Stumbling Upon Something Different: An Interview with Ratatat

Ryan Reed
Ratatat: You can see them, but they can't see you. Or can they?

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.



Label: XL
US Release Date: 2010-06-08
UK Release Date: 2010-06-07

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 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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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