For Ratatat, All Roads Return to Brooklyn
Jena Ardell for the Village Voice
Fourteen years after bumping into each other at the Bedford L station — the chance encounter that led to the formation of Ratatat — Mike Stroud and Evan Mast have holed themselves up in a studio just a few miles away, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. They're laid back, barely breaking a sweat in the summer heat, but are aware they have work to do before they leave for tour.
"We get so focused while recording," says Mast, who works as the producer in the studio and plays bass and synth live. "The moment we play something through fine enough to record it, we just forget how to play it. Which is good — otherwise we'd just overanalyze what we're doing."
The studio is one of several the two musicians used to record Magnifique, their new album out on XL Recordings July 17. Though Ratatat have long been known for their precise production, deep-pocket grooves, and warm layers of guitar, the new record focuses more on melody than ever before. Their previous two opuses, the appropriately titled LP3 and LP4, act as twins on a more experimental tip. Magnifique is a conscious decision to break away from that.
"We started off by trying something different," says Mast. "We wanted to have a different result; we didn't have a rule of 'start with the melody,' but we wanted to make this all about guitars. We don't approach things with strict rules. We're always trying to mix it up and find ways to keep it interesting."
Originally, that quest brought them to a different answer: They would record the album with only live drums — something the production group they're often compared to, the Neptunes, did midway through their career. That approach didn't stick, but two songs on the album, "Pricks of Brightness" and "Rome," still use live-drum loops. Production was never their focus. "We prefer to build songs from the ground up," says Stroud. "Production's fun, but it doesn't beat creating."
The endless curiosity and tinkering makes sense for them, as both Stroud and Mast are a certain kind of jack-of-all-trades. Both multifaceted musicians, they're constantly employing new techniques and instruments to discover sounds. This record features Stroud prominently on lap steel guitar, something he's long wanted to play. "Lap steel and slide guitar are fun and very different than regular playing," he says. "You're finding the note when you're playing it, so there's more risk, but it's more accepting of the challenge, too. You end up playing stuff you weren't even trying for."
Such exploration isn't the only thing slowing the time between albums, but it's not because of any arguing — just a thirst for the right textures and tones. "We'd spend a couple of weeks getting focused on an idea and honing it...and then let it go," says Mast. "It happened a lot," Stroud adds. "We'd discover some new sounds and spend countless days on them, and then be completely sick of the groove a few days later. We don't really fight."
Stroud empties a massive case of guitar pedals — an old-school fuzz here, a DigiTech Whammy there — to make sure everything's set for rehearsal. He could warp his six-string into something far more alien, but he saves each effect for the right moment, rather than blast his specialties around the clock; he doesn't even take every pedal on tour. His playing is more sniper than grenadier, more finesse than assault. Mast is equally focused, having already covered half his job; he doubles as the man behind their signature light show, a mesmerizing acid trip through colored lasers and smoke machines. They'll take the stage in Manhattan at Webster Hall on July 17, the same day the album comes out.
Even for their first show, at the now-closed Siberia in Brooklyn, the duo were aspiring to reach today's visuals — but it wasn't always so polished. "All the digital stuff has been slowly evolving over the years," Mast says. "At our first few shows, we had a simple video projecting onto a bedsheet and three strobes operated by stompboxes. It got a pretty good reaction." Over a decade later, they're nostalgic for the time but know the show is better than ever.
Because of their start in the Brooklyn scene, it only made sense to record some of the album here. Recording started in Long Island in 2011, while the tour for LP4 was still happening, with the band surrounded by abandoned vacation homes in the middle of winter. Knowing they usually compose in the studio, Stroud and Mast were keen to try out other locations, like here in Brooklyn, another studio in upstate New York, and in Jamaica, where friends offered them a place to stay.
They don't look it, but the two are mad scientists of sound, full of crazed ideas and possessed of an inventive chemistry. Stroud can't prevent himself from playing piano when sitting in front of one; Mast disappears to another world when he's thinking about the right tones. Stroud insists Mast has a Rain Man–like knowledge of drum samples ("He's like, 'I know the perfect kick-drum sound for this,' and he picks it out of thousands in about two seconds!"), and, for his own part, has some arcane gear preferences ("Amplifiers sound best when they're dying."). The chemistry that clicked when they first played together is still there when they talk. They finish each other's sentences and share wordless inside jokes with a simple look.
Separately, they are relaxed, the full embodiment of chill. Together, they strive for a certain musical heaven they can't reach without each other. Magnifique album opener "Intro" sounds like Queen guitarist Brian May on a rampage — something they've long sought out. "We always thought we were doing that tone, but we nailed it on this album. We researched Brian May's guitar sound extensively, and it really paid off," Stroud says. "It's not just playing guitars with a nickel for a pick," Mast adds. He laughs. "That helps, though."
Other songs, like the dance-worthy "Cream of Chrome" or the summer breeze rolling across an island of "Supreme," are quickly becoming crowd-pleasers. The blend of relaxed beats, hummable melodies, intelligent sequencing, and songs that can be performed live — something LP3 and LP4 lacked — have Magnifique poised to become a fan favorite.
When they finish in the studio, Stroud drives Mast home, his car full of scattered Beatles albums. (Magnifique's cover is a notable nod to Revolver's black-and-white look and Sgt. Pepper's collection of famous faces.) He didn't used to have a car, but that was when he lived in Brooklyn; he moved upstate after he and his wife kept visiting friends and realized he wasn't spending much time in the city anymore. "I'll probably get an apartment here," Stroud says about the borough. "I stopped taking advantage of the city for a couple years and thought, 'Maybe I'll just get out of here for a while.' "
Stroud grew up in Connecticut, but since his parents moved to Massachusetts, he has no reason to visit his original hometown. He's better in the city, knows his way around like a lifer, crossing Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue with ease to drop off his partner in crime.
Mast still lives here. "Every once in a while I think about going somewhere else," he says. "There are a lot of places I feel like I could live for like six months but not much longer than that, places I don't feel like I'd belong. I still take advantage of New York. I go see art and movies. I still get excited to see the city and to create. I know Brooklyn is home."
Ratatat will celebrate the release of Magnifique at Webster Hall on July 17. For ticket information, click here.
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