Interview: Ra Ra Riot
Ra Ra Riot were one of 2008′s hottest indie-rock success stories: a preppy, college-educated sextet of friends who mixed gorgeous chamber-pop strings with tight, New Wave beats — think of them as a modern-day version of Fleetwood Mac. But Ra Ra Riot came close to falling apart: Just before releasing their debut, the band’s founding drummer John Pike was found mysteriously dead in the waters of Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, in June 2007. He was 22 years old.
While Pike was one of the band’s chief creative forces, writing many of the songs that appeared on The Rhumb Line, the band decided to soldier on, touring relentlessly around the world for the last three years. Now, Ra Ra Riot are returning with The Orchard and it not only features trademark energetic jams like “Boy” and “Too Dramatic,” but also some of their prettiest tunes yet (the gorgeous ballad “You and I” and the haunting album-closer “Keep It Quiet”). The Orchard is a triumphant record, after all, and the band overcame their tragedy through their art, collaborating closely on the writing and recording of the songs.
eMusic’s Kevin O’Donnell caught up with guitarist Milo Bonacci to talk about living on a peach grove to cut the record, traveling everywhere from Japan to Alaska and the hazards of the band’s notoriously energetic live shows.
You released The Rhumb Line two years ago, but had written most of these songs long before that, and then proceeded to tour relentlessly for the last two years. Was it getting to be a drag to play those songs live?
We were somewhat sick of playing them and we were worn out being on the road so much. Even though we’ve been playing the same set so much for the last three-and-a-half years, there’s definitely been plenty to look forward to. We’re always excited to play in new places we’ve never been before.
What’s been a cool place for you guys to play recently?
We were in Alaska this spring and we’d never been there before. It seemed entirely fresh playing songs from The Rhumb Line there. It seemed new to us in a way, so, yeah, it can still be exciting. Maybe playing that same set in New York would’ve been slightly less so. We were also in Japan last month and we’d never been there before.
Japanese fans are notorious for being insanely reverent to bands in concert. Did you find that to be the case?
They were dead silent when we were playing. And they would be paying attention — no one would be texting or anything. The applause between songs was very enthusiastic but concise. They wanted to hear what you wanted to say or listen to the name of the next song. You could hear change dropping on the other end of the room. We sort of got spoiled because people are not like that [in the U.S.]. It was interesting.
There’s a song on the album titled “Kansai,” about the region of Japan. Was that inspired by your recent trip?
No, it was written before we went there. Wes [Miles, singer] spent a semester abroad in college. As far as I know, Wes was feeling really inspired and I guess he found many sources of creative inspiration when he was [there]. I think the song is about his fear of losing that when he had to return [home]. It’s about rebirth, culture shock.
So when you guys were in Japan, was Wes your tour guide?
[Laughs] Yeah, he showed us around. He gave us some food tips and he had some sights that he wanted to revisit. He had a little bit of Japanese banter for the shows. It was pretty awesome.
You guys recorded the new album on a peach orchard in upstate New York. What was that like?
We were living on a farm in a house together in the thick of the Mennonite community for a few weeks and it was our first time not touring in a long time. It was a nice change of pace. We had a chance to work out songs, which we hadn’t really done that creative side of things because we were so busy touring. We had a lot of privacy and a lot of space. It was really satisfying at the time. I think we relished just being there — just living at a different pace. It was a lot of fun.
When you weren’t writing or recording, what did you guys do to pass the time? Eat peaches?
Cooking was often a group activity. It really did become like this family dynamic. Different people would take turns cleaning or cooking or going grocery shopping.
Living in such close quarters, do you think that made the writing and recording of the album a more collective effort?
Yeah, I think so. Everybody contributed in their own way. Matt [Santos, bassist] wrote “Massachusetts” and introduced to the band and everyone added their parts. We work out the structure together. And Ally [Lawn, cellist] sings on the song “You and I,” which she introduced and pretty much wrote herself. There’s definitely more variation in terms of who contributed ideas to the record. I think we were just really excited by new songs coming from different places and seeing what would work.
Founding drummer John Pike, who died tragically in 2007, wrote a lot of the material that was on your debut. Were you apprehensive about writing new songs not having input from him — or did you find a way to channel his creative spirit on this album?
Well, I like to think that he still has an input in songs with us. He had a major influence on all of us in terms of inspiration and where to find it and kind of what to do with songs and where to go with them. We were all affected in such a way that it’s the sort of thing that lasts with us.
You guys have said how you like going on adventurous day trips while on the road. Done anything crazy or particularly memorable recently?
When we were in Alaska, we went hiking. It was really exciting and there was plenty of threatening wildlife around.
What’d you see?
Well, to be honest, the only real wildlife we saw was fenced in a wildlife preserve. There were some big brown bears and elk and stuff like that. Still, those things were out there when we were hiking, we just didn’t see them.
Watching you guys play live is so awesome, because you’re all dancing and bouncing on the stage — it looks like you might collide with each other at any moment. Any disasters happen on-stage?
There have been a few accidents in the past: catching the head stock of a guitar in the head or tripping over one another. I sprained my ankle one night at a show in Madison, Wisconsin. It was kind of embarrassing. I jumped off the bass drum and Matt was behind me and I didn’t know it. Basically, my foot hit his leg on the way down so it landed really weirdly. I was floored — literally. I was flat on the stage and felt like I saw stars and there was a lot of feedback playing. Luckily, there were only, like, four people there at the show.