September 10, 2009

I Predict a Riot!

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Hey music lovers! Swine flu got you down? Never fear! We’ve got just the thing for you: Indie dance-rock maestros Ra Ra Riot, in concert at Castaways tonight at 9 p.m.! (Side effects may include head-bobbing, foot-tapping, uncontrollable laughing and crazy dancing. In some cases, these side effects may be severe. Please contact a medical professional for a foot-tap lasting more than four hours.) (Swine flu not included.)
Some of my fellow seniors may recall the glory days of freshman year when Fanclub Collective regularly took over Appel Commons with some super-duper music. Ra Ra Riot was once one of these super-duper bands, and they played a super-duper show. Today the six-piece indie strings-and-rock group tours London, plays with Death Cab for Cutie, boasts an impressive full-length album entitled The Rhumba Line and is about to headline a tour through the eastern United States, starting in our very own Ithaca.
This band of Syracuse University alums got their start around the town in 2006. They’ve since spent some time touring with bands like Tokyo Police Club and Andrew Bird and have headlined several of their own tours. Their sound, which is awesomely diverse, complex and difficult to categorize, is what I might describe as folky-rocky-melancholy-happy. To prepare for the upcoming Ithaca version of folky-rocky-melancholy-happy (got that?), yours truly sat down violinist Rebecca Zeller to chat about songwriting, road-trips and just having a good time making music. Actually, we conference called. Come on, it’s the technology age, people. Embrace it.

The Sun: You guys have a pretty unique sound. What kind of influences do you draw from?
Rebecca Zeller: I think all of us have a lot of different influences, from common ones — being the Police, The Beach Boys, The Talking Heads — to a lot of different things.
Sun: Can you talk a little bit about your songwriting process? How do you bring so many diverse elements together?
RZ: Someone brings an idea forward, regardless of what stage of development it’s in — sometimes it’s really rough, sometimes it’s almost a complete idea. And we all just kind of stand around and try to write parts for it. We make sure we’re not stepping on people’s toes, but I guess it’s really just trial and error, looking for what sounds good.
Sun: How would you describe your own style?
RZ: I don’t know. Let me think … no, I don’t know. I prefer not to categorize it.
Sun: You’ve had a pretty intense tour schedule lately. How’s that been going?
RZ: Intense in terms of schedule and driving all over the place and never stopping, or in terms of the people we’ve been playing with?
Sun: Both.
RZ: Well, this summer’s actually been pretty easy for us. We’ve played a bunch of warm-up dates, and we were on a short tour with Death Cab, maybe a month with Death Cab, and last spring we were on the road for a while by ourselves. We’re kind of going back and forth across the country, playing. This summer’s been pretty easy though. We’re about to get back on tour, kind of like an end of the album cycle tour, so we’re looking forward to that.
Sun: What are you guys like on the road? How do you operate? Are you goofy? Serious?
RZ: We all have our demeanor. We’re all happy, having a good time, and that’s the whole point of pursuing [this] career. It’s way too much time spent on the road away from friends and family if you don’t enjoy it. We just kind of love it, and we all get along really well, and we try to, kind of, do fun activities and go the extra mile in every city and do something besides just arriving and playing a show. It’s not always possible, it’s a long drive and sometimes you get in late, but we just try to take advantage of our situation and the ability to see the world.
Sun: So do you have anything fun planned for Ithaca, although it’s not very far out of your normal range?
RZ: Not for Ithaca, no. [Laughs] It’s the first day of the tour, we’ll probably be getting some kinks worked out. But probably somewhere along the tour, we’ll do some hiking or camping, stuff like that. We try to do lots of outdoor activities since we spend so much time in the van.
Sun: Do you have any crazy stories from the road? The van broke down and you were swarmed by bears, or something?
RZ: Hmm, crazy stories. We’ve been broken into a few times, but those aren’t too exciting. Not that I can recall, in particular.
Sun: How about your album [The Rhumb Line]? Did it accomplish what you thought would? Were you happy with it? Do you want to just talk about that a little?
RZ: The album, I guess, was a product of a year and a half into our career, maybe more than that, almost two years, so I think our music was really well played-in by the time, and maybe not as spastic as it used to be. We’re really pleased with the way the record came out. Obviously, there will always be things we wish we could change — I’ll probably be saying the same thing three years from now about our second album, which we haven’t even started recording yet. I feel proud of it. You do the best with what you have and I think we did that.
Sun: You say your sound was not as “spastic” as it used to be. How do you feel your sound has changed over time?
RZ: Maybe I should change spastic to … let me think about that … It was just maybe a little raw, undeveloped, a bit young. I just think we’ve all grown since then and not only as people but as songwriters. Our sound has matured a bit; it seems to be a bit more refined, and I think the string parts of our songs are a bit more developed — I guess they reflect the changes within us developing as songwriters. We have more intricate things fit into the song without being overbearing. And when we first started it was more like it was a fun extracurricular, a party band type of thing. We played for a lot of house parties, and we wrote music that served that purpose; now we just write what comes out.
Sun: So, what do you guys have planned for the next couple of years? What can we look forward to?
RZ: Well, we are writing our next record right now. We’ve been kind of holed up in upstate New York writing music, and hopefully we’ll be in the studio recording it in late November. We’d like to release it in the spring, early summer of 2010. The goal is to release it and tour it and keep having fun.
Sun: Well, I look forward to seeing you guys on Thursday. Good luck with everything! And thanks so much for talking with me!

Ra Ra Riot are playing tonight at Castaways at 413 Old Taughannock Blvd, with Maps & Atlases and Princeton opening. Tickets are $15.