Melody Maestros: As Ratatat, Mike Stroud and Evan Mast have a penchant for making catchy yet cerebral instrumentals, featuring smart interplay between guitar, synthesizers, and crisp beats

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Four albums and two remix mixtapes deep—and collaborations with Kid Cudi and Jay Z along the way—the multi-instrumentalists return with their fifth LP, Magnifique.

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“I was so into [Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass]. I had all of his records,” says multi-instrumentalist/producer Evan Mast, one half of Ratatat, explaining his high school sonic explorations. “There is definitely something a little bit funny about a lot of those songs, but there are certain ones that have awesome melodies.” It’s nearly impossible to imagine a sound further from Ratatat’s futuristic beat/guitar fusion than Herb Alpert’s ersatz-Latin, easy-listening pop instrumentals like “The Lonely Bull” or “Spanish Flea,” but Mast and his partner, guitarist Mike Stroud, are conscious of their place in this tradition of instrumental pop music. And the dudes do like to blur the lines between homage and parody, but the commonality is really quite obvious: memorable melodies married to a good beat.

“Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela, “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s, “The Peter Gunn Theme” by Henry Mancini, “Theme from S.W.A.T.” by Rhythm Heritage, and George Benson’s version of “Breezin’ ” are just a few instrumental pop hits that have become ubiquitous. Even in the 1960s, when vocal-dominant rock and roll began to change the overall sonic landscape of pop music, 103 instrumentals cracked the Billboard Top 20, nine going to number one.The popularity of easy-listening albums and other instrumental music began to wane in the ’70s, but soul, funk, and disco kept the tradition alive with some notable hits and instrumental bands. And jazz kept it going too; the success of CTI Records, Grover Washington Jr., and Bob James’s “Angela” planted the seeds for Kenny G’s smash hit “Songbird” and countless clones as “smooth jazz” dominated CD sales and traditional radio for a decade. But despite this, the day of the true crossover instrumental pop hit ended in the ’80s with “Oh Yeah” by Yello and “Axel F” by Harold Faltermeyer, both songs made popular as a result of their inclusion in blockbuster films. Instrumentals don’t quite capture the general public’s attention like they used to, but they aren’t going away any time soon.

 

Wax Poetics Issue 62 RatatatPurchase Wax Poetics Issue 62

 

“I think maybe we’d be bigger if we had a singer or something,” says Evan after a bit of prodding. “If we found the right person to do it. But I don’t think the songs would have the same staying power. I think there’s something pure about it being instrumental. It’s just good melodies… You get tired of lyrics. Melodies have more staying power.” Nearly fifteen years on, Ratatat’s staying power as a purely instrumental act is unparalleled, with an expanding fan base ranging from teens to adventurous OG hippies, not to mention stoners, hip-hop heads, art school kids, Urban Outfitters managers, and NPR interlude selectors.

This summer, Mike and Evan release their fifth studio album as Ratatat; the last one dropped in 2010. Magnifique is a synthesis of the duo’s previous four albums, returning to the guitar-helmed attack of Ratatat and Classics while retaining the creativity and production polish of LP3 and LP4. “I think we were pretty hard on ourselves with songwriting stuff,” Evan says about working on Magnifique. “I think production is important, but I think on this record, it was more like we wouldn’t let ourselves slide, like if the song had really good production but the melodies weren’t amazing, we’d just scrap it. The songwriting had to be totally solid.”

For some reason, I can’t get Wyld Stallyns out of my head. You know…the fictional buddy band from the 1989 film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure whose music healed humanity with its epic guitar solos and radical rocking. Ratatat is everything Wyld Stallyns’ music promised to be: futuristic, universal, guitar-heavy, epic, humorous, and human. Despite a backstory that’s more Rushmore than Holy Mountain, as Mike and Evan would prefer you to believe, these two skinny, White, thirty-something art-school kids are producing melody-rich, genre-twisting songs that are shaping and influencing contemporary pop music from Björk to Jay Z—and some would say Kanye. Anyone can be influential for a minute, but Ratatat basically invented (or revived) a genre and continues to own this lane of accessible, forward-thinking instrumental pop music.

Ratatat by Timothy Saccenti

All photography by Tim Saccenti for Wax Poetics. Photo illustrations by Tim Saccenti. Style advisors: Christopher Nakayama and Jean Marie Martineau. Ratatat’s wardrobe by V.K. Negrani. Grooming by Yuki Nakamara. Prop sylist: Andréa Huelse. Wings of Steel chair designed by Laurie Beckerman.
Boombox provided by Lyle Owerko.

 

The character of instrumental music…lets the emotions radiate and shine in their own character without presuming to display them as real or imaginary representations.
–Franz Liszt, classical composer and pianist

 

Mike and Evan grew up in suburban Connecticut and Cleveland, respectively, in typical middle-class communities where, as Evan remembered, “there was an NWA tape that made its way around school, and kids would share it, and you’d have to hide it from your parents.” Evan, who handles most of the percussion and beatmaking for Ratatat, as well as keyboards and bass, got his start playing the guitar at age eleven. He learned improvisation from an old blues guitarist, then in high school saved up to buy a four-track recorder, spending his time “recording terrible pop songs in my bedroom.” Mike, who is generally known as the guitarist in the band but also shares synthesizer and percussion duties, took to music early with piano and classical guitar lessons by ten. Mike and Evan share a special guilty pleasure in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “I listened to ‘Funky Monks’ today!” Mike exclaims. “Man, the guitar is so good!”

They both graduated to hip-hop and went to college, not necessarily in that order. They met at Skidmore College, a heavy-on-the-arts liberal arts college in upstate New York. Mike honed his chops on guitar as a music major, eventually leaving early to pursue music full-time. Evan studied painting and visual arts. Only one year in age but two grades apart, Mike and Evan ran in the same circles. They separately tried to form bands with the same drummer, but never really connected musically or socially; that is, until 2001, a year after Evan graduated and moved to Brooklyn, New York.

“We ran into each other at Bedford Station in the subway, and Evan invited me over to record,” Mike recalls. He took Evan up on his offer and toted his guitar to his Crown Heights apartment to jam. “We made a funny song, loosely based on [Sisqo’s] ‘Thong Song’ on the first day, and it was super fun so we just kept doing it.” They connected musically, but also, “one of the things that clicked,” Mikes says, is “that we have the same sense of humor.” Evan illustrates the fine nuance in a musical context: “When you play a keyboard a certain way, it’s a joke. Some people don’t know that. I think we both influenced each other’s sense of humor a whole lot since we started hanging out. The Chili Peppers are always funny.” Their aesthetic chemistry was instant and deep. “Without even talking about it,” Mike agrees. “We just naturally have the same taste, across the board.”

Mike was already a studied and in-demand session guitarist, and Evan—under the alias E*Vax—had already released 2001’s Parking Lot Music, a brilliant solo instrumental album of moody, melodic, and ambient beats, so when they finished one of their earliest tunes, “Seventeen Years,” they both knew they were on to something special. “Definitely,” Evan says. “Pretty much right away.” Mike says, “First day.” Evan remembers: “After making ‘Seventeen Years,’ it felt like, ‘Whoa.’ It felt like ‘a hit,’ whatever that means. It felt like a serious song. The music I had been making before that, I never felt that way about. They were cool little songs and whatever, but that was one where I was like, ‘People are gonna wanna hear this.’ ” Mike wasn’t as confident at first. “I think you knew more than me,” Mike says, clarifying, “because Evan had more experience with labels and had already put a record out. I was really psyched about it, but he was always saying, ‘Dude, this is gonna work.’ Like, ‘We can put this out.’ ”

“Our A&R guy knew about E*Vax and found out about us through some links, because we had a little webpage up with a song or two on it,” Evan explains about how quickly they went from fucking around in his Crown Heights apartment to having a record contract. For their first couple local shows, they performed as Cherry. When asked why they changed their name, Mike explains, “I think it was the pressure of when we got our first tour opening for Interpol, because we needed an actual name now, because Cherry was already taken, thank God.”

“[It was] right after [Interpol’s] first record came out, and that was super fun,” Evan remembers. “We didn’t even have an album out yet, we didn’t have anything out. We were playing to, like, two to three thousand–people rooms to people who had never heard about us or heard our music, and we had this tiny little setup. We definitely weren’t universally loved, but I think we made a lot of fans.

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All photography by Timothy Saccenti for Wax Poetics.

 

With instrumental music, it is traditionally hard to get exposure.
–Yanni

 

“Seventeen Years” immediately set Ratatat apart from virtually everything out in the early 2000s. Their elemental fusion of the core elements of rock and hip-hop is the thinking-man’s Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit, scratching every conflicted White male youth’s itch to hear lacerating guitar solos over block-rocking beats. Their sound also diverged from the trends in instrumental hip-hop and ambient genres, and it wasn’t just the guitars. “I don’t think we’d really be into that, making a really repetitive [song], even though people would probably like that,” Mike says, “we always like to have movements.” While Mike and Evan would certainly cite Brian May of Queen before the Beach Boys, the classical music influence in their songcraft is more reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s approach to writing his “teenage symphony to God.” It’s unclear which deity Ratatat rides for, but Evan certainly sets a high bar for their songs: “There’s something really satisfying about a song that makes you feel like you’ve gone somewhere.”

Keeping a toe knee-deep in hip-hop, Ratatat released their first volume of hip-hop remixes just about a year after their first album was released. Evan crafted original music, Ratatat style, and Mike contributed some choice riffs creating radically original, and equal if not superior, backdrops for the likes of Kanye, Common, Biggie, ODB, and Missy Elliot. “It was a fun thing to do,” Evan says. “There wasn’t a whole lot of that going on at that time, so it was kind of like, let’s see what rap a capellas we can get ahold of and then make a new thing under it. The idea of producing rap records is really appealing, and this was a way of doing that without having to actually know these rappers that you wanted to work with.”

Their second album, 2006’s Classics, took a couple years to complete between tours, the remixes, and other projects. On the eve of releasing the album, featuring the one-two punch of “Wildcat” and “Loud Pipes,” Evan prepared the second (and likely final) volume of remixes. “The second one I did all on my own. We put the Ratatat name on it because it was coming out right about the same time as Classics. And the first one, Mike played on, but it was really more my thing.”

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Instrumental music can spread the international language.
–Herb Alpert

 

Bolstered by critical, indie, and hip-hop enthusiasm, in late 2007, Ratatat made their first brave step away from indie-rock DIY asceticism and holed-up in an actual recording studio in Catskill, New York, for an epic forty days and forty nights. “We felt momentum because Classics took so long for us,” Mike says. “As soon as we got on a roll with LP3, we were just so psyched, we kept going.” In isolation, with lots of time and new toys, Mike and Evan experienced unprecedented writing flow. “I think it was, we were in a studio for the first time,” Evan explains. “There were all these new instruments around. We thought of a lot of new stuff all at once, and we got excited and it kind of just snowballed. The first day there, we wrote a song we liked.” Mike jumps in: “We get into habits writing melodies and stuff, but we would play something that would normally be on a guitar [on a new instrument], and it was a totally new sound; it was just more exciting. Once we found out there was a harpsichord, we were like, ‘This is it.’ ”

The free flow of creativity reveals itself on the two resulting albums, LP3 and LP4, released respectively in 2008 and 2010, with their elaborate rhythm arrangements, more ethnic than boom-bap, and the expanded arsenal of sounds. Mike’s parakeet, Fellini, joined the band in the studio—“always flying around and hanging out, and kind of crept into a lot of songs,” he says. “So we put him in the videos”—most notably “Neckbrace.” “We had his cage next to the piano, so every time we recorded a piano part, we’d get chirps in the mix,” Evan recalls.

After the first recording session, they had over thirty songs completed. The first thirteen songs were mixed, mastered, and released as LP3. “LP4, we did a lot more tweaking and adding strings and another song or two,” Evan says. The title LP4 would have made more sense if the album was released six months after LP3, which was the plan. “It would’ve made more sense as these really close brothers,” Evan explains, “but after two years… I think because we were touring so much, it was hard to get the last little bits done.”

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I realized a long time ago that instrumental music speaks a lot more clearly than English, Spanish, Yiddish, Swahili, any other language. Pure melody goes outside time.
–Carlos Santana

 

After the success of the first two albums and the hip-hop remixes, many assumed that Ratatat would be the next big “it” producers. There were rumors of Mike and Evan being tapped to be the “understudies to the Neptunes.” There were also rumors of Kid Cudi using them exclusively for an entire album, but that collaboration, while the height of Ratatat’s fame to date, only resulted in two songs on Cudi’s Man on the Moon debut album, among them the stoner anthem “Pursuit of Happiness.”

“I think that at some point, I really wanted to get into hip-hop production around the time of the mixtapes,” Evan says. “I’ve loved hip-hop for so long, it would be fun to be involved in that for real, but the offers just haven’t come in, or the ones that have just haven’t really felt like the right fit.” They admit they’ve turned down more than half of the projects that make it to them, and “fit” is only part of the trouble. “I like to work on stuff all the time,” Evan continues, “and probably spend more time in the studio than Mike does. I like to work on stuff on my own. Since our last record, I’ve made so much material on my own. I came so really close to releasing a couple projects, and then decided against it.” This includes an entire album as the duo Abuela with Justin Roelofs, formerly of indie-rock band the Anniversary, and a hip-hop album with Definitive Jux rapper Despot, whom Evan had collaborated with previously on the 2009 track “Look Alive.”

When asked who would be his first choice of MCs to work with, Evan says, “It would have been Jay Z.” But he already checked that off his list when he collaborated on “100$ Bill” for The Great Gatsby soundtrack, released in 2013. Evidently, someone had played the second remix album for Jay Z during a video shoot, and the next thing you know, Mike and Evan are meeting Hova. “Meeting Jay Z for the first time…it was a big deal for me,” Evans says. “He puts on one of the beats that we sent him, and he had this whole song—and he rapped it at me,” Evan says. “I’m like, ‘This is a crazy moment.’ I couldn’t even listen to what he was saying!”

But just like the rumored album with Kid Cudi, a Jay Z/Ratatat project never fully materialized other than the one track. Evan got an email one morning asking him to drop by the studio, where Jay was finishing up his and Beyoncé’s tracks for The Great Gatsby soundtrack.When it came time for Jay Z to do the vocals for “100$ Bill,” Evan recalls, “He basically just sat in the corner and mumbled to himself while the beat was playing on the speakers really loud. And every once in a while, he’d say a line to the room to see the reaction, and everyone would be like, ‘Ooh.’ And then way sooner than you’d expect, he was like, ‘Let’s do it,’ and he’d go in the room and put and verse down. He might have done one or two takes, and it was, like, perfect.” In the end, Evan says, “I don’t love the song. It was super last-minute. They put in samples of Leonardo DiCaprio instead of a chorus, and I wasn’t involved in that part, and I don’t like that part at all. I haven’t seen the movie.”

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We just started doing really funny baroque dance songs in my apartment, just for fun.
–Evan Mast

This summer, five years after LP4 dropped, Ratatat releases their fifth studio album, modestly titled Magnifique. Started back in 2011, the album is the product of writing and recording sessions in Brooklyn, Long Island, upstate New York, and Jamaica, the country. “We might work for a month, and then not really work for six months. It was kind of off and on,” Evan says. “Mike was moving upstate. We were taking a break. We had toured for almost ten years, pretty nonstop.” Mike says, “We were a little burned out for a minute.” Their intense touring schedule combined with an inherently sensitive interpersonal dynamic nearly broke the band in the intervening years. “We used to fight more than we do these days,” Mike says. “When songwriting is not going well, the tension builds and we end up fighting, because it’s only the two of us.”

“Ever since we started working on this record, we’ve been talking about how we wanted it to be back to tons of guitars,” Mike says. “I think we learned so much about songwriting doing the last two records,” Evan says. “Once we knew what we knew, having done LP3 and LP4, we went back to our old sound, and we could do so much more with that same palette. We wanted to do some more aggressive stuff, stuff that would be really fun to play live. I love those records, but some of those songs are just a pain in the ass to play live and not that fun, because there are so many different instruments and you’re running back and forth around the stage.”

The first single, “Cream on Chrome,” builds on a pocket 4/4 beat and walking bass line with a hypnotic guitar figure before getting crushed under wave after wave of guitars and ultimately synth washes. “Nightclub Amnesia” sounds like its title with piercing guitar jabs and distorted beats alongside handclaps and a touch of acid synth lead.

What really sets this album apart are the slower tunes that showcase Mike and Evan’s most recent obsession, the pedal steel guitar. “Magnifique” sounds like Phil Spector after smoking a doobie in Hawaii, and “Drift” conjures up a 5:00 AM Santo & Johnny outtake from that one time they recorded at Lee Perry’s Black Ark studio in the ’70s.

“We both like Santo & Johnny since forever, but we got into some other slide players when we were working on the record,” Evan says, explaining how while looking for talk-box videos they stumbled upon a video of “Stringy,” a talking guitar invented and played by pedal steel innovator Alvino Rey. “He invented the talking steel guitar,” Mike explains. “Basically, an early talk box. He would play and a tube would come out of a guitar and his wife would be behind the curtain with the tube in her mouth mouthing the words.” The duo went deep, acquiring the original instruments and even Alvino Rey’s instructional book. Evan says, “His expectations for the students reading his book are so astronomically high.”

“I Will Return,” an unlikely cover tune from 1971, is another vehicle for their pedal steel guitar obsession.While friends and fans often suggest a band or song with an alleged similarity to Ratatat’s sound, most of the time, the duo are either insulted or confused by the comparison. English one-man-band Phil Cordell, who recorded as Springwater, was an exception; his music is uncannily similar to Ratatat’s guitar-driven, languid, and melodic style. “There’s a handful of songs that we’ve found over the years that really feel like our style and our songs that we really like,” Evan says about this first experimentation covering other people’s songs. “It would be pretty cool to collect them in one place.”

 

With no vocals, it’s all about making interesting sounds and interesting tones, something that’s memorable.
–Mike Stroud

As I’m completing this draft, I received a text that the album art for Magnifique has been cleared. It’s a collage of dozens of black-and-white portraits made by Mike and Evan while writing and recording at the Long Island beach house, similar in style to the hand-drawn covers for the two remix albums, which Evan drew. In order to approve the proposed cover, XL had to identify and clear the likenesses of all of these drawings inspired by photos from newspapers, memories, and family members, the largest and most immediately recognizable being Roy Orbison.

“We both love pop music,” Mike says, “music with singing so much, like the Kinks or something like that, and I feel like we have that sensibility of that kind of songwriting, because we try to think of a vocal element as an instrument instead of a voice.” The pop-culture contrarians that they are, making the music the way everyone else does just doesn’t appeal to them. “When sounds are too normal for us, we get really bored, because that’s our palette,” Mike explains.

In today’s vocal-dominated pop landscape, to attempt a sustainable music career without vocals is akin to starting a tape-only record label, novel at best. “It seems like a really obvious thing to do for me,” Evan says. “If you’re not a singer, make songs that are fun and instrumental. It seems like every instrumental band does these long, boring, soundtracky songs, and if you look back at the history of music, there’s a lot more pop-instrumental groups like the Ventures, Herb Alpert. I think probably a lot of people like the song we did with Kid Cudi better than everything we’ve done as an instrumental, and that’s too bad. There’s a lot of people who aren’t really willing to give instrumental music a chance, but in that context, they can get into Ratatat because there’s a guy singing on it. It is what it is, but I don’t feel like we need to chase that. I think our music is stronger as instrumental music, and there are enough people who agree that we can make it viable.”

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