Ra Ra Riot first met seven years ago while attending school in Syracuse, New York, and quickly graduated from basement rehearsals and student dance parties to blog buzz and press acclaim for their debut The Rhumb Line. After extensive touring for their meticulously recorded second record The Orchard and some membership changes, Ra Ra Riot decided to mix things up for their album Beta Love, leaving upstate New York for Sweet Tea, the Oxford, MS studio of producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse/Elvis Costello/Wavves).
Herring pushed singer Wes Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci, bassist Mathieu Santos and violinist Rebecca Zeller to embrace spontaneity and rethink their roles. The band recreated themselves on Beta Love, a collection of giddy pop songs and heady lyrics that pull inspiration from futurist Ray Kurzweil, among others. Gathered in their manager’s Williamsburg apartment, the band took a few moments to talk
So the first thing I noticed listening to the album is that the longest song is three minutes and sixteen seconds. Was there a concentrated effort to get things as concise as possible this time around?
Wes Miles: I think it was slightly a reaction from our last record. But I think it was secondary to the overall goal that the process should serve the song, rather than having long jams and stuff to showcase our musicianship. It’s more about the songs.
Did you make a conscious effort to approach the songwriting differently?
WM: With this record, I wanted to work with Dennis on pre-production to really find out what the songs were going to be, and from there do nothing that wouldn’t serve the songs. Sometimes we get handcuffed by “bring the demo to the band, then try to play it and then that’ll be the song.”
Rebecca Zeller: Also we wanted for everyone to not go in knowing exactly what we’d be doing, like “I’m going to play violin on this one,” or “I’m playing bass.” It was a sense of putting away our….
Milo Bonacci: Egos
RZ: Egos and pre-defined roles. It was amazing how quickly we were able to put that stuff aside and focus on the fun of making music without worrying about anything else.
MB: The idea that “nothing is precious” really set the tone for all of us, how we felt about our contributions or whatever. Anything can change at any moment. I felt like we spent two albums incubating these little ideas we had and it got to the point where they would become so precious that nothing was excludable, but in a weird way we had also limited the sonic spaces we were operating in for those albums.
And for this album you guys were down to a four-piece. How did that affect the way you wrote songs and approached the recording process?
WM: Well, the four of us are pretty different to begin with and once everyone was able to buy into this idea of “you’re gonna have to just roll with the punches,” I think it helped everyone look past “oh, where is my role?” You sort of just figure it out.
RZ: On both The Rhumb Line and The Orchard we all sat down and we jammed through these songs, and it wasn’t a question of “does this song need strings?” It was “what is the string part going to be for this?” And so approaching these songs it was really thinking, as Wes said, “what does this song need? What serves this song the best?” I was so excited for the “Dance With Me” string part, which is just two notes. Doing something so simple seemed fun and effective.
MS: Becca would be working with string parts and she’d send demos to all of us and it felt more of a collaborative discussion where we’re all on the same page all the time, where in the past it seemed like the string department was…
MS: Yeah. And we didn’t really allow ourselves to really reach out across to each other.
How much of this album is you guys reacting to your previous worries of preciousness? Were you consciously trying to react against whatever images people may have of you or you may have had of yourself?
RZ: Back in Syracuse, in the early days, our roots were that we’d play these dance parties and everybody would be dancing and I guess we sort of strayed from that with The Orchard.
MB: We started thinking too much about it. But in some ways I feel this record is more similar to how we approached things when we first started. Using our gut reaction to things and more immediate sort of decisionmaking.
WM: We always liked making music that moves people physically
So, Wes, you went out and worked with Dennis on demos first for a little while before the rest of the band came out. Tell me a little more about that process.
WM: I didn’t know what to expect going down there at first, but he told me to “bring an open mind and a positive attitude” and my little Casio keyboard. We had sent him a few early, early demos. I didn’t know which ones we’d be working on. So I got there and he basically just set me up in their little edit suite at Sweet Tea Studios. We went down the list and were like “which ones would be fun to work on this week?” We would work for a few hours together and then he’d leave me in there to shape things on my own and sing things or improvise or cut things up and then he’d come back the next morning. He’d go on the computer and cut things up or tell me which things he really liked and where things could be thrown away. It was really active editing and recording and we ended up basically completing a demo every day that I was there.
For the songwriting process, there’s a lot of letting go of control and trying to be in the moment and not have firm ideas of what’s going on. Lyrically, did that kind of transfer over?
WM: Yeah, yeah it did. In the past I would have been afraid to write a lot of the lyrics that I wrote on this record, because a lot of them are sort of specific and weird about science fiction or inspired by specific people. The attitude in general was to let go and to not worry so much and so basically if I thought something was interesting I’d just sort of go for it, whereas in the past it’s “is this a good thing to write a song about?” And usually I would compromise it to a degree, but I felt liberated by Dennis’ encouragement and the band’s encouragement to just go for whatever. So it was a lot of work, but it was a lot of fun, too. Looking back I’m very proud of the lyrics on this album.
Tell me about “Binary Mind.” That definitely seems to have a lot of science fiction-as-emotional conflict metaphor in it.
WM: Well, that song is about Ray Kurzweil. We got into him at the end of The Orchard. I majored in physics in college and I’ve always been interested in science-type things, so that was a very easy thing for me to get into and Mat was also really into that.
MS: I ordered The Singularity Is Near.
WM: It’s all about his mathematical extrapolations of estimating when humans and computers will merge and be indistinguishable. And there’s also a great documentary about him, sort of exploring that idea.
MB: Transcendent Man.
WM: Yeah, Transcendent Man. So we got really into him and his ideas. Watching the movie, you realize one of his biggest hopes for singularity is to sort of recreate his father. He has these boxes and boxes of his father’s legal and financial documents and personal writings and all these things he thinks are going to help create sort of an avatar of his dad when singularity happens. And meanwhile he’s racing against time in his own way, because according to his theory, singularity happens at a certain time and he’s battling human deterioration. So that’s basically what the song’s about, from his perspective, hoping when singularity happens, he’ll be able to sync with his computer and create his father, bring his father back to life, basically. I thought that was a really amazing, crazy, real life story.
In a way, that seems the exact opposite of your mindset where you guys are trying to give up control, he’s trying to have control over death. Reminds me of “Dying Is Fine,” from your first album…
So Beta Love is an interesting phrase – there’s the idea of beta as an in progress software program, not quite ready to go. There’s also the idea of a beta male, someone who’s less aggressive and more thoughtful than an alpha male. Was that a combination you’d go for in the lyrics?
WM: To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t thought of the second meaning that you brought up. The lyrics for that song were finished pretty late. It was just a really exciting moment because it encapsulates a lot of other topics on the record. It’s supposed to be about this beta version of an android discovering love. But listening to it and writing the rest of the lyrics, it felt like it was really representative of everything.
“Angel, Please” is probably the most danceable song on the record. How did it come about?
WM: That was sort of a contentious one in the studio, because we weren’t really sure how to go about it. It was much slower in demo and had this meandering melody that of course Dennis wasted no time getting us to trim down.
MS: Dennis called us all into the control room and he played us OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” and then he was like…
WM: “Let’s just all go super happy, super positive.”
Is that a change of pace for you? Being positive and happy?
WM: No, but it was challenging us to be even more happy and positive.
MB: Just like, really go for it.
WM: Just don’t hold back.