Music News

Ra Ra Riot's String Section Embodies Its Pastoral Evolution

Indie-rock fans aren't used to seeing a cellist sharing a stage with the drums and guitar. And they're definitely not used to seeing one who looks like Alexandra Lawn of Ra Ra Riot.

In the field of sex-symbol cellists, Lawn has no equal.

Understandably, the subject makes her bashful. "Yes, I hear guys shout things in between songs," Lawn sighs. Professions of love, requests for her hand in marriage, along with cruder expressions of admiration.

Of course, these pinings are even more pronounced online. At least one fan video posted on YouTube ignores every band member, including lead singer Wes Miles, so that it can focus squarely on Lawn as she sways her hips and tosses her chocolate-colored hair while banging out chords on her electric cello.

"It's a little awkward — and weird," says Lawn of her unintended gift for transforming otherwise repressed indie-rock fans into catcalling construction workers. "I would much rather they admire me for my music."

Points for the next sly suitor who belts out "Kick-ass cello!" during a midconcert pause.

Truly, it's Lawn's cello together with Rebecca Zeller's violin that separate the Ra Ra Riot sound from its indie-rock cohorts. And on the band's most recent album, The Orchard, released last August, those chamber-orchestra instruments assume an even higher profile than on Ra Ra Riot's debut album, The Rhumb Line.

The Orchard has encountered the usual turbulence that comes with sophomore albums: lukewarm reception from critics and some fans who say that there aren't as many catchy pop refrains this time around. Of course, Lawn thinks of the band's newest release in much different terms.

"It was part of our natural evolution as a band, because by the time we recorded The Orchard, we had been playing together for a long time," she says. The Rhumb Line was a moment. The Orchard, says Lawn, is "a culmination."

While the first album was destined to blare from dorm rooms coast to coast and grew an adoring fan base, The Orchard's more subdued tone makes it better-suited for sporting headphones and a reflective, introspective mood.

After all, the record was made while the band was in virtual seclusion at an actual orchard in upstate New York, not far from the Syracuse University campus where Ra Ra Riot was founded three and a half years before.

Such pastoral environs are ideal for escaping the pressure that comes with a sophomore album for a critically acclaimed band. But plucking peaches and mingling with Mennonite farmers is not a formula conducive to making irresistible pop.

Rather, the songs that came out of the band's time on the farm are tinged by melancholy, which may have something to do with the absence of John Pike, the original drummer, who drowned in June 2007 following a concert afterparty in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

Pike had helped craft some of the band's most infectious songs, and it's evident that Ra Ra Riot wanted to pay tribute to him not just with the occasional lyric but by avoiding any sense that it was looking for a new member who could do a convincing imitation.

Naturally, the band has had an awkward time finding Pike's replacement. In January, Ra Ra Riot announced that drummer Gabriel Duquette would be leaving the band. Duquette posted a letter on the band's website thanking the fans and his bandmates, suggesting that the parting was amicable.

Lawn confirmed this, although she seemed eager to avoid the subject in favor of expressing optimism about the newest drummer, Kenneth Bernard, whom the members know through a contact at their record label.

The label was also a conduit through which the band hooked up with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla. Although the band produced and recorded The Orchard itself, it sent it to Walla for mixing prior to the album's release. "It really adds a dimension to our sound that we've never had before," says Lawn of the collaboration.

Yet another new wrinkle is the emergence of a new, part-time singer — Lawn herself borrowed the lead-vocal role from Miles for an elegant ballad, "You and I Know." In her leap of faith, Lawn got a boost from Miles.

"When I write songs, I usually don't do the singing, but for that song, I demoed the singing part," Lawn says. "Wes called me and just said, 'You should sing it.' "

In the 40-minute documentary that Ra Ra Riot made during its time at the orchard, Lawn admits feeling a bit anxious about singing lead and particularly squeamish about performing the song live — a prospect that she said required that she "grow the balls."

Judging by the fact that "You and I Know" has been appearing on set lists, Lawn has managed to grow those, um, balls.

It's brave enough that Lawn play her unwieldy instrument standing up to abide by rock 'n' roll rules. Anchored to the cello, Lawn has to stay clear of her more mobile bandmates, like Miles, who has a tendency to bounce around. "I've become better at avoiding collisions," Lawn laughs. "But I definitely prefer a bigger stage."

March 7 will mark the first time that she and her fellow Riot-ers have played South Florida, and Lawn hopes to find the Culture Room stage spacious.

Tireless performers, Ra Ra Riot's Fort Lauderdale show will happen just five weeks after the band played in Vancouver, British Columbia. And after stopping for shows in Tampa and Orlando, then a junket in the Midwest, the band will fly to Tokyo for a show on April 22.

If it were up to Lawn, the band would also book a show for Iceland. In 2008, Ra Ra Riot played the Airwave Festival in Reykjavik that Lawn still remembers as the highlight of her time performing. "We had a great, great day out there," she says. "It's just so beautiful there; it's special. We played a good show, and the crowd was just amazing."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Thomas Francis