Ra Ra Riot:
The TVD Interview

The finest things we experience take their own time to truly evolve. A fine wine, for instance. It matures for years, cultivating its unique aromas and tastes. And some bands do much the same—they follow their own muse, creating masterpieces instead of churning out an onslaught of half-conceived albums.

Ra Ra Riot, the former baroque-pop darlings, reflect this refined maturation process. Two years after the release of their captivating album The Orchard, they return to us with a lineup change and a new album, Beta Love. We had the opportunity to discuss the venture into electronic elements with bassist Mathieu Santos. 

You’ve just released the newest album, Beta Love, and it’s a bit of a departure from 2010’s The Orchard. What do you think shifted the band’s sound?

I think a lot of different things. The biggest part was that we knew we wanted to approach the writing and arranging of this record differently. When we first started as a band, we had all these different instruments at our disposal, and at first, it was a strength of ours, but I think over time we sort of got into this rut. We learned how to write and arrange together so well that we just approached the songs in the same way; we were always adapting the songs to the band. It was like, “Oh, yeah, what’s the violin part going to be? What’s the cello part going to be? What’s this? What’s that?” We just started doing the same thing in every song, I think.

When we approached this record, we wanted to listen to the songs once and say, “What does this song need?” Just let it develop more naturally. We also wanted to embrace things we might have been too self-conscious to embrace in the past, like a lot of the electronic elements or the thematic elements. Shortly before we started working on the record, we had a lineup change, which shakes things up. We let a lot of the decision-making happen in the studio as opposed to figuring it all out beforehand. There was a lot of spontaneity and improvisation in the studio, which also helped shape the music.

Is it necessary to continue to experiment with the band’s band sound?

Yeah, absolutely. Not really that it’s necessary, but it’s more natural. There’s a bunch of us in the band. As we’re all changing, inevitably as individuals and getting into new and different things, it’s only natural that the band is going to reflect those changes.

It’s unnatural for anything to stay the same for a long time. It wouldn’t be any fun for us if we were just doing the same thing over and over again. Any time that we get together, we’re excited to see what’s going to come out of it and what new things we can accomplish.

From where would you say the inspiration for this album came?

There was a lot of eighties pop, you know, Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson, Phil Collins…a lot of new wave stuff and electronic music like Devo and Kraftwerk. Dennis Herring, who produced the record, also had a huge influence in how it sounded. He was introducing us to things while we were there, particularly R&B and house music. So, there was a lot of stuff floating around. I was listening to a lot of jazz fusion.

What prompted the decision to work with Dennis?

We did the last record, The Orchard, on our own. We produced, recorded, and engineered it entirely ourselves, which we wanted to do. It was a fun and unique learning experience. We learned a ton in the studio and had a lot of fun making it.

So, I think when it came time to make this album, we thought, “Well, we did that. Let’s see what a real pro, hands-on producer can bring to the table.” We had it sort of narrowed down to a short list, and Dennis was on it. And he was actually the first person we’d met; we were huge fans of the records he’s worked on in the past, and he had a diverse list of clientele, which was appealing to us.

It was just a really great first impression. We were supposed to meet him for coffee one day in Brooklyn, just to say “hi” and get to know each other a little bit, and we hit it off so well, we ended up spending the entire day with him, like six or seven hours. We ended up going back to our studio and playing him all the songs we were working on just after having met him.

It felt really natural right away. It was part of this new approach. We felt good about it, so we didn’t want to over think it. We ended up going with him and it ended up being a great choice. He really pushed us and helped us achieve things we wouldn’t be able to do on our own.

How do you feel the audience is responding to Beta Love?

We were really nervous at first. The album had been done for months; we were very used to it, but we knew that no one outside of the band had heard it. We were curious to see how people were going to react when we released the first couple songs. There was some backlash at first, a little tiny bit of a backlash. I think people were caught off-guard, maybe. After that subsided, that knee-jerk kind of reaction, it felt like a really overwhelmingly positive response.

Since we’ve been touring the record this year, it feels like the songs have been really connecting live, and people have been really responding to all the new songs, which has been great for us. I feel like people have been singing along even more with the new songs and responding to them more than the old ones in some cases.

When making this record, we knew it was the same people making the record, so by extension we thought the same people who liked the old stuff would like this, too. We were hoping like our fans would grow with us. So far, it seems like they have. It’s been good.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of touring and performing live?

Just that. That connection, however cheesy it may sound. There’s nothing that can really ever replace that experience of live music.

As much as the internet and things like that have leveled the playing field, in terms of bands being able to get discovered and popular on that level, I think the live music experience will never be replaced. It’s a special thing. That’s the whole reason we started the band, to be playing in front of people and having fun, and having that really exciting, fun and positive energy exchange. It’s great to go to all these different cities and countries in the world and have all these strangers get on board and share in the experience.

Why do you think that vinyl is making a resurgence?

It’s probably a response to how the internet makes everything accessible. I think people are coming to appreciate the simple pleasures of analog music. That, again, like live music, is something that is never going to be able to be replaced. An MP3 is never going to sound better than a record. It’s a physical impossibility.

You know how the internet can devalue things? You can just download hundreds of albums at once. I think people are rediscovering the joy and thrill of going in a thrift store and finding a record that you’ve been looking for and having it at home and putting it on a turntable. It’s a really neat experience. I’m happy it’s making a comeback. I’m proud that our records are available on vinyl. I think it’s a great way to listen to music.

Ra Ra Riot is currently on tour supporting The Shins and will embark on a tour with The Postal Service in June. 

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