Sidekicks of the Grateful Dead — An Interview with Circles Around the Sun

After playing for an estimated 25 million people live, providing Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream with the iconic ice cream flavor “Cherry Garcia”, and being responsible for the colorful bear stickers on the back of most Jeeps, The Grateful Dead celebrated its 50 year anniversary in 2015. More than 360,000 tickets were sold to the five shows the surviving band played that year, called “Fare The Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead”.  
The mini tour included a guest appearance from Circles Around the Sun, an instrumental band formed several years ago specifically to play during the intermissions of the Grateful Dead’s sets. Now, six years later, Circles Around the Sun has released three full length albums, toured independently, and accumulated more than 140 thousand monthly listeners on Spotify — they aren’t an intermission band anymore.

While their initial purpose was to match the energy and sound of the Grateful Dead, Circles Around the Sun has evolved into its own creation since its formation. Their music is jazz-influenced, but steps far outside the box of tradition — to call them a “jam band” is dismissive of their sonic creativity. Songs like “Immovable Object” and “Get It Right the First Time” make for a great relaxed drive on an overcast day; “Kasey’s Bones” or “Babyman” would work better for building up energy before going out for the night. 

Circles Around the Sun at SLO Brew Rock. Photo by Kelli Johnson.

Circles Around the Sun has undergone a few transformations throughout the band’s history, but their music is consistently high quality and appropriate for nearly any occasion. Our interview coordinator Brian Mendez spoke with Adam MacDougall and Mark Levy at SLO Brew Rock before their show.

Brian: I’m Brian, here with a Circles Around the Sun. First of all, thank you guys for coming on. Just such a pleasure.

Adam & Mark: Absolutely.

B: How have you guys been with quarantining and everything?

Adam: Well, I have a lot of records. I have thousands of records. So, I’ll just go and randomly pick records. It’s like my apartment is DJing for me. That’s what my COVID experience has been, mostly.

B: What would you say is your most prized vinyl?

A: Oh boy. That’s a hard one. I have a really excellent first copy of Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. At the time, I paid a lot for it, but now there’s there a lot more.

B: You’ve dropped a couple albums in the last year or two. I was actually reading that one of them came about after experimentation with a drum machine? I’m curious — how was that process?

A: How was that process? We just were messing around at our bass player’s dance studio — he has an old sequential circuits drum machine. We were just using it as a template to write stuff, but it ended up sounding really cool. We brought it to the studio. We don’t have vocals and it’s a pretty small band, we can pretty much set up and get our sound going quickly. We’ll have, you know, an hour or so to mess around and just jam. 

B: You guys started as a sort of like an intermission-ary type band playing interludes or whatnot for a Grateful Dead. Now, you’re here. And how’s that journey been? 

We weren’t even a band, then. We weren’t supposed to be a band.”

Mark Levy

Mark: I think you made up a word, “intermission-ary”, and that works. The first show was in Levi’s Stadium in California. We would just play and jam and it got recorded; we didn’t even hear it until we got to the stadium and it was playing between sets. People liked it, and we thought we should start a band. Well, that’s a very condensed version. Then our first gig ever was at Lacan in 2016. It’s pretty incredible how the space that the music was intended to create sort of took on a life of its own.

B: Has there ever been an instance where you guys are jamming and then all of a sudden, you’re telling yourself, this is probably the best way we could have done it? Then you go to the studio and you’ve forgotten exactly how you did it? 

M: That happens quite a bit. It’s a little annoying, because you’ll do something at a show and you remember that it was great. Then the next night you want to do it again and you can’t. 

B: What is your sort of perspective on live music as of now? I’m certain you guys have seen it evolve and transform throughout the year, especially with synthesizers.

A:  Boy, how is it? Well, a major difference — because I am old — is that the way music is recorded on computers now. Things used to be on tape. The ways that you would approach recording music were very different back then, because you didn’t have as many options. You didn’t have as many tracks. You couldn’t go back and fix things as much — you kind of had to play it right. 

It’s elevator music for stoners — that’s what it is. It puts us in a bit of an awkward position because we’re trying to make music nobody pays attention to, but we’re trying to be paid attention to. 

Mark Levy

B: I think we’ll be paying attention to you tonight. 

M: Sounds good. 

B: Thank you again for joining us, I had a lot of fun talking with you both.

A: Of course, thank you!

Izzy Pedego is .wav’s Senior Editor. She wrote the blurb for the article. Brian Mendez is .wav’s Interview Coordinator. He interviewed the band. Kelli Johnson is on .wav’s media team. She took the photos.