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Neal Casal - The Triste Interview

Neal CasalNeal Casal is one of the more productive of the current generation of musicians; producing on average an album a year for most of the last decade. The possessor of a great voice and a more than adept lead guitarist, he is equally at home in a band or solo situation. During slack periods in his solo career he has played lead guitar in a variety of bands including Lucinda Williams' tour band and Beechwood Sparks, as well as touring and recording as the three piece band, Hayzy Malaze. Triste caught up with him on a very wet night in Preston in October 1998.

Triste: Is it true that you got your first guitar and the Stones' Exile On Main Street as presents on the same Christmas?

Neal Casal It was an acoustic guitar and accidentally the first side I played on Exile was side two, which is the country side. A lot of people said that it was a hard record to understand and it wasn't received well at the time. But to me, the minute I heard it, I got it instantly. I can remember hearing that Al Perkins pedal steel solo on "Torn and Frayed" and the minute it came up, the way that instrument moved within the track just melted me away emotionally.

Triste: But you'd already heard Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers etc?

Neal Casal Well, I was young and just discovering their stuff. But Exile and having a guitar just crystallised my entire musical future right there and then. Yeh, the guitar was in one hand, Exile was on the turntable, and I actually had a joint in the other hand. (Laughs). You can't lose.

Triste: Who first taught you how to play guitar? Your Dad?

Neal Casal No. I took a couple of lessons actually, but I didn't stick with them long because my ear developed pretty quickly. Luckily I was into the Stones and bands like that and it's basically simple music, sophisticated in some ways, but as far as chords it was easy to pick out. It just wasn't like being into Rush or Yes or something with all that technical stuff. It was three chord music.

Triste: You travelled a lot as child. Was it difficult constantly having to make new friends somewhere else?

Neal Casal Yes it was, without being dramatic about it, and it's a story I wouldn't change. I have brothers and sisters but they're much older than me. I grew up with my mother - just her and I - and after seeing my Dad get divorced we moved around a lot. I was the new kid in school every few months. And I took my share of beatings - especially in Georgia. I got beat up pretty good down there. There's no doubt that had some effect on my writing. If it hadn't been for that, I might not have even been a musician.

Triste: You've mentioned the Stones, but what about more current trends coming from Britain like punk or new wave? Were they important to you, or were you straight into roots music?

Neal Casal I was a bit of an Anglophile. And the Clash were a cool band. In a lot of ways I think the Clash are the last great rock and roll band. But before that, talking about the Stones again, they led me down, or rather up, the musical tree. Through them I went to Son House and Mississippi Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and all the rest of them. I even got into Reverend Robert Wilkins who wrote the song "Prodigal Son" that they did. I found him and he's still one of my favourites. Then they also led me to reggae with their associations with Pete Tosh, Marley and all those guys, and Keith was a fan of early dub. So I got into that. And the country thing with Gram Parsons. So it led me through them. I went to all the roots of rock and roll.

Triste: What about the bands from the Paisley Underground? The Rain Parade? Long Ryders?

Neal Casal They never really got above ground. For me going to school where I did you had to look really hard for that kind of stuff, you know? When you look back there were great bands. There were The Replacements, who were fucking great, and I saw Black Flag play a gig once at a club near my house. Generally, it was a rough time.

Triste: When did you get involved in your first band?

Neal Casal I had my first band when I was fourteen. A year after I started playing. I was just a guitar player then - I didn't sing. I was making my band play rock and roll.

Triste: Was it actually YOUR band?

Neal Casal Well, I wouldn't exactly call it solely my band. But even at that point I was becoming a bit of a control freak. The set-list was actually dictated by me, which the rest of the band didn't like very much. And this was like 82/83 when the metal thing was very big among fourteen year olds. And at first I resisted and wanted to play all this rock and roll music, but after a while I lost out. It got to the point, in my school anyway, that if you wanted to play in a band, you had to play that stuff.

Triste: Did you have the "big hair"?

Neal Casal The whole thing. I guess a couple of years later I started singing out of necessity, because the band never could find a singer. I just decided I'm going to do this. Then I blew my voice out for a couple of years and eventually got it together.

Triste: On your first album you worked with Jim Scott, and you've worked with him since then. What was it like working with him?

Neal Casal That record is still the most memorable time in my recording life. I had money to make records. We rented a big house about three hours north of LA. Originally we were going to record it in a place called Shangri-La.

Triste: The place where The Band recorded?

Neal Casal Exactly. It's on Zuma Beach where the Band did all that Last Waltz stuff. We actually put a down payment on the house. We thought it was going to be great. But Porno For Pyros were making a record there at that time. As it got closer and closer to us making the record and moving in there, they weren't leaving. I called this guy Steve and asked him if they were leaving and he said don't worry, and it was like three days before we're due to move in. The next day Steve goes up there and has a conversation with Perry, who says "We're not leaving and you're not coming in. So fuck you!" I said "That's fine, but you've got to come up with a consolation prize very quickly". As it turns out there's this huge mansion in the Santa Ynes Valley, which is a really beautiful part of California. We'd see Jimmy Connors at breakfast and David Crosby lives down the road. He came by a couple of times, and Reagan lives around there somewhere. I don't know how Steve came by this house, but it was empty. Jimmy Stewart owned it first, then Dean Martin. It was a Spanish style place with twelve bedrooms, tennis courts, swimming pools, jacuzzis. Shangri-La is great, but it's nowhere near this. So we moved in and made the record there, and we just had a blast for a month. You lived there, partied there, woke up, fell out of bed, recorded.I'd known Jim Scott for a couple of years and built up a relationship with him - I'd done a couple of demos with him as well. By the time we came to make the record we didn't even have to talk about what it was going to sound like. It was all unspoken, we could just feel what we wanted to do. So we just walked in and did it. It was like unspoken. When Jim's around, things are better. The records I make on my own don't sound as good as the ones with Jim. The songs are as good if not better and some of the performances are good, but when Jim's around everything sounds better.

Triste: What kind of producer is he? Is he a hands-on or hands-off producer?

Neal Casal He's not a big tape cutter, but then I tend to write pretty well-structured songs. The structures are kind of hard to argue with. We work on arrangements. He gets me singing better. We didn't actually change too much.

Triste: Did you have a big backlog of songs for your first album?

Neal Casal The oldest song on the record was about three year's old. There was no backlog from when I was 16. God, I wasn't writing songs which were very good. Even when I was about 21 year's old they weren't much better, you know? Most of the songs on the first album had come from the year prior to that. '94 I got a really hot songwriting streak. That's when I found myself and I started writing really good songs. But "Free To Go" was from 1993, "Day In The Sun" was from '92 and it was really probably the weakest song on the record. I listen to "Day In The Sun" now and wonder why did that go on the record. I had twenty better songs than that.

Triste: Talking about songwriting - do you regard it as an art or a craft?

Neal Casal A bit of both. I'm always conscious about wanting to improve. Sometimes you've got to slog it out man. Say, "I'm gonna write a song today". If you force yourself sometimes you're just getting to the next place. And what's wrong with writing a couple of shitty songs? I'm not afraid of it. It's really no problem. Picasso was said to be one of the most inspired painters, but he had a lot of shit. It's just that he was always doing it. For me it's always about writing things down and keeping a guitar around me, and when you cross the line from craft to art you're not usually aware of it until much later. When the songs are plugged in you think, man, where the hell did that come from?

Triste: Do you ever use alternate tunings?

Neal Casal I don't like to use tunings too much, because of the problems you get when you come out live. I still think there are lots of possibilities with standard tuning, but I do dropped D tuning a lot and I love Open G when I'm recording, but then, everything you do in Open G sounds like The Stones.

Triste: I notice that (Hammond B3 organist) John Ginty crops up a lot as a major figure in your musical history.

Neal Casal Yes, he's been my major collaborator for a long time. He's such a big part of my sound. He's getting better all the time and had never recorded before I first met him. I saw him playing in a Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers type of band and I basically told him that he was coming with me.To play a Hammond B3 correctly you don't just pull out some draw bars and stomp on it. That's absolutely wrong. You have to be almost a kind of scientist to really play this thing. When you come to recognise a good player from a decent one you realise just how good this kid is. He's toured with Jewel and I'll tell you there's a big difference between the real ones and the hacks. His producing skills are good and I need him around. .

Triste: Why did the record label let you go?

Neal Casal They just fucked up business wise. They were losing money and firing people and it was just a big mess. I was aware of it before I got dropped. .

Triste: You then cut a second album with a band, but you didn't like it and scrapped it. Was it not working generally or were the songs not good enough?

Neal Casal No, it all worked out really well. It was never actually intended as a record. I just wanted to get back on my feet and make some demos. Try and get another deal, which is what I did. I made a mistake in trying to record too many songs in too short a time. We did nine songs in three days - but some of those tracks came out really good.

Triste: Were any of those demos used for your next album Rain Wind and Speed?

Neal Casal I got home from LA after doing those demos and I got the idea to do Rain Wind and Speed within a few weeks of doing those tracks.

Triste: How did you get signed by Buy-or-Die Records to do Rain Wind and Speed?

Neal Casal I know the guy who runs the label. He lives locally and was a big fan of Fade Away Diamond Time. I took him to lunch one day and said, 'Jerry, I want to do a record. I want to do it right now. Can you come up with a couple of grand?I want to do it live and it'll take five days. Are you interested?' He basically opened up his wallet and said, 'Go'. I really needed him as a friend at that time and he came through. It was really my idea. I said sign me and he did.

Triste: Was the album recorded in as austere a fashion as you claimed - one or two live takes with a few minor overdubs here and there?

Neal Casal Yeh, there were a couple of overdubs, but all the vocals and the guitar playing were live. It had been a goal of mine where I sang everything live. Number one was I wanted to see if I could do it and be convincing at doing it, and there's a certain truth when there are no overdubs and no chance to fix it. And in the mood I was in after what I had been through that Winter it was reassessment time for me. It was me looking in the mirror and deciding was I a musician or was I going to go and pump gas. The way to go and answer that was to go and make a record.

Triste: Was there a serious possibility of packing it all in at that time?

Neal Casal Well, yeh it was. I was pretty disillusioned at that time. I felt myself becoming the person I swore I never would be - the bitter musician. I then realised how it was to feel that way and feel those emotions inside and I didn't like it. If I felt that it was going to be that way, and I couldn't find any joy in the music, then I'd quit. So I gave myself the chance to go into the studio, to sit down and sing some songs and heal the wounds - and it did.

Triste: Are all the sleeve note references to green leather jackets and lost brothers real or just poetic licence?

Neal Casal Those are all like real images. The green leather jacket was this guy I saw for a second standing at the side of the road in South Carolina and he just impressed me some how. I had a Spanish grandma, my brother was lost at that time and I had taken a couple of trips down south.

Triste: And after that didn't Glitterhouse then release the Rain Wind and Speed album under licence in Europe?

Neal Casal Yeh, Rheinhard, the President of Glitterhouse, was a big fan of Fade Away Diamond Time - he called it one of his desert island discs. I did Rain Wind and Speed myself and put an ad in "No Depression" and he saw it and noticed that my second album wasn't on Zoo. So he got on the phone and called me and asked what was happening. I told him and he said "Can I license it? Maybe we'll get you over here on tour". I thought, " I'm on my way again".

Triste: Later The Sun Rises Here was actually recorded for Glitterhouse. ?

Neal Casal Yeh, that's not a licensing thing. It's legitimate. Because I really liked working with them so much. They treat me like, I don't know... a real musician. They're a small label and that's what I discovered with them and on Buy or Die as well. I had this preconception that I wanted to be on a major record label when I was a kid. I guess it's just like a typical, bourgeois, suburban, white boy way of thinking. So I had my deal and lost it and it completely reassembled my mind when it comes to what is important and what's not important. I like working with small labels. I love Glitterhouse. They've got me all round Europe.

Triste: How does the European attitude towards music differ from America?

Neal Casal To me it's better. I find the people are more receptive here. I get more people coming to the shows. There's the reward of travel. That figures heavily with me. And it's also great when you find that someone has driven four hours away to see you and has somehow managed to get hold of your records. I get a lot of that kind of thing in Europe. In America it's tough down there - people's attention spans are shorter. I think people in Europe have a better appreciation of the arts in general.

Triste: How do you find playing solo compares with with playing with a band?

Neal Casal Playing solo is completely frightening. It wracks my nerves to the utmost point. I go through all kinds of denial activities that put it out of my head that I'm actually playing for people. I close my eyes a lot. (Laughs) Playing with the band is great as there's a huge cushion to fall back on. I really love my band. I'm really into playing with them.

Triste: How do you cope with talking to the audiences between songs?

Neal Casal I'm inconsistent. Some nights I've got it, other nights I don't at all.

Triste: So you don't have a script like Bruce Springsteen?

Neal Casal It's the same story. I have such a hard time with that. When I tell a story once I feel like I can't tell it again because I've already told it once, and after that it's like rote. Even the great Townes Van Zandt. I was so dismayed to hear him telling stories when I saw him in 1995 that were on the Live At The Old Quarter record from 1973. He told the same jokes. I still laughed, but for different reasons. So I have a hard time with repeating stories, you know? Some nights I'm funny and have my social skills together, other nights I don't have them at all.

Triste: Do you hate all the tired singer-songwriter comparisons you get?

Neal Casal None of it impresses me anymore? When somebody says 'Neil Young'. I say 'Please!' Give it another 30 years and then maybe we'll talk about it. When somebody says James Taylor I throw my hands up. I have no control over that. It used to piss me off, but I do it too. If someone asks you what something sounds like, what are you going to say? "It's like nothing you ever heard"? There's got to be something you can tie it down to. Journalists have a job to do and I can't be that hard on them. The sensitive singer-songwriter thing I fucking hate - but it's true so what can I say ? (Laughs) .



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