Milo Bonacci & Wesley Miles of Ra Ra Riot

Just after the release of their new Beta Love (and returning to the road), Ra Ra Riot’s Milo Bonacci and Wesley Miles sat down with QRO....

Ra Ra Riot : Q&A

Just after the release of their new Beta Love (and returning to the road), Ra Ra Riot’s Milo Bonacci and Wesley Miles sat down with QRO.  In the conversation, guitarist Bonacci and singer Miles talk about the new record (QRO review), their new song-making style and how it resulted in a shift in sound with Beta, playing the new songs before a live crowd for the first time, the departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn, their new cellists & drummers (and how hard it is to find & keep them…), too much “Too”, playing the Pacific Rim from Alaska to Indonesia, Mark Walberg & Buddy (of course), and much more…

 

 

QRO: How does it feel, now that Beta Love is out?

Wesley Miles: It feels great.  It’s a big relief.  We spent months and months on it, from the conception of it to recording to practicing, getting the art, and waiting… It’s awesome.

Milo Bonacci: Yeah, it’s a huge relief.  Now we get to start thinking about the next record…

QRO: [laughs] I noticed that there was a definite shift in the sound towards more of an electronic – what brought that about?

WM: We were going through some… I’m trying to think how to say this…

We wanted to make a change.  We wanted to make a change.  Mostly in the way we wrote music.  Not in what the product would be, or what style it would end up making our band, but just in our attitude.

One of the things was to just not second-guess things so much, have more composition-focused approach, not over-arranging songs…

‘Well, let’s adapt this keyboard part to a guitar part, or to a string part.” But this time, we were like, ‘Well, maybe we should just leave it as a keyboard…’

MB: Painting broad strokes…

WM: Yeah.  If something sounded good on keyboard, then to leave it, or stick with the demos if they feel good.

Because, in the past – I write a lot of music on keyboards, Milo writes a lot of music on keyboards, and in the past we would usually put it through the ‘Ra Ra Riot machine’, so to speak, and everything would turn out, ‘Well, let’s adapt this keyboard part to a guitar part, or to a string part.”  But this time, we were like, ‘Well, maybe we should just leave it as a keyboard…’

MB: I think we were encouraged, in a way, if something was working in demo form, then to keep it.  There are elements in the record, vocal parts or keyboard, drum stuff, that’s from the demo, literally, still sort of residual parts of it in the songs.  It was just this conscious decision to leave something, if it was working.

I think we had a tendency to bog ourselves down with the infinite number of decisions to make, and the sooner that you can just settle and call it finished, then the better, I think.  Frees you up to think about other things.

QRO: Did you ever think later, ‘Oh, I should have gone back and worked on this more, I should have gone back and worked on that more…’?

MB: Well, yes, because that always happens.  No matter how much you work on something.  You could spend a year recording one song – sometime in the future after that, you’re still gonna second-guess your decision.

It was this effort to really trust our instincts, our first, initial reactions of things.  If it felt good when we first heard it, then I think we just had to trust that instinct, that judgment.

WM: That we’re right… [laughs]

QRO: When you play it live, do you keep the keyboard parts that you didn’t turn into something else on record, do you also keep them as keyboard parts live?

WM: It’s pretty faithful to the record.  There’s a few of things that sound a little bit different, maybe, but mostly we wanted to make… obviously, we wanted to make a good show, but the second main priority was to make the music sound not just good, but like the record.  Like you would imagine a band playing the record.

MB: I’d imagine that there’s going to be some growth and flexibility as the songs get broken in a little bit, but as of now, that was our initial approach – to recreate what we had to done in the studio.

Ra Ra Riot playing Beta Love‘s “Dance With Me” live at Webster Hall in New York, NY on January 25th, 2013:

 

QRO: Was [the show at Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn on January 22nd] the first night that you’d played those songs live, in front of a paying crowd?

MB: For the most part, yeah, which definitely added to the burden…

WM: The stress[laughs]

MB: Stress[laughs]

QRO: It was really sort of a double- stress whammy, the first live show and the record coming out that day…

MB: Yeah – and the YouTube live stream.  All of these things building up, amplifying one another.

WM: We had a lot of faith in our fans, though.  And I think they came through.

QRO: How do you decide the new set list (QRO photo of Music Hall set list), how to work in Beta songs?

WM: We went through three different sets so far, trying to figure it out.  But I guess there’s no ‘set’ way – it’s sorta ‘what do we feel like playing?’

MB: Make sure they’re sort of evenly dispersed.  People who might be more familiar with old stuff than new stuff, you don’t wanna have a big chuck in the middle of all new songs.

QRO: Was [that] night the first time you played U2’s “Two Hearts Beat As One” before a crowd?

WM: Yeah…

MB: The first – and the last[both laugh]

Well, We’ll see – as of now, it’s the only time…

WM: It was fun – but…  It’s a special occasion…

 

Emily BrausaQRO: Who is your cellist?

WM: [At Webster Hall], we are playing with Emily Brausa.  She’s sort of the fill-in – she’s been great; I guess she’s been playing a fair amount of shows with us, including this very important week.

But before her, and our usual cellist, is named Clarice Jensen – she’s amazing.  She played with Paul McCartney on SNL a few weeks ago (QRO Indie on Late Night TV), she’s played on the Dirty Projectors new record – all sorts of amazing things.  She’s been fantastic – they both have been.

QRO: Has it been hard to find a cellist?  It just seems like there aren’t as many indie-rock cellists as there are, say, guitarist and singers…

MB: They’re all in really high demand.  Clarice is busy – she had to miss one of our shows because Paul McCartney called her up – or someone who works for Paul McCartney called her up for Saturday Night Live.  She’s doing all sorts of things with yMusic (QRO photos), ACME, American Contemporary Music – she’s creative director.  And other band things, and recording things.

Good cellists are sought after, for the goods…  At this point, we need to share them.

QRO: Is it especially hard for them to travel, with the cello?

WM: We have so much crap now…

QRO: Do you have cellos of your own?

WM: Yeah, the electric cello that Emily [plays], is ours.

QRO: I noticed that it was the same style of electric cello.

I also noticed that [violinist Rebecca Zeller] didn’t use her same sort of electric violin…

Becca's diamond violinWM: No, she uses her… oh, hey… [laughs]

[note: Zeller literally walked in at this very moment]

Rebecca Zeller: It’s an acoustic with a pick-up on it.

MB: We didn’t have much luck making it sound very good.

RZ: It didn’t sound very good.

I played with The Shins (QRO live review), and their sound guy was like, “Oh so-and-so – the violinist from Modest Mouse (QRO album review) – played with us last night, and you’re a much better player, but your instrument sounds much worse.”  And he was like, “You should find out what he uses.”

And so we contacted him – I think his name is Tom [Peloso]? – and he told me what he used.  “I just bought a really cheap violin and put a big, good pick-up on it.”  And I was like, ‘I’m gonna do that…’

MB: And then bedazzle the hell out of it… [laughs]

QRO: That’s why I noticed it – I was like, ‘Is it made of diamonds?…’

RZ: Almost…

MB: It makes it sound better…

[Bonacci, Miles, and Zeller had to leave temporarily to join bassist Mathieu Santos to take a group band photo with some kids who were backstage, but Bonacci & Miles quickly returned]

Ra Ra Riot playing “St. Peter’s Day Festival” live at Webster Hall in New York, NY on January 25th, 2013:

 

QRO: Why did Ally leave?

WM: When we started thinking and talking and, just in preliminary ways, what would become Beta Love, and I was talking about the attitude changes we wanted to make, one of the things we wanted to pair back some of the strings…

MB:  If I can interject…

WM: No, yeah.

MB: I think that’s sort of part of a bigger idea.  Our songs don’t necessarily have to have any of the specific instruments – like guitar, like bass guitar, or acoustic drums.  Part of this idea that we didn’t want to feel pressured into cramming everything into every song, to free us up a little bit.  To maybe have a little more of a subtractive approach to songwriting, instead of additive.

QRO: Like how you were saying about not doing everything a million times, sometimes just going with the demo…

[Lawn was] just questioning what she wanted to do with her life. She, like everyone, was tired of being on the road all the time; that gets difficult in different ways. Started thinking about doing other things outside of music. It was sort of an accumulation of all these things – wanting to settle down, or explore other interests. Not feeling in sync with maybe the rest of the band.

WM: Yeah.

MB:  Yeah.  Sorry, I just wanted to clarify that it wasn’t strings-specific; it was more like big picture – a new approach.

WM: So when that became clear, and all of these roles were starting to change, the way we were writing, it became clear it was gonna change, I guess she didn’t see didn’t know what her role would be anymore in the band.  So she, I think at that point, had decided that was best for her – I think she saw a different direction than we did.

But then her departure sort of also allowed us to change even more rapidly.  And individually, it allowed us to change our roles more than we thought, which was a huge benefit to all of us.

MB: And, also, I think she was on the fence for a long time – well over a year.

WM: Yeah.

MB: Just questioning what she wanted to do with her life.  She, like everyone, was tired of being on the road all the time; that gets difficult in different ways.  Started thinking about doing other things outside of music.  It was sort of an accumulation of all these things – wanting to settle down, or explore other interests.  Not feeling in sync with maybe the rest of the band.

There’s no one, definitive answer.

QRO: Is it coincidence that you’ve had all these changes, and your record is called ‘Beta Love’?  Like it’s the ‘Beta Ra Ra Riot’, or ‘Ra Ra Riot 2.0’?  I mean, I know it’s the name of the song…

WM: I don’t know – I guess it’s sort of a coincidence.  It’s a funny coincidence, though…

Kenny BernardQRO: And where did you find [drummer] Kenny Bernard?

WM: He, we found him through our label?  He was friends with…

MB: One of his friends is friends with somebody at our record label, I think, right?

WM: Yeah…

MB: Kenny’s been in a number of bands throughout the years.

There’s just these connections that brought us together.

QRO: That’s gotta be two of the harder roles to find – cellist & drummer.  Not like these replaceable guitarists & singers – those can come and go…

[both laugh]

MB: I could walk off stage, and no one would notice…

WM: Often [manager] Josh [Roth] plays in his place…

QRO: When making the record, was it just the four of you?

WM: Yeah, it was the four us.  Josh Freese played drums.

QRO: He plays drums in everyone!  DEVO…

WM: DEVO, and Nine Inch Nails…

QRO: And Weezer (QRO live review with Freese)!

MB: A Perfect Circle…

WM: The list goes on…

QRO: I remember when you guys were at Osheaga [Music Festival in Montreal in 2010], the next day Weezer and DEVO also played (QRO recap), and the two were at the same time – he played in Weezer (QRO photos); DEVO (QRO photos) had to get somebody else.  I literally went from one to the other!…

WM: [laughs]

WM: And also [on the record] our producer Dennis Herring.  It was the first time I ever worked with him.  He was great, great producer to work with, especially for us – it was the right time for us to meet an older, more experienced, but…

MB: But he’s got this fearless attitude.  When we might shy away from the edge or something, and take the safer route, he would really encourage [us to] just go for it.

QRO: So did that help with, like you were saying, not reworking things over & over?

WM: Yeah, definitely, that’s a big help.

If Becca – to use this example where she was recording this keyboard part, and she tracked it, and Dennis was like, “Okay, that’s great – let’s move on.”  And she’s like, “Alright, let’s try another sound.  How about this – try another sound?”  And he’s like, “Why?”

MB: He was all for limiting options as soon as possible.  I think we all learned a lot, just from being around him.

QRO: Oh, and why yet another “Too” song?

WM: [laughs] Um… I don’t know?  I think it’s a word I like?… [laughs]

Ra Ra Riot playing “Is It Too Much” live at Webster Hall in New York, NY on January 25th, 2013:

QRO: And you always do the high-fiving at shows – do you wash your hands before or after doing that?

WM: Um… no comment…

QRO: ‘Cause I’ve been getting a cold – just sayin’… [laughs]

WM: I probably should… [laughs]

Ra Ra Riot playing “Dying Is Fine” – with Miles high-fiving the crowd – live at Webster Hall in New York, NY on January 25th, 2013:

 

QRO: You’re headed out on a tour of Asia next week – have you played Asia before?

WM: We’ve played a few places in Japan.

MB: But not outside of Japan

QRO: Are you admittedly a little more exciting, going to the places you haven’t before, like Indonesia?

WM: It’s pretty exciting, yeah…

MB: It’s one of the things I look forward to most, is getting to go to some new place.  It’s always the most fun part of any tour, some new city or country or something…

QRO: And there’s probably no place left like that in the United States for you guys, except for small towns…

WM: Yeah, a small town.

MB: Or in Montana.

QRO: Did you guys once play Alaska?

WM: Yeah, it was a brewery [Bear Tooth Theatre Pub]. They were like unveiling their…

MB: It was a brewery/movie theater/…

QRO: Probably up there, everything’s gotta be ‘slash’…

MB: So you don’t have to go outside…

QRO: I know you’re playing Arts & Crafts’ Field Trip in June (QRO Festival Guide) – do you have plans for any other festival dates this summer?

MB: As of now, we don’t, but we’ll see what happens.  These sorts of things take time.

QRO: Do you all still live in different places, or are you more New York-based at this point?

WM: We’re basically all in Brooklyn now.

QRO: Do you still have [tour van] ‘Mark Walberg’ – and [trailer] ‘Buddy’?

WM: Yep – parked outside…

QRO: I guess they can’t go to Asia with you…

WM: Yeah – we’ll be on a bus in February.

MB: They don’t really like the snow.

WM: So Mark & Buddy have the rest of the winter off.

We’ve put 206,000 miles on it – it’s good when you can take a tour off.

MB: Tired of Florida monsoons…

QRO: But you guys don’t sleep in him, do you?

WM: No, we haven’t done that in a while…

Ra Ra Riot

QRO: Has it been hard shifting around your set-up on stage?  Or is that still in flux?

WM: We’re keeping our options open.  I think Becca likes having the cello on her outside, and I like having the vocals on both sides, ‘cause now Becca’s singing.  And the keyboard’s closer to me.

We’re still thinking about other things we can do, but this seems to be working.

QRO: Did you add more keyboards to your set up, such as the ones [Milo] is on in the back?

WM: Yeah, two more keyboards.

QRO: I was a little thrown off by Brausa sitting – especially with the electric cello…

WM: Clarice stands, but Emily is way taller – she’s like as tall as one of the guys.  So I think the endpin isn’t long enough.

QRO: Oh yeah – and especially as it’s not her cello…

WM: Yeah.

 

 

Ra Ra Riot playing “I Shut Off” live at Webster Hall in New York, NY on January 25th, 2013:

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