A couple of years ago, if you found yourself shuffling down the snowy streets of Syracuse, N.Y., you might have heard the melancholic wail of a violin float out from a half-buried basement window. A split second later, the wall-rattling thump of Ra Ra Riot's dancey chamber pop would've burst through to join it. For the band of six friends, music was a recreational repose from the rigors of academic life at Syracuse University. But within months of playing to college crowds in rickety attics and musty basements, Ra Ra Riot found themselves being hailed by SPIN.com as one of the best young bands it had heard in a really long time. With a flurry of shows booked and an EP in the works, it seemed things couldn't get better. Then everything changed.
On June 3, 2007, after playing a show in Providence, R.I., the band's drummer and songwriter John Pike was found dead, having drowned in shallow coastal waters near Fairhaven, Mass. Filled with grief and unwittingly thrust in the spotlight, Ra Ra Riot's remaining members made the difficult decision to continue with the band, performing a show later that month at New York City's South Street Seaport. Shortly thereafter, the group released their self-titled EP and began touring tirelessly with bands like Tokyo Police Club and Editors. In May, the band signed to indie-behemoth Barsuk Records and recently put out their first full-length album The Rhumb Line.
Though a lot has changed in three years, The Rhumb Line manages to incorporate the captivating energy and carefree camaraderie of Ra Ra Riot's basement beginnings with the quiet introspection and thoughtful orchestration of musicians who have matured well beyond their years.
"When we set out to record this album, we were trying to make a very dynamic album that struck a balance between grand and intimate and kind of glossy and raw all at the same time," says guitarist Milo Bonacci.
With the help of producer Ryan Hadlock (Blonde Redhead, Gossip, Islands), Bonacci, lead singer and keyboardist Wesley Miles, cellist Alexandra Lawn, bassist Mathieu Santos, violinist Rebecca Zeller and fill-in drummer Cameron Wisch spent the latter part of 2007 recording their new album at Bear Creek Studios outside of Seattle. Bear Creek provided a tranquil, wooded retreat where the band could revisit some songs previously recorded on their debut EP.
"I think the EP is kind of flat and that might have to do with the mastering or the mixing of it or the way it was recorded or a combination of those things," explains Bonacci. "I feel like the album, or at least I'd like to believe that [The Rhumb Line] is allowed to be dynamic and lively when it needs to be, but it kind of steps back from that when it needs to, also."
One of the tracks the band re-recorded is the album's opener, "Ghost Under Rocks." The new version adds depth to the song's menacing cello and plucky violin, with a welling orchestration that culminates in Miles' shrill "Oh, Oh, Ohs." The following song, "Each Year" has also been retooled and now highlights Bonacci's driving guitar line and brings Zeller's violin and Lawn's cello out from the shadows. High-hat-heavy drums kick in for the chorus as Miles sings the To Kill A Mockingbird-inspired lyrics, "Silhouettes in a window frame / Better run if it's Boo's old man / He won't know if you're white / Oh, in the night."
"When it came time to record ["St. Peter's Day Festival"] and a number of others on the album, we were referencing the Beatles' White Album and maybe a bit of Abbey Road for a bit of the technical side of recording," says Bonacci. "There were a lot of characteristics that we were trying to capture, like the sound of the room or the sound of the bass or whatever."
"St. Peter's Day Festival" was the last song Pike recorded before he passed away, and the stripped-down demo still remains on the group's MySpace page. The lyrics "If I go to Gloucester you know / I will wait there for you / The Rhumb Line is waiting there, too" provided inspiration for the album's nautical title. Another standout recording on the album is the Kate Bush cover "Suspended in Gaffa." Straying slightly from Bush's quivering vocal theatrics, the band uses pots, spoons, empty water jugs, crashing drums and a flurry of strings to create a similarly emotive musical landscape.
With such a stellar recording under their belts, music critics and TV executives alike have placed Ra Ra Riot on their ... ahem, ra ra radar. The video for the band's first single "Ghost Under Rocks" premiered on MTV's Subterranean and portrays the band as amateur cartographers, energetically strumming their instruments on a seamless world map. The band is still giddy after their recent performance of that single on the Late Night with Conan O'Brien show.
"We were all terrified and nervous and excited all at the same time. Then Conan comes over and shakes our hands and I think I stopped breathing for like a second," says Bonacci, laughing. "I think it was all right and hopefully the next one will be better and we'll be somewhat acclimated to that sort of process."
And it's with this earnest candor and seat-bracing readiness for the future that Ra Ra Riot has gotten where they are. Though sold-out headlining shows are a far cry from sweaty Syracuse basement parties, you get the feeling this group of friends would be content whichever way things panned out.
With Walter Meego, Thursday, Sept. 18, 9 p.m., $8 adv., $10 door. Neurolux, 111 N. 11th, 208-343-0886, neurolux.com.
Ra Ra Riot also plays a FREE in-store on Thursday at 6 p.m. at Record Exchange, 1105 W. Idaho St., 208-344-8010, therecordexchange.com.