Growing up in Shelton, Connecticut, 15 minutes outside New Haven, guitarist Mike Stroud, experimented with 4-track recordings during high school, frequented local shows, and went to New York City whenever possible to catch cool bands. He attended Skidmore College, met Cleveland-raised keyboardist-programmer Evan Mast, and by 2001, they’d conceive formative band, Cherry. For legal purposes, the sprouting twosome soon reconvened under the snappier appellation, Ratatat (an alarming discharged firearm connotation), and by ’04, released a promising eponymous debut boasting one massive breakthrough tune.
Recorded in Mast’s small Brooklyn-based Crown Heights apartment, the Teutonic techno shuffle, “17 Years,” earned Ratatat early recognition when it was used on a British ‘Accessorize’ Hummer commercial. Its success led to an opening spot on Daft Punk’s high-profile tour where the transplanted Brooklynites began impressing audiences pronto.
“Evan had a tiny bedroom with a laptop setup. We had one guitar, a distortion pedal, and we borrowed a bass from his roommate,” Stroud says. “It was totally minimal and we banged out “17 Years” in one day. We got pretty lucky receiving exposure. Our A & R guy from London found our webpage and got in touch with us.”
Having leveraged their initial rockist attitude and rave-cultured leanings a tad for ‘06s multi-dimensional investigation, Classics, Ratatat brought an ambitious soulful aesthetic closer to the surface. By ‘08s daringly expansive LP3 (XL Records), they’d discovered the joys of pan-ethnic resourcefulness.
“The first two we did in Evan’s apartment only had a couple sounds – guitars, keyboards. We did this one in a real studio with more instruments, adding strings, Grand piano, and organ tones. There were some cool World music elements like tablas. People think I only play guitar, but I did harpsichord, piano, and get annoyed when everyone thinks Evan’s the big genius who plays everything else,” the snickering Stroud informs.
Influenced by conceptual guitar wizard Robert Fripp and Queen’s bellwether axe-man Brian May as well as Jimmy Page’s acoustical solo endeavors, Stroud’s heavily processed and headily manipulated six-string constructions transfix or transcend the tidily detailed arrangements. The use of mellotron on LP3 serves to open up the savvy synthesized symphonies.
On the eloquent “Mi Viejo,” mellotron nuances thread the neo-Classical Spanish guitar melody, entwined autoharp coils, and swirled tribal percussion. A comparable tropical rhythm inundates “Munitaz Khan,” where pan flutes, pipes, and bongos bedeck sequenced guitar electrodes, creating a bizarre Bollywood landscape hipper Hindu films first formulated back in the silent era. Using a similar Eastern Asian template, Pakistani bhangra breakbeats swarm through the calliope-swiped keyboard loops, Nintendo game bleeps, and zooming Frippertronic mechanics consuming “Mirando.” Despite its apparent Anglo-Saxon auspices, “Flynn” flaunts an echoplex dub reggae groove.
Whimsically, song titles such as the latter are inconsequential, goofy derangements meant to provoke chuckles.
“The titles don’t have to mean anything,” Stroud chuckles. “Lots of times we’ll have funny working titles that stick.”
For instance, the soothing Baroque-inclined harpsichord-laden closer, “Black Heroes,” doesn’t necessarily venerate the uniquely salient African-American experience. Instead, its drifting mellifluent flutter is better described as pale-faced ambient seduction. Then again, Ratatat’s crafty pair is never hesitant to express admiration celebrating hip-hop’s wide-angled black-faced appeal.
“We both listen to a lot of hip-hop, especially Evan, who makes the beats,” Stroud admits. “My favorite rapper ever is Ghostface. I loved the first Raekwon record and all the descendant Wu Tang Clan ventures. I saw Wu a few months back and Raekwon did some ace freestyling. But I don’t listen to hip-hop as much now. I feel it’s kind of fucked. RZA’s the only one who seems to know the business.”
Perhaps more profoundly, the melodious Classical rock techniques of Electric Light Orchestra become motifs for several triumphal numbers. The glistening introductory gamma rays penetrating noir-ish opening dirge, “Shiller,” friskily pilfer ELO’s magnum opus, “Fire On High.” And swaying oscillated interlude, “Brulee,” would fit nicely next to the best atmospheric illuminations on the Brit-pop combo’s late-‘70s Out Of The Blue escapade.
“I love ELO, but I didn’t have them in mind for “Brulee.” I remember the first night Evan played me a couple of beats and that stuck out in my mind. I thought we were gonna go a different route with it but we put these happy sounding chords over it and it sounded kind of funny,” Stroud claims. He then deduces, “We wanted a psychedelic reggae-ish vibe.”
Just as intriguingly retrospective, “Gipsy Threat” beams in like an alien transmission from outer space, re-imaging Joe Meek’s fascinatingly innovative vacillating cybernetic flanges – magnified to perfection on the Tornadoes futuristic ’62 mega-hit, “Telstar.” Nonetheless, don’t expect any gypsy-cultured references beyond its intimidating designation.
Notwithstanding such interrogative ambiguousness, the delineation between real life Egyptian yank “Munitaz Khan” and the source material embodying the previously perused homage seems well suited for a friendly rug salesman’s theme.
Stroud explains, “We’d walk into Catskill – an upper New York town where there was nothing. It’s secluded – a half-hour from the original Woodstock concert. We took a walk on Main Street and found an Indian rug store. We visited it a lot while recording. The owner would invite us back to his office, give us free huge Indian dinners, and tell us crazy stories. We took its title from him.”
He goes on to say, “There was an instrument in the studio that you could put on a record – thin vinyl – with samples of organ and there’s an organ where you can play them. So we put a bunch of these records on top of each other and ended up with a bunch of organ-moog sounds. To me, it relates to Bollywood. And it has a “Hotel California”-like guitar solo.”
In the live setting, Ratatat enlists the help of Stroud’s pal, Martin, to handle organ, augmenting and magnifying their already illusionary musicality. Accordingly, future recordings and live shows may get other people involved. But a radical departure in style does not appear imminent. Maybe they’ll find some guest vocalists to spark up new musical ideas. Commendable remixes for a diverse array of artists including old school rapper Biz Markie, weirdo Icelandic diva Bjork, and sly Brit-rockers Television Personalities are already available to consume.