You might say they're "transformers," the guys of Ratatat. I have twice now been witness to their transformative power, most recently a couple of weeks ago when I watched a club full of thousands of keg-tappers — the sort that Evan Mast and Mike Stroud might have known at Skidmore College a decade ago — turn into dancing dudes, a blissfully bro-hugging throng transported by blips, beats and power chords.
And not singing a single, solitary word.
That is, of course, because Ratatat is that rarest of breeds: an instrumental band that has something bordering on mass appeal. Still, for their part, the shaggy duo think the fixation on their being wordless wonders is all a bit much. "Yeah, I wish it would just stop," Stroud admitted, "but I don't think it's going to. I mean, people are just used to having a singer, you know what I mean?"
And breaking through in the way they have without one is pretty remarkable.
Ratatat straddle the rock and electronica worlds, jokingly describing their sound as "non-jazz — everything but jazz." But unlike other indie instrumentalists, say, Mogwai or Tortoise, or for that matter even Daft Punk, they create what are essentially lyric-less pop songs. Listen to "Falcon Jab" from the guys' latest album, LP3, released in July, and you wait and wait for the vocal to kick in; on other tracks, you sometimes find yourself making up your own words.
"I just think we're both really attracted to melodies," Mast said. "I listened to a lot of electronic music in college, and so much of it is beat-based, but I always gravitated to songs with a nice melody." That said, Mast has no interest in writing lyrics, often finding them the "weak link" of a song, and insists it would be a mistake for anyone to think Ratatat will one day give in to some inevitability of having vocals. "I read a review the other day that said, 'These songs are cool, but it'd be really cool if Santogold sang on them.' I was like, 'You just don't get it.' " From the get-go back in 2001, Stroud said, they never even considered having a singer, adding that they are under no illusions: "I think we knew going into this the limits of being an instrumental band. We're not going to be the hugest band in the world or anything."
Maybe not, but they're doing just fine. I caught up with Ratatat at Daddy's, their favorite dive bar in their stomping grounds of Brooklyn, and though their general demeanor tends toward the dry and wry, they had to be enjoying the fact that, at 30K and counting since July, LP3, their third and most accomplished record, is outpacing sales of its predecessors, 2004's Ratatat and 2006's Classics, which featured the snarling breakout hit "Wildcat."
"I think this was definitely a freer approach," Mast said. "We'd get an idea and we went with it. With Classics, we'd really labor over things, but this time we'd plow through it, and I think the songs ended up more cohesive, beginning to end."
Still, there's a lot going on, as the new album eschews Classics' rockier tendencies in favor of something more dense, adventurous and even exotic. There's the flamenco guitar of "Mi Viejo"; a spacey, staccato "Mumtaz Khan"; "Gipsy Threat," a Wild West gallop through another galaxy, and "Mirando," the single that snaps, crackles and pops its way into your head and refuses to leave. Also on the album is a "Mirando" remix by YACHT's Jona Bechtolt, which, by the way, actually does include a vocal of sorts — a deep voice muttering the words "My older brother has a gun."
If it sounds like there's a lot going on in LP3, that's partly because of a potpourri of instruments that the guys discovered in an old house in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, where they sequestered themselves to make the record, with few distractions. According to Mast, "It was just a ton of new toys to work with," among them, a Mellotron, a talk box, an Iranian drum called a zarb, a flute bought in a toy store and, best of all, a harpsichord. "We've been trying to get good harpsichord sounds for years using synths, and it's not the same thing," Mast said. "And you feel so different when you're playing it. I like how your hands look really huge because the keys are so tiny."
I am a sucker for the harpsichord too. New Ratatat songs like album opener "Shiller" and "Dura," with a lead melody on harpsichord, are irresistible — and pretty much unplayable on tour.
"We tend to avoid certain songs and don't play them live," said Mast, who explained that they can't take a harpsichord or string section on the road with them, and would prefer to not do the songs at all, rather than compromise them. It's an issue that creeps up a lot for Ratatat — how they can replicate their ever more complex recorded songs (which may include as many as 100 tracks) in a live situation, without bringing scores of musicians out with them. What about the idea of a one-off show, or a very limited tour with a full orchestra, I suggested.
"Yeah, that sounds cool," Stroud said. "You want to front us?"
Um, no. For the moment Ratatat are content to have one additional player on the road — a keyboardist — and say they may add at least a percussionist in the future. And to their creative credit, Mast said translating the songs live is the last thing they think about when recording. "We try not to think about it at all," he said. "We usually just make the songs as complicated as they need to be and not worry about the live show, just figure that out later."
No complaints from the Ratatat crowds, who can number as many as 7,000 in Los Angeles — their biggest market, they say — and can get almost as frenzied as Girl Talk or Dan Deacon devotees. As for those artists' practice of letting fans bum-rush the stage, Stroud and Mast are down — to a point. "I think it's fun," Stroud said, adding that they've had upwards of 50 onstage with them at some shows, though Mast recalled one time that they were playing floor level, "and everyone was wasted, so all our stuff started getting unplugged. And when your guitar stops making noise anymore, it kind of takes the wind out of your sails."
The wind still behind their sails — and their sales — Ratatat tour Europe next month. Their latest video, "Shempi," is comprised of creepily distorted images of the ageless ABBA. For more of our conversation with Mast and Stroud, go to rhapsody.com/ratatat.