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Ratatat: Return of the Guitar Heroes

on July 17, 2015, 4:30pm
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Photo by Asger Carlson

“There’s ups and downs every time we make a record,” says affable Ratatat co-frontman Evan Mast. “We never really get into arguments. We always manage to take a step back and realize we’ve worked consistently well together for over 10 years.”

If you’re after blood, sweat, and Twitter tears, you’ve opened the wrong tab. Ratatat have always genuinely liked being Ratatat and are a band mindful of their own strengths. Many of their best qualities  – subtle synth, melodic precision, agile and abrasive interplay of guitar — have sharpened over time. These are the elements that made their self-titled 2004 debut and 2006’s Classics both landmark records. Together, Mast and partner Mike Stroud have forged a footpath toward making deeply repetitive guitar-based dance music sound more intra-dimensional, latching onto a single slice of sound and imploding it into compelling shapes — like plucking a string, seeing it wobble, and then watching how it clicks back into form.

Magnifique, their first album in five years, is an urgent, heady thing, and the Brooklyn-based duo don’t compromise on feeling, but overstep conventions to tear dance floors apart and make it clear that it’s one of this year’s gold standards for transcending electronic instrumental. In anticipation of Magnifique, Ratatat talk about their five-year itch, decamping to Jamaica to record, and why they choose to preserve their private and hermetic style of musical production.

Click ahead for two conversations, the first with Evan Mast and the second with Mike Stroud.

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Photo by Oleg Pulemjotov

A conversation with Ratatat’s Evan Mast.

So I just caught your live set at Primavera Sound Festival, and it was such an excellent performance.

That crowd was great. It was such a surprise because we hadn’t played in Spain in probably five or six years, and I was half-expecting to show up and they’d have us on some tiny stage at some time of day when nobody was gonna be watching, but it ended up being a really great moment.

Before you even came on, people were singing the plinks and plucks of the guitar strings as if they were lyrics: “mrrr-nrrr-rrr-wrrr.

[Laughs] Were they in sync with each other?

No, of course not, but it’s quite indicative of your music, people singing along to every instrumental part like Parseltongue, but for Ratatat guitars.  

That’s hilarious, because usually people don’t know the names of our songs, so they always go, “You know that one, the mrrr-nrrr-rrr-wrrr one?”

Next time I need to record it, and you can sample it on the next album.

Sometimes when we’re playing, you can hear people singing along, but I’ve never heard it completely separate. I must hear it now.

On to equally exciting things, I would think that these last few days while you’re waiting for the album to come out must be deeply strange. How do you navigate the anticipation and excitement?

I’m kinda grateful it’s such a busy time to be honest. You don’t have a minute to sit around and worry about anything.

Is that unusual for you? Five years between albums isn’t an incredibly long time, but do you feel this pre-release process feels faster?

The past five years have been me setting out my own schedule and working on music not ever knowing what it was for or when it was going to be released. Compared to the day-to-day pressure, the fast pace is actually kinda nice.

What really happened after LP4?

When we finished that round of touring for that album, we had been touring and releasing records steadily for eight years. We needed a break! So Mike moved upstate with his wife, they got a house in the country, and took it easy for a while.

I’m sure you didn’t want to force any material?

Completely, we really didn’t want to make a record that didn’t feel entirely necessary.

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I really love that word: “necessary.” There’s a fast-track attitude toward creativity nowadays so that artists won’t disappear in the industry’s clutter.

There’s a lot of pressure from the outside, too, though, like crew members who rely on us, but I still think it’s important to take time when you’re making music.

So for five years you’ve been whispering a quick “guys calm down,” developed the Ratatat sound, and gone back to melody.

Definitely, the idea of going back relates more to the palette that we’re using as it’s much more focused on guitar and bass than the last two records. In terms of the songwriting, we took a lot of things that we learned from the most recent albums and expanded on that. The arrangements are more complex; we figured out certain tricks and how to cram more guitars and layers into a single song. The songs are deceptively simple and focused on the lead melody, but there’s a lot going on to support that.

Particularly during the track “Rome”, where on the outset it’s easy listening, but then the middle section drops to shift the song on a new course.

And the song “Abrasive”, which we spent the most time on, I’m particularly proud of it. There’s that deceptive quality where the melody is catchy, but there’s a lot of interesting things happening in that song that you might overlook. It was one of the first we started with and one of the last in the wave of work.

You haven’t really put a name on your albums for a while, and Magnifique is a pretty visual word. Is it more tongue-in-cheek?

[Laughs] Just a little. You know those moments when you finish the song and compliment yourself really highly in the studio? The moment the word really jumped out was when I was at a used bookstore in a flea market in France and picked up a book of panoramic photographs of the Alps, asked how much it was (it was really expensive), but instead of answering, the shop owner opened up this enormous panorama four pages long and said, “Magnifique.” It sold me. I was such a sucker.

You succumbed to the salesman! Did you write and record in France at all?

We did a session in Long Island, one in upstate New York, a studio in Brooklyn … and then we had a session in Jamaica.

You went and decamped in Jamaica? How was that?

It was pretty crazy. A friend of Mike’s wife has a house there, and nobody was using it, so we just went and set up our own makeshift studio in the house. It’s such a beautiful place, and we spent a lot of time swimming and felt exceptionally pampered there.

There’s a lot of joy and hopeful-sounding moments on the album. Do you think places in general affect art?

It’s interesting because the songs that we made in Jamaica were more aggressive ones, like “Nightclub Amnesia” and a lot that didn’t make the album. I don’t even know why that happened because it was so easy living there floating in the ocean every day.

Does going away give you an opportunity to be selfish?

It’s essential for us to have our heads in a song long enough to complete it. When I try work at home, it’s always mixed results. Working for a few hours takes so much concentration. Whenever we go away, I turn my phone off, check email once a week, and get isolated as much as possible. It’s really hard nowadays.

But the appeal of it is romantic, right?

I think I’m attracted to music that sounds like it came from another world where you disconnect from reality a bit. You get high off creating stuff. The one trip in particular, when we started LP3, we recorded for 40 days straight with a new song everyday after being in this whole other world.

It’s interesting you mention you like to disconnect because I’ve never really known much about you and Mike. When you perform, you’re these silhouettes hidden behind smoke, lasers, and lights. Do you enjoy being clouded in mystery and slightly disconnected?

I think because it’s instrumental music it keeps the door open to every song and what it’s about. There aren’t lyrics giving you an easy route to interpret it, so when we perform, we don’t want to put ourselves too much in front of what’s happening. We’re not those personalities either; we prefer to be in the dark.

Something you’re clearly confident about are the visual elements. I believe you directed and shot “Intro”, where you two are mad professors peeling oranges, carrying house plants.

That was filmed in our studio in Brooklyn, and because we’ve spent so many hours down there and I was studying up on cinematography about a year or two ago, I had cameras, and it just felt natural to just make fun of ourselves.

As much as the avian visuals you use during live shows are great, it was nice to see you two plodding about by the piano.

There’s a lot of humor in that song, and sometimes we’ll make music that has a lot of humor in it, and you talk to fans about it, and they take it so seriously, so the visual reinforced “there’s humor in this!”

Those dance moves during the “Abrasive” video did the trick. Did you draw every one of those 4,000 frames?

It’s basically a crude version of Rotoscoping of doing drawings on top of video files frame by frame. It’s really time consuming and one of the things I started doing then. I thought I was crazy but couldn’t stop somehow!

The effort certainly shows. Tell me about this album cover, which I believe you’re the mastermind behind as well.

When we were recording on Long Island, we’d draw pictures during dinner. Mike’s dad is an illustrator, so he grew up drawing a lot, and I drew a lot as a kid, too, so we were getting back into drawing by hand.

So something must be said about how involved the two of you are in all aspects of Ratatat output?

I feel like so much of the time, whether it’s music or visuals, you have a shell of an idea, bring in the materials, start shuffling things around, and then discovering so much in the process of doing it, so it’s difficult to hand it off to someone else because you miss that whole discovery that takes place in the process. I would love to have the skills to effectively collaborate with people, but I end up being alone in a room beginning to end creating something without any outside ideas.

Is making music a somewhat habitual and sacred affair?

Mike and I have spent so much time making music together that I think it’s hard to have another person around when we’re working on something because we understand each other’s way of working.

I quite like that. It’s rare to be able to work together on something you’ve been cultivating for years.

We can go really far with a song without having to talk to each other, but definitely have moments where we get really frustrated. There’s ups and downs every time, but we always manage to take a step back and realize that we’ve been pretty consistent for 10 or so years.

Also that you both play all the instruments … usually bands work in harmony by having their own roles. Because you play everything, how do you know which instrument calls you for which songs?

It’s usually pretty obvious, when we’re working in the same room, that Mike is a much better guitar player and keyboard player than me, so if there is a part that requires skill, he’s usually the one to do it. I probably know more about the production side, so a lot of times it’s easier to be at the control board figuring out the sound while he’s at the instrument playing. The real amazing thing is that we almost always have the same opinion about minute details in a song.

Even with the Springwater cover?

It was our favorite one. At one point, we were talking about covering a whole bunch of his songs, doing an EP of just Springwater. Instead we decided to go for that one song.

Can you imagine after five years of no one hearing from you, you come out with a cover album. Is it your first cover?

Well, officially. We’ve had ideas to do covers over the years, but it was always more fun to make our own songs. When we recorded it, we hadn’t seen each other in months, so it was an easy way to get back into the rhythm of things and not have to have the pressure of writing something new.

Are there any other covers you’re working on?

Yeah! A Serge Gainsbourg song called “Cannabis”, a French musician called Rob who had this record that came out in 2001 called Don’t Kill. Who knows what will happen!

Click ahead to read our interview with Ratatat guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Mike Stroud.

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A conversation with Ratatat’s Mike Stroud.

So I’ve just gotten off the phone with Evan now, and I’m interested in knowing if, in addition to making music together, you feel like you complement each other personality-wise too?

For the most part we do, but for the music, he’s really great at stuff I’m not good at, so I’ll fill in the blanks.

Like what?

Doing all the stuff on the computer, organizing the songs, which I’m terrible at! I think we both really respect each other and really understand what we are capable of together and separately. I just can’t believe it’s lasted this long. It’s crazy.

You’re onto your fifth album already! Critics usually cite the second record as that “now or never moment,” but I’ve always found third, fourth, or fifth records to be the most cathartic as the artist is suddenly free from that pressure.

Absolutely, you have to build up to something. It’s a big deal to some people that we waited five years, though. It’s flown by for me.

I think that’s a wonderful thing.

Maybe I’m just getting older? Everything is so immediate, and in all the interviews we’ve had so far, people are saying, “What’s wrong with you? Why did you take so long?”

Was there ever a voice inside your head saying the same thing?

Oh yes, we’re pretty critical of ourselves. We made probably 100 songs for this record.

At least the creative faucet was turned on.

It’s normal for us to have a block, though, not the tap running. But once we listen to a song all the way through and just enjoy it and not get stuck in our heads trying to fix it, that’s the sign.

That’s kind of a metaphor for life, though: when in doubt, do without.

Totally, and we moved studios to help that process because you get so many habits playing and writing music that you find yourself repeating the same things over and over, which, if we had a singer, it might not be the case.

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Photo by David Brendan Hall

But do you feel like you need to burrow away so that the creative process is focused on and appreciated?

I know we do seem to struggle in the city. Even taking the train to the studio, you’re interrupted by everything around you. Over here, Upstate, I’ve made it fun for myself. I have a piano, drums and a pedal steel all in different parts of the house

That pedal steel guitar definitely takes center focus on tracks like “Drift” and “Supreme”.

It still feels really foreign to me, so every time I sit down and play it, I have to figure out how it all works, and it’s a challenge. I have a bunch of Hawaiian records on vinyl, so I’ll just put them on and play to them.

Is that how you learned how to play guitar too?

Yeah, actually! I would put on vinyl and play to it.

I think the thing I’m most struck by on Magnifique is that density of the guitar harmonies. It’s more textural than melodic. Did you deliberately take all those unusual instruments from the previous two records and replace them with guitar?

Definitely. We talked about it early on, which sometimes is a total challenge to set that kind of crazy limitation of having something solely about guitar. If I was having an off day, the pressure was intense, and there were times when it was a pain in the ass!

From that confinement, was there a track that flew out?

Oh, completely. “Cream on Chrome” was made in a day, and that hasn’t happened in years for us. We both got more confident then because sometimes we’d get into the studio and be like, “Wait, how do we do this again?”

What happens when you hit full panic?

Sometimes you just need a break, which is why we took years. I know you should push through it, but I have to take a walk.

Are you ever in the unfortunate situation of having someone ask if you’ll ever consider changing the way you sound?

Yeah, someone actually just asked us in France now over and over! We got a little annoyed after a while because you kind of can’t help it? It’s just the way it sounds.

Do you think there’s a weight on electronic musicians to ensure that the audience comprehends they’re not just twiddling buttons?

I usually get pretty bored when I see someone on stage with a laptop. I just saw Squarepusher, and he was amazing! Wearing a fencing mask, it was spastic, aggressive, and so fucking loud. Seeing that, I think they should feel pressure.

Is there anything that you listen to that would surprise someone?

I really love Clara Rockmore; it’s a theremin album, classical and cool. I was just listening to “Angel” by Aerosmith [sings, “You’re my angel”]

I have faith that you and Evan will immediately cover that on tour. Which reminds me, is it going to be a little tricky getting back into such a grueling tour schedule?

Our first two weeks are going to be the hardest missing home. You just get used to it, get in the zone where you don’t think about what you’re doing, and that’s when it starts to get fun.

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