Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Interview with Ra Ra Riot's Mathieu Santos


The Loft is a club located in the heart of Dallas, Texas. It is connected to The Palladium Ballroom and is literally a loft upstairs with a great view of the metroplex. I arrived at 8pm for my interview and called the very gracious Elise Markell (road manager for Ra Ra Riot). She directed me to the bar area to have an interview with Ra Ra Riot's bass player Mathieu Santos. As I entered, most of the band had stools pulled up to the bar and were scarfing down dinner while watching the Vice Presidential Debate. Music and politics - my two favorite subjects.

Mathieu immediately greeted me and in accomodating fashion asked where I wanted to conduct the interview. After thinking about it, he decided it would be best for us to sit at a table overshadowed by a large poster of U2. After a brief discussion of U2's greatness I started the interview. As the interview progressed it became more of a conversation, and a very enjoyable one.

Captain Melody (Drew Emmick): How long have you have played bass?
Mathieu Santos: Probably about 7 years, I think.

CM: And how old are you again?
MS: 23

CM: This is strictly a musician question, but what type of bass do you play?
MS: For a long time I played the Sting Model of the Fender Precision Bass – a 53’ reissue, which I love. But just a few weeks ago I got a brand new 57’ American Vintage Reissue Precision Bass which is awesome. It’s a bass I’ve wanted for a few years, and I finally got it.

CM: Another musician question; do you like to play with your fingers or with a pick? What is your preference? I used to play guitar but am transitioning to bass and playing with a pick is a lot easier.
MS: I never played any instrument before bass so I started playing with my fingers. Now I pretty much play with a pick all the time. It helps get more of a cutting tone. Especially with so many instruments in our band it helps to cut through all of the music.

CM: You all have been on a lot of tours this year. In fact, if my calculations are correct you’ve been on tour the majority of 2008.
MS: Definitely, and even the off time is misleading because even when we weren’t touring we were writing or doing promotional press stuff in New York.

CM: Do you continue to do house parties when you’re not on tour, or have you gotten away from that?
MS: We really don’t do anything like that. I guess it’s not really related, but we went back to Syracuse and we recorded for a couple days in an attic there - sort of reminiscent of house party days. But that’s as close as we got.

CM: Did you start your latest tour before or after the release of your album?
MS: The day the album came out we did an in-store performance at Virgin Music in New York City. Right after that, we went abroad for a week and came back to do Conan O’Brien.

CM: That was a great performance.
MS: Thank you. It was actually terrifying. I’m a huge Conan fan, which I think is why it was a particulary scary experience. Normally I don’t get too nervous before playing anywhere. I wasn’t nervous about being on TV but by the fact it was on Conan. In my mind I assumed we would meet him ahead of time. But we didn’t meet him at all. We kept seeing him getting ready and it was intimidating. We got onstage and all of a sudden we were on the air and he introduced us. He came over to us afterwards and talked for a little bit. We just shot the shit; it was cool.

CM: Starting your current tour shortly after the release of “The Rhumb Line” have you had time to enjoy the album's success? It peaked at #17 in independent albums and broke Billboard’s top 200 at #109. The album has been very successful. Have you been able to enjoy that?
MS: Well, we’ve been getting updates on sales every week while we’ve been on the road. But I think the biggest indicator that we’ve seen is we’ve toured the States extensively the last couple years and we’ve done pretty well. We were starting to get fans in all different kinds of markets. But since the album has been out it’s made a huge difference in turn-out. We’ve had really good crowds at every show. People sing along to all of the songs on the album, which is really great to see. People are more familiar with us, and just having a reason to tour aside from having people learn about the band- actually having an album to promote makes a huge difference. It’s been great so far. It’s been overwhelmingly positive.

CM: When recording the album did you have a set number of songs, or did you record more material and narrow it down? Are there any B-sides?
MS: The way the album was done was on a minute basis – we had to have X number of minutes. It ended up coming down to the wire where we almost didn’t have enough material. We had 10 songs at first and then one of them we weren’t able to use so we had to scramble, which is why the Kate Bush cover is on the album. That was originally going to be a B-side but we ended up having to put it on. All we have for B-sides are like demos. Pretty much we play every song we know every night. And it’s happened before where we played all of the songs, so when we came out for an encore and played our 1 extra song - I guess that would be our 1 B-side that we never recorded, another Kate Bush cover, Hounds of Love.

CM: I take it you are Kate Bush fans?
MS: Huge. Wes, our singer got us into her. We came out and played that for the encore. Then we were asked to do a second encore and we had no more songs to play, so we had to play a song twice. Hopefully soon we will begin working on new material to have some more songs to play.

CM: Do you have an estimation on when you will have enough time away from touring to begin writing new material?
MS: We just started discussing it realistically the other day. And we took a couple of weeks a month ago to start working on new ideas. And then we might have a week or two in January. It’s kind of a bad time to tour. We’re going to be touring a lot next year supporting the album so I don’t know. We would like to get a second album out as soon as possible because we are really excited about that.

CM: Your album was released internationally this week. When you go over to the UK do you expect bigger turn-outs because of the album?
MS: Hopefully. None of us have heard how it’s doing. The album being released in the States was such a big deal for us and we’ve been so busy lately. It was almost like, “Oh, our album came out today in Europe and the UK.” We haven’t really been following it closely. I know a bunch of magazines are reviewing it, and the last time we were in London we had really good turn-outs to all of the shows. A lot of it will be the same type of thing where people are more aware and familiar with the songs.

CM:
How about Canada? You recently toured there.
MS: We just had a great show in Vancouver – that was presently surprising since we’ve only played there once before. That was great. We played Toronto a few times. Toronto is great. It’s always a great music city. Tons of people come out and they really support the bands and not just the headliners. We played Montreal a couple times. We’ve had a hard time getting a reaction there. Not to make any generalizations but every time we go to Canada we have terrible luck with having our van broken into. 3 times now – 2 successful and 1 attempted robbery.

CM: Did they take your gear?
MS: No, never our gear. The first time was bad. They broke a window and stole all of our laptops, digital cameras and cell phones. This last time we were being super vigilant and they somehow stole our navigation system while we were loading. That’s bold. When we were in Toronto we were in a venue for 10 minutes and someone had pried off the lock of our door with a screwdriver but nothing was taken. That was in the middle of the day – really bizarre. Other than that, Canada is good.

CM: I’ve noticed while maintaining my blog that many Canadians follow independent music. In fact, I learned of Ra Ra Riot through a Canadian blog.
MS: They are really into music. The first time we played Toronto there were 300 people. And that was without the label promoting us.

CM: What are your influences? I am sure it varies throughout the band.
MS: It does vary from person to person. The common ground of the band is U2, Police, DEVO, Beatles and classic stuff like that. We are all big Beatles fans. I’m reading the Bob Spitz biography right now. I read it every time we are on tour, because its so fascinating. Pretty much the common ground is classic music like that. The Talking Heads is another one.

CM: I wanted to ask you about the drummer you are touring with – what is his name?
MS: His name is Gabriel Duquette. He was playing drums in another band Sam Buck Rosen from New York who is amazing. If you don’t know them already you should look them up. We played a few shows with them. Actually, Wes lived with Sam, Ezra from Vampire Weekend and also Dave from Dirty Projectors. So we knew Sam and played a few shows. They were incredible. Gabe was an amazing drummer and we took note right away. The drummer we had at the time decided to go to college because he was only 18 or 19. Once he left we asked Gabe if he was interested.

CM: Was this right before the release of the album?
MS: Yeah, this was the middle of July because we had to make the decision quickly. He came to Wes’s house for a few weeks and we rehearsed together. And then we went right into it.

CM: Do you consider him a permanent member of the band?
MS: Not yet. We haven’t made that decision or even had that discussion yet. He’s between a live musician and a regular member. I think the way we left it is we would tour a few months together and see how everyone felt. So far it’s been going very well and we will probably have a better idea once we start working on new material.

CM: I’ve read a lot of interviews and it seems like people want to ask questions about John Pike and what happened to him. Personally, I think it’s rude because I its something you’ve gone through that is special to you all. I did want to ask though, when I was researching for the interview I went through a lot of the information on his memorial fund and the ideas for it and felt they were great ideas – a great cause. Is the foundation still planning to move forward?
MS: First of all, thank you for your respect of the matter. It’s something that does inevitably come up in all the interviews. And while it is mostly handled tastefully by people, it is something big to deal with.

CM: When you do research on what happened and the impact on the band you see how important he was to the band – not just as a musician but as a friend and inspiration. It’s clearly evident that you didn’t just lose a band member, but a friend that has inspired many, many people.
MS: That’s 100 percent true. Thank you also for doing research because a lot of times people ask really strange, very weird questions about him. You are totally right about him, and how important he was and still is. The foundation is still going strong. We had a big benefit for it last Christmas. We played with Vampire Weekend and Tokyo Police Club – two bands that we were friends with when John was still in the band. We raised a lot of money then. We still raise money on the road, donating some of our merchandise money to it.

CM: Was the library ever set up?
MS: I’m not really sure if that has been completely setup yet. I’ve been to the website a few times and it hasn’t been updated recently. But I know that they are still raising money and working through the emotion to make it a reality.

CM: What keeps you together and strong on the road? I know that it can be a trying time for some bands as personality conflicts rise to the surface.
MS: Do you mean touring in regards to John’s passing?
CM: No, just in general.
MS: Actually, it’s a pretty nice group to deal with. One thing that surprised me in the beginning is a lot of bands form out of people that are friends. But in our case it was mostly - I didn’t know anyone in the band. We were pretty much all strangers when the band started so I assumed at the time – with 6 or 7 people – it would be difficult for everyone to get a long without having known each other. But that has actually helped us because we got to learn about each other at the same time. It has been fun. We have a really complex and delicate dynamic but its been a lot of fun. It’s more like a family. It’s very family-like. Obviously, not to bring it back up, but losing John – he was such a big part of the group dynamic. That was the hardest part of the whole thing. We know we needed to continue. That was the right thing. It was hard doing all of those things without him. It’s been a year now and it has just started to feel like things are getting back to normal. But when you are stuck with the same people and you know everything about them, you learn how to appreciate them.

CM: In doing my research I learned that Aly and Rebecca previously played classical music and had to transition to being in a rock band. Was it interesting seeing them go from that style to playing rock music and touring?
MS: Totally. They have been great and they love it. They made the transition pretty aimlessly. It seemed like something everyone individually wanted to do for whatever reason. I can imagine for them, playing classical music for years and years, getting to do something like this was probably really exciting and refreshing. I’m not sure either of them had aspirations to be classical musicians their whole lives and this was a nice way for them to get back to playing music – trying new things. I remember the first practice we had. We were working on Dying is Fine and playing it over and over. They came up with great parts. You could tell they wanted to play and were excited and curious about it. I think they are doing very well.

CM: Comparing being on V2 and now being signed to Barsuk do you notice a difference in tour support?
MS: We are still on V2. We signed with V2 first which still supports us worldwide excluding North America. We signed to Barsuk here.

CM: So Barsuk handles North American and V2 handles everywhere else?
MS: Right. Shortly after we signed to V2 they were bought by Universal and it hasn’t really gotten back on track for them yet. We haven’t really gotten full support. But I think the biggest change we’ve noticed is touring the States, and like I said before, this goes a long way with having the album to support. By having the label behind us, with their name behind us and the marketing and the press - they have a team working to help us - we are so happy with Barsuk. We know everyone that works there on a first name basis. It is really nice to know we have that support.

CM: My last question – You all were watching the VP debate when I arrived. Are you interested in that, in politics?
MS: Yeah, I’ve never been really into politics myself, even though my dad is a politician.

CM: In New York?
MS: In Massachusetts actually. He is the clerk magistrate. But aside from that, I’ve always stayed away from politics. Now that I’m getting older it’s playing a bigger role in my life. Wes is the most political person in the band. He is always updating us with news reports and what is going on. Although, I have taken an interest in this current election, because how important it is and how huge of a difference there is because of the candidates. I think we were really into this debate because we were waiting for Sarah Palin to say something insane.

CM: You don’t have to put it on the record, but which candidate do you support?
MS: Yeah, I’m with Obama. We usually don’t discuss politics within the context of the band.

CM: Do you want me to not talk about it, or include it?
MS: No, you can say I am voting for Barack Obama. I am an Obama-weight.

Stay tuned for my review of the Ra Ra Riot show with The Morning Benders and Walter Meego.

16 comments:

Red said...

Nice interview. Consider yourself linked.

Omar..°Magic and Medicine° said...

woo that's great....i like this band.

"Consider yourself linked"

Idem

The DP said...

Ditto to the linking.

Great interview. I'll be posting my interview later on today or tomorrow.

Brody McCoy said...

yea for sure lets link it up. My blog again is http://BritRockAtTheTop.com Cheers -Brody

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