In 2010, singer/songwriter Neal Casal released his photo book chronicling his time with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, A View of Other Windows. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Neal after its release for an intimate conversation about music, photography, and the Cardinals.
Todd.Levinson.Frank: You’ve obviously been documenting the Cardinals for a while, when did you think it could and would make a decent book? If the Cardinals hadn’t “ended” in 2009, would this book have still come out this soon, or did the timing work out that this book would put a nice bow on the Cardinals era?
Neal Casal: I didn’t know these photos would make a decent book until the book was about 90% finished. I doubted the quality of the work until very late in the game. Once it was finished though, I knew it was up to standards and that we had achieved something special.
I didn’t start taking the photos with the intention of making a book, I was just doing it because I loved to take photos of my band mates. The idea of the photos being a book came much later.
TLF: Both a guitar and a camera are instruments of art, tools of trades, and are dependent on their design and the technology utilized to bring them to life. But a song or a jam can be made up out of thin air, whereas a picture has to be taken of something. So playing music is creating (or recreating) something while photography is capturing and freezing something. What are some similarities and differences between how you approach the guitar and how you approach the camera?
NC: Music and photos are the exact same thing for me. A photo has to be taken “of” something, and a song has to be “about” something. A photo is a song and a song is a photo. They both come out of thin air, and they are both about capturing and freezing something.
There’s a dual action that exists in both of these mediums, and in all things when they’re operating at their best. If you look at the photographs I take, and the music that I make, you’ll see and hear very similar qualities in both. My individual aesthetic is applied to whatever instruments I’m utilizing at the time.
TLF: Musically, the Cardinals have been known to start at a jumping-off point, say, a song like “Easy Plateau,” and then just ride it where ever the jam goes. Have you ever (knowingly or accidentally) had a similar experience with photography? Like you set out to photograph a sunset and ended up finding a bunch of cool birds and bridges instead? Or maybe just head out for the day with your camera with no plan and see what you end up with?
NC: My photographic life is nothing but one jumping point after another, that’s all there is for me. I never plan photos or set anything up, so I just head out for the day and follow where the light leads me. Some days it’s great, other days not at all. You have to be prepared to roll with the ups and downs.
And if I am called to do a specific thing, it always ends up being something different than was originally planned. That’s what keeps it interesting for me.
TLF: Was this book already completely finished and “in the can” by the time bassist Chris Feinstein passed away, or was it a conscious decision to just celebrate the Cardinals and let him live on through the images and music as opposed to turning it into some sort of memorial?
NC: The book was finished and printed before Chris passed away, I want everyone to know this. If there was a chance to say something about his passing in the book, or to have made a dedication, or some appropriate gesture, we certainly would have. There are no words that can ever do justice to the way we all feel about this, but we certainly would have tried, or, at the absolute least, acknowledged it in the book.
TLF: I’m sure there were plenty of albums and bands that inspired you to want to play music. Are there any photographers that made you want to pick up a camera?
NC: The best thing about photography for me is that, unlike music, I started doing it with no influences at all. It was a totally free flowing thing and I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone. I had no idea who anyone was, I had no aspirations other than to just enjoy the incredibly liberating feeling it gave me. Well, I probably had some influences because of how much photography influences all of us, but it was a subconscious thing.
I didn’t study photography, I had no knowledge of it, I started doing it by accident. After I got better at it, I began to discover photographers, and now I collect books and try to see as much photography as I can. But in the beginning, I was truly working in a blissful little void of my own making.
TLF: Can you compare holding the final version of this book, all printed and ready, with holding your first real CD you recorded, complete with cover art as a finished product?
NC: There’s nothing like holding your first record in your hands for the first time, it’s such an exciting feeling that’s never forgotten. But honestly, this book gives me an even better than my first record did.
I guess it’s because photography was so much more of a long shot than music was for me. It’s the high point of my creative life so far.
TLF: A couple guys who I assume are heroes of yours, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia, both dabbled with painting. Ryan Adams recently had a well-received art exhibit of his paintings in NYC. What do you think about the connection between music and the visual arts, or is it just natural that the creative mind of a musician is drawn to other artistic avenues?
NC: It kind of goes back to the thing we talked about before, which is that, in a way, all art is all the same. Guitars, cameras, and paintbrushes, are very similar instruments when you get right down to it. They’re just conduits to bring out your feelings and your point of view about the world and your life. This is an oversimplified statement, but I don’t like to over think these things. Just grab an instrument of your choice, dig in, and see what you can extract out of yourself.
TLF: In 2007, the Cardinals played a bunch of acoustic shows as Ryan recovered from an injury and couldn’t play guitar, he only sang. How did that challenge you guys to re-imagine the music and the live show? And is there a photographic analogy? Would it be like switching to a different camera, or lens? Or shooting in challenging light or capturing something in motion?
NC: Those “Blue Cave” shows in 2007 were great because it forced us to focus on details that had been passed over previously. It gave Ryan a chance to really concentrate on his singing, which was always great, but leaped to an entirely different level at that point. It forced the rest of us to really learn those songs, and come up with airtight arrangements that would translate in any live situation. It forced me to step forward on guitar, and for all of us to work on our harmony singing, and tighten down our playing. It was a very strong, hard working, era for us, and we made a huge progression as a band in a short time. In photographic terms, it’s like switching to a macro lens so that you can photograph the tiniest veins on a leaf.
TLF: Other reviews and interviews have mentioned that your inside access as a band member made this much more interesting than simply a book of tour photos captured by outside photographers. When did you start to feel like you were on to a real photo-journal that would capture a band and its moment in time, and not just taking a bunch of personal pictures of what you were doing (which happened to be touring with a band)?
NC: I’d been approaching my life as a real photo journal/journey long before I joined the Cardinals. I photograph almost every day of my life, so when I joined the band, I just continued doing what
I was already doing. It’s just one continuous stream for me. I don’t think of my photos as personal. I take them quite seriously and think of it more as documentary work. Even if no one but me ever sees them, that’s how I’m thinking of it.
TLF: Could you imagine touring with a band and capturing them just as an outside hired photographer? If you could go back in time and chronicle any tour as a photographer, what band/year would it be?
NC: I’d love to hang around with a band and photograph them as an outside guy. I think I could be really good at it. Well, I say that now anyway. Maybe I wouldn’t like it once I started doing it, but I’d love to give it a try anyway.
If I could go back in time, I’d like to be in the deep south, particularly Mississippi, in the early part of the 20th century, photographing the early blues music that was created there.
TLF: One thing captured in the book is some of the time you guys spent recording with Willie Nelson. what was that like?
NC: Working with Willie was an honor of course. Pool was played, whiskey was drank, joints were smoked, shit was shot.
Oh yeah, we recorded some music too. One of the highlights for me was sitting at the piano and teaching him to sing “Songbird.” He would ask me “Ok, how do you phrase this next line?” I’m thinking to myself “Willie Nelson is asking ME about vocal phrasing. Wow, is this really happening?”
TLF: Did you ever feel a bit more conscious when photographing Willie and Ryan? Like “okay, I’ve GOT to get some good pictures of them together, but still have it be natural and casual”?
NC: I’m always thinking that I’ve GOT to get some good photographs no matter who or what I’m shooting. There’s no difference between Willie Nelson and a leaf on a tree as far as that goes.
TLF: What are some of your favorite rock photos? There was always something about that one of Jimi Hendrix’s shadow on his amplifier that I thought was great. Are there any photos (or album covers) that you love or think of as the perfect link between music and photography?
NC: For me, Jim Marshall is the king of all music photography. His photo of early Dylan kicking the tire springs to mind immediately.
TLF: Can you envision doing another photo book? Say, just on scenery, or a random collection of photos?
NC: Music photos comprise only a fraction of my work. I have thousands of photos of other things and dream of one day creating a book out of them. It’s just a dream, but it feels good to dream it once in awhile.
TLF: The title A View of Other Windows comes from the Cardinals song “Evergreen.” How did you come to use that and what does it mean to you in terms of this book? Or was it simply an easy Cards-related title with “View” in it? What others did you consider? Any others from Cardinals song lyrics or titles?
NC: I searched around through Ryan’s deep well of great lyrics and came up with that title. It was the first name I came up with and much to my surprise, the publishing company accepted it immediately. It just works y’know?
I love the title because it suggests being able to see many different layers, or angles, of a particular thing. There’s mystery and depth there, and it’s kinda thought provoking in a way. It takes a minute to really think through all of the different things the title could mean. I like that.
TLF: It seems a lot of critics and fans see this book as a great snapshot (pardon the pun) of the Cardinals as a band. It provides both closure and tangible evidence of the memories. Do you know if there might be a live DVD and/or live CD that might also put a bow on the Cardinals era?
NC: I have no information about any of that.
TLF: I’ve read (usually direct quotes from Ryan) that there was a chunk of “rock” material recorded before and/or during the Easy Tiger sessions, tentatively titled Cardinals III/IV. What can you tell me about those sessions and the prospects of them seeing the light of day? (Does this crop include stuff like “Arkham Asylum,” “Trouble on Wheels,” “Typecast,” “Breakdown Into the Resolve,” or is it an entirely different crop that wasn’t played live?)
NC: There’s a truckload of great songs from both the Easy Tiger and Cardinology sessions that haven’t seen the light of day yet. We recorded so many songs, 4 or 5 records worth of material. We were pretty unstoppable there for awhile, pretty amazing when i stop and think about it. I have no clue what will happen with them. “Breakdown Into The Resolve,” I think we may have played that one live a few times. Yeah, we played “Arkham Asylum” a lot in 2006 too. I remember that now.
TLF: Wilco, Drive-By Truckers, Avett Brothers, Magnolia Electric Co., Jack White and his various bands, Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst, Ryan Bingham… these are some of the more popular contemporary artists that have a lot of fan-base crossover with the Cardinals. Do you dig on any of their albums, or ever have a chance to check some of them out live?
NC: It’s a great time for music these days. I listen to all of those records and try to keep up with what everyone is doing, there are so many good bands out there. As for songwriters, I think Conor Oberst is a really gifted lyricist, he’s always blowing my mind with some amazing turn of a phrase.
TLF: I know you’re primarily a “Stones guy,” but what are your favorite Beatles and Dylan albums?
NC: Well, I’m a Dylan guy first and foremost, and so is every other rock musician whether they know it or not. He’s the one who wrote the book for all of us, and that’s an inescapable fact.
Blood On The Tracks is the Dylan album that changed my life forever, but lately I’ve been listening to New Morning a lot. I go through different phases with all of his records. I listened to that song “Up To Me” the other day and wondered how a song so great could have ever been left OFF of a record. Dylan is the real king.
As for the Beatles, I heard the last few songs on Abbey Road as I was walking around in an antique shop today, and it really captivated me. Talk about putting a bow on the end of an era, a decade, and a band. What an incredible way to wrap things up. So sad, majestic, melodic, and poignant. A lot of people like to trash the Beatles but they really were such an extraordinary band.
TLF: Finally, what are your plans, musically, for the near future? Will you be getting back to doing solo albums/tours; will you be forming or joining a new band? Will Ryan or any of the other Cardinals figure into those plans?
NC: I figure I’ll always be out there making music in one way or another. Either as a solo flyer, playing guitar for someone else, taking photos, whatever it may be. I’m into it as long as it’s up to standards y’know? Cardinals family always figures into everything I do. Whether they’re actually there or not makes no difference. We all bonded in a way that will never change. We’ll be making music together in some way or another, that’s my prediction.