A few weeks before their show in New York City, Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot chatted with PopMatters about the new album, Beta Love, and all it represents. The band is now a quartet, embracing a synth-pop sound that might seem incongruous to the fans that know them only for 2008’s The Rhumb Line and 2010’s The Orchard. Electronica is now a part of the mix where chamber or baroque indie prevailed, and a collaborative group ethic permeates the recording process. When asked how fans are reacting to the new songs after a few dates into the tour, Miles emphatically stated, “It’s been great.”
Miles (now living in Brooklyn, New York) is a Jersey boy, growing up in a musical family that encouraged lessons for a long list of instruments, beginning with piano at age five, before switching to drums, saxophone, and bass. Throughout that time, he was always singing – not in the formal sense of a choir, more like belting it out while cutting the lawn in headphones. When Miles went off to Syracuse University, it was to study physics, but the one music class he did take was tellingly electronic music. It was also there that he met up with Ra Ra Riot’s guitarist Milo Bonacci and violinist Rebecca Zeller, who took this very same class the following year.
His early musical project, Discovery, allowed Miles to explore this interest in electropop, along with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and Ezra Koenig. These songs were released in 2009, but actually predate the formation of Ra Ra Riot in 2006 (The self-titled debut album includes a tricked out version of Ra Ra Riot’s later tune, “Can You Discover?”). Miles was introduced to Batmanglij through Koenig, who had played in the same high school bands back in New Jersey. Yet within the comfort zone of a college support system, Ra Ra Riot quickly went from playing gigs on campus to New York City’s CMJ Music Marathon as well as opening slots for Art Brut and Tokyo Police Club. Their complex, contrapuntal indie music and raucous live shows found a devoted following through three EPs and two well received full lengths.
The departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn last year brought on a decision to move into the indietronica direction, and the promise of plenty of new gadgets put to use in the studio. It took a few meetings with different producers before finding Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Waaves), who works out of Sweet Tea Recording Studio in Oxford, Mississippi. Miles joined Herring a couple of weeks before the rest of the group, only bringing a few early demos and a Casio keyboard. On older albums, the band knew exactly every note that would be played before entering the studio, but now new songs evolved on site.
Miles is proud of the lyrics on the album, espousing easily about the influences with mouthfuls such as technological singularity and trans humanism. Bass player Mathieu Santos gave him books on the subject, sparking that love of all things scientific with Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near. The fast paced song “Binary Mind” is about Kurzweil’s theory that computers and humans will merge and be indistinguishable. It turns out that Kurzweil’s hope was to bring his own father back to life, a life/death story that the band can easily relate to after dealing with the 2007 death of their original drummer, John Pike.
Miles explained that it was not a conscious decision to begin the new album Beta Love with “Dance With Me”, which offers a reason to get up and move similar to late night parties back in college. The opening chords were more the motive, while his vocals call out a warning shot of what’s to come. The punchy “Beta Love” provides a robust single, for anyone interested in toe dipping into the new collection of songs. From the blue-eyed soul and finger snapping of “When I Dream” to the auto tuning and studio manipulations of “What I Do For You,” Miles expands his vocal stylings into uncharted territory for the band.
When he appeared on stage at Webster Hall in New York City with his band for a sold out show just days after the record’s release, the early set list successfully mixed up the old with the new. The Rhumb Line’s “Shadowcasting” led into Beta Love’s “Binary Mind” and back to The Rhumb Line’s “Oh La”. The single “Beta Love” received a warm reception, as movement permeated the crowd. “Angel Please” followed, a new tune that’s classic Ra Ra Riot with its up tempo counter melodies. The Orchard’s “Too Dramatic” got the fans singing along with fists pumping, while the return to Beta Love’s opening track, “Dance With Me”, kept the energy going amid colorful streams of light on stage. The new songs lost the sheen of produced tracks and found a soulful center within the band’s live performance.
Flanked by the remaining original, along with new touring band members, Miles thanked the crowd for coming out on that snowy night. He politely asked if everyone was having a good time but then added how he hoped that they had a chance to listen to the new record—if not once, a few times. Miles seemed to enjoy his frontman duties, his slight build dancing around the stage until his dress shirt was rumpled while engaging with everyone on stage and off. His lyrical tenor rang out through the venue with a heart-on-the-sleeve intensity. He’d thump his chest with his fist or point a finger to the crowd, creating a connection to the words. At one point, the microphone cord sailed in a jaunty flip over his shoulder, to get his hands free to play the keyboards. Miles also played tambourine on a few songs like an earnest troubadour, placing it on his head of sandy curls if he’d rather clap along.
After the frenzy that is the 2010 popular single “Boy”, Miles left the stage with a cheery wave before the band returned for the encore. “St. Peters Festival” led into “Dying Is Fine”, before an extended version of “Ghosts on the Rocks”. Miles made his way across the front of the stage, enthusiastically dolling out high fives to the first few rows of fans. He climbed up on the drum kit to land a split legged leap and breathlessly told everyone with a huge smile how, “If you can’t tell, we’re having a great time.” Even though that was completely obvious, the evening ended with more timeless frontman duties. Miles thanked the audience one more time and reminded them of the band’s name before walking away.