Instrumental New York electronica duo has strong aversion to lyrics
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Ethereal rock-tronica duo Ratatat was forged in 2001 out of a common disinterest between guitarist Mike Stroud and multi-instrumentalist/producer Evan Mast: They’re both bored by music with lyrics. Though they bide their time lending support in other outfits—Stroud with the likes of Joe Satriani and Ben Kweller—the laid-back, upbeat pop-electronic outfit effortlessly cranks out imaginative hip-hop remixes and original songs with persistent beats, odd sound effects, and spacey guitar riffs. While putting the finishing touches on their fourth album and once again heading out on the road behind last year’s LP3, Mast and Stroud talked to The A.V. Club about why they dislike lyrics and the all-important difference between song names and bird names.
The A.V. Club: Is being an instrumental band a direct reaction to something specific going on in the musical landscape when you started?
Evan Mast: I guess it’s a direct reaction to what we felt like doing, I guess. [Laughs.] I think instrumental’s the most interesting way to make music right now. I don’t know, it just seems like there’s more possibilities. I think if you start putting lyrics in your music it limits things. I’m just not interested in writing lyrics.
AVC: When did you reach that point? How does it limit things?
EM: It happened before we ever started this band, I think. We started making instrumental music from the beginning. But yeah, we both had normal bands in high school and college and stuff with singers.
Mike Stroud: That was always the point in the recording process where I decided I never wanted to show the song to anybody. Once I put lyrics to it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you ever set lyrics to your music?
EM: Poems? No.
MS: [Laughs.] We’re like poets.
AVC: What sort of poets are you guys?
EM: We keep our music and our poetry separate. [Laughs.]
MS: Evan’s an erotic poet. [Laughs.] Very sexual.
AVC: What attracts you to remixing songs with lyrics in them?
MS: Money. [Laughs.] Money’s part of it. Most of the time we aren’t attracted to making remixes for people. But yeah, occasionally it’s fun [but usually it isn’t], which is why we haven’t been doing a lot of remixes recently. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve said in the past you won’t do remixes unless you can improve on the original.
EM: When we were first starting doing that stuff, when we first started Ratatat, we weren’t as picky when the remix options came up. It was just kind of like—because it was still new to us—but now that we’ve done a couple of them, it’s not that fun anymore to just do a random pop song.
MS: Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense—like Johnny Cash. It doesn’t make any sense for us to do.
EM: Yeah. If I got a record in the mail that was like Johnny Cash Remix, I’d be so bummed out. Something I’d never want to hear.
AVC: But you guys felt you could improve on Kanye’s “Diamonds?” He’d probably be pretty offended by that.
EM: I didn’t really like the original beat for that song.
MS: Also, sometimes it’s not always about improving. Sometimes it’s about doing something different.
EM: I think the beat came first, too. And then somewhere along the line trying to match the vocal up and it kind of fit. It was just sort of convenient.
AVC: How close are you to having your next album done?
EM: Pretty close. We’re doing some mixing and recording a few bits in the next couple of weeks but we don’t really have a schedule for it or anything.
AVC: Just take it as it comes?
EM: Yeah. We just try to get as much stuff done on it before we start our touring schedule.
AVC: Because your songs are completely instrumental, how do you come up with song titles?
MS: Pretty much just like free association. Like whatever we’re thinking at the time.
EM: Occasionally there’ll be a title that just seems really obnoxious, so you have to find something new.
AVC: What was a particularly obnoxious one?
EM: I’m sure there’s plenty.
MS: Probably most of them.
EM: Probably most of the ones we actually kept. [Laughs.] What was the working title for “Wildcat?” Wasn’t it like “Francoise” or something?
MS: Oh, it was like “Frederick” or some shit.
AVC: Where did that come from?
EM: I don’t know. I always like to check out really dumb-sounding names, like first names for people. So that the titles, [they're] like the song files–when you start a song file on the computer, you have to name it something before you start the song. That’s like, “Stephanie,” “Brianna.”
AVC: These are all just people’s names.
MS: Darnell. Yeah, he’ll do that. Or like just Spanish words or like president’s names.
EM: Famous Civil War battles. What’s your favorite Civil War battle?
AVC: It’s gotta be Gettysburg, right?
EM: Yup. Got to be Gettysburg.
AVC: What’s your favorite Civil War battle?
MS: [Laughs.] I think Gettysburg is the only one I know.
EM: I’m a fan of Sherman’s march to the sea.
MS: I think Nagasaki is my favorite Civil War [battle].
AVC: Your live act tends to incorporate a lot of video elements and other elements to keep people from directly watching you—and you’ve talked about how watching musicians onstage isn’t very interesting.
EM: Some musicians are interesting to watch onstage. Maybe we are; I don’t know. I just like to have a lot going on. Like if I go to a show, unless somebody’s like really super charismatic, I want to see a lot happening onstage. Like really talented people playing and string sections or something. I don’t know. I want to do a lot of things so there’s a lot to look at otherwise it gets boring.
MS: We thought it should be like an event, you know, like you’re seeing something more than just a couple of dudes playing guitar.
EM: Yeah. Especially for us because we’re not like a standard rock band. We’re not just playing live drums and everything and having it just all be fully contained in this live unit. I feel like we have to make an effort to really present it in a way that’s just like—you know, make a production out of it, make it fun to watch.
AVC: Have you thought about having a drummer live?
AVC: Have you thought about having a drummer live?
EM: Yeah. We tried it once. It didn’t go that well. I don’t know. Particular sounds on the beats are pretty important, so when you try and do it with live drums you lose something.
AVC: You actually tried it live, or you just tried it in rehearsal and it just didn’t really click?
EM: We tried it live once. But we didn’t try it in rehearsal. I think that was the problem. [Laughs.]
MS: It was in Paris or something—a couple of years ago. But, like, just the sound of a drum kit, it doesn’t make sense for our songs. The drum sounds on [our] record[s] are like really specific sounds. There’s lots of samples, like, whatever, shower, rain, or something, you can’t do stuff like that with a drum kit. So it just doesn’t work for us.
EM: With electronic drum sounds there’s loads of stuff you’re not going to be able to create with a drum kit.
MS: And every song has kind of a different sound with the drums.
AVC: Is this why you talked about bringing a bizarre orchestra with you on the road a few years back, which included half a dozen well-trained birds?
MS: Cool idea.
AVC: Where would you get the birds?
EM: We’d get them from the pet store. We’d name them Darnell and Brianna.
AVC: So it’s okay to give birds obnoxious names, but not songs?
MS: Those are cool names.
EM: For a bird, Darnell is a great name.
MS: Darnell. It’s perfect.
EM: Songs and birds are two different things.