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Ra Ra Riot turns a college band into a career 

"We started as a house-party band."

Is this elevator going up? Ra Ra Riot - PHOTO COURTESY OF DORON GILD

The daydream of every college student who's fooled around in a band came true for the members of Ra Ra Riot. With most of the six bandmates about to graduate into a recession economy -- with degrees spanning disciplines from physics to architecture to "music business" -- the group expanded its schedule from gigs around Syracuse University to a self-booked tour of the Northeast. "It was just for a little taste of what it would be like to be a professional band," says bassist Mathieu Santos.

One stop was the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City, where the band caught the attention of industry lawyers, booking agents and the other types who enable full-time touring acts. Soon after came spots at South by Southwest and the Seaport Music Festival, then a contract with Virgin subsidiary label V2 Records and a gushing mention on Spin.com (which called them "one of the best young bands we've heard in a really long time"). This all happened within two years of the band's first practice, in January 2006. 

Hate them yet? Don't get too jealous. 

Violinist Rebecca Zeller describes an exciting but itinerant lifestyle in which the bandmates return from a long, grueling tour with no apartments of their own and "crash with friends or siblings or cousins." Zeller, a classically trained violinist who turned down a job at the famed talent agency William Morris to soldier on with the band, says nearly everything she owns is stashed with her parents. 

This week, Ra Ra Riot will end a full year on the road with a show at the Carnegie Lecture Hall, rescheduled from Nov. 21 because of vocalist Milo Bonacci's throat infection. (This is the band's fourth stop in Pittsburgh; it once played Diesel and twice Garfield Artworks.) 

Furthermore, the process of writing Ra Ra Riot's songs, jointly credited to all band members, can be strenuous. The band includes two instruments unconventional for pop rock -- Zeller's violin and Alexandra Lawn's cello -- and space must be found for them and four other members in their compact, upbeat songs.

"Someone brings an idea and we put it through the Ra Ra Riot machine," says Zeller. "We all sit around and jam, for lack of a better word, for a while but it's frustrating sometimes and can take it into a direction the person who came up with it doesn't like."

Classical instruments are fairly common in rock music these days -- "cello rock" has its own Wikipedia entry -- but bands associated with that trend either indulge in lengthy prog-metal epics or follow the dreary Rasputina model of baroque pop. Ra Ra Riot, on the other hand, has no qualms about being a bouncy rock act. 

"When Milo recruited me, he said he didn't want the strings to be droning," says Zeller. "We started as a house-party band." Ra Ra Riot's debut The Rhumb Line almost sounded like a New Wave record with bowed string instruments in place of the synthesizer. Comparisons to Vampire Weekend were frequent. 

To write the follow-up to The Rhumb Line in the summer of 2009, the band moved into a house on a 40-acre peach orchard in Yates County, N.Y., loaned by friends of Bonacci. "The first record was a collection of songs we had been playing," says Santos. "For this album, we started from scratch, got them all out at once. … It feels more cohesive to us." 

The album, appropriately titled The Orchard, is a bit slower and more reflective than The Rhumb Line. (Both were released on Seattle-based Barsuk Records; the V2 deal didn't pan out.) But don't expect mature somberness to be the next phase in the accelerated development of Ra Ra Riot, which plans to record, release and tour behind a third album next year. 

"We still want to be fun without being dumb," says Santos. "When we started the band, we did not have any professional aspirations. The entire point was to have fun and be ourselves. We started by writing songs that would sound good at a party, and that's still how we approach things."

 

RA RA RIOT with 1, 2, 3. 8 p.m. Sat., Dec. 17. Carnegie Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. $12-15. All ages. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org

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