Android love, humans vs. computers, artificial intelligence, uploading the subconscious: If Ra Ra Riot was reading up on these hyper-specific topics while writing the songs for their next record, and if these themes worked their way into the fabric of their lyrics, does that make the resulting effort a concept album? According to bassist Mathieu Santos, no: science fiction novels and Ray Kurzweil’s theoretical writings have been on the band’s reading list since they were touring behind 2010’s The Orchard, and the subject matter comes up pretty frequently in practice these days.
“Those ideas have been floating around in our collective mind,” says Santos. While in the studio, Wes Miles, Ra Ra Riot’s lead singer and lyricist, was fixated on the science fiction novels of William Gibson. Around the same time, Santos had been given a copy of Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, which proposes that advances will occur in nanotechnology, genetics and artificial intelligence to the point that the development of the human brain will be outpaced by the functionality of a computer.
“I kind of got obsessed technological singularity at the time,” says Santos. “I was really into Kurzweil’s ideas, and I was talking to the band about it whenever I had the chance. When it came time to start working on this album, those ideas had dominated a lot of our band discussion and thought over the past couple of years. It felt natural to incorporate some of those ideas into the music, so we just were like, ‘Let’s just go for it, let’s write about these nerdy ideas that we’ve been obsessed with lately.'”
These “nerdy ideas” coalesce most clearly on Beta Love‘s title track, which explores a “hypothetical first love program that was written for androids,” and “Binary Love,” which Miles wrote from the fictionalized perspective of Kurzweil himself. After watching Transcendent Man together, the band was deeply moved by the documentary following Kurzweil’s life and funneled their reaction to the film into their music.
“The thing that struck us about him was that even though this guy is kind of a genius, a lot of the issues that he’s talking about are really basic, human things, like love and loss and loneliness,” says Santos. “That’s the stuff that we had traditionally written a lot of our songs about, but I think that [Transcendent Man] lead to a doorway to evaluate these basic themes within the context of this new material. He talks about how when his father passed away, he was hoping he’d be able to bring his father back from the dead and sort of upload his consciousness into himself, and reclaim his father’s life. I think that really struck us, and it gave us a way to talk about this stuff without making a silly album about computers or something. All this stuff had underlying themes of love and loss. In all these cases, we were able to balance these universal concepts with this specific material that we were getting in touch with.”
This thematic dive into a robotic age was met with a simultaneous development on the musical side, as Ra Ra Riot favored synthesizers over strings for Beta Love’s instrumentation. “We had made a couple of records that were really string-heavy with really dense arrangements,” reflects Santos. “We had all been interested in electronic music since the beginning of the band too, and I guess we never really had the chance or maybe we were too self-conscious to explore it.”
A natural progression and hardly a deliberate stylistic choice curated to fit the techy theme, the departure of cello player Alexandra Lawn signified a shift in sound for the band, as much as it complimented the direction in which they had hoped to move forward.
“When we were first talking about making this record and how we wanted to approach it, I think she wasn’t on the same page as the rest of us and wasn’t as excited about making these sweeping changes as we were,” he continues. “Her departure was sort of a product of our new attitude, but at the same time, after she left, we were able to fully-function in the way we had wanted to. We’ve been able to sit with the album for almost a year, and as we’ve released songs here and there, we’ve been really anxious about the reaction. A lot of people are going to be surprised or disappointed by the changes that we made, but it seems like more and more people are getting on board and supporting our direction. I think we’re all super optimistic about what this year is going to hold for us. When we were in the studio, we felt totally rejuvenated, and in some ways, we were joking at points that it felt like we were making our first record. It wouldn’t be far-off in to describe this record as that of a new band. We felt like this was our first record.”