Interview: Mat Santos of Ra Ra Riot

Ra Ra Riot

When Ra Ra Riot announced a headlining tour with several major cities and markets on their itinerary, I knew I had to reach out to set up an interview during their local stop to my market, in Washington, DC. I had always enjoyed the stylistics changes that the band had done from album to album, and the growth in lead singer Wes Miles could be heard easily when comparing their original sound, to what came out on their latest record Superbloom. The band graciously granted me an interview with bassist, Mat Santos, to discuss what went into the recording of the latest album as well as some insight on: the band’s formation, Wes’s vocal regimen, and the band’s plans for the future. The interview was conducted in the “green room” backstage at the 9:30 Club in DC, and I truly enjoyed the conversation that Mat and I had that evening.

I’m here with Mat Santos from, Ra Ra Riot prior to their show at the legendary 9:30 Club in Washington DC. Tell me a little bit about how this tour has been going and the crowd reaction to the new material from Superbloom?

Sure, we’re getting to the end of the tour here, only a couple of shows left and we’re kind of in that zone where this is kind of dialed in now. And we designed this tour to finish with what we call our “hometown shows.” Like, Boston, New York and DC. So it’s nice to be wrapping in some of our favorite venues and cities. The tour has been great! It’s actually been our first headlining tour in about three years. And we had toured so much from 2008 to 2013, was kind of non-stop. And really, making this album and taking our time creating Superbloom was great for us. Now, to be back on the road with our fans, it’s been a lot of fun having new songs to play. 

I understand that the first two songs on Superbloom, “Flowers” and “Bad to Worse” were co-written with Rostam (Batmanglij), correct? How did this partnership come about, and how would you describe the songwriting process for these introductory songs?

Our relationship with Rostam goes back pretty far. Our singer, Wes and Rostam, knew of each other even before Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend even existed. So, Wes grew up with Ezra (Koenig), their singer, and Ezra and Rostam were roommates in college, so Wes got to meet Rostam through those interactions. So yeah, we’ve known Rostam for forever. He mixed one of our first songs from our first EP, I think. He’s pretty much credited on each album as either a co-writer, or doing an arrangement. For the last two records it was more where he was fully writing with Wes and he produced those two particular tracks as well. We’ve always been huge fans of his and each time we get a chance to work with him, it’s great. He’s got a really special approach to songwriting and him and Wes have such a great, creative relationship. We have such a great understanding and trust for each other in these sessions, so as close as I am with Wes, Rostam has such great sensibilities, and Wes and Rostam work so great together as well as the rest of us in the band. So yeah, those songs came out of our partnership with Rostam and he really helped us work on some stuff. “Flowers” was actually one that we had floating around for a bit, but never got finished on the other records. Those two songs came out great and they happened to be two of our lead singles. There’s references, or other oblique references, to flowers and imagery on the record, so yeah that kind of went along with the Superbloom album theme. Most of the time, we’re just making songs and we have this collection of songs and then find a way to tie it all together with a theme. For us, it’s never been “let’s write a concept record on space travel,” or something like that <Laughter>. So Superbloom sounded the most appropriate for us, because of the flowery imagery, other songs like “Belladonna” with its travelling log. And we worked with a bunch of producers/mixers in LA who had a background in pop music, and we worked on some of these at Wes’s parents’ house where the sound was very raw and dirty, so we got a bunch of songs with Rostam as well, and we worked with more producers on this record than we ever have before. Maybe eight different producers, and just about that many songwriters, so it sounded like a potpourri of different songs. So really, that’s where the Superbloom concept came from.

What did you each learn about yourselves as songwriters and musicians during the Superbloom sessions? How did this process vary from record to record?

That was one of the most exciting things about working on this record, especially for me and I’m sure my bandmates would agree, these songs were about 90 percent written by the time we got to the studio. So this record was more about the execution of the songs. In the past, we’ve set aside about six weeks to basically live near the studio and record almost every day. This record was different because we were all living in different parts of the country, since some of us are married now or have other life commitments such as a dog. So, we would basically map out who was available each time to record their parts. One time, Kenny (drums) and I would fly in to do the bass and drum tracks, and another time we would meet up with Kieron (Menzies) and Dean (Reid) for some songs. It was really just different. For example, Becca (violinist) would come out and record strings when she was available. Sometimes we didn’t even see each other when we recorded each part. We did some recording parts via Dropbox, like I recorded some bass tracks in my bedroom using Garage Band and some of it actually ended up being used on this record. It was really all over the place. We’ve all been listening to a lot of pop over the years, with the great hooks, and hearing uplifting type of songs where we could subvert some of our own influences into the song. So we were wondering what it would be like to work with some straight up pop producers. And that was really exciting and fun. Some songs, we would just sit down as a band with a legal pad and start calling out parts for a second verse, and we’d yell out some lines. We’re used to laboring over each and every detail in our songs, but this time we worked really fast and it was a really different process for us. Exercising different parts of our brains and being willing to try new things was very important for this record. So really, we didn’t know how each song was going to sound until we got the final mixes back. And that was a really exciting time and it unlocked a lot of new doors for us.

Has that approach changed at all? Like, could you have seen this process working when you first starting out as a band?

Yeah, probably not <Laughter>. We’re really lucky because there isn’t really any ego in the band. Or as Wes would say, there’s a healthy amount of ego.  We all started this when we were 20-22 years old and it was all about figuring out what was going to work for us (as a band) and what type of music we wanted to make. We wanted to be successful, but we were afraid to fully embrace the pop side of music.

Yeah, sometimes there can be a “stigma” surrounding pop music…

Yeah, but when you get older, and you start to figure out what you cut your teeth to, you figure out a lot of stuff on your own. In the end, if you’re able to do this long enough to be successful then other avenues open up where you can try different styles. We’re always in new ways to achieve things and you start to realize why these amazing pop records sound the way they do. It’s because they were mad by people who know what they’re doing. So yeah, we got here in a pretty natural progression for us. We’ve been a band now for almost 14 years now. It’s given us a lot of time to get to know each other and grow as well.

You recently conducted a celebratory tour for the Rhumb Line album, as well as a vinyl reissue of the record. Do you expect to do more “anniversary” type of shows as you get to different milestones in your career?

That’s a good question, because with the whole Rhumb Line shows it was something that kind of snuck up on us. Our manager said at the time of the anniversary, “what’s the plan for next year? You know, next year will be the 10th year anniversary of that record…” And that kind of blew our minds. We wanted to do something special for that album, and we just did this small tour of about five shows in selected markets, and they all sold out. It was a great vibe in each of those cities and it gave us a moment to pause and realize people really care about these songs. I don’t know if we’ll do an Orchard tour or just a vinyl reissue in 2020.

Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to fit a full record into a setlist, or you have grown apart from those styles, and a full tour doesn’t always work out.

Yeah, it’s a little ways away, but it might be nice to do a remastering of the record and a small reissue on vinyl. As far as a tour around that, I’m not going to rule it out, we’ll just have to see what we’re up to.

Your new album features some great pop hooks and some impressive falsetto! Can you provide a little more insight as to why Wes does so much falsetto and when he “picks his spots” to do that vocal approach?

Wes is obviously a very talented vocalist with an incredible range. It’s funny, because when we started the band, we were like, “wow, he can sing really high.” And when we went back to listen to the Rhumb Line record to prepare for the anniversary tour, which is something I don’t do too often of going back to past recordings, we were kind of taken back by how much deeper his voice sounded.  <Laughter> He’s been strengthening his vocals over the years, and I know he grew up listening to Robert Plant and Kate Bush, and other female vocalists in general. So yeah, he learned to sing by emulating some of these artists, and finding a way to use falsetto in the perfect moments to make it really jump out. In 2011, we had an unfortunate thing where we had to cancel a bunch of shows because Wes lost his voice completely. It really freaked everyone out, but especially him. He was getting steroid shots and seeing doctors almost every day where they said, “if you try to sing tonight, you could permanently damage your vocal chords.” And that was really a wake up call for him, where to his credit, he turned this into a great learning experience. He went to see some great vocal coaches, and got really serious about his voice, especially while he was on tour. For example, his touring regimen is: no caffeine, no alcohol, no smoking, no acidic foods, he can’t eat three hours before bed, he can’t eat three hours before he sings, and he has a 20-minute vocal warm-up now. But, to his credit, he really sticks to it because his voice is really his whole life and career. He takes it really seriously, and not only does it protect him from future problems, but also grow a lot. He grows his “instrument” with each and every album we’ve done.

What do you feel Ra Ra Riot’s greatest strengths are as a band? 

Well, I think it’s really the fact that none of us were friends before starting out the band. It can be an easy trap to fall into when creating a band, because if you’re with friends, you’re likely going to end up sounding like the bands you already listen to. So, the way our band is assembled, with friends of friends, and musicians we got to know through these connections, we all met at our first rehearsal. So, we got to know each other and figured out what each person was good at and the instrument they play. We had just a total mix of people with different musical backgrounds, or had studied different things, and that really helped us from the beginning. We just really needed to bring different things to the table, and was cool how a great group of strangers could work so well together for such a long period of time. We’ve been through all of the ups and downs together, and it’s been a perfect blend of personalities that make up our band.

What are some things fans might be surprised to hear about, such as things you each work on to improve as artists?

Wes’s voice regimen will be the one thing fans will be surprised to hear, but yeah, anything good comes from a lot of practice. Each of us still practice daily to keep sharp and challenge ourselves. It’s obviously fun for us to do this, but at the same time we all take it very seriously as a job.

I recently wrote about Superbloom for Chorus and the one thing I keep coming back to on this record are subtle nods to the past, such as some hints of Fleetwood Mac, U2, etc.  For example a song like “Call Me Out” from your last album reminded me of the power pop of Journey. What influences do each of you bring to this band?

We are all pretty different in our backgrounds, but we’re all 80’s kids so we grew up with that kind of anthemic, really uplifting pop music such as Genesis, U2, Kate Bush like I mentioned earlier, and all of that kind of stuff. And yeah, even though at the end of the day, the undeniable power of pop music is very real. I’ll never forget the first time I saw U2 with 20,000 people singing along to their songs, and teenagers like me at the time were very impressionable onto these memories. I also grew up with a lot of metalcore and punk music too at the time, not that those elements really come through in this band. So really, some new wave and post-punk too, similar to Wes’s background. But really we all have a lot of influences from across the board, and for this record we were all listening to a bunch of 70’s records at the time, like Doobie Brothers. Tight harmonies, some acoustic guitars and contemporary elements mixed in as well for this album.

Yeah, you did have some experimental songs such as “A Check For Daniel” which to me sounds like an homage to a band like DEVO.

Yeah, absolutely!

Last question before you hit the stage tonight: What can fans expect after this tour wraps up, such as studio plans for 2020, or do you still plan to do even more support of this record?

That’s what we’re wondering ourselves, too, honestly. Because after this tour wraps up, we’ll be back home, and then we’ll be heading to Europe for a little bit. That will wrap up the year, but we’re wondering if we do another headlining tour for this record or do a key support slot for someone else in the spring.  But yeah, we definitely don’t plan to just sit around much at all. We took a brief hiatus before this record, and we want to keep the momentum going and making some new music as well. We’re also thinking about the festivals that come up next year too. After the Europe tour, we’re going to see where we’re all at.

Sounds great, and I look forward to seeing your live show tonight. Best wishes for the future too and it was a pleasure speaking with you today, Mat.

Thanks for doing this, we appreciate it!

Author Notes

Ra Ra Riot have always been capable of creating great rock music with pop hooks and I know the future is incredibly bright for this young band. After reflecting on the interview and seeing their live performance afterwards, I couldn’t help but leave the show with a smile and good vibes all around. The band’s high-energy live show encapsulated everything I love about this band, and they are surely capable of creating the sound heard on their records live, but with even more personality. Ra Ra Riot are on to big things, and I look forward to their next steps.