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Once upon a time (the 1990s) in a land far, far away (Glen Ridge, New Jersey), a pair of elementary-schoolers named Wes Miles and Ezra Koenig played their first song together. For Miles, the experience proved to be a formative one. "I guess my plan ever since me and Ezra were making music in my basement was always to be a musician," he says.
In both of their cases, this fantasy became a reality: Koenig is currently the frontman for Vampire Weekend, and Miles sings and handles keyboards for Ra Ra Riot. And that's not the end of the similarities. For one thing, their groups rose to notoriety at roughly the same time, and with equally unusual speed. Vampire Weekend began 2008 as the most heavily hyped combo in the indie-rock universe despite having gigged for a relatively brief period prior to its PR breakthrough, and Miles's outfit only paid a modest amount of dues before signing to Barsuk Records in the U.S. and V2 in Europe. (The Rioters' debut full-length, the rhumb line, is expected in late summer.) Moreover, each band sprang from an eastern university: Vampire Weekend's members met at Columbia, Ra Ra Riot came together at Syracuse. As a result, they probably would have been linked in what's being touted as a new college-rock movement even if Koenig and Miles hadn't been childhood pals.
Not that the two acts sound all that much like each other. Whereas Vampire Weekend specializes in jittery melodies often underscored by African rhythms, Ra Ra Riot explores pop rudiments armed with notable smarts and uncommon instrumentation. On "Each Year" and "A Manner to Act," from the collective's self-titled 2007 EP, the efforts of Alexandra Lawn and Rebecca Zeller, who play cello and violin, respectively, are every bit as prominent as the sounds made by Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci, bassist Mathieu Santos and drummer John Pike, who died unexpectedly in 2007 (more about that later). Live, however, no one will mistake the crew for a denuded string quartet. Riot has earned a reputation for hyperkinetic concerts, which Miles traces to early gigs at off-campus bashes: "We were playing at house parties, and you had to be loud and kind of crazy to get attention."
Miles's success at doing so is partly the result of his early musical start, which was influenced by his older brother, Spencer, the bassist in Thing One, a soul-rock purveyor. He says his first band with Koenig "was probably in fifth grade or so. And I think our first major performance was graduation from seventh grade," at which the set incorporated the Koenig original "The Beasts From the Sea" — a clever nod to the group's wet-and-wild name, the Aquatones. More screwy monikers (like the Sophisticuffs) followed, as did more configurations. "In my senior high school yearbook, Ezra drew a diagram of all the bands we'd been in together, and all the offshoots and side projects and things like that," Miles recalls. "There must have been, like, fifteen bands we were in together." The stylistic range was just as wide. Covers ranged from the English folk ditty "John Barleycorn" to Metallica's "Whiskey in a Jar."
This devotion to variety continued after Miles entered Syracuse as a physics major — a course of study chosen mainly as a safety net. "I started playing with friends down the hall pretty much immediately," he notes. The jam sessions led to the formation of more bands — even one specializing in funk and hip-hop. Along the way, he grew close to Pike, as well as guitarist Bonacci, who "asked me if I would be absorbed into his project, Ra Ra Riot. And I was like, 'Okay, why not? Another project!'"
At first, Miles was just the keyboard player vamping behind original vocalist Shaw Flick, who also played the instrument. But before long, Flick departed to concentrate on a teaching career, leaving Miles in the driver's seat — and he had to hold onto the wheel firmly. In 2006, less than a year since forming, Ra Ra Riot was invited to perform at New York City's CMJ Music Marathon, an industry showcase, and attendees emitted a discernible buzz that Miles and his cohorts found motivating. "It excited us a lot, so after that, we definitely started putting a lot more energy into it," he allows. "I guess shortly thereafter we recorded our EP, and we went on the road from there." V2 reps saw some of the gigs on the tour, and by springtime, they'd inked a contract — a feat they subsequently repeated with Barsuk.
All seemed right with the world, but not for long. On June 1, Ra Ra Riot played a show in Providence, Rhode Island, after which Pike headed to a house party in a nearby Massachusetts town — and the next morning, his body was found floating in several feet of standing water at a place called Wilbur's Point.
The other bandmembers were understandably devastated by this inexplicable tragedy, and Miles says the hurt was compounded by some of the media coverage that sprang up afterward. Although he feels most articles were sensitive, he takes issue with the ones that used the word "replace" to describe the decision to bring aboard a new drummer, Cameron Wisch. "That's a crazy concept," he says. "It wasn't just anyone that we lost. It was a really close friend. Not someone who gets replaced in your memory or in your sense of humor or in your songwriting process."
Indeed, Miles and Pike created many tunes together using spontaneous methods that were extensions of their close relationship off stage. When they'd sit down to assemble new material, Miles explains, "we would kind of be riffing and singing, and I would try to make up words on the spot, and he would edit them and throw something back at me, and then I'd say something else. It was very involved for most of the songs." Belting tunes composed under such intimate conditions — especially the one titled "Dying Is Fine" — was especially difficult for Miles in the beginning. "It's something that I had never imagined would happen. I never thought I'd be the only one of the two of us who'd be listening to it for the 200th time," he concedes. "It was shocking, and very difficult to come to terms with that truth. But now it definitely feels better to be thinking about how he's still a part of this."
And he is. For Ra Ra Riot's Barsuk/V2 debut, produced by Ryan Hadlock, whose engineering and production credits feature the Afghan Whigs and the Foo Fighters, the players took another swing at several of the EP's compositions, and Miles is certain that "St. Peter's Day Festival," penned by Pike, will make the final cut. But while the new album is his top priority, he's also part of another band, Discovery, which pairs him with keyboardist/guitarist/singer Rostam Batmanglij from none other than Vampire Weekend. Far from dividing his attention, Miles believes that this kind of multi-tasking — a throwback to his schooldays — enhances his creativity at every level. "You've got different outlets, different stylistic inspirations that you're able to bounce back and forth," he argues — and that's important, because "there are choices you can make in one band that you can't in another. That gives you a release in another project. You get to do everything you want. Just not all at the same time."
The result is a lifestyle pretty much like the one Miles envisioned when he was making racket in the basement with Koenig long before their voices changed, and he doesn't expect to alter his course anytime soon. "It still feels like the right thing," he says. "Even though we're kind of a small band in terms of what we've done in our career — we're very young — it still feels like we're on the way. I guess we're succeeding in our short term goals. That's something to be pretty proud of."
Visit Backbeat Online for more of our interview with Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles.