Ra Ra Riot may have held back on their natural pop tendencies in the past, but on their latest effort Superbloom, they’re going all in.
The band, while from the East Coast, decided to hone in on their infatuation with all things West this time around. Vocalist Wes Miles, guitarist Milo Bonacci, bassist Mathieu Santos, violinist Rebecca Zeller and drummer Kenny Bernard are all “outdoorsy people,” according to Miles, who explains their love for floral elements and desert drives on the phone with Billboard. Those themes all come across in the vibrant record, which is full of lyrical growth and fresh sounds. “Just from the very beginning, it was a different experience for us,” Miles shares.
As the indie pop-rock outfit gears up for the release of their fifth album on Aug. 9 via Rob The Rich Recordings/Caroline, Billboard is premiering their latest single, the luminous “Belladonna,” today (Aug. 1).
“It just immediately felt like it was the cornerstone of the record,” Miles shares of the moment the band finished “Belladonna.” They were in the studio with co-producers Kieron Menzies and Dean Reid during the making of the song, which came to fruition very quickly. When Miles meant to pull up his lyric ideas, he accidentally pulled up a list of films he wanted to watch, the first being the 1973 drama/fantasy Belladonna of Sadness. Of course, it fit perfectly both lyrically and melodically, so without questioning it too much, they went ahead with the idea. "A lot of the songs on the record were just things that fit immediately that we didn’t question too much," Miles says. "This was one of them for sure."
The end result is a glistening song that sounds just as seamless as the process. It’s big and electrifying — indeed, like a superbloom, a botanical phenomenon where a huge amount of wildflowers suddenly blossom in the desert.
Billboard caught up with Miles to talk all about the new album as well as the new song. Find it all below.
Why don’t you tell me a little bit about what you’ve been up to since 2016’s Need Your Light?
It was a busy year that year. Like most record cycles, by the end of it, everyone is thinking, “How much time can we take off?” [Laughs.] But if you get into that mindset where you don’t really have a deadline, that can give you a lot of freedom. Mentally, you can explore and have more time to gather inspiration, rather than just forcing something. We ended up having this really prolific time, and we were able to start with a much longer list of songs than we’ve ever had before. We more or less made this ourselves, and we entered into the partnership with Caroline [Records] in the very late stages of it.
The big thing for us this time was having a bird’s eye view of the whole record as you’re making it. It doesn’t always feel like a record when you start out, but we were able to have enough time in between all of it. It was a really different way to make a record. This time it was a lot of moving around, a lot of different personnel, different co-writers, producers, and places. One of the most important things was being able to record some songs in LA with [co-producer and former Vampire Weekend member] Rostam, being able to track some stuff in Milwaukee… We did a few songs entirely at my parents’ house in New Jersey. There was a lot of freedom to collect inspiration from all these different places and people. That’s really the key to this record and it’s why we wanted to call it Superbloom, because there were so many things that hit at once. It just felt really colorful in that way.
Was this new process sort of a result of your collaboration with Caroline Records?
On Need Your Light, we did 80% of the record in a studio that we did our first record in, and that was fun, but we felt a little bit more pressure than I think we needed to. And then we did two songs with Rostam and that kind of felt like, “Well if we could just do that and it still feels like a record, then we should see how far we can take that process.” See how many different places we can still work on the same thing. How many different people we can bring in without making it feel diluted or like we lost control. Creatively, I found it really liberating — it catalyzed so much stuff we wouldn’t be able to do if we were in the six-week pressure cooker type of recording process.
In what ways does the environment you’re in impact your creative process?
It’s countless ways, but also somewhat unquantifiable. A lot about making music is unquantifiable. I think just being able to feel like you go into a place and you can make it your own, that really helps. If you keep going back to the same place and fall into a routine, you can develop bad habits. It’s similar to being on tour. We’re getting into the last week of the seven-week tour and it’s getting harder. You have to work harder than all the previous days to keep it fresh. Switch up the set list or work out a different song during soundcheck or go for a walk at a different time.
That applies to making a record, too. I should clarify that works for some people, but for me and the band, we get more excited to try new stuff. We love exploring. That makes us who we are. We get a lot of energy from being outdoors. So yeah, guess it’s hard to quantify, but location is so important.
Can you go into the meaning behind Superbloom?
I wrote “Belladonna,” and I feel like it’s the song that kind of made the record come together in a lot of ways. We had finished “Flowers” with Rostam really early on, in February of 2017, which was only a few months after that tour with Young The Giant, so we’d been collecting songs after that but “Belladonna” was really what felt like connected a lot of the songs. It’s the name of a flower, it’s got this psychedelic darkness to it but it’s not overly dark. In a way, there’s a country thing, a hardcore thing, the '80s pop we all grew up with… There’s all these different flavors, just so much going on.
We thought at a point: Is this record too long? Are there too many songs? It’s really not that long — but 12 tracks is a lot for us — and there’s a lot of different moods it goes through. We were thinking, "should we cut this back and make it more of one thing?" But for us, having the curve ball in there and “Endless Pain/Endless Joy” on track 4, that is so important when you’re sitting down and listening to a record. There are surprises. Superbloom fit with all of the themes on the record.
Sonically, I feel like it really goes with all of those themes you mentioned. It sounds summery and vibrant and Los Angeles-ish, if that makes sense. Was that intentional, or is it just something that just happened and then you rolled with it?
Yeah I think a lot of it is not pushing back too much on what’s naturally happening, so there’s a lot of L.A. that seeped into it. It’s a little bit of an east coaster’s perspective of L.A., since we’re all from the northeast [Laughs.] We did two songs with Rostam, three or four with Kieron [Menzies] and Dean [Reid], Nick Van Hofwegen and all of these people in L.A. and I think that we needed a song, again like “Endless Pain/Endless Joy,” because it kind of spins you back around to where we’re from. We did that in New Jersey on our own, so there’s both sides of the spectrum. It still feels like one thing, there’s still even a connection from that to flowers a little bit. Distorted and desert-y feeling, like LA, so I think you’re definitely right about that.
What’s it like working with Rostam?
Well, talk about surprise being important. It’s always different and new feeling, which is great. That’s what we need and that’s someone we want to go back to. Especially making records with him for over ten years now, it’s really important. He’s a special musician and producer, and he gets a lot out of us that we definitely wouldn’t be able to on our own. The fact that it fits in with everything else we’re doing is really special, and to be able to keep making stuff together feels really good. He’s a good friend and a person I get a lot of inspiration from. Every time I go out there to hang out I come back with a couple of records to listen to. It’s good to have people like that.
You’re currently on tour, how’s that going?
Good! We’re in the last week now. Just yesterday we were in Flagstaff, Arizona which is so cool. It’s like, one of the coolest places. Never been before, but we rented a Mustang convertible. There’s all these forests, it feels kind of alpine in a way. It’s surprising that after 13 years of touring we’ve never been to Flagstaff, but it’s really cool.
I guess I should talk about the shows though. [Laughs.] Those are also very good. We only have a half hour set so we have to cram in as much as we can, about seven songs. It feels like we’ve been connecting a lot though.
And you’re premiering your new single “Belladonna” with Billboard, can you tell us a little bit about that track and what inspired it?
There was a day we went in to meet Kieron and Dean, and it was just one of those days where everything clicked pretty quickly. They showed us this beat and we were just noodling around and then we got some melodic ideas we were feeling good about. I pulled out my phone — I always have a couple of notes of lyrical ideas that I think of throughout the day — but I accidentally pulled up a list of movies I wanted to watch and there was Belladonna of Sadness, which is a really kind of disturbing, bizarre movie from the 70s in Japan. So I was like “Wow, 'Belladonna' actually goes perfect in this one critical melodic part of the song, let’s just go from there.”
So we just plugged it in and it opened up this whole feeling and I felt like, "Wow this could actually work with the whole theme." We were in the studio trying to figure out what to do for a bridge and Matt suggested we do this spoken word thing. So we found this monologue done by Eriko Wakamatsu and it also fit immediately.
The story is beautiful, it’s about her having a dream about swimming around and at the end she finds something shiny and bright in the water, and it’s just really cool. So it just immediately felt like it was the cornerstone of the record and just made us feel free to do whatever else we wanted to do for the rest of the process.
Which song are you most excited for people to hear?
I guess after all the singles come out, which I was very excited for, probably “Endless Pain/Endless Joy.” I can’t wait to hear what people think of that [laughs]. It’s one of the most fun songs for me, some of the most screaming I’ve done, so I’m giddy with anticipation. That and “[A Check For] Daniel,” because it seems to be a fan favorite already.
Finally, what’s next after this album is out?
Like I said, we had such a long list of songs that we cut from this record, not because they weren’t good, but we just had so much to comb through. We have a lot of starting points for the next record. I know this one isn’t even out yet but we’re already thinking about the next.