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Wes, Milo, Mathieu, Rebecca, and Kenny of Ra Ra Riot all sit in the lobby of the WERS studios wearily dining on soup and bread from Panera, using their gig cases as tables. The group looks tired but greets everyone with smiles. The band’s new album is called Beta Love. Released in January 2013, this is their third studio album and marks seven years to the month since the band’s founding in Syracuse, New York in January of 2006. Playing house shows and small venues around the Syracuse University campus, the group quickly earned a reputation for their energetic live shows and their niche sound combining Baroque-Pop and Alternative Rock stylings. Now, seven years later, the band is preparing to go on tour with The Shins after which they immediately begin a tour with The Postal Service.
The first song they played was “Dance With Me”. A driving tune that was guided by a simple, repeated kick drum backing the guitar and keyboard which played parallel phrases both landing on the upbeats throughout the piece. All the while putting on display vocalist Wes Miles’ range and ability to use his voice as a melodic device as well as a rhythmic device while he beckons a “pretty, sweet fool” to come and dance with him. On the album, listeners might notice that the studio version is largely synthesized, incorporating artificial instruments difficult to recreate in a live performance setting like WERS. But as compensation, the group uses backing vocals delivered by bassist Matthieu Santos and violinist Rebecca Zeller, who also provided a great violin phrase, to fill the studio and bring a great energy to their opening song.
After releasing their sophomore studio album The Orchard in 2010, the band took their time making their moves and writing their tunes. Members took some time off, cellist Alexandra Lawn departed from the band and when the group started writing Beta Love they did so under new pretenses. “It felt like in the past, when we were writing songs, it was often about ‘oh, what instruments can we put on this song to make it even more dense and full?’ But for this [Beta Love] we wanted to reapproach and ask our selves ‘What does the song need?’ as opposed to ‘What doI want to give this song?’” For Ra Ra Riot, this reapproach meant enlisting the help of master producer and engineer Dennis Herring. Herring, who has produced and mixed albums for Counting Crows, Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello, The Hives, and Ben Folds, cut the record with the band in his recording studio Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Mississippi where the band lived and recorded over the course of twelve weeks last year.
The second song the group played was called “For Once.” The song is led by a repeating phrase on the keyboard which keeps time for the song, playing in eighth notes throughout the entire piece and played in the studio by Wes Miles. Behind the keyboard is a steady tap of the high hat on every half note along with a repeated rolling drum phrase on the tom-toms. The most impressive aspect of the piece, however, is Matthieu Santos’ bass-line. His ability to explore a scale and key, while guiding the song melodically and ensuring all his phrases resolve into the next root note of the progression, shows why his bass lines are a staple in so many of the band’s tunes. Adding to the song beautifully was Rebecca Zeller incorporating her own violin phrases dispersed throughout the piece, complimenting Santos’ baseline, Miles’ vocals, and Milo Bonacci’s guitar.
More than just musicians, the band likes to keep up with their athletics. “We play a lot of sports. Basketball when we can. We love street hockey. We bring a hockey net, hockey sticks, and goalie pads in the trailer with our gear where ever we go. We all play together and we’ve got some great talent in this group”, Santos boasts. Miles’ adds, “Matt’s the best goalie by far. But, you know, I definitely get a few past him.”
The last song they played, which was one of the best songs off their new album, was called “I Shut Off”. The piece opens with a sweeping violin phrase from Zeller. This is on top of a steady drum phrase from Kenny Bernard and a rhythmic root motif from Santos on the bass, both of which drive the piece. The groups’ use of each instrument as rhythmic devices, while allowing Miles’ vocal phrases to melodically guide the song makes this piece one of the most reminiscent of Ra Ra Riot’s earlier songs. Like many of their earlier songs, this one most readily feels like a partnership between Santos’ bass-line and Miles’ vocal phrase. With Zeller harmonizing, this piece sounded fantastic in the studio. But it’d be a crime not to mention Milo Bonacci on the guitar. Although I felt he may have been under-utilized on Beta Love, his guitar piece and individual riffs on this song were fantastic in the studio.
Before they left the studio, I had a conversation with Mathieu Santos in which I asked him what he thought their spirit animal was. Many artists would need to take a moment to think before they answer such a profound question. But without missing a beat, Santos says, “A Manta Ray. Because I had a dream, when we started playing together, that I was standing in the Grand Canyon and this huge Manta Ray came floating up to me. He was laughing at me. And then he told me in a deep voice, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Then he floated away, still laughing at me. And as he flew away, the canyon filled with water.”
So, as this intrepid group of musicians move forward, they will do so unafraid of new directions, unafraid of new sounds, with advice from Manta Rays in their hearts and hockey sticks in their hands.