There are three elements to Ratatat.
The band members are two: Mike Stroud, guitarist, and Evan Mast, synth- and bass-man. Then there are the songs, which for Mast have a life of their own: “They take their own direction, do what they want to do. If you try to impose your own sound, you end up with something really unsatisfying.”
So far, the songs have not steered them wrong. The duo has been touring for around eight years, maturing along with their music. Their newest release, 2010’s LP4, features sounds little heard on other Ratatat records: strings, Middle Eastern and African beats and lyric-less vocals. “We kind of got into the sound of voices and the manipulated voice,” Mast says on the phone from New York. “There’s no instrument that does what a voice does.”
Does this mean that Ratatat have broken their long-standing no-lyrics policy? Not likely. Since their first self-titled album in 2004, the only words heard on Ratatat records were found in samples or remixes. Mast says that lyrics can be limiting, and eschewing them “allows people to experience the song on whatever level they want. … It’s more interesting.” Plus, he points out, Mozart and Bach wrote predominantly instrumental music. Mast spent the past year studying Bach, but shies way from naming the composer as an influence. “It sounds a bit pretentious,” he laughs. “I think Jay-Z’s records are just as influential.”
The music has been growing and changing in other ways, too. Mast says he and Stroud “got more into being detailed with guitars and keyboards.” They also added strings. “It’s an easy thing to make those songs melodramatic and cheesy,” Mast admits. But with a little growing up, “we got to the point where we were going to write string parts that were worthwhile.”
Meanwhile, the heavy beats that marked early Ratatat tracks have subsided in favor of intricate African and Middle Eastern rhythms. But fear not, Ratatat fans: Whether you worship hip-hop or electro-pop, you will still find something that will make you shake it.
If you’re not a dancer, Mast promises a “spectacle” that “anyone could enjoy on some level.” Their live show, according to Mast, is an “intense and elaborate thing” built over the eight years he and Stroud have been touring together. While Mast and Stroud rarely share the stage with other musicians, a holographic string section will join them on this tour.
Sick beats, holograms, flashing lights and an extra-crazy audience are all elements of a great show. But then there are birds.
Fellini, Stroud’s albino parakeet and star of two recent music videos, might make an appearance. According to Mast, Fellini was, at first, “just around.” But one bird led to another, and now they’re traveling with not only Fellini, but other avian friends also, including an African Grey parrot. Or so Mast says—it’s hard to tell if he’s joking. But given Ratatat’s reputation, those with ornithophobia should probably stay away.
While the show and the music have grown more complex, so has Mast and Stroud’s relationship, though they remain remarkably in sync with each other. “When we’re working on songs, we know what the other is thinking,” Mast says. Each song is discovered as it is written, meaning the emotional feel of a track might range from serene to giddy to desperately sad and back again, all during the course of the composing process.
Instruments, emotions and tour mates might change. But for Ratatat, there are a few constants: unique beats, an irreverent and glorious mix of genres, and, finally, devotion to a back-to-basics musicality, highlighting sounds and instruments without linguistic trappings.
“So much can be done with instrumental music,” Mast observes. “And I feel it’s neglected.”