This week, WQHS had a chance to chat with bassist Mat Santos of Ra Ra Riot, who will be playing a free show at WXPN’s World Café Live tomorrow, Friday, February 12 at noon.
WQHS: Can you just give me a quick overview of the band and who you guys are for any readers who aren’t familiar with your music?
MAT SANTOS: We started in 2006 when we were all students at Syracuse University and decided to form a band just to play house parties as something fun to do during our cold semesters at Syracuse. We thought it would be fun to have a bunch of different instruments – didn’t have plans or ambitions, just wanted to have fun and play some music for parties. And last month we just turned 10 – somehow we’ve been doing this for 10 years. Our 4th record is about to come out and we’re very excited. We love making music and listening to music and we love taking all our different musical interests and mashing them together. Something interesting – at least to us – always comes out of it.
WQHS: You guys have been around since 2006 and have had 4 albums, countless tours, performances, and awards. What are some of the highlights from the last 10 years?
MS: Just the fact that we’ve been together for 10 years is something we’re really proud of and that in and of itself is a pretty big highlight for us. But I think the first time we got to go to Japan was another huge highlight – a lofty goal we set for ourselves early on – and we’ve since been back many times. It’s one of our favorite places.
WQHS: Why Japan?
MS: It’s just such a fascinating place – historically and culturally. Wes, our singer, actually studied abroad in Japan in Osaka for about a year and could speak a little Japanese, but we had met lots of other bands too who told us how much fun it was to tour in Japan. And I saw Lost in Translation – that movie made a significant impression on me, so yeah the idea of going to Tokyo was just super appealing and it definitely lived up to every expectation and more.
WQHS: If you could recommend two songs, one that best captures your new synth-pop sound and one that best captures your older sound, what two songs would you choose?
MS: That’s funny – just earlier today Wes and I started listening to our first EP on Spotify – it came out in 2007 and I haven’t heard those songs in 8 years, so listening to those was pretty fun and weird. But I think to pick a song from the early days I would chose “Oh La” from The Rhumb Line – that was a special song to us and the way it came together really symbolized where we were at the time as a band . It’s one we still play almost every show – one of our favorites. For new I have to say “Bouncy Castle” from our soon-to-be-released record. It relates to “Oh La” a little bit – it’s over the top, theatrical, poppy, and very strange but I think we really nailed that one.
WQHS: I know you and Becca collaborated with Cayucas last year on an album, and the band collaborated with Vampire Weekend on the track “Water”. Do you think there might be collaboration between you and either of them in the future?
MS: We’ve known the Vampire Weekend guys forever, and we’ve worked with Rostam a lot over the years and he and Wes made that discovery record together a few years ago. This is the first time we worked with Ros in a strict production sense and it’s something we might look into doing in the future for sure. It’s fun working with people you know and respect a lot – they can get things out of you that other people wouldn’t be able to, and there’s a certain level of comfort for us.
For Cayucas, I played bass on the record and Becca played violin – they wanted musicians to help track and I wanted to help out so I jumped on. That’s something I personally want to do more of – recording with friends of ours, you learn a lot and meet interesting musicians traveling around and touring together. It’s fun to be working with those people and to get a chance to look at music in a new way.
WQHS: Do you have a favorite remix of your own songs?
MS: One that pops into my mind is one that RAC did for “Run My Mouth” off our first record – I’ve always been partial to that one.
WQHS: Is there any single influence (or a few) that has most affected your songwriting style as a band?
MS: It’s hard to pin it down to one thing. I think one of our strengths is that everyone in the band has pretty different tastes musically and that really helps us keep each other on our toes – if we’re feeling stuck someone always has a new ideas. I guess I basically just said “everything.” We really like pop music, the kind of music that a bunch of people want to sing along to together and have that shared experience. I think a lot of the best music tows the line between being straight pop and being experimental and weird.
WQHS: What’s the meaning behind the song “Dying is Fine”?
MS: I wasn’t too closely involved with the lyrics of the song but the chorus is based on an e e cummings poem that is also titled Dying is Fine. I think Wes wrote a lot of those lyrics about John, our original drummer [who drowned early in 2007]. There was another guy early on who left in 2006, and the idea to quote the e e cummings poem was actually his. But as far as the deeper meaning goes, I’m not sure I’m qualified to really answer. I just think it’s sort of that age old reflection on mortality and the great struggle in life and coming to terms with our own mortality. If we enter this bargain of life and living we have to accept the fact that we will also die someday unfortunately. That’s kind of a theme in our music – on one hand it’s fun party music but on the other hand you could say there’s a melancholy or reflective tinge to the lyrics.
WQHS: This is your first US tour in 3+ years, right? What should people expect from your live show?
MS: The most important thing is the music – this is the first time we’ll have a ton of new music to play so we’re really excited about that. We’ve been working hard to make sure these songs translate live and can be played live with a lot of energy. We took a little time off – like you said it’s been a while and it helped us refocus and re-energize. We’re really excited to play all the new stuff.
WQHS: I know you guys incorporate orchestral instruments in some of your songs. What’s the most interesting instrument you guys have ever used in a song?
MS: Early on we had a lot of weird electronic stuff and – again going back to the former member who was only in the band for several months – he had this little Casio that had all these wires and made all these sounds. It was definitely part of our early sounds, and we’re always interested in ways to unlock new textures and tones. We get everything we need pretty much out of the rock foundation: guitar, bass, drums, synths, and then violin and cello and finding ways to combine those simple things.
WQHS: You guys came to Penn for Spring Fling a couple years ago – how was that? Do you have a favorite Philly spot?
MS: Philly’s fun, we always have a fun time in Philly – the crowds are always energetic and down to earth. I gotta say my favorite cheesesteaks are from Jim’s so we try to go there when we’re in the area. There’s the hand pulled noodle place – Nan Zhou on Race Street – we always go there when we’re in Philly. Sometimes we even call in an order so we can pick it up when we’re passing through town. I also love the Barnes Foundation Museum – a very fantastic and unique museum experience. Philly always has good energy.
We played with David Guetta at that Penn show, that was a funny match up. But yeah that show was a lot of fun, and I remember it well.
WQHS: Any last thoughts?
MS: We’re just really excited and super proud of the new record and it feels like in some ways we’re getting back to our roots – doing songs that are fun to play live. So, yeah, we’re excited to get back on the road and have a bunch of new songs to share with everyone.
Catch Ra Ra Riot this Friday at WXPN’s World Café Live for a Free at Noon performance. Their new album, Need Your Light, will be released next Friday (February 19). If you can’t make it out to their free performance this Friday, they play Union Transfer on March 5 as a part of their first US tour in over three years.