Q&A with Evan Mast of Ratatat
Westword’s August 28 Ratatat profile dips into a lengthy interview with Evan Mast, who makes up half the lineup of this electro/eclectic instrumental partnership. So take a long drink of the complete Q&A, accessible below.
Mast begins by detailing his background, including the important role his older brother, Eric, aka Portland, Oregon indie-label impresario E*Rock, played in his musical development – and vice versa. From there, he details his first encounters with fellow musician Mike Stroud; a subsequent meeting that led to the formation of Ratatat; the sudden blossoming of record-company interest even though the pair had only completed four songs (and never performed live) at the time; an in-concert baptism of fire, with Interpol officiating; the creative evolution from the first two Ratatat disc, which were mainly assembled in Mast’s bedroom, to LP3, a an XL Recordings CD cut in an old mansion loaded with vintage gear; and his contention that adding vocals to the group’s sound would detract rather than add to the effect.
After all, sometimes words get in the way.
Westword (Michael Roberts): There doesn’t seem to be a lot of biographical details out there about you, so I was hoping to fill in some of the gaps. You’re originally from Cleveland?
Evan Mast: Yeah, I grew up in Cleveland.
WW: Tell me about your family.
EM: I have an older brother and sister. My brother’s five years older and he works in music, too. My sister’s an artist. My parents are a little bit more strait-laced. My mom’s an accountant, my dad’s a salesman. They live in California now, but they were always really supportive of us getting into art. That’s kind of how it happened, I guess.
WW: Where do you think the artistic bent that the three of you took come from? Do you have a guess?
EM: I’m not really sure. I know my grandfather was really artistic. He died before I was born, so I never got to know him. I have an aunt who’s an artist, too. My parents always really appreciated art and made sure it was a part of our lives when we were growing up. They kind of nurtured it even if they weren’t totally involved in it with their jobs or anything.
WW: You mentioned that your older brother is involved in music, too. What kind of stuff?
EM: He’s into similar stuff to what I do. He runs a record label in Portland, Oregon, called Audio Dregs. [His name is Eric Mast, and he records under the name E*Rock.] He does electronic stuff, some of it kind of beat oriented, and some of it is more improv-noise stuff. He’s going to be touring with us in about a week.
WW: Did he introduce you to some interesting music as you were growing up?
EM: Yeah, definitely. A lot of the stuff I got into when I was pretty young – like junior high, high school – was stuff that he kind of passed down to me. He would kind of make sure that I wouldn’t get into bad music and things (laughs). He kind of monitored my musical taste.
WW: Is there something that you’d stumbled upon and he sat you down and said, “No, you don’t want to go down that road”?
EM: Yeah, I do remember that song “Stand” by R.E.M. When I was pretty young, I said, “I like that song,” and I was trying to figure out who it was. And I asked my brother, and he refused to tell me, so I couldn’t go buy the album (laughs). I owe him for that.
WW: How about the good stuff he introduced you to?
EM: At that time he was really into the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction, and he was getting into some punk stuff, and he kind of passed that down to me. I got pretty heavily into punk stuff when I was in high school. That might sound kind of lame now, but at the time, it was pretty exciting. He was five years older, so he went off to college at some point, and I was kind of on my own discovering stuff. Getting more into indie rock or whatever. At some point, though, I think it started to become more of a two-way street rather than me just learning about stuff from him. I had friends who were getting me into other kinds of bands, other kinds of music. Like I started getting into hip-hop before he was, I think, so I started passing him a lot of hip-hop stuff. Now it’s a pretty healthy back-and-forth. Whenever we get excited about something, we’ll e-mail each other MP3s or whatever.
WW: At what point did you start making music as opposed to just appreciating it?
EM: I started taking guitar lessons when I was, like, twelve, thirteen. I did that for a couple of years. And then I got a job when I was sixteen and made enough money to buy a four-track. I’d just record stuff at home. That was like high school. I spent a lot of time in my bedroom multi-tracking stuff: playing guitar and bass and singing – unfortunately.
EM: Yeah (laughs). That was always the part of the process I wasn’t too confident about. I made a lot of really bad pop records when I was that age. But then, in college, I got a sampler and a little bit later, I got a computer, and I started getting really into electronic music. And that was really a revelation, because I was never that great of a guitar player or that great of a keyboard player or anything. So I started getting more into the production side of things – being able to control it with electronic instruments. It opened up a lot of possibilities for me.
WW: Before you started going that direction and were focused on more traditional instruments, did you play in bands?
EM: Yeah, I had a handful of bands in high school. Had some kind of bad punk bands. My brother and I had a band when I was really young – when I was like, fifteen or something. Maybe even younger – thirteen. There were, like, eight people in the band, and we had a bunch of practices. The band was kind of formed just to play one show, at the high school battle of the bands. So it was short-lived.
WW: Do you remember the name of it?
EM: Yeah, but I don’t want to say (laughs).
WW: One of those names, huh?
EM: Yeah. It was really bad (laughs). And I had some bands in college, too. A lot of my friends were doing post-rock stuff. That was when Tortoise was really big. I wasn’t really that much into it, but I sort of got roped into playing in those kinds of bands. With really discordant guitar parts and stuff. But throughout the whole time, I was into doing my own thing at home – recording four-track stuff.
WW: You mentioned that technology allowed you to go beyond your instrumental capabilities. Was that the fun of home recording? That there were no boundaries and you could do anything you wanted?
EM: Yeah, in a way. It opened up a lot of possibilities. There’s a lot of things you can do. I’m a pretty horrible drummer, but I feel like I can make a pretty good drum beat on a computer. It comes down more to decision-making than to actual practicing. It’s not so much about just musicianship. I think that’s totally a commendable thing to be able to do. But for me, I can get by on guitar and bass and piano, but I’m not really a virtuoso by any means. So yeah, the technology lets you make interesting stuff based just on your taste and your decision-making abilities more than being a classic musician.
WW: You met Mike [Stroud] when you were both attending Skidmore, right?
WW: Was he in any of those bands you alluded to?
EM: No, we were never in a band together back then. He had a band with some of my friends. We didn’t really hang out that much at Skidmore. We had some mutual friends, but we didn’t really spend that much time together. He had a couple of bands there, I think. I can’t remember the names of them.
WW: But you never made music together? Not even in a dorm room or an apartment?
EM: I think we found ourselves playing music together once at a friend’s basement at a party. I think that’s the only time we ever did anything together at school. It wasn’t until afterwards. A couple of years later, we both ended up in New York, and we started working on stuff together.
WW: How did that happen? Did you run into each other, and when you played music together, you realized that there was more of a kinship there than you’d thought?
EM: I suppose so. I was sharing a small apartment with some people in Brooklyn. We had this little room with a computer and a recording set-up. I think we ran into each other on the subway or something, and I was aware he was a good musician, so I invited him over to make a song or something. So he came over, and we started doing the first thing that came to mind. We made these really funny songs at first – like half-joke, kind of baroque bad songs. I don’t really know where they came from. The first few, they weren’t all that bad, but they weren’t really good, either (laughs). They were something that you could put on and laugh at when you played them for your friends, and we had a really good time doing it – so we kept doing it. And after that, we got a little more confident in it, and we finally gave up on making songs that were just jokes and started making ones that were more serious.
WW: At that time, you were working as a graphic designer?
WW: Was that your focus at college? Did music not seem like something you could do as a career?
EM: I was doing visual art at school: painting and drawing and photography. I didn’t take any graphic design classes there. I wasn’t really that interested in it. I guess when I got out of school, I started getting more interested in it. It was the obvious way to make a living doing visual stuff. So I guess I never really expected to be able to survive just off making music. It was a nice surprise that it ended up happening.
WW: At what point did you guys realize, “We’re not just making random tracks. We’re a band and we’re making an album”?
EM: We had about four songs that we felt pretty good about. We weren’t really even thinking of it as a band yet. But we posted some songs online through my brother’s record label – his website. And a couple of labels got in touch with us. It all happened really quickly. Within a couple of weeks, there were a couple different labels interested in putting something out. And we only had four songs, we’d never played a single show. It was just like, “Oh. We should actually do something with this.” And we decided to make an album out of it, make a band out of it.
WW: Was one of those labels XL Recordings?
WW: How long was it from that original contact until the first album came out in 2004?
EM: It was pretty long. Maybe like a year and a half or two years. We were pretty cautious as far as making a deal, because neither one of us had any experience with that, and we didn’t know what to do. We were educated by friends and lawyers and whatever to figure out the best way to approach it. And at the same time, we were finishing the record – and once the record was done, it took another year or so for it to actually come out. There’s always a lot of speed bumps along the way.
WW: And yet when the album did come out, it was very well received. Did that allow you to increase the production values on the second one?
EM: A little bit. We were still recording in my bedroom for the second record for the most part. It was still a home studio set-up. We did a couple of songs upstate, where we just transported my home studio up there. We weren’t spending a lot of money on recording or anything. And even though the first record was pretty well received, it wasn’t like we were making loads of money. We’d been touring quite a bit for that record, and at that level, we weren’t making any money touring, either. We were just surviving, I guess. So the second record was pretty humble in the making as well.
WW: Was that first tour kind of a baptism of fire in a sense? Did you have to figure out how to translate these studio creations in a live setting?
EM: Yeah, it was a bit daunting at first. We’d played maybe three or four shows in New York, just kind of trying to figure out how to do it. We were adding elements as we went for each of those shows. And then right after that, we were opening for Interpol on the West Coast, and that first show, it was, like, a 2,000-person room or something like that. And it was just the two of us with this home-recording project, and we had very little experience playing shows. That was exciting, actually. It was a big challenge. We hadn’t released anything, and no one knew any of the songs, and you had this audience of people who were there to see this proper rock band, and we were doing something really different. It was really fun, actually. It ended up working out really well.
WW: So the audience was receptive? They didn’t chant for Interpol throughout your set?
EM: Not that I remember. I’m sure there were loads of people who probably hated us at those shows (laughs). But there were definitely a good group of people who were really into it, too. I think that really gave us a good foundation for the first record to come out, and ever since then, the West Coast has been stronger for us than anywhere else in the U.S. And I think it was probably because of that tour.
WW: You called the second album Classics, which sounds like a tongue-in-cheek title. But is there a certain degree of seriousness about it in the sense that by then, you’d come closer to figuring out what kind of a band you were and what you wanted to be?
EM: In a way, because we were doing a lot of experimenting with that record. We knew we had to take the sound quite a ways further than we did on the first record. So we were trying lots of different things, reaching out and seeing what worked and what didn’t. So while we were recording, we had different folders on the computer for bits that didn’t go anywhere, and songs that ended up turning into something. And whenever we ended up with something that worked, we put it in the “classics” folder. It was kind of a joke, but then it stuck after a while.
WW: For the new album, you’ve talked about how influential it was to work at Old Soul Studio in upstate New York. How would you describe the place?
EM: It’s amazing. It’s a big, old house, built in the 1800s, on this weird little street in a really small town. The guy who owns the house – he’s called the Wolf – is a big collector of vintage instruments, so there’s loads of organs. There’s a harpsichord and a kind of piano and a Mellotron and all these amazing instruments laying around. We were really lucky that we stumbled across the place through a friend right before the Wolf was about to go on tour for two months. We hit it off with him, and he trusted the place with us while he was gone on tour.
WW: So you had the run of the joint for as long as you wanted?
EM: Yeah. I think it was forty days and forty nights that we were there initially. We probably could have gone longer. I know the last day we were there, we started a new song, and we were only about halfway there – and it was one of the most exciting things we’d done while we were there. I think we both felt we could have spent another couple of weeks and maybe gotten a bunch more songs out of it. But at the same time, we’d been there for a while. Maybe we were getting greedy.
WW: Did the last song make it on the new album?
EM: It didn’t make it on LP3, but I think it’ll probably end up on the next record.
WW: Since the meter wasn’t running, would there be times when you’d suddenly realize twelve hours had passed and you were still going strong?
EM: We weren’t really on any set schedule, and if we got excited about an idea, we would just run with it. We’d go as long as we could until we got so hungry that we had to stop (laughs). It was nice. There weren’t any external pressures. I turned my phone off for most of the time we were there and didn’t really check e-mails. We were just super-focused on making music for that time. It was just the two of us in the house for the entire time, and the town was so boring there was nothing to do there. So we were really focused.
WW: Were there some instruments there that you’d never seen before and had no idea how to play? Did you have to learn how to make them work?
EM: To a degree. There were mostly keyboard-based instruments there, and they all worked basically the same – but they all had minor differences, too, and they took some getting used to. Especially with recording stuff. You’ve got to figure out where to put the microphone or whether you just plugged it directly in and all those kinds of things. But it was sort of nice having that unknown, because you discover interesting sounds doing things the wrong way a lot of time. We got into some drums and stuff, too. Mike bought some tablas before we got up there, which neither one of us had the slightest clue how to play, and I bought this Iranian drum called a zarb that I didn’t know how to play, either. But it’s good to have things like that around, because it keeps things interesting.
WW: Are there songs on the new album that germinated out of you guys trying to make sounds with an instrument you weren’t familiar with?
EM: Yeah. The song “Mumtaz Khan” has this really odd, kind of out-of-tune keyboard sound that goes through most of the song. We were using this keyboard called an Optigan that runs on these optical discs that look like records, but they’re clear with black marks on them.
WW: What era is that from?
EM: The ‘60s, I think? [Optigans were developed in the late ‘60s, but weren’t commercially available until the early ‘70s.] And I came down and started playing over the drumbeat from that song. And I went to put a disc in the Optigan and realized there was already one in there. I had two layered over the top of each other, and it created this kind of organ sound where the notes are sort of out of tune with each other. It gives each other this weird kind of out-of-tune-with-each-other, Middle Eastern sound. That was an accident that ended up inspiring the whole song.
WW: Some of the songs on the album, like “Shiller” and “Shempi,” are very fleshed-out, whereas some of the others, such as “Flynn” and “Gipsy Threat,” are more like snippets. How did you decide which ones to elaborate on and which were fine the way they were?
EM: Sometimes it’s kind of obvious. Like “Gipsy Threat,” we were recording that one late at night – starting playing that on the organ, and we decided, “That’s kind of funny. We should just record that for fun.” And then we went back to it, listened to it, and it didn’t seem like it could become a big, dramatic song. It was more just a nice little loop on its own. There were another couple of tracks that happened like that. “Shiller,” the first half of that song, I thought it might end up as another one of those kind of interlude parts. I had gotten up early one morning and started working on that section, and Mike came down a couple of hours later and had the idea to add the guitar part for the second half. That gave it a whole new dimension and opened it up.
WW: A notable number of reviews of the new album – actually, reviews of all of your albums, including positive ones – end up saying something along the lines, “The backing tracks are so good, we wish there were vocals on top of them.” [He laughs.] When you hear that, are you flattered? Or do you feel like the people who say that are kind of missing the point?
EM: I definitely feel like they’re missing the point. A lot of the reviews I’ve read, too, have said, “This is a great record, because you can put it on while you’re studying, or you can clean your house to it, or you can do this or that.” They talk about it like it’s background music, and that always kind of bothers me, too, because I feel like there’s more in the music than that. If you give it a chance and you really pay attention – turn it up really loud – I think there’s plenty there. I think the music will give back to you as much as you put into it. So it’s a bit frustrating when somebody says something like that. Like, I read a review the other day that said, “They should get Santogold to sing over some of these tracks.” And I was like, “Oh God. You’re really missing the point.”
WW: It seems to me that one of the best parts about your music is that it can turn and twist in different directions at any moment – and with a singer and lyrics, you might be forced into more traditional song structures.
EM: Yeah, exactly. That’s what interests me about instrumental music. It’s much more broad. As a band, Ratatat can get away with doing a whole spectrum of styles. We can do stuff that sounds almost classical and we can do stuff that sounds electro, or even metal – and we can get it all on one record because there’s something that holds it together. And I don’t know if you can really do that if you’re, like, a traditional rock band with a singer.
WW: And you already called your singing “unfortunate.” I guess you’re not ready to step up and be lead vocalist for Ratatat.
EM: No, not any time soon (laughs).