By Brittany Leitner
Born at Syracuse University, popular rock group Ra Ra Riot returns to the school to lead class and share their new album.
No opening act was necessary because the Syracuse University Setnor Auditorium event was strictly about indie pop rock group Ra Ra Riot. Instead, the dean of VPA, Ann Clarke, and Bandier director, David Rezak, took to the stage to introduce the band composed of Syracuse University alums. It was what Rezak calls “a rock n’ roll homecoming.”
The current band consists of four former SU students: vocalist Wes Miles, violinist Rebecca Zeller, bassist Mathieu Santos, and guitarist Milo Bonacci. They arrive on stage and greet the crowd modestly. Before Miles requests the audience to get up out of their seats he says, “This has been a real special week for us, we got to pretend we were teachers.”
Ra Ra Riot spent one week in residency at SU teaching VPA students everything from musician workshops to music theory courses. Their concert on Wednesday, Nov. 14 was followed by participation in Bandier’s Soyars Leadership Lecture series Thursday evening. Both events counted as school credit for VPA students and were open to the public.
Mainstream qualities are very much present in the band. The show starts off with “St. Peter’s Day Festival” off their first album, The Rhumb Line, released in 2008. After the third song, violin and cello group Wired Strings, takes the stage to back up Zeller’s violin. Thoughtful lyrics accompanied with bass drum intros are present in many a rock song, but Ra Ra Riot brings something different. The pulse of a tambourine or the transition of smooth to staccato violin sounds sends the band into a genre impossible to pin down.
Ra Ra Riot insists they didn’t have any creative goals or an original sound concept in mind when they first started making music. “Describing your own music as a musician is probably the least desirable thing to do,” says Miles. “If you can put it in a box it’s probably not worth that much to you.”
While most of their songs are relatable across the board, many of the tunes off the first album were written and recorded in Syracuse and are therefore specifically recognizable to SU students. The song “Winter ‘05” describes not only the scene of a bleak Syracuse winter, but the intense feeling of dreariness and isolation that comes with it. In the song, Miles sings, “Ice covers from the lake to where I lay/ In a state in which I dream/ If you were here winter wouldn’t pass quite so slow/ If you were here then I’d have a choice to live not be alone.”
After performing the song, Miles reveals directly that it is about “being lonely in the winter at Syracuse.” The audience understands and Miles grins, “I’m sure you guys know what that’s like. A lot of our music has been inspired by being really lonely in the winter time,” he says.
The band then leads into their new single, “Beta Love” off their new album to be released in January of the same name. The song is a progressive shift from the feel of their first two albums. The band describes the new sound as more “synth-driven” as a result of Bonacci exploring synthesizers and mashups. “You can’t keep making the same record over and over again,” says Santos. “Our new approach is being less self-conscious and not over thinking it.”
As the band performs the new single, something inside Miles shifts as well. He closes his eyes throughout most of the song and passionately pumps out lyrics through the beating of his fist on his chest.
After thirteen songs, the band thanks the audience again and exits the stage, but it’s clear an encore is coming. The once-flashing blue, green, and red lights in the auditorium remain still and the room gives way to no exit lighting. The crowd yells and screams the band’s name until they return for three more songs.
Before they begin, Zeller takes the microphone and offers her personal thanks to the crowd. “It’s pretty neat to come back to where I had orchestra concerts and play [with the band],” she says. She marvels at the fact her performance now counts as credit for music students required to attend a certain number of local shows throughout the year.
Zeller graduated from SU as a music industry major. She’s been playing the violin since second grade. Going through college as a violinist, she felt the options she saw weren’t for her. The hours of solo practice were boring and unfulfilling. “The difference is spending two to four hours alone in a tiny room working on the tiniest details. I’ve always been a really social person and that kind of bummed me out,” she says in the Soyars lecture. “Now when we have band practice, it’s really fun,” she says.
Before Ra Ra Riot formed, Zeller decided she wouldn’t pursue a career as a violinist, but would become an agent as a means to stay involved with music and be able to work with people. After a summer internship she had a job lined up at an agency for after graduation. During the second semester of her senior year, however, she says everything shifted.
Since the band announced the departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn on their Tumblr page in Feb. 2011, Zeller has remained the only female in the group. She appears as a strong figure in the band, often jumping in to finish answering questions as soon as the boys stall—or not even giving them a chance to answer at all, at times. She speaks clearly, and frequently pauses to ask, “Did we answer your question?”
Despite being deemed experts on music industry by VPA professors, the band’s lecture appearance is reminiscent to that of current SU students. Santos dons a Boston Red Sox cap and a simple teal Lacoste polo. Miles’ greasy hair seemed to be from the night before and Zeller’s hair is relaxed in natural waves as she crosses her ankles clad in black tights and booties. iPhones are scattered in between microphones on the table in front of them.
The lecture is not only about the band, but also covers their original and current manager, Josh Roth, who is also a Syracuse University alumnus. Roth graduated as a marketing major and music industry minor. During his time at SU, he worked for University Union as the marketing director for shows and helped start the Bandersnatch concert series. After landing a job at Epic records after graduation, Roth continued to manage Ra Ra Riot.
The first time he heard the beginnings of what would become Ra Ra Riot was when Zeller and Bonacci were tinkering with the song, “Dying is Fine,” in a house on 855 Ostrom Ave. The sound immediately excited Roth and he set out to find the missing links of the band: a singer, drummer, and bassist. Before the bandmates had even met at their first practice in 2006, Roth already had their first show booked. “I really believed in what they were doing,” he says.
During their time at SU, Ra Ra Riot played shows at house parties, hockey parties, and even architecture balls. “Josh’s overzealous booking motivated us,” says Miles with a laugh. Besides Roth, the band’s marketing revolved around Myspace. Roth made Miles announce the group’s Myspace page at the end of shows, and play counts began rising. To the venues Roth was beginning to contact to book the band outside of Syracuse, the numbers looked good
During the spring break of Ra Ra Riot’s senior year, they played a sold-out show at Pianos in Manhattan’s lower east side and the possibility of having a career as a band became real. Roth credits the band’s success to the heavy Syracuse University alumni population in cities such as Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York City, no doubt making VPA director David Rezak beam in his seat.
Although the band had their share of failures, including the record label they were signed to dissolving after being bought out by a larger company, they prove to be a real product of success born out of Syracuse University. Despite being an obviously talented group of twenty-somethings, Zeller credits the hands of fate for where the band is today. “To be honest,” she says, “I think it was luck.”