Admittedly – and inexplicably – it took us a minute to get the new Ratatat record, modestly titled Classics, onto the hi-fi over here. But once we heard it the first time, we had it echoing across the office from various speakerboxxxes, headphones and shitty laptop speakers all day everyday. After a week of non-stop Ratatatery, we did the right thing and called up our main dude Nico Muhly and got him to interview Team Ratatat, Evan Mast and Mike Stroud. Muhly, a much-touted New York composer with more accomplishments and collaborations (Björk, Oldham, Antony, Glass, Reed, etc) than we can count on ten fingers and ten toes, has a record coming out soon called Speaks Volumes. The album is a tense but joyously playful collection of small ensemble compositions – we can’t quite tell if it has exploded out of classical and new music, or if it has sucked us right up into them. Classics, meanwhile, has an unbearable lightness that we’re still jamming to all day – zillions of layers of slide guitar, whip-it-whip-it beats and fat chunks of organ that all add up to easy, breezy goodtimes. Read the conversation between Muhly and Ratatat after the jump.
Evan: I didn’t know you did stuff for The FADER.
Yeah, they send me out from time to time. But it’s because I’m your biggest fan.
Mike/Evan: [awkward laughter]
So here’s what I want to know: When you perform live, how will this tour be different from last time? Do you have a different plan? What is that plan?
Mike: We have a new member, this guy Jacob who’s going to play keyboard.
Is he playing synth or is he triggering samples?
Mike: Synth and organs. He plays keys in this band the Double. They’re a Matador band. He’s really good.
There are all kinds of acoustic instruments on the new record. How are you dealing with that?
Mike: Samples…. I’m going to be playing electric guitar, any percussion that we can and live recordings, and the beats went through samples and stuff.
Do you ever think that, even once, it would be better to have everything accounted for by a live human?
Mike: Yeah, that would be amazing.
So why not do that?
Mike: It’s not practical, we’d have to get like nine guitar players, I don’t know.
At its widest, what’s playing on Classics?
Mike: 70 tracks.
So whats the imaginary instrumental spread – who’s on stage?
Mike: It would be like the guitar players…. The end of “Tropicana” would be…it’s got like at least six tracks of slide guitar, five harmonizing melodies, bells, cellos, acoustic guitars….
All the individual parts – it’s this part and that part – but the actual stuff is pretty straightforward.
Evan: But it’s surprisingly hard to find new musicians.
Mike: Most of the guitar players we know just didn’t really work.
When you’re layering this music, is there a specific order that you follow? Do you start with the beat and then work your way up?
Evan: Yeah, usually you just start with the melody, and then, a lot of time, it changes from there.
There’s always different little pockets, there is this melody, that turns into this other melody…. Do you assemble that horizontally all at once or do you work on each section and then smack them together?
Evan: You kind of just get into each section, make it feel as full as possible and then realize that, “Oh this is not the complete song,” and then you have to backtrack. It’s different with some songs because you are working horizontally.
Mike: We sort of try out every possibility, we’re kind of just playing around with things and then reorganizing over and over. You know it’s bad when you get bored listening to it.
So you do start out with boredom. There’s no specific process, which is good. What about the harpsichord?
Evan: We have this clavinet song that we were working up with.
But the harpischord is so much better.
Evan: The harpsichord is so much better.
Mike: We’ve always been into harpsichord – when we did that song “17 Years” we had harpsichord on it.
But that was a fake harpsichord.
Mike: Some of the verse has harpsichord on it, instead of samples for keyboard that were like harpsichord. Those were just samples that we mixed like hip-hop beats – it sounds a little like a real harpsichord but it sounds a little cheesy.
It seems like the embrace is bigger with the new stuff, the patterns are more reassuring in a way…. Like, for instance, there are a lot of moments where something great is happening with the guitar and you don’t leave it alone; you play it a million times and add another guitar right on top of it and that’s completely satisfying.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, I guess for me to play it – that’s satisfying.
I guess that, in a way, it’s predictable in the best possible way.
Evan: Sometimes we worry that it’s too predictable.
What do you see as improvements from the last record?
Mike: In the first record we kind of hadn’t figured out what the sound would be when we were putting all the different elements together and on this one we were kind of projecting it and writing in different directions, seeing where we could push it to have it be like Ratatat.
Evan: Maybe some of the ideas were still the same – once you have a melody here you see where the sound develops. Also, the first record was really home studio – like, one keyboard, pretty much one bass. So this time we used amps and a way better studio.
Where was this done, in your house?
Evan: Yeah mostly, and upstate. And it’s not necessarily a great sounding room, either.
When people ask you, “How does this song go,” what is your answer?
Mike: I don’t know, that’s kind of bizarre, I don’t read music or anything.
I’m always curious because you don’t have any words, so how are we expected to distinguish between the songs and talk amongst ourselves about them?
Evan: I don’t know how to answer that really. Maybe they would sing the hook or something and be like, “Oh, that’s the one with the cat [sound effect].” But I guess they wouldn’t be singing it. People have done that to me before. As we were working on the record, I would give my girlfriend copies of the song as we were going and they didn’t have titles yet, so I’d be like, “Oh, track two on the cd,” and she would be like, “You know the one that sort of has this thing,” and she would start humming one of the melodies. But there are so many different counter melodies and harmonies, I could never really figure out what the hell she was talking about.
Mike: Almost like describing it like, “Oh, it’s got that hawaiian sounding thing.”
Well there is that one song “17 Years” that keeps going and going and going and then it slides down…. Anyways, i think that is unique to your project – it is instrumental music that is describable only in musical terms. “17 Years” is the exception – people who reference that will always reference the speaking right at the beginning of the track. With that in mind it’s interesting how these albums organize themselves into musical gestures – like, this is the song that does this and this is the song that does that.
Mike: I think with this record it was a little easier because the sound was…
And the beats.
Evan: Yeah its kind of got more like a hip-hop-y style to it.
Why is that?
Evan: We made probably about two hundred beats for this record. I don’t know why, I’m really into the hip-hop stuff. I started playing around with swinging little bass drums, so that was one of the first beats.
Mike: That was the song “Loud Pipes.” After I heard the beats for that song, I was not expecting what resulted to come from it at all.
Evan: It’s weird because the beat sounds very different on its own too, but yeah, I know what you mean – I never really expected that song to end up like that either.
Mike: That kind of stuff happens a lot. He would give me the beat and we would start playing around with it, and it ended up turning into something completely different than we expected. I think we kind of try to do that on purpose.
Have you ever gotten to the end of the process and swapped out the beat entirely?
Evan: Sort of. The song “Kennedy” on the new record kind of swapped out the entire thing in the last step, but just the sounds though. It ends up sounding pretty similar to the original beat but it’s got all new sounds. We’ve never really gone back and just completely changed a beat. We’ve tried that before but its really difficult, because all the rhythms are built around the beat and to throw another beat under it is just a little awkward, usually not in a good way.
What have you been doing during live shows?
Mike: Usually people are dancing. Sometimes its hippy dancing, spinning and such. They always want to smoke weed with us, that’s their biggest request.
Evan: Its weird who’s at our shows. It changes. Sometimes there are a lot of real jock-y guys up front, ball caps and big muscle-y dudes. It’s like what are you doing here?
Mike: And they’re drunk.
Evan: I think they get into the guitar solos. At some shows there are like people dancing on tables and shit. We played a lot of Vermont colleges and, yeah, they go crazy. But a lot of people just stand there too.
Mike: I think we have to build up to having [more live players at the show]. Moving around, and getting everyone on the bus.
Not even, you could get new people in each city!
Evan: It would be cool. There was a Swiss festival over the summer and it was this really amazing festival and they want us to come back next year and play with like ten guitar players. Actually the guy suggested we play with ten guitar players and ten bassists.
Mike: We’re gonna try and do that. But how did we do it with that cello we had? I don’t think we had anything written out. We’re not used to people knowing how to play our music. None of our friends knew how to do it.
Mike: “Fuck you to all our friends out there.”
I want to know more about the twirling hippies.
Mike: I was thinking specifically of Eugene, Oregon when I said that. Remember that show? It was like all hippies, because that town was all hippies.
I lived with this boy once who grew up in Eugene, a really good percussionist, and his parents ran what seems like a totally gentle hot-tub rental spa thing, but of course it was colloquially referred to as the soak-and-poke….
Mike: At our shows it’s not like a Phish concert but you do get some serious hippies, but more often it’s like cargo pants, maybe a goatee, those mountain climber keychain things. And some people had taken mushrooms at the Eugene show – there’s always a kid or two who took mushrooms and are like, “Dude we took mushrooms at the show it was AWESOME….”
Do they talk to you at the show?
Mike: Yeah, yeah. Either they love it or they’re like, “You need a drummer.”
What about a drummer, do you want one?
Evan: We had a drummer once – it was really fun, he didn’t get to practice so it was pretty sloppy but it was a lot of fun.
Mike: A lot of the songs use the same sounds so, for a lot of the songs you’re cool, but for some of the songs a live drum set just sounds bad.
What about hip-hop, do you get a lot of people…
Mike: We were going to maybe tour with Beans, he’s a New York rapper.
So who are you touring with?
Evan: This Swedish band called the Envelopes, they’re like super poppy, kind of messy; they kind of just like jump all over the place and put together pop songs. And this dude Panther from Portland.
I’m interested in the idea of starting with a beat and then you end up somewhere totally different – no way to prepare an alternate version, the song is locked to the beat that it came with.
So it’s not like you could perform the slow version.
Mike: Yeah, the song is pretty locked.
Evan: I mean, we could if we prepared it at the time, but it’s not something we could really improvise on the spot.
It’s definitely really specific parts – it’s not like you can “do your own thing” if you’re playing this music.
Mike: Sometimes people kind of improvise.
Evan: Why do you look at me when you say that? [laughs]
And that’s the thing – that control kind of keeps the whirling hippies at bay.
Evan: Yeah, a lot of people suggest that we should have somebody controlling the beats live and then we can switch it up and run into the next section or whatever we want. But the songs are laid out a certain way for a reason, so to extend a certain part, I can’t really think of any songs where that would make sense for any reason.
What about making the songs longer – could you make something that is 9 minutes, or 12 minutes – not an extension of a pre-existing song but actually build a long song?
Evan: For an album track? Actually, the third song on the record, “Gettysburg,” is like seven minutes long. We had to cut it actually cause it was going to be a single. We kind of thought it was going to be too long too. I liked the longer version but once I got used to the shorter version I think it got better.
How did you trim it?
Evan: Some of the repetition and stuff got cut off. And for the beginning we kind of sped up the progression of some things.
Mike: Yeah, plus I think we get really attached to how things are, we spend so long working on a song.
And what about involving more people in your process, is that something that interests you at all?
Mike: I don’t know, I think it might be fun at some point, especially cause we get stuck in a lot of habits and if we had somebody else there it might totally mess with the perspective. Assuming it’s the right person though, it could be a trainwreck. How did you do that track with Björk?
With all the pianos?
Mike: Did she tell you, “Do whatever you want?”
No no no, she was hardcore.
Mike: What happened?
Her style is really different – it’s really top down administration, she knows what she wants but she also wants like nine things, and she gets them all perfectly and then chooses at the end. You’re touring forever, do you have a tour bus?
How much shit do you have? What do you bring? Guitars, bass, what else?
Evan: We bring guitars, I guess three amps now. We fit it all in a small van, and we have all our projectors and –
Oh, is there a video element?
Evan: Yeah. We have videos for each part of the song, like kind of synch-ed up to the music.
Mike: Yeah, he does the videos, we did some of the old ones together, but he’s done the most recent ones by himself.
What do you do when he’s making the videos?
Mike: Ummm…wait to see them?
I read on your website that you’re doing remixes of things.
Evan: We just did one for this Swedish band called the Knife.
Do I like them?
Mike: Yeah you do. The new album sounds kind of annoying actually. They’re doing really well, a lot of people really like them. I’ve only really heard a couple of songs. Actually, their old stuff I kind of like better than what I’ve heard of the new stuff. They’re a little, like, goth or something; their style is dark and moody.
And how did they find you?
Mike: Their label is in the UK and we’re friends with the guy that kind of runs it. So I think he talked them into it, I don’t know. I don’t know if they even like the remix we did.
Evan: Yeah, they wanted it to sound like Prince, and we basically just ignored that.
Mike: Yeah, the singer had sent illicit instructions and one of them was like, “You know that guitar sound from ‘Red Corvette’ that’s like doo doooo,” and he wrote us out “doo dood do.”
Evan: And then she was like, “Wait does [Prince] do remixes?”
Mike: I think she wanted to replace us with Prince.
Could you even imagine if Prince did remixes?
Mike: Oh my god, I saw this tribute concert for George Harrison….
You went to that shit!?
Mike: No, I saw it on the internet and it was kind of tasteful at first, then Prince plays a solo at the end that was so over the top and he throws his guitar. I think he would make really bad remixes.
I went to the Prince concert three years ago and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Evan: Is that the tour where you got his album with the ticket?
Yeah, at the door. It was at the Garden.
Mike: I’ve never been to that big of a concert, but I liked Purple Rain the movie.
Evan: I’m into the whole Prince persona and the show. But the records, I don’t know, I never sit down and listen to them.
Do your parents listen to your stuff?
Mike: Yeah, like all the time.
Evan: My dad told me the other day – I had sent him copies of the new record – and he told me that my mom was out buying groceries so he stayed home and cranked up the new album and listened to it super loud.
What do they get out of it? I wonder what their approach is.
Evan: My parents actually like music so, I remember when I gave them the first record my parents were like, “It sounds so urban.” Like, they didn’t really get it at first. I think they can relate to the melodies pretty easily.