Ra Ra Riot’s humble origins are the stuff of dorm-room legend: college kids at Syracuse University, facing graduation and not sure what the future might hold. Most of them were on the cusp of obtaining degrees that had nothing to do with music when they began jamming together, discovering an affinity for Kate Bush, and writing their own songs. Six months after their first hometown show, they became the buzz band of the day — or, at least, of their campus. But it was a tragic accident that ended up launching them onto the mainstream media radar a month before they released their self-titled debut EP in 2007. After playing a show in Providence, Rhode Island, drummer John Pike disappeared into the cold waters of Wilbur’s Point. His body washed up the next day.
The group grieved and persevered, and are now on the second leg of a tour promoting their debut full-length album, The Rhumb Line, which highlights the band’s skill for combining a raft of indie-rock and Britpop influences with a chamber-pop flair (the band’s membership includes cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller).
Guitarist Milo Bonacci took a quick break from Ra Ra Riot’s U.K. tour to chat with WE.
How does one go from studying architecture to playing guitar in a band?
Milo Bonacci: Well, I grew up playing guitar. Architecture’s a more recent development in my life. I guess when the time came to choose between the band and architecture, I though I could be a 60-year-old architect, but I don’t want to be a 60-year-old rock star necessarily. It was really just, “Let’s do this now while we can, and we’ll figure out our careers afterwards.”
String sections have really found a place in indie-rock over the last several years. Was it a conscious effort by Ra Ra Riot to incorporate that sound?
It was really just the combination of people who were able and willing to spend some time devoted to the band. I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect in the first couple of weeks, but from the start it was really satisfying to have that palette of sonic flavours.
You’ve covered Kate Bush twice now. What’s the draw there?
Originally, we started playing “Hounds of Love” in those first couple weeks when we were first forming, because we just needed songs to play. (laughs) Working on covers in our time together was easier, in some respects, than writing songs, because you can only do that so fast. Very early on, that was a very common bond between us. We were all fascinated by her songwriting. She’s very much an inspiration.
Have you had a chance to meet her?
No, no. (laughs) I think that’s a long way off. I’ve never even considered the possibility.
What are some key mistakes that up-and-coming bands should watch out for?
The most important thing is to play music that you’re passionate about and that you love. The worst thing is when you see a band and nobody is that interested in the music that they’re making. You have to love it if you expect anybody else to love it also.
What is the John Pike Memorial Project?
Basically, it would be a network of musicians and songwriters that people could use to further their own projects or ideas, part of that being a lending library — a library of musical instruments people could borrow. The ultimate goal is that there would be recording studios or free places where people could explore their interests. Mainly, it would encourage people to explore their creative energies instead of smothering it before it starts. It’s sort of designed to further the energy John had as a person. He was the type who, if he had an interest in something, he’d go out and read every book about it, explore the subject, learn how to play the instrument. This would allow for that sort of process. If all goes well, something really great could come out of it.