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Suspended in Motion: Ra Ra Riot’s Infinite Go-Ahead

By Cameron Bird, photos by Ryan James MacFarland on August 9, 2010

 

Whoever battered through the back window of Ra Ra Riot’s tour van left a brigade of locks—heavy as hockey pucks yet still intact. Lifted from under the glass shards were laptops, a video camera, lead singer Wes Miles’ bulky old cell phone, and a communal checkbook. During the break-in, Ra Ra Riot was cycling through a high-energy set in a loft for a bevy of Québécois fans. Sadly, the criminal sounds and dark silhouettes on the street turned no ears or eyes from the crowd that winter night.

But O Canada, not our home and native land. O Canada, rob us blind.

With the band’s paranoia kept fresh by the breeze on their backs, the group rolled on towards Toronto and veered back over the U.S. border. It wasn’t the only time the group had been tested by a tried-and-true universal law: Nothing can stop what’s coming.

“You move, you either weep or moan.” – “Ghost Under Rocks”

In the winter of ’06, the five Syracuse undergrads who became Ra Ra Riot started rehearsing in violinist Rebecca Zeller’s basement. As the trappings of the semester grew distant above ground, the sound that would become theirs quickly materialized underneath. “Those first few weeks were an accelerated process,” says guitarist Milo Bonacci, who brought the bare particulars of “Dying is Fine” to the first practice. And lifting verse from E.E. Cummings, drummer John Pike dropped in the song’s existential lyrics: “I wouldn’t like death if death were good, not even if death were good.”

The band’s fall-back plans may have been on the outs, but everything else was well in motion and the trade-off paid off: Buzz from subsequent house performances accrued and spread in all directions. Ra Ra Riot soon landed a slot at the CMJ Music Showcase, aka the “discovery zone.” And when it played South by Southwest six months later, the band had something tangible to merchandise: a six-song EP.

The self-titled disc revealed a band unburdened by expectations. The production is sharp, the lyrics terse and the timbre to the point. Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn, who had dragged their parents through the intensive Suzuki Method as kids, had never before lent their instruments to original compositions. The pace was entirely new.

“I’m sure I would’ve looked at the stuff I’m writing now and thought, oh that’s so easy,” says Zeller. “But the challenge now is that you can’t write a technically difficult piece to play on stage when you have five other instruments blasting in your ear. It doesn’t translate well.”

Miles, who attributes the belting quality of his voice in part to a steady regimen of Usher and Led Zeppelin sing-alongs, says the band’s creative process has never included any self-aware checks and balances. When an idea emerges, it is what it is, even if it gets the band unfairly likened to the wider world of generic indie-pop.

“We never ask, ‘Is this a Ra Ra Riot song?’ Fortunately, most of the time we realize, ‘Hey, we can do whatever we want,’” Miles says. “On one hand, you hope every day your music and performance will stand out, but at the same time, you can’t really think about that. We’ve found what we’re best at, but it’s not at all permanent.”

Impermanence is a mantra to which Ra Ra Riot often returns in conversation. And with good reason—last spring everything unexpectedly came crashing down.

“One can only love life until its ending. Oh, and I can’t forget.” – “Dying is Fine”

On June 2, 2007, drummer John Pike stole away from an after-show party in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Neither his bandmates nor anyone else followed him to a remote cove less than a mile away. Two days later, search-and-rescuers found his cell phone on the shore and lifted his body from the bottom of the water.

The event of Pike’s drowning left his contributions exposed to reinterpretation. As is customary with the untimely passing of artists, it’s natural to look for meaning in what’s left behind. The band, however, had little time to re-contextualize. After the shock faded, they decided that the best-fitting understanding of their friend’s intentions would have them go on…not back.

In the intervening months, nothing has come easy. On the go, they’ve been violated by robbers hidden in plain sight and pigeonholed amid a crowded music scene. The title of their forthcoming album, The Rhumb Line, defines Ra Ra Riot’s collective experience. Taken from Pike’s last lyrical contribution to the band, The Rhumb Line is both a beloved bar in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and nautical jargon for the path of a vessel traveling a constant compass direction.

“There is, I guess you could say, a straight trajectory,” said Bonacci. “We’re constantly moving, but our perspective is constantly changing.” F