The orchestral five-piece came together haphazardly at Syracuse University in 2006. The band members met each other at the first practice when guitarist Milo Bonacci brought them together. There was no agenda; but things just seemed to click, according to bassist Mat Santos.
“It was surprising enough that it seemed to work right off the bat with none of us having known each other,” Santos says. “And our original plan was just to play for one semester and then most of us were graduating, so we thought we’d part ways. But that semester was so much fun at Syracuse, we thought, ‘Why don’t we try to do a little tour in the summer?’” Once the summer tour went well, they decided to go out in the fall. And once the fall tour took off, they were getting offers from the College Music Journal’s annual October festival (CMJ), which hosts bands from all over the world. That festival was a turning point that made the band realize this part-time hobby could be a full-time career.
Soon after in 2007, the band made its way to another major independent music festival, South By Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. “That’s when things really started to pick up for us,” Santos says.
Ra Ra Riot’s energetic live shows and thick instrumentation with guitar (Milo Bonacci), cello (Alexandra Lawn), violin (Rebecca Zeller), keyboard (Wesley Miles), bass (Mathieu Santos) and vocals (Lawn and Miles) made their alternating mellow and pulsating poppy tracks a favorite on the festival circuit and among Spin magazine editors. In April 2007, Spin wrote, “Ra Ra Riot is one of the best young bands we’ve heard in a really long time, and little SPIN. com HQ has been awash in their tunes for several weeks now.”
For a young, aspiring band, it seemed like one dream after another was coming true. But after a show in Providence, R.I., in June 2007, drummer John Pike went missing. One day later he was found dead at age 22 from an apparent drowning.
“It was just a complete assault on logic and the band, just everything,” Santos says. “It was just so hard to understand and so random and tragic. John was such an important part of the band right from the beginning in every way. He was everyone’s favorite.”
The band didn’t discuss what to do for weeks following the unexpected death. Pike had been essential not only in playing the drums, but writing songs, melodies and lyrics as well. Ultimately, the band decided to carry on even though they have not replaced the drummer per se. They tour with a drummer, but he is not officially a member of the band.
“We knew it was going to be really hard to continue without him, but at the same time, we felt like it was the right thing to do,” Santos says. “We didn’t want all the music that we had made with him and all the ambitions we shared with him to fall by the wayside like a casualty of the whole situation.”
The band went on to release The Rhumb Line (Barsuk) in 2008 and kept Pike’s memory alive by becoming involved with the John Ryan Pike Memorial Project. The project, started by Pike’s family, raises money to get instruments into the hands of children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them. They keep an instrument library where children can rent instruments to borrow and learn to play.
“John is still working to spread music, inspire people and get people thinking creatively,” Santos notes.
The band has also continued spreading their music with Pike perpetually in mind. Their current album, The Orchard (Barsuk), released in August 2010, was written in an especially meditative environment away from their usual Brooklyn home. The band relocated to a peach orchard in upstate New York’s Penn Yan where they started the album from scratch, in a studio, a first for their career. The result is The Orchard, which brings fresh themes together in a mostly smooth, dreamy album that ebbs and flows into each track, as opposed to their debut, which sounds pieced together.
“We were just excited to start fresh and not feel constrained by anything we had done in the past,” Santos says. “It was really nice being out of the city and out of the craziness and noise and day to day business stuff. We were able to concentrate.”
The band’s current tour has brought them from Florida to Syracuse, which Santos calls grueling, but also something he feels lucky to do every day. “We just have to remind ourselves that this is our job and we get to drive around the country and world and just play music,” he says. “That’s really the best thing and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
Opening for Ra Ra Riot at the Westcott Theater will be Generationals and the Northbound Traveling Minstrel Jug Band. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the door, and are available at www.thewestcotttheater.com or at the Sound Garden, 310 W. Jefferson St.