Ra Ra Riot Steps Ahead of the Suddenly String-Heavy Indie Rock Pack

With two permanent string members—a violinist and a cellist—firmly entrenched in its six-piece line-up, the members of Ra Ra Riot were bound to find themselves compared with a certain Canadian act you might have heard a little too much about in the past few years. Does the name Arcade Fire ring a bell?

It should, and it certainly does to Ra Ra Riot, who has heard the name come up more than need be since the band formed at Syracuse University in early 2006.

The culprit: Why, the laziness of music journalists, of course.

"I'm not bothered by it," Ra Ra Riot violinist Rebecca Zeller says over her cell phone as her band's van travels from San Francisco to Los Angeles. "I just think it's a lazy comparison. If you read enough music journalism, though, you start to understand that journalists need something to compare different bands to."

Ah, but the comparison is a lazy one; Ra Ra Riot really couldn't sound more different from Arcade Fire. Whereas Arcade Fire focuses on the grandiose and the crescendo, Ra Ra Riot is another beast entirely, producing a sound more peppy than apocalyptic, more dance-inducing than morose, more inspiring than dramatic.

Actually, the only real worthwhile similarity between these two bands is the strings.

And, if the indie rock performers at this year's South by Southwest festival were any indication, there are plenty of strings out there for public consumption other than Ra Ra Riot and Arcade Fire. Plenty.

Enough, though, for Ra Ra Riot to get lost in the shuffle? Well, no, not really, Zeller says. "There are a few different types of bands out there now with strings. But whereas a lot of them use strings as an afterthought, [cellist] Allie [Lawn] and I have been in the band since the beginning, so we're integrated into the songwriting process."

That collaborative process is something immediately evident upon listening to Ra Ra Riot's 2007 self-titled EP, and especially so in the song "A Manner to Act," in which the lead riffs fired off are produced not from guitarist Milo Bonacci's playing, but from Zeller's violin. Add in Mathieu Santos' bass, Cameron Wisch's drums and Wesley Miles' unique, affecting, high-pitched vocals, and you've got yourself quite the modern-day wall-of-sound to be reckoned with. That kind of helps separate Ra Ra Riot from the rest of string pack.

Not that Zeller, at least, isn't welcoming the competition.

"It's nice," she says, "to see classical instruments thrown into pop music more."

Given the successes of Ra Ra Riot's recent past, though, it's likely that it too, could become more and more prevalent in the pop music conversation for the next few years. Having recently completed recording its full-length debut in Seattle with Ryan Hadlock (Blonde Redhead, The Gossip), the band is in the process of securing a label to handle its as-yet-untitled album, which Zeller expects to be released around the end of August. And given the enthusiastic responses from the crowds at Ra Ra Riot's seven or so SXSW performances (which featured updated arrangements to the tracks on the well-received debut EP), you have to imagine there'll be a whole lot of people paying attention to their future.

And fewer and fewer people inaccurately comparing them to that what's-their-name act from Canada.

"[That comparison] is fortunately becoming a bit more sparse," Zeller says. "I think that's a tribute to our growth."

 
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