Ra Ra Riot is pushing its sound

11:34 AM, May 31, 2013

Band member Rebecca Zeller of Ra Ra Riot says the goal for the third album, Beta Love, was to push its sound. (Getty Images)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: Ra Ra Riot and The Static Jacks.
When: 7 p.m. June 12.
Where: Water Street Music Hall, 204 N. Water St.
Tickets: $15 advance, $17 at the door, available at Record Archive, waterstreetmusic.com, (888) 512-7469 and afterdarkpresents.com.

There is a temptation here to present Ra Ra Riot as some kind of intellectual pop hothouse of futuristic ideas, discussing the Artificial Intelligence predictions of Ray Kurzweil and the sci-fi futurist writings of William Gibson while riding from gig to gig in the tour bus. “It has happened,” says violinist Rebecca Zeller. “Probably more in the van than in the bus.”

Indeed, as the group’s profile has expanded, it has moved on from those van days, when they were just Syracuse University students who got their start playing house parties while backed by a drum machine. Tucked away inside the intimate confines of a van is when you discuss the grand ideas of the universe overheard in modern lit class.

Now Ra Ra Riot travels more expansively, via tour bus, where there’s time to ponder whether those music-industries studies are being put to good use — that’s what Zeller studied at Syracuse — and where there’s room to stretch your legs. And room for the band to stretch out a little, which will be obvious when Ra Ra Riot plays Water Street Music Hall on June 12. (Yes, that’s two weeks away, but I wanted to make sure this band didn’t get lost in the oncoming jazz fest rush).

To be sure, Kurzweil and Gibson can be found in Ra Ra Riot’s new album, Beta Love. Their writings on cyberspace and life-enhancement technologies inspired the band’s lead singer and lyricist, Wes Miles. Although Zeller downplays this cosmic content. “I’m not quite sure we’re trying to project anything,” she says. “We’re just trying to make music, make a living. The themes behind the lyrics, it’s not like we all sit around and plot what the record lyrically will be.”

Actually, Zeller says, the true plot for its third album was to push its sound — not dramatically, mind you — more toward synthesizers and keyboards. It is less the chamber-rock sound of the first two albums, The Rhumb Line and The Orchard, which heavily featured Alexandra Lawn’s cello and the classically trained violin of Zeller. There, Ra Ra Riot reached the pinnacle of pop success: One of its songs was used in a TV commercial. “Boy,” from The Orchard, helped sell Honda Civics.

So it was time. “We wanted to challenge ourselves to do something different,” Zeller says. “There’s no reason to continue to make what you’ve already made. From the very beginning, the approach was to find something that works. Obviously with this new record, it was similar ideas, but with wanting to pull the strings back from every song. That takes up a lot of musical space, we wanted the songs to have some freedom.

Halfway through the recording process, I don’t think I really realized how different it was. I just thought, yeah, this is what we’re doing. And it felt kind of similar. And when people first started to tell me it was different, my response was, ‘Yes, it’s really different, but I think its really good.’ Hopefully our true fans will really respond to it. Our intention was not to alienate, but to do something that we wanted to do.”

So Zeller talks about “serving the song” and how “it wasn’t our intention to jump genres.” What Ra Ra Riot ended up with was something that you can dance to.

There wasn’t an intention to do something clubby,” she says. “There was an intention to create music that people had a more physical response to it.”

To create a more-accessible sound?

It’s not accessibility,” she says. “It’s more about something for us. It’s probably a more selfish thing.”

Whatever the motivation, it’s the kind of change that bands sometimes choose to go through. Change doesn’t always sit well with everyone. Shortly before Ra Ra Riot went into the studio to record Beta Love, Lawn left the group. “Her departure was partially a result of us wanting to do something different,” Zeller concedes.

And sometimes bands go though changes that are not by choice. Following a 2007 show in Providence, R.I., two of the band members went to a late-night after party, from which drummer John Pike disappeared. After an extensive search, his body was found the next day in a nearby Atlantic Ocean inlet called Buzzards Bay. The autopsy revealed no signs of foul play, but the questions over how this apparent accidental drowning happened linger to this day: the 23-year-old Pike, a 2006 magna cum laude graduate of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, was a poor swimmer who did not like the water.

It was so devastating to everyone,” Zeller says. “We were really young kids trying to cope and respond to this horrific tragedy. We were not even sure how to respond to it. It’s not something you can really prepare for at any age, let alone when you’re so young.”

Pike’s death is a subject that the band members are still reluctant to discuss.

Ultimately, Ra Ra Riot is a band that’s moving forward in an effort to recapture what it left behind when it got on the tour bus. Back to those nights when Ra Ra Riot was a house-party band, backed by a drum machine. “That energy that really spawned our live shows was something we wanted to get back to,” Zeller says.

The Rhumb Line and The Orchard “captured the dynamic of the time,” she says. Beta Love captures a different dynamic this time. “It sounds really happy to me,” Zeller says. “It sounds like a bunch of good friends making music together.”