The band members look like they could all use a three-month nap but any thought that they will sleepwalk through their final performance at SXSW quickly evaporates moments after they cram together on the tiny alcove of a stage. “What’s up everybody?” Miles asks the audience with an air of sincerity that suggests he’s actually interested in the answer. “Thanks for having us. Our name is Ra Ra Riot.”
Milo Bonacci, Alexandra Lawn, Wes Miles, Mathieu Santos and Rebecca Zeller of Ra Ra Riot.
The first throbbing notes of “Ghost Under Rocks” begin reverberating throughout the room, then the string section kicks in and a hush falls over the crowd with an abrupt “wow” moment as the realization sets in that this is something different. “All, all, all your soaking wet dreams,” Miles wails, “You’ve spent them, you have gone and dreamt them dry/ Now you ask your babies why, why, why?”
Three years ago, Ra Ra Riot existed in name only. “We had a friend who wanted to name a band Ra Ra Riot but they never got around to it,” Lawn explains. “So we used the name—which was only supposed to be temporary—and it just kind of stuck.”
That’s probably because there wasn’t enough time to think of an alternative. The first time the band members—at the time, all Syracuse University students—had all met was at their first official practice in early 2006. A few days later, they played their first show in a friend’s basement. Six weeks later, they recorded their self-titled EP. A few months after that, the band was invited to play the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City.
“We had attempted to tour earlier that summer and it was fun, kind of, but it was also a little stressful playing for two people at a random venue in some random city,” Bonacci says. “We hadn’t taken it really that seriously. We went into CMJ with really low expectations. There was something like 1,000 bands playing so we didn’t expect much.”
But to the surprise of many, not the least of which was Ra Ra Riot, the band turned heads. Suddenly, they were being touted by SPIN.com and New Musical Express and being taken out to lunch by lawyers and booking agents talking tours and albums. “It didn’t really become a salient thing to any of us until CMJ,” Miles says. “From whatever set of circumstances we got invited to play there—that became one of the major turning points for us.”
Now they’re headlining their own national tour in support of their first full-length album, The Rhumb Line, released Aug. 19 on the national indie rock label Barsuk Records. Their music has invited disparate comparisons to everyone from The Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend to U2 and The Police. They come home to Syracuse to play Sunday, Sept. 7, at SU’s Juice Jam, held only for SU-affiliated students and faculty, at Skytop Field. The gates open at noon, with the music set to start at 1 p.m. Tickets cost $10 for students, $15 for faculty and staff.
The band has soared to heights of success and depths of tragedy that none of its members could have envisioned a mere 24 months ago. During that time, they’ve compiled enough experiences to fill their own VH-1 Behind the Music episode, both for better and worse.
The architect of the band is, well, an architect. Bonacci—the only Central New York native in the band, with roots in Geneva—started the group when he was a senior architecture major at SU simply because he wanted to play in a band “before I had to get a real job.”
Not that being a touring musician was an entirely foreign concept. Bonacci joined his first band, Hey Little Buddy, in eighth grade, a run that lasted for only a few shows. As a freshman in high school, Bonacci got together with some friends from Geneva to form Gym Class Heroes. He left GCH, which rose to national prominence last year with the hit single “Cupid’s Chokehold,” in 2004 so that he could spend two semesters studying in Italy. When he returned, so did his hunger to create music again.
“Ra Ra Riot was, in a way, about making up for lost time,” Bonacci says. “I missed the collaborative effort of making music.”
Bonacci knew Zeller from a music class the two had both taken at SU. Zeller had played with Lawn in a classical quartet and an orchestra. And so it went, through “one or two degrees of separation,” as Bonacci puts it, the pieces quickly began falling together. The final addition was Miles, a friend of drummer John Pike, who was brought aboard at the last minute to play keyboards.
“The only person I knew really well was John,” Miles says. “I’d met Milo at a couple of parties and we had some mutual friends but the first time I met Mathieu, Rebecca and Ali was at that first practice.”
Miles and Pike had previously attempted to start a band (“electro-pop,” Miles chuckles) that hadn’t panned out. The pair that would eventually become the band’s principal songwriters had met by happenstance three years earlier.
“John was actually the first person I met at Syracuse,” Miles says. “I was moving in and he saw me and insisted on helping me carry my stuff even though we’d never met before. Within minutes we were talking about music.”
That connection took a little bit longer to establish with the rest of the band. Then again, it didn’t help that Miles used that first practice—his audition, if you will—as one long-running inside joke between him and Pike. “I brought my little keyboard along and just started playing the funniest things I could think of,” Miles recalls. “John was familiar with my sense of humor so he was cracking up—which just fueled the fire—but everyone else was like, ‘What the hell is up with this guy?’ But they eventually figured out that I was joking.”
Not that there were a lot of alternatives if they hadn’t. Ra Ra Riot had already booked its first gig—to play a basement show at the house where Zeller lived with roommates that included Josh Roth, now the band’s manager—before they were even officially a band. They started out playing house parties (basements and attics, Miles says), which eventually evolved to performances at the SU School of Architecture’s semi-formal winter ball and at local venues like the Mezzanotte Lounge on North Salina Street.
“There is a substantial lack of things to do in Syracuse for students and I think that actually helped our confidence because we’d have people excited to watch us play,” Bonacci says. “If we had been in a city where there was a lot more to do I don’t know if people would have paid as much attention to us early on and so, in that way, it definitely helped us starting out in Syracuse.”
Among the many aspects that immediately distinguished Ra Ra Riot from the indie rock masses, the most obvious was what Lawn and Zeller, both classically trained musicians, brought to the stage. Just don’t call them anything “accompaniment.” “The difference between our string section and a lot of string sections is that ours is more permanent,” Lawn says. “They’re everywhere in the songs. It’s not tinsel and it’s not just textural all the time either. In some ways, it plays a role almost like another lead guitar.”
That said, Lawn, the youngest member of the band, all of whom are 25 or younger, at age 22, confesses that she probably knows more about Yo-Yo Ma than she does the indie rock bands Ra Ra Riot is often compared to. “I didn’t really know anything about bands until I was in one,” she says with a laugh. “It’s still a different world to me. In some ways it’s a lot more fun. There’s a lot less pressure because you’re not up on this quiet, immaculate stage playing by yourself. You’re playing with your friends in a dinky bar just having fun.”
It didn’t take long before those dinky bars began filling up. By the time Spring Break 2006 rolled around, mere weeks after the band had formed, Ra Ra Riot was already playing its first show outside the friendly confines of the Salt City, at Pianos in Manhattan. Shows like that eventually led to the CMJ invitation that fall that would ignite their career. But the defining moment in the band’s brief but frenetic history was still to come.
By the summer of 2007, Ra Ra Riot had already made its first appearance at SXSW—earning press from The New York Times and Billboard along the way—and had embarked on a tour that took them to the Living Room in Providence, R.I., on June 1. After the show, Pike, who grew up two hours away in South Hampton, Mass., attended a house party in nearby Fairhaven. He left the party early that morning and was last seen around 3 a.m. walking along Buzzards Bay near an area called Wilbur’s Point.
He was scheduled to attend a graduation party later that day and when he hadn’t arrived or checked in, worried friends and family reported him missing. After an extensive search and rescue effort, Pike was found dead the following afternoon in seven feet of water about 100 yards away from the shore. He was 23.
“It’s still a shock, still something that we deal with on a daily basis,” Bonacci says. “I don’t know if it’s something that any of us will ever fully recover from.”
More than a year later, Pike is still listed in the Ra Ra Riot lineup as “co-writer, lyricist, vocalist, drummer and lifelong inspiration” and the band has yet to name a full-time replacement; Cameron Wisch played drums on The Rhumb Line and Gabriel Duquette is currently the band’s touring drummer. In fact, there was a time when the band members had to decide whether or not Ra Ra Riot had died with Pike.
“This band was something that John loved,” Bonacci says. “The decision to continue on was deeply personal for us but we felt that these songs were pieces of John’s life. It’s what we had left of him.”
In navigational terms, the “rhumb line” refers to a line that crosses all meridians at the same angle. Put another way, it’s a directional course that maintains a constant bearing. But when John Pike began writing lyrics for the Ra Ra Riot song “St. Peter’s Day Festival,” he was referencing a bar in Gloucester, Mass., called The Rhumb Line. Now it means both.
“It’s not really one thing or another,” Miles says. “It is a bar in Gloucester that John incorporated into ‘St. Peter’s Day Festival’ but it’s more like a metaphor. You can take it as you wish and find importance in whatever interpretation you choose.”
The band consciously chose to name their first full-length album The Rhumb Line both for its duality and as an homage to their friend, to whom the album is dedicated. “St. Peter’s Day Festival” was the last song the band had worked on together before Pike’s death. It also happens to be one of the strongest tracks on a startlingly good debut. And, like most of the songs on the album, in addition to the album title itself, there is an added resonance to the music in light of the tragedy.
“Everything we do is bittersweet now,” Bonacci admits. “We try to focus on the positive side but there’s always that other aspect that we can’t avoid. Songs that maybe meant one thing 18 months ago might mean something completely different now.”
Songs like the beautiful, uplifting and, at times, tortuous “Dying Is Fine,” which was inspired by the e e cummings poem “dying is fine)but Death.” Sings Miles: “To settle our thoughts, never minding what for. Nothing of a harm to dread on my mind/ Tell me what belies, tell me what I could have, oh, tell me what for!”
Ra Ra Riot is still as enthusiastic as ever on stage but there’s occasionally a sense of melancholy, an aching in the melody and the strings, underlying the performances. Nowhere is that complexity more apparent than when Miles stomps his feet, tears at the The Virgins T-shirt on his chest and cranes his head skyward as he sings the “Dying Is Fine” chorus at Saengerrunde Hall in Austin.
“Death, oh baby, you that dying is fine/ But maybe I wouldn’t like death if death were good/ Not even if death were good!” Miles admits that singing those same songs the band spent hours crafting—and he and Pike often sat side by side writing the lyrics for—can be both exhilarating and emotionally taxing.
“It’s different every time,” Miles says softly. “It can be a really fun thing where I’m almost laughing because I’m remembering a certain face John used to make or something funny he did. And then there are other times when it feels almost impossible.”
Unlike the band’s EP, which was recorded on the cheap in less than six days, Ra Ra Riot spent nearly a month recording The Rhumb Line holed up at the rustic Bear Creek Studio (“basically a horse barn,” Miles says with a chuckle) operated by producer Ryan Hadlock in the forest outside Woodinville, Wash. The result is a phenomenal, concise debut featuring nine originals (including standouts “Dying Is Fine,” “Ghost Under Rocks,” “St. Peter’s Day Festival” and “Oh, La”) and a reimagining of Kate Bush’s “Suspended in Gaffa.”
In less than three years, Ra Ra Riot has already played several major music festivals and toured across the country and beyond to locales like Iceland, Portugal, France and England that band members never dreamed they would play.
In March, the band gigged a sold-out show at New York City’s legendary Bowery Ballroom, a show that ended with the crowd demanding a second encore (the band played “Ghost Under Rocks” a second time, having already run through their entire catalog). “It was almost perfect,” Miles glows. “To go up there and see so many people packed together and hear them chanting for another encore—not even close to being ready to go home—that’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
And there are many more memories ahead, including this weekend’s triumphant return to SU where it all began. An experience the band members describe with words like “strange,” “weird,” “surreal,” “wonderful” and “exciting.” Then again, it’s hard to describe the band’s journey any other way.
“We set out doing everything at a really fast pace,” Bonacci says. “But we’ve worked really hard all along the way. Sometimes it feels like everything has happened so quickly and other times it feels like things aren’t happening fast enough.”