“We’re interested in trying to find that line between doing pop and doing more experimental, weird things.”
It’s that age-old artistic conundrum: How do you reconcile staying true to your creative impulses alongside your thirst for reaching the masses?
It’s a question Syracuse-bred indie band Ra Ra Riot faced head-on while making their fourth album, Need Your Light, out today on various formats via Barsuk Records. “What we tried to do with this record is push things over the top and not be afraid to go bigger,” bassist Mathieu Santos admits. “We had to imagine, ‘Will this song sound good in a small, sweaty club? And would it also sound good if we get to play in front of 30,000 people someday?’ We’re trying to make it work on both of those levels.”
Mission accomplished, for Light contains all the right elements for R^3 to connect with audiences both small and vast: Witness the percussive sing-with-me flow of lead track Water to the rubber-band low-end burble of Foreign Lovers to the eclectic, stacked vocals-meet-shredding synths of Bouncy Castle.
Digital Trends got on the horn with Santos to discuss the alignment of Ra Ra Riot’s sonic needs, their bond with and appreciation of U2, and how working hand-in-hand with Spotify-supplied data helps reap big-picture dividends.
Digital Trends: Were your sonic goals for this record a little bit different than what you did for 2013’s sci-fi leaning Beta Love?
Mathieu Santos: I don’t know that I’d say our goals were different this time around. Beta Love did help us expand our sonic vocabulary, and that was a big jump for us. Getting through the growing pains of that record really helped us set the stage for this one. We went into it with a lot more confidence and self-assuredness. Our goal was to keep entertaining whatever creative impulses we were feeling at the time, trust our process, and trust each other.
You find the right sounds for the song, and you let it go from there.
One of our sonic goals was to pick from the different strengths we’ve found from working with different people over the years. In Bear Creek Studio, which is outside of Seattle, we again worked with Ryan Hadlock, who did our first record [2008’s The Rhumb Line]. And we got some really, really great tones up there. Bear Creek has some really lively, warm-sounding rooms.
But for tracks like Need Your Light and Water, we worked with Rostam Batmanglij [ex-Vampire Weekend] in L.A. at his home studio, and also at Vox Studios. It’s a very different vibe. In Seattle, we were out in a barn in the woods, while Vox Studios is a historic, tiny, cramped, dingy studio in L.A. — but it also has a magic-sounding room.
I like how the title track is percussion-driven, with a lot of great cymbal and hi-hat work on it. Was everybody pretty much in the same room at the same time when you record things like that?
For a lot of the record, at least for the bass and drums, we tried to track them together to get that strong foundation and that energy, though I did end up overdubbing a lot of bass later.
Those hi-hats — the crazy percussion stuff on that song — was a mix of stuff Rostam had recorded himself in his home studio, with a little bit of the stuff we did at Vox Studios. You find the right sounds for the song, and let it go from there.
Especially on that track, I feel you’re playing the Adam Clayton bass role to the Larry Mullen Jr. drum role.
(laughs) Well, thank you for noticing. Adam’s a hero of mine. On that one, we really got to live out our U2 arena-rock fantasies, for sure. I did root notes the entire time — nothing changes, and it was very fun to do that.
Isn’t U2’s Achtung Baby (1991) one of your favorite albums?
Oh yeah. Early on, when the band first started, it was one of the first things Wes Miles, our singer, and I bonded over. He was giving me a ride from an early rehearsal, and he was listening to their first record, Boy (1980), in his car. Being a U2 fan, you get a lot of funny looks sometimes (chuckles), so it was nice to find a kindred spirit. Over the years, U2 has been a touchstone for our collective sensibilities.
But Achtung Baby is definitely Wes’ favorite album. I knew when he and Rostam were developing Need Your Light, Water, and a couple of other songs that have yet to be finished, there was a lot of talk of Achtung Baby.
You can feel that atmosphere embedded in those two tracks. Personally, I’m a long-term fan of The Joshua Tree (1987). That album still resonates with me, to this day. And one of the deeper cuts, Exit, is my favorite track on it.
Yeah, yeah, it’s cool. They’re one of those bands that everyone knows the hits and more or less think they know what the band is about, but a lot of their deeper cuts are very, very solid as well, and definitely underappreciated.
The Joshua Tree is, of course, a classic, and we also got into The Unforgettable Fire (1984) when we were making our second album [2010’s The Orchard]. I think that’s a really underappreciated album too.
The through-line between all three of those U2 albums is Brian Eno, who did much of the production work on them. I feel a bit of that Eno feel is washing over this album.
Oh, cool; that’s great to hear! We’re definitely huge fans of his too — not only his work with U2, but all of the experimental and ambient work that he’s done. He’s been very influential on us as well.
There’s that thing where you can write these big anthemic songs with huge hooks to reach as many people as possible, but at the same time, you can still be very sonically adventurous and experimental. And that falls in line with what we see us being interested in trying to accomplish — finding that line between pop and more experimental, weird things.
I think Bouncy Castle is a track that fits those goals perfectly. It has a good bit of experimentation in its mix, but you can also sing right along with it.
Over the years, U2 has been a touchstone for our collective sensibilities.
Ah, that’s also great to hear! It’s already becoming a funny song in our world. It’s been a very divisive song so far. Whenever people hear the record, that seems to be one of the songs they pick out.
Personally, that’s one of the songs I’m most proud of in our whole history. I feel everyone in the band really contributed their strongest skills to that song and the realization of it. And I’m really excited to play Bouncy Castle live.
There are a couple of low-end showcase moments during the back half of Bouncy Castle. And I really love the vocal stacking on it — it’s kind of like ELO meets Earth, Wind & Fire.
Absolutely! We were talking a lot about ELO while making this record — the super slick, big, ’70s, weird, proggy, flash-poppy production stuff. We had the idea of doing this weird, clean, adult-contemporary stuff your parents might listen to, filtered through whatever else we had in our brains at that time.
And what’s the effect going on at the very end? It sounds like some kind of surface-noise crash to me…
Actually, that is a pretty cool thing Milo [Bonacci, guitarist] and Wes did together. That crazy part at the end actually starts in the bridge. The two of them were playing the synths together. One of them was playing the chords, and both of them were adjusting the knobs together, as they do — there are a lot of buttons. (chuckles)
They sculpted this thing that grew throughout the bridge and crescendo’ed, and then kept building — it ended up being this serendipitous performance that peaked and got the craziest right at the end, and it ended up hanging over. It sort of got chopped up and moved around a little bit. That’s a testament to Milo’s ingenuity in the synth realm.
Let’s talk about how people listen to music these days. Are you cool with the streaming and Spotify universe?
That’s a really interesting question, and something we talk about a lot. When Beta Love came out, Spotify was still in its infancy. We had mixed feelings then. Big artists were speaking out either for or against it, but we felt like mid-level indie bands our size were caught in the middle as a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of thing.
Spotify has figured out how to get the most music to the most people without screwing too many of them over.
It’s been really interesting to see how this paradigm has been developing. Spotify has done a really good job of figuring out what the service is about and how to get the most music to the most people without screwing too many of them over. It’s been a weird decade for the music industry, trying to figure out how to incorporate the digital realm fairly.
For this album, we’ve been working with Spotify to premiere the songs. We’ve been to their offices a few times. We’ve met with them and found out how invested they are with the artists, which is really nice to see, and refreshing. They’ve given us access to all of this great data that we’ve kept a close eye on in the past few months to see how people listen to music. It’s been insightful.
What kind of data had you been looking at from Spotify?
It was interesting to see when you put a song out and if this person tweets about it here, or there’s a blog there, you see where the jumps in listenership are. Or getting the songs placed in playlists, and seeing what actually makes the needle move.
When you get your quarterly royalty statements, you see where the people listening are, but that’s all a few months old. This way, you can follow along every day and you’ll see, “Oh, for some reason, Germany has really been responding to the music.” That’s something we may not have been privy to normally.
Then you see how the tickets are selling for the tour and correlate that to which markets are listening to what, so now you know that, “OK, these cities need a little more attention.”
That is interesting. You see spikes like you mentioned about Germany, so maybe you add more tour dates in that country.
Exactly. Touring Europe is really difficult, and we’ve been to some countries where nothing happens at all. Then you go across the border into another country, and the crowds are responding. It’s hard to gauge that when you’re booking a tour. But now, having this data, we can go, “Well, maybe it doesn’t make sense to book an entire European tour. Maybe we should go play all these festivals in Germany instead.” I think it’s only going to help bands tour more efficiently.
On the other side of the audio coin, I like seeing the vinyl revival. What do you think about that?
We are all very much in support of it. It’s sort of low-hanging fruit for hipster bashing, talking about “my record collection” (both laugh), but it’s undeniable when you sit down and listen to a record that sounds so much better because it’s real sound. Even if your system isn’t that great, it’s still real on some level.
It doesn’t quite make enough sense to do this just yet, but for the past couple of albums, we’ve talked about that, some point in the future, CDs will end up disappearing. I made a record on my own a few years ago [Massachusetts 2010]. It was a small thing, but I was able to do vinyl and digital only, and cut out the middle. If you wanted digital, you could have it on your phone and listen to it whenever you wanted. If you wanted to sit down and listen to it, you could dust off the turntable, sit with it, and hold it in your hands. It’s very exciting that vinyl is having a comeback while the other side of the world is going all-in on digital.