ABOVE: RA RA RIOT
Ra Ra Riot (Wes Miles on vocals, Rebecca Zeller on violin, Mathieu Santos on bass, and Milo Bonacci on guitar) got their start at Syracuse University and made their way by playing those oh-so-familiar Solo-cup-filled house parties around campus. The band originally included drummer John Ryan Pike, who did a lot to connect the group together, but he unexpectedly passed away in 2007, just as the band was getting warmed up. The upbeat uniqueness of their sound, which mixes Miles' light but soaring vocals with electronic beats and acoustic instruments like cello and violin, has led them to nearly every indie rock festival and placed them, comparatively anyway, in the same league as Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend. And that's no surprise, given that Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig and Miles are childhood friends—not to mention Discovery, Miles' 2009 electronic recording project with Vampire Weekend keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij.
Produced by Dennis Herring, the band's third full-length album, Beta Love, out today on Barsuk, takes the now Brooklyn-based quartet into new but familiar sonic territory. The 11-track record is urgent and comes at you with some serious spring in its step, something you hear right away on the opener, "Dance With Me." Beta Love might be their third record, but in a lot of ways it sounds like a first—a fresh start of sorts—particularly as the band trimmed down and reconfigured itself after cellist Alexandra Lawn left almost a year ago.
We caught up with vocalist Wes Miles to talk about sweet tea, New Haven pizza, and how Beta Love marks a new beginning for the band.
MADISON MOORE: Ra Ra Riot formed as a band while you were all studying at Syracuse University. How did you meet? Did you trade notes in classes you had together?
WES MILES: [laughs] I knew Milo from earlier in college. We all met in the spring semester, almost exactly seven years ago this week. But I had known Milo, and of course John [Ryan Pike], for a while. John was a housemate of mine, and we were in lots of other bands. But Milo was sort of the central figure that brought us all together. He knew Rebecca [Zeller]—sort of—from an electronic music class. He knew Matt [Santos] from... I guess they had played in some other bands. There was all this recording going on and all these other bands, so we sort of just formed a new one, this week seven years ago.
MOORE: I guess it's sort of a nice anniversary present to you all that Ra Ra Riot's third record Beta Love comes out next week.
MILES: [laughs] Yeah, that's pretty funny.
MOORE: The Orchard was mostly done on a peach orchard in upstate New York, but Beta Love was recorded at Sweet Tea Recording Studio in Oxford, Mississippi. Did you get to have any sweet tea?
MILES: [laughs] I think I might have had some sweet tea. I'm not really supposed to—when I'm in top vocal shape I can't really have any caffeine. That kind of disqualifies any sort of tea.
MOORE: Listening to the album, the first two songs "Dance With Me" and "Binary Mind" really stuck out because they kind of go for it, they just charge through the speakers. Do those two records show a change of pace for the band?
MILES: There was a big change in our mentality between The Orchard and Beta Love, just because we had felt at the end of The Orchard that the way we were arranging and composing music had started to feel like more of an obstacle and more of a limiter of possibilities rather than helping us.
MOORE: How do you mean?
MILES: Well, we used to start with a demo. If I wrote a song or part of a song and made a demo of it and brought it to the band, if everyone liked it and we were all into pursuing this song, then we'd sort of just start jamming on it and everyone would come up with their parts. And it was this big production. We used to call it "putting it through to the Ra Ra Riot machine," and that would mean adding string parts. And the questions we asked were sort of different, like, "What's the string part in this section?," rather than "What does this song mean? What is really going to serve the melody?" So in this record, we started to ask that question more. And sometimes we found, well, maybe this song doesn't need strings, or maybe this song needs strings but doesn't need a guitar. We found that pairing back some of the arrangements shaped the songs in a different way.
MOORE: I have to tell you that probably my favorite song on the album, today anyway, is "What I Do for U." When I first heard it I was taking the subway somewhere and I had to play it again and again to make sure I was hearing it right, because it has such a bass-heavy, R&B sound we've never gotten from Ra Ra Riot.
MILES: Well it's like I was saying, there's a lot of attitude changes that we went through starting this record and throughout making it. And one of them was, as you noticed in the first two songs, we're just going to go for it. We don't have to settle for what people's preconceptions about what Ra Ra Riot music is supposed to be like. We can do whatever we want. If we're really creative people and we believe in our music, then we can chose to take that wherever we want.
MOORE: And that's why, to me, this record seems a lot like a rebirth.
MILES: It was fun working with a producer like Dennis Herring, because he also has that mentality. Dennis listened to the demos and he was like, "I just came up with this beat. This beat popped in my head, so I put it down and I figured, why don't you just try something with it." So he just split the beat up and was like, "Alright, I'll just come back tomorrow and see what you got." I thought that was kind of strange, because it's just a beat. There were no chords or no bass line, really. So I just started singing and found this thing I liked a bit and he came back the next morning and was like, "That's pretty cool, why don't you take that up an octave?" Really? It's really high already! That's what led to this sort of screaming vocal sound that is so, so high and sort of out of my range. I had to scream to get up to it.
MOORE: You were saying that "What I Do for U" is really beat driven, and given the Discovery project you did with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij, is Beta Love more inspired by electronic music than your previous albums?
MILES: Yeah, there are definitely more keyboards and more drum machines. I don't think we've ever really, really used drum machines much at all or sampled drums previous to this record.
MOORE: I saw that you guys were recently in New Haven enjoying some pizza at Frank Pepe's pizzeria. The pizza there is so good.
MILES: [laughs] New Haven is sort of an important place for us because that's where we started playing after college. As soon as we graduated Milo got a job almost immediately at an architecture firm there, and his apartment was right down the street from Pepe's. So we used to go there a lot. That's sort of an important block for us, that block that Pepe's is on.
BETA LOVE IS OUT NOW. FOR A PREVIEW, AND MORE ON RA RA RIOT, VISIT THE BAND'S WEBSITE.