Stumbling Upon Something Different: An Interview with Ratatat
Ratatat has honed a sound equally suited to the likes of indie kids, art rockers, and hip hop heads, which explains why they've opened for Interpol, remixed Bjork, collaborated with Kid Cudi, and added legitimate mixtapes to their resumes over the course of their careers.
Everyone makes music like Ratatat, except that no one makes music like Ratatat.
Their futuristic, cut and pasted, instrumental dance/funk is a genre unto itself, but the recipe is full of familiar ingredients like huge, harmonized guitars, speaker-rattling bass beats and nimble drum programming. The duo has honed a sound equally suited to the likes of indie kids, art rockers, and hip hop heads, which explains why they've opened for Interpol, remixed Bjork, collaborated with Kid Cudi, and added legitimate mixtapes to their resumes over the course of their careers.
PopMatters recently caught up with Evan Mast, one half of the Brooklyn-based duo, who recently released their less than imaginatively-titled fourth album, LP4. Mast shed some light on their recording process, what it's like working as a duo, the boredom of playing other people's music, and finding musical inspiration from a parakeet.
It's been noted that most of the tracks on LP4 were recorded during the same sessions as LP3. What separates these albums musically?
Well, we basically recorded it immediately after LP3 because we just had some studio time and the tour was coming up, so we just kept signing up for more and more studio time because we were having so much fun making songs. So once we got LP3 out of the way, we had a bunch of ideas coming to the surface and just kept entertaining them. There are always ideas that maybe before, they pop up and you say, "Oh, that's interesting, but we'll try that later..." It was a chance to entertain all those little bizarre ideas that we weren't sure were going to pay off if we followed through or not, but we just kind of chased every little strange idea.
So was there a clear distinction when you were recording that "OK, LP3 is finished, and now we're moving on to LP4?
Basically, we were a lot more prolific than we expected to be when we went into the studio, so at some point in the recording process, we realized we had too many songs for one record, so we kind of just popped into the idea of just making two kind of companion records…It was a clear distinction. We tried, for the most part, to focus on one song until it was time to move on to the next one. Basically, we just put them all together chronologically, and then those were the two records. And then we came up with the playlist and re-organized songs after that, but LP4 was recorded after LP3.
One of my favorite things about your music, and especially about LP4 is that I have a hard time figuring out what instrument is making what sound. There are a lot of sounds on the record where I can't tell if it's a bass, a guitar, a keyboard, or a sample. Is this an intentional thing on your part?
We try to get sounds out of instruments that are unexpected, so when we are working on guitar parts and things, if it sounds too straight or like a sound from a regular rock record, we try to do something to it, add something to it to make it sound different. I think our taste is just in bizarre sounds, and I think that's one of the things that keeps us excited about writing songs and recording is when we kind of stumble across a sound that's not like anything we've ever heard on a record before. That can be kind of an emphasis for a song.
There also seems to be some ambiguity as to whether or not the instruments are recorded live, sampled, programmed, etc. What would you say the ratio is?
There's almost no sampling—probably about 90% live. Sometimes we'll go in and chop things up and reorganize them, but every time there's a guitar part, it's one of us playing guitar; every time there's a piano, it's one of us playing piano. We’re not crate diggers. We don't go to thrift stores and look for records.
There are so many new sounds on this record: harpsichords, strings, vocal samples. How have you been handling this live?
We've had some thoughts about possibly adding some other musicians, but it's always sort of like a mixed bag. We don't really know how well it's going to work out. We have extremely particular tastes about how every different part should be played. It can be slightly disheartening to work with other musicians who don't have the same investment in the songs that you do. But it can also be really inspiring to work with other people, so there are two sides to that. So we're trying to figure it out, and this is a lot more layered than anything we've done before, so it's going to take some tweaking of the arrangements. I think there's also going to be a bigger production, at least on the US tour that's coming up, than there's ever been before. I think we're going to try and do a lot of visual things, too, to try to indicate what's happening in the songs.
No string sections live, then?
That's one of those things we've been talking about. Actually, we're supposed to rehearse with a string quartet. I'm not totally convinced it's the right way to go, but I think we're going to rehearse and see how it sounds. I think it would make sense to do that if we're going to go into older songs and write string arrangements for those, but I feel like it could also be really cheesy to do that, too! Like if we replaced the backwards guitars with strings—I think it would just be kind of melodramatic and I wouldn't really be into it. If we could figure out a way to do it, then we will, but it's also like...bringing four extra people on tour is kind of a burden in a lot of ways, too, so we're trying to balance it and figure how to do it at this point.
There are tracks on the album, like "Mandy," that really have this extra dimension with the addition of live strings. How did that come about?
With that song, we initially recorded it with mellotron strings, but basically, we were just constantly experimenting with whatever sounds we could find in the studio, and that was one that we kind of gravitated towards early on. We wrote the parts on mellotron and then tried it with real strings, and it just sounded lot better that way. I think that one sort of has a "disco strings" feel to it.
Now that you've embraced a more full sound with LP4, does it make you look back at the older stuff and wish you'd done it differently?
I wouldn't really want to change anything we did before. I listen to our first record now, and it sounds so simple and stripped-down to me, but I remember, at the time, thinking it was so complicated and so many layers of sound. Certain songs took us a ridiculous amount of time, painstakingly layering these guitar parts. I don't know—I had such a different impression of it at the time than I do now.
So, has technology made things easier for you since the first album?
Our recording process is still really similar…a lot of the techniques are exactly the same, but we've practiced them so much that something that would have taken us a week to do then we can do in fifteen minutes now! Things can be a lot more immediate, which is great. When we have an idea, we can get it down right away rather than having this translation, where you can lose something.
Tell us about the album cover.
The white bird is Mike's white parakeet Fellini, like the director. So he brought Fellini part of the time, and the cage was set up by the piano, so when we recorded piano parts, we'd get that chirp sound in the background. So we just spent a lot of time with this bird while we were recording, so it seemed appropriate to bring into the artwork. We just spent a lot of time looking at this bird. We became pretty fascinated with this bird. In a way, it's sort of connected to our first album cover.
Is it ever weird or frustrating working as a duo? Does it ever lead to creative issues since there isn't a third party there to resolve a dispute or veto a decision?
Yeah, it can lead to issues, especially when you've been working together as long as we have. You get to know each other's personalities so well. A lot of times, we can kind of guess what the other person is going to say or what their idea is before they even have it. I guess sometimes you kind of want a little more of a curveball. It's also really good for the same reasons, too. We've gotten so used to working with each other that we can kind of communicate ideas really well because we both understand the way the other one works. We know each other's strengths really well—we often know what's going to happen.
I've read that Mike has been very influenced by Brian May as a guitar player. Who is your biggest influence as an instrumentalist?
Geez, I don't know. I don't really think of myself as an instrumentalist. Mike is kind of like the virtuoso—I'm kind of just scraping by. I don't know if I'm really at the level of being—I'll listen to Brian May stuff and get psyched about his guitar parts and try to imitate that, but I don't know if I really have the technical ability to keep up on guitar or keyboard or any instrument. I'm really bad at playing other people's music. Mike will teach me a song, or I'll figure out the chords to a song on the guitar or keyboard or something, and I can only remember it for like a day, and the next day, it's gone. If I sit down at a piano, the only songs that I can play are Ratatat songs! Taking guitar lessons as a kid, my first teacher taught me improvisation, like chords and scales. My second teacher wanted to bring in CDs, and he would transcribe the songs for me and teach me how to play songs as a thirteen year old. It was totally boring for me to learn other people's songs. I was just not into it.
So is that what made you want to write songs, the frustration of not being able to play other people's songs?
Yeah, not even playing songs, just playing chord progressions and putting notes over it. When it sounded good, it was so exciting! When you stumbled upon something that's different, it was so much fun. But yeah, going from that to learning songs that were already existing, there was no surprise there. I can practice that a ton, and I can play it kind of like it sounds on the CD that already exists, and I thought, "What's the point in that? Just listen to the CD!"
You guys have done a lot of remixes of other people's music. Have you ever gotten into legal trouble for it?
I don't think anyone's ever been angry about it. I think it's sort of a compliment in a way. All the stuff we've done has been hip hop stuff.
Since you've had a lot of success with producing Kid Cudi, it should probably open some doors for you in terms of production. Are there any artists in particular you would like to produce?
Yeah, I think hip-hop makes a lot of sense for us to produce. I think there's a lot of room for hip-hop production to take some chances and grow from where it's at right now. Being really offensive, cursing, and saying shit that they shouldn't say on the microphone. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of that anymore. I'd like to work with some rappers who can bring that back! Lately, I've been into this guy Giggs, from the UK. He's got an album coming out this month, and he's got a bunch of mixtapes that have been out for awhile, too. Really good. He's pretty dark with it, and he's got a pretty unique style. I'd like to work with Jay Z or Bun B or Lil' Wayne, too.
You guys did a remix for Bjork a couple years ago. How much contact did you have with her, and how does it compare with working with Cudi?
It was a totally different experience than working with Cudi. With Cudi, it was really like...in the studio, getting together, working on the songs. With Bjork, it was a remix, so she asked us to do it, and I just made it in my apartment and gave it back to her. But we did have a fair amount of contact with Bjork because we toured with her around the same time, too. Yeah, it's kind of weird. We didn't really discuss the remix at all, so I'm not even sure if she was into it or not. I was pretty excited about it when it was done. Working with Cudi was more of like a real collaboration, a different kind of thing.
What's coming up for you guys—another tour?
The tour starts in September, and we'll probably be touring for like a year or something, more or less. That's kind of the main thing for a while. Hopefully, we'll be working on songs in-between on that, while we're on tour. We haven't really kind of settled in and really worked on a record. We've been recording, but we haven't put a lot of time into recording in a while, so I want to set aside like two months or something for just making songs...soon hopefully.