Ra Ra Riot graduate to the indie elite

Senior project
By ALEXANDRA CAVALLO  |  November 22, 2010

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SPRING BREAKOUT: “When we first formed, we only meant to be together for that semester,” says Mathieu Santos. “A way for the seniors in the band to have something fun to do.”

When you listen to Mathieu Santos, you might imagine that Ra Ra Riot have enjoyed a charmed rise to indie fame, everything coming a little too easy for the erstwhile college students. As he talks about his band in thoughtful, measured tones, the former art major sounds more like a young academic than the bassist of one of the year's breakout indie groups, one that has — at its young age — already dealt with the death of a member. It's been a slow and steady ascent to buzzland since Ra Ra Riot got their unassuming start playing to drunk kids in the basements of Syracuse University house parties in January 2006.

"When we first formed, we only meant to be together for that semester," says Santos, "[as] a way for the seniors in the band to have something fun to do." Having snagged their first gig before their first practice, Ra Ra Riot quickly booked a full tour for the summer, and Santos (not yet a senior) found himself postponing his education indefinitely. "It's kind of funny. I guess when we first started, we didn't have any expectations of what the band could or would become. Every step has been part experiment and part surprise."

Ra Ra Riot, who play the WFNX Miracle on Tremont Street party next Thursday with Broken Bells and Neon Trees, took a break from touring this summer to pen sophomore album The Orchard (Barsuk), finding respite in a vast peach orchard in Penn Yann, New York. "We needed a place to go," Santos explains, "because we couldn't do it in the city. It's hard to function or be creative because it's such an over-stimulating environment."

They found that place in a Mennonite community, in a rambling farmhouse where guitarist Milo Bonacci was housesitting when he conceived the band. "It sort of felt like this weird full-circle thing," says Santos. After six weeks of writing and peach eating ("It was like heaven being there, like, infinite peaches"), they went home to Brooklyn, where Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla mixed all but one of the album's 10 tracks. They met Walla while touring with Death Cab last summer. "He kept saying how he wanted to be a part of it [the album] in whatever capacity, whether it was production or just friendly advice or whatever." So Walla mixed the album, "polishing everything up."

The Orchard shows Ra Ra Riot stretching their muscles. Although they maintain their chamber-pop sound, distinct '80s influences are evident on many of the tracks, something Santos attributes to a generational soft spot. "We grew up with a lot of that stuff, and it's deeply embedded in our minds."

The accidental drowning of drummer John Pike in Buzzards Bay in 2007 also has a daily impact on their music, says Santos, who wrote "Massachusetts" about the ordeal. The lyrics — "To a mother so cold and gray/And though she gives you one, she takes one away" — reveal a wound not yet healed. "John was just such an incredible musician, and such a huge part of the band, in every way. We still try to have his ideas come through in the music we make."

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