Ra Ra Riot: Writing for the Weekend

By • Sep 16th, 2009 • Category: Features, Popular items

Photo courtesy Randy Cremean / Soundcheck Magazine

The designated media area of Lollapalooza is like a circus. Tents line the southwest corner of Chicago’s Grant Park, each one harboring another publication or broadcast outlet. Radio personalities flag down publicists to corral their guests, stick microphones in the musicians’ faces, and start serving up whopping portions of zany shtick before the headsets fully are adjusted. Record label interns wander the corridor, passing out promotional swag, while food vendors divvy up free snacks, drinks, and even ice cream. TV crews jockey for the best backdrops, positioning shell-shocked performers in front of trees, posters, views of the crowd, and even the portable toilets.

sept_2009_soundcheck_magazineIt’s a whirlwind weekend that leaves the performers glossy-eyed and exhausted from repeatedly answering variations of the same questions.

An executive producer for one of the world’s largest TV affiliates is sitting among Vampire Weekend. The Paul Simon-inspired foursome is gearing up for its Sunday evening concert on the south end’s main stage, and the gauntlet of interviews is a fitting prelude to the tens of thousands of fans and 100-degree heat that await them.

“So who are you [at Lollapalooza] to see,” she asked the band during some pre-interview small talk.

Without hesitation, multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij replied, “We got to see Ra Ra Riot,” his voice laced with obvious excitement.

Batmanglij still was beaming hours after Ra Ra Riot’s early-afternoon set, as the Syracuse, N.Y., ensemble had kicked off the festival’s final afternoon.

“I guess, technically, Tool opened for us,” Ra Ra Riot guitarist Milo Bonacci quipped of the previous night’s multiplatinum-selling headliner. “Because they played this stage right before we did.”

Bonacci and Co. aren’t ready to upstage Maynard James Keenan and his hard-rock ensemble just yet, with the sextet having released its debut, The Rhumb Line, on Barsuk Records a year before the August festival. But the joking stopped there, and Bonacci’s comments came with an undertone of hopeful confidence that maybe – someday – Ra Ra Riot could command the sort of crowd that comes with performing much later on Lollapalooza’s impressive bill.

After all, it was about this time last year that fellow New Yorkers Vampire Weekend were in almost the same position – playing a late-afternoon slot at the much smaller Pitchfork Music Festival on the other side of the city. And here that quartet was in 2009, at Lollapalooza readying for a dusk performance immediately before Snoop Dogg and The Killers.

Bonacci’s optimism isn’t baseless, as his chamber pop six-piece shares its pedigree – and, in some instances, its members – with that preppy foursome.

Ra Ra Riot front man, Wes Miles, and Vampire Weekend vocalist, Ezra Koenig, were childhood friends, performing together often in adolescence before taking a break to attend college. And in July, Miles and Batmanglij released their collaborative debut, titled simply LP, under the moniker Discovery. Despite the belated output, the duo’s collaboration predates both of their respective primary bands.

“We’ve decided to take things slow,” Ra Ra Riot violinist Rebecca Zeller said. “You see a lot of bands get a ton of buzz right away, and we’re all aware of how that can come back to hurt you. We didn’t want it to seem rushed. So we’ve taken some precautions to make sure it’s a steady climb.”

Parts of that gradual ascension were calculated risks, such as releasing a self-titled EP before shopping a full-length around to labels for almost two years. As were the European tours: The band financed a pair of U.K. treks on the heels of word-of-mouth acclaim Stateside. But another part of Ra Ra Riot’s tapered success resulted from unforeseen tragedy. Original drummer John Ryan Pike drowned in June 2007, only weeks before the release of the Ra Ra Riot EP.

Since his death after leaving a post-gig party, the John Ryan Pike Memorial Project was launched to raise money and collect donated instruments as a sort of library for aspiring musicians. Events such as an annual home-run derby give his former band mates an opportunity to honor their friend, whose influence remains almost two years after his death.

With Pike having co-penned many of the songs that would become The Rhumb Line – a title that references a consistent navigational point, as well as taking its name from one of Pike’s favorite Massachusetts bars – the writing process of this follow-up has been arduous. The six Rioters are spending their weekends jet-setting to summer festivals such as the All Points West Music & Arts Festival, Sasquatch! Music Festival, and Lollapalooza, while retreating to upstate New York for the workweek to craft a sophomore LP.

“Writing this album has been a natural progression,” Bonacci said. “Obviously, the songs have evolved in a different way than if John [Ryan Pike] were still with us. He was a big part of who the band was – who the band is – so the songs are taking on a different twist than the ones that he helped write. But we were ready as musicians to start branching out, too, and it’s just time for us to change a little.”

There’s no definite timeframe for new a Ra Ra Riot album, and the group’s Lollapalooza set featured The Rhumb Line in its entirety, as well as “A Manor to Act”, cherry-picked from its self-titled release.

“We think the next album will come out sometime between April and August of 2010,” Bonacci said reluctantly, adjusting his glasses and running his fingers through his feathered locks. “We’re not sure. It’s kind of slow, or really rushed, depending on who you ask.”

Zeller stretches her legs out in front of her and lets out a slight sigh. The interview cramps are starting to settle in, the physical effect of hopping from booth to booth, and the mental result of recalling canned responses to the inevitable questions that they knew were coming.

As she politely fields a few more familiar inquiries about where the music of her chamber pop act is headed, the four members of Vampire Weekend walk past before disappearing backstage en route to a high-profile performance. The two bands exchange friendly smiles and waves, one having just finished a quick stint on media row, the other only starting its long, slow, journey.

How apropos.

Soundcheck Magazine, Sept. 16, 2009

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