Ra Ra roundup
Getting to know indie-chamber five-piece Ra Ra Riot
Sacramento, CA 95816
Last month, East Coast-based indie rock five-piece Ra Ra Riot performed on Late Show With David Letterman for the second time. The main guest that night was Johnny Depp.
“It was really fun,” remembered Alexandra Lawn, who plays cello in the band, which will perform at Harlow’s in Midtown on January 22. “We have done a couple of those [TV shows] now, so it wasn’t as nerve-racking as the first one.”
Sure—but did she get to meet Depp? “I saw him,” said Lawn, sounding disappointed. “But it would have been really cool to meet him.”
When Ra Ra Riot first started playing normal club shows back in 2006, the group, comprised entirely of students attending Syracuse University, probably never would have imagined they’d be so at ease making TV appearances. The only member that might have had an inkling of this future was Milo Bonacci, who’d already tasted fame with his previous group, hip-hop pop stars Gym Class Heroes, which he’d left three years prior.
When it came time to start a new project, Bonacci’s first step was to call on a friend he’d met in an electronic-music class, Rebecca Zeller, and arrange a string section. Next, Zeller suggested Lawn, another cellist. Matt Santos (bass), John Pike (drums), and Wes Miles (vocals/keyboard) were soon to follow, and the group quickly formed a good rapport with each other.
“We work really well together,” explained Lawn, who spoke with SN&R on her cell phone in New York City while heading back home to her apartment. “So there is a lot of really positive energy between us all.”
Most of Ra Ra Riot graduated Syracuse in May 2006—Santos and Lawn decided to defer their studies to focus on the band—but one event nearly derailed the group: the sudden death of drummer John Pike. Despite recording their debut full-length while still grieving the loss of their friend, The Rhumb Line sold 66,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Ra Ra Riot’s sound can be best described as a bastard child of indie rock and symphony, somewhere between Band of Horses and Vampire Weekend. The group’s midtempo pop style fuses with its singalong choruses. Miles’ pristine and soft falsetto vocals soothe and coo as they strut through well-written verses.
Fast-forward to 2010. The Orchard, Ra Ra Riot’s second full-length, dropped this past August and reached No. 36 on the Billboard 200. In the first two weeks, it sold nearly 14,000 albums. All of this is despite a few mediocre reviews—including one particularly scathing Pitchfork diss that accused the band of “overthinking” the album.
Lawn says the review hurt a bit. “Because it’s an opinion that’s not positive and certainly doesn’t encourage you,” she explained. “But the thing about Pitchfork that everyone should realize and remember is that it’s one review by one person. Granted [the site] is a huge avenue for people to feel out an album in some ways. But at the end of the day, it’s one opinion. You can’t really let it rattle you too much.”
Lawn also says that while the band allowed itself plenty of time to overthink the album—and even accepts that maybe certain things might have in fact been overthought—she notes that it “came out, I think, exactly how we intended it to.”
Though not all reviews were as harsh as Pitchfork’s, the album certainly has not received critical success. Still, the new album did not disappoint those already in love with Ra Ra Riot’s sound. The Orchard’s style is nearly the same as Rhumb, though the group has stepped away from focusing on catchy choruses or hooks and seems more interested in overall song quality. Despite the negative press, the bands album sales and continued touring suggests Ra Ra Riot may have beat the supposed “sophomore slump.”
When it came to recording their latest album, the band was ready to get out of town. The group made like Oliver and Lisa Douglas; proclaimed “keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside”; and moved to a peach farm in upstate New York. There, the group spent the time bonding, playing outdoors—and even battling a fruit fly epidemic.
“Oh, yeah,” Lawn exclaimed. “It was really beautiful, and it offered a really great escape from distractions. It allowed us to leave it and enjoy the outdoors, which we all really like to do, [so we] don’t get totally cabin-fevered out.”
The Orchard showcases Ra Ra Riot’s evolution. It includes elements of their earlier chamber-pop feel, and certain tracks work really well, such as “Boy,” which has received success as a single. Other songs fall flat in parts, such as the slightly choppy “Massachusetts.”
The album also introduces a second vocalist; Lawn sings for the first time on “You and I Know,” which is, strangely enough, a waltz. She admits to being self-conscious, but vows to continue to practice singing. And in keeping with the trying new things, the band decided to reach further back for the influences for the latest album.
Lawn calls the album retro. “I think [The Orchard] really falls back on really old and true pop music,” she said. “And a lot of that was from the ’70s. … I think there is kind of a Fleetwood Mac thing going on then. Also there is a lot of the ’80s, there is a little of a Police thing. We all just really love true pop from every decade.”
The band has performed with Gabriel Duquette on the drums since the sudden death of Pike. Today, each member of the band carries little trinkets with them as reminders of Pike, says Lawn, who keeps hers inside her backpack.
This family of musicians may have started as a humble group of college students unaware of the future ahead of them, but through the chaos of success, from Johnny Depp to tragedy, Ra Ra Riot stays grounded.
“In terms of it being fun and being thrilling, it’s still the same,” Lawn said. “So, in some ways, nothing needs to settle in. It’s all the same.”