The Pinch Hitter: A Q&A With Neal Casal

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(Casal, left, with the Cardinals)

I caught you guys in Detroit, opening for Oasis. It must’ve been a trip, playing those big arenas while the Gallagher brothers watched your opening set from the wings.

It was, and they definitely did watch us from the wings every night. I think they were interested in us, because our set changed every single time. We always kept a certain improvisational aspect to our shows, no matter who we were playing with, or who was in the audience, or how big the crowd was. We never really changed our trip for anybody else. We were pretty loose, and I think the Oasis guys were interested in that, because they had a very big production with their lights and stuff, and everything had to be very choreographed and coordinated. They didn’t have much room to change what they were doing. I got the sense they may have been missing a little bit of the freedom that they saw in us.

Well, at that point, the rift between Noel and Liam had reached its breaking point. They were probably jealous of the Cardinals’ camaraderie, too.

Yeah, that may be true. But actually, the Oasis tour happen during the latter days of the Cardinals. It wasn’t long after the tour that Ryan lost interest and decided to move on to the next chapter of his life, a chapter without the Cardinals. Which was fine… but it was good while it lasted, man!

When you play with a group as pivotal as the Cardinals, it’s gotta rub off on your own material, right?

It affected me in terms of inspiration, but you’ve gotta remember I was making records and writing songs long before I joined the Cardinals. So in a way, it was more of a mutual thing. Playing with the Cardinals left an impression on me, but I’d like to think I left one on them, too.

Just being around Ryan’s workflow, his work ethic, his level of inspiration… that certainly affected me. In terms of songwriting, though, I kinda have my own way of doing it, you know? There are a couple twists and turns and songwriting tricks that I picked up from him, but at the end of the day, he’s got his own style and I got mine. We’re both well-formed individuals. So I guess I was affected more on an inspirational record than anything literal.

Given how many artists you’ve recorded with — and all the different studios, lineups, producers, and engineers that come with each recording project — what choices do you make when it comes time to make an album of your own? Do you have a certain way you like to do things?

I like to do different things every time, and I like to work with different people. One of the most important elements on this new record was producer Thom Monahan, who is such an amazing engineer and producer and musician. He has his own person vision of music, and he brings his own aesthetic, his own colors, to every album he works on. So working with new people like that is a big thing for me, and I think it kind of changes each record.

When you think about the overall process of creating Sweeten the Distance, are there any snapshots that always pop out at you?

Hmmm. I remember writing “Feathers for Bakersfield” the night before we went into the studio. For a few weeks prior to starting the record, I felt like I really needed one more song. I had more than enough, really — it wasn’t like I was hurting for tunes — but I just felt like something was missing from the list. So the day before we started the album, I drove up to Sacramento from L.A., mostly in silence, and started thinking about some things. I wasn’t thinking about writing a song, necessarily, but when i got to Sacramento, I checked into my motel room and just pulled my guitar out, and the first note that I hit started that song off. Within 15 minutes, the entire song tumbled right out onto the page and was finished. There was no effort at all. It just came straight through. Ask and you will receive, I guess. It was the first song we cut for the record, so i’ll always remember that. It was like a little gift, delivered in the 11th hour.

Are there any other songs that came out under similar circumstances?

I remember writing the title track, “Sweeten the Distance,” while the Cardinals were touring through Leeds, England. It was toward the end of the Cardinals’ days, and I knew the band was ending. Ryan was about to move on. I also knew that I was moving out of New York and heading back to California, and there were so many changes about to happen. An era was ending, basically. After we played that show in Leeds, I went back to my hotel room. It was sort of the opposite of “Feathers from Bakersfield,” actually. I was walking down the hall toward my room with the intention of writing a song. I remember thinking, “I’m going to write something tonight. I’m going to sit down in my room, and I’m not going to leave until something comes out.” A couple hours later, that song was done. So sometimes, you’ve gotta force it… you need to will a song into existence.

Which is easier, willing a song into existence or waiting for it to appear on your doorstep?

It works all different ways, you know? That’s the mystery of songwriting. There’s no way to come up with a formula for it. At least I don’t have a formula, and I hope I never come up with one, because I’d rather keep the mystery intact. And sometimes you have to write a few shitty songs to get to one of the good ones, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do that. Again, the whole thing is a mystery, and that’s what keeps me interested. It’s a totally maddening process, but it’s well worth it, because when you do nail one — when you do write that great song, and you can add it to the big universal songbook — it’s kind of… I mean, there’s really nothing better. Nothing’s better than songwriting. Not singing, not playing. The accomplishment of getting a great song is second to none. And I’m still looking for the next great song around the corner. I don’t think I’ve reached my potential yet, and I prefer to think my best songs are ahead of me.


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