A year ago, the six members of Ra Ra Riot were all busy Syracuse
undergrads cramming for finals, fulfilling credits, and thinking about post-collegiate
careers. None could have surmised that a band begun less than a year before
as an experiment would now become their collective post-graduate focus. Nor
could the band have guessed that they would rise to the top of the CMJ and SXSW
buzz bins after releasing only one 3-song demo playing and mostly on-campus
For some members, the band is a welcome alternative to the
path taken by most fellow classmates who, despite the "infinite possibilities"
they heard about during commencement and graduation exercises, seem to be funneled
like cattle into the same careers of investment banking, consulting, IT, medicine,
or law. Explains violinist Rebecca Zeller, "I'm only 22. I have nothing
to lose. The whole 'high school-college-job' plan with no time for life experience
in between is a little overrated. The majority of my friends with desk jobs
aren't even in fields that relate to what they majored in school."
Bassist Mathieu Santos and cellist Allie Lawn have taken a
longer leap of faith, forgoing graduation to focus on the band -which is quickly
emerging as a viable career alternative, even if some members needed a bit more
convincing that others. Admits Santos, "Allie and I left school just to
guilt the graduates into sticking with the band!"
The Riot began quietly enough out of the restlessness of guitarist
Milo Bonacci, who after playing in bands his whole life, had inexplicably stalled.
"It had been over a year, and I began to long for some musical creative
outlet," explains Bonacci. He and Santos had played together previously,
and he met Zeller in Electronic Music Composition Class. "Throughout the
semester I began to expect she might be a violin player, "explains Bonacci.
"I told her I wanted to start a band and she seemed giddy about the idea."
Zeller in turn brought fellow Syracuse Orchestra member Lawn
into the fold, and Bonacci knew Wesley Miles (vocals, keys) and John Pike (drums)
casually and invited them to their first practice. The Riot had begun, and as
Zeller explains, it didn't take long to realize that the band had a compelling
dynamic. "We had our first practice ever on January 17, 2006 - don't ask
me why I remember this - and had our first NYC show at Pianos around March 17.
It was packed. I don't know where all the people came from, but it was at that
show that I thought: (a) 'this is fun' and (b) 'something could come of this.'"
Musically, Ra Ra Riot has a refreshing innocence not unlike
Jeff Buckley or early Sundays, and sees the glass as half-full instead of smashing
it against the wall in some angst-filled tirade. Moreover, the joy in their
music is not the forced and creepy Koolaid happiness of the Polyphonic Spree,
but something more genuine and downright irresistible. Zeller calls this spirit
"upbeat without being too happy and cheesy. I like that about it - I enjoy
the occasional listen and sing-a-long without feeling too Brady Bunch-ish."
For Santos, it's simply the fact that "being angry takes so much more work."
Miles, who possesses an "open arms" magnetism and
possibly the purest, prettiest singing voice you'll hear this year, explains
the band's output belies more complexity than first might meet the ear. "On
the one hand we want to make everything sound 'good' on a visceral level. But
there is more irony than it would seem. In "Can You Tell," for instance,
the music is a bit simple, and if you only catch the word "baby,"
then the natural response is 'what a cute love song.' But it's really about
fear that comes from infatuation and obsession. I associate innocence with anything
comedic or honest, but irony and sarcasm as the antithesis of that, and we have
a mix of the two."
The sunny sounds of Ra Ra Riot lie in start contrast to the
surroundings in which they were conceived. Syracuse gives Portland a run for
rainiest town in the US, but this drab weather forced the band to use its music
as its very own sun lamp. As Bonacci explains, "Some of our happiest songs
were written while we had locked ourselves away in our practice space during
the bleakest winter nights." Moreover, the crappy weather produced the
happy accident of focus. "There was never the temptation to run outside
and play in the sun, "explains Santos. "We would just hole up in a
warm basement and make tea and play for hours."
Comparing new bands to old ones is music writer shorthand,
and Ra Ra Riot has not been spared. Nearly all write-ups name-check the Arcade
Fire, and the band is growing weary of - and annoyed by - the comparison. ("I
don't dig it," says Bonacci. "It seems unfair," claims Santos.
"It bugs me," admits Zeller.) Miles dissects it. "There are some
obvious similarities - like strings, and we each have more than five people,
we're both from north of New York City'but after that, they are fewer and farther
between," he explains. "They are so much more epic than us, and we
are much lighter and hopefully funnier than them."
One Arcade Fire quality which Ra Ra Riot probably would not
mind emulating is the adoration of fan and industry executive alike, which was
evinced at CMJ 2006 and SXSW 2007. At CMJ, the band played six sold-out shows
in five days, prompting some publications including NME to herald them as the
next big thing. For the band, however, the festival was a crash course, or at
least a microcosm, of life on the road. "It was a blur," explains
Santos. "Everything was so hectic, but the scenery never changed. I pretended
that it was a full-scale tour, and that New York City was the whole world. That
The band has now fully migrated to NYC, where they recently
recorded and self-released their debut E.P. Stellar festival buzz won them a
European booker who will bring Ra Ra Riot across the pond and into the clubs
of London this spring. Moreover, labels have begun to swarm, presenting myriad
first-time questions for the young band. While Bonacci admits "we are record
industry virgins," having a violinist who majored in Music Industry Studies
should prove handy. Enjoying the fruits of her Orangeman education, Zeller objectively
breaks down the frenzy. "It depends what each label offers us. So many
people look down upon the majors but being a music industry major and working
in the industry you realize they're ALL in it for the money, even the indies.
It's a business it just happens to be about music."
Bonacci is keen to apply a nugget he mined from the many industry
insiders eager to impart advice at the festivals. "You want to choose the
label that have the most people working for them who love you. Everybody
has 20 things to do at once, but you want to be at the label where somebody
will look at the pile of work on their desk and say to themselves 'I am going
to get to this Ra Ra Riot stuff first!'"