August 29, 2008

Ratatat Refuses to Stay in the Background

By Michael Machosky

Making great new cutting-edge pop music is hard enough as it is. Just try it without a vocalist.

Calling Brooklyn laptop-and-guitar-based duo Ratatat -- coming to Diesel this Friday -- "pop music" isn't totally accurate. But it's a little easier to say than "instrumental rock/hip-hop/electronica." It's not dance music, although you can certainly dance to it.

Simply put, Ratatat makes background music that's simply too complex, catchy and consistently interesting to stay in the background.

"Whenever I hear descriptions of our band, and whenever I try to do it, it just sounds really off," says Ratatat's guitarist/multi- instrumentalist Mike Stroud. "So I just tell them to listen to it. Sometimes, I'll say something like, 'If you don't like jazz, you'll probably like us.'"

Certain Ratatat songs -- like "Wildcat," with its sinuous bass line and sampled feline roar, or "Seventeen Years," with its crushing, heavily processed guitar riff -- seem to pop up everywhere, providing an effortlessly hip instant-score for fashion shows, snowboarding videos, clips between stories on National Public Radio, "Cartoon Network" commercials, and so on.

But instead of staying in the studio, creating soundtracks for commercials or something, Ratatat has been hitting the road, and hard. The band has spent the past few years opening for the likes of Bjork, Franz Ferdinand, Daft Punk, Interpol and The Killers, which has taught it a little bit about how to put on a show.

"There's three of us onstage now, playing guitars, keyboards, bass and a little percussion here and there," Stroud says. "We have a big screen that plays live videos for all the songs. It's not like a laptop show -- it's like a live rock show."

Ratatat's last album, "Classics," was a leftfield hit for the band, with a sparse, minimalist approach that let its subtle experiments in rhythm and melody stand out. Ratatat's latest, "LP3," however, has a surprisingly big, fully formed sound layered with all kinds of new, unfamiliar instrumentation.

"This time, we went to this big house in upstate N.Y. There was so much equipment, I couldn't believe it," Stroud says. "Old harpsichords, mellotrons, vintage organs -- (we) wrote and recorded the record in two weeks. We're still keeping the music very basic. For us, there has to be a lot going on. You need a very strong melody to follow -- sometimes it just falls into place. We never considered having a singer."

For a band with such a free form approach to recording, it's sort of fitting that others have taken its music and put it to their own uses. Ratatat seems to be one of the soundtracks of choice for YouTube video-makers all over the world.

"There's all these dance groups on YouTube dancing to our music," Stroud says. "But the weirdest one is this college a capella group (Barnard Bacchante). They do 'Seventeen Years' off our first record, without instruments. There's somebody beat-boxing, others singing the melodies.

"My parents e-mail me this stuff all the time."

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