Highway Butterfly :: David Schools on Neal Casal

There is a lyric in Maybe California, “Don’t forget the old times my friend ’cause you know they were good times.” Originally sung by Casal on his 1995 album, Fade Away Diamond Time, the lyric rests in the melody as poignantly as it is poetic. 25 years later, sung by Shooter Jennings on Highway Butterfly: The Songs of Neal Casal, it breaks glass like heartache and lands like an epiphany. It is but a moment on the new 5 LP/3 CD album, but if Highway Butterfly is anything, it is a remarkable collection of these kinds of moments. 

When Neal Casal took his own life on August 26, 2019, he left several lifetimes worth of music behind. His 30+ year career spanned a dozen solo albums, numerous producer credits and guitar duties for Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Circles Around the Sun, and Hard Working Americans among others. In the wake of his passing, fellow Hard Working American and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools and longtime Casal-collaborator and as Schools describes him, “Neal’s studio sensei” Jim Scott embarked on producing a tribute album for their friend. With more than forty-one reinterpretations of Casal compositions, the collection includes everyone from Bob Weir and Steve Earle & The Dukes, to J Mascis, Billy Strings, Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band and many others. All proceeds from sales and streams will benefit The Neal Casal Music Foundation, an organization dedicated to mental health awareness for musicians, and music instrument for students. 

An old friend once told me that as the years go by, the circles get smaller and eventually everybody in the artistic orbit meets. For Schools and Casal, this happened on the first day of recording the debut Hard Working Americans LP. But that record also first connected me to the deeper rings of Casal’s work. So, when Schools and I connected over Facetime to discuss Highway Butterfly, and the hard work of grieving, it was only fitting to start with the Hard Working Americans. | n lekas

Aquarium Drunkard: We had mutual friends, but the only time I ever interacted with Neal was by email. I wrote to tell him that I thought his playing on the first Hard Working Americans album was some of the best I’d ever heard him do, that it was so tasteful, and he graciously wrote back. 

David Schools: That’s exactly the right word, tasteful. Neal was nothing but tasteful. Although, by the second Hard Working Americans record, Rest in Chaos, I did push him to cut loose, and I think some of his old heavy metal and butt rock influences came out—which was really what we were looking for. Bruce Hampton, you know Bruce Hampton right? 

AD: Sure.

David Schools: There’s T’s, as in the letter T. There is four of them. There is “tone,” which Neal had in spades. “Taste,” which we were just talking about, and “time,” which Neal developed into a metronome of rhythm guitar playing—he was more reliable than a clock. The fourth T is why Bruce loved him so much even though he only saw him a couple of times, was “threat.” By threat, they mean threat of vomit, and by vomit we’re talking about musically. Every band that jams, it’s always lurking in the background. Whether it’s an intentional train wreck, or sometimes…You know the song that Hard Working Americans did, “Blackland Farmer?” We would take that way out into improvisational land, and sometimes the threat merely lurked, it circled, and sometimes it dive-bombed the whole band and the audience with it—and that was great. 

AD: I never caught HWA, but I did catch Neal live. He was masterful. 

David Schools: You know, really what we’re talking about with Neal was super multiples of ability and really serving the song. That’s something that Neal and I talked about from the very get-go when we first met. It’s not about what I can do on this song? It’s more like how can I support the intent of the song? How can I elevate the emotion that the artist is trying to get across by singing this song? Neal had that, divining, like dowsing for water. He could divine the emotional center of a song. With Hard Working Americans, the first record was all about deconstructing other people’s songs. Finding the essence, the emotion, refracting it through Todd Snider’s lens, and then supporting it. And it was a remarkably successful and fun experiment, probably because we never thought much about it. There is not a lot of emotional attachment doing other people’s songs. And so here we are with Neal having taken his own life, which is extraordinarily sad—and trying to piece together a tribute record. I think a lot of the artists would tell you that they found an incredible emotional center in Neal’s songs. That quality that Neal had of divining and understanding someone else’s songs, translated through his songs, all of the artists who did Neal’s songs would tell you that the songs were so empirically well written with Neal’s emotions that they really didn’t have any problem translating it into their own life. It was an amazing experience and a healing experience. 

AD: I read and interview where you said, “There is no expiration date on grief.” I’m curious now, it’s been two years since Neal passed away and the record is complete, do you feel any sense of closure? 

David Schools: I think there is a certain amount of worry with us that once this project is sewn up its going to hit us like a truck. To a certain extent, doing this work of celebrating Neal is part of the grieving process, inherent in saying something like “There is no shelf life for grief” it’s also, your mileage may vary. Everybody grieves in their own way for as long as it takes them. Jim [Scott] called me when we were getting near the end of the mix process and he was like, “What are we going to do when we’re done?” This dominated our lives for what will have been a couple years by the time it hits the street. 

AD: You mentioned that this experience has both grieving and healing, did you find any new perspective, or even information while digging into the emotional center of Neal’s songs?  

David Schools: Neal was a deep cat and there was a lot of melancholy woven throughout his songwriting—a lot of that hit us square in the face recording. One example that was so on the nose and just unbelievably raw was when Lauren Barth was recording “Lost Satellite.” We were all in the control room listening and we know the song, but to hear someone sing, “Give me enough rope to hang myself by the way” was just like… we couldn’t even look at each other. There it was, a song about feeling like a lost satellite, existing on the outer orbit of everybody you know and love. Those moments were difficult and there were certainly more than one. There have been moments of really, truly understanding the sort of dark center of Neal, that does provide some context into why he may have taken his own life. The feeling of being alone and seeing all the people who you know love you just sort of out of reach is probably something that many of us have felt, but never to the point where it just invades every waking and subconscious moment. That’s hard, getting an understanding of someone who has taken their own life—those moments of getting it really hurt. But there was so much fellowship. It was like this on-going remembrance party where various artists would come in to record, all the hanging out and the fellowship was wonderful. Talking about Neal. Crying about Neal. Missing Neal, celebrating him, celebrating his music, super healing but yeah, I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do when this thing is finally out. When the tombstone is in the ground with the engraving on it, there is nothing left to do but visit, [and] put flowers or pour some wine on his grave—in Neal’s case, tea. 

AD: As a fan, listening to Highway Butterfly is in some ways similar to listening to Nirvana, in hindsight, now I don’t just hear a clever lyric from an artist I admire, I hear the predecessor of a very permanent decision. Sorry to interject, you just got me thinking about similar realizations in my own life.  

David Schools: Oh no, think, think. That’s the good that can come out of these conversations. You know the podcast we’re doing, The Stories of Neal Casal, the interview I did with Billy Strings teetered into a discussion about mental health because literally the day Chris Robinson called me and said Neal hung himself, I spent the day at Vance Powell’s studio in Nashville with Billy. Billy was talking about how he feels on a tightrope sometimes between having enough bandwidth to deal with his own stuff and wanting to satisfy fans and close friends that are reaching out for a little bit of help or reassurance. It’s taxing. So, I just reminded him that that is what we were doing the day Neal took his own life—and it does get you thinking. It opened the flood gates to some conversations that I think are really needed. Because having conversations about difficult mental health issues and suicide certainly helps to normalize and destigmatize the action.  

AD: The best explanation that anyone has ever told me about suicide is that it’s like jumping from a burning building, you don’t jump because you want to fall to your death, you jump because you don’t want to burn alive. Which analytically I found useful, but processing things emotionally or empathetically are another story all-together. 

David Schools: There is a thing that we do when someone takes their own life, there is a tendency to think, “Is there anything that I could’ve done to help prevent this action?” “Did this person leave any clues” you know? In hindsight, clues are obvious, like the ones we mentioned in the songs. But I can remember a couple weeks after Jeff Austin took his own life, Neal and I were talking, and he was asking me how I was doing with it? I said I was pretty pragmatic about it, but I said I thought it was a selfish thing to take one’s own life. Then I mentioned, because I had a conversation with my wife about it and she said, “But what about someone who is in such a dark place that they literally believe to their core that the life of their loved ones would be better without them in it?” I said that that had made me think and he said, “I absolutely get that.” After Neal took his own life my first reaction, after the shock kind of dissipated, was to scroll through text messages with him and there—it was a month before Neal took his life but—there it was. There is the clue. He dropped “I get that, I can totally get that” and you know it just broke my heart because could I not have been more aware that that was perhaps a sort of self-conscious ask? Neal was a guy who played his cards really close to his chest. He had secrets, and so it seemed in the weeks following his departure everybody found a clue like that. But like I said hindsight is 20/20. All we can do after they’ve taken that action is ask why, grieve, get on with our lives and celebrate the positive things about the life of that person. 

AD: One of the overwhelming positives is the vast body of work Neal left. Whether it’s with the Cardinals, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hard Working Americans or Circles Around the Sun, every project had its own orbit and audience. Was it difficult to represent all those different scenes when deciding which artists to include on Highway Butterfly? 

David Schools: There were people who knew this long haired, clean faced, handsome proto-Americana artist/songwriter, and then people that, “Oh Neal was the guy in the Cardinals” [or] “This is the guy that shows up to play with Phil [Lesh] or [Bob] Weir.” I knew the bearded, tie-dyed wearing, red corduroy pants Neal. And there was everybody in between so finding the artists was a matter of people going, “I want to be a part of this.” Shooter Jennings going, “Yes, I want to be a part of this and I’m doing ‘Maybe California’ and that’s it.” Then Hiss [Golden] Messenger, I sent him some songs and he picked Time Down the Wind, but he texted me and said, “Would it be ok, I’m hearing sort of a minor key ballad” which Neal’s version is sort of elbow out the window, cruising down the HWY 1 on the coast. And everything in between. Jimmy Herring loved Neal. He had sat in with Panic and he just loved Neal and his playing, his taste, and I’m like well, I love this song Bird with No Name, it’s got a great vocal melody, Jimmy how would you feel about reinterpreting it through your guitar mastery and we’ll get Circles Around the Sun to be the band for it? You name an artist and you can do one degree of separation pretty much. You know Billy Strings, they just started having conversations about working together. Neal did a CATS record with Joey Russo, and the next plan was Circles Around the Sun with Billy Strings. Neal called me like “Will you produce it?” That obviously never happened, but Billy Strings was the first artist that we had in on day one of the recording sessions. It went so well that it was the green flag we needed to feel like we’re doing the right thing and doing it the right way. 

AD:  As a fellow Midwesterner I can admit my Billy Strings bias, but I think All the “Luck in the World” is one of the standouts. Is there one track that is a little extra special to you? 

David Schools: That’s hard because everyone did such an amazing job and I’m sort of too close. One that surprised me, when I finally got Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band to sign on, I asked Grahame Lesh is there something that you guys loved? And Grahame said, “My dad always loved when we would do “Freeway to the Canyon,” has anyone done that song yet?” I was like, “Oddly no, would you like to do that song?” Covid really affected our plan for the record. Our original plan was to have everybody come to Jim Scott’s and we would put the band together based on people who played with Neal. Freeway to the Canyon had to be done remotely in 5 different studios. We had to start with Alex Koford playing a guide track to the same drum machine that Neal would always use. Alex recorded his vocal and his acoustic guitar, and then we sent those tracks up here to Laughing Tiger, then to New York, then to Denver, and then finally back to Grahame at his house. But I love that track, I think it’s just fantastic. 

AD: How much more Neal Casal work do you have in front of you?

David Schools: There is a lot more material. We had to put a cap on this thing when we realized we were going into 5 LP territory. The box set is 5 LPs, 3 CDs. That’s a lot of stuff, especially in today’s world of short attention spans. But it’s not a record for critics, it’s a memorial to a friend who we know and love, and we miss terribly. It’s a way of grieving. It’s a product of grief, love, and friendship that transcends talking and hugging. If you didn’t know Neal, maybe you know him a little better after you’ve listened to it. If you did know Neal, then you’re going to get a rainbow assortment of emotions. There are more demos that he created. I’ve got like 14 demos that I was on his butt for 4 or 5 years to get into the studio and record. A couple have been released. I think the song Green Moon is one of them. There’s a few more of those and then of course there is a wealth more of his songs. We can do a Volume Two of Highway Butterfly. When we released a list of artists on social media there was a lot of comments “Oh my favorite song is not on this record” and I’m like well keep bugging us and maybe there’ll be another opportunity for your favorite song to be on another record.

There is a lot of stuff left to do, and also, the point of Highway Butterfly is to raise awareness and get some funds going for the Neal Casal Music Foundation—which has a two-prong attack. One is to work with mental health providers and resources for musicians. The other part is getting musical instruments into the hands of kids in schools in areas of New York and New Jersey where Neal grew up. We’ve gotten some amazing contributions from Fender, Roland, D’Angelico, and there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing the smile of a kid in school, with a music program that barely exists, holding a guitar and having the ability to express themselves artistically. To me, there is nothing more important than that. I’m 100% behind it and of course I’m an advisor, I sit on the board. This is something that I really believe in. I know Neal would tell you, when he discovered music, and guitar and began writing songs and performing, that it freed him. You know it’s a hard life, but to push that button of imagination in a child is super important. And then to help bolster awareness through social media and talking about what people on the road go through—It’s not just the artist. It’s the support team, the crew, caterers, you name it. It’s a style of life that can be dark and lonely. This is stuff I’ve got experience in, and it makes me really happy. 

AD: Is there anything about Neal or his work that you want somebody reading this to leave our conversation with?

David Schools: Well, I think this has less to do with his work and maybe more a message embedded in his work and life, and that is people often say that artists are lucky, that they can transmute their negative emotions or their hardest times into music that uplifts other people, and while that is absolutely 100% true, and I’m grateful that I can translate anger through rock n roll bass playing (laughs)—still the things we mentioned. Check on your friends. Make sure that they’re doing OK. Check in with them. You don’t have to be worried. I saw a friend of mine from Nashville, she’s just like, “Pick a couple friends you haven’t spoken to in a while and just shoot them a positive message. Just say, “How’s it going?” You don’t have to go, “I’m worried about you” or anything. What I would like people to take away from the experience of losing Neal is understanding that it’s a responsibility that we all have, to check on our friends. And to be a friend. Neal was a great friend. There were times where I was like, “Neal I’m burned-out man, I think all I can really do is just tour with Panic, I don’t have the bandwidth or the gratitude to continue producing records or doing these side projects” and he’d be like, “No man, the world needs them.” And that stuck with me, and so yeah, how dare you not give me the opportunity to tell you that the world needs you. So, check on your friends. 

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