Running with the Beasts: An Interview with Castanets

Zach Hinkle
Photos: Mia Ferm

After being held-up at gunpoint, recording alone in the desert, and being covered by Sufjan Stevens, Castanets' Ray Raposa is finally ready to step out on his own with a concept album about wild beasts that features some of his most tender and dramatic performances to date.


Texas Rose, the Thaw and the Beasts

Label: Asthmatic Kitty
US Release Date: 2009-09-22
UK Release Date: 2009-10-05

Ray Raposa -- the mastermind behind the alt-folk outfit Castanets -- is a musician on the run. Growing up in San Diego, Raposa left home at an early age, spending a short time in Baja and then later living in St. Croix. These early cross-continental moves would later serve him well, leading all the way up to his atmospheric new album Texas Rose, The Thaw and The Beasts.

Since his 2004 Asthmatic Kitty debut Cathedral, he's been relentlessly touring, spreading his sometimes slow-picked country and other times raucous, experimental folk to an increasingly sizable audience. In 2007, he released In The Vines, an album that could have easily never happened: Raposa was robbed at gunpoint in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy shortly before the release. The 2008 album City of Refuge found Raposa traveling to another seedy part of the country, living in a murky, whiskey soaked hotel room in the middle of a western desert, penning dry, stripped-down songs that made his world only that much more mysterious. And through all of this movement, and arguably lonesome living, Raposa continued to pour his stories and experiences into refreshingly familiar and uncharted musical territories—never resting, except maybe at the occasional truck stop.

Raposa at first attempted to record Texas Rose entirely by himself in his current residence of Portland, but scheduling conflicts and failing gear prompted him to relocate to a more comfortable setting -- his hometown of San Diego, California -- and to team-up with longtime collaborator and Asthmatic Kitty label mate Rafter Roberts. "Once I decided to work with Rafter," explains Raposa, "it was a really quick process. He made himself overwhelmingly available for me which was pretty impressive."

According to Raposa, being in the studio is never pleasant -- but it's ultimately a rewarding experience. "It was as fun as we could make it. The process can be kind of arduous," he says of recording his latest. "Rafter and I both have enough know-how that these songs could have gone in almost any direction. We never leave a record dissatisfied."

When speaking to Raposa, his voice is softer, kinder and younger sounding than on his albums. He speaks with a slight drawl and his enthusiasm for making music leaks out in his willingness to share every part of his story.

Texas Rose was written primarily in Indiana while Raposa was house-sitting for a friend. The house, which had a piano, let Raposa explore yet another side of songwriting. "Half the record I wrote on piano which I had never done before. But the way the hands lay out on it just makes so much sense to me -- the shapes. I get a lot more pleasure out of it than playing guitar."

Unfamiliarity is a suit well worn by Raposa, and his curiosity for the unknown is what makes his music so intriguing. Take, for instance, the album's sixth track, "The Thaw and The Beasts," a four-minute song that begins with sparse arrangements and haunting vocal production. Raposa reluctantly delivers the line, "and then came the thaw and the beasts," and with that, the music drops, leaving a lonesome guitar pick scraping against the strings. The sound culminates into one of the most eerie musical moments on the disc. "I don't care what you've done here since we've been apart," he croons as cymbals and pedal steel roll like tumbleweeds back into the mix.

"It's one of my favorite parts on the record and, narratively, it's the arrival of the beasts," Raposa says of the song. "That one in particular, I knew something was going to go there and I wasn't sure if we were going to do it as a band track or what-not, with a heavy stoner riff or something right there," he says. "For that one, Rafter was on tour and I locked myself in the studio and kind of re-recorded the whole thing. Even the pick scrape was live."

Most of the on-the-spot inspiration heard on Texas Rose was laid down by Raposa and Roberts with the help from Jason Crane (Rocket From The Crypt), Black Heart Procession's Pall Jenkins, Andy Robillard (of Gogogo Airheart), and Asthmatic Kitty label-mate DM Stith, among others. The album's best track, "Down the Line Love," was recorded live. 

"On that one, Andy wrote the drums -- and he doesn't know my songs, he hasn't toured on them or anything. We had the back room mic'd up, and went through a couple different feels for it. All live, even the vocals, which we almost never do."

When asked about the lyrical characters that inhabit the new album, Raposa, for the first time, stops himself. "I already got myself in trouble talking about that. There's a lot of fiction in those songs. None of them are straight. They're sort of idealized or de-idealized notions of a pretty common place. Everyday relationship-type stuff, you know."

The near future for Raposa will be business as usual: touring the States, Europe, and making a first-time trip to Australia and New Zealand in support of his latest creation. "I'm gonna be out on the road for a year," he says with enthusiasm and a bit of exhaustion. "I've got a week off between the September shows and a month and a half in Europe and then I've got about two weeks off and then a month in Australia and New Zealand. And that's already mid-January when I get back and then a trip up the west coast, and I don't know what for February."

"I intended to have a relaxing fall," he adds with a chuckle. "I'm living in Portland now—with a house, some good friends. It's been real relaxed. But not for long."

When asked about the possibility of exploring other genres, Raposa gets excited. "Oh, I would love too! Given the means and the right people to do it with I would love too."

If history is any indication, Raposa will happily move along from this latest release, embracing the unknown future and possible successes and failures only to pour them back into the next project, allowing some to think he's constantly running away -- while to his fans he'll really just be taking another step in the right direction.

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