Syracuse pop-rock-infused-string sensation Ra Ra Riot are no newbies to the Chicago scene; if anything, they’re about as seasoned as a regular music guru. The band has performed in the city multiple times and will be back to play at the Metro this Friday.
“We’ve always loved coming to Chicago,” admits violinist Becca Zeller. “One of the first times we were there, we all rented bikes to explore the city. I specifically love running along the lake—that’s really fun. The last time we were there, we got to go at Lincoln Hall, and that show was really fun. Since it’s not on a coast, there’s always a lot of smaller cities that we have to go through to get there, so it’s always nice to arrive in a metropolis—there’s great food and great culture, and being on the lake is so beautiful and calming. We love returning to Chicago!”
Like with every story, there is a beginning, and Zeller’s is unconventional in that despite performing avidly since she was a child, she almost gave music up completely.
“I started playing in second grade and played all throughout high school pretty seriously, and around the time I was applying to colleges, I actually made the decision that I didn’t want to play, and that was because I didn’t think there was really anything for me,” she claims. “I decided, ‘Okay; well, I don’t want to be in an orchestra; I don’t want to be in a quartet; I’m not good enough to be a soloist; and I don’t really want to teach,’ so with that in mind, there didn’t seem to really be any other options.”
Zeller soon found what she was truly seeking, however, and it turned out to offer her the best of both worlds.
“When I was looking into universities, I was really interested in doing music business, so something within music, but not on the performance side,” she explains. “I ended up going to Syracuse, and the program is unique because it requires you to be a musician to be in it—it’s half a music degree and half a business degree—so you’re still required to play for the first few years as a music major. It wasn’t until I was required to play throughout college and taking core classes during senior year [that things happened]; Milo (Bonacci, guitar) and I were in an electronic music course, which was one of my requirements, and he asked me to be in a band (which became Ra Ra Riot). It was just an extracurricular thing at the time—the band had its first practice on January 17, 2006, and it wasn’t really until the end of school that we decided to pursue this.”
The risk was major enough, but especially for Zeller.
“Nobody ever thought it could have continued after May 2006,” she says. “I already had a job lined up to be in an agent training program, so the plan was to not perform. This was something that I was luckily shoved into. I loved playing; I just didn’t think there was an opportunity like this out there.”
Ra Ra Riot’s success has certainly been granted. They released their third album, Beta Love, on January 22, and while it still possesses the notorious string sections that evoke the band’s true aesthetic, there is certainly a more electronic tinge to its content.
“When we were writing the third record, we deliberately wanted to do something different,” Zeller explains. “We had become a little fed up with how we were writing music; it became a bit formulaic, and it wasn’t that much fun anymore. Writing The Orchard (the band’s second album) was not the most fun of processes, and I think we felt that whoever was bringing songs into the band–people thought that their original idea was being compromised because there was this need—or the way we operated was that you brought your idea in, and everybody contributed—Milo would write a guitar part, Matt (Santos) wrote a bass part, I wrote a violin part and so forth—it was sort of like no discussion of being up for debate, and rather than the discussion of what does this song mean, it was, ‘This is the band Ra Ra Riot; this is what we do and this is how it works out’—it became creatively stifling.”
Eventually, the band determined the destined direction.
“This idea came to take a step back and think about what the songs need and mean, instead of throwing the works on them,” Zeller continues. “The Rhumb Line was a recorded collection of songs that we had been playing for the first two years of the band; with The Orchard, we sort of went about doing it the same way that we had because that was the way it seemed to go, and then this was a conscious decision to take a step back and allow more breathing room in the songs. The Rhumb Line and The Orchard are very string-heavy, and here the string parts are really up in front—they’re big and melodic—but I don’t think every song needs that; the strings are taking on more of a supportive role in the majority of these songs, but it was really fun for me to write different parts and write them in a different way.”
There was also a shift lyrically for the band.
“It started with Matt, who was reading The Singularity is Near when we were writing The Orchard,” Zeller recollects. “There was this concept that he found fascinating and shared with everyone—the boys specifically found it particularly fascinating; there were some rough times with the band around then, so they used it as a bit of an escape of hardship and really discussed in depth. When it came time to write for this record, particularly for Wes (Miles, vocals and keys)—they were talking about that book; it’s like, if you’re interested in something, that’s what you’re thinking about, and it’s only natural for it to come out in your art.”
Creating the album was certainly a challenge for the band, not to mention dealing with the departure of its former cellist, Alexandra Lawn.
“Our roles in the band were unique, so trying to find someone to do the same was a challenge, but we now have an incredible cellist, Clarice Jensen, and she’s unbelievably talented,” Zeller states. “In presenting Beta Love, we knew how different it was; we were halfway through the recording process—it didn’t even really occur to me that it was so different because you know, this is the music that we’re making; it’s the same thing with every song, but it became pretty clear that it was different, but we felt great and confident about it. Obviously, there’s a difference between knowing that and thinking that to yourself and then sharing it to the rest of the world; when it was release time, we knew it would alienate some people and some original fans, but it’s gone really well, and the response at shows has been amazing; they seem to really be into the new songs and really supportive; we’re really happy to take them on tour with us.”
Friday’s show will undoubtedly feature them, along with older favorites.
“The Metro is a great venue,” Zeller says. “We’ve played it once or twice before, and ever since the days of playing Schuba’s, we’ve always really loved coming to Chicago and been really happy and impressed with the crowds there; we’re looking forward to returning!”
Doors open at 8 p.m. on Friday. For tickets and more show information, click here. Check out the band on Facebook (/rarariot) and Twitter (@rarariot).