Published Aug 22, 2010Those who expected Ra Ra Riot to return after two years on the road with a whole new set of tricks might not settle very comfortably into The Orchard right away, but listen to it again. This time, listen not to first single "Boy" or peppy follow-up track "Too Dramatic," but to the intricacies that surround them: to the slow-burning twitch of the title track; to the longing waltz of "You And I Know"; and, especially, to the mournful hum of closing track "Keep It Quiet," as it's in these tracks that the listener will hear what the boys and girls of Ra Ra Riot have been up to these last couple years. They've been growing up, adding layers of musical sophistication and patience to their repertoire of hooks and bouncy choruses. The Orchard might not have anything as endlessly catchy as "Dying is Fine" or as hooky as "Ghost Under Rocks," but it's a step towards musical maturity and a statement of intent from a band that, with a little more time and growth, could marry maturity to their knack for melody and produce their masterpiece. The Orchard might not be it, but for now, it's more than enough to keep us satiated.
When was most of The Orchard written?
Vocalist/keyboardist Wesley Miles: Most of the work that we put into The Orchard was done on a peach orchard last summer in July and August. A friend of Milo [Bonacci], our guitarist, had a peach farm that they weren't using, so we kind of took it over for about a month-and-a-half and wrote most of the record's demos there. We took it to the studio in December, but [the orchard] is pretty much where the whole thing was written.
You wrote the whole thing in a month-and-a-half?
Well, we had a couple really rough demos and a few ideas before we went to the peach farm last summer, but there were only one or two songs that were done, so the rest were written and arranged there.
Did you feel more prepared to make a record this time around, now that you've toured more, gelled as a band and recorded an album?
Yeah, we did and I think that part of the reason why we chose to self-produce this record was because we learned a lot from the first record we made and thought that we had a lot of ideas that we wanted to explore in the studio. We just wanted to make it ours and follow through on all of our ideas, because we had so much time with this record, so many opportunities to explore in the studio.
What were the recording sessions compared to The Rhumb Line?
It was pretty different. With our first album, all the songs were done before we went into the studio, since we'd been playing them live for two years. So, by the time we got to the studio, we were like, "here's what we've done, we're going to lay it down and that's what the album's going to be." This time, we thought, "well, let's take our time in the studio and figure things out then." A few of the songs were done, but some we left open-ended so we could explore more in the studio. We deliberately booked more time in the studio than we had on the first record so we could do these things. It was pretty different, but it was a lot of fun.
The Orchard sounds much happier than The Rhumb Line. Could that be because of confidence on the band's part or is everybody in a better frame of mind?
That's interesting; I hadn't thought about that, but I think we're all growing and I think we're all feeling more confident as individuals and as a group. I can see how that would come through, but it's hard to say why.
You kind of touched on it; it's a more mature, adult record than your first. Where The Rhumb Line was faster and more immediate, The Orchard is contemplative.
Yeah, I think that's probably because of the nature of the songs we played in the first few years together. They were all designed to be played in a live setting. In the first six months of the band's start, we were just playing house parties and the idea was to be loud and fast and make people dance, which is fun and it served a good purpose, but with The Orchard, it was a different experience. We didn't have the same concerns we did with the first record. I think we were more patient with this record.
Was there anything about The Rhumb Line that you heard before recording The Orchard that made you think, "Yeah, that's something I'd like to change"?
There's a lot of stuff like that. For me, there's singing performance; I wanted to try singing differently. We wanted to take more time, like I said. The only thing, looking back on The Rhumb Line, which is kind of disappointing is that we had such a small amount of time. We didn't have time to second-guess or explore or expand upon songs in the studio. But that's why we chose to take our time on The Orchard.
There's no cover song on this release, but there's still a mention of Kate Bush as inspiration for "The Orchard." What other influences inspired this album?
Probably Fleetwood Mac, a little bit more than before. For me, Steve Winwood, Phil Collins, that sort of stuff.
Were there any particular vocalists that inspired you?
Yeah, there are a lot. Sting; Sting's a great vocalist. Part of the reason I love Kate Bush so much is not because she has a great voice, in the traditional sense, but because it's so theatrical and different in that way. In terms of modern singers, Dave Longstreth from the Dirty Projectors is untouchable, Usher — there are a lot.
What's the writing dynamic like in Ra Ra Riot? Did you write most of the songs on The Orchard?
No, every song is different. They come from different places and are very collaborative. Milo might write a guitar riff, a progression or a groove and then I might write a melody on that, and then the strings will arrange a part over that. Some songs come from me and I'll give it to the band, and they'll arrange it in a different way. One of the songs on the record, the one that Allie [Alexandra Lawn, cello/vocals] sings on, is the first song she's written for the band, and "Massachusetts" is the first song Matt [Mathieu Santos, bass] wrote for the band, so that was fun. It's very diverse; every song is different.
There are more synths on this album. Did writing and releasing the Discovery album with Rostam [Batmanglij, Vampire Weekend] change the way you approach writing for Ra Ra Riot?
It definitely changed how I think about recording and writing, but I don't think the synths were a direct result of that. That was more of a collective Ra Ra Riot agreement; I think we all kind of liked going in that direction. But certainly the way I write and record vocals changed because of Discovery.
Did releasing Discovery change the way you felt about allowing yourself to absorb music from any genre, so that you could diversify your brand of music?
I think it's the other way around. The Discovery record happened because I already thought that I don't have to think that Usher is off-limits because I'm in a rock band. I think that there will always be influences of mine that people wouldn't expect, but there's no reason why I can't appreciate them. I might as well just be frank about it.
You used to play saxophone with the Dirty Projectors. Have you ever thought about bringing more instrumentation to Ra Ra Riot or would that clutter up the sound?
Space comes at a premium in this band, so adding more instruments might just be more hectic than it's worth. There's a tiny bit of saxophone on The Rhumb Line — on "Oh, La," I played a little sax. I think we were going to have some more sax on The Orchard, but it didn't pan out the way we wanted it to. There's always a chance that I'll get back into that and there are plenty of other instruments that other people play, so we'll see.
Are most of the band members multi-instrumentalists?
Yeah, I think most of us play a few things.
So you guys could write a big band jazz record?
[Laughs] Yeah, probably not, but if we got the chance...
I wanted to ask who produced the album, but you already said the band did. Who in the band is the producer? The album sounds really clean.
It was just all of us making the decisions, depending on what it was, either individually or collectively. I was making most of the decisions about how the vocals sounded, but I wouldn't necessarily make the decisions about how the guitar sounds or how the strings sounded. It's sort of like the writing process, in that it's egalitarian. We also worked with Andrew Maury, our touring sound guy, but also a really talented engineer and producer, so that was really nice getting another voice, a new perspective.
Do you write the lyrics?
For the songs that I sing lead on, yeah, I write the lyrics. Allie wrote the lyrics for "You and I Know" and Matt wrote the lyrics for "Massachusetts," and actually, Rostam and I wrote the lyrics together for "Do You Remember?"
Would you say that there's a lyrical theme to The Orchard?
Well, "The Orchard," is about an Anton Chekhov short story that I read a few years ago. It's about a guy who moves from the city to an apple orchard and starts seeing things.
Are you talking about the song or the album?
The song. Yeah, the song was written about a guy who escapes to an apple orchard from the city, but I think that theme carries over and sets the tone for the rest of the album, which is kind of about retreating to a land-locked place far away from the city. There's a lot to do with escaping, not escaping reality, but clutter and noise.
Would you call The Orchard a concept record?
I don't think I'd want to call it that. I wouldn't mind if anyone else did, but I don't think that I'd say that, personally.
Were there other songs from the recording sessions that didn't make the album that might see release in the near future?
Yeah, actually, besides there being a few other versions of the same songs that'll hopefully be released pretty soon, there are a few others that we recorded that didn't make it on the record that we'll probably be releasing as b-sides. There's more material to come.
Those few other versions you're talking about, will they become a kind of remix EP?
Actually, we recorded two versions of a few of the songs. On the Boy EP that just came out, we have an outdoor, pump organ version of "Keep It Quiet" that was recorded by a crackling fire on a really noisy tape machine. We also recorded a really slow version of "Too Dramatic" that'll come out later that was pretty fun, and another version of "Shadowcasting," which is pretty cool.
So it's like "Ra Ra Ra plays Ra Ra Riot"?
Yeah! It kind of came about accidentally, because there are always demos you make along the way and some of them are maybe not quite as good or crisp, or whatever, but they're just interesting.
Are there plans for another Discovery album?
It's hard to say. I think we'd like to make more music, but we don't have any plans right now.
Fair enough. It did take you four years to make the last one.
Yeah. (Arts & Crafts)