There are three things you might as well know right off about Milo Bonacci. First, he's the bespectacled guitarist for the Syracuse-based band Ra Ra Riot, where he lends a rougher, serrated quality to the sextet's grainy chamber pop. He also seems like a pretty nice guy, one who chuckles a bit awkwardly and deploys carefully chosen words in a low, somewhat nerdly croak. And finally, he makes quite a passable caterpillar.
At least, that's what I gather from the video for "Dying Is Fine," a mixture of live action and animation in which Bonacci and bassist Mathieu Santos start out as happy rock 'n' roll caterpillars, before being imprisoned in a bug-collector's jar. This might sound like some heavy psychedelics, but the circle-of-life song and video seem closer to tasteful children's programming than to Iron Butterfly.
The song, from the band's melodious yet melancholy self-titled 2007 EP, was one of the first written by the group. Inspired in part by a poet forever popular on college campuses, e.e. cummings, it features the sprightly chorus, "You know that dying is fine, but maybe / I wouldn't like death if death were good / not even if death were good."
The track proved bizarrely prescient, when the band's 23-year-old drummer, John Pike, passed away tragically early last June, going missing after a show in Providence, R.I. When his family formed the John Ryan Pike Memorial Foundation, to provide musical resources to underprivileged kids, Ra Ra Riot put on a benefit concert in Boston called "Friends of John," which also featured Tokyo Police Club and Vampire Weekend.
"[The foundation] was started because that's the kind of person John was," says Bonacci. "If he was interested in something, he was going to really learn about it and know and explore and discover. He taught himself guitar and piano and drums." Because Pike was integral to the band's writing, Ra Ra Riot had to learn how to compensate for his absence when it began recording its new album at the end of last year, convening for a few weeks in Seattle with producer Ryan Hadlock (Blonde Redhead, The Gossip, Stephen Malkmus).
"John contributed in a lot of ways -- to melodic ideas and structural ideas and that sort of stuff," says Bonacci, "but also he wrote a lot of the lyrics. So this time around it was all Wes, our singer, who wrote the lyrics; before, he would always work with John on lyrics, so it was always a collaborative process. More or less, our overall process of writing hasn't changed, it's just the people contributing to the process has changed."
Those people currently include Bonacci and Santos as well as vocalist and keyboardist Wesley Miles, drummer Cameron Wisch, and the string section of Alexandra Lawn (cello) and Rebecca Zeller (violin). The group originally formed in January 2006, at Syracuse University, where its members were majoring in everything from painting to astrophysics, architecture to the music industry.
"We started playing a lot of house parties and campus events," says Bonacci -- "something to do on the weekends. There wasn't a whole lot going on, so I think our intention was to make something go on." The band didn't even bother recording until the members wanted to play outside Syracuse and needed music to send to prospective venues. And by the fall, the then-graduated members of Ra Ra Riot found themselves in a pretty different situation from their original casual jams.
"We were no longer a college band," Bonacci says. "We started to think of ourselves as a real band in the world. Ever since then, we're just trying to live up to that."
Currently, living up to that means mixing and mastering the new full-length album and finding a U.S. label to release it. But the members have already had some pretty real-world experiences as a band, including touring the U.K. a couple of times, opening for The Editors and doing their own headlining dates. Bonacci recalls a special gig in Reykjavík, Iceland, where "a larger percentage of people ... were singing along than I've ever seen at any of our shows. I have no idea how they knew our songs, but they did, and it was completely unexpected."
Moments of triumph on distant islands aside, Bonacci, at least, projects a humble and weirdly matter-of-fact attitude. "None of us are expecting that we're going to be doing this forever, or anything," he says. "We all have other potential careers to get back to."
Ra Ra Riot with Bad Faith Compromise and Science Is Dead. 8 p.m. Tue., Feb. 5. Garfield Artworks, 4931 Penn Ave., Garfield. $7. All ages. 412-361-2262 or www.garfieldartworks.com