Q&A: Ra Ra Riot’s Wes Miles discusses new album, performing live

Megan Hix

One of the breakout indie bands of the 2000s, Ra Ra Riot first gained popularity with their 2008 debut The Rhumb Line, featuring baroque hit “Can You Tell.” Last month, the New York band released their fourth record, Need Your Light, continuing their exploration of electronic sounds. Lead singer Wes Miles talked with The Daily Texan about the band’s evolving sound, what makes a good performance and SXSW’s evolution.  

The Daily Texan: How long did it take to make Need Your Light? 

  • Wes Miles: When we finished touring Beta Love we were all burned out. We thought we’d take some time off, like maybe the whole year of 2014 or something. But it ended up being really quick that we got back together and started demoing. The inspiration was really surprisingly flowing quickly because we had convinced management and the label that we weren’t going to rush into another record.

DT: You worked with Rostam on a couple tracks. What was it like partnering with him again? 

  • WM: He’s a good friend of mine and has been for a long time. It was fun, because we found that we both had a week free in January of last year when we could get together and write. We didn’t really have a project in mind. After a few days of getting these songs kind of from nothing, we realized they were really promising. He tried to get me to finish them with Ra Ra Riot and put them out that way. We had the band come in and we recorded some at Vox Studios and some at [Rostam’s] studio in L.A. It was really fun because we weren’t expecting it really, but then to have these tracks be not only really exciting for us to play and work on, but to have them sit amongst the stuff we were doing in Seattle and New York, it felt really great.

DT: Your band is more than a decade old now. How do you think your sound has changed since your debut?

  • WM: Most artists never want to make the same record twice, you don’t want to refuse to grow. That can be painful for people attached to a certain sound. But, for us, it’s been a really rewarding process to change and to find new ways of working after 10 years. The obvious change is that there is more of an electronic element, but if you listen to Need Your Light, parts of it still contain the attitude we had when we started, but not forgetting the things we’ve learned more recently. 

DT: You went to college at Syracuse University. What were you like as a college student? 

  • WM: I guess I always knew I wanted to be a musician. I always played music and was in a lot of different bands, but I was a physics major, so I didn’t study music officially. Most of my friends were musically inclined, but I also just loved physics. It’s always been interesting for me and came naturally. I just wanted to learn in college, not necessarily be on a career path. I guess it was the right choice.

DT: You’ve been to Austin quite a few times. Is there anything you like to do when you visit town? 

  • WM: Usually we like to go to the barbecue places, so like Ironworks and there’s that one out of town. Most of the things we do for fun when we visit cities are food-related. Austin is a great place to eat, so that’s definitely what we’ll be doing this time. Although, we will be playing a lot of shows, so we may not have time to go on food adventures. 

DT: On any given night, what makes a good live show? 

  • WM: Basically just that people are there and having fun. Sometimes people say, “Oh, the crowds are lame, no one dances anymore,” but sometimes it’s just a Sunday night and just that they’re there is good enough. On a Friday night, you probably want to have people going a little crazier, and most of the time, that’s what we have anyway. I guess singing along is the biggest, best detail for me, when they sing along and I can give them the mic.

DT: Is there a song that is difficult to perform or maybe a favorite to play?

  • WM: My favorite one to perform at the moment — and probably the most difficult — is “I Need Your Light.” It’s got the biggest vocal range, but it’s fun and has a different vibe than any of the songs we play now. It’s super challenging to sing, but it’s so fun and I think everyone in the band loves playing it.

DT: How have you seen SXSW evolve since the first time you played the festival?

  • WM: We’ve been playing SXSW since 2007, at least 2008, so we’ve seen it change now for what will be 9 years when we play it again. It’s kind of gotten to critical mass so I’m curious to see what happens next. A few years ago, we saw Usher come and play with Afghan Whigs and it was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen. I’m actually a huge Usher fan. Seeing him play like an indie rock band was just really strange. It felt like something that would only happen at South by Southwest. So I’m curious to know where else it can go. If A-list performers are coming down and think its worth their time, but are still playing in a tent somewhere, it’ll be interesting to see where it ends up after that. For the most part, we just focus on what we are doing and having fun, getting people excited about our records and our stuff, so that’ll be our main focus while we’re down there.

Ra Ra Riot will play Wednesday, March 16 at 12 a.m. at 3TEN Austin City Limits Live, as well as several other shows throughout the week.