I recently spoke with Wes Miles, the lead singer of Ra Ra Riot in the hours leading up their show at the Theatre of the Living Arts in Philadelphia, PA on October 10, 2013. Ra Ra Riot is one of my favorite bands and this was my fourth time seeing them live. The band released their third studio album, Beta Love, back in February. Beta Love marks a shift in Ra Ra Riot’s style from baroque pop to more electronic-influenced mixes, due to the the departure of cellist Alexandra Lawn back in early 2012.
Jess Phoa (WRCT): Now that Beta Love’s been out for a while, do you think you could give me some insight on its reception? From its fans and like just reflect on it.
Wes Miles (Ra Ra Riot): Um…not really. It’s kinda hard to know cause we’re still sort of ending, but in the cycle cause this is the last tour for Beta Love, so it’s kinda hard to know. Um, I think it’s been well received. It seems that there are fans that come to shows that are into more adult stuff then there’s also some fans that are more into new stuff and, ah, but like last night we played at Terminal 5 in New York and that was really fun and one of the best crowd reactions was at the beginning of the the title song, “Beta Love”. That felt really good and that’s been the case more often than not that “Beta Love” is um, successful song live.
JP: It’s probably because you introduced it first and kind of like… and you gradually worked it in to the crowd I would say too. Uh, if I remember correctly, you recently toured in Japan?
WM: Yeah, we were there in January or February.
JP: Okay, so it was a bit while back, but I might be studying abroad there this summer.
WM: Oh yeah? Cool.
JP: I was wondering if you could give me any recommendations on like, what to do…aside from studying of course.
WM: Well, where are you going to be?
JP: Probably Tokyo.
WM: Okay. I actually studied abroad in Osaka.
JP: Okay! Oh they’re totally different.
WM: Very different. Yeah, I loved it There’s so many things to do. My…one of my go-to things is to go to the Meiji Shrine, Meiji Jingu and um, that’s near…Harajuku.
WM: Which is like fun to go to walk around and shop.
JP: Just people watching, really.
WM: The best ramen, possibly in the world, is right there; called Jangara Ramen. It’s right at the intersection of um…I guess the Meiji Jingu Mai train stop and the other main road, but…Jangara…it’s really, it awesome. And actually the last time we were there, the morning we were leaving, I like had to go cause we hadn’t been there yet.
JP: The ramen place?
WM: Yeah and one of the waiters came to a few of us, ah, a few of us were eating in there and, like, recognized us from the radio or something and gave us little ramen keychains, which I still have with me.
JP: Are they on your keys?
WM: No I’m too afraid of losing it. It’s in my bag.
JP: It’s just a nice memento.
WM: Yeah, I like to see it in my backpack all the time.
JP: So I watched your “Binary Mind” video, actually earlier today I saw it yesterday, but my Internet was kind of being wonky, so I couldn’t see it. But I saw that it was really colorful.
JP: And I couldn’t help but think of Yo Gabba Gabba while I was watching it and I was wondering if you had ever aspired to maybe perform on the show.
WM: Well, we have played with the Yo Gabba Gabba Live! show, which was really fun.
JP: I think Mathieu told me that when I interviewed him last fall.
JP: But if you were to perform on the actual show, what would you sing about?
WM: I don’t know. Um…
JP: Cause there’s some really random things on there.
WM: I haven’t seen the show too many times, um but I remember when we were talking about doing the live show, I saw them once and it was pretty crazy…but great.
JP: Yeah, of Montreal did a song about foods you should eat when you’re sick it was like bananas, applesauce, rice, and toast.
WM: Oh, haha
JP: My friend actually suggested this question, he wanted to know what Ra Ra Riot iss rioting about.
[Wes misheard me and thought I said “writing”, not “rioting”]
WM: Is writing about? Like, right now?
JP: Yeah, or just maybe when the band was created. You could give me a then and now, if you want to.
WM: What do you mean, like our songs? What our songs are about…?
JP: No, just your name. Like, “riot”.
WM: OH. What’s the “riot” about?
WM: I thought you said “writing”. Um, I donw know. The show, I guess, really. We started by playing house parties and like in attics, basements at Syracuse and it always felt a little bit of a riot, you know crazy, off the hinges type shows.
JP: How did you convince Milo to quit making buildings and make music instead?
WM: Well, he didn’t need to start making music because we were already doing that, but his place of employment was very cool about him leaving and–
JP: Oh wow, how long had he been working there?
WM: Not even a year.
WM: Maybe about a year, just under a year. But he’s a smart guy, he can always go back to that.
JP: That’s awesome.
WM: Music’s kind of…if you don’t start it early, it’s more and more difficult to get into it.
JP: It sounds like learning a language. Well, people argue that music is a language.
You’ve got 99 problems like Jay-Z, could you tell me what your 65th problem would be?
WM: Sixty-fifth problem? Um…
JP: It could be…anything!
WM: I guess it would be that our ping pong table is broken.
JP: Aw, I’m so sorry. Is it still broken?
WM: Yeah, it is.
JP: Ow, oh man.
WM: It’s been broken for like two weeks, three weeks now. And that was like a major part of my cardio regimen for the springtime.
JP: If you could take a ride in a time machine and travel back to any era of your choosing, which one would it be?
WM: Any era? I dunno.
JP: Like a Renaissance man?
I think about this a lot actually because…I’d be a little afraid to go back in time too far because.
JP: Like dinosaurs?
Haha, not that far but um, food used to be really dirty. Like people used to be sick ALL THE TIME.
JP: They drink beer because water [was dirty].
WM: Yeah and medicine sucked! Yeah and nobody knew how to fix anything. So if I was to go back, yeah, I dunno. I would probably go back not that far.
JP: Well putting those negative things aside and just focusing on the positives of an era, maybe you could narrow it down a bit more.
WM: Yeah, there’s always wars…you know, and inquisitions…
JP: You’re just like, “reality, man…”
WM: The world is f***ed up, it’s slightly less violent now than it has been historically, unless you go way way back. I think it’d be cool to be like a nomadic person.
JP: In what [geographical area]?
JP: That sounds really neat.
WM: Like the Native Americans…a cool era.
JP: What’s your favorite song to perform off of Beta Love?
WM: Probably “Beta Love”…yeah.
JP: Okay. Fair enough…and did you know that Beta Love made it to WRCT’s most played albums of the week back in February when it was in rotation?
WM: I…don’t think I did, but maybe I did then.
JP: No no, don’t worry about it, haha. Just know it was well played at the station!
WM: Thank you!
JP: In a parallel universe, you are not a musician, instead you are an Olympic athlete, which country would you represent and what sport would you compete in?
WM: Ah well, I mean, I guess I would be…
JP: Ping pong.
WM: That’d be cool. I would, you know, I’d represent U.S.A. if it existed in this parallel universe. I don’t know…yeah ping pong would be cool, tennis would be cool. I’m definitely partial to skiing maybe like the biathlon, like skiing shooting biathlon.
JP: Like in James Bond.
WM: Yeah, exactly. That’d be a cool one.
JP: Synchronized swimming.
WM: Many cool sports to choose from I’d probably chose before synchronized swimming.
JP: I don’t think you’d pass the gender category.
WM: Are there no male synchronized swimmers?
JP: No. It’s all females. It’s a completely gendered sport.
JP: If you could dance with any star, who would it be?
WM: This may be a copout, but prolly Kate Bush. Although, she’s kind of an actual, like, dancer. Like a modern dancer, not like a ballroom dancer.
JP: Oh, is it more interpretive dance? I’m not familiar with her.
WM: She’s a great musician. She was a big influence on us, particularly in the beginning. You see some of her old videos from the 80s and she’s like just doing these crazy dances.
JP: Beyond her time?
JP: Do you have a comfort food or is there something you really like to eat when you feel sad?
WM: When I feel sad?!
JP: Or if it’s really rainy like today? Just like, “I really want this…”
JP: Ramen? From that place in Japan or just in general?
WM: In general. Yeah, I had it yesterday too because it was a little rainy in New York and it was great.
JP: Do you have a favorite brand of ramen? This will appeal to all the college students.
WM: No, like real ramen, at a ramen bar.
JP: Oh, where did you go in New York? Ippudo?
WM: No, Totto Ramen. It’s like…
JP: Oh! Is it on St. Marks?
WM: No it’s on 52nd…
JP: Ah cause you were already at Terminal 5, so you were already there.
WM: Yeah, it was just a ten-minute walk from there.
JP: How was it?
WM: It’s really good.
JP: Cause I’m originally from New York.
WM: Ah, it’s quite good.
JP: Since you were in Pittsburgh earlier this week and I go to school there and I’m kind of biased and you’re in Phildelphia now, which city do you prefer and why do you prefer one over the other?
WM: I am going to preface this with a little caveat because I really do love both cities. I love Pittsburgh, I think it’s a unique city.
WM: And I love Pennsylvania because my mother is from Pennsylvania, grew up in Philly. My grandmother also grew up in Philly, so I kind of have to have a Philly thing. My aunt lives near Philly.
WM: I have an autographed birthday card from quarterback Ron Javorski, when I was like eight or something.
JP: Okay. That’s understandable.
WM: So Philly is my fave.
JP: Philly’s in your heart.
WM: I do like Pittsburgh though. I like those kind of weird rustbelt cities.
Special thanks to Christine Stanley of Distiller Promo for all of her help!
In late June, I sat down with two members of psych-pop band Yeasayer, Chris Keating (vocals) and Ira Wolf Tuton (bass), before their concert at Mr. Small’s. I had seen Yeasayer twice before, once at Terminal 5 in New York and at Mr. Small’s nearly a year go. They’re always a treat to see with their intricate light shows and colorful sound.
Jess Phoa (WRCT): So, how did you come up with your name?
Chris Keating: My parents named me before I was born.
Ira Wolf Tuton: My grandfather named me.
CK: I was kind of bummed about my name – band name?
JP: Yes, sorry.
IWT: Mine’s from a time of, you know, you don’t meet many Ira’s any more.
JP: Is it an acronym for “I.R.A”?
IWT: To some people yes, to many Northern “Irelanders”.
CK: Uuh band name…actually a guy who only played with the band for two shows came up with it.
JP: Really? Okay, was this when you were just up and coming?
CK: Yeah, totally.
IWT: NO. We were bigger then. [chuckles]
CK: We were very huge… our EGOS were bigger. [laughs]
IWT: The first name of our band was “Coldplay” [laughs] and then we changed this name to be more modest.
CK: Yeah, he was really into naming bands. He was obsessed. Seriously obsessed band names.
JP: What are your thoughts on Pittsburgh? Well you’ve obviously been [here before].
IWT: I feel like Pittsburgh is, regardless of shows and all that, Pittsburgh is one of those hidden jewels of an American city. One of those that not a lot of people really know about and, uh, it’s probably easier to discover when you’re here and find people that are from here who can show you around. It’s definitely interesting.
JP: Yeah, cause a lot of people are like, “Why do I want to go to Pittsburgh?” what’s so special about it?
IWT: Sure. I grew up in Philadelphia during the Rocky era, at least the Rocky view. Everybody now from Philadelphia figures Philadelphia was just what they saw in Rocky. A lot of that is true, but there’s more to it than that. It’s very picaresque and cultural, culturally relevant.
JP: What have you actually seen around here?
IWT: Uh, the first time we were here –
CK: We went to the Warhol Museum!
JP: I was gonna say, did you go to the Warhol Museum? Did you like it?
CK: We did. Yeah, it was great.
IWT: CRAP! [laughs] No, it was a cool museum. All the bridges, uh, the steel architecture.
CK: The wild packs of dogs.
IWT: The wild packs of dogs roaming…
CK: Roaming the streets.
IWT: Three-headed fish in the river. Um, Carnegie Mellon up there is really pretty. I remember uh, the first time we came here… I think, some dude whose house we slept at… He took us on like, an unplanned tour.
JP: Of the campus?
IWT: No, just around Pittsburgh, different park areas that it overlooked.
CK: Buildings, squats.
IWT: Like Neo-Classical stuff, which is really, really cool. Deco-era stuff.
JP: Being from New York, where do you guys like eating? In the city?
IWT: Where do I like eating in the city… let’s see…
CK: My backyard! I’ve got a grill.
CK: I’m all about it.
IWT: That’s all I’ve been doing lately in my backyard… There’s a lot of great butcher shops, a lot of great markets. I’m in a CSA, so I get a lot of really good organic veggies every week. Too much.
JP: Are they cheap?
IWT: Uh, it works out to if I had gotten all these veggies throughout the season, it goes all the way through November, actually, which is crazy. And if I were to pay for all of these vegetables, I’d definitely be paying a lot more. The challenge is trying to figure out to do with, you know, four heads of bok choy.
CK: What the fuck. I’d never do that shit.
IWT: You ALWAYS get bok choy.
CK: YOU GOTTA GET CSA, MAN! I’m like, “You have a fifty pack of turnips.”
I don’t want a turnip.
IWT: Yeah, yeah, but it’s good!
CK: There’s good Japanese restaurants.
IWT: It keeps you on your toes.
CK: Chinese food that’s great…there’s everything in New York!
JP: What’s your favorite kind of Japanese food?
CK: Well, in Tokyo, there were these Izakaya places. There’s this one yakitori place that I loved. Or actually we went to this place that specialized in Okinawa-Japanese food.
JP: I’ve never actually had that kind of Japanese food.
CK: A lot of bitter cucumbers.
IWT: My favorite stuff in Japan going to the Ryokons. Going to some inns more inlands, it was kind of like the local…river fish that were fried and sautéed up. Kind of local pickled vegetables…All this really good, high-quality local stuff. Which is good. It wasn’t just sushi! But that yakitori place…
CK: That was awesome.
IWT: That was amazing.
JP: Did you just have endless skewers of meat?
CK: Basically just like, all parts of the chicken. I have of a friend of a friend and he just takes us out. He takes us to interesting places.
JP: If you could have one last meal before you died, what would it be?
IWT: It would probably be Japanese food because I’d be able to eat, more of it.
CK: Probably a really huge bowl of pasta, ‘cause I always want to die after then anyway.
IWT: You’d die first.
CK: Like just a HUGE heaping.
JP: With anything on it?
CK: Yeah, just EVERYTHING. Like ALL THE SEAFOOD! Mix it all together.
IWT: Red sauce! White sauce!
CK: Why am I dying, by the way? Am I in prison? Am I being punished?
IWT: Yo, why is it your last meal?
JP: No, just like a hypothetical question. Let’s just say you were to just die the next day, I guess.
IWT: Like we were clairvoyants.
CK: There are so many other things I’d rather be doing.
IWT: Yeah I probably wouldn’t sit down to eat. I’d probably be doing a lot of other things.
CK: All the horrible things I’d be doing… [laughs]
IWT: Well, GOTTA EAT.
JP: Well I feel like I got this wrong, ‘cause I read you [Ira] grew up in Baltimore.
CK: I grew up in Baltimore.
JP: You. So wait, I guess I got that wrong. So are you [Ira] and Anand [Yeasayer’s guitarist] cousins?
IWT: Me and Anand are related through family, yeah.
JP: How did you guys form [Yeasayer]?
IWT: Anand and him grew up together. In Baltimore.
JP: Ah okay, are you approximately the same age?
CK: Yes we are approximately the same age. Same year of school. Class of 2000 high school.
JP: What high school did you go to?
CK: Park. It was called Park High School.
JP: Did you play an instrument in high school?
CK: Nah, not really. We had a band. I sang in a band.
IWT: They had a band that when I was in high school, I had their album.
CK: A demo!
IWT: I had never met him [Chris]. But because I knew Anand and his family –
CK: He LOVED it!
IWT: I LOVED IT. My sister, not a big fan.
JP: And then did you get roped in? By them?
IWT: Roped in, they just pushed me in and wouldn’t let me go. Uh, we all moved to New York around the same time.
IWT: And then, over the next three or four years, we slowly, slowly got it together after all of us figuring [things] out and getting on our feet.
JP: What drew you to New York then?
IWT: The community. The opportunities and every single thing.
CK: Girls and jobs.
JP: All the girls?
CK: There’s a lot of them there. Seems like a good place to go.
IWT: All the girls with jobs.
CK: All the girls with jobs. COUGARS! I’ve never experienced that first hand.
JP: So I always see you [Ira] wearing this necklace and the rings, which are on your watch. I was wondering about the significance of them.
IWT: This was a necklace I got a long time ago from a friend of mine.
IWT: And he traded me for a necklace I had at the time. It has Pennsylvania and Maryland on it and I noticed that it had Pennsylvania on it and I was like, “Oh I’m from Philadelphia! What’s the other state?” and he said “Maryland.” And I was like, “Oh that’s where Chris and Anand from our band are from.”
He took that as a sign from the heavens that this necklace was for me. He placed it on my head and I haven’t removed it since.
And these [the rings] are gifts from my woman.
JP: How did you design your album covers? They’re kind of just…out there.
IWT: He did the first one [All Hour Cymbals]. [gestures towards Chris]
CK: I did the first one.
JP: How did you do it? Photo manipulation?
CK: Collage. Cutting out stuff. I did a lot of collages, surrealist collage. So that was the first one and then…the second was like the same idea, but we were using 3-D scans of our faces that actually a friend had built using a car design program.
IWT: Actually that guy also had built some of the set designs.
CK: Yeah he did. So that was a friend of mine and so he did virtual sculptures of our faces and matched them together and made all this weird stuff. I figured it was in line with that. And the last one was another friend and that was like, images of this dancer.
JP: Do you have any hobbies that not many people know about?
IWT: I really enjoy tree work and gardening. And working on music.
JP: Is that why you wear wife-beaters all the time?
IWT: They’re called, “tank tops” where I come from?
JP: Sorry, haha. Or “muscle tees”?
CK: Guinea tees?
IWT: TANK TOPS.
CK: I watch a lot of movies.
JP: Oh, what do you like?
CK: All kinds of stuff. I don’t even know!
IWT: What DON’T you like?
CK: I did NOT like the new Superman movie. I generally, I tend to like movies from say, ehh, 1969-1979. It was a really fascinating period.
IWT: The movies I brought on tour, I brought because I knew he would really like them. The French Connection.
CK: OH! I love The French Connection.
IWT: As well as…El Topo.
CK: I liked that. You gotta go with Gene Hackman in Conversation, though.
JP: [To Ira] Are those some of your favorite movies too?
IWT: Yeah! They certainly are. I haven’t seen the new Superman.
CK: I watch a lot of old stuff and the Hollywood Blockbusters.
IWT: I like the documentaries. [In a New York accent] I like the documentaries! I read tha paypahs!
JP: [To Chris] Do you have a crab tattoo because you’re from Maryland?
CK: I do. It’s not because I’m a cancer.
IWT: If you were to die tomorrow, what kind of tattoo would you get?
Special thanks goes to Ceci Gomez and Paul Drake for all of their help.
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Just over two weeks ago, on June 6, I met up with Ian Hultquist, keyboardist and guitarist of Passion Pit, at Stage AE. He is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, where he studied film score composition. We talked about things such as his Batman fandom and his favorite composers. Read the interview transcript below.
Jess Phoa (WRCT): I know you’ve been to Pittsburgh a quite a few times in the last year, so how do you like Pittsburgh?
Ian Hultquist: I like it a lot, actually. You know, I feel like I didn’t really get a chance to see it until last time we were here [in November 2012]. And I finally started to get a better feel for the city, but I think it’s pretty cool.
JP: Which Batman franchise do you prefer?
[Prior to the interview, I looked at Ian’s Flickr account and I noticed there was a picture of him standing in the middle of Heinz Field, which was featured in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.]
IH: Well, the one that included Heinz Field. The “Nolan Universe” one.
JP: What did you like about it in particular?
IH: I mean, I thought they were such well-made movies. The Dark Knight, the second one, was like the perfect movie. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. From a technical writing and editorial standpoint, I thought it was perfect. Then I thought the stories were so good and they finally made real characters out of these people. Where, I mean, I love Tim Burton’s movies – I love every Batman movie. I’m a Batman fan for life.
JP: Did you grow up with the TV show?
IH: Yeah, the animated series and everything. But I just felt like the characters made sense for once, like, I, you know super hero mythology is really funny, like, you have all these universes and all this crazy stuff.
JP: Like Marvel vs. DC?
IH: Yeah, all of that. I wouldn’t say that this is the “definitive Batman”, the real one, but it’s the one [series] that stands on its own.
JP: Do you have a favorite composer? Personally, I really like Michael Giacchino.
IH: Yeah! He’s one of my favorites. He’s up there. I was watching Lost as I was doing film scoring at Berklee and he’s kind of like, one of the composers that really made sense to me. Like, I feel like I could do something like this. I love what Hans Zimmer has been doing lately. Alexander Desplat [the composer for Zero Dark Thirty]. For up and coming composers, Nathan Johnson, who did Looper. Rob Simonson is another one. He works with Mychael Danna a lot, who did Life of Pi. There’s a lot of composers up there that I’m really into right now.
JP: What about classical composers?
IH: I love Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky. You know, I don’t have ones that I shy away from, I’m pretty open to a lot of things. But lately, I’m just so focused on film scoring that that’s what I listen to.
JP: When did you learn to play the guitar and keyboards or piano, [which one did you learn] first?
IH: I actually grew up playing alto saxophone. I played in the school bands and then I think in like the seventh grade, I was listening to a lot of punk and rock music and was like, “I wanna play these songs” and there are no saxophones. So I forgot how to read music completely, and I only knew how to read tabs and I got my first guitar. I think that’s when it started and then of course, when I got to college, I had to remember how to read everything.
JP: Well, you had to audition [for college]?
IH: Yeah, guitar’s definitely my main instrument. I played piano just a little bit, but I didn’t have any training in it. I didn’t really start until Passion Pit started and then I kind of had to teach myself how to play keyboards.
JP: Do you have any lesser-known hobbies? Ones that people aren’t really aware of?
IH: Mmm, no. I’m pretty good about sharing whatever I come up with, like I Instagram all of my photos.
JP: Do you like knitting?
IH: Haha, no. I don’t have any knitting skills. I’m pretty not complicated. I play music, I watch lots of music, I write music for film. That’s basically my life in a nutshell.
JP: It sounds like a good life, though!
IH: Yeah, it’s great!
JP: I previously read about your pre-concert rituals, but do you have any pre-concert necessities, like the room has to be set to 68 degrees Fahrenheit or something like that?
IH: No no no, hahaha. We’re not that anal yet.
JP: Is there an instrument you prefer to play?
IH: You know, because guitar is more comfortable for me, I always go to that. But lately, I almost feel just as comfortable, if not more, on keyboards. So, it kind of depends, but I always like playing guitar.
JP: What would you do for a living if you went deaf?
IH: Oh man…become a silent film maker.
JP: But even those have film scores.
IH: Sure, I’d just have to trust whoever’s writing the music I guess, haha. I would probably just focus on the story.
JP: Really, just the writing?
JP: Is there a song you particularly like to perform as opposed to crowd pleasers?
IH: We’ve been playing this song, “Where I Come From”. It was actually on the Twilight soundtrack. We’ve been playing it a lot, and I actually like it a lot. It’s very, very different from any other Passion Pit song. Mike [referring to Michael Angelakos, the lead singer] and I play guitar on it. So that’s one thing that definitely stands out from the others.
JP: How long have you been living in Brooklyn?
IH: Three and a half…four years?
JP: What’s your favorite thing about it?
IH: I know that it was one of the first cities that I had gone to in a while, that like, felt right. It felt like home. I had lived in Boston for five and a half years [while at college], but it always felt this is my “college town” this doesn’t feel like I’m going to live here for the rest of my life.
JP: What kinds of things do you like taking photos of?
IH: It’s always different, honestly. Usually it has to do with shapes because I always kind of mess around with colors already. But it’s usually shapes or interesting shadows and landscapes. It’s kind of whatever catches my eye.
JP: Is there something you just HAVE to do whenever you have break time? Is there something you long for while you’re on the road that you have to do when you get back?
IH: My wife has a pasta dish called “Amatriciana” that I ask her to make me when I get home. It’s just tomato sauce, onions, pancetta, basil, it’s like such a simple dish, but it’s just the way she makes it.
JP: If there’s any artist you could collaborate with, who would it be?
IH: I’ve been listening to Ólafur Arnalds, who’s Icelandic, and Nils Frahm. If I could do something with either of them, that would be amazing. They’re kind of like, new classical composers. A lot of piano pieces, but they bring in a lot of ambient electronics at the same time.
I managed to attend the concert later that day and I was far from displeased. It was my third time seeing them live and I wouldn’t hesitate to see them again. Special thanks to Nathan D’Oria and the folks at Stage AE.