How Science Fiction Shaped Ra Ra Riot’s Recent Album

Wes Miles, the leader of the indie rock band Ra Ra Riot, remembers how much fun he had staying home from school because it afforded him the opportunity to watch science-fiction movies. He would watch the original Star Wars trilogy, only to go back and have a repeat viewing of The Empire Strikes Back.

The former physics major likes to wax nostalgic while thinking about the future, even if that future doesn’t involve lightsabers and Ewoks. Ra Ra Riot’s fourth album, Need Your Light, is sonically light-years ahead of the poetic elegance that made their 2008 debut, The Rhumb Line, a success. Eight years later, the group has morphed into a fun, synth-laden dance outfit crafting inspirational anthems that would not sound out of place in an ’80s movie montage.

“One of the things I wanted to do with this record was to make music for a bigger setting,” Miles says. “I think it’s more fulfilling for us to grow, change, try new things, and have a more malleable identity than to stay the same.”

Ra Ra Riot’s direction can be attributed to two things: Miles’ interest in the works of futuristic sci-fi author William Gibson, who wrote the influential novel Neuromancer, and working with his friend Rostam Batmanglij, who recently parted ways with buzz band Vampire Weekend to embark on production work. Listening to Batmanglij’s rhythmic contributions on Need Your Light, it is clear he knows how to get the best out of the band.
“[Batmanglij] knows me really well,” Miles says of his collaborator. “He knows what he wants to get out of me. He has a lot of vision of what Ra Ra Riot can be, and that’s not exactly the same as what other producers would think. In that way, it’s a cool relationship to have.”

As in Gibson’s creations, Ra Ra Riot is playing music for a time that does not exist. The aspect that differentiates Miles from his author hero is the stories they tell. Miles is not utilizing futuristic slang or scientific storylines. Batmanglij encouraged Miles to base the songs like the title track and “Water” in youthful innocence. This allows Need Your Light to sound personal and reminiscent and feel futuristic all at the same time.

“The most emotional weight you can have is a story of your childhood and realizing that you are growing up,” describes Miles. “You have this nostalgic feeling sometimes, even in your 30s, that is good to be in touch with. There are a couple of songs that are about being a young adult and discovering sex. They are kind of silly. It was important to me to be able to sing about what is exciting and not be embarrassed by stuff.”

What excites Miles the most about music is that, just like science fiction, logic cannot easily explain its appeal. Melodies and books can feel out of time but also resonate with the listener at the right moment.

“It’s not logical what you like about music,” he explains. “You like certain things about it because it reminds you of certain things. They just hit you in the right way at the right time. You can’t really explain why a certain chord change is appealing to you or not. It is just hard to put these things into a box, and that’s what I find interesting about all of them. That’s why sci-fi books are fun. They are like the art that you are not sure why you like, but they are based on things that are based on real science.”

Ra Ra Riot is scheduled to play Sunday, October 16, at Crescent Ballroom.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil