Circles Around the Sun. Credit: McKenna Kane

There’s something special about instrumental jam-band music. The cosmic sounds that can be produced when songs are stretched out more than 10 minutes can create such a feeling of euphoria—and transport one to a place of serenity.

Circles Around the Sun is one of the bands that comes to mind first when I imagine the beauty of jam bands. The group has released three albums filled with instrumental grooves; the most recent and self-titled LP dropped on March 13, 2020. The album is a true journey from front to back, and tracks like “Babyman,” “You Gotta Start Somewhere” and “Leaving (Rogue Lemon)” are standouts.

The group is bringing its tranquil music to Pioneertown for a two-show stint at Pappy and Harriet’s on Sunday, June 6. As of our press deadline, tickets were available for the reduced-capacity, socially distanced show at 3 p.m.; the 7 p.m. show is sold out.

“I’ve played there many times, but this will be the first for Circles,” said bassist Dan Horne during a recent phone interview. “I’ve played there a bunch with Grateful Shred (a Grateful Dead cover band). I’ve been playing there for years. I actually got married there, too. It’s such a cool family vibe. It’s really in the DNA.”

This band also started out as a Grateful Dead tribute act; founder and lead guitarist Neal Casal was asked to create Grateful Dead-influenced instrumentals to be piped in during the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” tour. The band has since continued to keep things strictly instrumental.

“It’s a fun challenge,” Horne said. “We enjoy setting the limitations of that and working within those parameters. It drives a lot of the inspiration. Trying to figure out how to make an exciting song while it’s entirely instrumental is a cool challenge. We’ve made instrumental music before, but mostly just from sitting in our garage and jamming. Sometimes three hours will go by—and you’re still jamming!”

Horne said the band members don’t have a set formula for creating new music.

“It’s always different,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll start a song in a practice out of a jam. Other times, somebody brings in a little lick or idea. It can also come from when we’ll be playing a show. We set aside tons of space in our shows for improv, and sometimes we’ll come up with a new idea in a show, which is always cool. We’ll come back to it, listen to the recording of the show, and turn it into a song. … It’s so much fun to just explore.”

Considering the band is known for the art of improvisational jamming, I was surprised to learn that a set list is key.

“We usually have a set list, and we try to get a good flow,” Horne said. “You don’t want to be up there worrying about what you’re going to play next. We want to have a formula, but then also leave spaces for leeway to see if we want to go somewhere else. We also always set aside time to improvise. We try to keep people on their toes, for sure. We try to interact with everyone in the crowd as much as we can and go with the feel of the night. It’s pretty crazy how, even after doing this for so long, every night is different. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Circles Around the Sun’s unique spin on music creation has spilled over into the band’s pandemic projects. The group’s live streams have included various visual effects.

“It’s fun being able to control it and do some movie magic,” said Horne. “The last thing we did, we weren’t all together, so we did it on green screens and then overdubbed each part separately. It was really fun. We’re going to do one where we’re actually all in the same place, and we’re building a set with a light show right now.”

The last two years have been beyond difficult for the band. In August 2019, Casal took his own life shortly after finishing the tracking for Circles Around the Sun, leaving behind a note asking the band to continue on without him. The remaining members have decided to keep the guitarist position open for now and have experimented with a few different members. Their current guitarist is Scott Metzger.

“We’re just going with the flow, to be honest,” Horne said. “We played with Eric Krasno right off the bat, and that was so great. He just came in and brought this fire to the show. When it was pretty bleak and uncertain about how we would proceed, and he just came in and brought that energy. (Who the guitarist is) has a lot to do with scheduling. Scott came along, was available, and we started playing with him. We did a whole tour, and it just kind of clicked, and right now, we’re just riding that wave as much as we can. Scott’s super into it, and he wants to keep playing, so we’re going to do it as much as we can. He fits right in and doesn’t try to do anything that’s not himself. He’s not copying anyone or trying to fill anyone’s shoes. He’s just doing his thing, and it fits so much.”

The band has been easing its way back into touring.

“We just did a weekend tour, and it was great, man,” Horne said. “It doesn’t feel rusty or anything; it’s just, like, back. Obviously, dealing with people being all in a room is kind of weird. It’s been a lot of pod shows, and limited capacity, but it’s great to be back. There’s still some uncertainty because of planning reasons and logistics and all that, but as far as we—and I think most musicians—are concerned, we’re all ready to get back out there playing shows as soon as possible. The hesitancy is mostly from the industry; people don’t want to commit too hard. But stuff is popping up really quick, and it’s cool to have outdoor shows. The outdoor venue at Pappy’s will be really cool.”

The group is making plans to write and record new music—while simultaneously trying to relearn songs that were released not too long ago.

“We’re actually been talking a lot about writing new stuff and making a new album,” Horne said. “That’s the plan as soon as possible. I’m ready and have a whole bunch of ideas. It’s kind of funny, though, because the last record kind of just came out. If you subtract 13 months (for the height of the pandemic), it just came out. We’re still just getting into playing those songs; nobody’s heard those songs live yet, especially out on the West Coast, so it’ll be fun to play everything for everyone, for the first time.”

Circles Around the Sun will perform at 3 and 7 p.m., Sunday, June 6, at Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, in Pioneertown. The late show is sold out; tickets remained for the early show as of this writing, for $85. Shows will be socially distanced. For tickets or more information, call 760-228-2222, or visit www.pappyandharriets.com.

Matt King

Matt King is a freelance writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. A creative at heart, his love for music thrust him into the world of journalism at 17 years old, and he hasn't looked back. Before...

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