Loss influences Ra Ra Riot

Band's CD 'The Rhumb Line' balances sadness over original drummer's death with happiness over life and love

December 11, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

After the original drummer was found dead in the ocean, the music didn't change much.

The members of the indie rock band Ra Ra Riot were just about to record their debut album when John Pike went missing in the early morning of June 2, 2007, at Wilbur's Point in Fairhaven, Mass. His body was discovered the next day in nearby Buzzards Bay.

The tragedy nearly overwhelmed the six-piece band, which had formed barely a year before Pike died. But still, the group entered the studio. The Rhumb Line, the resulting album, balances the sadness hovering over the sessions with a sometimes-twee outlook on love and life.

"That balance between the melancholy and happy, the simple and the grand - these were things we had been interested in for a long time. We had been intrigued by that balance before the tragedy," says the band's guitarist, Milo Bonacci. He and the rest of Ra Ra Riot (Alexandra Lawn on cello and vocals, Wesley Miles on keyboards and vocals, Mathieu Santos on bass, Rebecca Zeller on violin and Gabriel Duquette on drums) play the Ottobar on Tuesday night.

"The songs had been worked on with John," Bonacci says. "When it came time to record, it wasn't like we were starting from scratch. John had written songs with us and had been so involved. He was still involved even after he was gone."

Released in August, The Rhumb Line ripples with nautical and death imagery, evoking at times a haunted town by the sea. In fact, the album title takes its name from a bar close to Pike's home in Gloucester, Mass. But the music, buoyant with airy melodies, doesn't feel too funereal.

The sense of doom and bitterness typically found in indie rock is supplanted by a touch of sweetness in the music of Ra Ra Riot. This is mostly provided by Miles' thin but attractive lead tenor, which seems to lighten even the most elegiac lyrics. Also, the presence of the clean, sweeping cello and violin lines brightens the music.

"It's very democratic, a communal process," Bonacci says of the band's working relationship. "Somebody may introduce an idea, but everybody develops an idea. And we come up with a refined structure. Sometimes it happens quickly or we put a song on the back burner for a few months. But everybody is involved."

Ra Ra Riot formed in 2006 on the campus of Syracuse University, where the members were students. Less than six months after the band gelled, the group secured a spot at the CMJ Music Marathon. The appearance garnered praise from the rock press, particularly on SPIN.com, which called Ra Ra Riot "one of the best young bands we've heard in a really long time." The group soon started opening for acts such as Art Brut and Bow Wow Wow and toured the United Kingdom twice before signing to Barsuk Records in May.

"It does feel like it all happened so quickly," says Bonacci, who spoke last week from a tour stop in Albany, N.Y.

"Sometimes it feels like forever," he said. "After CMJ, suddenly there were people who showed interest in us. That made us reevaluate our situation: Maybe we can do this full time. We had to figure out how we would pay our student loans and do this full-time. We've been touring nonstop. Some of us live with our parents when we have free time, but we don't have much free time."

The Rhumb Line is a refreshingly assured first effort from the band, especially given the tragic circumstances under which it was recorded. The group's penchant for balancing heartbreak with effervescence is strongest on such cuts as "Ghost Under Rocks" and "St. Peter's Day Festival," on which Miles addresses Pike's passing.

He sings, "If I go to Gloucester, I will wait there for you."

Although its title would suggest otherwise, "Dying Is Fine" is one of the more optimistic tracks on the album. A few of its lyrics come from an e.e. cummings' poem: "Dying is fine/But maybe I wouldn't like death ... even if death were good."

"I can tell a difference between the songs we played in college and afterward," Bonacci says. "The songs then were more energetic because we were playing house parties. But when we made the album, there was a shift in context. It was more intimate. It had more to do with our artistic curiosities and less to do with getting people riled up at a party."

The band's rapid maturation will be heard on the next project.

"We're still touring a lot," Bonacci says. "But on the next album I'm sure the changes will be clear."

if you go

See Ra Ra Riot at 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Ottobar, 2549 N. Howard St. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 the day of the show and are available through missiontix.com or by calling 410-662-0069.

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