Not Baroque Pop, Not Indie Rock: Meet the Reconstructed Ra Ra Riot
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and although we tend to celebrate it by sharing candy, chocolates, and even #NPRvalentines, A Change of Tune’s going to share something else with you: our first indie music crush.
In 2007, this band released their self-titled debut EP that we immediately fell in love with. In 2013, they changed musical directions and did something a little bit more dark, a little bit more futuristic. And the weekend of February 19, 2016, they will release their fourth full-length Need Your Light and make their second appearance on a sold-out Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia.
Ra Ra Riot’s frontman Wes Miles sat down to talk about the band’s new record, their history with Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij (who announced his departure from the band shortly after this interview), Ra Ra Riot's "indie baroque pop" label, and how David Bowie plays a quiet but important role in their music.
Ra Ra Riot will release Need Your Light via Barsuk Records on February 19, and they’ll appear on a sold-out Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia that Sunday. Don't have a ticket? Watch the performance LIVE Sunday, February 21 at 7pm EST on mountainstage.org. And to hear more of from Ra Ra Riot, tune in to A Change of Tune, airing Saturdays at 10pm EST on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
On David Bowie’s influence on Ra Ra Riot:
He doesn’t have an easy-to-hear influence on us. Listening to our music, I’m not sure you would hear it. But when I was in high school, I was really, really into Hunky Dory; I listened to that record all the time. He definitely had an impact on me and how I perceived music and what I thought was cool. The one thing I remember when I was in high school, the thing I thought that was really cool (well, one of the things I thought was really cool) about [David Bowie] was that he was a sax player, and I also played saxophone. Back in high school, when you’re in concert band, it’s like, “Ugh, playing wind instruments isn’t that cool.” But when I found out he was a sax player, I was like, “Huh, yeah, that is cool. Saxophones can be really cool. David Bowie plays saxophone!” I just thought that was really neat.
On the passing of the Ra Ra Riot’s first drummer:
Early on [in Ra Ra Riot], our drummer passed away. John Pike. He was a huge influence on our first record in a concrete way. Obviously, a lot of things I do were changed by the way he saw music. He was a good friend of mine since freshmen year of college. He was a really special musician, one of those people that could hear something and repeat it in their own style, almost without thinking about it. He had a really imaginative sense of melody and lyrics. He was a very important person in my musical life and in the band’s creation, concretely in the first record and everything after that, too.
On Ra Ra Riot’s reputation of being a baroque pop band:
Yes. Yes, I am very sick of it. But that’s ok because I also don’t particularly like indie either. I think it’s misused a little bit sometimes, especially when people call a band on a major label indie. If any musician or artist really wants to express themself and find something that hasn’t been done before, it’s going to be tough to describe in words. Probably part of what changed us is that we wanted to destroy everything Ra Ra Riot was before and start building it up from scratch. And I think Beta Love was kind of the destruction of all that, and of course we alienated a few people and maybe made some… but a lot of people stood by us as well! And that made us feel really great. So Need Your Light is the reconstruction of who we are and the things that we want to do.
On working with Rostam Batmanglij (producer of Need Your Light and former Vampire Weekend member):
I met Rostam through Ezra [Koening, Vampire Weekend’s frontman]. Ezra and I went to elementary school through high school together, and we were in maybe a dozen or 15 bands together throughout that span. So when we went to different colleges, and I would come back to visit him, that’s when I met Rostam. And I think being all musicians, we would send each other stuff and I sent Rostam and Ezra an early demo of “Can You Tell” in 2004 or 2005. And I think pretty soon after that, Rostam made a new version of it and sent me a track. And that was kind of the beginning of Discovery [Rostam and Wes’ side project], which sort of predates Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend by a few months or maybe a year. But it took us a lot longer for us to finish [Discovery’s debut release LP] than either of the bands’ first records.
On being a part of Vampire Weekend (the movie):
Vampire Weekend was originally going to be a movie that we were working on [laughing] with Ezra. I think it was… there’s a trailer on Vimeo, maybe on YouTube, too… but in the trailer it says “Christmas 2005.” It would have been a vampire movie about a boy trying to get to Cape Cod so he could be the mayor.
On his <3 of Ra Ra Riot:
It’s probably when I’m happiest in my life, when I’m singing. I always wanted to be a musician, but I never studied it formally. I studied physics in college, and I thought about being an engineer or doing theoretical physics. You know, all of these things that pass through your mind when you realize you’re a senior in college and don’t have any idea what you’re going to do next year [laughing]. So I’m very glad because I think all of those things would have been interesting but [I don’t think I would have been as happy]. Performing the way we do is kind of what gives me purpose in life, I think.
On Ra Ra Riot’s fourth full-length release Need Your Light:
It’s warmer. It’s got a warmth that Beta Love didn’t have, by design. But it’s also, I think, my best vocal performance from start to finish on a record, and especially on the songs that Rostam and I worked on [“Need Your Light” and “Water”]. Those are definitely two of (if not the top three or top five of) the best vocal performances I’ve ever done. It’s like you said: it’s not getting back to our roots, necessarily, but it’s a warmer, brighter view of the world.
On Ra Ra Riot’s last appearance on NPR’s Mountain Stage with Larry Groce in 2011:
I have a memory of drinking some moonshine from the first show. Yeah, that’s imprinted in my memory forever. It’s something I had never done anywhere else: drinking homemade liquor of any sort, let alone moonshine. Yeah, that was pretty cool.