Whenever I think of fans singing along to music, often times louder than the music itself, Ratatat is the first band I picture onstage – even though there’s no words to sing along to.
“There was a show we played in Spain this summer where a huge group of people in the crowd were singing—I don’t even know what song it was—some guitar line as we walked out onstage,” says Evan Mast, one half of the Brooklyn electronic rock duo. “Honestly, it was too cool to put into words.”
He’s referring to Primavera Sound, a music festival held in Barcelona, Spain that’s pretty much England’s version of Coachella minus the EDM and plus 300% more diversity. The fact that it took place there—outside, near the noise of the ocean, where a pool of people from all over the world are drunkenly chatting—makes it all the more impressive. People speaking English, Spanish, French, Japanese, and more became friends, if only in that moment, to celebrate a band that hadn’t even shown their faces yet. Usually festivalgoers connect to songs for their lyrical weight. When they’re riding on the joy of bright, enthusiastic instrumental melodies alone—like those in “Mirando” or “Seventeen Years”—they form a new bond altogether.
“It surprises me still,” Mast continues. “To get to play big shows and big festivals where people come together to sing along is beyond exciting. It still catches us by surprise. I mean, we don’t even have a singer!”
Ratatat formed back in 2001 when Mast and Mike Stroud met at Skidmore College. Over the years to come, the two threw themselves behind their instruments—Mast manning bass, synthesizers, and production as Stroud tackled guitar, melodica, synthesizers, and percussion— without slowing, releasing six full-length records in nine years. Live, they go from videogame-like rock to psychedelic electronica, stacking 3D lights and trippy visuals for a genuinely mesmerizing show.
By now, the idea of Ratatat bringing a singer onboard is laughable. When the two were teenagers, they occasionally tried out singing, but the process was too challenging in a frustrating way instead of a productive one. “At some point I decided instrumental songs were good enough,” says Mast. “Then things quickly became more fun. I guess the other option would have been to churn out lyrics, but neither of us are good at that. At all. There’s something cool about purely making instrumental music that isn’t post-rock. I like how abstract you can make your ideas.”
Apart from a few “joke songs” he wrote (“No one is ever supposed to hear those,” he laughs), Mast hasn’t spent much time dabbling in what could be. Instead, he continues to chase after engaging listeners with what feels like an invisible frontman. “It has to be able to compete with music that has a singer,” he explains. “There’s space that must be filled. Certain sounds go in the foreground specifically to support the melody, the part that everyone wants to sing to. There’s a lot of purely instrumental music that stops short of that. It’s washy, unfinished, score-like instrumental bands. I always want to hear another layer in the foreground from them.”
That’s part of why Ratatat took so long releasing a new record. The five year gap between 2015’s Magnifique and 2010’s LP4 saw them retreating into the shadows. After moving around, dealing with family changes, and the usual stressors of life, Ratatat finally returned to the studio to work on their next album. As the title suggests, Magnifique was a step up for the duo. There’s mellow numbers like “Countach” and sonic yawns like “Drift” — the type of material you don’t throw your hands up in air guitar position for. “We didn’t want to make another collection of singles,” explains Mast. “We wanted it to really be an effective, thorough record. It took a while to figure out. There’s a ton of songs we didn’t finish because we felt that we fell into our go-to mode. The last records were about experimenting with different sounds and samples and such. Here, we worked on simplifying all of that to work on the songwriting craft instead.”
But when it’s time to air guitar, Ratatat go hard. “Abrasive” and “Rome” see the two laying down some of their best chops, inviting listeners to sing along to each note louder than they have in the past, freeing themselves of worries, stress, and the belief that they can’t make that same jovial work themselves.
During some of that off time, Mast worked on sketches for what he didn’t know would become the “Abrasive” music video. Since he’s done animation in the past, a friend gifted him a tablet specifically designed for on-screen drawing. For two years, it sat in the box, unused, until he sat down and starting doodling one day. “I was doing it all day, like all day, and then it wound up only being like half a second of animation,” he laughs. “That was disheartening. I thought there was no way I could do this ridiculous thing. But at the same time, I got addicted to it and kept coming back to it even though I told myself I wasn’t going to use it.” Whereas most musicians use travel time on their van to write lyrics, Mast used it to draw. Several months later, after endless hours of drawing, he finally had enough material to use. Of course, there’s ways the video cuts corners—loops, reused shots, mirror splits—to give his arm a rest, but it tallies up an impressing number of characters and action sequences drawn by someone whose primary focus is not, in fact, drawing.
The repetitive nature of the process relaxed him, and the immediacy of being able to track his own progress satisfied in a different way, too. “When you spend a whole day working on music, you don’t know if anything you created will make the final cut,” he says. “When you come to work and don’t know what is waste, it can eat you up. Drawing was an easy way to feel like your efforts contributed to the final goal.”
Unfortunately, Ratatat is all too familiar with their material going into hiding. New York underground rapper Despot has been hyping up his debut album for, literally, years. He’s toured with Run the Jewels. He’s badmouthed other people’s songs. He’s performed at festivals. During these moments, he brings up the fact that his album is a work in progress, but tides listeners over by assuring them that it’s worth the wait because, much to their initial surprise, Mast produced the songs. This summer, we finally heard the first bit of evidence: “House of Bricks”.
“He works very, very slowly,” Mast laughs. “There’s so many old songs that we started where he says it’s finished, but then he picks it up six months later, puts it back down, and then goes back to it in six months.” It’s an odd pairing to imagine, Ratatat and Despot chilling in a studio, but the two are close friends. After a mutual friend introduced them, their first official hangout was “basically [Despot] coming over to record a mixtape.” Hopefully one day we can hear it in full. At the very least, it’s worth the wait if only to hear what Ratatat’s music sounds like with someone rapping, not singing, over it, a task they could never justify worth doing themselves.
RATATAT, JACKSON AND HIS COMPUTER BAND. HOUSE OF BLUES, 15 LANSDOWNE ST., BOSTON. WED 1.13. 7PM/ALL AGES/$30. HOUSEOFBLUES.COM.