This story first appeared in Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color and Music. Order your copy today.
Ratatat: “Bilar”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Ratatat_Bilar.mp3|titles=Ratatat: “Bilar”]
The pseudo-genre most frequently associated with Ratatat’s music is “instrumental.” It’s true that the band does not write lyrics, choosing instead to communicate through densely layered electric and electronic pastiches. Yet it only takes a brief encounter with the duo’s music to see this generic catchall term as reductive. And if Ratatat can’t be accurately described as vocal or instrumental, then perhaps, surprisingly, its MySpace genre labels are the most revealing. Ratatat categorizes its own music as “visual / visual / visual.”
Despite the absence of a significant vocal element, Ratatat’s music does not fail to evoke an emotional response, particularly when it’s paired with a dynamic visual accompaniment. During a live performance, neon strobe lights pulsate, as mercurial as the band’s melodies, and projected video clips feel like the subliminal-message experiment of A Clockwork Orange. Frequently, these projections are culled from Ratatat’s official music videos, some of which have collected a seven-digit viewership on YouTube. The video for “Mirando,” produced by synth player / bassist Evan Mast, turns the movie Predator into psychedelic war porn, looping some of the film’s most explosive moments. It’s an apt analog to the music for many reasons, but primarily for the way it subverts a violent thriller through its own devices. That’s what Ratatat is so good at doing: deconstructing that which we take as normal — rock, hip hop, dance music — and turning it on its head to produce something new, self-conscious, and mildly absurdist.
Ratatat’s oversized riffs, courtesy of guitarist Mike Stroud, beg for an equally over-the-top live performance. And, indeed, everything about its live performance screams “stadium rock” — everything, that is, except for the mid-sized venues in which the band performs. All of the elements are there: heavy fog and laser-light components, head-banging guitarists in power stances, and even a cadre of backup dancers and musicians — albeit as holographic projections. Flanking the duo are two tall projection screens, upon which holograms of dancers in tutus, Victorian string players, a rotating statue of Venus, a bust of Beethoven, and other Ratatat-related iconography are projected. The effect is twofold: it makes the band seem much bigger, and it highlights the individual layers of the music by dynamically adapting to the individual parts of a song.
Ratatat’s light show is reminiscent of an era when showmanship and spectacle were paramount, and it threatens to steal the show entirely. The stage’s backdrop is filled with hypnotizing LED Xs that seem to be powered by each heavy guitar stroke. Showers of light cascade down each projection screen, and a thick, polychromatic fog envelopes the stage. It’s not a show for the epileptic or the faint of heart; it’s like playing a rave in a collapsing iron-working factory. To the band’s credit, not all is smoke and mirrors; Mast and Stroud are just as active as their visuals and as intense as their colors, frenetically playing as many parts from their albums as they can, in real time.
Swaths of multi-layered guitar melodies and hip-hop-channeling blips, beeps, and clicks highlight Ratatat’s 2010 collection of tunes, simply entitled LP4. Aesthetically, LP4 is consistent with the band’s previous works, but it features many additional flourishes of novel composition. And though the band makes very danceable music, that’s not necessarily the goal. “There’s a lot music that’s just about a real steady beat so you can dance to it, or it’s about textures,” Mast says. “But for us, those things are on the side. It’s about creating something that’s melodic, more like a pop song.” Still, songs such as “Bilar,” with its mechanized, assembly-line crunch juxtaposed with orchestra-string classicism, or “Sunblocks,” with its field recordings of crickets and harmonizing electric guitars, are not what some listeners would consider typical pop-song fare.
The songs do not spoon-feed the audience with concrete ideas. There are no adjectives, metaphors, or otherwise descriptive language to attach one’s emotional response. “Words aren’t huge in our repertoire,” Stroud says. Instead, Ratatat’s music is a “safe haven from that kind of thing,” according to Mast. “We don’t really work with concrete themes,” he says. “I feel like it’s more about the palette than the style of songwriting. It’s something that’s difficult to put into words.”
It was with this seemingly vague approach that the two looted Old Soul Studios in upstate New York, a space filled with a treasure-trove assortment of instruments, to produce their most robust album to date. With the capability to play or record almost anything they could imagine, Mast and Stroud went wild. Japanese strings, bass harmonica, talk boxes, harpsichords, and even a string quartet combine in a tight aural fabric, with a professional polish that was only hinted on previous albums. The result is a sound that manages to walk the line between the minimalism of classic hip-hop production and the increasingly frequent product of instrument overload. “People tend to think that we sample things a lot, taking old records and looping out sections, which is something we never do,” Mast says. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with people where they ask, ‘Where do you get your samples?’ and I have to tell them that we don’t use samples. We are actually in the studio and record everything live. It doesn’t seem to make sense to most people.”
It’s unsurprising that most people would suspect sampling; the sheer volume of sounds that Ratatat produces is staggering. One might even suspect that the lack of vocals has led the band to overcompensate with an army of instruments and a bombastic visual style — if not for every carefully selected and artfully woven element forming the foundation for Ratatat’s distinctive “voice.” Though it’s never sounded like this, Ratatat makes pop music, trading the traditional sing-along for a decidedly futuristic see-along.