“The guy behind the record is someone who has been playing music a long time and has awakened to a reality of wanting to go as deep as I can into music, and this is my first step towards that,” explains Chris Castino of the Big Wu about his first solo album, Brazil. It is an album Castino describes as “more of a folk-rock album with a groove to it.”
Brazil is an intimate experience – an album that provokes emotion and is introspective. There is an openness and vulnerability to the album that requires your full attention.
“Some of these tunes are a culmination of places I have been to,” says Castino. “They are a summary of the things I have done before. There are a few tunes that are me stepping into different areas. The accessibility and simplicity of the album belies something way deeper.”
“I try and sneak something through your defenses in the guise of a ditty,” Castino continues. “You have to make people comfortable with the feel of the tune, and then all of a sudden you accept it in. The trojan horse. Then I touch a nerve while I am in there. Something therapeutic.”
After becoming familiar with an artist over so many years – from listening to their music and going to shows – it is refreshing and exciting to see them step outside their comfort zone. We love what they do. That is why we originally became fans of them and we never want to see them give that up. But the artists we have come to know over the years, we want to see how they can evolve. Castino is one of those artists.
Castino first came to prominence with the Big Wu, a band he helped found in 1992. Since then the Big Wu has established itself as a mainstay of the roots and jamband scene. Over that time they have released five studio albums and five live albums, earned a reputation as one of the hardest touring bands on the scene, and regularly hosted their own festival, the Big Wu Family Reunion. In 2002 they became the first band to play at Bonnaroo when they kicked off the inaugural version of the festival. Over the past few years, the Big Wu has slowed their touring down, but still get out for a good number of shows each year.
Castino’s desire for change, forced him to look at the music he creates with the Big Wu. “I love the Big Wu and I love playing with them,” he says. “I have written a lot of tunes for that band, which is challenging in its own way. With them I felt the need to write songs that our fanbase would like, stuff that a Deadhead, jamband fan would appreciate. The challenge of writing songs for that genre is making sure there is space where the jam comes. I then became interested in writing songs that did not fit into that box. It was kind of freeing.”
This freeing songwriting experience became part of a larger journey. He dedicated himself to a quest to submerge himself in songwriting, “to a point where you open yourself and try to communicate something deeper.” For Castino, he did not know where this journey would take him and how it would shape his songwriting and music, but he did know he wanted to explore the power of music.
He says, “The best songs in the world are the ones that are able to communicate what it is to be human, in a way you couldn’t through words alone.” He wanted to focus on the combined might of the melody and lyrics to shape the feel of a song, to as he said, “touch a nerve.”
“I am on this journey towards an unknown destination of being a more intuned songwriter and writing songs that connect and last,” explains Castino. “It’s not a clean break from what I was doing. I love rocking out. I am not running from that. It’s an incremental step towards a place where I am headed. I am still going to write songs for the Big Wu. Honestly without the Big Wu, and the ability to rock out it would be tough to commit myself to doing other stuff as rock music and jamming is still so satisfying. I am so glad I have that. It gives me a license to do these other things.”
Part of Castino’s journey was going through substance abuse issues and starting “a turn down a lane of living sober and all the pitfalls and missteps along the way.” He went to treatment and says, he came back with “some skills on how to deal with stuff. That was the point in my life when I knew what direction I am going and that is going to be living sober. I was just having trouble figuring out how to do it.”
The other fear for Castino was the one that has seemingly always plagued musicians when they start on this path to sobriety. Would he still be able to tap into that creative side to make music? Would he be able to shed those inhibitions to get into that zone “to make the magic happen.” “It was definitely a worry for me,” admits Castino.
As he started this sober journey, he planned a trip to a secluded cabin in northern Wisconsin for a songwriting weekend. “I wanted to really challenge myself and see if I could still do this,” says Castino. The weekend produced three powerful, confessional songs: “Chinese Whispers,” “Leore,” and “The Affair is Over.”
“I realized, not only was I able to write songs,” says Castino, “but that they were better than a lot the songs I have written. It was like waking up and realizing I could still write songs and that it was one of the most enjoyable things in my life. A lot of sober musicians come to the realization that not only can you do it, but it is super important as a natural high in your life to be able to write and perform. I was elated.”
The creation of those three songs was an inspiring moment for Castino. He did not realize it at the time, but says now that was the start of Brazil, even though his first thought was, “Oh shit, these songs are a little more vulnerable, I will never be able to play them for people.”
There was the realization that those personal songs proved that a creative life with sobriety might be more than just a writing breakthrough. They might actually be part of a larger album.
“I didn’t think there would be an album involved,” says Castino. “I just thought I needed to capture these songs right away. I thought what better way to start a solo career then with a couple of really good songs that point in a different direction.”
Even with such a strong start, the path to Brazil was a long one. Of those initial three songs, only “Chinese Whispers” and “Leore” would make the final album. There was a slow recording process that saw Castino change studios. There was more time writing. After about a year and half, Castino says he finally got into a nice groove working everyday, and as he gained momentum he began to enlist all the “local talented musicians and killer players” he knew. And there were still further battles to stay on his path to sobriety. Castino sums it up simply, “It was a long process.”
Castino’s journey to sobriety was made even more difficult by the loss of his friend and longtime collaborator Jeff Austin, who passed away in June of last year, and to whom Brazil is dedicated. He says, “To lose him was an interesting experience in that I had just gotten sober.”
For Castino the heartbreaking loss forced him to examine his life more closely. “You have to be really vigilant about the things that overwhelm you and that you struggle with. You really have to do your best to understand those things and make changes in your life or they will eat you up. I was really close. I am so sorry and sad that Jeff did not make it out of that area. The last time I played with Jeff was April of last year in Denver. We were talking about drugs and not using them, and he had made good strides. We were proud of each other and encouraging each other. I know he is proud, he said as much. Part of my journey is with him in mind. It will always be with him in mind.”
Castino’s journey to sobriety and to find who he is as a songwriter resulted in a mature step forward in his craft, and culminated with Brazil. It also brought clarity about the power of music to Castino, not only in what it means to him, but what he is capable of creating. Reflecting on the journey he has been on, Castino answers the question about what Brazil represents to him.
“Music brought us this joy before we started drinking light beer in high school. Music brought us this otherworldly quality. It’s hard being sober and stripping away all these layers we have put on everything and changing the meaning of things.”
He continues, “You eventually pull everything away and realize music is something I really enjoy and has been part of me since I was young. The result is a great record with all sorts of great music. It is part of the story I plan to tell about wanting to create something useful and beautiful through music.”
After a pause Castino finishes. “That’s the long answer. I got a lot of long answers if you want them.”