Ra Ra Riot, Feeling Less Self-Conscious

Although I’m sure it’s a bit bittersweet for super-fans to see that indie rockers Ra Ra Riot are returning to the mega-stage of Union Transfer on their upcoming tour,...

Although I’m sure it’s a bit bittersweet for super-fans to see that indie rockers Ra Ra Riot are returning to the mega-stage of Union Transfer on their upcoming tour, after gracing the hyper-intimate Boot & Saddle just last November, on a short, rare run of completely-sold-out, extra-cozy gigs, but it should at least feel validating that their much-and-long-loved band remains relevant enough to potentially fill a 1,300-capacity room… Ra Ra Riot will be once again headlining Union Transfer Saturday, March 5th.  They’ll be celebrating [unofficially] their 10th year as a band and [officially] the release of their fourth full-length, Need Your Light, which hits shelves next month.  I recently got a chance to chat with bassist Mathieu Santos, who tells me that the band are very excited to share their latest sounds, that have them exploring new sonic possibilities.  He tells me that these new possibilities and a sense of freedom in the band is likely indebted to the band’s last album, Beta Love, with which they shattered fans’ expectations of their “chamber-pop” roots by putting out a synth-heavy, very electronic, very danceable record… He also tells me that he is quite the fan of Philly… Even if that particular fandom sometimes includes some playful and friendly antagonizing…

Izzy Cihak: Since this is a Philadelphia publication, I have to ask your thoughts on the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, as we call it.  Any favorite experiences or things about the city?  You’ve played here a number of times now.

Mathieu Santos: We’ve always have a great time playing in Philly, and I’m not just saying that – the shows are always a ton of fun with a lot of good energy. The crowds are always into it. Coming from Massachusetts, personally, a lot of my favorite experiences in Philly revolve around my love of Boston sports teams – specifically wearing Boston apparel, which always encourages a vibrant, colorful dialogue with the residents of this great city. One time I wore my Bruins jackets to Geno’s – you can imagine how that went. We were also in town when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, and it was a lot of fun getting to be a part of another great sports town’s celebration. Other than that, a lot of my favorite things about Philly of course concern food – scrapple is weird but I think I like it; cheese steaks are great, obviously (my favorite spot is Jim’s); and the hand-pulled noodles from Nan Zhou are the best.

Izzy: And what can be expected of the live experience on your upcoming tour, which has you playing our very own Union Transfer early this March?

Mathieu: The biggest thing is all the new music we’ll be playing. We’ll be supporting our new record, Need Your Light, which comes out in February, and so we’ll have a lot of new material to play for the first time since 2013, and we are very, very excited. Union Transfer is a fantastic venue, to boot.

Izzy: Are there any cities you’re especially excited to visit or re-visit or any bills or rooms you’re especially excited you play?  You’re playing a lot of huge headlining shows, but also a few really massive festivals. (You’re actually playing alongside a lot of my favorite bands at Savannah Stopover, like Diet Cig, Beverly, and And the Kids.)

Mathieu We actually just played with Diet Cig this past November, which was a ton of fun, and we’ll be touring with And The Kids for a big part of this upcoming spring tour! I think we’re all mostly just excited to be back on the road in any capacity – it’s been so long, and it’ll be fun re-visiting every corner of this crazy country. Every city has its own vibe, and there are a lot of great rooms out there. I think we usually look the most forward to places like Chicago, San Francisco, LA, Seattle, and all the big cities in the Northeast, and anywhere in Texas is always a ton of fun. We’ve made a habit of spending a day off out in Marfa, which is one of my favorite places on Earth, and hopefully we’ll be able to do that this time as well.

Izzy: I’m curious how you think Need Your Light compares to previous releases, both in terms of sound and the process of writing and recording it.  Did you try anything new on this one, or did it just feel like an organic progression?

Mathieu: I suppose it’s a bit of both of those things – trying new things is definitely part of our organic progression. We’ve always done something different on each record, whether it was our approach to writing and arranging, or with whom we wanted to work – not necessarily intentionally, but changing those things help us grow, and help to keep things interesting and inspiring and fresh. Making Beta Love, our last record, was really important for us in those regards – there was some backlash at first, because people maybe thought we were abandoning something special about our band, or about our sound, but really we were just going in whatever direction the moment was taking us in. But it feels like that record helped to expand the boundaries of the Ra Ra Riot universe, as it were, and this time around I think we felt less pressure, less self-consciousness, and more freedom because of it. We just like making music, and individually and collectively we all listen to all kinds of stuff. There’s always some new discovery to inspire us.

Izzy: I really like your recent music video for “Water,” so I’m curious what is it that inspires the visual elements of Ra Ra Riot?

Mathieu: We’re often inspired by our friends and peers, and so it made sense for us to work with Rostam [Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend] on the video. He co-wrote and produced that song, and so it felt natural to extend that collaboration to the visual realm as well. To be honest, I think making music videos is our least favorite part of being in a band, but this one was by far our favorite. We had a blast making it, and I think the result is very related to what I imagine our band’s vibe is. That’s the nice thing about working with someone you know personally.

Izzy: I saw on your Twitter that you Re-Tweeted the piece that Brian Eno wrote about David Bowie, whose recent passing kind of shattered the everyday life of myself and pretty much everyone I care about.  I’m curious, are there any particular works of Mr. Bowie that you hold especially dear?

Mathieu: I’m sad to say that I’ve never personally been a huge fan of Mr. Bowie’s – not because I don’t like his music, because I do, but because I just sort of missed out on it for whatever reason when I was really getting into music when I was younger. I do have tremendous respect for him as an artist. And it’s sad that it sometimes takes someone dying to make yourself stop and think and consider their work. It was most likely Wes who tweeted that Eno piece, and he’s always been a big fan of Bowie’s, and he’s been telling me for years to listen to Hunky Dory – I guess now’s the time. I should add that I love Wes Anderson movies, and Bowie’s contributions to the Life Aquatic soundtrack – including Seu Jorge’s acoustic Portuguese covers – made a significant impression on me.

Izzy: Now that the band is about a decade old I have to ask: What have been some of the biggest highlights of Ra Ra Riot’s first ten years?

Mathieu: It’s still really strange to me that we’ve been together for ten years. I just think the fact that we’ve been together for so long is a highlight in and of itself. The fact that we’ve made four records and have toured all over the world – Reykjavik and Japan are definitely both huge highlights – would have been absolutely inconceivable to the seven Syracuse University students who first convened in a basement ten years ago. I was 20 then! We were babies! Now everyone’s getting married and moving to new cities and all that kind of stuff – the band has been the one constant in all of our lives over all that time.

Izzy: And finally, what’s next for you?  How do you hope and plan to spend the remainder of 2016, after this batch of dates wraps?  Or is it just more touring on the way?

Mathieu: Yeah, it’ll probably (hopefully) be a lot of touring – back around North America a couple more times, I imagine, and maybe a couple visits abroad – Asia and maybe even Europe again. We’ll see! And after all the touring is done, who knows? I really have no idea what’s next. Some would say that’s exciting, others terrifying – I agree with them both.

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.