Interview Ratatat: Exotic Instruments, 80s Sitcoms & Local Heroes

We catch up with Evan Mast and Mike Stroud before their gig in Sheffield.

For a duo that have notched up more than 25 million YouTube hits combined with their Kid Cudi collaboration ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ ft MGMT, it seems slightly odd that the Ratatat name doesn’t resound quite as much as that of their XL label and current tour mates Vampire Weekend. But then again, Ratatat make music. Just music. Without words. And music that really takes you on a trip - maybe in more ways than one. DIY caught up with Evan Mast and Mike Stroud before their gig in Sheffield to talk exotic instruments, ‘exotic’ substances, 80s sitcoms and local heroes.

They say some people are born with talents. How did you start messing with experimental, instrumental music? The music you create requires more than a guitar…

Evan: I was into rock music actually growing up and started getting into electronic stuff and more instrumental music, which opened up greater possibilities. We both took guitar lessons as kids. The production thing came from a simple recording programme and a building process with time.
Mike: It’s not really expensive or anything. You can do anything on a laptop.

Were there any seminal records that inspired you to take this turn rather than, for instance, into the ‘angular indie band’ route?
Mike: Most of my favourite all-time records aren’t instrumental, but when I was at high school, I used to collect Herb Alpert records.

Like ‘Casino Royale’?
Mike: Yes, and there’s also a bunch of other instrumental stuff that’s a bit kitschy, which is a bit cool too.

I love your use of instruments - for instance, ‘Lex’ sounds like it’s got a harpsichord on it and almost has a regal sound playing against a very modern beat. You’ve also got the song ‘Tacobel Canon’! How much do you look to the classics to produce more current sounds?
Mike: We’re both into Bach. Recently, I got a record of ‘200 Harpsichord Pieces’ and I want to learn some of it when I get home. The sound you hear is from our harpsichord, as I’ve a little one that goes in the corner [of the room].

What’s the weirdest instrument you’ve ever bought and is there anything you’ve picked up that proved to be useless?

Evan: There’s been a few of those!
Mike: I got this African instrument called a Kora and it looks amazing. It’s this big drum, where the neck comes up really high and it’s got about 20 strings. I spent about 5 hours trying to string it up and I haven’t played it since.
Evan: We never got that tuned!
Mike: No, I’d get the wooden pegs it tune and it would go peeeeyaaaaaang [*out of tune noise*]. I would struggle with it for hours.

Was it that instrument or that specific model?

Mike: I think I just bought a lemon!

Where did you get it from?

Mike: The internet.
Evan: We spend a lot of time on the internet and when we’re home for a few weeks, everyday on the front porch, we had a new thing showing up.
Mike: I got this Japanese instrument called a Tashikoto, where every string is tuned to the same note and it’s almost like a typewriter. It’s on ‘Bare Feast’ on the new record [‘LP4”s Balkan-flavoured track].

It’s interesting that you use real instruments and I think it will surprise some, as it did me, that about 90% of your music comes from instruments themselves.

Evan: We kind of stay away from using samples and we definitely never use sampled instrument sounds, as they never really sit properly in the song.

What do you think about a law professor’s proposal to put musical works in the public domain after 5 years? Wouldn’t this be a dream come true for remixers or sonic labcoat-types? Or is it a dangerous prospect?

Mike: It’s a bit of both. If you made it a free for all, then a lot of people would abuse it. But it can be pretty annoying especially if you’re in hip hop and there’s so many great pop songs that couldn’t get released because they couldn’t clear the sample.

Well, I know we had ‘The Grey Album’, but legitimately obtaining permission to play with Beatles songs would be nigh on impossible. Though Paul McCartney is going a bit soft these days… [with recent X Factor cameos in mind]

Mike: These days?! [Laughs]

Well, it’s been a while.

[Both laugh]

Speaking of hip hop, you’ve worked with Kid Cudi on a couple of songs off his album ‘Man On The Moon’. Who would be your ideal collaborator? It can be anyone from any period in history!

Evan: Bill Cosby.

Haha, what? To do stand-up?

Evan: We’d get him to play drums [laughs]. We’ll try him out.
Mike: Martin Short.

Well, Steve Martin can play banjo, so you never know what Martin Short can do! Now that we’ve gone onto movies, guys, what’s up with the parakeet in your recent music videos for ‘Neckbrace’ and ‘Party With Children’? Have you been watching ‘The Birds’ a lot of late?
Mike: It’s my bird. She made her way into the studio with us and made her way onto one of the songs, so she became cool. Her name’s Fellini. She’ll come and hang out with you.

One of your songs - ‘Seventeen Years’ - was in Cloverfield. If ‘LP4’ could be the soundtrack to something, what would it be?

Mike: The Cosby Show.
Evan: The bit at the beginning where they’re all dancing! An extended intro to The Cosby Show for 45 minutes.

You watch it… someone may do this and you’ll go on youtube to see your songs put to The Cosby Show.

Mike: Or The Fresh Prince of Bel- Air.

What do you make of the statement that Ratatat make ‘music to get high to’?

Evan: It’s funny. Everytime I look on YouTube and the comments for our videos, people are always like ‘Oh they’re so stoned’ and people just assume we’re crazy drug addicts who are into acid, but we’re total lightweights when it comes to that stuff.

Do you resent the association?

Evan: No because people appreciate music more when they’re stoned, so it’s cool.

Are drugs good for finding new realms of creativity for artists?

Mike: Certain drugs… maybe?
Evan: I don’t know. We’re afraid of crazy drugs.

That’s for the listeners!

Evan: There have been a lot of great records made under the influence of drugs.

But when you’re writing a song, you’re not necessarily having that experience whilst you’re doing it. I would imagine it can be quite difficult and it’s often something you can write about after a trip.

Evan: Yeah, I think there’s a Beatles quote about that when they were talking about all the drugs they did when they were recording. They tried it a couple of times and it never came out good. It’s too confusing. You get an idea, but you can’t perform it or play it.

You’re currently on tour with Vampire Weekend. Is there any dirt you can dish on those boys or is it all good clean fun? Do they like The Cosby Show?

Mike: Probably. They like TV a lot. But we don’t know them that well yet.
Evan: We have so much dirt that we can’t shovel it.

You’ve toured with a lot of good people actually.

Evan: A lot of dirty artists!

A lot! Do you mind being the support band tonight?

Evan: Well, we thought we would prefer it and then we did one the other night.. In the UK, it’s hard, but everywhere else, I prefer to headline. People are there and they know what to expect. We play one of our bigger songs and usually it gets an immediate reaction.
Mike: The crowd last night seemed to react well in Scotland last night.
Evan: But I’m pretty sure I heard booing.

Are you sure that someone didn’t just hear the results for The X Factor or something?

Evan: I’d prefer a boo to no reaction at all. The show before that the crowd were pretty passive.

It’s better to divide! Then you know people feel something - whatever that may be.

Mike: Yeah, they weren’t leaving the room.

I normally look to the bar to see how many people are in there rather than watching the band.

Mike: When it’s not our shows, I’m normally at the bar.

Can be risky though. I’m from ‘round this area and I saw Arctic Monkeys supporting The Coral early on and my friends missed it because they were at the bar. Then a couple of months later, they were UK Number 1 and the biggest band in Britain.

Evan: They’re from round here?

Yes… we’ve got a few good musicians from here. Jarvis Cocker…

Evan: Does he still live here?

I don’t think so, but my Mum saw him with his son outside Marks & Spencers in the city centre last year. She’s a bit of a rock n roller.

Mike: Sounds like it!

She has no fear when it comes to rock n roll stars whereas I think they’d see me as a disturbance and I’d get told to ‘p- off’. She ended up even asking his son whether or not he spoke French. Apparently he was really nice. She had a Christmas card with her that he signed.

Evan: Yeah, it’s easier to be a jerk to a young kid!

Indeed. And after more rock n roll banter, we bid farewell and I go watch the show.

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