Syracuse University’s Most Famous Indie Pop Alumni

How one band stuck together through fame, tragedy, and house parties on Euclid Avenue.

Words and Images by Maggie Gilroy

On a Friday night in Greenwich Village, a pair of makeshift drag queens took the stage of Webster Hall. The duo, who call themselves PWR BTTM, wore scraps of red and orange fabric tied together in the most critical places. They droned on about an experience at the DMV in between songs while bartenders sold a drink labeled “mystery beer.” A young crowd trickled into the incense-filled room, many still sporting their backpacks from class. A hand-painted sign marked PWR BTTM’s merchandise table, which sat customer-less in the back of the ballroom. The duo finished their set to an enthusiastic, quarter-full crowd, and departed offering a final statement to the audience: “Ra Ra Riot is the kind of band you listen to when you’re sad and alone.”

It wasn’t until after a performance by Sun Club, the drunken second opener, that stagehands began to prepare for Ra Ra Riot. They brought out guitars, a violin, and a cello, and the brightness of the lights intensified. Every member of the sold-out crowd arrived. Audience members stood elbow to elbow, waiting to catch a glimpse of the young band. Then lead singer Wes Miles took center stage with messed hair and a bright yellow button-down. His five band members joined him, wearing casual clothing in muted colors. Unlike the first performers’ neon-colored clothing, Ra Ra Riot was quieter than their openers in both appearance and demeanor. They weren’t at Webster Hall to talk about the DMV — they were there to perform,

Fresh off of the release of their new album I Need Your Light, Ra Ra Riot was embarking on a tour through the United States and Canada. They also reached another milestone: 10 years together as a band. Just a decade earlier that they were just a bunch of SU students who got together to jam after an electronic music class. In that same year, Rolling Stone called the band “one of the best indie-rock debuts of the year.” Tonight, they opened with “Every Time I’m Ready to Hug” from the new album. “I’m lovesick, baby I’m heartstruck,” the band lamented to the crowded hall despite the song’s upbeat tempo. The packed hall sang along with the band’s newest song just as loudly as songs from their very first album. “It’s our fourth record, we’ve been together for 10 years. It’s a good time to be Ra Ra Riot,” Miles said to the crowd.

Miles is right.

A Rapid Rise

David Rezak, director of the Bandier Program and co-director of the audio arts graduate program, has been a part of the Syracuse music scene since the 1960s and witnessed many bands come and leave the Syracuse community and campus. “I’ve seen this process, and I’ve seen student bands come and go, and I’ve seen student bands get popular, but I’ve never seen a student band go from 0-60 in three months like they did,” Rezak says.

Rezak recalls violinist Rebecca Zeller and guitarist Milo Bonacci meeting in an electronic music class in the fall semester of their senior year in 2006. It was their shared opinions on indie music that led Bonacci to ask Zeller to jam with him outside of class. Bonacci was an architecture student finishing his fifth year in school, but he had some band cred. He formed Gym Class Heroes with high-school friends from Geneva, New York, but he left the band to finish his degree (and Gym Class Heroes’ album, As Cruel as School Children, went gold the same year Bonacci met Zeller).

Bonacci clicked with Zeller, and Ra Ra Riot began to take shape. “The first time I saw them was in February, and they played in an awful space downstairs in DellPlain Hall, which sounded terrible, but it was packed,” Rezak says. “Then they began to do some commercial kinds of gigs where they would actually charge money and, you know, make money.”

Zeller was a music industry major with a successful internship at William Morris Endeavor, a talent agency with offices in Beverly Hills that represents artists across all media platforms. Zeller’s internship earned her a job offer from the agency before she graduated. But Ra Ra Riot was getting good, and Zeller was enjoying it. “Rebecca comes into my office and goes ‘I’ve got a problem, this band is really fun, I want to see where this goes, and I promised that I’d go to Los Angeles,’” Rezak recalls. “And I said, ‘you better get out there.’” So Zeller explained her dilemma to William Morris, and they offered to hold her job for a year while she toured with Ra Ra Riot. She never took the job.

The only non-senior was Alexandra Lawn, a sophomore who dropped out of school to join the band. “I think her parents were mortified,” Rezak says. “She’s a really gifted cellist.”  

But more than talented musicians joined forces at Syracuse. Josh Roth served as the band’s booking agent and began getting gigs for the band. After graduation, Roth took a job with Epic Records while continuing to book gigs for Ra Ra Riot. But Roth was miserable at Epic and reached out to Rezak to see if Rezak thought he could make a living just working with the band. Rezak told him that he could. So, Roth quit his job to manage the band. “I think it’s important to note that, as talented as the musicians were, that part of the secret sauce in this whole primordial soup that happened that spring semester, was that they actually, by default, were connected to their manager who was really really good,” Rezak says of Roth.

The last Ra-Ra ingredient was Andrew Maury, the band’s sound engineer, who joined them on their first national tour in September 2008. He also produced and engineered the sound for their second album The Orchard. Maury is now a full-time sound engineer and producer for other bands, but he often assists Ra Ra Riot with their live sound when they play in Maury’s hometown of New York City.

 

A Band Overcomes and Evolves

The core members of the band remain, but a tragedy forced the band to replace a beloved member. In 2007 drummer John Pike was found dead in the waters of Buzzards Bay after a gig with the band in Providence, Rhode Island. “This has felt like the unraveling plot of a tragic piece of fiction … nothing would have prepared us for such an immense loss,” the band said in a statement released after Pike’s death. Pike composed more than half of the music for Ra Ra Riot’s first album, released about a year after his death, The Rhumb Line. This includes “St. Peter’s Day Festival,” about a festival in Gloucester, Massachusetts., not far from where Pike grew up. The song was written before Pike’s death, and is now seen as a tribute. Pike was first replaced with Gabriel Duquette. Duquette left shortly after and was replaced by Kenneth Bernard in 2007, who remains the drummer today.

Other exits were much more positive. Lawn left the band in 2010 to pursue other musical projects and, in a statement posted on the band’s Tumblr page, simply thanked her former band members. “Thank you for the wonderful six years — so many beautiful places visited, with incredible fans and close friends made along the way. I will carry on what I have learned from each and every one of you in future endeavors, whether it be music, becoming a pilot, or the next Iron Chef,” Lawn wrote in her parting note.

Despite Pike’s death and the adjustment of band members, Ra Ra Riot continued on and several core members remain. The current members are Bonacci, Miles, Mathieu Santos, Zeller, and Bernard. It is that ability to stay together through tragedy that Rezak says is also an ingredient to that “secret sauce” behind Ra Ra Riot’s success. “There’s something magic in groups that stay together, and they ride it out,” Rezak says.   

The transitions also helped evolve the band’s sound. The band released four albums: Rhumb Line in 2008, The Orchard in 2010, Beta Love in 2013, and this year’s I Need Your Light. The absence of Lawn’s cello created room for a lighter, more poppy sound. Zeller’s violin also appears to be less present now than in earlier albums. Tori Fitzpatrick, a 20-year-old college senior who first saw the band six years ago, attended the Webster Hall Concert despite her disappointment with the most recent album. “I do definitely feel like there is a new level of simplicity in their music that didn’t used to be there,” Fitzpatrick says. “It used to be very complex, and you’d hear it once and then you’d hear it again and every time you’re pick out something new. Whereas I feel like the new album, every time you’re listening to it you hear the same thing.”

Despite her disappointment, Fitzpatrick remained loyal to the band and was eager to hear them at Webster Hall. The band played a mix of songs from all of their albums, and the fans sang just as loud for songs from their early albums as for I Need Your Light. The band acknowledged the enthusiasm.  “You have your first New York show of our record, and people are already singing along to deep cuts,” Miles says during the concert. “It feels amazing.”

 

Coming Home

Throughout their successful rise, Ra Ra Riot made sure to make frequent returns to the university that gave them their start. They play house parties on Euclid Avenue and perform at Funk ‘n Waffles and at The Sound Garden. In 2012, the band returned for a four-day residency in the Setnor School of Music. Band members led a panel, lecture series, and taught classes, including one taught by Zeller about making a living in classical music in a modern world. The residency culminated in a concert in Setnor Auditorium. “The band had a blast,” Rezak recalls. Zeller’s graduation was delayed due to her inability to meet a quota of concerts that music students are required to meet, one she never met due to becoming busy with Ra Ra Riot. During the 2012 concert, Zeller pointed out the irony that their performance counted towards this quota.

Throughout their first performances during that winter of 2006 up until their latest album release, Ra Ra Riot has attracted loyal Syracuse fans. Nate Matisse, who attended SU at the same time as members of Ra Ra Riot and wrote about them The NewsHouse and several other publications, continues to follow the band’s success today. “Some of the coolest show experiences I’ve seen in my life were these early Ra Ra Riot shows,” Matisse says. “You kind of always hold on to it and always want the band to succeed because of that.”

Back at Webster Hall, the night’s performance was nearing and its end, and the mystery beer had began to take its toll on the young crowd. “So we weren’t going to do this song, but there’s been a couple people asking for it on the Internet,” Miles says as the band returned for an encore. The song was “Dying is Fine,” a hit from that first album that was written while the band members still studied at SU. “I wouldn’t like death, not even if death were good,” Miles sings. “Not even if death were good.” Like their opener, Ra Ra Riot’s signature fast-paced drum beats and long, haunting notes from Zeller’s violin punctuate and support the melancholy lyrics. That mixture of mournful and mirthful sounds perfect for a college house party on Euclid, for a master class at Setnor Auditorium, and even for a sold-out concert hall in New York City. Or for when you’re just sad and alone.