Whether you know it or not, you've probably heard Ratatat. Perhaps you've tapped the steering wheel to the synth line on "El Pico" as it lilted from your radio between segments on This American Life. Or possibly, the crunchy beats and handclaps from "Seventeen Years" got stuck in your head after watching a Hummer commercial. But despite the numerous songs they've licensed for use in commercials, TV shows, radio programs and movies, the Brooklyn, NY-based instrumental electronic duo consisting of Mike Stroud and Evan Mast creates more than just innocuous background music.
Ratatat's bedroom-recorded laptop pop started as most musical projects do: as a way to have fun. Though Stroud had strummed strings behind emo crooner Dashboard Confessional and irreverent indie popster Ben Kweller in the past, his collaboration with Mast—originally called Cherry—was a step in an entirely new direction. The duo plugged a bass, guitar and synth into a Mac PowerBook and started layering the tracks with synthetic beats and random sound files. Ratatat posted a few songs online, and before they had ever recorded a full album—or even played live—they were signed to a label.
"I never pictured being on a label. We were just screwing around and making songs for fun, and the guy at XL [Records] heard two of our songs on our Web page and that was kind of it. We got signed after that," says Stroud. "We had never played a show. We only had a couple of songs, so it was kind of out of nowhere."
Though Ratatat had already signed to XL, they released their first single "Seventeen Years" on Audio Dregs, the Portland-based label Mast and his brother own. The single was quickly followed by the release of a self-titled full-length in 2004, the album Classics in 2006 and their most recent record, LP3 in July of 2008. Though LP3 maintains the feel of the duo's previous two albums—multi-layered blips and beats interspersed with found sounds, all underlying epic, dancey rock 'n' roll guitar riffs—it takes a substantially more organic approach.
"For our first two records, we just had one guitar and a couple keyboards, so I think we felt the need to do more tricky stuff like reversing [the guitar]. This album felt pretty straight forward: You wrote your part and then put the microphone there and recorded it. Just very basic," says Stroud.
One of Stroud's signature "tricks" on Ratatat and Classics was playing his guitar part backward, recording it, then flipping it the right way on a computer. The process lent a slightly off cadence to the live guitar, which fit nicely with Mast's computerized electronic beats. But with LP3 the band escaped the cramped confines of Brooklyn for the quietly boring repose of Catskills, NY. With more space, more free time and more instruments to work with, the album took on a more natural sound.
"We'd only ever recorded in Brooklyn in little apartments, so we went up to this big house [in upstate New York] and there was tons of really cool equipment up there—a big grand piano, a harpsichord and all kinds of stuff. We got lucky with the place," explains Stroud. "We were so excited to be there, we made LP3 in a couple of weeks."
While Stroud admits the band felt considerable pressure when recording Classics, laboring over each track for months until they got it right, LP3 seemed to flow with ease.
"We never really write anything before we go to the studio, so we just got there and wrote all the songs and recorded it," says Stroud.
But from the Dim Dim-esque, saltwater taffy-sweet "Brulee" to the insanely catchy, arcade-game twinkle of "Shempi," the album doesn't feel rushed in the least. With intricate layering and punchy, radio-friendly hooks, LP3 manages to seem equally at home played during a Scrabble match or at a sweaty dance party. Part of that versatility has to do with the fact that the music doesn't have lyrics. And while lyric-less, electronic music doesn't often lend itself to riveting a live performance, Mast and Stroud have a few visual tricks up their sleeves to keep audiences entertained on their upcoming tour.
"We have a video that's all super violent clips taken from that movie Predator. We have one that's a bunch of ABBA videos also," notes Stroud. "[Mast] just takes stuff from weird movies. I don't know where the hell he found them."
Though Stroud says he didn't visualize playing live when he and Mast started Ratatat, he says that projecting short videos—like a trippy version of Paul Simon's "Don't Call me Al"—adds a visual narrative to their live sets that audiences seem to crave.
"It's more visual than going to see a rock 'n' roll band where everything is live," explains Stroud. "We want to make the show as interesting as possible, for us to just go up there—two dudes with nothing else—would be kind of boring, kind of half-assed."
On the whole, Ratatat's work is hardly half-assed. But an shaking dance party? That's more like it.
Sat., March 28, 7:30 p.m., with Despot and Think About Life, $17/$20. Knitting Factory, 416 S. Ninth St., bo.knittingfactory.com.