Though indie-rock band Ra Ra Riot's popularity has grown enough that it can book big festivals and fill midsized clubs like Revolution Live (where it's headlining this Friday), singer Wes Miles tells New Times Ra Ra Riot will always be a "house-party band."
Last year, the band returned to those roots with a slightly different tour setup from what it's used to. "It was for research and fun," Miles says via phone from Kansas City. "We wanted to see how the songs from our new record connected to people, so we played house parties in D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia.
"Each one had a hundred sweaty people; there weren't enough legal exits — it was extremely DIY. We didn't promote it, but word of mouth got around. It seems like yesterday, but it has been ten years now since we had no choice but to play house parties."
Miles grew up in a musical family from New Jersey. His parents sang, his older brother played bass, and Miles was forced to take piano lessons, but he picked up instruments like they were candy. At times playing saxophone, drums, and guitar in bands with as varied genres as ska, metal, hip-hop, jazz, and classical, by the time he enrolled at Syracuse University, Miles was ready for anything.
While at Syracuse, he met guitarist Milo Bonacci, who Miles says was the catalyst of Ra Ra Riot. "Milo knew everybody. He had a Wurlitzer electric piano, and we talked about making music together. Three years passed before we did.
"I saw him play with [original drummer] John Pike and a string section and was blown away. I brought my keyboard to jam with them and became the last of the original members to join."
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That was back in January 2006, when they stormed the Syracuse house-party circuit with set lists heavy on covers by their biggest influences: Devo, the Talking Heads, Kate Bush, and an attempt at Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy."
Those shows also included early workings of original songs that would eventually become hits, like "Dying Is Fine," written prior to Pike's tragic 2007 death, although the loss undoubtedly gave the song new meaning.
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Released earlier this year, their newest album, Need Your Light, reflects the band's decade-long journey. "It had been a long path," says Miles. "Each of our records informed the next one. After The Orchard , we thought we were putting ourselves in a box. So with Beta Love, we tried to do something different. We worked a lot on it, so 2013 was very hectic. We took a break for headspace, which made us all want to work again. On Need Your Light, we worked with people that we worked with on our three other albums. It became about existing relationships and trying to grow them."
One of their relationships that continues to grow, Miles says, is Ra Ra Riot's bond with its audiences. "Whether we're playing a club or a house party, we've picked up tricks and emotions so they can have fun."
Ra Ra Riot
With Jacuzzi Boys and Beach Day. 8 p.m. Friday, April 29, at Revolution Live, 100 SW Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $21 to $24 plus fees via ticketmaster.com.