A Return To Intimacy: A Conversation With Ra Ra Riot
    • MONDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2016

    • Posted by: Mike Montemarano

    Mat Santos, bassist for Syracuse rockers Ra Ra Riot, recounted the making of their latest album, Need Your Light, which will be released February 19. On March 4, the pop rockers will be appearing at Webster Hall. With each album the group puts out, there is constant exploration of styles, transcending genres, and learning new arrangements. A first look at the album shows the level of sophistication and growth the band has experienced in the studio through some fun collaborations and a renewed energy ten years down the line.

    After Beta Love and the following tour, Ra Ra Riot took time off virtually for the first time in their decade-long career spent touring internationally on a course which only came to a halt to produce new albums. Ra Ra Riot was constantly in motion, an engine of synth pop which churned in a labor of love. With the latest album and a release tour, Santos feels that the band is reinvigorated to full capacity.

    "I don't think there was anything that we consciously set out to try. Each record we're constantly getting into new things and certain things inspire us, and our collectives are constantly influencing us album by album. I think there's some new things on this record and I think each time we make a new record, we're a little bit less scared to stray a little bit farther or keep evolving our sound. We sort of took some time off and then waited until we all felt the urge to get back together, and we all had a bunch of new material and tackled it together."

    As many know, Beta Love was heavily influenced by science fiction writer William Gibson (Neuromancer). From tracks which have been pre-released so far, and according to Santos, Need Your Light is a much more intimate experience, focusing on the nature of life, love, and finding things bigger than yourself. After a listen through, many of the tracks have a sort of striking depiction of a lonely catharsis. The album explores a coming of age tale told in a way that's bright, optimistic, and introspective. Many of the songs explore themes of self-understanding that comes through age and experience, and provide some really apt metaphors and imagery. There's something earnest, heartfelt, and personal to each song, making each song much more bound to resonate with some nice hooks and personal storytelling.

    "I think we've always gotten influences from whatever we've been reading at the time. In this record, I don't think there were any specific literary inspirations. I think this record is more autobiographical. It's meant to extract greater meaning from the sort of banal, everyday young-adult life. There's a lot of internet kinds of themes, and that kind of stuff. But this record is more autobiographical than literary.

    We talked about embracing these things about ourselves that could be perceived as weaknesses. A lot of times you want to play to your strengths, but you can learn a lot about your perceived weaknesses. We've never been a really 'cool' band, or edgy, or that kind of thing. We've always been a happy, poppy, sort of nerdy kind of thing and so we decided to play that up a little bit on this record in terms of embracing the positivity aspects of the songs. We've been trying to push this transcendent, inspiring kind of vibe I guess. I think the title track sort of revolves around us turning 30, and sort of getting to this stage in adulthood, and just trying not to get too beaten down by the everyday life stuff, and remembering there can still be magic, or something like that.

    "['Water' is] another one that Wes and Rostam wrote together, and I think it's just the story of someone simply "going for it." The metaphors are about travelling and about these modern-day, banal experiences and then just getting yourself to water and surrendering yourself to something that's infinite, bigger than you, something like that. So it's this idea of a transcendent moment taken out of everyday life."

    Like much of their previous work, the new album offers a diversity in sound and influence. There seems to be no central role to each song, as instruments fade in and out to create a broad range of sensory experiences to test out. The record at moments sounds exclusively contemporary, while at other times the synthy elements sound more like 80s throwbacks. Combined with the inclusion of a string section, the group has developed a keen knack for developing seriously layered music in a way in which every instrument remains consistently important to each piece of music. To be able to pull this off on every track they put together, Santos and his bandmates have developed some serious chemistry.

    "We're all kind of divided, but my favorite track on the album is 'Bouncy Castle,' which I think is really fun, funny, and a little strange for us, but it's a groove-oriented song that's almost a little proggy and a little theatrical, so I really like that one. But I think we'll all attest to different parts of different songs, and it was a really fun album to make. We're all really excited about 'Water' and 'Need Your Light.' We're at the point now where we're getting used to playing the songs live together, and we're discovering things for the first time, so I'm sure by the time we're on tour we'll have some different favorites. But I'd have to say 'Bouncy Castle,' for my choice anyway.

    It's pretty dynamic with this group, which keeps things fun and interesting for sure. I think when we first started, we didn't really think about that stuff too much, and we all just got in a room together. We always were all playing all the time; there were always like nine things happening. I think over the years we've gotten a lot better at listening to what others are doing, making room for each other, making room for ourselves, and picking our spots here and there, receding into the background so something else can get the highlight. It really helps for these more dramatic moments or interesting regions. But basically we come up with ideas, bring our demos to each other, and if something strikes our interest we'll just keep adding to it and put it through the Ra Ra Riot machine as it were. But sometimes we're hammering for something and realize 'maybe this song doesn't need guitar, maybe this song doesn't need strings, or bass.' So there's a lot of trial and error; it's pretty rare that we have a song with a set arrangement from the beginning."

    After the longest (though still a respectively short) period of relative inactivity the synth pop powerhouse has been on in their career thus far, the group explored a range of different production techniques and producers whom they had been involved with over the ten year span of their music. Some songs had a special and distinct sound, including those written in collaboration with ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, a close friend to Ra Ra Riot since they first began playing shows together as relatively unknown groups. In many ways, the album is a lens which presents a whole spectrum of the most vibrant elements of the group's past, while in many ways allowing for new influences and growth to remain salient in what the band's capacities are. The many influences the band has incorporated into their transcendent sounds are much harder to pin down, and Ra Ra Riot has definitely come to create their own landmark style of pop.

    "Well, the cool thing about this record is that we worked together with every producer we've worked with in the past, and we just turned ten this past month, so we knew that we'd been around; we'd been together for a long time and we had this moment where we looked back over the years. We sort of put together this dream team, like, 'oh, we worked really well with this person, maybe we can work with this person for this stuff.' It was sort of like a summary of the first ten years in some ways, while at the same time we're all making music that's new for us. So I guess with Beta Love, a lot of people thought it was shocking, or a departure from stuff we'd done in the past but I think that enabled us to feel more comfortable this time. We sort of established those new boundaries in the last record. We're still trying to learn things, push forward, and push ourselves in terms of things like songwriting, arranging, and production while at the same time there will be familiar hints of sounds or feelings from the past. I think we're most proud of this record than we've been of any record. I think we feel re-energized, and hopefully that will translate to our listeners.

    Rostam is someone we've always looked up to from the very beginning, when we were playing college shows with Vampire Weekend before anyone had heard of either of our bands in 2006. So we've known Rostam forever and have always been huge fans of his, and some people have this special ear, where they hear things other people don't hear. It sounds kind of cliche, but it's true, whenever you talk to Rostam you can tell that the wheel is always turning; he's always hearing things. We've always wanted to work with him over the years but at the same time we're always having trouble distancing ourselves from Vampire Weekend comparisons, so it was always this catch-22. But again, I think part of turning ten is getting beyond all that kind of stuff, and it just seemed like the right time to do it. He's an incredible songwriter, and he and Wes work really well together, they made that Discovery record a few years ago. So it was fun to see what Wes could come up with with a close friend and collaborator without any self-consciousness or worrying about what was gonna come out of it. So it seems the collaboration was very explosive, and they can get things out of each other. They wrote songs that weren't necessarily going to be Ra Ra Riot songs, I think that helped them develop without any restraints and when the songs were done, it was like, 'why don't Ra Ra Riot record these?' We thought we could do them justice, so we recorded those two songs at his home studio in L.A. It's nice to work with someone you've known for a long time and are comfortable with; it was a really pleasant experience. Everything came together really naturally."

    Now that Ra Ra Riot is back into the grind, Santos reminisced about the facets of producing the album, the hectic nature of production and constant touring, and the excitement the band has subsequently following the new album surfacing. Santos seemed very earnest and fully excited about what lies in the near future for the group, who all seem to be refreshed by their reimagined sound and ready to feed off the energy of the warm reception which their new album has earned. For a group of musicians so devoted to their craft and their live performances, it's no shock that Santos feels the group is more than ready to spring back into action.

    "Cramming, extending deadlines, stress about the workload, the usual sort of thing. But for the production overall, things went pretty smoothly. At one point we had to leave the studio to go do a show at a college that we had booked months earlier. We really didn't want to upset the flow in the studio and we were bummed we had to leave, but we decided we would take the first flight back to work that we could. Of course, we got stranded in this insane blizzard, all the flights got cancelled, and it seemed like we were gonna lose four days in the studio which would've been catastrophic. We were in Rochester, New York, so we had to rent a car at the airport and drive all the way through the night to Columbus, Ohio, which was the next flight, so we drove six hours to Columbus, got on the next plane to L.A., after weaseling our way into an earlier flight. So that was a little unusual for recording a record, but luckily we didn't lose that much time, and the rest was pretty smooth sailing.

    Just touring itself is really appealing to us right now. When we first started we were basically touring for seven years straight, and if we weren't in the studio we were touring. After Beta Love in 2013 on the road for an entire year, we decided to take some time off. Here we are three years later, ready to get back on the road again. It's been weird for us not to tour for so long, and we're all ready to get back on the road with a bunch of new material that we're excited about. We're excited for the people who've seen us a bunch of times over the years hearing us play the same songs dozens of times. We're excited to have this fun new material to play."

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