Strange Brew: Ratatat

JUXTAPOSING ODDBALL SOUNDS THAT SHARE LITTLE IN COMMON WITH ONE ANOTHER, RATATAT CREATES INSTRUMENTAL SOUNDSCAPES THAT GEL TOGETHER INEXPLICABLY
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One way for Evan Mast (left) and Mike Stroud to evade superstardom is to wear Fruit Stripe gum over their eyes.
All Photos: James Kendi

“We brought some different instruments with us this time,” says Evan Mast from the Old Soul Studios in Catskill, N.Y., where he and Ratatat co-conspirator Mike Stroud are hard at work on their next full-length album. Mast pauses, then strums a koto pensively as he searches for the right words. “We're coming into it with a certain amount of expectation, I guess, because we were already here. The beats that I brought this time are a lot weirder, so that's been setting an interesting tone so far.”

Mast and Stroud have come a long way from their modest Brooklyn apartments, literally and figuratively, and nowhere is this more evident than in their current release, LP3 (XL, 2008). The earnest, guitar-driven bombast and churning rhythms that made songs on their self-titled debut (XL, 2004) — and the more recent Classics (XL, 2006) — such showstoppers are still evident in LP3, but much of this album's momentum and energy derive from the gut-level beats, precisely layered percussion and winding keys that resulted from intensive, all-day recording sessions in the Old Soul Studios this past autumn. “We basically came right off of touring,” Mast says. “We had been to all these places we had never been to before. I was feeling really inspired, so it was the perfect time to go into the studio.”

Whereas Classics came together over the course of a few months and included ideas that germinated a year or two prior, the duo sketched out LP3 in a matter of days. “The first night we got there, we just went through all the beats and got vague ideas of how songs should go,” Stroud recalls. “Right away, the first morning, it was crazy — I was like, ‘Holy shit, we just made a song!’ We just kept that going, basically, the whole time we were there. We tried to finish a song a day, if we could — write it, record it, everything.”

HAUNTED HOUSE

Old Soul, designed by an experienced guitarist and producer known as The Wolf (with help from Blueberry, a bandmate), occupies the ground floor of a grand, historic house built in 1805, and contains a stockpile of old keyboards and other gear, including a Crumar Organizer, Optigan, Mellotron, Neupert Harpsichord, Hohner Clavinet, Korg Mono/Poly, Mason & Hamlin grand piano, Wurlitzer electric piano and Oscar Schmidt 21-chord Autoharp. The Ratatat guys first came to the space when their pal, Justin Roelofs, asked them to help out with some beats and arrangements on an upcoming album for his White Flight solo project. “We just loved the studio [and] it seemed obvious that we should work there,” Stroud says. “It's in this awesome old house. It's like a legend — the real Uncle Sam grew up next door, I think Van Buren got married there and it's supposed to be haunted.”

Besides offering a unique atmosphere and serving as a retreat, Old Soul furnished Ratatat with sounds they previously considered out of reach or inconvenient to obtain. “Anytime we didn't know what to do, we'd just pick up a new instrument and start playing with it, and something good would come out of it,” Mast remembers. “I like to vary other elements more than the software; I like to have instruments around that I don't know how to play because you end up getting weird sounds that way.”

Mast, whose solo work as E*Vax steers his mind to beats and electronics, had his beat-up Mac PowerBook with him on the road, and he used the downtime to craft beats using Logic. “I like to do the beats ahead of time,” he says. “That way when we're recording, we have a big bank of beats to choose from and we can pick what seems right at the moment.”

Rather than dealing with drum machines, Mast dips into his collection of samples and found sounds and records drum parts on his home setup using a Shure SM57 mic and a Universal Audio 6176 preamp to catch hand drums or a floor tom, though he has better luck with percussion instruments like shakers and tambourines. “It is kind of hard to get a good drum sound when you're recording it yourself. I've had better luck with that at the studio, with more microphones,” he says. His remedy? The Sherman FilterBank. “Sometimes I'd stick the whole beat through it at once, mess around with it, try to get dirty sounds and stuff. Sometimes I'd put the whole song through it and get sections of it filtered. It's a weird device. I still don't know ahead of time what it's going to do. So if you want to make something sound messed up, you just put it through that. Usually, something unexpected happens.”

Although typically songs start with beats, Stroud, who spent the better part of his early 20s touring for the likes of Ben Kweller and Dashboard Confessional, also noodles around for ideas on his Epiphone Wilshire guitar and Vox AC30 amp. And Mast takes a seat at one of the keyboards or picks up his trusty Gibson EB0 bass, which he prizes for its low-definition, reggae-friendly timbre.

A TURN TOWARD THE MIDDLE EAST

The duo fortified its percussion by purchasing a zarb (often referred to as a tonbak), a type of goblet drum characteristic of classical Persian music, after hearing popular Iranian group Chemirani Trio employ it to great effect on its records. Deceptively simple in appearance, the drum produces an incredible variety of sounds when played skillfully — drummers use all fingers on both hands in a manner that, at times, resembles that of keyboard players. “You can get hundreds of sounds out of these drums,” Stroud raves. “But it has a skin on the top and there are rivets on the side — that's it.”

The zarb, played with tablas and bongos, forms the rhythmic underpinnings of “Mi Viejo,” a track that came together at breakneck speed on the first day of recording, and kicks off an East/West dualism that sets LP3 apart from its predecessors. The warm, springy sound of the tabla complements the subtle, earthy beat of the zarb, and Ratatat incorporates the capabilities of these traditional instruments into their electronically fortified sonic palette. “You hit it with your fingertip and push your palm into it and stretch the skin as the sound is ringing out,” says Mast of the tablas he used. “It gives it that weird rubbery effect.”

Having such unique sounds as tabla, Optigan, sitar, lap steel, Melodica, Autoharp and homemade shaker (dry rice in a soup can) from the start allowed Stroud and Mast to use them with minimal digital manipulation, though sometimes they'll run a drum or two in reverse or throw on a lowpass or a highpass filter. “We don't like to use a lot of effects in Logic. We might adjust some EQing as it's going in, some compression,” says Mast, who uses an Avalon Vt-737sp channel strip, dbx compressor, UniVox Super-Fuzz pedal, and Great River MP-2NV and Vintech X73 preamps for outboard treatments. “I like to manipulate things organically rather than on the computer whenever I can.”

Luckily, Ratatat found an unlikely source of inspiration. They happened upon a well-stocked rug store down the street owned by an Egyptian man, Mumtaz Khan, whose hospitality earned him an entire song on LP3. “We'd walk over there, he'd just invite us into his office and feed us crazy, huge, Indian dinners,” Stroud recalls. “We both got rugs, leather deer, we bought all these busts and these marble pyramids that we set up on top of the Optigan.”

“They have some sort of use,” Mast adds. “You're supposed to put them under your bed to keep your lover from cheating on you or something. But we ended up using those, clinking them together at the end of the last song.”

NEVER DWELL

Vocal snippets pop up every now and again, clipped beyond recognition, and they had a good time working the Talk Box on “Falcon Jab” and sequenced some MIDI in Logic that they ran through a Clavia Nord Lead for “Imperials.” They threw a few chirps into the mix, too. “Mike has a pet parakeet and someone was supposed to be babysitting it while we were at the studio, but they backed out at the last minute so he ended up bringing it up to the studio,” says Mast. “He put his cage right next to the piano, so whenever we were recording piano we ended up with bird sounds on the piano tracks.”

As a result, LP3 has an expansive, roaming quality to it while sounding cohesive overall — from the emphatic, harpsichord-laced guitar riffs of “Shiller” to the global percussion on “Mirando” and the smoky dub of “Flynn” — and their music benefited from the open space and freedom afforded to them in upstate New York. “We would just work all day, make a huge dinner and get wasted,” Stroud says with a laugh. “It was really fun. And then right away, the next morning, we'd start working again. There was no pressure. We'd take a couple of days off, drive around, go to the river, the woods.”

When it does come time to finish up a song, the pair has a no-nonsense approach. The guys ditch anything that doesn't work after messing around with it for 20-odd minutes. “If we're working on a section of a song for a long time and it's not going anywhere, we just fucking erase it. It's too annoying,” Stroud admits. “Or we just put it aside and start something new. I guess that's how we try to keep things fresh. With Classics, we'd just be hearing the same things over and over and over, just going crazy, [and] it'd start to get boring.”

“Sometimes it's hard — there might be a melody that was really difficult to record or there's something really good about it that fits with the song, but we usually give it about a week before we decide to remove it,” Mast adds. “With these songs, there was surprisingly little revision. We had so much time, 24 hours a day, so if a song was going well, we could stay focused on it and see it all the way through. I think when you break up the recording session, if you're doing four hours here, four hours there, you spread out one song over a couple of weeks, you're looking at different parts of the songs at different places and it's hard to bring all the parts together.”

After leaving Old Soul, Mast and Stroud made some rough mixes on the computer and brought those to Trout Studios in Brooklyn, where they mixed the entire record down to ¼-inch tape. “The past two records we mixed in my apartment, and we did it all on the computer. We were always wondering if it'd make a difference if we took it into a proper studio, put it through a proper mixing board,” Mast says. “We figured we might as well mix it on tape to see how that would affect the sound. The ones we did in the studio sounded more spacious; they feel richer. It ended up being exactly what we wanted. There's some tape hiss and stuff on it, but it gives it a nice kind of compression and it holds the tracks together really well.”

At that point, however, Stroud and Mast were ready to wrap up LP3 and obtain some closure on their time at Old Soul Studios. “We were really pretty modest when it came to mixing because we had already done all the decision-making regarding effects and getting all the sounds we wanted while we were recording,” Mast explains. “It wasn't a wild process, we weren't trying to explore our possibilities; we were just trying to get what we had to sound as good as possible. That was a really good thing — to put the finished seal on each song.”