November 17th, 2011
12:15 PM ET
In 2007, Ra Ra Riot was on the cusp of success when a tragedy nearly ended the young band’s career.
The founding members, a group of Syracuse University students, had begun generating buzz at the 2006 CMJ Music Marathon and Film festival, and were starting off on the right foot.
And then Ra Ra Riot’s original drummer and songwriter, John Pike, went missing when the group attended an after party for a show in Providence, Rhode Island in early June, 2007. Pike was eventually found dead from an apparent drowning.
“When that happened we didn’t think about the band at all in any capacity,” bassist Mathieu Santos told CNN while on stop in Atlanta recently for their fall tour. “At first, the idea of continuing was sort of unfathomable.”
Ultimately, Santos and the remaining members - violinist Rebecca Zeller, vocalist Wes Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci and cellist Alexandra Lawn - decided to go through with the goals they’d set out to achieve together. Kenny Bernard soon joined the band as the new drummer.
What followed was 2008’s Barsuk-released “The Rhumb Line.” Hailed by the likes of Rolling Stone as one of the year’s best albums, “The Rhumb Line” showcased Ra Ra Riot’s penchant for mixing the peppy with the melancholy via music fused with orchestral and traditional elements of rock.
Fast forward to 2011, and the kids from upstate New York are dealing with the fruits of their success while still working through the uncertainties of the industry as an independent rock band. Their second album, “The Orchard,” has also received positive reviews, and their single, “Boy,” has been heavily featured in an ad campaign for Honda.
Before their show at The Earl in Atlanta, bassist Santos and violinist Zeller sat down with CNN to talk about the group’s inception, what qualifies as selling out and what it means to stay hungry.
CNN: Ra Ra Riot’s an interesting name. Where does it come from?
Zeller: The band came together so quickly we didn’t actually have a lot of time to pick a band name. There was a bit of a rush to write songs and get a band name, and we had a friend who had a band name and no band. She was very generous to give it to us.
CNN: Are you confused for a political band?
Santos: We are not very political at all. We liked the name because it was sort of fun at first, but it quickly got annoying. People ask us what our band’s name is, [and] we always have to repeat it like three times and then tell them how to spell it.
Zeller: I always wonder if we weren’t in Ra Ra Riot and someone was like, “Oh yeah, there’s this band you should listen to [called] Ra Ra Riot,” I might not listen to it because of the name, because I would think it would be too aggressive.
Santos: Yeah, I like being mistaken for, like, a hardcore punk band and then people get to our shows and are really disappointed.
CNN: There are so many musical elements - how were you guys able to mesh so well at the start?
Zeller: I thought Mat hated me!
Santos: Everyone thought I hated them…There was a lot of figuring out what we’re all supposed to do. But that was part of the fun, I think, getting used to each other and getting used to these different elements and finding out how to fit [them] together.
It’s still something we’re working on years later, figuring out how to blend all of the sounds.
CNN: When your original drummer and songwriter John Pike passed away, was there ever a thought to end Ra Ra Riot?
Santos: It was something that no one wanted to address at the time. We had so many plans with him, like, "Oh we’re going to go on all of these tours; we’re going to make these albums." We decided we wanted to keep going on for those reasons. I think ultimately we knew that we made the right decision.
CNN: Your cellist, Alex, once referred to you as “good ‘ol pop music.” You guys agree?
Santos: It is pretty pop-y. I think as different as everyone in the band is, and all that, I think a lot of our collective influences are ‘80s pop and things like that.
It’s just natural, it’s what we all grew up with, big [anthems] that you want to sing along with and rock out to. It’s just your typical indie rock (laughs).
CNN: You guys are a family. How do you balance and coexist with such different personalities on tour?
Santos: It’s nice having the co-ed thing because it makes it even more familial, it’s not like a gang of bros being bro’y all the time. I feel like the guys have become a little more feminine and the girls have become a little more masculine – we’ve learned a lot from each other over the years. We spent five years in our van. We’ve gotten to know just about everything about each other.
Zeller: I think we’re really, really lucky. I think that’s just it (laughs). Everyone’s very forgiving, and for some reason, 99.9 percent of the time really like each other.
CNN: Your music is heavily featured in a new Honda Civic ad. Any fear of flak for going mainstream?
Zeller: It’s sort of a mixed feeling because this is nice, it’s a really great way to get the name out there and then the commercial heavily promoted our name, which I don’t think…
Santos: …Yea, we didn’t know the details of the commercial, we thought it was just going to be our song playing with some cool car doing doughnuts in the desert or something like that. It’s funny, because car commercials are like the holy grail now for bands.
For independent bands, it’s so hard to make money from traditional ways. There is a weird stigma around it. I remember when Of Montreal did that Outback Steakhouse commercial, there was a huge backlash and they were like, “Well what do you want us to do?! If you want us to keep making records we’ve got to make money somehow.”
CNN: You’ve accomplished more than some bands will ever achieve. How do you manage to stay hungry?
Zeller: Well, it doesn’t feel like we’ve arrived. Had you asked me five years ago I would have been like, “I would just love to be in a [tour] bus, after that I’m done.” There’s always something else to be hungry for. Not to be cheesy, but it is about the music. This is all to support the touring and the making of another record. You’re able to stay hungry because there’s always the inspiration, want and need to make more music.
The other day we were in Asheville, and we went to Moog HQ and we did a session there. We all had different keyboards and we just played different versions of songs, but just being in that studio setting really pumped us up to write new music. So it’s just that constant feed and need to keep writing.
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