Although the music of Ra Ra Riot has been described as baroque pop, it's not nearly as pretentious as that might imply. Hailing from Brooklyn (by way of Syracuse), this intriguing five-piece has been making classically-tinged indie rock for the better part of seven years. And with each successive release, the band seems to get better and more focused.
Speaking from a tour stop in Seattle and in anticipation of tonight's show at the Kessler Theater, violinist Rebecca Zeller spoke with DC9 about being a classically trained musician in a rock band and how she wants to go back to Iceland.
The band is from Syracuse. Is there a good music scene in the area?
Not really, no. That's probably why we were able to do so well in the beginning. There was really not much going on. I think when we started, we had a captive audience.
Do any of the band members still live there?
No, we all moved to New York. We are all Brooklynites now.
Even though the band has only been around for seven years, you actually have more former members than members. Is there a natural volatility to the band?
No, we started with seven members and within the first eight months, the original singer left the band. He moved to Portland. When we started, there was no plan for us to be a professional band. We were all in school. And then our original drummer [John Ryan Pike] died. That starts explains why there are so many names.
John Pike died under some unusual circumstances. Is there still an investigation going on?
Not that I know about.
[Cellist and vocalist] Alexandra Lawn left the band last year. What effect did that have on the band?
Of course, it affected the band in many different ways. She left before the new album [Beta Love] was recorded. We all had to step up a bit and perform different roles in her absence. We added a new cellist, Clara Simpson. I think that with the new album, the intentional goal was to shift our roles a little bit. Her leaving was a result of us wanting to do that. And it allowed us to do that.
One reviewer wrote that after she left the band, your style changed. Do you agree?
Not really. There are obviously still strings on the record. There are strings on ten of the eleven songs. Obviously, they don't fulfill the same roles they did on the other record. It was related to her departure in the sense that it was something that we wanted to do before she left. Maybe that was the reason she left, but there was never a goal to switch genres or anything. We just wanted to make a record and to not feel burdened to make The Rhumb Line, part two or The Orchard, part two. We wanted to follow the direction that our new songs took us.
Are you classically trained?
Of course, I've been playing for over twenty years.
Being classically trained, does that make you harder on rock musicians when they screw up?
No, we always joke about fretted instruments being easier to play. I've had to give a little bit of that classical seriousness up. But I think we've keep that spirit up, that idea of perfection. We've taken a bit of that and demanded more of ourselves and not settling. Back in 2006, Spin magazine wrote that you were one of the best young bands. Did that let you know that you were doing things right?
You have to balance that out with the negative things that you read. In life, the negative things are easier to remember than the positive ones. It's always nice and encouraging to hear the nice things. You also have to remember that some things are just one opinion.
How much criticism do you read?
I think at first, I really read a lot and that weighs on you. You could read a thousand positive reviews and one negative one and that is the review that sticks with you. It gets to you. With The Orchard, I read a lot of articles up to the week it was released. Then I didn't read anything. Same with the new album. The difference is now it's not just avoiding articles. Now with facebook, your fans are critics as well. They have a place to voice those opinions, which is really fun and interesting. I see that and read because I want to be engaged. It's special because the fans do engage with you. I don't go looking for reviews, but I do like the social media aspect of it.
Do you debate fans on facebook?
Well, not debate, but when fans say something nice, I will say thank you. And when people say they didn't like something, I will say that I am sorry to hear that and I am glad that they are a fan of the band. When people get things wrong, like saying there aren't any strings on it, I tell them that it is OK that they don't like that song, but there are strings on it. It's a bizarre feeling. I feel the need to be honest and ask them to maybe listen again to a particular song.
The band has a song ["Boy"] featured in a Honda Civic advertisement. Does that help make the band more of a fixture in pop culture?
[Laughs] I don't know. I think that's just a byproduct of figuring out how to make a living in this ever-changing music industry.
The band has also played in Iceland. What it a difficult journey and how was your experience there?
It was great. We were actually on tour in England, so the flight to Iceland was pretty quick. We only had 36 hours there, so we wanted to make the most of it. It was a day and half at this amazing music festival [Iceland Airwaves Festival] in this incredible city [Reykjavikin]. We all want to go back. That was five and a half years ago and it was awesome.
Ra Ra Riot performs with Pacific Air tonight, February 19, at the Kessler Theater.