The name Ra Ra Riot wasn't supposed to stick. When the band first got together during a semester at Syracuse University, they needed a moniker to put on posters around campus. A friend thought up Ra Ra Riot but had no band at the time. According to bass player Mathieu Santos, they intended only to borrow it but ended up keeping it. "We thought it sounded pretty cool," he says. "It had the rah rah effect, like a group sing-along, and the riot aspect, which made you think of a rowdy house party."
Those four syllables suggest an onomatopoeic description of the band's music, which features dramatic strings, inventive hooks, and insistent tempos. Drawing from power and chamber pop as well as from indie rock, Ra Ra Riot obviously draw from bands like Phoenix and Death Cab for Cutie (with whom they are touring), and they obviously share similarities with younger, Internet-hyped groups like Cold War Kids (with whom they're also touring) and Tokyo Police Club (with whom they've toured in the past), but the songs on the band's full-length debut, The Rhumb Line (named for the path a ship takes to maintain constant compass direction), are complex and excitable enough to distinguish Ra Ra Riot from their peers.
"When we formed the band, we didn't have any objectives of what we wanted the music to sound like," Santos says. "We just knew that it was supposed to sound fun and energetic."
Not only did they not have any ideas about the direction they wanted to take, most of the band members didn't even know each other before their first rehearsal. Guitarist Milo Bonacci sent blind e-mails to other students, some of whom he knew from the Syracuse scene and others he knew from classes. The string section — cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller — had no non-classical experience whatsoever.
"No one had any expectations," Santos says. "Working that way made it easier to just go for it and not have any preconceived ideas of what you want it to sound like."
As a result, the music sounds organic and democratic. Bonacci's guitar adds texture and takes lead only when necessary, and the two-woman string section sounds, surprisingly, as essential as the rhythm section, their parts integral to the songs rather than added after the fact.
Despite having no expectations and what was supposed to be only a temporary name, Ra Ra Riot embarked on their first tour (solely to test the waters, according to Santos), played the CMJ fest in New York City, and self-released an EP a few months after forming. They signed with Seattle-based Barsuk Records (Death Cab's former label) and set about making their debut album. In the meantime, the group was feverishly championed online but has managed to avoid the pejorative "blog rock" label and the often concurrent backlash.
"Once we started to get the idea that we might be able to do something with this," Santos recalls, "we were focused on setting it up so that we would have more of a career. We've been more focused on touring as much as possible to build up a strong fan base."
Beneath Ra Ra Riot's spirited pop music lies a tragedy that almost ended the band. In June 2007, drummer Jon Pike mysteriously drowned after a show in Providence, Rhode Island. It was, of course, a blow to the band: Pike was not only one of the six who introduced themselves at that first rehearsal, he was a guiding presence in the band, co-writing much of The Rhumb Line and adding the ra ra to the riot with his propulsive drumming.
"When it first happened, obviously we didn't think of the band at all for several weeks, because everyone was in complete shock," Santos says. "We were still so young as a band at that point. At the same time, there was a universal realization among all of us that continuing was the only thing that made sense. To have the band stop would be another part of Jon that would be gone too."
Fortunately, this tragedy has not sapped The Rhumb Line (which Pike had helped to record) of its exuberance and joy. Unlike the catalogs of Jeff Buckley or Elliott Smith — two other musicians who died young — Ra Ra Riot's songs do not take on extra import in light of Pike's death. Even a song like "Dying Is Fine" — one of the band's earliest compositions — reads like a young man's ruminations on mortality rather than a product of direct experience with death, thanks to lyrics borrowed from e.e. cummings as well as to its insistent, intuitive hook. These are serious songs about self-doubt and self-reckoning, but their celebratory spirit has already proven durable.
Ra Ra Riot
With Death Cab for Cutie and Cold War Kids
Saturday, April 11th
Showtime is 7:30 p.m.; tickets, $30