Just as they returned to the road once again, Ra Ra Riot’s Alexandra Lawn & Mathieu Santos sat down with QRO. The cellist and bassist talked about their mammoth tour, South-by-Southwest, playing huge places, going from opener to headliner, their label, how they’ve avoided noticing any ‘blow up’ in their fortunes, their recent record, The Rhumb Line (QRO review), new material, and much, much more…
QRO: How has this tour been going?
Alexandra Lawn: It’s been going really well. We’ve been having some surprisingly good shows.
Mathieu Santos: We had a few days off, so we all get to go home and regroup a little bit. We’ve been on the road, basically a bunch of little tours all built together into one huge tour. But so far, it’s been really successful.
QRO: How was South-by-Southwest (QRO recap)?
AL: It was really good. I think this was the first year that we were successfully prepared for a successful South-by. I don’t think any of us went into it trying to tackle anything too hard or big, and ended up getting pleasantly surprised, to be able to walk into Devo with a wristband with no line, kind of things. Seeing new bands we didn’t even expect to see, seeing friends; just trying not to do everything that ultimately you can’t do at South-by. So we had a great time.
MS: It was our first year where we didn’t play more than like six or seven shows.
AL: We only played three.
MS: Lot of time to relax and catch up.
AL: Lot of walking. It was really nice.
QRO: What do you think of ‘industry showcases’ like that, or CMJ (QRO recap)?
AL: Well, we’ve only played CMJ once, and South-by three times, but I guess at least my naïve opinion comparing them would be that I find the CMJ industry crowd a bit more stuffy and uptight and kind of on the Blackberry, whereas I feel like South-by really integrates the fans, and even brings out the fan from an industry person, too. It’s a little lighter.
MS: South-by is just a lot more conducive to going to see shows and socializing. At CMJ, everything’s kind of spread out. It’s stressful driving around New York, all the boroughs, trying to find out who’s playing where.
AL: I don’t think people are as drunk at CMJ, either. To be honest… [laughs]
MS: At South-by, everything’s within walking distance. A lot more relaxed, in some ways…
QRO: Going to something [at South-by], and there’s already people with beers…
AL: Oh, they don’t stop…
QRO: What about playing ‘regular’ outdoor festivals?
MS: They can be fun – you know, you get to play to a lot of people you don’t normally play to. I always feel a little weird; I mean, the sound’s usually kind of crappy
AL: You always play during the day, ‘cause you’re never the headliner. So it’s always like the sun is shining on you. It’s like, ‘Look at us, we’re really awkward and playing in a parking lot, or a swampy field…’
We’ve had great experiences, too. Latitude blew our minds, just how beautiful that was, and that ended up being a really good show.
MS: Yeah, they can be fun. I’m excited to do this summer; we’re going to be relaxing a little bit, just doing festivals here and there.
QRO: You’re going to be doing All Points West (QRO 2009 Festival Guide)…
AL: Yeah, we’re really psyched about that.
QRO: And you did Siren (QRO recap)…
AL: That was a fun one…
MS: That was incredible.
AL: That was a hot one! ‘Here, cook on this black surface, everybody…’
QRO: Last fall, you toured Europe with Vampire Weekend & Los Campesinos! (QRO spotlight on). How was that?
AL: It was a great experience. I think all the fans were really open to our music, for both bands, so it was a really good opportunity for us to play for them – and with those bands, obviously.
MS: We had been to the U.K. a few times, but this time, opening for Vampire Weekend, that’s a different story: bigger venues, really enthusiastic crowds. I feel like there’s not as much ‘baggage’ in the U.K. as there is here, at least surrounding Vampire Weekend.
The European tour, that was our first ‘proper’ Continental European tour. And it was so much fun. We did four dates in Spain with Los Campesinos!.
MS: It’s crazy – they were playing to several thousand people a night
QRO: You played Maxwell’s (QRO venue review) in 2007, opening for Tokyo Police Club (QRO live review) – and Vampire Weekend was the opener before you – is it at all weird, opening for a band who’d opened-ish for you?
AL: I don’t find it weird. Especially us, and Tokyo Police Club (QRO spotlight on), and Vampire Weekend – I feel like, as friends and as peers, we really root for each other. Anything that happens to any of us, that’s a good and happy thing.
I wouldn’t say it’s weird. Obviously, it started off different, switched around, but I’m happy for them, happy for Tokyo. Hopefully we can just keep playing shows altogether in whatever order. Doesn’t really matter.
AL: That’s weird! [laughs]
They have such a class to them. I feel like they’re such superstars over in the U.K. They have such a grounded root audience. I remember playing here and just being blown away at how cool this venue is.
MS: I remember that as well. I don’t remember the show that much, I just remember being like, ‘Wow, this place is big!’
AL: It’s a well-known nightclub. I hear they have a great ‘lifestyle’ night on Wednesdays…
QRO: After this tour, you’re going to be playing stadiums, opening for Death Cab For Cutie (QRO album review) – have you ever played places as big as the places you’re going to be playing then?
MS: I think so, yeah. We meet up with them in Toronto, and we do April & May with them.
AL: We do a solid month.
MS: Then we’ll be doing July with them, for a week or two. Some of those shows are going to be huge.
AL: The July ones I think are bigger.
QRO: Those are big outdoor places…
AL: Red Rocks – we’re really excited!
QRO: You guys played Monolith there, though?
MS: We didn’t play on the ‘real’ stage.
AL: We played like underneath, in the rocks… [laughs]
MS: I’m so excited for that show.
QRO: Did that come about through the ‘Barsuk connection’?
MS: I don’t even know…
AL: There’s a lot of – what really you find out is that, no matter what you do or who you know, there’s always some weird connection with so many people, so many bands. That one, I have no idea – you could point out a lot of things and maybe tie a line to it.
MS: I think maybe Barsuk thing put it in motion, kind of.
AL: I was definitely like ‘Barsuk signed this band, let’s listen to them.’
MS: I remember the first time we played in Seattle, after we had signed to Barsuk–
AL: They came out.
MS: The Death Cab guys came to our show, and we were freaking out. ‘Don’t mess up!’…
We’ve met the rest of the band; we haven’t met Ben Gibbard yet, but we’ve met the rest of the guys, and they’re all the friendliest, nicest guys you’ve ever met.
AL: So nice…
MS: It’s gonna be a good tour.
QRO: What drew you guys to Barsuk Records?
AL: It was kind of like, to be really cheesy, you know that ‘click’ you feel with someone? ‘Oh, I’m really comfy immediately with you…’ It just ‘felt so right’… [laughs]
MS: We had a good meeting with them at South-by last year. It’s such a small company, so we met basically everyone in the company, everyone in the band. Everyone’s on a first name basis, it was really nice, kind of ‘familial’.
AL: They came out to where we were recording and listened to some of the new stuff. Supportive, check it out – they’ve got great attitudes.
MS: It’s like a glove. Like a nice, custom-made glove…
QRO: Over the past year or two, you guys have really ‘blown up’. How have you been able to ‘keep it real’, or have you gone all ‘rock star’?
AL: I think we’ve definitely been able to ‘keep it real’ because, at least from my perspective, there’s been no ‘blow up’… [laughs]
MS: We’re just keeping our heads down and just grinding along on the road.
AL: Sometimes you get really surprised, like when someone says something, like what you just said, ‘No – you’re wrong!…’
MS: We just notice little things: ‘Oh, the last time we played in this city, there were twelve people here, and now there’s a few hundred.’ So little moments like that, maybe things are picking up.
But we’re just interested in like banging through the tours, getting music out there, writing new music…
AL: Eating good food…
MS: Eating good food – that’s a big part of our tour.
QRO: That’s a big part of South-by…
AL: Oh yeah, it’s a mission – you have to tackle it.
QRO: Go to this sausage stand, this BBQ…
AL: Oh yeah, ‘Best Wurst’ – it’s so good! So good!
QRO: Speaking of new material, what was the new song you played at the Barsuk/Merge Showcase at The Parish on the final day?
AL: “Too Dramatic”.
MS: We have two new songs that we’ve been rotating into the set. “Too Dramatic” and “Foolish”.
AL: Some others that we’ve dabbled thoroughly with that are going to be worked on later in the summer. But it’s already way ahead of the last album, in the sense of writing new material. ‘Cause every break we get, everybody’s just really ready to throw things out there, so we have a lot of new material to work with and bang out. It’ll be fun.
QRO: Are those the only two you play live right now?
MS: Yeah, those are the only two that are able to be played. The rest are sort of ‘works in progress’.
QRO: How difficult is it to bring new material into the show, introduce it to the crowd, find a spot for it on the set list?
AL: The most difficult part is finding the right spot in the set list (QRO photo). Other than that, you’ve just got to throw it in there and bang it out, or else you’re not going to hear what you want it to be like by the album.
MS: At least for us, it’s just thrilling to have new songs. The other songs in the set list are songs that we’ve been playing for years and years. So we look forward to playing the whole set, makes the other songs seem fresher in context. That’s really refreshing for us.
The new songs have been getting pretty good response every time we’ve played them. I think it’s nice ‘cause it’s just one new song usually a night, so the fans know the rest of the songs.
QRO: I saw you at Bowery Ballroom (QRO venue review) last year, and you ran out of songs to play – for the second encore, you did “Ghost Under Rocks” for a third time!
AL: We did it two times…
MS: Well, we did the reprise, too, at the beginning.
Ra Ra Riot playing “Ghost Under Rocks” live @ Union Square Virgin Megastore in New York, NY on August 19th, 2008:
AL: That was one of those, ‘Oh this is awesome!’ ‘Oh – this means we really need to write new music…’ [laughs]
MS: We figured by that point, when they were asking for a second encore, it didn’t matter what we played. But after that, we were like, ‘We need some new songs…’ It’s good to have some options.
QRO: Have you done any recording for the follow-up the new record?
AL: We’re still just banging it out. Really, just everybody is in a really creative thing right now. Everybody’s just throwing things out there – it’s awesome!
MS: We’ve just been recording a lot of demos on our computers and stuff. We haven’t gone into the studio or anything yet, to do pre-production. Right now, we’re just sort of sorting through everyone’s ideas.
AL: Piecing them together…
QRO: Do you think there’s any extra pressure to avoid a ‘sophomore jinx’?
MS: I don’t think so. I think we’re all just really excited about the new songs. We’re just looking to make an even better album. We’re all really happy with how The Rhumb Line came out, but I think there’s a sense that we want to move forward and make something better.
AL: I think we all also kind of avoided that whole ‘explosion’ thing of like, ‘Oh my God, the first album!’ I think we really emphasized the organic growth kind of thing, where we actually have the true, loyal fans. Hopefully by the time the second album comes out, people will be saying, ‘Oh yeah! I can’t wait to hear the second album!’ As opposed to maybe, hopefully fewer people will be saying, ‘Uh-oh – sophomore slump…’
QRO: Why did you include so much from Ra Ra Riot EP (QRO review) in The Rhumb Line?
MS: Well, we were never really happy with how the EP recordings came out. It was our first time in the studio, basically, so we didn’t really know what we were doing or what we wanted out of the production. So we sort of just layered all the parts. We felt the recording felt kind of flat.
So when it came time to do the new album, we were debating how many of the old songs to put on. The EP was self-released, so I think only a few thousand people heard those recordings, so we figured we could get away – we wanted to try recording them again.
AL: Also, those songs had changed a bit, live, and so much since after the EP came out.
MS: Yeah, we wanted to update them and get them to a wider audience.
And also, we didn’t really have that many more songs… [laughs] We figured the EP was our little self-released bunch of songs.
QRO: And why didn’t you include “Everest” or “A Manner To Act”?
AL: Those just never really evolved, playing live. I think their lifespan kind of belonged in the EP. They’re so fun to play, live, but overall, the structure, everybody’s parts stayed the same.
MS: Plus, we didn’t want to recycle everything. It’s nice to have those two songs as sort of like ‘old ones’. Not everyone knows…
AL: Those are definitely back to the ‘house party days’, trying to get everybody to just dance and have fun.
QRO: Also, why did you include the cover of Kate Bush’s “Suspended In Gaffa” come from?
AL: That summer, before we recorded the album, we all just got really into that song at the same time. It started showing up on everybody’s mix CD.
And then, one day, we were waiting for dinner, a couple people started plucking around with it, and then, all of a sudden, everybody was playing it. And we were like, ‘This is really fun to play. And why not keep the Kate Bush cover legacy going?’
MS: At first, I think we just covered it for our own amusement.
AL: We literally were waiting for dinner… [laughs]
MS: Like, ‘The song’s too weird to play live…’ And then we started playing it live, just to see if we could get away with it. And then it went over well, and originally we weren’t even going to record it, and then, ‘Oh we’ll record it, use it as a b-side.’ And then it just worked its way into being on the album, without even intending…
QRO: Is there an actual St. Peter’s Day Festival?
MS: John [Pike, late drummer] wrote all those lyrics. I think it’s a thing in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Ra Ra Riot playing “St. Peter’s Day Festival” live @ Sound Fix Records in Brooklyn, NY on October 19th, 2008:
QRO: Oh, the actual ‘Rhumb Line’ is up there…
AL: It’s a bar there.
MS: I guess it’s a little bit of a ‘local event’ up there. I don’t know exactly when it is [note: it is a five-day festival at the end of June, honoring the patron saint of fishermen].
QRO: They should get you to play there…
AL: That’d be cool…
QRO: Like Los Campesinos! playing All Tomorrow’s Parties – they have that song, “Knee Deep at The A.T.P.” (QRO video).
MS: Oh yeah…