Interview: Ratatat Taps Into Orchestral Roundabout

RatatatGrowing up in Shelton, Connecticut, 15 minutes outside New Haven, guitarist Mike Stroud experimented with four-track recordings during high school, frequented local shows, and went to New York City whenever possible to catch cool bands. He attended Skidmore College, met Cleveland-raised keyboardist/programmer Evan Mast and by 2001 they’d conceive formative band, Cherry. For legal purposes, the sprouting twosome soon reconvened under the snappier appellation, Ratatat (an alarming discharged firearm connotation) and by ’04 released a promising eponymous debut boasting one massive breakthrough tune.

Recorded in Mast’s small Brooklyn-based Crown Heights apartment, the Teutonic techno shuffle, “17 Years,” earned Ratatat early recognition when it was used on a British “Accessorize” Hummer commercial. Its success led to an opening spot on Daft Punk’s high-profile tour where the transplanted Brooklynites began impressing audiences pronto.

“Evan had a tiny bedroom with a laptop setup. We had one guitar, a distortion pedal, and we borrowed a bass from his roommate,” Stroud says. “It was totally minimal and we banged out “17 Years” in one day. We got pretty lucky receiving exposure. Our A&R guy from London found our webpage and got in touch with us.”

Having leveraged their initial rockist attitude and rave-cultured leanings a tad for ‘06’s multi-dimensional investigation, Classics, Ratatat brought an ambitious soulful aesthetic closer to the surface. By ‘08’s daringly expansive LP3 (XL Records), they’d discovered the joys of pan- ethnic resourcefulness.

“The first two we did in Evan’s apartment only had a couple sounds—guitars, keyboards. We did this one in a real studio with more instruments, adding strings, Grand piano, and organ tones. There were some cool world music elements like tablas. People think I only play guitar, but I did harpsichord, piano, and get annoyed when everyone thinks Evan’s the big genius who plays everything else,” the snickering Stroud informs.

Influenced by conceptual guitar wizard Robert Fripp and Queen’s bellwether axe-man Brian May, as well as Jimmy Page’s acoustical solo endeavors, Stroud’s heavily processed and headily manipulated six-string constructions transfix or transcend the tidily detailed arrangements. The use of mellotron on LP3 serves to open up the savvy synthesized symphonies. On the eloquent “Mi Viejo,” mellotron nuances thread the neo- Classical Spanish guitar melody, entwined autoharp coils, and swirled tribal percussion. A comparable tropical rhythm inundates “Munitaz Khan,” where pan flutes, pipes, and bongos bedeck sequenced guitar electrodes, creating a bizarre Bollywood landscape hipper Hindu films first formulated back in the silent era. Using a similar Eastern Asian template, Pakistani bhangra breakbeats swarm through the calliope-swiped keyboard loops, Nintendo game bleeps, and zooming Frippertronic mechanics consuming “Mirando.” Despite its apparent Anglo- Saxon auspices, “Flynn” flaunts an echoplex dub reggae groove. Whimsically, song titles such as the latter are inconsequential, goofy derangements meant to provoke chuckles.

“The titles don’t have to mean anything,” Stroud chuckles. “Lots of times we’ll have funny working titles that stick.”

For instance, the soothing Baroque-inclined harpsichord-laden closer, “Black Heroes,” doesn’t necessarily venerate the uniquely salient African-American experience. Instead, its drifting mellifluent flutter is better described as pale- faced ambient seduction. Then again, Ratatat’s crafty pair is never hesitant to express admiration celebrating hip-hop’s wide-angled black-faced appeal.

“We both listen to a lot of hip-hop, especially Evan, who makes the beats,” Stroud admits. “My favorite rapper ever is Ghostface. I loved the first Raekwon record and all the descendant Wu-Tang Clan ventures. I saw Wu a few months back and Raekwon did some ace freestyling. But I don’t listen to hip-hop as much now. I feel it’s kind of fucked. RZA’s the only one who seems to know the business.”