Alyssa caught up with bassist Mathieu Santos of Ra Ra Riot during their tour in support of their newest LP, The Orchard and talked production, pigeonholing and the sophomore curse. Read Alyssa's review of The Orchard here.
by Alyssa Meza
UR: Traditionally there is a lot of pressure with a band’s sophomore album to produce something as good or better than the first, especially with a quote “buzz band” like yourselves. Did you feel any of that pressure when making The Orchard?
Mathieu Santos: I think we felt pretty comfortable. I feel like our first album was successful enough to warrant a second album, but not a big enough success where we had too much of a burden of expectation. Plus when we were making this album we self-produced it and I think we felt like we had a lot more freedom than we did on the first album. Once we got started we did not worry too much about it being too much different than the first album. I don’t think it occurred to us until after that it was different. I don’t think it hindered us at all. We were just excited to be working on stuff.
How was the process of self-producing your own album?
It went really smoothly. We had been touring the first album relentlessly for about three years. When it was finally time to work on new songs, for really the first time in our career, because the first album was a collection of whatever songs we had in our repertoire. So when it came time to write the second album it was the first chance to write a whole new batch of songs all together, which was very exiting. Once we made the decision to produce it ourselves we all got really excited to have that freedom to follow our instincts and to make all the decisions ourselves. We just started the album and it was just a really fun time. Overall it was really collaborative and I feel like everyone really moved out of their comfort zone on the album, particularly once we got into the studio and just started recording. That was the best part. I think everyone felt really comfortable and in control the whole time. We did not have to answer to anybody except ourselves.
I heard this album was crafted at a peach orchard in upstate New York, is that true?
The album on the front cover is the picture of the house where we worked on the album. We lived there for about a month or so. That is where we wrote and arranged. We set up a makeshift studio where we made a bunch of demos before we went into the studio.
Do you think the isolation of that setting had an influence on the album?
It’s an interesting thing because it always kind of happens by coincidence, that we end rehearsing or writing in a rural place. A lot of times we rehearse at Wes’s parents house in the country in New Jersey. We have spent a lot of time there these past few years. We recorded the first album in an old farm. And the second album we were looking for a place to write and rehearse and stuff and this house was made available to us by a friend. So it just sort of worked out. It is never like an intentional thing, but once we are in these environments we can just sort of focus and relax. It really just helps a lot. We all basically live in New York City now and rehearsing and trying to do anything productive in New York City is so stressful and frustrating a lot of the times. We find that once we get out to these nice rural areas it is just so quiet and you can actually have time to think and focus and develop ideas. It's kind of a cliché but there is no distraction, no noise and you can just get to the music. I think a lot of these new songs have more space than the old songs and I think that may be a product of the environment that we wrote the songs in. The songs feel a little roomier to me. There are times when someone will drop out and leave this space there, which is something we do not do too often. On the first album everyone was playing all the time and on this album we were learning to be quiet and sort of choosing our spots to play more carefully.
Critics have been saying this album is very stylistically different than your first album. Do you not want to be pigeonholed?
I think whenever it's time to write new songs you never try to think too much about what people will think about it. At the same time it’s important to consider the context that you are writing. I think one thing we did not want to do on this album is that we did not want to make a quote “indie rock” album, which might sound funny coming from us. We wanted to make a classic pop album. We did not want to have as many disco beats or stuff like that. Since we wrote the first album we have all changed a lot, listening to new things and evolving as musicians and writers. I think we wanted to indulge all of our new interests.
Is it more of a mature sound?
I guess so. A lot of people have said that to me who are close to the band. I guess I could believe that. As I was saying the first album was mostly a collection of songs we had up to that point and most of those we had wrote in college band playing house parties. So the DNA of the first album has a lot of house party, more dancey kind of vibe. So I guess the album is more mature in some way.
Indulging what new interests?
We were listening to a lot of 70s music, like 70s pop. I think we listened to a lot of Wings and Beatles and Hall and Oates, Fleetwood Mac and stuff like that. I feel like the first album was more 80s influenced. It’s definitely very varied inspiration.
I heard you did a very stripped down set at a comic store. Do you like doing bare-bones shows like that?
It was definitely really fun. Just last night we were in Boston and we did a little acoustic set at Newberry Comics. Just this morning we did a stripped down thing at a radio station and we are going to be doing a lot of them on this tour. It’s definitely fun. It’s fun for a lot of reasons. First, because the settings are more intimate. It has more of a campfire vibe as opposed to a loud rock show where we are far away. It’s fun because we are down on the floor with the fans. It’s a small crowd and we get to play quietly which is exciting to us. We can hear each other a lot better. It’s fun to hear the songs in a different context. Different things come through particularly there being no drums. It’s the biggest difference. The drums are a huge part of our music of course, but not having them is nice because it lets a lot of the other elements open up. It's fun to present songs in a different way. People always say they enjoy hearing the songs like that. They notice parts that they might not have otherwise.
How did you feel about the end result of your second album?
I think we were all extremely proud of it. It was a little scary at first because I think when we decided to make it ourselves a lot of our friends and family were saying “Oh can you guys do it? Are you sure?” We did not even know if we could do it, but we just knew that we wanted to try it, and it was a good thing for us to do at the time. Once we started on it we got more and more confident. I think the most exciting part is after you are done you can sit down and listen to the whole album all the way through for the first time. When we did that we were all very excited and proud. Being in the studio we were working on the songs for a few months so it was hard to get a larger perspective once we heard the whole thing. It just became this cohesive thing we were trying to make.
Will you self-produce again?
I don’t know I think in some ways it’s like one of those things that once you do it that way you cannot imagine doing it another way. We learned so much this time we would be eager to explore it more next time. Who knows? I feel like in a lot of ways we just sort of scratched the surface of self production.
Ra Ra Riot - "Boy"