the midst of putting it out, that’s not cheap. So, you know, we’re very fortunate to be where we are. And our friend Missy, and our label, she is essentially our label, what she has allowed us to do, and to continue on and to sanction the deal that we had with Neal to continue without him is really incredible. And a huge debt of gratitude is owed to her. I mean … Has given us the opportunity to at least give it a shot and see now what happens.

This tour has been incredibly encouraging. We’ve never been a band that sells out shows in a minute when they go on sale or whatever. But every single venue we’ve played on this run has been, like, 80% capacity. We’ve played nine nights straight now to tonight. So, we’ve played Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and people were coming out. So, very, very, very, very grateful for everybody that’s supporting the music.

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Scott, he’s such a beautiful person. He’s a great soul to have around.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Besides being just the best guitar player, right?

Mark Levy: Yeah, he’s a fantastic musician and an equally fantastic person.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: As far as I’m concerned, everyone he plays with, he brings out their best. Everyone around him.

Mark Levy: Yeah, no doubt.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: And same with Kraz.

Mark Levy: Yeah. No doubt.They’re two big hearted, beautiful people.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: You’ve picked the right guys to help carry this forward in the best possible way.

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Mark Levy: We certainly think so. And hope that we can continue to walk the path with whoever … That’s the thing. We don’t know … They’re both busy guys.

So, we just have to continue to see how it works out with everybody’s calendars. But we certainly love doing it. You know, I hope we get to do a whole lot more of it. We’ve got a west coast tour coming up with Scott. And we’ve got some other things coming down the pipe too. So, you know, I hope that record makes it far and wide, and lots of people come to see us.

GRATEFUL MUSIC: Thanks, man. It’s been an honor.

Mark Levy: Yeah, likewise. Nice talking to you.

Circles take the stage at 1:38:00

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