While string arrangements and synthesizers aren’t usually seen on the same repertoire, Ra Ra Riot made the instrumental transition a smooth one.
The band experiments with new sounds on its third album “Beta Love,” to be released Jan. 22. The title track was released this month, full of synthesizers and missing the cello and violin parts that characterized its earlier work.
The band signed to Barsuk Records in 2008 and made a name for itself with acclaimed albums “The Rhumb Line” and “The Orchard” while touring with acts like Death Cab For Cutie, Jack’s Mannequin and Tokyo Police Club.
The band’s chamber-pop sound makes for bright listening on its first two albums, with Rebecca Zeller’s violin and former cellist Alexandra Lawn providing string pieces that move songs along while blending with rock arrangements. Lawn left the band on friendly terms in February, and the band members seem to have embraced her departure as a chance to evolve their sound and try new things going forward. The various members were busy making their mark with side projects in between “Beta Love” and “The Orchard.” Bassist Mathieu Santos released his debut solo album “Massachusetts 2010” in 2011. Vocalist Wes Miles and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend share the electronic side project Discovery. Milo Bonacci rounds out the lineup as guitarist.
“Beta Love” was recorded in Oxford, Miss., at Sweet Tea Studios with producer Dennis Herring, known for his work with artists like Modest Mouse, Brand New and Ben Folds. Ra Ra Riot will be touring extensively for the next few months to promote the album, and stopped in Philadelphia on Nov. 29 opening for Passion Pit at The Electric Factory. Throughout the band’s career, its live set has become more energetic and kinetic, and with a new album and a new sound direction it is poised to take that energy as far as possible.
Santos spoke to The Temple News about his home state of Massachusetts, writing and recording “Beta Love” and plans for the future.
THE TEMPLE NEWS: You’re from Massachusetts — your solo record is called “Massachusetts 2010” and Ra Ra Riot obviously has a lot to do with Massachusetts, so is it safe to say that it’s a special place for you? What was the music scene like there when you were younger?
Mathieu Santos: Definitely, I’m from Fairhaven. Growing up on the south coast there was a big hardcore and punk music scene. I went to hardcore shows all around my area and all the way up to Boston.
TTN: Converge and Piebald came out of there, right?
MS: Yeah. I was just back up at my parents place last week for Thanksgiving and everything, most of my friends still live up there. I always love going back. It’s absolutely my favorite place on the planet.
TTN: You recorded “Beta Love” with Dennis Herring — what was it like working with him?
MS: It was absolutely incredible. We recorded our first album outside of Seattle in the middle of the winter. We recorded our second album in upstate New York in the middle of the winter, so we thought it would be neat to be in the studio when it wasn’t absolutely freezing out to get a different kind of light, a different kind of mood. We were down [at Sweet Tea in Oxford, Miss.] March through May. We’re big fans of a lot of the records he’s done in the past and it was really exciting to collaborate with him. He pushed us a lot.
TTN: You’ve been on Barsuk since your debut, and Barsuk is a really important old school independent record label. Have they treated you well?
MS: They’ve been great to us from the very beginning.
TTN: Chris Walla from Death Cab For Cutie worked with you on “The Orchard” and you’ve toured with DCFC before. Since they started out on Barsuk, have they been an influence on you?
MS: I was obsessed with them growing up. Their album “We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes” was what introduced me to that world, that was the first “indie” record I really heard and that was how I first heard of Barsuk Records. It was really exciting to me when we first started talking with them.
TTN: You recently played a free show at Bryn Mawr College. The room was small, really nice and a weird place to have a rock show — there was a chandelier hanging over the stage. Are shows like that fun?
MS: Shows like that are great, it’s fun to mix and do college shows and non-traditional rooms. I like those smaller shows.
TTN: Over the summer Ra Ra Riot played Firefly Festival in Delaware. Are big festivals like that something you look forward to?
MS: Definitely. It’s always nice to do festivals in the summer, they have a vacation vibe and you get to play outside.
TTN: “Beta Love” shows a new, more electronic side of the band. What made the band’s sound evolve while writing the new album?
MS: Before Alex left the band we had this idea to branch out of our roles and rely a little bit less on the string instruments.
TTN: Who plays the keys on “Beta Love”?
MS: Becca played a couple of songs, Wes and Milo played a bunch of it.
TTN: How do you think your fans will respond to the new direction?
MS: We were thinking about that while we were making it. We finished recording in the spring and we had to until last week when everyone heard it for the first time, so we were a little anxious but excited to hear what everyone thought. It’s different. We decided this time around to make music that we’re really interested in making.
TTN: What band have you been listening to recently that you would recommend?
MS: I’ve been listening to a lot of the Weather Report, which I love, and a lot of jazz.
TTN: 2013 has a new album and a busy touring schedule waiting for the band. Are you excited?
MS: We’re really proud of the new record and we’re excited to share it. Since we finished recording in the spring we’ve just been getting kind of antsy. We’re excited to really hit the road full speed in January.
Jacob Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.