The members of Ra Ra Riot first came together in 2006 as undergraduate students at Syracuse University in Western New York. Boasting a lineup configuration that mixed a lightning-quick rock rhythm section with strings and other baroque instruments, the six-member was initially lumped in with the other big-band indie groups who emerged in the wake of Arcade Fire’s massive success. But thanks to a series of memorable studio albums—particularly 2010’s The Orchard ¬—and a jamband-worthy road warrior mentality, Ra Ra Riot have carved out their own niche in the in the modern-pop landscape. On their new release Beta Love, they truly declare their independence, replacing many of the signature string parts and guitar-hooks with unexpected, synth-oriented soundscapes. Beta Love is also the band’s first album since the departure of band co-founder Alexandra Lawn, whose cello parts were some of the band’s most unique calling cards. Shortly before Beta Love’s release, violinist Rebecca Zeller discussed Ra Ra Riot’s change in sound, their new studio approach and how the band shares some musical DNA with the club Funk ‘N Waffles.
Let’s start by talking about Ra Ra Riot’s forthcoming album, Beta Love. When did you first start working on the album and how did the songs initially take shape?
We started working on the album in the summer of 2011. We were still touring The Orchard but had time off that summer and—for the first time in the band’s career—everyone had their own apartments and spaces in New York. We didn’t temporally relocate to a studio somewhere to record. It was the first time we could all come to work and go home as opposed to what we did for The Orchard and The Rhumb Line —just living together and that sort of thing.
In the summer of 2011, we started working on songs and people brought in different ideas. We finished touring The Orchard that following fall, in November 2011. And then once we were done with that, we started to pile straight ahead. During that summer, we had met with a few producers and had a really great meeting with Dennis Herring [Modest Mouse, Counting Crows, The Hives]. Then during that time, we had decided that we wanted to work with him. And after the November tour, we worked on the songs a bit more, and we sent [frontman Wes Miles] down to Oxford to sort of take the demos that we had worked on as a group—or that he had brought to us—and let him and Dennis go at them. They spent a week working on a batch of songs, and the songs came back to us in New York. We played through them and worked on them together a bit more. In January of 2012, they went back down, worked on more stuff with Dennis, then they came back up, and we worked on it more as a group for maybe two months. Then we all went down to Oxford to record the record.
It sounds like there was definitely a lot of back and forth, both physically between work spaces and conceptually between Dennis and the band. Do you feel like this new approach ultimately helped this set of songs function more as a conceptual album?
There was definitely a lot of time to let them breathe. I think because we were not living together [in a studio setting], it was probably less of a stress [situation] to maximize every minute. It seemed like more of a casual and slower process with no real pressure to finish things immediately because of time constraints. I think everyone being able to go home at the end of the day—and just be people away from each other—probably helped everybody’s metal health and perspective. Life is all about balance and this is no different.
In the process of recording Beta Love, Ra Ra Riot released an EP. Were those songs you were working on with Dennis or from an earlier recording session?
That was more stuff associated with The Orchard.
As many journalists have noted, your new album has something of a shift in sound. It moves away from the baroque, orchestral sound that Ra Ra Riot were known for from their earlier days to a more synth-based, electro sound. How conscious was this stylistic change and was your initial goal to move into a more synth-oriented space?
It was definitely an intentional change to do something different. Reading a lot of reviews of the songs, instead of calling us chamber-pop, now everyone calls us synth-pop. [Laughter.] The whole synth-pop-driven thing…that was not a goal at all. But when we started off as a band, I remember people asking how we ended up with strings in the band in the beginning. It really was because we wanted to increase the possibilities of the music that we could make. By adding different instruments, we’d be able to create [a wider palette of sounds]. But over time, it became the opposite—it was actually becoming a bit of a limitation. We were feeling bound by every song needing to have violin and cello. And not even violin and cello but even guitar. Really, what we wanted to change [with this album] was the feeling that the instruments that we first brought to the table have to be included in every song. We have made a deliberate decision to approach it a bit differently instead of saying, “What will the violin part be for this song?” Now it is, “Okay, well does this song need a violin party and if so, what would be most appropriate?” Maybe before I was servicing myself by writing a violin part for the entire song instead of just one part? So the goal of this album was to take that idea and run with it—taking that release and running with it. That was something that we probably did better in the early days—not trying to overthink things and just trusting out instincts. Really, our goal this time was to not over think things.
Between Beta Love and The Orchard, cello player Alexandria Lawn left the band. Do you feel that her departure shifted the band’s sound into this new synth-oriented space more than, as you said, another variation with strings?
I think that her departure was sort of like a result of this intention of wanting to change and also something that allowed us to go with it.