Ratatat's Intuitive Creative Process: "It Just Feels Right"
When you're a duo of instrumental guitar beatsmiths who start headlining festivals in Poland, you know you're on to something good. Even more amazing though? How Ratatat's new album features the band's first-ever cover song (and the story behind it).
After five years of waiting, fans of the Brooklyn-based instrumental rocktronica duo known as Ratatat rejoice at the release of the band's fifth and arguably most accomplished album, Magnifique. Live performances of new songs such as the stripped down and tight yet funky and danceable groove "Cream On Chrome" have been received with rave reviews. The full album satisfies listeners' expectations for the kind of atmospheric jams Ratatat is known for, but also feels more deliberate and intentional than some of their previous work, resulting in a skillful, thoughtful, and exuberant record representative of the two men and the process that created it.
Amidst the busy start of Ratatat's U.S. tour for the new album, PopMatters caught up with one half of the instrumental rocktronica ensemble to discuss the duo's collaboration, inspirations, and unique creative process. The soft-spoken and sharp-eyed Evan Mast provided insights into the group's growth in recent years, the remarkable fan reception after a five-year hiatus, and the thoughtful yet exploratory evolution of the new album over that time. An artist in multiple forms, Mast also discussed his and partner Mike Stroud's involvement in constructing the experience of Magnifique through other senses, carefully designing the lighting and visuals that accompany the live shows as well as producing the artwork for the album and its music videos.
What emerges from the conversation as a consistent theme is the intuitive nature of Mast and Stroud's artistry and its refinement in more recent years. While it seems that the duo have always had a more experimental, organic approach to creating music, Magnifique manages to feel coherent and polished, unlike the frenetic, overwhelmingly layered sound of some of their earlier work. Having allowed their creativity to run wild in the studio with LP3 and LP4, they gained experience with many different recording, mixing, and sampling techniques, but now, five years later, they have returned to a cleaner, more guitar-centered concept reminiscent of their raw yet inventive self-titled debut album, but now with more maturity and polish.
In addition to the knowledge gained from their valuable, albeit not as broadly successful, experiences with unbridled experimentation, Mast confirms that the duo "learned a lot about recording guitars on this record [Magnifique], methods for fitting way more guitars in there without overwhelming the mix." Taking more time to produce the album also led them to find their path a bit more meanderingly, but also consciously, allowing them to be "obsessed with certain ideas for a while, and then six months later there would be a couple other ideas" that would lead them down another path. In the end, this more discriminating yet highly flexible and organic approach to the creative process allowed them to take the time to reflect more thoughtfully on the body of work produced and compile a coherent and focused album out of an array of exciting and fully developed ideas.
Mast repeatedly returns to the value of not having a plan, of not restricting creativity to a formula just because it has worked in the past, prioritizing more of a fluid approach that values "figuring it out as you go" and "react[ing] to what's happening in the moment." The members of Ratatat use this reactive rather than proactive approach in other arenas of the creative process as well, from concocting song titles, to animating the video for "Abrasive", to sketching the faces that would become the album cover. In short, they let what interests or inspires them in the moment, what "feels right," guide them, which may be why Magnifique feels so right. It meanders down different paths, but all of them lead confidently in a clear direction, and when forks in the road appear, the one followed feels natural.
In the extensive interview below, Mast discusses this experimental and intuitive approach to the creative process, the duo's inspirations, and goals for the new album. In addition, he reflects on reactions to the tour so far, collaboration and working with other artists' work, and possible future projects and directions.
* * *
What artists inspire you that we might never guess, things that maybe aren't as obvious in your music, but you really feel inspired by them?
A lot of hip hop. I would say that's the genre of music that we kind of directly reference most often, maybe to a lesser extent on the new album, but that's something that I always come back to. It's kind of like if we feel like we're getting bored of the ideas we're working with, I'll just go listen to a bunch of new hip hop records and then you start to get new production ideas, especially for beats, different ideas, different rhythms, and different kinds of sounds. '60s rock, that's something we come back to all the time, too. There are a lot of ideas in that stuff with the guitar parts and sounds especially, too. The way things were recorded at that time really suits our taste.
So kind of getting the beats from more current hip hop and more of the sounds and melodies and guitar ideas from '60s rock?
Yeah, I think that's a pretty accurate description.
You mentioned the new album, Magnifique which feels very live, realistic, and physical, whereas with LP3 and LP4 you were working with more experimental ideas, electronic sound, and sound design. What inspired this shift in direction?
[Since we've been doing the electronic style with LP3 and LP4 for so long], I think the pendulum kind of started to swing the other way for us and made us want to see what the other side was like, and just really get into guitar arrangements. We learned a lot about recording guitars on this record, methods for fitting way more guitars in there without overwhelming the mix. Part of it, too, was we'd been touring LP4 and LP3 for a while, and those songs are really difficult to play live because there's so many layers of different weird instruments that we couldn't really bring on tour with us on those songs, so it was kind of a challenge to figure out how to translate them to the live show. I think after that experience it was just like, you know it would be really fun if we do something that's all about guitar and bass and beats and we can just play it live really directly. So that's sort of what we're doing now, and it's really working out, the songs are really fun to play live.
So the tour has been going well?
Yeah, it's been really fun. So far it's been mostly festival shows throughout the summer. We did a bunch of festivals in Europe and a handful in the US, too. And just a few days ago we started a proper US tour, we're just doing club shows. But yeah, it's been really fun.
What has the fan reaction been like so far?
Really good! I mean, we took such a long break, we didn't know what to expect when we came back around, if people would still remember us or not. [laughs] But it's been overwhelmingly positive, particularly in Europe. Europe was always a little bit behind for us; the shows were smaller there, but I think we've done three trips to Europe this year already, and we have one more planned, and every time we've gone over there, it's been like, we'll like show up at a festival and look at the schedule, and it's like, "Woah, I think we're headlining a festival in Poland." [laughs] We've just been really surprised how things have changed for us over there, the size of the shows and just the number of people who show up knowing the songs.
As you've mentioned, it has been a while since you've put out an album. How do you think that longer length of time and also the different recording locations have impacted how Magnifique turned out?
It's hard to pin down: we went through so many different phases with the recording of this record. I think it was like four different sessions, and we weren't really going to studios, we'd set up our own makeshift studio and just rent a house somewhere and record for like four or six weeks, so there were a lot of songs left on the cutting room floor, a lot of ideas that we'd go after for a while and then sort of abandon. In the beginning, we were going to do everything with just live drums and go for a really natural sounding record, and we did a bunch of songs that way, and then we sort of got bored with it. [laughs]
There are still elements of that on the record, but we didn't fully commit to it all the way through. I think that, because it took so long, we'd be obsessed with certain ideas for a while, and then six months later there would be a couple other ideas we'd be obsessed with, and we'd start going in a different route. In the end, thankfully, I think it sounds pretty cohesive. The last session we did, we were kind of going back to all these different sets of ideas and finding a way to bring it all together. So, I think in the end, it all holds together, but it does feel pretty varied.
Do you have any plans for the material left on the cutting room floor?
There are a couple starts to songs that I think are really promising, and it would be cool to finish them, but whenever we do get a chance to go back to the studio, the most exciting thing is to just start something fresh. It's always more difficult to pick up an old idea and try to finish it. On the album, there are a lot of little snippets of songs between songs, where it's kind of like tuning in to different stations, and then you find the track, so a lot of those little bits and pieces are bits of songs that didn't make the record.
With instrumental music, it's always interesting to hear how you come up with titles, and you've said before that it's often free association, just whatever you're thinking of at the moment. Can you explain a little more what you mean by that? The track "Abrasive", for example, doesn't sound very abrasive to me.
[laughs] With "Abrasive" we had the title before we wrote the song, so, I agree, it's not the most ... fitting. [laughs] It's not the most descriptive title, but I think we just liked the word, and it just felt right for some reason. It's a super intuitive thing for us. We just kind of find words that we like and match them with the song, and a lot of times the titles change a bunch of times. It's a difficult thing, we're super picky about it, but it's also hard to explain why something's right when it's right. It just feels right. It's like making like abstract art or a collage or something; you just know when it's right. [laughs]
So you guys are normally on the same page about it, or do you ever argue about what the title for a song should be?
We'll go back and forth on it, but we won't argue about it. Kind of our whole way of working, whether it's with song titles or musical ideas, or anything, we both have the full veto power, so unless we're both into something, it won't end up that way.
So it sounds like you guys are normally pretty in sync, and I know that, like you said, you're kind of picky about things, especially how it ends up sounding, how things are played, and you've said that's why you don't normally bring other musicians on tour with you, but you have done some pretty cool collaborations in the past. Did you enjoy those collaborations, and do you see yourself ever doing more in the future?
Yeah, I'm sure we'll do more, it's all just about finding the right projects to work on. Collaborating is something that I would like to get better at. I feel like I'm not super good at working with groups of people and communicating my ideas effectively because usually the way I like to work is just figuring it out as you go, attack something without a plan and then react to what's happening in the moment. And I feel like with collaboration, a lot of times it's better to have a plan, to be able to tell people, "Okay, this is what I'm going for," so I don't know. [laughs] I would like to do more, I would like to get better at it, especially because I'm interested in film, too. I've been reading a lot about film directors and how they work, and I would love to be able to do that, but it's so far from my personality, I think, to be the one with this clear vision that I can explain to like a hundred people that are going to help me make it happen.
How does that translate to directing your live shows, given that you have a lot of input, especially on how the visuals are set up for your shows. How does it play out when collaborating with the audiovisual and lighting crew?
I think that's something we've kind of learned to do over the years. Usually I'll start by making all of the videos, and I used to do that just completely on my own, but for this tour, I started working with a couple different artists to be able to go through and look at their work and say, "I'm really into this idea and this idea", and "Could you make a bunch of things like this?" And then I'll have them send me bits and pieces and I'll edit it to the music later. The lighting and that kind of stuff gets added later.
[For this tour, for example,] I was working with the lighting director to design what elements we were going to have on stage, and then we had about a week before the first leg of the tour started where we could go through and program exactly what the lights would be doing, painstakingly, bit by bit. I guess with the lighting guys, they know the technical side of it really well, so if we have an idea, we can just say something like, "We were thinking of having this sort of wave motion, how do we accomplish that?" Then they'll have a couple of different options for what you can do. It's really fun, actually. There are a lot of planning stages that lead up to that moment where you're at rehearsal and actually programming things, and the programming is really fun. The six months before that of putting it all together is kind of a drag. [laughs]
As you do with your live shows, you've used a lot of your own artwork for this album, especially on the video for "Abrasive", which is awesome, by the way.
Did those drawings come out of your recording sessions, out of the music, did they exist before the songs, or was it kind of a mutual inspiration?
The drawings on the album cover were mostly done during one of our recording sessions, the first session that we did for the record. Mike and I had both been into drawing since we were kids. Mike's step-dad's an illustrator, I think he grew up drawing a lot, and I studied drawing in college. So just for fun, we'd just sit around and draw in the evenings because we were pretty isolated; we were on Long Island in an area that was like a vacation spot, but it was the off-season, so all the houses in the neighborhood were empty except for this one where we were recording. [laughs] So we were kind of in the middle of nowhere and didn't have a lot to do in the evenings, so we'd just draw pictures. The video was just kind of an extension of that idea. I'd never really done hand-drawn animation like that before, maybe a little bit as a kid, just like playing with my parents' camera recorder, but this was the first time I ever tried to seriously do that style of animation, so it was just kind of an experiment.
This is the case with the cover of the album as well, but in the video, there are a lot of different faces, different people from a lot of different cultures and perspectives doing different kinds of activities. How does that sync up with what's going on musically?
I mean, it's similar with that, too, it's just sort of an intuitive thing where you could maybe try a couple different ideas, and when something feels right, you just sort of know that it feels right. With the faces on the cover, a few are recognizable people, but for the most part, it's just kind of random folks. We were just drawing people from the newspaper or magazines or whatever was around the house. It wasn't so much about the people themselves as it was about just finding something that was going to be fun to draw. [laughs]
Even though you've said that you find learning other people's songs boring, you do actually have your first cover on this album. What inspired you guys to tackle Springwater's "I Will Return"?
It's from an album that we discovered a couple years ago. Somebody had written to us about it and was like, "Oh, check out this band, they sound kind of like Ratatat, but from the '70s." And usually when people make comparisons between us and another band, I listen to it and I'm like, "I don't understand the similarity at all!" [laughs] But that one, I listened to it, and I was like, "Oh, holy shit, this is actually, there's totally a connection there."
The guy's name is Phil Cordell that did all the music, and he clearly had this affinity for harmonized guitars that we share, and even the type of melodies that he would write, I think there's something similar to what we do. So we kind of fell in love with the album and listened to it for years. We talked about covering different songs from the record, and it was at some point when we got back together to do recordings again after a long break, and we decided to do the cover before getting back into actually writing our own stuff just because it seemed like an easier way to get back into recording mode, to not have the pressure of having to write something. It was really quick (I think it took us like two days) and it was just really fun to do, and we were happy with how it came out, so we decided to put it on the record. I'm kind of hoping it'll draw some more attention to Springwater 'cause it's kind of crazy that that record is forgotten the way it is.
You have said that you're kind of getting bored with doing remixes, too. Do you still feel that way, or are there any plans to do a Ratatat Remixes Vol. 3? Would you stick with reworking some of the older-era hip-hop, or would you move toward some of the more current hip hop or consider collaborating with young rappers?
Yeah, I would like to do some more stuff with current hip hop. With the old mix tapes, it was easier to get a hold of the vocal tracks from the rappers because they would be putting out vinyl singles with the a capellas on the B-side, so it was just easy to get access to that stuff, but I think now we'd have to actually, like, call people's managers and get them to sing a capellas, and it becomes a much more difficult process. [laughs] It would be fun to do, but it's not my priority right now. I think I'm more excited about making instrumental music right now than anything else, but yeah, maybe at some point down the road.
A lot of people have said that Magnifique kind of feels like a return to where you started. You had that period of time where you were doing more experimentation with sound design, and now you're going back to the bare basics with a focus on the guitar and layering the guitar. How do you think Magnifique fits into the trajectory of your work, and where do you think it's going to take you next?
I'm not totally sure what will be next. I've been playing around with different types of beats. I think Magnifique is a little bit mellower on the beat side; a lot of the beats are extremely subtle on this record, so I think it would be fun to do something that's really hard and aggressive with just a different style of beats, but that's pretty vague, [laughs] and I don't really know what that means yet. I'm excited to play around with some ideas here and there. I don't know, usually when we have an idea for what direction we're going to head in it ends up being like completely the opposite, so don't hold me to it. [laughs]
It's like you were saying, how you like experimenting and going in without a plan, and it sounds like that's where both of you are at with how your creative process works.
Yeah, it's funny, I think the more and more we work on more records, the less formula we have. [laughs] You kind of start to question your methods, like, "Wait a second, I thought it had to be this way, but that song is really good, and it happened a totally different way." So I don't know, you start to throw out everything after a while.
If there was one thing you think people should know about Magnifique, something that went into the creative process of making it, something about the end product, or about how the tour is going to play out, what would that be?
Well, I don't what people should know, but I think, for me, what makes this record better than the rest of our albums is that the melodies are much stronger than they've ever been. I think it's the most accomplished in terms of melody, and I'm happy about that. I think because of that, hopefully it'll still sound good ten years from now or twenty years from now. I think good melodies tend to have a long life. I'm really proud of how it sounds now, and I hope it ages well. I have a feeling it will, but we'll see.
I think it will, too. From what I've heard of it so far, it does seem like it's going to have that kind of longevity: it's got something classic about it.