Ra Ra Riot thrust itself upon the Syracuse, N.Y., music scene as somewhat of an anomaly. The indie-rock group formed over winter break and lined up a show at a Syracuse University architecture ball in January 2006 before it had even gathered together for a single practice, violinist Rebecca Zeller said.
“A lot of the first record were songs written the first few practices,” she said. “For me personally, I’m still playing the violin parts that, as a musician, were the first things I’d ever written in my entire life.”
Other contributors include guitarist Milo Bonacci, cellist/vocalist Alexandra Lawn, keyboardist/vocalist Wesley Miles, bassist Mathieu Santos and drummer Gabriel Duquette.
After a few local shows, a buzz started to grow, and soon, the group’s music was captivating national listeners. The audience spread to include new fans who read critical praises in Spin and Rolling Stone.
On “The Rhumb Line,” its debut album, Ra Ra Riot wholeheartedly infects listeners with swelling melodies, rhythmically driven and accentuated by cellos and violins.
During the first few basement practices, Zeller said the songs coalesced out of collaboration.
“We could play it straightforward as that and just tweak some parts,” she said. “Or someone will just bring a chord progression in, and we kind of dig into that and add some parts to it.”
Disagreements occasionally arise among the members, but Zeller said the band’s temperament is “peachy” at the moment.
“Whether you’re in a band or not, the friendship goes through phases,” she said. “There will be times when you see eye-to-eye on everything. There will be times when you don’t see eye-to-eye on anything at all.”
Ra Ra Riot has celebrated quite a bit of critical and audience acclaim in recent years, but Zeller is quick to put the praise in perspective.
“It’s hard to see it as this huge success,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like we arrived at all. We’re so thrilled things are going the way they are and that we’re in fact able to not have to work day jobs. It’s the best possible thing. It’s just so much fun.”
Fun, however, doesn’t pay the bills.
“For as well as people say we’re doing, we can’t support a lifestyle of our own,” she said. “One of the goals would be to have apartments to live in. It’s hard to say that we’ve made it when I can’t really support myself living on my own.”
Tragedy struck the band in June 2007, when its original drummer, John Pike, drowned. In his memory, Pike’s family began the John Ryan Pike Memorial Project, an organization that donates musical instruments to children without them.
The band members soldiered on by still performing, wearing Pike on their sleeves as he wrote a good sum of the songs on “The Rhumb Line,” an album that triumphs musically, overcoming the listener with a sense of recovery from emotional trauma.
For the next album, Zeller said the band will bring more of the same.
“I’m not sure how to slap a name on what direction we’re going in, but I think we’re definitely growing as songwriters,” she said. “There’s obviously a growth. It’s not a change at all. It’s definitely doing what we do, but better.” “Bryan Mangieri