Monday, February 11, 2013

Q&A with Ra Ra Riot

photo courtesy Sacks & Co.
Later this week, I have an interview with bassist Mathieu Santos of NYC indie rockers Ra Ra Riot running in the U-T San Diego/North County Times.

In the meantime, here are excerpts that didn't make it into the article.

Ra Ra Riot performs Tuesday at the El Rey in LA and Wednesday at The Observatory in Santa Ana, Calif. 

Q: How did the recent shows in The Orient go? Had the band done much touring in that part of the world before? Do you have a big fan base there?
Amazing! We'd been to Japan a few times before and absolutely love it. But this trip [was] particularly fun for a few reasons - we've been playing shows with one of our absolute favorite bands, Dirty Projectors, and have gotten to visit a few new places along the way - Hong Kong, Taipei, and Jakarta, all of which have been surreal. It's also been nice to kick off our new album cycle in such fun and exciting places.

Q: Last month you did a handful of U.S. shows around the album’s release on the East Coast. Are you incorporating a lot from Beta Love into the sets and how have fans been responding to the new material live?
Yeah, we've been playing most of the songs from the album - usually about 6 or 7 a night. It's been great; it feels like it's been so long since we've had new material to play live, so suddenly having all these new songs in the set is a lot of fun for us. We were curious to see how people would respond when we first starting releasing some of the material, but it's felt like the songs have been really connecting live so far. 

Q: What kind of feedback have you seen or heard from longtime RRR fans? Are they digging the change in direction?
For the most part, yes. Whenever you make any kind of changes, no matter how superficial, you're always going to lose some people along the way. You'll always have people who complain that things sound too much the same and people who will complain that things sound too different. So all that matters is that we make music that we enjoy making and the idea is that most of our fans will be willing to grow along with us. We may even pick up some new fans along the way. But it seems that so far, most everyone has been very supportive and excited about some of the new directions we took on this record.

Q: Was anyone listening to old dance/electronic/New Wave music during the Beta Love songwriting process?
Yeah, there was definitely some of that in the mix, but we're always listening to that kind of music anyway, amongst a whole bunch of other stuff - aside from things like Devo and Kraftwerk, we were listening (either individually or collectively) to a lot of bounce music, David Lynch, some jazz fusion, Whitney Houston, all kinds of stuff.

Q: In what way did cellist Alexandra Lawn’s departure change the band’s musical dynamic? Did it provide more of an opportunity to be experimental and not become tied to the baroque indie rock tag?
Absolutely. But her departure was also caused by our intention to adopt a more experimental approach, as much as her departure allowed us to fully embrace it. We've never seen ourselves as one kind of band making one kind of music. It was important for us, this time around, to not feel married to our individual roles in the band or to our individual instruments. We wanted to songs to feel more like songs, and less like a bunch of people adding things on top of an idea.

Q: Whose idea was it to work with Dennis Herring? What previous albums that he helmed did you admire?  
We all agreed that we wanted to work with a really experienced, hands-on producer on this record, and Dennis was high on our list because he'd made really interesting records with a lot of different bands that we loved (Elvis Costello, Wavves, The Hives, and Modest Mouse, among many others). And all of his albums seemed to have this lively kind of quality that we felt like we'd been searching for. He was the first producer we met with, and after our first meeting with him, there was no doubt in any of our minds that he was absolutely the perfect guy for the job.

Q: How was the overall experience with such a “big name” producer and heading down to Oxford, Miss. to record?
Being in the south was a lot of fun and probably influenced things more than we expected:  we recorded our first two records in the middle of winter in really cold, grey places. So being in a warm, sunny environment sort of set the tone for the whole recording session.

Q: Herring not only produced, but had a hand in the music and songwriting too. Was it a total collaborative effort from everyone involved?
Yes, definitely. Dennis worked closely with Wes in the pre-production stages, so he was involved from the very beginning.

Q: Josh Freese handled most of the drums. What did you like about working with him? Did he provide some welcome insight on getting electronic/New Wave sounds?
We're all huge fans of his and particularly of his work with Devo, who are one of our favorite bands. We'd always thought working with him was a fantasy. When Dennis began working on the songs, he suggested hiring Josh, who he thought could bring [what was needed] to the project - like with everything else, he was absolutely right. Josh was able to listen to a song once and know exactly what it needed.

Q: I read that you set up a makeshift hockey rink in the studio parking lot. Can you tell me about that? Who is the biggest hockey fan in the band and what is their opinion of our SoCal teams, the Anaheim Ducks and Stanley Cup-winning LA Kings?
Yeah, we travel everywhere with a net, a set of goalie equipment, and a bunch of sticks. We play whenever we can on tour, so being in the same place for so long was fun, because we just had it set up the whole time. There's always tons of free time while recording an album. Wes and I are the hockey fans in the band. I'm from Massachusetts and am a diehard Bruins fan. Wes is from New Jersey and lives and dies with the Devils; his opinion of the Kings needs no explanation. I actually have developed an affinity for all the west coast teams (the Canucks notwithstanding), since I'm kind of a night owl and find myself watching all of the late games online. I've grown kind of attached to the Kings, Ducks, and Sharks.

Q: There’s a futuristic tone of many of the lyrics. Was that a direct result of reading sci-fi authors like William Gibson?
Yeah, Wes was reading his books and I was really into Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity Is Near. So a lot of those ideas were floating around when we started working on Beta Love. In the past we may have been too self-conscious to tackle some of those themes on the record, but this time we just wanted to have some fun and do what felt natural.

Q: While The Orchard tended toward lonely lyrics, the new songs seem more positive for the most part. Was that intentional?
Well, to me, all of our albums share a lot of the same basic themes - love and loneliness and loss. I just think we try to evaluate those things through different perspectives each time and it just so happens that this album is a lot more upbeat musically. But I think a lot of the same themes are there, particularly in songs like "Wilderness," "When I Dream," "That Much" and "I Shut Off."

Q: One of my favorites is “That Much,” especially the weird guitar solo at the end. What type of effects were used on that?
That was all Milo! He had been working on recording a guitar part for the outro of that song, but was having trouble getting something that felt right to him. So he ended up taking a bunch of separate takes, putting all of them into his computer, splicing them up and re-arranging and editing them into the crazy collage that you hear. Dennis saw that he was working intently on something on his computer and asked to hear it - when Milo played it for him, he was like, "That's it! It's done. Give it to me." And now it's on the record.

Q: Were you trying to get a real menacing vibe on “What I Do For You”?
That song was something that Dennis and Wes made together during pre-production. Dennis thought of the beat and programmed it after having heard the rest of our demos to provide a kind of crazy counterpoint on the record. When Wes came up with the vocal melody, Dennis said, "That's great - now sing it an octave higher." They just kind of pushed it to this crazy place, because that's where it needed to go.

Q: Wes’ vocal falsetto is more prevalent than before on the new songs. Was that a conscious decision on his part or something Dennis suggested?
Like everyone in the band, Wes has worked really hard over the years to get better and better at his instrument. I think these new songs sort of called for bolder melodies, so Wes and Dennis worked really closely to develop and execute them.

Q: Going back a bit, can you tell me the inspiration for “Kansai,” off The Orchard, where San Diego is mentioned in the lyrics?
Wes studied abroad in Osaka in 2005 and lived there for a semester. Osaka is in the Kansai region of Japan and I believe that's also the name of the airport there. So that song is about his experience flying home from Japan, during which he had a layover in San Diego and experiencing a kind of reverse culture shock.

Q: Finally, since the band is based in Brooklyn, why do you think New York City has such a vibrant music scene?
Well, New York City just has everything - every single night, there are dozens of shows going on and any band that goes on tour is going to play a show in New York. There are so many working musicians living there and so many venues and record stores and recording studios and practice spaces. There's just so much going on. It's almost a kind of community vibe; you're always bumping into someone you know who's working on some kind of project. It's a great place to be!

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