Interview: Ratatat

Stroud (left) and Mast

Ratatat may still be a lesser-known name on this side of the Atlantic, but it’s a name you’re unlikely to forget after a first introduction. That introduction may have arrived via a whimsical purchase of their 2004 self-titled debut, or 2006’s superior follow-up Classics, or their warm-up show for CSS at last year’s Triptych. Perhaps this is your introduction, as they’re set to release LP3 (that’ll be their third album then). Wherever your starting point though, it’s difficult to harness exactly what it is that makes their music so infectious. Their distinctive blend of pumping electro, multi-layered slide guitar and programmed beats defies genre-fication, but I asked Evan Mast, the producer/synth half of the Brooklyn band, to define it anyway. Predictably, all he gave me was this: “We don’t define it. We just make the music that we want to hear.”

Despite the perceived reticence, Mast is brimming with pride over LP3 – which expands the Ratatat formula yet further with more textured beats, more stylistic pilfering, a harpsichord here, a mellotron there – as he recalls its creation: “The process of making the record was such a great experience. We were in this big house full of instruments for 40 days and 40 nights just making tons of music, discovering so many new sounds and exploring so many different ideas. We’d make songs all day and then cook these amazing dinners and drink some beer and listen to the tracks at night. All the songs are attached to good memories, so it makes me happy to listen to them.”

Despite often being tagged as an electronic act, Mast and his Ratatat partner Mike Stroud are first and foremost instrumental musicians, and parts of LP3 come across like some post-modern rock concerto. It’s tempting to surmise the kind of classical education that fellow New Yorkers like Vampire Weekend have been touting, but Mast reveals that his teaching wasn’t quite so: “I took guitar lessons for about two years when I was around 11 or 12. My teacher was an old blues guitarist by the name of Robert Reese. He was a big guy with greasy Jerri Curled hair and his day job was working at the Ford car factory. He played a big hollow-bodied guitar and he mainly taught me how to improvise blues stuff. Occasionally I read up on music theory but I don’t have much patience for it.”

Mast doesn’t have much patience for lyrics either. The only words on Ratatat’s first album came in the fleeting form of rap samples [both Mast and Stroud are big hip hop fans, as you can hear on their two official mixtapes, available as free downloads from their website]. On Classics the verbal input was reduced to a cat’s howl on ‘Wildcat’, and LP3 is entirely instrumental. “I don’t have much of a voice and I find that words are often a very clumsy medium for communication. I don’t think I was ever really happy with the music I was making until I realized that I could do it without words.”

Ratatat playing at Summercase in 2007, photographed by meHaving witnessed Ratatat live once so far, I can guarantee that nothing you hear on record will prepare you for just how good they are live. Stroud is a wickedly talented guitarist, and partial to shameless Hendrix-style showboating; Mast grooves away on bass, while extra member Jacob Morris on keyboards pulls focus by headbanging a truly astounding afro. Do people often react with surprise to Ratatat shows? “We get all kinds of reactions when we play live but yes, some people seem to expect us to just do a DJ set or something like that. We just try to keep ourselves entertained and hope the audience will follow suit.”

With an opening night set at The Edge Festival on the horizon, I tell Mast that the venue, Cabaret Voltaire, is a small, sweaty, subterranean club.

“Sounds perfect,” he says.

A version of this article appears in this month’s Skinny.

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  1. Pingback: Bookmarks about Instruments

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