Ra Ra Riot's Milo Bonacci talks festivals, breakups and playing on Cinco de Mayo with Kanye West
It might be the least rock 'n’ roll reason ever given for postponing an interview.
“I had to renew my license,” laughed Milo Bonacci, guitarist for the indie rock group Ra Ra Riot. “We have a long road trip coming up, so I didn’t want to not be able to participate and help out with that.”
Having battled (and conquered) the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, Bonacci and Ra Ra Riot are moving onto their next quest: Headlining the inaugural Gasparilla Music Festival on Saturday in Tampa. “We’re excited to be involved in something so fresh,” Bonacci said.
For the first-year fest, it’s a solid get. Since founding in Syracuse, N.Y. in 2006, Ra Ra Riot has played festivals like Coachella, South by Southwest and the CMJ Music Marathon. Their most recent album, The Orchard, makes charming use of bouncy strings and singer Wes Miles’ lilting tenor, especially on singles like Too Dramatic and Shadowcasting. Their literate look and chamber-pop vibe has earned them frequent comparisons to Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire.
The group comes to Tampa having recently parted ways with founding cellist Alexandra Lawn. We recently asked Bonacci about that and other aspects of the festival lifestyle. Here are excerpts.
This is the first Gasparilla Music Festival. As a performer, if you were to offer some advice to the organizers of a first-time festival, what would you say?
Hmm. That’s a tough one. Definitely, it seems like some of the more experienced festivals have it worked out a little more smoothly. People are clear on what their jobs and responsibilities are. You don’t have to go searching for the stage manager and stuff like that. As long as it is organized and runs relatively on time, and people know who to talk to or ask questions or how to find an answer to something, it should be fun.
So what do you like to see when you go to a festival? You just like knowing who the point person is?
Yeah. Knowing who’s in charge of the stage, where to put our stuff down, when’s soundcheck. The less we have to run around worrying about that stuff, or finding who we’re supposed to talk to about merch or whatever, the better. But that’s totally on the backside of the stage. For a concertgoer, it’s a little bit different.
How so? Have you been to festivals as a fan before?
Actually, it’s been a really long time since I’ve been as a fan. I tend to get my fill as an artist.
Did you grow up in New York?
Yeah, I’m from Western New York. I’m the only one from the band that actually grew in in New York State.
Did you think about going to Woodstock ’99?
(laughs) I wanted to. I wasn’t allowed, at the time. But also, I remember tickets were like $200 or something, which, to me, as a high school student, was an astronomical price to pay for going to see some music.
It probably worked out for the better that you didn’t go.
Yeah, looking back, I don’t regret it.
After this, one of your next shows is at a festival on Cinco de Mayo in Mexico, with Kanye West headlining. That’s a lot of mind-boggling information to process. How are you guys psyching yourself up for that show?
(laughs) As if going to Mexico wasn’t exciting enough. Well, we’d played in Mexico City once before, and it was a really incredible experience. It’s kind of a crazy place, and really interesting. But to be there on a holiday like that, and also playing at a festival with Kanye West, it’s like three crazy things all adding up. But other than that, we’re really just in writing and recording mode right now.
Where are you in that process?
This handful of shows that we have coming up are still geared toward the previous record. But we’re going into the studio in less than three weeks, towards the end of this month. We’ll be doing that for the remainder of this month and probably most of April, then the Cinco de Mayo festival. The shows tend to offer a chance to shake things up a little bit.
Have you played any new songs live?
Just last week we played three shows in Southern California, after taking a break for a couple of months. We premiered two new songs, just for our own benefit as much as anything else, just to work them in a little bit.
Is there any chance you’ll play those in Tampa?
I’d say there’s a good chance. For one of them. I don’t know about two. But we’ll see.
A couple of weeks ago, you guys parted way with Alexandra. I imagine it was amiable? You parted ways on good terms?
Yeah. We’ve been in touch since, amicably. I suppose it wasn’t necessarily a huge shock to anybody.
I’ve never been in a band before. What is that process like? Did she call everybody into the room? Had she been looking for an exit point for a while?
It’s definitely a complex situation, emotionally and socially and everything. I don’t know. It’s sort of like going through a breakup. But I think we all hope for the best for each other. And I’m excited to see what she does now. I hope she keeps doing music in some form.
Do you have a new cellist?
We have somebody filling in on cello now. But for the bigger picture, we’re still trying to determine exactly what we want to do.
So many of your songs rely on strings. When you have to sit and think about relearning to play all these songs that you’ve played dozens, if not hundreds, of times, that’s got to be a little daunting.
Well, I haven’t had to relearn them, because I haven’t forgotten them. But I’d imagine it is a daunting task. And we’re not turning our back on that stuff at all. I think the question is, how we’re going to grow and develop in the future.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Shervin Lainez