Ra Ra Riot: Spaghetti, Scrabble & Earth

Like a lot of independent bands from New York, Vampire Weekend’s band bestfriends Ra Ra Riot make indie rock that’s more baroque than pop – thanks to their use of orchestral strings. Perhaps feeling trapped being known as that indie rock band with heavy use of cello and violin, Ra Ra Riot’s third album Beta Love is a lush, synthy dive into the world of electropop. It’s almost a realisation of Peter Silberman’s remix of the band – a musical transmogrification of their sophomore The Orchard into glitchy bleeps and bloops. While not as extreme here, JUICE spoke to bassist  Mathieu Santos on their new sound and 3 seemingly unconnected words; spaghetti, Scrabble, and Earth.

It has been three years since The Orchard. Why did it take so long for Beta Love to be released?
We were touring for a long time after The Orchard was released, and then we took our time switching gears from touring to writing and eventually recording. We ended up spending, all together, about 12 to 14 weeks in the studio making Beta Love. We also wanted to allow ourselves ample time to properly set up the release of the record, and to get a lot of rest before hitting the road again. Originally, we were considering releasing the album in August of last year, but we decided to wait until January to make sure everything was all set up. Now we’re completely rested and ready to get back on the road for most of 2013.

We read that you guys said recording Beta Love felt like your first record. Why so?
The band has gone through a lot of changes over the years, and I think when we first started working on Beta Love, we felt like we had finally settled into a good, healthy, functioning, and exciting dynamic. I think all of the good vibes we felt while working on the record reminded us of when we first started playing music together as college students seven years ago.

How did the band manage to integrate the acoustic instruments with an electronic texture?
Because there are a lot of us in the band, we’ve learned the importance of respecting sonic space, and we’re always trying to get better at managing that space and balancing all of the elements that are going on in a song. It’s sometimes really difficult to get everything to fit together nicely, but that’s part of the fun of making music with this group. We’re always listening to each other and trying to get some kind of perfect balance happening.

Are you afraid that the new sound of Ra Ra Riot may alienate old fans?
Not particularly – we felt confident that, because it was the same core of us working on this record, that our band’s DNA would come through and our fans would be able to respond to the same things that we were responding to while making the album. While some people may be turned off by what they feel is a huge departure, we’re excited and proud of the record and think that most our fans will be happy to grow along with us.

We read that it took a lot for you guys to trust producer Dennis Heering with this album. How important is a relationship between a band with their producer?
It is incredibly important, because without trust, there’s nothing. There’ll be no creative discourse happening if the two sides don’t get along or refuse to work together. We knew going into the studio that we had to absolutely buy into the idea of trusting Dennis completely, because that was the only way he could help us grow and make the changes that we were interested in making. That’s the whole reason we decided to hire him in the first place. Creative collaboration is 100% about trust.

During the recording of Beta Love, an idea came up where each member of the band would move away from the instrument they were tethered with. How did that feel like?
It felt good, and natural, and liberating. We’re all multi-instrumentalists in the band, but I think in the past we were perhaps a little hesitant to break out of our individual roles and step on each other’s toes. But this time around, we had this whole attitude that nothing would or could be too precious, whether it was a musical idea, or an idea about what our individual roles in the band were. That really helped us branch out and evolve as a group.

You guys went back to Syracuse University for a concert last November. Did it bring back fond memories of the band just starting out?
Absolutely! We love going back to Syracuse together for exactly that reason. It’s really fun for us to remember our beginning, and our earliest collective memories, and to reflect on the fact that we’re still playing together so many years later. We had a blast going back in November – we not only played a concert on campus, but also got to sit in on some classes and speak to the students about our experiences transitioning from a college to a professional band. It was a lot of fun and we’re planning on doing it again sometime!

We read on Facebook (we tend to stalk bands online) that the band’s interests are spaghetti, scrabble and planet earth. Pretty random list! Explain to us each one of the band’s interests.
It is indeed a random list, but I suppose we’re a pretty random assortment of people, so maybe it makes some sense! First of all, Milo, our guitarist, studied for a semester abroad in Italy, and learned how to prepare spaghetti perfectly. He makes the sauce from scratch, and it changed my life. So any time we’re having a band dinner, we try to get him to make it, and he’s usually happy to oblige us. We also play a lot of Scrabble, and even invested in a travel-size kit for when we’re on tour. It’s a great way to pass the time and make sure your brain doesn’t completely rot in the van. And Planet Earth – I suppose we made this list while we were obsessed with that Discovery Channel show. It’s an amazing series! Very inspiring and interesting.

Any plans for a South East Asia tour?
Yes! In a few days [after the date of this interview] we’ll be taking off for Hong Kong, Taipei, Jakarta, and Tokyo. We’re all incredibly excited, as, aside from Japan, we’ve never been to anywhere in Asia before! We’re looking forward to meeting new people and seeing new places, which is one of the best parts about touring.

Ra Ra Riot’s Beta Love was released on 22 January ’13. More on the band at rarariot.com