XPoNential Music Festival Artist Interview: Ra Ra Riot’s Alexandra Lawn
Ra Ra Riot has survived a lot since forming at Syracuse University in 2006. Early on, the band weathered the sudden death of John Pike, the drummer and an integral part of Ra Ra Riot’s songwriting team. Despite the tragedy, RRR (as they’re known to fans) soldiered on to record a stunning follow-up their 2008 debut The Rhumb Line. Written in a peach orchard—far from the noise and chaos of city life—The Orchard is a quieter take on their soaring orchestral pop that manages to preserve the immediacy and urgency of their debut. Prior to Ra Ra Riot’s performance at XPoNential Music Festival (at 2:10 p.m. Sunday, July 24th), The Key spoke to cellist Alexandra Lawn about playing a stringed instrument in an indie-rock band, the perils of performing at house parties, and Chekhov.
The Key: What is it like being a string player in an indie-rock band? How did you have to adapt your playing style?
Alexandra Lawn: It was definitely different at first, being in a band and not doing typically what we do with our instruments. Becca and I were both classically trained up until the band started and a lot of that is reading music that is put in front of you. The creative interpretation that you’re allowed to put in can only go so far. To be in the kind of environment where you write a part was very different, and unique to us. So we were really excited to be put up to that. It took a while to get used to it, but definitely opened up doors and musically was awesome for both of us.
TK: How is Ra Ra Riot different from other indie bands that have string players?
AL: When we write songs we tend to incorporate the violin and cello like any other instrument in a typical rock band. They have a part, depending on the song, something can be arranged around them or they can be arranged around something else. But they’re never added as a post-production kind of thing.
TK: So the strings are an integral part of the band as opposed to just an add-on.
AL: Yeah, they’re another voice that’s part of the band.
TK: Ra Ra Riot started out playing house parties. How is that particular environment a challenge for a string player?
AL: That was when we figured out that we couldn’t really play our good instruments. It gets a little too raucous. That’s actually what led us to playing electric instruments and experimenting with that kind of thing.
TK: Do you play electric instruments on the records?
AL: No, we play our real instruments on the records. Becca plays an acoustic violin that has a pickup and I play an electric cello.
TK: Where did the title for the first record come from, and how did you come up with the title for the second?
AL: Well, The Rhumb Line was part of some lyrics that John, our drummer who passed, had written for the song “St. Peter’s Day Festival.” In the song it referenced a bar in Gloucester, MA. We were just really interested and intrigued by the actual definition of it, and felt that it portrayed what the album stood for.
TK: What is the actual definition?
AL: It’s a nautical term. A navigational term. It’s a line on a sphere that cuts all the radians at the same angle. It’s a path taken by a ship or plane to maintain the constant compass direction.
TK: And The Orchard was written in an orchard?
AL: Everything was written at an orchard, but everything was recorded at a studio in upstate New York.
TK: Is the title purely about where the songs were written or is it also symbolic?
AL: It holds some symbolism, in the sense that, of where that album was written, where we were at as a band. It was a beautiful time in our lives creatively and as people. And also Wes had been reading from Chekhov, and one of the stories he had been reading was about an orchard, and I think that particular story really inspired him, so I think that played a role in it.
TK: How do you think writing the songs there influenced the direction the album eventually took?
AL: We gave ourselves a lot of time to really to do things we wanted to do creatively. That’s why we self-produced it and kind of just babied it all the way. I think there’s a mellower, more thoughtful approach in some ways. We were cooking a lot and eating a lot of peaches and spending time outside, and working every day, and just giving ourselves the luxury of time, which is not something that we frequently have.
TK: It sounds like you were also pretty isolated there.
AL: Yeah, we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But it wasn’t so far that you couldn’t drive 20 minutes and find civilization.
TK: You mentioned Ra Ra Riot’s original drummer, John Pike, who passed away while the band was still in its early years. How did that affect the rest of the band, and how did you decide to stay together after that happened?
AL: In some ways, you never really know, but as a band it affected us in countless ways and still does. As someone who wrote music with us and was part of our family and so dear to us. I think staying in the band was a very healing alternative to not being in the band and not playing the music that we made with him and that he made. It feels special to still be a part of that and even in the songs that we write now, I think a lot of thought by each individual: what would John do to this? It’s just present and it’s special.
TK: You get compared to Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend a lot. Do you think those comparisons are apt? Who would you compare your sound to?
AL: I mean, certainly I’m not ashamed to be compared to either of those bands, you know? They’re both fantastic. I think the Arcade Fire comparison is a bit lazy because people see strings and kind of put two and two together. You know, they have a lot of members and we do, too. I don’t think sonically we sound too much alike. But again, that is fine, being compared to them. And as far as Vampire Weekend goes, Ezra and Wes grew up together, so I think a lot of what influences them, there’s definitely certain things that are the same. I don’t hear the similarities between the bands. I mean, I know they use strings in some songs, and yeah. I don’t know why people think that.
TK: How would you describe Ra Ra Riot’s sound?
AL: I think we really try to kick it back to classic pop music, that’s interesting and catchy. You end up leaving with a song in your head. That can be something like the Beatles, The Police, or U2. It’s just solid old pop music.
TK: Where is Ra Ra Riot headed? What are you working on now?
AL: Well, we’re kind of taking it easy right now and having a real summer. Actually, I don’t even know what to do with myself with all this time. We’re writing music individually and together. There’s no concrete plan as to when the next album’s coming out but we’re starting to put that together. We’re playing a lot of shows at festivals and cool tours that we’re going to be a part of and also headlining. That’ll kick in in a few weeks, so yeah, we’ll see where that goes.
Ra Ra Riot will be performing at the XPoNential Music Festival along with artists such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Givers, Sun Airway, Other Lives, and many others. The festival will be taking place July 22-24th at Wiggins Park in Camden, NJ. Tickets are available here.