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Artists to Watch: Ra Ra Riot

After a tragic loss, New York whiz kids cook up winning set of triumphant chamber pop

RA RA RIOT, Alexandra Lawn, Mathieu Santos, Wesley Miles, Rebecca Zeller

RA RA RIOT; L-R: Alexandra Lawn, Mathieu Santos, Wesley Miles, Rebecca Zeller at the Indian Summer festival in Victoria Park, Glasgow on July 13th, 2007.

(Photo by Ross Gilmore/Redferns)

In his fourth year in college, Milo Bonacci had a tough choice to make: He could continue as the guitarist of Gym Class Heroes (which he formed with his childhood friend Travis McCoy), who were on the verge of a major-label contract, or he could head to Florence to study Italian architecture. In the end, Bonacci chose Roman­esque basilicas over one-night stands with groupies. “I left knowing things were going to take off with Gym Class Heroes,” says Bonacci, who hasn’t stayed in touch with McCoy. “But I needed to finish what I was doing.”

These days, Bonacci is beginning his musical second act with a band that sounds nothing like Gym Class Heroes’ emo rap. He’s the guitarist of Ra Ra Riot, five clean-cut collegiate brainiacs (ranging in age from 22 to 25) who have created one of the best indie-rock debuts of the year. After returning to the States, Bonacci teamed up with a crew of his Syracuse University pals in 2006 who shared similarly nerdy academic pursuits. Bassist Mathieu San­tos studied painting, violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn are clas­sical-trained musicians, and singer Wesley Miles majored in physics. You can hear the tuition money at work on The Rhumb Line, 10 chamber-pop gems that quote poet E.E. Cummings (“Dying Is Fine”) and feature sophisticated string arrangements. Another highlight: a circus-punk cover of Kate Bush’s “Suspended in Gaffa.”

On a summer night at Zeller’s Brooklyn apartment, the group celebrates the release of its record with a bottle of Chianti and Bonacci’s homemade spaghetti marinara. The band’s rise —— in a short time, it has signed to Death Cab for Cutie’s original label, Barsuk, and played shows with Vampire Weekend —— is bittersweet. Ra Ra Riot’s original drummer, John Pike, was found dead, floating in the ocean near Fairhaven, Massachusetts, in June 2007. (Police are still inves­tigating the circumstances of his death.) “It’s surreal,” says Bonacci of the loss. “We are all still dealing with it and think about it every day.”

But the death has brought the band members closer: They only decided to keep going after getting the blessing from Pike’s relatives. “There’s a real family tie here,” says Zeller. “We’re completely collaborative,” adds Miles. Every­one nods in agreement. In fact, the group is so in sync that even the smallest arguments upset its equi­librium. “Instead of fight­ing, we just sort of become introverted,” says Bonacci. “But we don’t need to talk about that. We’re eating dinner.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, Ra Ra Riot

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