he Kansai region of Japan is considered to be Japan’s historical and cultural heart. It’s a region known for Kobe beef, sake, and four of Japan’s most renowned national parks. Catherine Maxwell, an editor for the newsletter Omusubi, once wrote that “Kansai residents are seen as being pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to earth and possessing a strong sense of humour.” This also may explain why Kansai is seen as the home of Japan counterculture. On the surface, “Kansai”
- the song that almost ends Ra Ra Riot’s latest album, The Orchard -
does not directly speak to this region. Instead we get mentions of San Diego, the optimistic notion of a merciful universe, getting lost in fleeting thoughts, and what may be one of the album’s catchiest yet fussiest arrangements: Weird shifts in time, unexpected strings, galloping Beach Boys basslines… It’s almost as if the song is caught in a coastal divide of its own—a fidgety ode to the loose summer sun and the mystic climes of upstate New York. One would think the obvious place to start talking about Ra Ra Riot’s latest album, The Orchard, would be its very first song, which also happens to be the title track, which also (indirectly, mind you) refers to the peach orchard where the band took to writing songs for the album in the summer of 2009. None of that Kansai stuff above is necessarily the intuitive place to begin describing this band. And that shouldn’t be a surprise: Ra Ra Riot finds strength in subtlety and refraction. This is a band that cooks with indirect heat – melding taut rhythms with lush chamber pop, subtle psychedelia, infectious melodies, and lyrics that tell the story of timorous souls shaking free. Listen close and all of those R.E.M. comparisons finally make sense—just replace the kudzu with a grove of peach trees. Kansai may be a place where ideas mingle, but The Orchard is where they take shape and bloom. The seeds of The Orchard were sown over the course of a couple of years, and harvested when guitarist Milo Bonacci compiled every stray idea and demo the band had accumulated since releasing their breakthrough album, The Rhumb Line. After assembling all those loose threads, the band took residence at the titular peach orchard in Penn Yan, New York and embarked upon mammoth writing sessions punctuated by new adventures in cooking, playing bocce, and simply enjoying the benefits of country living. (The orchard also marks the beginning and end of an era: It was there, in the winter of 2005, that Bonacci, while housesitting during a break from his architecture studies at Syracuse University, began writing songs and organizing the band’s activities for the coming spring. Sadly, the house was sold not long after the writing of The Orchard was complete, and the band had to abandon its hope of finishing the recording in Penn Yan.) Fortunately, the time at the orchard was well spent: An invigorated and well-rehearsed Ra Ra Riot not only conjured the sunny magic of their rural residency during a typically cold winter in upstate New York while recording the bulk of the album, it was emboldened enough to add new voices to the mix. Now, in addition to the stately coo of vocalist Wes Miles, The Orchard treats listeners to bassist Mathieu Santos’ instantlyhummable “Massachusetts” and cellist Alexandra Lawn’s “You And I Know” – an album highlight that recalls Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac. With their trusted soundman, Andrew Maury, co-producing the final recording sessions, the group felt all the more comfortable in realizing The Orchard’s rich timbre. The final mixes by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij bring the album to full bloom. The Orchard unfolds like origami—each undone corner revealing Ra Ra Riot’s collective knack for writing sterling arrangements, addictive hooks and subtle details. Furthermore, The Orchard’s impeccable sequencing and scant running time (the album runs just under the 40-minute mark) hits an aural sweet spot that will inspire spinning this album over and over again, each listen revealing some new blossom, fruit, or lovely flying insect that you hadn’t noticed before. Ra Ra Riot consists of: Wes Miles – Vocals Milo Bonacci – Guitar Alexandra Lawn – Cello Mathieu Santos – Bass Rebecca Zeller – Violin
Interview by tosnob
Yesterday I announced Ra Ra Riot's The Rhumb Line as my best album of 2008. Well recently the band's bassist Mathieu Santos took the time to do a Q&A with us.
Here's our conversation with Mathieu of Ra Ra Riot.
TO Snob: Off the bat I'd like to congratulate you on making a stellar album. On Snob's Music we have named The Rhumb Line as the best album of 2008. I'd also like to apologize because I'm sure you've answered these questions or similar ones hundreds of times before. So Syracuse, NY. It's not usually mentioned among the musical hotspots in North America. What is the music scene like there? Who are your favorite artists to come out of the city?
MS: Outside of the university, which has every kind of band imaginable, Syracuse is traditionally dominated by hardcore and metalcore and things like that. I actually don't know of too many bands who are from there, besides Earth Crisis and Ed Gein. I've seen Ed Gein before and it was one of the more violent and exciting shows I've ever been to. Right now there's a pretty fantastic funk band called Sophistifunk, who hail from a venue called Funk N' Waffles (which of course specializes in funk music and delicious specialty waffles). If you're ever in the Syracuse area, you have to stop by there.
TO Snob: How did you come together as a band? After all with full-time cellist and violinist you have a pretty unconventional line-up.
MS: Most of us didn't really know each other before the band started, which I feel is kind of unusual - it mostly came together by networking, which Milo set in motion and is pretty easy to do at a huge school like Syracuse. He just wanted to get a kitchen-sink kind of band together - something where there would be a lot of ideas and sounds and stuff like that going on. He was in a class with Rebecca, who knew Allie from a string quartet they were in together - it all kind of came together like that.
TO Snob: Ra Ra Riot stuck together after the tragic death of your drummer John Pike. Some up-and-coming bands would have crumbled after a devastating blow like that. Was there ever a time that you considered throwing in the towel? How did you come to the decision to persevere as a band?
MS: The band's future was the last thing on our minds after John passed away - we just spent the first week together and then took some time to go our separate ways. After a couple of weeks, it became pretty clear to us that continuing was the most appropriate way to respond to what happened. We knew it would be extremely difficult - and it still hasn't gotten easier in a lot of ways - but we figured that continuing to share the music we all made together would be the best way to celebrate John and his measureless contributions to the band.
TO Snob: What inspires Ra Ra Riot's songs?
MS: We're all huge music fans - I think it's as simple as that. We all listen to music constantly, and each of us have pretty distinct tastes and sensibilities that come through when we write and arrange songs together.
TO Snob: I see that you are heading out on the road in 2009 with local boys Tokyo Police Club. If you could tour with anyone playing today who would those dream tour mates be?
MS: We've been pretty lucky in that department so far - we've toured with so many bands that we love. I'd tour with any of our past or current tourmates again in a second. If I had to choose someone new, though, I'd say either The Fall or U2.
TO Snob: What are your guiltiest musical pleasures?
MS: I get a lot of grief from my bandmates because of my affinity for Boston - but regardless, I have absolutely no guilt associated with that. I really like Britney's new song, "Womanizer". There have actually been some great songs in the Top 40 lately - Estelle, Chris Brown, Kanye, and Alicia Keys have all been jams of mine at some point this year.
TO Snob: Have you ever heard a song and said "damn I wish I wrote that"?
MS: Yes, that happens all the time! It's nice to feel so inspired, but it's also very frustrating. I think the last couple of songs that have recently triggered that were "Be Stiff" by Devo and "Mind" by Talking Heads.
TO Snob: Other than the tour, what are the plans for Ra Ra Riot in 2009?
MS: So far, we have up until mid-May booked, most of which will be spent touring the US - with a few stops in Canada and the UK as well. In January and February, we're taking some time to work on new material, which is so exciting for us I can't even explain it. Hopefully we'll be in the studio by the end of the year!
TO Snob: Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans in Toronto?
MS: Yes! I am a huge hockey fan and I'm partial to Original 6 cities. I'd like to pay my respects to your city's hallowed hockey history. If you, for some reason, have never been to the Hockey Hall of Fame, take a week off of work and spend every day there.
TO Snob: Thanks for taking the time to do this for us. Congratulations on a fantastic 2008 and all my best for 2009.