Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles on Singing Cellists, Songwriting, and Working With a Vampire

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Wes Miles' soaring falsetto vocals and introspective lyrics might just be the most overlooked aspect of Ra Ra Riot's bold, energetic sound. While string arrangements and Milo Bonacci's guitar are often the driving force behind rich environments like those found in "Ghost Under Rocks" and "Shadowcasting," Miles often acts as the glue that holds each party together. He and the rest of Ra Ra Riot, minus drummer Gabriel Duquette, will bring their highly praised live show to Neumos on Thursday. We recently chatted with Miles, who was in a blizzard-hit Brooklyn, about the band's collaborative process, his songwriting inspirations, and his side project Discovery.

SW: Going back to the beginning, how did the cello and violin fit into the band?

Miles: It was all surrounding Milo, our guitar player--he brought everyone together and knew everyone from different channels in college [at Syracuse University]. So it was his idea to bring Rebecca and Ali into the project that he wanted to start. I was trying to start another band at the time and he just sort of invited me over and said "You should play with us." Everyone else was already there and I just sort of showed up.

Both Alexandra and Rebecca are heavily integrated in the songwriting process. Was that something that was true of recording both The Rhumb Line and The Orchard?

Yeah. That's been one constant throughout the band's history. Once the music gets to a certain point, it's all collaborative. The girls really want to and are interested in writing their own parts, and as far as a conversation about what each song needs or we want to hear from it, there's a dialogue between us.

Was that the same way the band came to the decision to have Alexandra sing lead on "You and I Know"?

For Ali to start a song and not be singing on it would probably be a little weird. She had a specific idea for this song and sang on the demo and had an idea of where she wanted to take it. So it made the most sense for her to sing. And that was fine for me, you know, taking a different role for that song and making the album more dynamic. The same thing with "Massachusetts"--that song is from Matt, our bass player, and that's the first song that he's sang for us in any recording.

One of the standouts from The Orchard has to be "Kansai." Where did the inspiration come from for that song?

Well the song is about Kansai, a region [in Japan] where Osaka and Kyoto and Kobe [are] . . . I was there for about four months, but it's sort of about reverse culture shock and thinking about when I came back to the U.S. after being in Japan for a while and having all these clich├ęs and inspiration from being somewhere new, but also from returning and having like existential questions about creativity I guess.

Are most of the influences on The Orchard kind of wide-ranging from your life, in terms of songwriting?

It's more like there's something that I feel when I start playing music . . . I guess they're specific events that by chance turn into a song. It's a lot more serendipitous than deliberate.

You did a side project, Discovery, with Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend. What was it like getting away from the rest of the band?

That was a lot of fun. It was actually something that took about four years. We started making music that was before Ra Ra Riot, or Vampire Weekend for that matter. It just took a little long because we were at different schools and doing a lot of different stuff . . . But it was great to have a different perspective, different parameters when you're writing, different restrictions. Also having different people around you while you're writing is great. You get a different perspective completely. The music is very different from Ra Ra Riot, but I definitely tried to take some of the attitudes of our music that I learned from Rostam and that we had when we were recording Discovery to recording The Orchard. Like having a sense of humor and trying to improvise and so forth.

And Rostam mixed a song on The Orchard, right?

It was "Do You Remember," that we started writing--the two of us--in the Discovery sessions. It didn't really fit in, so he suggested I bring it to Ra Ra Riot.

Have you and Rostam talked about doing a follow-up?

There's always tentative plans. We definitely had a lot of fun making that and we're hoping eventually we'll be able to put out another record. Maybe this year will be a good time, because I think he's less busy, and during the second half of this year I'll be less busy. So maybe another one will come out in the next year or two. But no specific plans as of yet.

Check out this slideshow from Ra Ra Riot's 1/27 show at Neumo's.

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