For Brooklyn-based, Syracuse-bred Ra Ra Riot, having all the right friends is a double-edged sword. Sure, being close with Vampire Weekend and Death Cab for Cutie has likely turned many on to the baroque-pop quintet, who bring their energetic show to Sonoma's Gundlach Bundschu Winery on Sunday. But one can barely find an article on Ra Ra Riot not chock-full of comparisons to rock bands with a penchant for lush orchestral flourishes. Even I can't help it: think Vampire Weekend with less quirk and more strings. Or a more restrained Arcade Fire who make a glorious spectacle with only half the personnel.
Thankfully, The Orchard, the band's more somber sophomore album released last year, is doing a better job of distinguishing Ra Ra Riot in both substance and circumstance. Although singer Wes Miles' lyrics reach new levels of melancholia, his airy voice along with violinist Rebecca Zeller and cellist Alexandra Lawn's buoyant accompaniment forge a singular sound that's at once aching and hopeful. One can't hear the chilling title track, or the achingly bouncy "Shadowcasting," without imagining the record's singular genesis.
"When it came time to record, we were looking to get out of New York City and stay focused on the task at hand," says bassist Mathieu Santos, via phone from his folks' home in Massachusetts. "In the past, we did that at Wes' parents and Rebecca's parents' houses, which are both in the suburbs. This time we wanted to do our own thing and not impose. We ended up on a peach farm."
Their decision to seclude themselves in a friend's upstate New York property to write the new album is already the stuff of indie-rock folklore. But if you're thinking of a debauched residency à la Exile on Main Street, you're very far off. "It was more like baking peach cobbler and drinking tea," says Santos. "It was so unbelievably quiet. We were just surrounded by acres and acres of peach trees."
It may seem strange for a such a young band to need some alone time, but after gaining a large buzz early on, drummer and co-writer John Ryan Pike drowned in 2007 before the band could record The Rhumb Line, 2008's acclaimed debut.
"The reason we decided to continue is we had laid all this groundwork with John and all these ambitions with him," says Santos, who studied painting at Syracuse. "After he passed away, we didn't want all those things to be gone, too. In a way, everything we have done since then has been in honor of him."
For The Orchard, the new environs and slight pressure to follow up their well-received debut fostered an experimental period for the band. ("We definitely took a lot of chances this time around," remembers Santos.) Ra Ra Riot's live performances are gelling as well, with a nimble musical chemistry and an infectious glee consuming every member, but there's a palpable sense of duty within their joy. Nearly four years later and one tragedy-free album under their belts, Ra Ra Riot still remember the friend they lost with every new achievement.
"We just toured in Japan for the first time last year. It was the most amazing experience, and that was something we always talked about with him: 'One day we'll tour in Japan,'" says Santos. "Whenever we are able to do something fun and cool, he's always on our mind."
Ra Ra Riot play with openers Givers and Pepper Rabbit on Sunday, Jan. 23, in the redwood barn at Gundlach Bundschu Winery. 2000 Denmark St., Sonoma. 6:30pm. $25. 707.938.5277.