Q&A With Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot

Ra Ra Riot, one of the national acts joining the local talent at the Westword Music Showcase on Saturday, June 14 (click here for more details), is a band on the upswing. Wes Miles, the outfit’s frontman, traces the road to its rise in the funny and revealing Q&A that follows -- a supplement to a profile of the group in Westword's June 12 edition.

Miles has known recent Westword profile and Q&A subject Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend since elementary school, and the pair even played in numerous bands together. The conversation below begins with Miles remembering those days, including a moderately triumphant appearance at their New Jersey middle school’s seventh-grade graduation ceremony, where they played the timeless Koenig original “The Beasts From the Sea.” Afterward, he talks about the musical evolution that took place for him from high school to college, with a note about Discovery, a side project featuring Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij; his transition from late addition to Ra Ra Riot to the combo’s lead singer; the Rioters’ ultra-swift rise from obscurity to signee with V2 Records (V2 will handle the band’s disc in Europe, while the independent Barsuk imprint is handling the chore in the U.S.); the mysterious death of band co-founder John Pike, and the difficulty of dealing with such a tragedy in public; the recording of a forthcoming full-length, complete with assorted song and production details; and his sense that the collective’s growing success is fulfilling the musical dreams of his childhood.

Kids grow up so fast these days.

Westword (Michael Roberts): I got a chance to interview Ezra from Vampire Weekend a couple of months ago. He mentioned that you guys have known each other from way, way back. Did you grow up in the same town?

Wes Miles: We sure did. We grew up just a few blocks from each other.

Westword: This was Glen Ridge, New Jersey?

WM: Yeah.

Westword: How did you meet?

WM: I guess we met – it must have been elementary school, I guess. I don’t really remember. But we were in the same grade. I don’t know if we had the same teachers until maybe middle school. But we definitely knew each other before then.

Westword: Did you guys establish a musical connection right away?

WM: Yeah. I think one of our first bands was probably in fifth grade or so. And I think our first major performance was graduation from seventh grade.

Westword: He mentioned that. He was trying to remember the songs you played, and he thought it was a U2 song, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and an original. Does that seem about it?

WM: Yeah. I don’t remember what U2 song we played, but I know we played a song Ezra wrote called “The Beasts From the Sea.”

Westword: Will that be revived anytime soon?

WM: I doubt it (laughs).

Westword: Not a lost classic?

WM: Nah. Just in the minds of the performers.

Westword: Was this the same band you started in fifth grade? Was it still together two years later?

WM: I’m sure it had changed drastically since then. Because we were always trying to bring in different people. Being young, in middle school, your friends might change quicker than when you’re an adult. I’m sure it was different, but I can’t really remember how.

Westword: What was the band’s name?

WM: The Aquatones.

Westword: And how much longer after that seventh grade graduation did the Aquatones last?

WM: I don’t know. That was the high point of the Aquatones’ career. So probably not much longer in that configuration. But 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. There must have been, like, fifteen bands we were in together.

Westword: So you were usually in the bands together? It was everybody else who kept changing?

WM: Yeah. And our respective positions would change a little bit, too. Like in the Aquatones, I was the drummer, but by high school, I had become the bass player and keyboard player for our band the Sophisticuffs [no connection to the band of the same name from Oakland, California].

Westword: Did your musical styles change, too? Did you play death metal one week and folk music the next?

WM: Actually, yeah. We definitely played both of those genres (laughs). The Aquatones, as the name indicates, was kind of a ska-inspired song. “The Beasts From the Sea” was kind of a surfy song. And then in high school, but that time, I think we got into the Velvet Underground, so a lot of our music was a lot more experimental. And we covered “Whiskey in a Jar” [by Metallica] and we covered “John Barleycorn” [an old English folk song].

Westword: That is a pretty huge range…

WM: Yeah, and there was another kid at the school who was into punk-metal, and we played in this band that covered At the Drive-In. I forget the name of the song – the big single that came out right before they broke up [probably “One Armed Scissor”].

Westword: When it was time to head off to Syracuse, did you consider majoring in music? Or a non-musical kind of major?

WM: Well, I guess something different all together. I guess my plan ever since me and Ezra were making music in my basement was always to be a musician. But I guess I kind of thought of going to school as different. I always kept school and music separate from each other, because the way Ezra and I learned music was on our own and with each other, and with other friends. So I actually went to school for physics. That was my major.

Westword: Were you looking at physics as your safety net? Or did some guidance counselor talk you into it?

WM: I guess when I was a junior in high school, I took my first physics class, and I found out I was pretty good at it. And I’d always been interested in cosmology and things like that. My brother was big into science, and he’s older than me. He went to school for jazz, and he always felt like if he hadn’t done that, he would have liked to have studied physics.

Westword: Is your brother a professional musician, too?

WM: He’s in a band called Thing One. They’re kind of a soul-rock-pop band. I think their band is in a transformation stage now. But he’s always been a musician and someone I’ve always looked up to for inspiration and guidance. [His name is Spencer; he plays bass.]

Westword: Once you got to college, even though you were majoring in physics, did you quickly set about putting together a band, or seeing if you could join a band?

WM: Yeah, I started playing with friends down the hall pretty much immediately. Most of my friendships in my life are based around music (laughs). So friends I migrated to were people I shared tastes with, or I could at least share discussion or some actual jamming with.

Westword: Was the pattern similar to the way it was in high school – you came to Ra Ra Riot after going through several other bands and several other combinations of musicians?

WM: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate, actually. I’d known John Pike since my freshman year, and we played in a number of bands together. We also played with a friend of ours, an amazing guitar picker from Maine named Clint Hartzell. He was a big influence – more of a folk-music inspiration for me, and I think for John as well. So the three of us played a lot of music together. And our friend Clint was also a turntablist, so he was also into hip-hop. And that spawned another thing, which was a funk/hip-hop kind of band, and I played sax in that. And then later, after playing in all these different things, I met Milo [Bonacci], the guitar player in Ra Ra Riot, maybe through some mutual friends. He had a Wurlitzer piano, and I was like, “Man, we’ve gotta play.” And then later, when I was trying to start this pop band, Milo asked me if I would be absorbed into his project, called Ra Ra Riot. And I was like, “Okay, why not? Another project!”

Westword: The number of musical styles you’ve named off in the past few minutes is incredible. Did you ever have a preference? Or were you always searching for the one that would be a keeper?

WM: Well, there’s always something that you hear, and you’re like, “Ah, man, I wish we could play music like this.” But it’s kind of like the way I feel about studying physics – you need something to keep your mind after off the same old project. That’s kind of why I wanted to do physics. Working on music all the time would not be a perfect situation, and working on one style of music all the time wouldn’t be, either. Like, I have this side project, this R&B project called Discovery with Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend called Discovery…

Westword: I checked out your MySpace page. Sounded interesting.

WM: Cool. Thank you. It’s funny: You’ve got different outlets, different stylistic inspirations that you’re able to bounce back and forth. You get more out of every song that you write if you’re doing multiple things at a time, I think.

Westword: So does one project kind of feed the other, in part because you’re not frustrated about being restricted by having to do everything for just one band?

WM: Yeah. 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.

Westword: When you were talking about Ra Ra Riot, you used the word “absorbed.” At first, you weren’t the lead singer, right?

WM: That’s right. There was a seventh member at the time, and he and I both played keyboards, and he was singing earlier forms of some of the songs we play now – versions of the songs that are on the EP. I was kind of jamming on the keys, and then I started throwing in some ideas of mine. And then we started playing some songs of mine, and then he left the band, and I took over, and we started playing all the songs the way we play them now.

Westword: Did he feel that he was getting elbowed out? Was that his reason for departing?

WM: I guess he just knew there were too many songwriters in the band. And I guess he decided to chase another dream of his.

Westword: What was the other dream?

WM: Teaching.

Westword: The current lineup is certainly interesting. Most people have a certain perception of what a band with a cello and a violin in it will sound like – and to me, your sound doesn’t fit what I expected.

WM: That’s good.

Westword: You guys also have the reputation of being a great live act. Did that come together immediately? Or did it evolve?

WM: Well, parts of it just had to happen, I think. And parts of it have changed, which is the nature of the way we started – haphazardly. We were just a bunch of people, and we were playing at house parties, and you had to be loud and kind of crazy to get attention. And maybe part of that is what you were saying – that people have expectations of a band with a string section. And then they see what we’re all about, and it’s much more like a rock and roll party. But certainly, we try to keep the fun and excitement that we had in the early days, when we were just playing house parties. Just being as loud as possible. But just trying to be a little more musical.

Westword: You’re known for being very energetic onstage. Is that the way you are offstage, too? Or do you kind of save up your energy during the day so you can spend it all during the show?

WM: I’m probably more subdued during the day when I’m on the stage. But sometimes, when you’re having a good time, some of those stage antics can come out in real life when you don’t expect them (laughs).

Westword: Have they ever burst out at, like, a formal dinner party?

WM: No formal dinner parties. Not yet anyway (laughs).

Westword: You guys hadn’t been playing together for very long before you did a bunch of CMJ showcases toward the end of 2006. Is that when the momentum started building?

WM: Yeah. I think that was when we started to think, wow, that’s kind of surprising for a band like us to be playing CMJ – so maybe there’s something legitimate about our band. It excited us a lot, so after that, we definitely started putting a lot more energy into it. And I guess shortly thereafter we recorded our EP, and we went on the road from there.

Westword: When you recorded the EP, had you already signed with V2? Or was that afterwards?

WM: That was afterwards. I guess we recorded it in February of last year and we didn’t sign with V2 until I guess July of last year.

Westword: Were you signed in part because the EP turned out so well?

WM: I don’t know, actually. I think it was more of the live show that had excited V2. We’d gone over for just like a long weekend last spring – in April, I think. After that, they saw us at one or two or three of our live shows in just that one week. Then we started talking, and then we came back and signed the deal.

Westword: Somewhere during this period you’re talking about came the terrible news about John, who you mentioned earlier. Has anyone been able to figure out what happened at this point? Or is it still a mystery?

WM: I just think the nature of what happened… No one was with him at the exact moment. There are things we don’t know, and things that we won’t know. And the things we do know are the only things we will know.

Westword: The two of you were very involved in writing lyrics together. How did you do it? Did one of you come up with an idea and the other one would contribute? Or did you start from nothing and build it up from there?

WM: There were different things for every song we worked on. They all came out of a different process. I guess for a song like “Dying Is Fine,” we first came up with some melodic ideas, and then we wrote the lyrics together. And for “Each Year,” when we were writing that, the melody came first and we just kind of were spitting out ideas. That one was kind of written in chunks. John wrote the first verse and then the pre-chorus, and then I wrote the chorus and part of the second verse, and he wrote the rest of the second verse, and I took the bridge. It was really fast, almost like a stream of consciousness process for “Each Year.” But for most other songs, 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. We’d talk it out or sing with each other or write things out.

Westword: Is it difficult when you sing those songs today? Or is it nice, because it feels like he’s just as involved in the band as he ever was?

WM: It’s definitely a lot of both. At first, trying to sing songs that you’ve written with someone, 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 two-hundredth time. I guess that was more at first. 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.

Westword: Since his death, there have been a lot of the-band-overcomes-tragedy kind of articles that have come out. Does that aggravate you a bit? Or is it more like “We understand why it’s happening, and we just have to show them that this isn’t just some VH1 Behind the Music story”?

WM: Yeah, it’s difficult. Some are good and some are bad. I guess you can do that in a sensitive way, or you can do it in a kind of sensationalist way. And sometimes the language people use is really shocking. Like using the word “replace” to describe how we have a drummer now who’s playing with us, as if we were replacing someone. That’s a crazy concept. 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. But sometimes other people are sensitive, and I guess that’s been the case more often than not, with a few exceptions. It’s hard to write about something like that, though. I personally wouldn’t write about it if I didn’t think I was being sensitive. I guess we also try to be sensitive because we’re not the only ones who lost something when John died. He had a very caring family and he had a million close friends. He was really outgoing.

Westword: Have you started working on your full-length album for V2?

WM: Actually, it’s completely recorded. We just have to master it and I think we have to do a little bit of mixing. But it’s almost completely done, and we’re setting up a label in the U.S., which hopefully – all that will be settled within another week or two. And we’re looking at an August or September release.

Westword: How would you describe it? Is it a departure from the EP? A continuation?

WM: It’s definitely a departure in terms of production values and things like that. We worked with Ryan Hadlock, who’s a great producer, and we tried to get a lot of real, live sounds and energy in the record. We tried the same thing, and I think we failed, to get that kind of live, raw sound on the EP. Hopefully this time we succeeded, or at least came a lot closer to succeeding, with the LP.

Westword: Have you settled on a title?

WM: We have a working title, but I think we’re going to wait to talk about it. [After this interview, Barsuk announced that the forthcoming album will be called the rhumb line. The release date is August 19.]

Westword: How did you try to make the sound more live? Did you play in the same room together as opposed to being isolated from each other?

WM: There was a bit of that. Also, it had a lot to do with Ryan’s foresight and his imagination in the studio and his engineering skills. We did play a lot in the same room, and with each other. We tried to vibe out the studio – light candles and have a good time. So it had a lot to do with the atmosphere – being out in the woods of Washington state, where we recorded it.

Westword: Where in Washington state?

WM: Woodinville, outside Seattle. It’s a really nice studio, and we had a great time there. I think recording in New York was a little tough for the EP, because we had to commute, and it was a long way, and we had a lot less time on the EP. So I think we were a little more careful and a little more excited – there was more time to plan for the full-length as well.

Westword: Over what period of time were the songs written? Are they all pretty new? Or do they date back a ways?

WM: Well, there are a few from the EP that will be on the record. We wanted to take another pass at some of them. We re-arranged them a lot.

Westword: Which ones?

WM: Well, I can tell you for sure that “Ghost Under Rocks” will be on it, and “Each Year” will be on it. We’re not sure about the rest, but I think there will be a few more as well. And then the rest of the songs, some of them are pretty old and some of them were just written. There’s a whole span.

Westword: Have you started to play some of the new songs live?

WM: Yeah. “St. Peter’s Day Festival” we’re playing, which is a song that John wrote, and that’ll be on the album, and we’ve been playing that song live for a while now.

Westword: You’ve done a lot of touring by now. Do you feel like road veterans? Or is it still a fairly new thing to be out there for a long time at a stretch?

WM: It definitely feels like we’re pretty seasoned at this point. I know we’re all looking forward to going home and seeing our families and things like that. It’s still exciting when we play. That’s like the start of every day for me, when we’re actually performing the music. Everything starts at that point.

Westword: Before then, is it a bit like being in suspended animation?

WM: It is, kind of. Several times a week, we’ll be like, “Where am I?” Or “What day is this?” Or “What are we doing tonight”? But then we get to the venue and we figure everything out, and when we play, that’s when everything clicks. That’s when it makes sense to me.

Westword: So that dream you had as a kid about being a musician still feels right? It doesn’t feel like you’ve gone off the tracks at any point?

WM: No, it doesn’t. It still feels like the right thing. 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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts