Everyone seems to be rooting for Ra Ra Riot these days. Even hardened music critics use kinder, gentler words when constructively pointing out the band’s musical shortcomings. That’s because the indie kids from Syracuse, New York, have overcome unthinkable adversity to put out their debut album, The Rhumb Line.
In 2007—shortly after recording their self-titled EP—they lost their drummer and friend John Ryan Pike to a tragic drowning when he was just 23. And now, when music scribes write about Ra Ra Riot, the underlying sentiment seems to be ”˜Go team, go’. That support hasn’t gone unnoticed by cofounding member Rebecca Zeller.
“I guess a lot of bands don’t really pull through something like losing a member, especially so early in their career,” says the violinist, calling from Lawrence, Kansas. “So I do feel that a lot of people are really happy we were able to pull through and come out with an album that they like. I mean, it’s kind of against all odds that we were able to survive.”
But, as Zeller explains, Ra Ra Riot’s misfortune continues to this day.
“We have some pretty terrible luck,” she says. “Aside from losing John, we just seem to always get the hard end of every situation. Sometimes I feel like, ”˜Why are we still doing this if we have such bad luck?’ ”
Most of these ill-timed setbacks have come in the form of vehicle mishaps. Since January of this year, the quintet’s tour van has been robbed twice, vandalized once, and towed away. And every incident has taken place in Eastern Canada. It’s gotten to the point where they’ve considered skipping Toronto and Montreal on their next tour. (Surprisingly, their vehicle has never been broken into in Vancouver.)
As for The Rhumb Line, there’s no denying the similarities to Arcade Fire, something that has pretty much dogged the group from day one.
“At first, it bugged me,” admits Zeller. “Then I totally started reading more music journalism [and realized] that when a band is just starting out, it’s only natural that people need something else to compare it to. It’s not like they’re saying we sound like a rip-off. So I’m flattered to be compared to Arcade Fire, as opposed to a band that is not as fantastic as they are.”
Most of the standouts on The Rhumb Line were also featured on the group’s 2007 EP, including the spirited "Ghost Under Rocks” and the deceivingly upbeat “Dying Is Fine”. Like most of the tracks, Ra Ra Riot’s two-woman string section is ever-present in these songs. But it’s the beautifully mournful “Winter ’05” where Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn really shine.
When it came to making decisions in the studio, the members of RRR still relied on their beloved late bandmate for some creative input.
“He was really talented within every aspect of writing, and not just the beat and the rhythm,” says Zeller of Pike. “So when we’re in studio I would say to myself, ”˜What would John do?’ His participation in the band will never be forgotten, and just because he died, the impact he had on the band will be forever lasting.”
Ra Ra Riot plays the Media Club on Sunday (September 21).