Ra Ra Riot grabbed a slot at the CMJ Music Marathon less than six months after forming on the campus of Syracuse University in early 2006. It’s been onward and upward ever since.
The sextet — which includes singer Wes Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci, bassist Mathieu Santos, cellist Alexandra Lawn, violinist Rebecca Zeller and new drummer Kenny Bernard — released its 2008 full-length debut, The Rhumb Line, amid a rush of hype earned by the album’s vibrant, instantly addictive Indie Pop, which was set apart by a deft rhythm section and the unconventional use of cello and violin. Ra Riot Riot’s 2010 follow-up, The Orchard, represents a change of pace that is evident from the get-go — the album-opening title track is spare, melancholy-drenched Chamber Pop kissed by the ghost of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys — before touching on everything from the jaunty, guitar-spiked fizz of the band’s earlier efforts (“Boy”) to synth-aided songs that would have been right at home on 1980s-era Pop radio (“Foolish”).
CityBeat recently phoned Santos to discuss the band’s move from Syracuse house parties to household name.
CityBeat: Where are you guys right now?
Mathieu Santos: We are currently in Tampa, Fla., doing a radio session. It’s nice when tours kind of turn into vacations (laughs).
CB: Stop it — it’s like 35 degrees and raining in Cincinnati right now. Speaking of radio sessions, you guys did a few with (late, beloved, onetime-locally-based FM-turned-Internet radio station) WOXY, right?
MS: WOXY was our first ever radio session. They were great to us from the very beginning. We ended up doing at least two or three sessions with them when they were still in Cincinnati. It’s unfortunate what happened to them.
CB: I have to admit that I almost never listen to conventional radio since WOXY left the dial, at least when it comes to music.
MS: Radio is kind of like a foreign medium for us now, too, but it’s still really important to getting your music out to a lot of people who don’t know where to find alternative or independent music online.
CB: The band has been together five years now. How as the dynamic changed between you guys both personally and creatively over that time?
MS: It’s funny, because when the band started none of us knew each other. I feel like most bands start from a group of friends who’ve known each other for a long time — “Hey, let’s start a band!” But for us it was different. Milo, our guitar player, assembled us from out of mutual acquaintances, so we didn’t even know each other until the first practice. The fact that we all got along pretty well was a pleasant surprise. I think from the beginning we’ve had a very familial dynamic, which I think has served us well. It’s been pretty stable from the beginning, and we’ve all grown very close over the last five years despite spending an incredible amount of time together in very confined spaces (laughs).
CB: How did that familiarity with each other and playing live so much over the last couple of years impact the new record?
MS: The first album was just like a collection of whatever songs we had during the first three years. The second album we got to write from scratch and it was after we had been touring for like three-and-a-half years straight. So we had gotten really tight and we had learned a lot about actually playing together, listening to each other and how creative decisions we each make individually impact the greater picture. We learned a lot about managing space sonically, and that was something we tried to be aware of. When we started the new album I think we were really comfortable playing together. I think we just felt excited to explore new things, explore new dynamics in the music. It was a lot of fun. We’re already looking forward to starting work on the next album.
CB: The Orchard has a less urgent feel to it than the last one. Was that something you had in mind when you went into the sessions or was it something that happened organically?
MS: It was totally coincidental. The first album was a lot of material we had written while we were still in college and that atmosphere was geared toward playing really rowdy house parties and we were writing in that sort of environment. When it came time to write the second album we decamped to this beautiful, peaceful farm in upstate New York and we just lived there for like a month. There wasn’t much activity up there. It was like a Mennonite community. The neighbors didn’t even use electricity or anything. It was totally secluded. While it wasn’t intentional, I think that environment definitely impacted the songwriting and I think that probably played a part in our awareness of space that we were trying to explore on the new album.
CB: I noticed you guys are playing a few shows with Pomegranates, which is a Cincinnati band. How did you hook up with them?
yeah, yeah. We played with them in the past, but I don’t exactly
remember where or when it was. The last couple of years have been pretty
hectic. We met them on the road at some point and remembered liking
them. When it came time to book this tour we were looking for opening
bands and their schedule worked out. It’s going to be fun.