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by: Ryan Henriquez - July 1, 2008

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 meandering.

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 his wanderlust.

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.

How’s life?

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 Vines?

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. Unimpeachable.

Your albums tend to be song cycles – true concept albums.

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 among magicians.

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 Club affectations.

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 grind?

I wouldn’t even know the difference.


"Itís 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."

"In The Vines"

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what it is

Guthrie Train Songs Hung Out Sideways Scraping the Rail Ties