The Syracuse-born chamber-pop outfit had always stood out because of its use of cello and violin in its upbeat indie pop, but when the band released "Beta Love" in January 2013, it let the strings simply serve as accompaniment to keyboards and synths. Ra Ra Riot left a style that worked to create a new sound that, luckily, also worked, which seems to be one of the hardest things to do in music. "Beta Love" is still recognizable as a Ra Ra Riot album, but the extra pinch of kaleidoscopic synths and more joyful beats lift the band to new heights.
The strings will certainly be present when Ra Ra Riot perform at LouFest on Saturday, September 7, but expect less of the "chamber" and more of the "pop." I got the chance to talk with bassist Mathieu Santos, one of Ra Ra Riot's four remaining original members, on one of the band's few days off between the end of tours opening shows for the Shins and the Postal Service, and the start of its upcoming multi-continental fall tour.
Brian Benton: You're about to start your fall tour. How does headlining a tour compare to the one you just finished, which was opening for the Postal Service?
Mathieu Santos: We actually hadn't done any opening spots in a long time so it was kind of fun getting back to doing that. It's totally different because you're playing in front of a packed house, but most of the people aren't familiar with you so you definitely have to win the crowd over, and you have to work that much harder, which is sort of a fun challenge. But playing your own shows is obviously a lot of fun too, because everyone's there to see your band and they just want to hear your songs, they already know your songs. It's a different atmosphere for sure. It's nice when everyone's singing along, for sure.
And then where does playing a festival like Loufest fit in? Some of your own fans, some people who have never heard you before.
Festivals are a lot of fun and being able to play outside in the summer is a nice change of pace, as opposed to the dark clubs and theater type of things. And you usually are playing for huge, huge crowds, but it's the same kind of thing where you're like, OK, maybe, like 75 percent of the people don't know who we are or aren't paying attention, so it's sort of fun to see if your energy can really get the people to stick around.
Do you usually get a chance to actually enjoy the festivals you play or is it mostly show up, play a set, and head on to the next city?
Most of the time it's like that, sadly, but every now and then we get to stick around and enjoy ourselves and watch some of the other bands. We just did Hangout Fest earlier this year down in Alabama, on the Gulf Shore, and that was a ton of fun because we played kind of early in the afternoon and then we just got to hang around for the rest of the day, hang by the water, see a lot of cool bands, see some friends. Every now and then you get lucky.
Between the tours – the one's you’ve been on in the past few months and the one you're about to go on – you're hitting a ton of cities, but is there anywhere you haven’t been able to play yet that's on your list of places you'd love to visit?
I think for a long time Japan was first on our list, but we've been there a few times now and earlier this year we got to go to other parts of Asia that we'd never been to but always wanted to go to, so that was really fun. But I think we've never played south of the equator before, so it would be cool to do something like South America, or we've never to Australia either, and every band who's ever been to Australia has always told us it's the best place they've ever toured, so I'd love to be able to go down there someday.
Do you, or even the band as a whole, have a favorite song to play live?
My personal one, well it's always exciting to have new songs to play, so I really enjoy playing all of the new songs, but there's one song, the last song from "Beta Love," it's called "I Shut Off" and that’s my personal favorite to play live. You know, I like the more pumped-up ones. There's a lot more energy, it's a lot of fun to play live. But you have to have a few slow ones in there too so you can take a break.
Absolutely. So could you talk a bit about how Ra Ra Riot formed? Obviously it was at Syracuse, but did you know each other before or did you come together more for musical purposes?
We actually basically all met the first day of practice, which is kind of funny. None of us really knew each other before the band started but Milo, our guitar player, sort of had this idea to get a band together and he had this vision to get a bunch of different people with a bunch of different instruments all in a room. It was all pieced together on the Internet. He knew me from another band, and we had recently just met, and he was in a class with Rebecca, so they kind of knew each other, but basically it was a lot of networking, and then we got to the first practice and we were sort of like, "Well OK, what do we do now? What kind of music are we supposed to play?"
And then what did you end up doing? Was the first music you were playing sort of like the first music you put out, or did it take a lot of adjusting to get a sound you liked?
When we first started we were just playing house parties around campus, so we were just sort of making fun, goofy, dancey party music. We never really expected it to go anywhere. And then we started getting a little notoriety on campus, and then before we knew it we were going on tour and doing CMJ and SXSW. But I think the music's been changing a lot as we individually change and we know each other more and more intimately and get more used to playing together and are able to try new things. It's a really fun group to make music with because everyone is so different and brings such different sensibilities to the table. There's always new ideas and new things to be tried.
Yeah. And the newest album is obviously a lot different than everything you've put out before. I'm sure you're asked this all the time, but what led to the more electronic sounds of that album?
It was a lot of different things. Every time we set out to make a record, we don’t have a clear direction in mind. I think when we went to make this record, we had just had a lineup change and we only had four original members left, so we were sort of ready to branch out and try some new things that we weren't able to do in the past because of whatever reason -- self-consciousness, internal politics. A lot of the songs that we write start on keyboard and synths and on the computer and we've had the habit of saying, "Well, how can we turn this into a Ra Ra Riot song?" and we'll change the synth part into a string part, or we'll change a keyboard riff into a guitar riff. But this time around we said, "If the song is developing on keys, you know, we don't have to have strings in every song, we don’t have to put it through this machine, we can just play the song a little bit more naturally." And also, Dennis Herring, our producer, he helped us branch out and have the confidence to make some changes that we might not have made on our own.
Was that a sudden realization you guys had or do you think it had been in the back of some of your minds when you were making earlier albums?
We do consciously leave a lot of decisions to be made at recording time, so we were sort of open to being spontaneous and making decisions on the fly, but I think going into the record, we'd decided ahead of time that we didn’t want to force things, so we were prepared to do that once we got to the studio.
Do you think the next album will be even more up that path? Or are you not allowed to talk about that yet?
Yeah, it's hard to say. I mean to me, the second album was way different from the first one, and of course the third was way different than the first two, so I can only assume that the next one will be different. But we haven’t actually started working on anything because we've been so busy touring this year. This tour is going to be a lot of fun of course, but I know we're looking forward to getting home too in the winter so we can finally get some time in one place and start to get creative again. It'll be interesting to see what comes out.
Ra Ra Riot performs at LouFest on Saturday, September 7. KDHX is a media partner of LouFest 2013.