Interview: Ra Ra Riot

Interview and photos by Jess Phoa.

On Nov. 29, I went to the Passion Pit and Ra Ra Riot concert at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia and had the opportunity to go backstage and interview Mathieu Santos, the bassist of Ra Ra Riot, before the show.

Ra Ra Riot is releasing its third full-length album, Beta Love, on Jan. 22. Here I talk to Santos about the best television shows for touring, his spirit animal, the band’s upcoming album, and more. Check out the full interview below.

Mathieu Santos, bassist of Ra Ra Riot (photo by Jess Phoa)

Jess: On your Facebook page, it says you like “Spaghetti, Scramble, and Planet Earth” is that true?

Mathieu Santos: Milo makes amazing spaghetti

Jess: Is it a family recipe?

MS: He studied abroad in Florence as an architecture student and brought back with him some amazing sauce recipes. So we eat lots of spaghetti as a band, we do play lots of Scrabble, and Planet Earth, so yeah we do love all of those things!

Jess: Do you have a favorite food aside from spaghetti and if you could have a sandwich, what would you want on it?

MS: My favorite food aside from spaghetti, that’s a great question. Well, when I’m home I eat a lot of amazing Portuguese food, and that’s probably my favorite food.

Jess: You’re Portuguese… are you fully Portuguese?

MS: I’m half, my dad is fully Portuguese and my mom is fully French so I’m 50/50 and they each grew up in their respective gene pools.

Jess: Are you multilingual?

MS: Ahh, no… I speak a little French, no Portuguese. My sister, though, is a French major and speaks really good French. Portuguese food is definitely my favorite food and so I would have to say that the cacoila sandwich, which is a Portuguese marinated pork, it’s delicious…it’s unbelievable. That’s like the first thing I do whenever I’m home, go straight to the amazing Portuguese restaurants in New Bedford, MA.

Jess: You watch Planet Earth, do you watch anything else? Do you have movie nights or something like that?

MS: There’s a lot of show trading on tour. I know a couple of years ago, everyone was really into The Wire, we did all of The Sopranos

Jess: I know Breaking Bad is pretty popular right now.

MS: I don’t know if anyone is watching that, but I know Wes [Miles, vocalist for Ra Ra Riot] has been into Game of Thrones, Becca’s been into Girls. There’s lots of TV watching on tour. I usually just watch sports mostly, but I’ve been rewatching The Sopranos recently.

Jess: So I understand you’re a huge Bruins fan, but what about the rest of the band?

MS: Wes is a huge Devils fan, ‘cause he’s from New Jersey. Becca’s also from Jersey, a fairweather fan, “Oh did they win?” [laughs]. Everyone puts up with it, that’s probably accurate. Listening to us talking about it at dinners and stuff. If they win, we’re happy and they’re also supportive if we’re going through hard times too.

Jess: How are you coping with the NHL lockout?

MS: …well I’ve been waiting for somebody to ask me about this [laughs]. It’s been really tough on us. We have our fantasy hockey league, it’s been on hold for a bit. The hardest part is that I’ve been boycotting my Bruins merchandise, which is a good portion of my wardrobe. I’m in just the apathetic stage of “Okay, who needs those bums…” Every night I’m home in my apartment, “Oh the Nets are playing…” then I watch 30 seconds of it and I’m like, “What am I doing? I can’t get into this.”

Jess: I know with the departure of Alexandra Lawn [previous cellist for Ra Ra Riot], I noticed that it has been transitioning from what people know as more of a Baroque pop style to more of a synth pop style. Something I did take away from it was that it meshes well with Passion Pit’s music. Are you planning on performing more from Beta Love or trying to keep the album on the down-low, in regards to not letting it leak as much?

MS: No, we’ve been playing some of the new songs, we haven’t been playing them very much, but tonight I think we’re playing around four of the new songs. It’s been fun for us to try new things ‘cause we’ve never had any, you know, much electronic stuff.

Jess: Is it mostly Wes who’s on the electronic stuff?

MS: Nah, well Wes had a lot to do with it… Milo [Bonacci], our guitar player, he’s like, really into electronic music, he’s like a synthhead. Wes was our keyboard player before he was our singer and Becca’s been playing more keyboards too. Everyone has always been interested in it and this is our first time…we can make it our thing, do whatever music we want!

Jess: That’s really nice though because I know that some bands are like, “No we don’t want to disappoint our fans,” but it’s nice to see musicians go beyond their comfort zones.

MS: Yeah! That was our main goal with this record, getting out of our comfort zone. You know, we thought maybe a few people would not be into the change. You hope that your fans can grow with you and appreciate the changes you’ve made.

Jess: I mean, this goes for me with any album usually, but if an artist releases something new, you’re kinda like, “Ahhh no, their old stuff is really good.“ then you start listening to it more and you’re like, “Hey this reminds me of their old song!”

MS: You can really get into what they’re thinking…and follow along. I’ve always appreciated that. And if you know, if we made a record that sounded like our last record, people are going to be like, “Augh it sounds exactly the same!”

Jess: Ha, you’d get faulted either way.

MS: Yup, so It doesn’t really matter what you do, it’s more about doing what you want to do.

Jess: Is there a song you like in particular since I know there are some songs that bands perform more for the crowd than themselves? Is there a song or a few songs that you guys perform more for yourselves as opposed to for the crowd?

MS: Hmm… I think “Oh, La” from our first record is one of our favorites in the band collectively. For a long time it’s been a band favorite and we play it at every single show. it’s not something we’ve released officially, but the fans always react to that one.

Jess: That’s definitely one of the songs I picked up on more when I was first listening to you guys so I can relate to that!

Jess: If you could be an animal, which one would you be and why?

MS: I think my spirit animal is a manta ray.

Jess: Did you realize you’re endangered?

MS: I have, but I had this amazing dream once when a manta ray appeared before me and I had this really emotional dream. I woke up…

Jess: Were you in tears?

MS: Almost, I was really moved, I was like “whoa.” It was an intense experience. So I think that’d be kind of fun, even though I don’t like being underwater much. If I was a manta ray, I wouldn’t mind.

Jess: How often do you guys tour internationally?

MS: We do it probably like twice a year depending on what’s going on. We’ve done a few tours in Europe, in England. We’ve been to Japan a few times, we’re actually going to Japan in February and to Taiwan for the first time. It’s a rare treat! We haven’t done a proper Europe tour since about a year and a half ago.

Jess: Do you have a favorite method of transportation? Like a tuk tuk?

MS: I’m a big train guy. I love trains. It’s a shame that we don’t have a nice train system. When we in Japan, we got to ride on the big Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hiroshima. I remember growing up having train books as a kid and I remember the bullet trains being strange and exotic and I got to ride one!

Jess: Do you have any pre-concert rituals, something you always do before or after a concert?

MS: One thing that we always do is that we always have a hands-in, like a little pump up, little huddle, do some sort of cheer that we make up on the spot. That’s always important. That’s about it… what we do a lot of times actually is we play street hockey. Normally we travel in our trailer and we have a net and goalie equipment, six or seven sticks. When we usually set up on stage, we set up the net and after sound check we’ll play for like an hour or two, which is really fun because you don’t get much exercise on tours so it’s good to run around.

Jess: Who plays what position?

MS: Well I’m usually goalie, then Wes our singer, Kenny our drummer, and Andrew our sound guy. That’s our team, we’ll play a lot of 2 on 1 games, stuff like that.

Jess: So during the December concert [at Carnegie Lecture Hall in 2011], Wes didn’t wear his glasses and I asked him after the concert, “Wes, was the reason why you kept holding the set list about an inch away from your face the entire time was because you didn’t have your glasses on?” He replied, “Yes, my eyesight is terrible.” Is your eyesight terrible too?

MS: No my eyesight is great!

Jess: So are [your glasses] prescription?

MS: Yeah, well, I’m farsighted just like a tiny bit.

Jess: Oh, so you guys compliment each other!

MS: Yeah, they’re like HD glasses! [laughs] Today, watch between songs because Wes will always come up to me and be like, “What’s the next song?” and I’ll tell him cause that’s usually what we do. He likes to perform without his glasses. I bet that night we were too far apart so he took matters into his own hands. He can’t see anything and I think it helps him not look at people in the crowd.

Jess: I know your hobbies include things like hockey and other sports, music. Is there anything else that you do in your spare time?

MS: I’m also a painter, an artist. Well, that was my major at school. I was a painting major, I went to art school at Syracuse.

Jess: What kind of painting do you do? Watercolor? Oil?

MS: I do acrylic, sort of abstract, hard edge kind of stuff. Actually, Wes and I split an art studio in Red Hook, [Brooklyn]. I’ve been trying to get back into painting ’cause I never really have time to do that ever anymore.

Jess: You were an art student, what was Wes?

MS: Wes was a physics major, Milo was an architecture student, we were all totally different. Becca was a music major.

Jess: In Violin?

MS: She did music and music industry with violin performance. She had all the sides covered and it gave us a huge lead. Her and our manager Josh took a lot of music industry classes.

Jess: I would have never imagined Wes to have been a physics major.

MS: [laughs] Yeah. He’s our resident scientist.

Jess: Does he still geek out over anything?

MS: He reads lots of sciencey books. We were back up at Syracuse last week and he and I walked around the physics building and he visited all of his old classrooms while Becca and I visited the Art building.

Check out more photos below! (Click to enlarge.)

Interview and photos by Jess Phoa. Special thanks to Jo Lenardi, Samantha Tillman, and Chris Newmyer for making this possible.