If only Castanets’ frontman Ray Raposa would “submit
to the beard” and give himself over to his countrified backwoods leanings.
I have a spot reserved for him alongside Jim James, M. Ward, Ben Bridwell, and
Pat Sullivan in my fantasy 21st Century Traveling Wilburys lineup. But his experimental
streak and vagabond ways prevent Raposa from ever being pinned down. He and
bearded brethren Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy form the gothic country equivalent
of the Coen Brothers in their steadfast refusal to pander to their audience.
Musically or otherwise, the man just cannot sit still.
Like Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan, Raposa has always lived the
tramp’s existence with a scholar’s intellect, saddled with all the
good, bad, and ugly that that comes with that uneasy coexistence. His mother
married 7 times, so “home” was a nebulous concept at best. The closest
thing to a welcome mat was the San Diego beach around which he spent much of
his childhood, and even surfed competitively for a time. Indeed, Raposa always
felt more comfortable amidst the constant motion of the sea than on solid ground.
It’s hardly surprising that once Raposa records an album he has no interest
in ever listening to it again.
After testing out of high school at 15, Raposa spent the next
five years riding Greyhound Buses anywhere and everywhere they’d take
him. On the road he began writing and recording the music that would eventually
comprise Castanets’ first two albums. After moving around constantly for
several years, he landed in Brooklyn in 2005, got a job at Sound Fix, and inadvertently
began courting the New York indie rock intelligentsia. The locals were naturally
drawn to and enamored by the mysterious wayward traveling surf boy, and eagerly
tried to adopt him as one of their own. Nice try.
Where Dirty Projectors and their ilk can come off as self-consciously
“arty” and affected by the post-industrial dense bleakness of North
Brooklyn, Castanets are clearly cut from a different cloth. Raposa might sometimes
wallow in the same morose tones, but beneath that veneer is an artist striving
to remain honest and distill tangible nuggets of simple joy in a life of constant
Fitting then, that Castanets’ latest album “In
The Vines,” on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty imprint, derives
its title from a Hindu parable asking one to seek out life’s rare and
elusive moments of happiness, however fleeting. Bluesy train songs sit comfortably
next to stark, experimental fare, but together form a cohesive, natural song
cycle. Tracks like “Westbound Blue”, “Strong Animal,”
and “And the Swimming” are haunting pure primal magic.
In May, Castanets released the film “Tendrils,”
a reinterpretation of "In The Vines" by Raposa’s musical contemporaries
from Brooklyn and elsewhere who also double as just his pals. Dirty Projectors,
Phosphorescent, Osso, Marla Hansen, and others each take their turn with the
Castanets songbook. Where Raposa’s own reedy rasp, reminiscent of latter-day
Dylan or Waits, can sometimes jar attention away from otherwise superb songcraft,
“Tendrils” recasts his tunes through new prisms, illuminating Raposa’s
brilliance as a songwriter. Camaraderie flows through “Tendrils”
as much as it flows through the entire DIY aesthetic the film manages to capture.
Clearly, Raposa’s loyalty is to people rather than places, as would befit
The Deli caught up with Raposa on the heels of an all-too-brief
holiday in the South of France, which quickly gave way to the day-long van rides
that characterize a European rock club tour.
One soundcheck at a time.
Before this latest European tour began, how did you
spend the last few weeks?
Spent some time in the south of France. Flexing the foreign
language muscles. Looking for a guitar. Getting some sun.
Ever consider moving across the pond permanently?
When I’m here, daily. When I’m not, weekly. We’re
in a country house outside of Rennes right now and there’s dogs, horses,
streams, coffee and gorgeous women around outside. We’re gonna be late
for loading in in Paris tonight for sure.
I’ve read you experienced a bout with depression
a few years back. Do you feel like you’re in a better head space now?
I’m in a better head space in that I know now not to
ever allow quotes from the horse’s mouth into any one sheets or pr bits.
Just head shots from here on out. Either way, it wasn’t hardly that bad.
Got a little out of hand that one.
Were drugs or alcohol involved?
They always are.
How did your depression affect the creation of In The
Not a bit probably. Maybe gave me just the little bit more
time inside to wrap up? I certainly didn’t address any current personal
coordinates on the map there.
Not all of the album’s songs are morose. Were
you conscious of trying to strike a balance in moods throughout the album?
As much so as in real life I guess. I don’t think hardly
more than a third of those songs are that dark. They’re small triumphs
for the inhabitants, but they’re making it. In major keys even.
Do the folks at Asthmatic Kitty give you a lot of creative
latitude on your records?
As much as I need. They are amazing, supportive, caring people.
Your albums tend to be song cycles – true concept
It’s important for me to have things stand up as whole
things. Takes a lot of trimming, and the banishing of some songs to future kingdoms.
How is “In The Vines” most different from
previous Castanets albums?
It’s increasingly more lustful. Also, [producer] Rafter
Roberts was steering at every turn. Rafter is a wizard among wizards, an enabler
For me, the album conjures stark, haunting, backwoods imagery. How do you channel
such sentiments living in an urban jungle like NYC?
By never really being there. I haven’t lived there officially
in almost a year now, but even when paying rent there. It’s mostly time
away. Far away.
Do you feel like some bands use backwoods imagery –
or southern “twang” – as a gimmick?
Probably. But I feel the same way about xylophones or Baltimore
You choose to bookend the album with water themes (“Rain
Will Come” and “And The Swimming”). Why?
Transitional periods. Ebbing and flowing. Tidal living.
As a San Diego native, is water something you long
to be around?
Next move is a move back to water for certain.
Will the recent shark attack in San Diego make you
think twice next time you go surfing?
Not a bit. I love those things. Keeps the intrepid at bay I
guess. It’s such a crowded mess down there anyway -- not to be too callous,
but that coastline could use a few more potential hazards.
How did the Tendrils DVD come about?
Everyone was living together, working together, eating together.
Might as well make a movie.
How does it feel to have your very own “tribute”
album without being dead?
It’s good insurance against having to drag any of my
friends into one in the event that I die anytime soon.
What made you decide to “settle” in NYC?
I was there paying rent every now and then, but never really
settled. Pretty much my favorite city anywhere, but I got bad, restless blood.
You’ve been on the road touring a lot the last
couple years. Is the constant touring “living the dream” or an exhausting
I wouldn’t even know the difference.