Since forming at the outset of 2006, New York based collective Ra Ra Riot have endured something of a stop-start existence. Despite being overshadowed by tragedy - original drummer John Ryan Pike sadly passed away in the summer of 2007 just weeks before the release of their first EP - and numerous line-up changes, they can also count themselves responsible for creating two of the most resilient, and somewhat understated long players the US underground has delivered this past decade. Where 2008's The Rhumb Line introduced the band to a largely unsuspecting UK audience, this year's long-awaited follow-up The Orchard confirmed their lofty ambitions as potential heirs to The Decemberists throne for mixing traditional melodies with an avant garde sensibility.
Here, DiS chats about the current record and the events of the past that ultimately shaped the band's future with bass player Mathieu Santos, as well as the impact both Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij had on The Orchard.
DiS: Your most recent album The Orchard seems to have relaunched the band in many ways, almost in that it feels like a completely different band to the one that made The Rhumb Line three years beforehand? Was that your intention or did things just develop naturally?
Mathieu: I think it was maybe a little of both - while we weren't necessarily trying to do something different, we went into the sessions feeling no pressure to go in any given direction. I just think we had changed so much as a band over the past few years, and had learned a lot about playing together, and writing together, and so we just sort of let our instincts guide us through the writing and recording. I think we felt that while our first album was successful, it wasn't so much so that we had to worry too much about people's expectations concerning the second one. That's part of the reason we decided to produce it ourselves.
DiS: Without dwelling too much on the early days of the band, how much did certain events and circumstances from that period shape the future of Ra Ra Riot, particularly from a songwriting perspective?
Mathieu: Well, none of us knew each other before the band formed, which is kind of unique, I think. We were sort of assembled by Milo (Bonacci, guitarist) via the internet and acquaintances and things like that. So we all came from completely different backgrounds and had completely different approaches to songwriting and arranging, and still do, and I think that we were all able to learn a lot from each other.
DiS: Was there ever a point where it crossed your minds to put the band to rest after the tragic death of John Pike?
Mathieu: The band was the last thing on everyone's minds at that time - no one even thought or spoke of it for a while. Once it came time to address it, it had become obvious to us that continuing was the only choice we had, even though we knew it would be extremely difficult. We felt that we wanted to achieve all the things we had originally set out to do together, and we wanted to continue to share the music we all made together.
DiS: In terms of the songwriting process, is it purely equal and democratic or is their one person that has a final say, as a lot of the music on The Orchard seems quite ornate and intricate, yet complex in its arrangement?
Mathieu: For The Orchard, it was an extremely democratic process, which can be both a blessing and a curse! Every song develops differently, so the details vary, but mostly we worked on all the arrangements together, which accounts for most of the intricacies. Sometimes individuals will take more of a lead on a given song that they've brought to the table, and other times nothing works until we all bash it out together.
DiS: Both Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla and Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij worked on The Orchard. How did their involvement come about and what did they bring to the sessions?
Mathieu: We met Chris while touring with Death Cab For Cutie in 2009. He's a great dude, very warm and enthusiastic, and he expressed a lot of interest in being involved with our album, which was thrilling for us. It was important for us to self-produce the album, but we thought it'd be a great idea for him to get involved with the mixing process. He really helped us polish everything up and brought a bunch of good ideas and a fresh perspective to the project. Rostam mixed one song, 'Do You Remember', which was originally an outtake from his and Wes's (Miles, vocalist)Discovery album, so it made sense to us to have him mix it.
DiS: It's also quite interesting the way vocal duties appear to be shared on some of the songs here - I'm thinking 'You And I Know' most prominently. Is this something which will figure quite regularly in future Ra Ra Riot recordings?
Mathieu: Perhaps! We're always interested in trying new things and finding new sounds, and as everyone in the group is developing and branching out, I'm sure there'll be more things like that in the future.
DiS: Reviews seem to have been quite mixed. Were there any kind of expectations from the band or the label about the way the media received The Orchard, and do you let such criticisms - positive or negative - bother you that much?
Mathieu: To be honest, I think we all try to avoid reading any reviews about our music, whether they're good or bad. It's so easy to get caught up in it, and to start believing everything you read - it's just not good for you. Either way, it affects the way you approach the music, and think about it, and so, to me, it's just useless information, good or bad. We're our own toughest critics anyway, so as long as we like what we're making, we're happy!
DiS: Although based in New York, your sound isn't atypical of the majority of that city or its neighbouring districts underground scenes, or at least the ones that have transcended into the UK at any rate. Do you see Ra Ra Riot as a band that operates outside of the normal confines and expectations of a scene, and is this something you intentionally wish to continue in the future?
Mathieu: I guess we don't really consider ourselves part of any greater scene, since we only moved to the city a couple of years ago and none of us are actually from here. We definitely admire a lot of the music that comes from the area, but I don't think of us as a part of it. We sort of go into our own little world when we write and are more likely to be influenced by whatever records we're listening to individually at the moment.
DiS: I notice you're playing Fuji Rocks in July. Are there any other festival dates planned, particularly in Europe?
Mathieu: None at the moment, I don't believe, not outside of the US and Canada. We're hoping to get back to Europe before the end of the year, though, so hopefully that'll change soon!
DiS: Do you envisage the band coming back to the UK when you're in Europe, as British dates have been quite sporadic?
Mathieu: Yeah, absolutely - it was a real bummer for us to have to wait so long before making it back to the UK earlier this year, but sometimes that's how things work out! It had been two and a half years, and we were so excited to get back over there. It will definitely not take that long for us to go back - we're hoping to make it back by the end of the year!
DiS: Finally, are there any new songs in the pipeline yet and is there a projected timeline & release date for album number three?
Mathieu: Yes, there are many new songs in the works! We've only just begun working on them, very casually, over the past couple of weeks. So there's no timeline for the album yet, though we hope to start working with a producer and recording a bit sometime over the next few months! I imagine the album will come out next year, hopefully in the spring. We're all very excited with what we've been working on already!
For more information on Ra Ra Riot visit their impressive website here.