No Gravity Is Keeping Me Down: A Conversation With Ra Ra Riot
Originally published on Slant.
It's been about a decade since a group of friends got together at Syracuse University and started a band called Ra Ra Riot. But listening to Need Your Light, their latest LP released last month, Ra Ra Riot sounds less like they've "been there, done that" and more like they're just getting started.
Traces of what first made the band beloved remain: huge, hooky choruses, the soaring tenor of lead singer Wes Miles, and a dash of strings when necessary. But everything feels bigger and fresher on Need Your Light, thanks in part to a band that's never been content phoning it in and staying in the same lane.
While they first gained followers as a "chamber pop" act with their debut LP, The Rhumb Line, they've added electronic elements, crisper production and expanded their willingness to collaborate, as evidenced by two tracks assisted by Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij.
I caught up with bassist Mathieu Santos to talk about RRR's humble beginnings, crossing off band bucket lists, and his advice for young artists just starting out.
SD: When you started Ra Ra Riot about 10 years ago, did you imagine that you’d still be doing it today?
MS: No way. And that’s one of the fun things. When we started, we just expected to be a group for just one spring semester in college and then we said that we’d all go our separate ways. But that semester ended up being a lot of fun, so we decided to do a little tour that following summer, and then that summer tour was really fun. So we were like, alright let’s actually try and do a real tour in the fall, and then that fall we ended up doing CMJ and started getting some buzz. And so it just started snowballing.
That next spring, we were at our first SXSW and it just seemed like we were becoming a "real band." We never had any aspirations outside of playing some house parties at school, so every step of the way has been a pleasant surprise. We always said that we would do it as long as it remained fun for everyone. That’s been sort of our guiding principle, It’s gotten us this far and it’s still fun.
Around the time when we decided to go for it and become more of a serious band, or make it our full-time thing, we sat down and made list of goals. This was early on, when we were still students, but thought we should have some goals to give us some structure.
So we made this list of of like really lofty, outrageous goals in our minds. It was like "tour in Japan" and "play on Conan" and all this other stuff. Our manager kept that list of goals and he actually found it a few years ago. To our shock, we had actually done all the things on our crazy goal list. So we made a new one for the next 10 years. It’s still going and we’re still having fun. No reason to stop now.
SD: What’s like the writing process for you guys? How do you guys get together as a group and work out the songs that you might put on the record?
MS: One of my favorite things about the band is that it’s always different. The writing process and arranging process is always different, so it keeps it from getting stale. Usually the way it works, though, is that when we’re all apart, everyone’s working on stuff on their own. Then, when we get back together, we kind of have like a big show and tell.
We share all of our individual demos with the group. Some are really flushed out, some have full structures and arrangements, some are very raw and loose, some are just a groove idea just drums and bass. Other things are more a melody that needs to be filled in. We come together with all these different strands of ideas at different levels, and we’re like, "Oh, that one sounds fun let’s work on this one." It’s this big democratic process. Sometimes we try and change the song a lot and it does change a lot, sometimes it doesn’t need to be changed from the original demo and we just keep it like that.
Sometimes we’ll just be working on something together and someone will play something and we’ll be like, "What was that, what did you just do? Do that again." And that’ll give rise to a new idea and we’ll start building off of that. Hopefully we end up with a few viable songs at the end of it.
SD: How has Ra Ra Riot changed since the start?
MS: Our early success surprised us. It sort of came out of nowhere and it was just a sign that "Oh, whatever we’re doing seems to be connecting with people for some reason." So we learned to trust our creative instincts early on. That’s been one of our guiding principles throughout the years. We don’t have any fixed ideas about what our band is our what it should sound like. To us we’re just a close collective of people. We’re learning more and more about how to play together and learning more and more about our collective sensibilities and each other’s individual sensibilities as they change.
But the biggest thing is just that when we started, we all were like 20 at our first rehearsal. We were all college kids. And now I’m like 30, people are settling down and getting married.
It’s been a long decade of life and the band has been the one constant thing throughout it. It’s a place where we get back together and we get to explore the things that are interesting to us at that particular moment. That’s really rewarding. We’re just used to following whatever we’re feeling at the time, whatever we’re interested in. We go for it and try to realize that as best we can.
SD: What do you personally bring to the table in Ra Ra Riot when you’re trying to influence the sound or introduce new ideas? Who’s influenced you?
MS: It’s fun I get to play bass in this band because there’s a lot of stuff going on. There’s a lot of stuff to respond to a bass player. With another low register instrument or even two, if you count bass synths, there’s a lot of room for me to do other stuff. I like Paul McCartney and Sting and Adam Clayton and Jaco Pastorius and Bruce Thomas. Those are some of my favorite bass players. I think all those bassists have a very playful sensibility, just trying to bring a lot of energy and movement and feel to give the song some life.
It’s fun to be a counterpoint to the way that the strings sound naturally, the pretty textures. Milo, the guitarist, has a lot of single-note lines and a lot of textural stuff. Wes’ vocals are so usually high that I have a lot of room to work together with our drummer, Kenny, to make powerful, energetic and playful rhythm parts. That’s what I try and bring.
SD: I know there’s a history with Ra Ra Riot, but what was it like working with Rostam Batmanglij on this record?
MS: It was fun. We did a couple of songs with him at the very end of the recording. Most of the record we did up in Seattle with a guy named Ryan Hadlock who also did our first record.
Wes had gone out to LA just to write with Rostam earlier last year and it wasn’t specifically for Ra Ra Riot or specifically for Discovery, or specifically for anything. They just wanted to get together and work on stuff. They had come up with a few song,s but the two that they finished were "Water" and the title track "I Need Your Light." I guess as they were working on them, they were like, "Well, what do we do with these? They’re not really Discovery songs."
I guess Rostam suggested to Wes that Ra Ra Riot record them because he thought they were in our wheelhouse. So Wes brought the songs to the band and showed us and we were like, "Oh yeah, these are awesome. We’d love to work on these songs."
So after doing most of the record for those couple months, we went down to LA for three days at the very end of the recording session and banged those out with Rostam. One of the things about working with people that you have a longstanding relationship with is there’s a certain level of trust.
We're all huge fans of Rostam and we all love the stuff that he’s worked on, and of course all the Vampire Weekend records. Those are very important records for us. It was a nice little coda for the whole session, just being in LA for a few days with an old buddy of ours. The whole thing just felt very easy and natural.
SD: What are you listening to right now?
MS: I’ve been on a big jazz fusion kick for the last few years. But speaking of discoveries, we just did a session at the NPR Mountain Stage in West Virginia. The cool thing about Mountain Stage is that it’s like five or six bands and they’re all half-hour sets. It’s this big, fun day where all the bands watch each other.
Walter Martin, formerly of the Walkmen, was there. He did a solo set playing material from his new record called Arts & Leisure. We all really were blown away by his set. I think a few of us immediately went home and listened to that album on Spotify. I just listened to it last night for the first time and it was really, really good. There’s so much personality on the record.
He creates this little world with him and his guitar and his voice, and he uses these simple elements to tell these fun, but very personal and concrete stories. That was some discovery because I feel like I haven’t been paying attention to new music a lot over the past couple years. It felt good to find something new.
SD: What would you say is the best or most fun part of being a professional musician, of having this as your job? And what would you say is the most frustrating or difficult part?
MS: The best part would be we get to live out all these fantasies of traveling around the world and getting to play music that you make with your friends. You get to see the world, you get to meet a lot of interesting, fun people, and you get to play music for a job. That’s really something we try not to take for granted ever because we’re really lucky to still be doing it and have been doing it for this long. That’s the fun stuff, when everything’s clicking and the shows are going well.
But the other side of that coin is that it’s hard sometimes to really flip the switch. This past year has been pretty quiet and we’ve all been settling down in our individual lives and now it’s time to put everything aside and all the stability and all the day-to-day comforts. You just surrender your individual self to the greater band and the greater tour.
It can be tough living with the same people every day for weeks on end and you’re all together on the bus and you can’t be further away than 10 feet from any person at any time. It can feel a little claustrophobic and it can be hard to carve out your alone time on tour. Overall, I definitely wouldn’t want to do anything else.
SD: What advice would you give to somebody who was that 20-year-old going to your first practice with your college band, who maybe have some dreams of being a touring, professional musician?
MS: Get your stuff out there as soon as possible to as many people as possible. Play as much as possible. You play as many shows as you can to try and figure out what you’re about as a band and how you work together, figure out what the songs are supposed to be like. The longer you get to cut your teeth playing shitty shows and dive bars and small clubs when there’s like six people watching you, those are all the best type of rehearsals you could ever have.
Our first two years, we just didn’t stop touring and we tried to play in front of as many people as possible, which led to the CMJ and SXSW appearances. By that time, even though we were still a young band, we had been playing so many songs together hundreds and hundreds of times at shows.
Play and play and play and really hone that side of your craft. And then by the time you put your music online and start getting attention, you’ll be a little more ready to be thrown into some sort of spotlight.
Also, just be grateful for whatever comes your way. It’s sort of a nasty world out there and there’s so many bands trying to do what they do and you've just got to believe in the space that you’re carving out for yourself. Early on, we had these big shows that we thought were going to be great. They were at some cool clubs and these important people were coming and it was going to be a big deal. Those shows always end up being disappointing. The people that would show up don’t.
On the other side, it was like the shows where we get there and there’s no dressing room and the stage is awful, it’s just a terrible room and you don’t think anyone’s going to come and it’s raining and then some random person will walk by and hear you and come in and it’ll be the serendipitous meeting that’ll lead to some important connection.
You never know when the breaks are going to come and you've got to keep doing what you do. You can create your own opportunities that way.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Cover photo: Shervin Lainez