The 405 meets Ra Ra Riot
They found fame by initially occupying the same space as preppy baroque-indie outfit Vampire Weekend, but Ra Ra Riot have in recent years drifted away from the Western classical swooshes. Strings are dropped in favour of synths, and the rockier sound of before is replaced with electro-pop for new record Beta Love, which has proved a point of contention for some fans and critics, with reception for the album generally mixed.
It's been a rough few years for the band, but they're back on track by their own account, and exactly where they want to be. They knew the risks of meddling with electronica, but the now-reduced four-piece (cellist Alexandra Lawn left the band just over a year ago) are defiant, determined to explore themselves and the world after the dust had settled from previous record, The Orchard. "We were definitely in a much better mindset for the recording of Beta Love. We had a lot of fun writing and recording The Orchard, but there was also a lot of tension and drama surrounding those sessions and the tours that followed." Their foray into synth-dom has been met his scepticism, but this journey is almost cathartic for the group, part of a healing process for the remaining members. "This time around, it was important for us to shake things up and re-evaluate the way we approach writing and arranging our music and the roles that each of us have individually in the band. That attitude, along with some changes in our line-up, really helped us make the record we wanted to make, and the past year has felt really good."
Although there was drama and tension, the possibility of a third LP was never disputed. Things got tough, but the band prevailed. "At times it seemed like a new album was really far away, over some horizon – some bridge we'd cross when we got to it. Once all the touring finally died down, things started coming into focus pretty quickly. We'd had some demos floating around, but once we met our producer, things really took off."
With the line-up changes and everything that had happened between them, situations transformed. The writing process became more concise – it needed to. "In the past, for better or worse, there had been a really collectivist approach, where someone would bring a song to the band, and everyone would just sort of pile on top of it and try to stake out their musical space. There never really felt like there was much room to breathe or change things too much." Producer Dennis Herring had radical ideas, helping shape the fresh sound and provide structure to a group in a state of almost-disarray. "This time around, we wanted to work with a pretty hands-on producer, someone who could help us grow and who could provide a crucial outside perspective. We all wanted to put the songs first this time, instead of having each of our individual involvement on every single track be a foregone conclusion."
Alexandra Lawn's departure didn't seem to hinder the process of writing Beta Love, and the loss of a band member seems to have in fact provided Ra Ra Riot with a jolt of vigour. "We've gotten used to personnel changes over the years (we're on our fifth drummer now), and so, even though Allie had been with us for six years, we felt sort of lean and energized heading into the studio, with just our remaining four core members tackling this record. I think the changes we were interested in making on this album weren't appealing to Allie, and so her departure then allowed us to pursue those changes more enthusiastically."
Aside from Lawn's departure, and therefore lack of cello, there's been a brazen shift in their sound – which is something most people will agree with, and potentially shun. The band argues that the change isn't as surprising as it might first appear. It's the result of a renaissance within the group, an enlightenment which allowed them to "Trust the songs, and to not feel at all inhibited by any self-consciousness." It was a much more confident, forceful approach. "The main conscious decision we made was to totally re-tool our approach to writing and arranging. I think there'd always been a subtle electronic influence floating around, but we, for whatever reason, didn't allow ourselves to feel comfortable really exploring those things until now. But we feel like Beta Love is a very Ra Ra Riot album, and to us it feels much more like we're building upon our sound as opposed to abandoning anything."
But the 'subtle electronic influence' wasn't the only thing to have a bearing on the record, with literature taking precedence over music for their third outing. "The two biggest [influences] this time around were a couple of books: Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near and William Gibson's Neuromancer. There was also a documentary about Kurzweil called Transcendent Man, which was a great supplementation of his book. To me, all of our records explore pretty similar themes – primarily love, loss, loneliness, and things like that. It's just that each record approaches those themes from different places. Beta Love uses a lot of those futurist and transhumanist writings as a jumping-off point."
As made patently clear with each passing week, or even day, we are going to have mourn the loss of HMV as we know it someday soon, and succumb to the reality of an almost exclusively online music world. Ra Ra Riot weigh in on the fiasco, guns blazing and thoughts protruding faster than Usain Bolt running to a publicity stunt. For the band, record stores are a pretty vital link in the chain. "I absolutely think [it's a shame]. I don't know, maybe I'm romanticizing it a bit, but I have all these great memories of growing up and walking to my local record store and chatting with the clerks and learning about all kinds of music. I would just go there with my best friend and sit at the listening station for hours. Obviously with the Internet, you have everything at your fingertips at all times, but that's not necessarily a good substitute for some kind of pilgrimage with intent. I'm kind of scared that people are having music recommended to them by algorithms. Things like art and music are having a harder time making the transition into the digital age. I just love the atmosphere of record stores; they're real places with real people who generally really care about music. I can't help but feel like I sound like a confused old man, but there it is."
But will a lack of music change the music industry dynamics? They aren't too sure. The musings continue. "It seems like people are getting along fine without them already. Things like Rdio and Spotify and even Pandora have already changed the way people think about experiencing music. For a vast majority of listeners, that's what listening to music is. I'm sure most casual music fans will never set foot into a proper record store, and probably won't feel like they're missing out on anything. I'm sure some record stores will survive as boutique-y, niche kind of places, serving a very specific demographic – but by and large I feel like the industry has already left them behind."
What about their habits though? Is this hypocrisy at its finest? No. For Ra Ra Riot, real records are ritualistic recreation. "I try to buy as much physical music as I can. I like to collect things by nature anyway, but to me, the direct experience of getting up, pulling a sleeve off the shelf, putting a record on, flipping it over – those actions are important to me. I like to feel, at least on some level, physically involved with the experience. Most LPs come with downloads now anyway, which is the absolute best of both worlds. That way I can still have everything with me when I travel, which is obviously convenient – but nothing beats sitting down with some nice, big speakers and getting really involved with the music."
On a more positive note, there are plenty of reasons that they'll trek to the local whatever-the-American-equivalent-of-HMV-is this year. "I'm really really excited for the new Vampire Weekend record! I'm also excited to check out what Wavves, Phoenix, Azealia Banks, and Justin Timberlake have in store. Swing Lo Magellan by the Dirty Projectors is also an absolute masterpiece. We just got to play a few shows with them in Asia last week, and getting to see those songs live was such a treat. They just engulf you!
The audience reaction to their new music has gone well, though the group were definitely aware of a hostile response in the beginning. Fans have started to come to terms with the alterations to their sound. "At first, there were of course some people who were perhaps thrown off or were maybe expecting more of the same, and we were anticipating that. But after some of those knee-jerk reactions had died down a bit, it seems like most of our fans were excited about some of the new directions and wanted to grow along with us. So far it's felt like the new songs have really been connecting live, which is great! We were so proud of the album, so excited about it, that we knew it would connect with people in one way or another. I think we're just really glad that people are giving it a chance and are having fun with us live."
And now, with the record finally released, the extensive touring campaign begins. But Ra Ra Riot love it – the globetrotting and performances fuel them, and it's something they're passionate about. "We just spent about 10 days in Asia, which was a pleasant surprise for us! Getting to visit new and exciting places right after the album came out was thrilling. We're back in the States now, and'll be touring here for the next 6 weeks or so, and then I'm sure this summer will see us heading abroad to the UK and Europe, hopefully we'll be doing a bunch of fun festivals and then back through the States, and then back to Japan… basically, we're going to be busy all year, but as of right now, we're just trying to take it a week at a time."
Beta Love is out now. You can visit Ra Ra Riot by heading here.
Purchase and listen
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