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Lyrics are a quick way to get attention: Evan Mast

Rocktronica duo Ratatat on their upcoming performance in India, making music without lyrics and their Bollywood connection.

Written by Anushree Majumdar |
Updated: December 8, 2015 4:57:37 am
Ratatat, Mike Stroud, Evan Mast, music, Skidmore College, bollywood connection, Magnetic Fields Festival, talk Mike Stroud and Evan Mast

A Ratatat song is not one thing or the other: it is a careful arrangement of beats, guitars, synthesizers, coming together to form layers of sound that could evoke anything from nostalgia to interpretive dance. When Mike Stroud and Evan Mast first met at Skidmore College in New York, they couldn’t have foreseen Ratatat. Two years later, when they met again on the subway in NYC, “I invited him over to record music. The first thing we made was a fun song, super dance-y. I said we should keep doing this, and so we kept getting together and whenever we met, we wrote songs,” says Mast. Ahead of their first visit to India to play at the Magnetic Fields Festival in Alsisar, Rajasthan, on December 19, Ratatat’s Evan Mast talks about their latest album Magnifique and songs without lyrics. Excerpts:

How did the name, Ratatat, come about?
Initially, the band was called Cherry. Before our first tour, our lawyer didn’t want us to use that name since a couple of bands were already using it. We had to figure out something quickly, and wrote down a few ideas in a notebook, and that one stuck.

How do you go about naming your songs, especially since they don’t have any lyrics?
We are trying to make stuff that is engaging. I think there’s something pure about it being instrumental. Lyrics are a quick way to get attention. How do you keep a person engaged with instrumental music, how do you keep it interesting? That’s the challenge. When it works, it’s immensely rewarding. When people hear it around the world, they don’t have to understand what is being said, they can just feel the music. The naming process is very intuitive. We brainstorm ideas and sometimes while we are working on a song, we will give it a name and stick with it. We are not looking for literal reasons for those titles to be what they are. We just want them to feel right.

How did Bollywood dance videos inspire some of the work in your popular single, Cream on chrome?
I can’t remember exactly which song we were listening to. It may have been a RD Burman soundtrack. We would catch a lot of Bollywood videos when we would take a break. There was one where this rich man is talking to another man in a moustache and there’s a song-and-dance sequence in a mansion, someone was playing a saxophone. It was a really good song.

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How would you describe your sound?
It’s difficult to explain. I don’t think there’s an accurate way to describe it. It’s instrumental music. For Magnifique, the guitar became interesting for us again because I guess we had taken a break from that. With the previous records, LP3 and LP4, the live show was a bit difficult to do, so we were excited about simplifying things, playing live, with that sound again, our sound.

You two came up with 100 tracks while writing the album. How did you shortlist them?
There were a few tracks that we discarded that I wish we had finished. The core ideas were cool and if we could have just found a way to finish the songs…My favourite song usually changes but I really like Pricks of brightness.

Since you two play several instruments, what comes first: the beat or the melody?
Most often, it’s the beat. Usually, before the recording session I make a stock pile of drum beats and have a library of stuff to choose from. Sometimes, it works the other way round wherein we have a melody and put a beat to it. We choose the idea that is more interesting.

Have you been listening to music from India? What are you looking to do in India apart from the shows?
I have been wanting to visit India for a long time. I am staying back for a week after the festival to travel around a bit. I don’t know anything about the Indian music scene apart from Bollywood. I know that the festival has a lot of Indian bands on the line-up so I’m excited to see those.

Who are your musical and visual influences?
I have been influenced by so many different types of music. Both Mike and I have been greatly influenced by the ’60s rock, guitar-based music. We borrow a lot of production ideas from ’60s music. We are drawn to those times, and would listen to these records a lot. At the same time, we are influenced by pop and a lot of other different things we listen to. I watch a lot of movies, and go to a lot of art shows and live in New York.

The two of you have travelled around a bit to record Magnifique. How much did each location filter into the album?
That has been pretty essential for us over the past couple of records — travelling and recording music — because when you do it at home you have all these aspects of your life that come banging at you, and you’re unable to cut everything else out. When you get away, it’s so much easier to focus and push ideas. For Magnifique, we went to a bunch of different places. I don’t think the locations themselves influenced the music, but the idea of isolating ourselves was definitely important.

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