Ratatat interview: “It worked out for the best.”

Machine music's journeymen chat to Dummy a short while after their last album, 'LP4', came out.


Words by: Charlie Jones

Some of the best artists in the world are instantly recognisable from just a five second clip of a song. Think about the Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies, the shrill of The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson or the noodling of Television’s Tom Verlaine on ‘Marquee Moon’. By the same token, it’s easy to immediately determine Ratatat as the authors of tracks like ‘Seventeen Years’ and ‘Party With Children’, both being layered with a crisp, regimented beat, signature synths and arena rock guitar solos (the Brian May comparisons thus still stand).

Unlike many of the artists above, however, Ratatat don’t mythologise their work with any wider social importance or grandiose concepts. Mike describes an almost workmanlike attitude to the making of their record, ‘LP4’, and makes no attempt at referencing fine art complexities, Thomas Pynchon novels or any sort of religious awakening as inspirations (though he does mention Cat Stevens – perhaps a conversion is forthcoming?). Questions that hint at any deeper meaning are brushed aside; for example, delving into the influence of cinema on their work, he claims that the samples from Herzog’s ‘Stroszek’ and the actress Linda Manz, are just “funny little bits”.

Noting these funny little bits is central to the enjoyment of the ‘LP4’, as though there’s it initially seems that little progress has been made from previous releases, repeated listens unearth tweaks, nuances and experimentation with an assortment of instruments not previously used by Ratatat, integrating sounds from around the world. It’s still much of what you’d expect, but there are definitely attempts to stretch out of what they know and are used to.

It took just over the allotted half hour phone conversation to run through everything with Mike while he was at home in New York, and here’s a pretty much verbatim write-up of how it went:

It’s been 2 years since ‘LP3’, which if I’m correct was recorded pretty quickly. ‘LP4’ is songs from the same sessions and I’m wondering why there’s such a gap given that it was presumably ready when ‘LP3’ was released? Was it just a standard gap in between albums?

I don’t know if it was a standard gap between albums. I don’t think so. After LP3 we just had so much time… We did a world tour and the songs that we wrote before [that make up LP4] we had new ideas for. We wanted to put strings on them and, I mean, we weren’t home for most of the year [following LP3] and when we got back to the city afterwards we wanted to change the songs up. After playing the songs from ‘LP3’ night after night the other songs sounded so similar, and they were in many ways after having been made in the same session. You know, they were pretty much finished but, I don’t know, it was nice to have two records. We spent two years on the first one and I guess we could have made a double album but the way we did it in the end worked out for the best.

You’ve described this album as “weirder” – why do you say that?

When the original sessions were over had been in the studio for 3 weeks to a month, and unless the sounds or ideas were something really new we were getting really bored. There was no pressure to put anything more out than ‘LP3’ so we left them for a while and then returned to them to tweak and I think now they’re [the songs that make up LP4] far more focused. But I guess the reason I said ‘weirder’ is that they’re just a lot less traditional sounding than our other work.

I want to touch on those differences a bit later but I want to find out about the time between the albums first, because since ‘LP3’ you’ve produced MCs like Kid Cudi and Despot, who also toured with you. Has the experience of producing tracks for other people rather than taking a track for a remix, as you’ve done previously, changed the way you work? Did it in anyway influence the new record?

Working with them meant we had to change the way we work a little: when we make our own songs we don’t want there to be spaces where you can get bored. With Kid Cudi you have to leave spaces in the music so that he can fill them with his vocals. It wasn’t much of a change but we weren’t familiar with his music at that point, so it took a little time to work out what we both wanted. We wanted the collaboration to be a success and, you know, you have to think about what they want to get out of it too.

How was the experience in the studio?

Being in the studio was the big change [laughs]. There was a crazy entourage of managers, assistants, label people, friends – all talking, smoking, and eating. We couldn’t believe he could work with all these people around. When it’s just me and Evan [sic] we close ourselves off to the world.

There must be plenty of offers flowing in for production now, though?

There’s not actually too much, to be honest. I was expecting a little more after Kid Cudi but it’s not like we’re throwing ourselves out there. I’m open to more work!

Let’s say you get a new production offer in tomorrow then. What defines a no or a yes for you? I’ve heard you talk about wanting to work with Lil’ Wayne and Giggs before, for example.

It’s basically whether we like their music or not. That’s it. You know, I’ve always wanted to work with Ghostface Killah – he’s definitely my favourite rapper. I don’t know if he’s doing anything new now, though.

I’m sure he just had a new album out…

Really? I’m so shit with keeping up with that kind of stuff. Evan is out at shows every night but I just can’t keep track. You mentioned Giggs too, and I’m really into Giggs. You know, he’s on XL, our label, too, so maybe we’ll work with him. But really it depends on if we respect them and like their music. That’s the yes or no.

Your work commonly uses sampling, though mostly spoken word samples. In the same vein as the last question, what makes a sample worthy of inclusion? And do samples provide the inspiration for songs or are they just a nice addition afterwards? I’m thinking about the Linda Manz quote on the new album here…

Our music is instrumental so in one respect the sampling adds a human element, though it also breaks up the album nicely, like a divide between tracks. With the Linda Manz sample, we watched the movie [Terrence Malick’s 1978 film, ‘Days of Heaven’] and were like, ‘who’s this creepy little kid?’ We thought she had a cool voice and, you know, Evan managed to track her down when he was trying to clear the sample from the movie. In the U.S you have to get approval from the actor to use any vocal parts, so Evan eventually ended up on the phone to her husband, who put him in touch with Linda. He [Evan] then flew out to meet her and did an interview. Actually it was just more of a short talk that he recorded and that’s what you can hear on the record.

So do these parts form the inspiration for a song? Say, did you watch the film and think, ‘we need to make a song about this?’

Not really, we don’t normally watch things and get immediate inspiration to use a sample. It’s more of an afterthought. They’re funny little bits.

*But does film form an important inspiration on your work on a wider scale? If you don’t work from a vocal sample, do you take inspiration from visuals, for example? I ask because you’ve got the sample from ‘Days of Heaven’ on here and also from Herzog’s ‘Stroszek’, so there are clearly links to cinema. *

Yeah, not necessarily direct inspiration from film musically, though. I love film, but it’s sometimes inspirational and sometimes a stupid distraction, depending on what you’re watching! [laughs] I mean, Ennio Morricone and his soundtracks for spaghetti westerns are amazing, and when music is that integral to the film that’s inspirational. Like in ‘Harold and Maude’ too – the soundtrack brings the whole thing together. Cat Stevens is incredible…but then you have the soundtrack to ‘The Graduate’, which doesn’t work.

If we had the right opportunity and the right director then we’d love to do a soundtrack.

Moving back to the new album, there are plenty of different sounds on there that we haven’t heard on previous Ratatat albums: strings, African drums, even the sound of a bird at one point. Was this part of the process of tweaking the material and making it interesting again?

Ha, the bird is actually my parakeet. She’s all over the internet now in our video [for ‘Party With Children’] – it’s crazy. We brought her into the studio and put her next to the piano. Whenever we put the record on she freaked out, so we set up a mic for her [with the intention of recording her] and then she got stage fright!

But she has still ended up on the album and in the video…

Yeah, she’s more famous than we are!

And how about the addition of the string sections?

The strings came from having a mellotron and sampling the strings from that. ‘LP4’ was actually originally covered in more strings than it is now, but they gradually got stripped away for the finished product, which was recorded with a live string section.

That’s must have been an interesting working dynamic. When classically trained musicians work with a band like yourselves I always come back to the story of Jeff Buckley singing ‘Dido’s Lament’ at Elvis Costello’s Meltdown festival and one of the classical musicians saying that after hearing him sing it he realised he knew absolutely nothing about music, despite all his training. Was your experience, or their [the classical musicians] experience, anything like that? Or are either of you classically trained and able to write string sections with relative ease?

We go more with instinct than any kind of formal training. Though our dynamic is in some way like that as I had 10 years of formal music lessons, so sometimes Evan will be going with something that absolutely contradicts what I know formally, but I just go with it. Sometimes it has to be that way and we end up with a great idea for a song.

With the string sections, we wrote absolutely all of it and then put it in the computer to transcribe all the parts. It was definitely a departure from the standard Ratatat sound.

On ‘Bob Ghandi’ you have what sounds like an African drum – a djembe or something. Is this and some of the other new sounds something you’ve picked up from touring? I read that you’d visited more countries than ever on the last world tour, particularly places like Cambodia, etc.

You didn’t pick up a bamboo xylophone or something?

Not so much. We went to Istanbul [on the tour] and that was where we saw the most instruments that we wanted. We already had so much crap with us, though, so we couldn’t bring them all back. On ‘Bob Ghandi’ you can hear a zarb, an Iranian drum. We got introduced to it by a friend, who showed us this father and son duo playing it; they could get a million sounds out of it, but we get about 5! [laughs] We also have Japanese strings on the album and I ordered a kora from Senegal after seeing one.

That’s the stringed instrument that Toumani Diabate plays?

Yeah, exactly! I need some lessons on that one; it took me three hours to string it up. In fact, my girlfriend works with Bjork, who knows him [Toumani] and when she [his girlfriend] met him and told him I had a kora he offered to give me a lesson next time he was in town.

That’s brilliant – you’ll have to make sure you follow him up on that. Given that you’ve got all these new instruments and sounds then, how are you going to tour the record?

Fucking good question! We’ve got all summer to plan that out, though. We really don’t know yet how it’s going to work. We’re possibly going to get a string quartet and a few other musicians on tour with us. Whatever happens it’s going to be a pain in the ass, especially touring overseas and having to carry all the gear around.

I want to ask you about the adverts you license your music to because these will in many cases be the medium through which people have discovered Ratatat. Why do you license your music to so many ads? Is the decision something you have control over?

We always have the last word and we always try to see and hear the final edit before we approve anything. We haven’t done too many ads lately, and I don’t think we’ve done too many overall, but after 5 years you’re more than willing to part ways with a song. By that point the song is often old and you’re bored of it and ready to move on to the next thing. So I guess that’s the reason behind licensing a lot of them. We actually say no to much more than you think – there are plenty of offers.

Is there anything you remember rejecting in particular?

Nothing I remember rejecting but I was proud that we got a song licensed to the film ‘Knocked Up’. You know that? I was pretty happy we got a song in that, even if it was only in small parts.
Ratatat’s ‘LP4’ is out now via XL