Upon the release of their new album Need Your Light, Mathieu Santos of Ra Ra Riot sat down with QRO. In the conversation, the bassist talked about the new album, working with all of their prior producers & more, their current first times playing the new songs, next month’s upcoming tour (including South-by-Southwest & Savannah Stopover), finding cellists, keeping their drummer, having both consistency and fresh blood, nostalgia, the late Mark Wahlberg, and more…
QRO: How does it feel to have Need Your Light out?
Mathieu Santos: Incredible. It’s been a long time since we’ve had any new music. We finished recording basically just about a year ago, little under a year ago. So we’ve had it done for so long – it’s been excruciating waiting, and waiting, and waiting for it to come out. So there’s been a lot of anticipation and build-up, but now that the day is here, it’s unbelievable. We couldn’t be more excited.
QRO: Why did it take so long from finishing it to releasing it?
MS: It’s funny how long things take nowadays – you think things are instantaneous.
But when we had first finished it, we were thinking about maybe an August release, but that would have been a little too rushed. And then you don’t want to mess with the holidays, so the January release ending up working out. Plus the production of the LPs always takes longer.
So it ended up being right around now. Our last record [Beta Love – QRO review] came out in January, and that was fun. Touring in winter isn’t the best – this will be sort of springtime; it seems kinda like a more sunshiny record anyway. It feels like it will have worked out.
QRO: How did making it compare with making prior records?
MS: The thing that was special about this record was that we worked with every producer that we’ve ever worked with in the past. That wasn’t even an intentional thing; it just sort of happened naturally.
So most of the record we recorded at Bear Creek Studios outside of Seattle with Ryan Hadlock, who produced our first record, The Rhumb Line (QRO review). That’s where we recorded that record. We always wanted to return to that studio and work with him again some day, ‘cause it went so well the first time. This seemed like the first time it made sense for us to do that.
We also did some work with Andrew [Maury], our sound guy, who co-produced our second record (The Orchard – QRO review) – he’s been with us forever; he’s like a seventh band member or something. And then [singer] Wes [Miles – QRO interview] wrote a few songs with Dennis Herring, who we did Beta Love with. We did a couple songs with Rostam [Batmanglij, of Vampire Weekend] out in L.A. that he & Wes wrote forever; we’ve known Rostam forever, too.
So it ended up being this whole compilation of our whole past, which was cool. It helped us focus on the music more, ‘cause we already knew the trust was there, the familiarity was there, so I think it helped us focus on the music more, and not worry about what these relationships were going to be like.
The thing that was special about this record was that we worked with every producer that we’ve ever worked with in the past.
QRO: Was there any reason that you did it in different parts?
MS: No, not really – this is sort of how it came together. We knew we wanted to do the record with Ryan, but then Wes and Rostam had been working on stuff together – not specifically for Ra Ra Riot or for anything; they were just writing stuff. Then they came up with these couple of songs [“Water”, “I Need Your Light”], and Rostam was like, “Oh, Ra Ra Riot should record these.”
So it just so happened that Rostam was like, “I think you guys should record them, but I want to finish them with you.” So we were doing that stuff up in Seattle, and then when we finished there, we went down to L.A. to do those songs with him. When we got back, we figured that there was stuff we wanted to change or add, so we ended up working with Andrew. So it was just kinda natural that we were pulling from our history.
The same thing with Dennis – Wes had gone out there to write with him; we didn’t know if he was going to produce the record or not. So we had all these different things percolating; it all sorta came together.
MS: Yep, I remember that tour. We always like to brag about how Vampire Weekend used to open for us…
QRO: How much, if at all, have you played these new songs live?
MS: Not very much. We did something different: before we recorded this record, we did a small tour of house parties. We played a lot of them in that context – we wanted to go into the studio with a better idea of what worked live, ‘cause we wanted to tailor it more for the live performance. That has influenced how we recorded the record, a little bit.
And we’ve been playing a lot of these songs live only for the past couple of weeks. I think we’ve only played a bunch of them like five or six times live at this point.
But it’s exciting, ‘cause we already know how to play most of the record. I think we’ll be playing most of the record every night on tour from now on, ‘cause we’re so excited about the songs.
MS: Definitely. I think that was the second show of that little tour that we did. And that was the same thing: a few months before the album came out, we just wanted to get our feet wet a little bit, and get some of the rust off. That would have been the first week that we played the final versions of these songs live.
QRO: When you did those house parties, did you ever go back to [the band’s original home of] Syracuse?
MS: It was a hastily thrown together thing – we didn’t want to drive too far. It was like Boston, New York, D.C., Baltimore – or Philly.
But we have gone back and played fun shows like that in Syracuse before, just wasn’t part of that tour. We’re talking about doing more shows like that, maybe, interspersed with our touring, ‘cause it’s so fun – you can’t ever get that vibe…
QRO: You’re doing this in-store [at Rough Trade NYC – QRO venue review], playing the new songs, for people who just bought Need Your Light – do you have any nervousness that you have to ‘deliver’ on the new record that people just bought?
MS: Yeah, a little bit. This time around, we’re a lot more excited about the material, and it seems to been connecting well, so far.
For instance, the day that Beta Love came out, our first time performing that, was the day of release, at Music Hall [of Williamsburg – QRO venue review], and the whole thing was live-streamed on YouTube, so that was not a good way to do it. We were so nervous. We weren’t that familiar with the material yet – we felt it was too much, too soon.
QRO: Speaking of that record release show for Beta Love at Music Hall of Williamsburg (QRO photos), at that show you covered U2’s “Two Hearts Beat As One” for the first (and possibly only) time – any special covers?
MS: Wes is covering a new U2 song, but I don’t want to spoil it yet…
QRO: Not a ‘new U2 song’…
MS: Right, it’s a new cover for us – it’s from the eighties. It’s a little bit – I don’t want to say ‘deep cut’, but it’s a beautiful song. He just plays on acoustic guitar by himself and it sounds really good. He recorded on Sirius – we did a session for XMU. I think we may be playing that here and there.
We played “Two Hearts” probably like four times, ever. And then on that last tour, in November, we played a Carly Rae Jepsen song (“Run Away With Me”). I think we only did that twice, ever, and then we retired it. That was fun.
Ra Ra Riot playing “Dance With Me” live at Webster Hall in New York, NY on January 25th, 2013:
QRO: You’re touring in March – how do you figure out the set lists? Presumably the shows will be focused on Need Your Light…
MS: We’ve been talking about this a lot. We’re always gonna play stuff from all our records at every show.
We just did a show in Aspen, and we had to play for an hour-and-a-half, which was the longest we’ve ever played before. So that was kind of fun, and challenging, to come up with a set list now, and now that we have more-and-more material to choose from. Making a set list out of four records worth of music.
I don’t think we’ll be playing that long at our headlining shows, on this tour, but definitely we’ll have all the albums represented, mostly evenly. Or maybe a few from each record.
QRO: That tour includes a bunch of shows at South-by-Southwest in Austin. How do you feel about that festival, now that you’ve played it a number of times?
MS: It’s such a great thing. Even though it’s changed a lot over the years, it’s still a very unique thing.
I think this will be our seventh South-by. The first few years, it was really fun and exciting, we were a new band – it was a really fun to be in that atmosphere, recognizing bands everywhere, seeing lots of shows.
We did it four years in a row, and by then, we were like, ‘All right – I don’t think we need to do it again.’ So we took a year or two off, and then we did it again. And now it’s just kind of nice, ‘cause we don’t do the four shows in twenty-four hours anymore – we sorta can pick what we want to do a little bit more, which is good, so we don’t go crazy and get sick and drive ourselves into the ground.
At this point, we always joke that it’s sorta like summer camp for bands. We get there, and we just start walking around – within thirty seconds, you’re running into a band we toured with six years ago, or some of our best friends who we haven’t seen in a while. It’s just like everyone knows each other. It’s like a big party.
QRO: You’re also headlining Savannah Stopover – that’s a nice little festival…
MS: Yeah, that should be a lot of fun. I’ve only been to Savannah once. I don’t think we’ve ever played there; I think we just stopped there for an afternoon for lunch or something. It’s beautiful city – I’m excited.
QRO: By now, do you have ‘regular’ touring cellists, or do you still have to search for them sometimes?
MS: It’s a constant, revolving door. Emily [Brausa] is our ‘first chair’ now, so to speak. She’s doing most of the tour with us; I think she’s doing four weeks.
We’re lucky ‘cause there’s so many really talented cellists here in New York, but at the same time, we have like five really talented cellists we work with, but even finding one who’s available for a show is really hard, ‘cause they’re getting gobbled up all the time, by Broadway or other gigs.
But also it’s good, as frustrating as it can be to have to find someone new again, rehearse all the old material, it also kinda helps, I think a little bit, to have fresh blood always coming out. It keeps it from getting too mundane for us, I think, and it’s just nice having different people around.
But luckily Emily will be doing most of the tour with us. She’s our main cellist now.
QRO: I did notice that [drummer] Kenny Bernard has been with you all for a while now – he’s even in the promo photos…
MS: He’s now been our longest-tenured drummer. Before that it was Gabe [Duquette], who had been in the band for two-and-a-half years, but now Kenny’s been with us for four years now.
All of our other drummers were sort of temporary, and with Gabe we tried to toe the line, and he was gonna join the band at one point, and then it didn’t feel like it was working out. It’s sort of a complicated grey area, too, because it’s a band and we all play together, but it’s also an L.L.C. – there’s all these other things.
As frustrating as it can be to have to find someone new again, rehearse all the old material, it also kinda helps, I think a little bit, to have fresh blood always coming out.
For Kenny, he’s been with us so long now, it just seems natural. He’s been in some music videos now, promo pictures, he recorded this record with us – he wasn’t on Beta Love; ‘cause he joined right around when we started recording Beta Love, so we didn’t know… But now he’s been with us for so long, he played on a record, he’s in the band – it felt natural for him to be in the photos.
QRO: He’s also in the video for “Water” – what was in Wes’ backpack in that video?
MS: You know, that’s a good question! I don’t actually know what was in there…
I think, honestly, it was probably a street hockey ball, ‘cause there was a scene where I was playing street hockey, and maybe like a jacket. It might have also just been empty – a prop bag for him to swing around.
QRO: I noticed you got in your little street hockey…
MS: When Rostam sent us the idea for the video – because he also directed it – he was like, “And then, in this scene, Mat will be playing hockey.” And I was like, ‘See – that’s why it’s nice working with people that know you. I can do this role…’
Ra Ra Riot’s video for “Water”
QRO: You’ve now been a band for ten years now – what has changed (besides the obvious)?
MS: Even though we’ve taken this mini-hiatus, it’s just so dialed in for us, now. You work with the same people for ten years, and we just know each other so well – in all areas, like personally, but also musically.
It’s fun – it’s a constantly evolving thing, as we each individually get into something new; our individual sensibilities are always developing and changing, and that, in turn, influences how we work together, how we write music together.
But I think it’s just a unique thing, because we do have that mix. Like I was saying before, it’s nice to have fresh blood coming in a lot, and that helps us, keeps things interesting for us. But at the same time, as I always kind of lamented – the days of bands like U2 are gone, where it’s the same line-up for twenty-five years. I feel like bands don’t get to have that kind of thing anymore.
But we sort of have the best of both worlds, ‘cause the four of us, the four core members, or original members…
MS: Yeah, the ‘charter group’ has been together for ten years. And now Kenny’s been with us for four years. And now we have these other cellists – even last week, we played a show with a cellist for the first time.
So it’s a good mix of having this relationship, getting to work with the same people for years and years. It’s a unique kind of situation.
That’s a bit of a challenge, is remembering what we do is really fun, and we’re very lucky to be doing it, and trying not to take it for granted.
QRO: Do you get nostalgic or feel old, when you see young bands that are just starting out?
MS: Yeah, definitely. Actually, one of the bands that we’re touring with on this tour, Sun Club, they’re all like twenty, twenty-one. And we’ve played shows with them, tapped into their youth – ‘You remind us of what we were like, when we started playing music, looking forward to playing whatever show, and just having a blast, every night.’
I hate to say it, but you get to a show, sometimes you don’t know what city you’re in, and it’s just another club, another dressing room, another hotel, that cliché thing. That’s a bit of a challenge, is remembering what we do is really fun, and we’re very lucky to be doing it, and trying not to take it for granted.
But it’s funny – honestly, it’s always moving so fast, there’s not usually much time to look back too much and get nostalgic. It’s funny, every now and then, you’ll see an old picture and go, ‘Wow! That was a lifetime ago…’
It’s a little bit of a challenge, to keep it fresh. I think it’s a good that we took a little bit of a break, too. But yeah, we’re just moving forward, trying to keep having fun…
Ra Ra Riot playing “Ghost Under Rocks” live at Union Square Virgin Megastore in New York, NY on August 19th, 2008:
QRO: Do you still have [tour van] ‘Mark Walberg’ – and [trailer] ‘Buddy’?
MS: Unfortunately, Mark passed two or three years ago. We were driving back from a show in Boston, and it just finally died. We put like 220,000 miles on him, ‘cause I think it had 5,000 miles on it when we got it. And then Buddy, we had to sell, because once Mark had died, we didn’t need Buddy anymore. That was hard, but he’s a scrapyard in Connecticut, I think. But he served us well…
QRO: But now you’ve got some fresh blood…
MS: Yeah, exactly. Now we can rent some Sprinter vans – it’s exciting.
But Mark served us very well.
You’re living on this bus, which is nice, and very comfortable, but at the same time, you can never be more than twelve feet from any of the eight or nine people that you’re with.
QRO: What have you learned to fight ‘tour burnout’?
MS: Getting used to touring on the bus is helpful now, too. We’ve done bus tours the last few years. So you drive through the night, so you wake up in the next city in the morning. It allows people to have more of an individual schedule. It’s not like, ‘You have to leave at 8 A.M. tomorrow to drive six hours.’ Now it’s like, you can go to bed when you want, wake up when you want – your hotel moves.
The real challenge is carving out individual time on tour. That can be the real thing that gets you. ‘Cause you’re living on this bus, which is nice, and very comfortable, but at the same time, you can never be more than twelve feet from any of the eight or nine people that you’re with. So that can be a little overwhelming.
Usually when I wake up, I’ll go on Google Maps, and see what’s the closest coffee shop, what’s the closest bookstore. And I’ll just go off on my own; we all will. Try to play a lot of ping-pong, play a lot of video games, that kind of stuff – read a lot. Those little mental things to get by.
Finding alone time, I think, is an important part.