Rising from the vintage synth filled depths of New York’s electronic music scene, Ratatat are a band who favour multiple layers of instruments over minimal beats and synth loops. Made up of multi-instrumentalists Mike Stroud and Evan Mast, the duo have been finding success the world over, even touring to our shores in support of their last album LP3.
Since then the band have remixed Bjork’s ‘Wanderlust’, played on David Letterman and even tried their hand at hip hop, contributing two tracks to Kid Cudi’s debut album, Man On The Moon: The End Of The Day. Obviously not men to sit on their laurels, Ratatat are set to release their fourth studio album, inventively titled LP4.
With most of the record having come out of the same writing period that produced LP3, even though the two albums may sit side by side in time, in terms of Ratatat’s musical development LP4 shows a more daring and strange side of the band, with the duo incorporating more instruments than ever before.
“I think it’s just a matter of we’re always trying to keep ourselves entertained during the recording process,” Evan Mast tells me of the band’s endless stockpiling of new instruments and sounds. “I feel like we’re always trying to make some sound that we’ve never made before. I mean, even if we write something that we think is pretty good, like a good melody or something, unless it’s brand new to us in some way we just can’t get excited about it.”
It’s not just a case of grabbing whatever’s lying around and recording it though, as the duo often have to take to time to experiment with and get to know an instrument before they absorb it into their music. One example is the Autoharp, which features prominently in parts of LP4, but might not have were it not for Evan and Mike’s dedication to finding the right sound.
“We bought that thing just before going into the studio. So the night that we got there we were in this room with all these instruments, getting excited you know, and I sat down with the Autoharp and played a couple of chords. It just sounded like this cupid, sparkly harp thing and we were just like, oh no, this was such a mistake buying this thing, it sounds horrible,” he recounts amidst a chuckle or two. “But a few days passed and then we sort of figured out how to use it and that changed our opinion on it, but at first we were just like this is such the wrong idea.”
Listening to any of their albums reveals that this sort of experience must not be a seldom one. With the core of their sound being made up of layered guitar, bass and synth parts, the rest of it often presents the ear with a boggling array of textures, with sounds popping up from all over the world, and some seemingly from outside of it. You might think then that Evan and Mike spend all their time on EBay bidding on sitars or steel drums, but in fact their instrument shopping sprees tend to take on a more cyclical character.
“I guess it more kind of happens right before we start working on a record; we go into these periods of watching youtube videos of people in India playing weird percussion instruments and then trying to track down places where you can mail order them from. I mean, our recording process is pretty inexpensive for the most part, so we tend to spend our money on buying instruments.”
And why not? Why bother paying some big name producer half a million to make you sound like Coldplay when you can just do it all yourself and spend the money on buying yourself new instruments and gear to make it? It’s pretty much how Anton Newcombe got all of his recording gear, and it’s a tactic Ratatat have long held to.
But it seems that the duo’s era of complete self sufficiency is coming to end, as for LP4, the band are working on a series of three music videos to accompany it’s release, and for the first time Evan isn’t the one making them.
“Well up until now, every video that we’ve had I’ve made myself. In the past it was kind of like all the videos were what we used for our tour visuals, so this is the first time we’re doing real videos that aren’t just like cut up footage from movies,” he explains with a self-deprecating laugh. “We’ve reached out to a few directors and we’re trying to make it happen, but it’s a bit weird; we haven’t really done a lot of collaborating with other people in the past so this is one of the first experiences we’ve had of handing the reigns over to someone else.”
With this new approach comes new skills that must be mastered, a task Evan is somewhat struggling with after years spent toiling in creative isolation. “It ends up being a totally different skill,” he tells me. “Even if you have this brilliant idea, if you can’t communicate it properly it just ends up falling flat. I don’t know though, I think it’s a skill I haven’t really developed. I’m working on that, I just hope we get everything done in time for the release.”