Ra Ra Riot was the little indie rock band that could, even when it didn’t seem like they would persevere. This isn’t the type of shadow-shrouded doubt that tumbled from the mouths of critics or wavering fans. Instead, it’s the reality the five-piece band was confronted with right from the start of their career, back when John Pike, the original drummer, passed away during the recording of their debut album, The Rhumb Line.
It’s been a decade since The Rhumb Line came out. Since then, Ra Ra Riot—now consisting of vocalist Wes Miles, bassist Mathieu Santos, guitarist Milo Bonacci, violinist Rebecca Zeller, and drummer Kenny Bernard—have not only continued to write music, but the band has grown to significant new heights. The original sound—a combination of mello orchestrated strings with soft indie rock guitars and vocals—has morphed over the years to fit their personal interests as they age. Now, the band is hitting the road for a short stint of dates to honor the 10th anniversary of The Rhumb Line, during which several new songs will be played. The tour is at once a stepping stone forward to look back on the ways in which they’ve matured, a way to commemorate Pike, and a chance to admire the bold mark their debut record left on the indie rock landscape.
“This tour could have been depressing, because we’re revisiting an artifact without a future left for it, but what helps me is knowing that we’re not done, that we can fit it into new things within the context of the past,” says Miles. “So this tour will help us to figure out why this record was so successful and why it spoke to so many people. It was a really emotional time for us while making [Rhumb Line], way more so than anything else we’ve made. We wrote more than half of it with John—who is from Massachusetts, and was an amazing songwriter and person—so finishing it without him was really emotionally difficult, but it also felt like it had to be done. It would’ve been a disservice to the stuff he did to not finish the album. There will be a lot of emotions like that.”
To explore what Ra Ra Riot was like back then versus now, we interviewed Wes Miles for a round of Wheel of Tunes, a series where we ask musicians questions inspired by their song titles. With The Rhumb Line as the prompt, his answers dip into nostalgia while noting growth—a peek into what the band will be like while headlining the Sinclair this Thursday.
1) “Ghost Under Rocks”
DIGBOSTON: When is the last time you picked up a rock and what did you find under it?
MILES: I probably was gardening in the backyard. Well, you know, my super made-up garden given I live in Brooklyn and the backyard is small. So I lifted a rock up once and there were all sorts of bugs and stuff under it. I also moved one recently and my dog found something dead under it, like a bird or something, because he was digging and rolling in it. That’s one of my zen activities: trimming plants, watering plants, or planting new ones. Actually, the other week, I was grilling in the backyard and I noticed a stationary flicking light, just floating in the middle of the backyard. I was confused what it was. But then I saw it was a spider that had wrapped up a lightning bug that was still flashing without its head! It was floating between one huge plant and another, just standing there at head-level. It was pretty wild. It blinked for another hour after that.
2) “Each Year”
DIGBOSTON: How have your New Year’s resolutions or general goals for yourself progressed over the years?
MILES: I occasionally make New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve never stuck with them. I don’t even know what they are anymore. As for goals, though, one goal I had this year was to get a lot better at guitar, and I think I’ve done okay. I’m more of keyboard player and singer. I think I’ll be playing some guitar on this tour, but I have to ask the rest of my band first if I’ve gotten better. [laughs]
3) “St. Peter’s Day Festival”
DIGBOSTON: Have you ever been to a festival celebrating St. Peter?
MILES: I have not been to that festival. I guess I don’t know that much about the festival. See, this is why this interview is so good, because most people ask us why it’s called The Rhumb Line, which is of course a nautical term. But it’s the bar John referenced in “St. Peter’s Day Festival.” I think he thought it was a cool image and an interesting juxtaposition with the bar and the nautical thing. [laughs] I honestly don’t know that much about it, which may be a bad answer.
4) “Winter ’05”
DIGBOSTON: What’s your fondest memory from winter in 2005?
MILES: Well, as you could probably tell from the song, I was pretty depressed that winter. I don’t have that many fond memories. The thing that was comforting in a weird way was, which is still pretty depressing, I lived right next to the cemetery in Syracuse. Everyday at 5 am, all of the crows in the city would fly from the cemetery to wherever else in the city they went. It would wake me up and I would just watch it happen. Being in winter, it was still pretty dark, but the snow had that kind of weird brightness that the snow gives off when it’s still dark. So I would sit up and watch them make all of this racket and then fly away. At 5 pm or 6 pm, they would fly back and, I think, stay in the cemetery overnight. That was a weird, dark, comforting thing that I liked that winter. The original lyric for the second verse was going to reference that, actually.
5) “Dying Is Fine”
DIGBOSTON: Here comes a dark segue from the question before this, so prepare yourself. If you found out you were going to die later today, would you feel content with how you’ve lived your life?
MILES: A dark turn, jeez. Yeah, I think I would. I had another funny thought. I hate flying, just like everybody, but there are weird strategies you have to go to to trick yourself to not be stressed. Sometimes I think, “Well, if this plane crashes, at least I don’t have to stress about this album anymore and it will just be released.” The album is really good, so that feels nice to know that would be a thought. But yeah, I think I would feel content for the most part. If I knew that, I would probably think I should have read more or played more music instead of playing so many video games, but I would feel pretty good. I think I’m an optimist, so even in these dark times there is room for some optimism.
6) “Can You Tell”
DIGBOSTON: Is there a secret you recently learned that’s tempting to share?
MILES: Well yes, but I’m kinda known as a lockbox. I get a lot of secrets, as people share a lot of secrets with me. That’s something I pride myself on, that I’m worthy of friends’ and colleagues’ trust. So unfortunately, I can’t unveil those secrets in this interview. [laughs] If the scenario in the last question was true, then I would go down with a lot of secrets.
7) “Too Too Too Fast”
DIGBOSTON: What’s your personal best for running a mile?
MILES: Actually, I do know this! This was a stat that I keep in the back of my head. I ran a 5:10 minute mile once in high school. I ran winter track. It was one of those painful things, running in the winter. It’s indoors, at least in the northeast, and the air at the track is the most dry, brutal thing to breathe, especially in those massive gymnasiums. I remember feeling like I was going to throw up. I didn’t, which means I probably could have run a little faster. Nowadays, I’m half that speed. But I remember the exact time because there was another teacher who was a runner, but not the track coach. He asked me one time, “Oh, so you run track. I didn’t know that?” I told him I liked running okay and he asked for my best time. When I told him, he said, “Really? You can do better than that.” And it stunned me because I thought I was pretty good! Maybe he thought I said 10 minutes? I don’t know.
8) “Oh, La”
DIGBOSTON: What’s your favorite element on the periodic table?
MILES: Ohhh! Okay. I like this one. Hmm. There are so many! I’m just a fan of the layout of the table still. Other than oxygen, I like all of the transition metals because their abbreviations are not the right letters. Like silver is Ag, and there is no “a” or “g” in silver. Gold is Au. Mercury is Hg. It’s cool! Or like Ununoctium, which they haven’t named yet because the people who discovered it are dead? So cool. A lot of great elements. I did love chemistry, and I studied physics in college, which was related.
9) “Suspended in Gaffa”
DIGBOSTON: In your opinion, what’s a criminally underrated Kate Bush song?
MILES: Maybe “Sat in Your Lap”? It’s just so weird, and it goes out of control. Well, it’s not out of control, but it sounds so of the time while the cycle of music has turned around. It sounded like it could be a demo and of the times again, but now the drum sounds are so weird and synthetic. There’s so many, though. They’re all perfect. Oh also, “And Dream of Sheep” because that song is so, so good. “This Woman’s Work” not a lot of people talk about because it was in the ’90s. Obviously people know that song, but people are more into her ’80s work, so that one gets overlooked. We love playing this song, though, and we were also playing “Hounds of Love” at the time. We thought that would have overshadowed everything else on the album, so we chose the weird one instead. To date, it’s the only song we’ve ever done in 6/8 time signature, I think.
10) “Run My Mouth”
DIGBOSTON: Some quiet people become aggressive behind the wheel, others go from 0 to 100 at sporting events, and so on. Where can someone expect to see you get loud or talk back to someone?
MILES: [laughs] Hmm. I hate to say this, but probably talking politics occasionally. More likely, at a sporting event, but maybe as a joke. While we’re on tour, it’s fun to go to sporting events because, I think I said this, but all musicians secretly want to be professional athletes and all professional athletes secretly want to be rock stars. I totally identify with that because it’s a similar thing where you put on a performance every night. You’re trying to either win over a crowd or win an event of some sort. When you look over and see the other person’s job, it looks more glamorous. It’s so far removed that it seems more appealing. You see the athlete playing but don’t see all the hours they put into sitting in a gym lifting weights. The same thing is true of musicians spending thousands of hours warming up, practicing scales, and other crap. We all get into it and it’s fun. Since becoming a singer, I can’t really yell at the athletes. Not that I’m angry, but more like the genuine excitement of jokingly calling someone a bum. I’d ruin my voice if I yelled too much. So I often whisper things to Matt, our bassist. He will scream it at the top of his lungs because he doesn’t have to worry about his voice. That’s our fun bit when we’re at a game on the road. Hockey is the biggest shared sport in the band. I love tennis and try to go to games, but that’s one I definitely can’t yell at because it’s uncouth to do anyway. So I get all my aggression out through Matt at hockey games [laughs].
RA RA RIOT. THU 8.16. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 9PM/18+/$25. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM