It’s 5:30 p.m. on a frigid Thursday in Manhattan, and the members of Ra Ra Riot are standing in a cleared-out practice space on West 55th Street. Wes Miles, the band’s singer and keyboardist, in a light green sweatshirt, is holding a large white sheet of paper with several song titles scrawled in permanent marker, full of cues for the band’s gig the following night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. His eyes are bloodshot, but he takes a seat at a card table with bassist Mathieu Santos to discuss the band’s progress on the follow-up to their debut, The Rhumb Line, an indie hit full of eerie, violin-seeped pop melodies that Rolling Stone named one of the top records of 2008.
The six-piece band, who formed at Syracuse University in 2006, say their second disc should arrive this summer. The as-yet-untitled LP started to come together when the band migrated to a peach farm in the small town of Penn-Yan, New York, last summer, where they spun plenty of Genesis, Elton John and Beatles solo records (especially Wings). “I think there’s definitely more Seventies influence on this album,” says Miles. The disc has more synths than its predecessor, but “It’s darker in some places for sure. That wasn’t really the intent, it just came out that way.” The group made use of its pastoral setting: Miles says everyone regularly ventured into the rural landscape and ate often peaches straight off the tree.
While The Rhumb Line was recorded in 20 days, the band has already logged five weeks of studio time on the new album and teamed up with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, who collaborated with Miles in the group Discovery in 2008. “We had some ideas left over and we showed it to the band,” he explains. “This one in particular was well received. It sounds like another version of Ra Ra Riot.”
The most surprising new track RS previewed is a dark, untitled waltz sung by cellist Alexandra Lawn that builds slowly on an ominous keyboard progression. Lawn cries her haunting lover’s plea, “Don’t leave a note” and the song descends into a chaotic, reverb-soaked guitar solo. “Too Dramatic,” a song the band has been road-testing for a year, has single potential with its punchy, harmonious hook and spastic drums. Santos describes the strings-driven “Black Monk” as “very brooding, very uneasy,” and Miles says “Massachusetts” is “a very groove-based textural vocal song.”
“I think on the first album it was a lot of just everyone playing their instruments all the time,” Santos says. “The first album is easy. Make whatever you want and throw it out there. This is kind of the first time thinking about expectations, whatever they are. We were definitely thinking about it.”