Ratatat: Welcome to Brooklyn

By • Mar 1st, 2009 • Category: Features

ratatat_featureWith more than 2.5 million residents, Brooklyn isn’t just a little neighborhood in New York. As the largest of NYC’s five famed boroughs, its population all but surpasses that of the country of Jamaica. Should it ever choose to divorce itself from New York City proper, Brooklyn would become the fourth-largest city in the United States — just a few hundred thousand citizens smaller than Chicago.

But when incorporated into the whole of New York City and compared with its counterparts, the district’s landscape does little to distinguish itself. Manhattan’s iconic skyscrapers and world-famous hustle and bustle loom just to the north, bathed in Times Square’s neon glow. To the south, the suburban streets of Staten Island are disconnected from the rest of the city in the quaintest of the boroughs. While Queens can jockey for political power as the largest of the five in terms of size, it’s the Bronx that can parade out a seemingly endless roster of pinstriped-clad Yankees fans as home to one of the world’s most recognizable sports franchises.

mar09_coverSo as Brooklyn spreads out along the west end of Long Island, it’s left with little to tout aside from its populace. It’s not the romanticized, TV-ready Manhattan, the gritty Queens, the seemingly isolated Staten Island or the polarizing Bronx. No, Brooklyn is just crowded.

Therein lies what long has made the borough so special: its people. Filmmakers from Darren Aronofsky to Mel Brooks and Spike Lee have called Brooklyn home. It’s been the test audience of comedians from Larry David to Jimmy Fallon and Jerry Seinfeld. It’s been a muse to playwrights from Norman Mailer to Neil Simon and Harvey Fierstein. Its courtrooms are where Alan Dershowitz, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Rudy Giuliani learned the law. Walt Whitman wrote of Brooklyn’s beauty while living there, while Mae West and Rita Hayworth personified it on the silver screen.

However, no one — not the actors, the models, the politicians or the athletes — has done more to shape the personality of the borough’s 97 square miles in recent history than its musicians, despite what Ratatat’s Mike Stroud says.

“That’s bullshit,” said half the Brooklyn-based electronic duo when Chicago Innerview got the guitarist on the phone in mid-February. “It’s like every journalist wants there to be this idea of [the Brooklyn scene]. Bands just come here because it’s cheap to live and nobody wants to say they’re from Manhattan.” Talking from his living room the soft-spoken, oft-aloof Stroud’s voice wavered when trying to recall any band that also calls his borough home. “I don’t know, maybe The Strokes, but they might actually want to be from Manhattan. Wait, [are] they from [Brooklyn]?”

They are not. But Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is. So is TV on the Radio. And Gang Gang Dance. And Black Dice, High Places, Matt & Kim, Oxford Collapse, Enon, MGMT, Grizzly Bear, We Are Scientists, Professor Murder, Yeasayer and Vivian Girls, to name a few. Stroud might not be convinced that Brooklyn is a hotbed of contemporary music, but there also are people who still think the Earth is flat and that the South will rise again.

It’s fitting, then — given Stroud’s anti-Brooklyn sentiments — that he and his songwriting partner, Evan Mast, packed up and headed 130 miles north to Catskill, N.Y., when it came time to record last year’s exceptional Ratatat album LP3. Relocating to the small, upstate town of 12,000 people gave Ratatat a chance to lock themselves in a decades-old house for the uninterrupted recording of the band’s third full-length. Straight up Interstate 87, it’s a trip that many New Yorkers in search of tranquility and focus have made during the years, including fellow Brooklynite Mike Tyson when he used the picturesque town as a training facility before heavyweight bouts.

“We don’t really write anything, though, until we get to the studio,” Stroud said. “We just show up at the studio when it’s time to make a record. It’s really fluid. We don’t plan anything, ever.”

That same carefree take at songwriting has led to Ratatat’s expansive, genre-bending catalog. Not committing anything to tape before arriving in Catskill meant that Stroud and Mast were left alone to craft what would become the duo’s most organic album. Gone are the laptop-driven melodies and coffeehouse beats of the band’s 2004 self-titled debut and the follow-up Classics. Instead, the Catskill sessions found Ratatat surrounded by a surplus of usable instruments — including harpsichords and various percussion items — which resulted in almost 40 days worth of studio tinkering.

Doing so meant the two songwriters were constructing the first “live” Ratatat album and thus, the band faced the inevitable task of figuring out how to translate these 13 new songs to a concert setting. On stage, Mast and Stroud always have manipulated their free-flowing, ambient electronic songs into more straightforward rockers. And while that setting can lend itself well to their vocal-less, spacey jams (such as in 2006 when the group turned the Guggenheim museum into a rock club during a groundbreaking performance), the two musicians remain keenly aware of the differences between recorded and performed music.

“I’d certainly call us more of ‘recording artists’ than anything else,” said Stroud of his preference for the studio over the stage. “Being on tour is cool too, but we look at is something we have to do. Making records is something we get to do.”

And for LP3, Stroud and Mast explored in a way unlike ever before. On the surface, its electronic soundscapes aren’t drastically different from the overall vibe of their previous albums. But when dissected, the record’s 43 minutes play out like a sonic melting pot not produced in a small, upstate New York town, but rather by a band at home alongside 2.5 million in the nation’s most diverse population center. It draws from a global pool, from the friends’ collective love for the British Invasion music of the ‘60s to incorporating world music inspirations as well as tribal undertones. With both Mast and Stroud also having rock ‘n’ roll experience (the latter musician having played with the likes of Ben Kweller and Dashboard Confessional), LP3 at times also offers glimpses of traditional pop structures as well.

But LP3 — much like Ratatat’s two band members themselves — is more about the sum than its parts, with each single element disappearing into a collective wall of sound no more distinguishable than the next, yet every bit as important. The record plays like the perfect movie score, an effect that Ratatat’s other albums have achieved as well, but not quite to the same extent. “If the opportunity came up…if it were a good script, that would be something we’d love to do,” Stroud admitted of his band’s movie-ready music.

Just as long as the movie doesn’t take place in Brooklyn. There’s apparently nothing there worth talking about besides cheap housing, if you take Stroud’s word for it. But for a second opinion, there might just be a few fellow New Yorkers out there who would beg to differ…

About 2.5 million of them, to be exact.

Chicago Innerview Magazine, March 2009

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