Arriving at the Landmark Saloon sans beard and Zip Zinger skateboard under his arm, Castanets frontman Ray Raposa kindly greeted me, approached the bar, and ordered a Rainier. We headed to the patio on this contemplative autumn night to discuss his latest collaboration, the soundtrack to Kaleo La Belle’s award-winning documentary, Beyond This Place. Raposa plans to perform the soundtrack live with co-writer Sufjan Stevens at the film’s screening at Portland’s Hollywood Theatre November 3rd.
The opening credits roll, depicting vintage photographs of Kaleo La Belle’s childhood in Maui along with family and friends in the pseudo-hippie community in which he grew up. The photographs look like a cross between iconic ’60s Woodstock-style photos and the family variety you’d find in your grandmother’s wood-framed hallway collages. We hear a banjo tickling along to aid in the passage of time, and then more banjos kick in over gentle electric guitar tones at the helm of each measure, building in anticipation.
As more photographs fade in and out, an orchestra dramatically swoops up the song like a father’s hand, and bass drum, jingly percussion and gong-like crashes carry the song high. It abruptly decrescendos but maintains rhythmic momentum as Sufjan Stevens’ piano voice washes over with warm colors. After a few seconds, the song picks up again with a harmonious, grandiose choir reminiscent of Stevens’ song, “Chicago,” and we are instantly captured.
It’s possible that Kaleo La Belle could not have trusted a more dynamic musical pair to score his film about the simultaneous love and resentment toward his estranged father and the bold questions raised during a 500-mile bicycle trip culminating at Spirit Lake.
Ray Raposa let me in on the writing process along with some anecdotes and insights on his musical background.
Is this your first attempt at a soundtrack?
It is. I mean, there [were] things in San Diego and such when I was growing up that we would do, you know, more like experimental live things over films that friends of ours had made… which is not preserved, so it’s a different approach. But this is the first official film.
You flew to Brooklyn to write and record with Sufjan Stevens, right?
Yeah. I hadn’t seen the film yet, and Sufjan hadn’t either. But Kaleo flew out there from Switzerland, and I flew out from Portland. The first session that we did was about a week at Sufjan’s studio in Dumbo, which is a part of Brooklyn there. And we watched the film a couple times. We did it sort of piece by piece. And I think for every section of music that ended up getting used in the film, there’s probably about five or six alternate takes or alternate approaches because Kaleo was trying to communicate as a filmmaker what he wanted out of us. And we’re both capable enough guys that we can give him different things.
Did Kaleo La Belle just put the soundtrack in your hands to write, or was he there for the writing process?
He was there the whole time.
So he directed it?
Very much so. Oppressively so. (smile) But he knows that.
Was there ever a time where you had to kind of fight for your opinion on what musical decisions were made?
I think the two of us did that a lot with Kaleo, yeah! And we almost never won. I mean there’s just these epic reggae outtakes and these, you know… cruising little techno bike jams and stuff, and none of it showed. None of it’s in the film. And we fought for it, but you know, playfully.
It was all pretty improvisational. [Kaleo] would have a scene, and he would give us sort of keywords for what he wanted to conjure from it. He was still editing the film, so sometimes he’d be in the other room whittling down takes while we’d be in the tracking room sort of noodling around on a thing. And he would come in and say, “Make it more boyish.” And we would try to figure out what “boyish” meant. (smile)
What made you decide to use so much electric guitar to accompany scenes mostly set in nature?
I mean, electric guitar, at this point, has sort of been subsumed in the pastoral. I think it’s almost as natural as anything else. I mean, we weren’t using Moogs or, you know… And also, I just don’t care much for the sound of acoustic guitars.
You know, they don’t hardly resonate. But they’re so familiar. Not that electric guitar isn’t, but… one of my least favorite things is just someone strumming.
That’s an interesting perspective from someone considered a folk artist.
Yeah. I shouldn’t sound like I’m too down on acoustic guitars. I’m just not actively interested in them, I guess.
In the film, I noticed a lot of dual guitars used to convey the complex emotion between father and son, sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant.
A lot of that was Sufjan… He’s got a pretty nice little pedal set up with his delays and his little stereo wah thing or whatnot… And that guitar that’s shaped like the United States, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s pretty kitschy! I don’t know if he’s going to use that for the shows, but I’ll probably give him some grief if he does.
How would it have been different if Kaleo had let you and Sufjan take the reins?
If we get the go-ahead to do the B-sides collection, which we have many of, I’ll be pretty happy…
Just some real potent drums. We did a lot of goofy choral stuff, the two of us doing harmonies… Much fewer guitars; NO acoustic guitars. (smile)
I noticed at the end of the film, the credits said “Raymond Byron Magic Raposa.” What’s the story on that?
That’s my full name.
Really? Did you have hippie parents / is that offensive to ask?
No… No, I didn’t actually, which is the funny thing! I didn’t. One of my bigger sisters was given free reign over one of my names and chose “Magic” after Magic Johnson, who was barely even playing at the time. This was 1981; he certainly couldn’t have been that famous. [And] “Byron” [was named] after the writer. And my father’s name is Ron. And he was a journalist at the time, so, comically, I have a fucking pun for a second name. “By-Ron” Raposa. A little trick on his part! And that’s it. No, not hippies.
The band name, “Castanets” — Is that a reference to your Spanish heritage?
It’s not. It’s a complete accident. And a complete mistake.
We had a tour booked. I had made a record in San Diego with my friend Nathan Delffs, which is the first Castanets record… the one before Cathedral. This was 2002. We had a tour booked, and we didn’t have a band name. And we’d been kind of playing around town with either no name or just throw-offs. But we had this tour booked with Howard Hello and Lazarus up the west coast, and we needed a name. And I think that…possibly…[Nathan's] mom might have suggested it.
And I had no allegiance to it whatsoever. I had no attachment, and then there it was. We printed up the CDs and we played the shows, and… nothing better happened.
Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
No, I didn’t know that, either. That was an accident. I wasn’t counting on it. And I probably shouldn’t have done it. The Cathedral record came out, and I started going on a couple tours and went on a couple more tours and stopped working and then realized I was a musician. I just shook my head at myself.
(smiling) It’s fine, you know, it’s fine. But it’s not an “adult” career, you know. I’m cynical about it, but… It’s pretty positive; it’s a fine thing to do.
Tickets for the live soundtrack and screening of Beyond This Place can be purchased here.
Ray Raposa Photo: Mia Ferm