A couple of years ago, Snowbyrd singer-guitarist Chris Lutz had been told by more than one local club owner that his band was playing too loudly at its gigs. Lutz suggested to Manny Castillo, the group’s drummer, that they might want to bring the volume down a notch. Castillo, with characteristic defiance, responded: “You don’t know what loud is.” To prove his point, he took Lutz to San Antonio’s South Side to hear conjunto bandleader Jet Martinez, whose sonic assault was so inspiring it convinced the members of Snowbyrd to buy bigger amps and crank them up higher than ever.
Castillo, the founder of San Anto Cultural Arts as well as an inimitable musician, never needed much encouragement to play louder. He proudly referred to himself as a “lead drummer,” and backed up the boast every time he unleashed his fast, propulsive fills on unsuspecting drum kits and awestruck audiences.
Castillo’s death in January, 2009, at the age of 40, sent shock waves through the San Antonio music scene, and ended the first chapter in the saga of this promising, iconoclastic quartet. As a result, what started as a simple follow-up to the band’s well-received, self-titled 2006 debut album, has morphed into a tribute to Castillo. The album even takes its title from Castillo’s middle name, Diosdado, which translates to English as “God-given,” a fitting moniker for a man never lacking in confidence. But if the album’s context has changed, the high-spirited feel of these tracks has not.
Castillo met Lutz and his multi-instrumentalist brother Scott in the early ’90s at SA’s legendary punk-rock haven Taco Land, at a time when Castillo was drumming for El Santo and the Lutzes were playing with The Dropouts, a band which they formed, and from which they subsequently faced the indignity of being fired. Over the years, Castillo and Chris Lutz forged a bond built on competitive one-upsmanship. They’d regularly attend punk shows at Taco Land, grabbing their beers from the bar and vying to see who could stand closer to the stage, even on nights when the place was near-empty. From time to time, they’d even throw each other into an unsuspecting band’s drum kit, just to stir things up.
With an unkempt mix of hazy, sun-baked pedal steel (courtesy of Scott Lutz), Chris’s unpredictable pop melodies, and Castillo’s bull-in-a-honky-tonk drum fills, Snowbyrd never fit comfortably into any pocket of the local scene: too heavy for the art-pop crowd, too poppy for the metal scene, and too twisted for any kind of country audience. But that outsider status fueled and liberated them, and never more than on Diosdado.
The basic tracks for the seven new songs were cut in a single, wildly productive day at Joe Trevino’s Blue Cat Studios only a couple of weeks before Castillo was diagnosed with cancer. "He had missed a couple of practices and I remember at that time it seemed like he was sick a lot,” Chris Lutz says. “But at the time we went in and recorded he was in good spirits. He was joking around a lot.”
Trevino approached the band at their March, 2008 SXSW gig and told them he’d enjoyed much of their debut album, but wanted to help them capture “that swirling sound you get live, with stuff bleeding into each monitor,” Lutz recalls.
Without question, he succeeded. With its insistent piano eighth notes, giddy handclaps and serpentine melody, “Halcyon Days” is about as irresistible as 21st century indie-pop gets; “Light It Up” rides a cocky riff to pay dirt; and “Is It On” takes a catch-phrase associated with Taco Land owner Ram Ayala (who was murdered in his own bar in 2005) and turns it into a complex homage to Snowbyrd’s beleaguered hometown.
"There was an article about a band that moved to Austin from here because they said that San Antonio sucked,” Chris Lutz recalls. “So the last verse is: 'I'd never say that where I come from isn't the place where I belong.’ Not that we didn't like going to other places every now and then, but with Manny especially, he had a lot of opportunities for his work, but he always wanted to stay in San Antonio."
Diosdado’s new songs are linked by archival, never-released band recordings and oddball snippets, including an audio-verite tape Castillo and Chris Lutz made at Alamo City bus stops, and an impromptu track they built around the rhythm created by Castillo’s clothes dryer.
So this album pays homage, all right, but it simply won’t allow you to grieve. It’s too spirited, too lively, too charged with creative energy for that. And that’s just the way Castillo would have liked it.