By Chris Parker
Syracuse's Ra Ra Riot -- set to play Du Hot Club De Bizarre Thursday night -- began playing college parties, and before long they'd found a strange, intoxicating sweet spot between spiky Pixies-inflected post-punk and chamber pop that earned them comparisons to fellow emerging New Yorkers Vampire Weekend. Elegant yet propulsive, they suffered a huge loss when drummer John Pike drowned after a gig just before the release of 2007's amazing eponymous debut.
They forged on, scored a label deal from V2 before the label collapsed. They escaped with the tapes and landed at Barsuk Records. Several songs from the debut were renovated for their fine 2008 full-length debut, The Rhumb Line, which was followed by 2010's even more ornate The Orchard. Prior to recording their latest, Beta Love, cellist Alexandra Lawn departed and wasn't replaced with a full-time member. In her absence, there are more synthesizers and fewer strings; the album bites a particularly dance-y, darkwave sound not so removed from the last couple of albums from The Rosebuds. There's also a thematically linked, futuristic song series about a robot that discovers love and self-awareness.
We caught up with lead singer Wes Miles at a tour stop in El Paso, Texas and talked to him about Blade Runner, being "in the moment" musically, and the Ra Ra Riot's musical direction.
Up on the Sun: I understand the new album, Beta Love, is informed by thoughts on the nature and evolution of technology and humanity.
Wes Miles: Yeah, a lot of it comes from a book that Matt [Santos, bassist] started reading first when we were recording The Orchard, Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near. At that point, we started talking more about it and thinking about what the singularity would mean for us.
Then after we got into that, there was a lot of sci-fi that I got into, specifically William Gibson, who wrote Neuromancer and a lot of other interesting books. There are a lot of things that made their way onto the record.
If I'm not mistaken, some of the movie Blade Runner has found its way onto the album.
Yeah, the track "Dance With Me." There are a couple of interesting scenes I picked out of Blade Runner I felt fit in with the theme of the rest of the album. Like the moment when two of the replicants are in one of the engineer's houses [ed.: William Sanderson as JF Sebastian], which is filled with toys. Some are dancing and others are almost friends. The replicants can see that they were just other versions of these toys. But it all comes back to this desire of humans or pseudo-humans, cyborgs or androids, who want to extend their lives. I found that really interesting. That's one of the most basic human desires and yet they're robots.
All your music seems shaded by a sense of loss, whether it's lost innocence or lost love or loss of place. With the new album you lost cellist Alexandra Lawn, yet you tried to make it a positive thing by branching out sonically.
There was definitely a sense of creative destruction and wanting to expand the things that we do. But we've found an identity that is kind of affirming lately. And there's definitely this sad aspect of moving on, but yeah, I think we've gotten to a place now where we want to be life-affirming and really live in the moment and accept that change is good and that it can be enlightening.
It sounds like almost a personal thing, in that there's a recurring motif of experience vs. thinking, and being in the moment rather than in the mind.
Yeah, there was an effort in practice to not over-think and create this record more spontaneously. A big thing about that was writing about things that I'm interested in, whereas in the past I would've been a little self-conscious or more careful about it. I feel like I took more chances this time, and that also carried through with the rest of the band taking more chances and making quick decisions. It's really fun that way.
Did working on Discovery [Miles' side electronic project with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij] have any influence on Beta Love?
It's hard to say because they were created so differently.
Process-wise and in time=span. It took like four years from start-to-finish to make the Discovery record, and this was made in about a year, and really condensed to 6-8 months. But yeah, some of the sounds and some of the attitude is definitely there. The kind of anything-goes, quick decisions, and, "If it sounds good than it is good." Not to over-think things and get caught up in details that don't need to be hang-ups.
Could you tell me a little about working with producer Dennis Herring, as opposed to working on The Orchard?
It was very different. I think, coming out of The Orchard, we felt like that was a really great experience. At the time, it was probably the right decision for us to go that route and see what came of it, but it kind of left us craving a more experienced, older, more hands-on person to work with. One who felt free to make sweeping changes and be frank about what was working and what wasn't.
Those were the things I got from Dennis . . . We'd do a demo a day and [he'd say], "Oh, this isn't working, let's throw out this part and move this over here." So it was a really active writing process with him. There would always be moments when he would kind of make a change to keep us on our feet. All of a sudden we're going to speed this song up 20 BPM, throw out the strings, and make huge changes like that, so we always had to be ready. It's a great feeling when you're being challenged creatively. You don't ever want to feel you're in stasis.
I'm curious about the choice of so much synthetic sound between the drumbeats and the keyboards, and how much that was also reflective of the sci-fi milieu.
I write a lot of music on keyboard, and so does the rest of the band.
You typically ported them over to guitar?
Yeah, that happened quite a lot. We'd be playing and maybe this keyboard part would be better arranged as a string part or a guitar riff. And that worked for us for a while, but I think that I had always felt like, maybe there will come a time when it will make sense to leave it as a keyboard thing. When we started working with Dennis, we found that was a strong suit of his as well. There were some demos with electronic drums, and there was just a sense that it made sense at points to keep the electronic drums. And, yeah, it definitely fits in thematically too. So that was kind of an easy decision to make.
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Do you believe Beta Love is characteristic of your sound going forward, or just an experiment? Or do you even know?
I don't think we do know, and that's the exciting part. There's no plan other than to make a record you felt good about. We wanted to do something different, fun, and good. And if there were ever a moment when one of the band members didn't believe in what we were doing, that would've been a problem.
But it's the same four people -- I mean there are other people, but the four remaining original writers in the band, there's always going to be evolution and changes. But as long as we have the four of us -- and whoever else is involved -- believing in it, we're going to go with it.
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