A Multitude of Musical Genres Fuse in Ratatat's Work
It is somewhat difficult to categorize Ratatat into one genre because they show traces of so many in their music. The two most prevalent ones, indie rock and electronica, combine with elements of hip-hop, psychedelica, and rock, and consequently, attract diverse audiences. I take a look at some influential artists of these genres, examine the qualities of their styles, and provide a brief overview of the history as well.
When considering the roots of a heterogeneous genre such as indie-electronica, it is evident that it does not stem from one big tree. Its origins are much more complex than that, and therefore, harder to define. The fascinating composure of this style of music is a hybridized combination of the disco, funk, pop, and rock styles that have been around since the sixties. It began to swarm the underground scenes of New York, Chicago, and Detroit in the mid eighties while grunge and pop rock radiated through the mainstream. Although the heart of indie-electronica lies in Britain where most of its bands reside, its emergence in America has been somewhat frail (Allmusic Guide). Its existence is largely due to teenagers who perform sonic experiments on their computers and are essentially the artists in the field. The new millennium looks promising - indie-electronica has steadied as the grounds between rock and techno continue to be heavily explored, and are growing more popular.
In 2001 two amateurs Mike Stroud and Evan Mast, fresh out of college, met up in New York City to record a few songs. One of the products resulted in the song â€œSeventeen Years,â€? which went on to become a precious single that attracted the recording label XL (Phares). Stroud was touring as a guitarist with Dashboard Confessional and Ben Kweller, but wrote his own material along the way. Meanwhile, Mast mixed beats on his laptop. When Stroud returned, they put together their work and compiled a debut album. Uniting under the name of Ratatat, the two have mixed beats ever since. Together Mast and Stroud innovate indie-electronica to this day, helping to carry it into the mainstream by touring with bands like Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, and The Killers (Laurence). Although Ratatat, 2004â€™s self-titled debut release won over a fair share of critics, it wasnâ€™t until later that year when they released Ratatat Remixes Vol. 1 that a wider fan base originated (more on this later, however).
Stroudâ€™s skills as a guitarist may not be phenomenal, but his careful pick of vibrant chords makes up for that. He combines poetic riffs that dominate a song for short periods of time and remain backed up by rhythmic, yet intense beats. Playing with a wide array of artists has given Stroud this independent outlook on composition, allowing him to employ virtually any style he is fond of. This feat of Ratatat is the source of their variety. Their influences range from Queen, White Flight, the Idle Race to the authentic drumming of African music. They draw in stylistic features of acid and moody psychedelic rock of the sixties, synthesized ambience of Pink Floyd of the seventies, and even heavier material of the eighties. The prevalence of history in their music is clear.
Furthermore, todayâ€™s myriad of indie rock subgenres fuse in Stroudâ€™s guitar strains as well. Traces of poppy blues, melancholy one-noters, or sometimes screechy and ravenous descants can be heard. The melody-rich verses entail and represent a variety of indie-based themes of the eighties and nineties: angst, triumph, creativity, and of course, independence (Indie Music History). Ratatat possesses an ability to fluctuate the listenerâ€™s mood, creating an emotional instability that is synonymous to the way early indie bands felt about corporate recording companies. The creativity that spawned the whole indie movement was due to the freedom bands experienced from not having to comply with demands of the major record labels. Mastâ€™s MacBook addresses these attributes by overlapping programmed beats in assortment with instrumentals and a keyboard.
The synthesizer is of course another main constituent of indie-electronica. This digital contribution to music ought to be credited to Robert Moog, the creator of the analog synthesizer. His role in the music world is significant â€“ he paved the path to electronica, making the alien and trippy sounds representative of the genre possible (About Bob Moog). Moog revolutionized and enhanced sound in the sixties and his digitalized keyboards are still heavily used by musicians.
Ratatatâ€™s composition style is based on improvisation and little on theory - the true indie way. Their less-is-more approach to intricately designed sounds is simple, but undergoes a lot of manipulation. They elaborate: â€œWe use logic in a simple wayâ€¦ [we] donâ€™t write anything beforehand. The recording process is a writing processâ€? (Everlasting Bass). This free-spirited attitude is what yields their broad musical spectrum. There are no norms they must comply with, influencing and even urging their followers to do the same. â€œIt isnâ€™t a calculated thingâ€¦ we like different styles of music, and let whatever come out.â€? Stroud even admits not being able to read music, which is not surprising because he has no need to.
The creative process is still somewhat structured, though. An underlying beat is crafted first, providing the new piece with a foundation. Next, they select organic instruments â€“ xylophones, harpsichord, piano, acoustic guitar â€“ and manipulate them. Oftentimes Stroudâ€™s guitar work is played in reverse and layered with another set of harmonies. The product, imaginative melodies sans lyrics, is then open for interpretation to listeners. They are free to take it wherever they like. The driving force behind Ratatatâ€™s music is meaning and sentiment, which listeners gladly soak up through the poignant melodies, regardless of what emotion is evoked: cheerful, melancholy, bittersweet, energetic, etc.
Giving listeners this freedom of interpretation has always been a trick of the artist, but Ratatat takes it to a new level. Explosions in the Sky could be described as their sister band that fully resides in the experimental post-rock category - a jam band with a similar, yet non-electric sound. The lack of lyrics gives the opportunity to focus fully on each voice, pitch, and intonation. Although they use very different mediums to create their music, both bands utilize very similar (if not the same) concepts as grounds for their work â€“ soul awareness and interpretation. People love to express themselves through music, and when they have the opportunity to create their own meaning for it, they feel more important and love the artist even more. This connection between creator and listener establishes an intimacy like never before in music history. That isnâ€™t to say that lyrics are bad and distracting; but in their absence, melodyâ€™s contours can be outlined with extra undertones, giving it a spell-binding potency. As a matter of fact, in this field there are more artists with lyrics than not, since language is such an appealing feat. Named Band of the Week by Earfarm, Ratatatâ€™s sound was hailed as â€œsymphonic movements the length of pop songs that utilize the electric guitar's brash melody in lieu of vocalsâ€? (Band of the Week). Ratatat shows that words are not a must by embroidering their songs with harmonious knots that spice them up.
Indie-electronicaâ€™s sister genres include any music that features techno, alternative rock, digital drumbeats, and of course, rapâ€™s poetic rhymes. Everything that stems from the traditional electronica genre is mixed in a close-knit field of ambient pop, dance, trip-hop, trance, glitch, and countless others that mend in any way the artist chooses. Trip-hop, for instance, originated in Britain via underground bands that countered popular hard-beat techno and wanted to explore its more mellow side. Allmusic Guide describes it as â€œdowntempo, jazz-, funk-, and soul-inflicted experimental breakbeatâ€? electronica. Glitch became a widely-used term to call a style that teenagers created, deemed â€œdigital glitchesâ€? for their lack of knowledge of how to make â€˜realâ€™ music (Trip-Hop). When indie-electronica surfaced in the mid nineties, it was seldom heard of until the early 2000â€™s when bands like Ratatat began to tour the country. Plone, a British trio with a similar sound of trippy synth effects, formed in 1994 and toured with many comparable UK bands such as Pram and Broadcast, but never ventured across the Atlantic (Phares). This is what makes Ratatatâ€™s relative success in the US a surprise; electronica has always been more of a British craze. Despite its prominence there, Ratatat does not cite any British influences, leading to the conclusion that indie-electronica in America progressed separately with little British inspiration.
Joining forces with many rappers also set off a wave of followers. With the appearance of Ratatat Remixes Vol. 1 and 2, Ratatat turned the heads of another group: African Americans. Rap and hip-hop have always been an urban trend, and being from New York, Ratatat seized that niche as well. The late nineties saw rap and hip-hop explode and surge into the mainstream with artists like Jay-Z, Nelly, Ja Rule, Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blidge, TLC, (this list is literally endless), etc. Mainstream techno in the nineties and early 2000â€™s barely existed with the occasional play of Darudeâ€™s â€œSandstormâ€? in dance clubs. Remixes of pop and rock had always been around, but they were done by club DJâ€™s who were not deemed as â€˜realâ€™ artists. So when Ratatat gave a new twist to Kanye West, Missy Elliot, and Jay-Z, rap fans were instantly intrigued. Meanwhile, preppy crowds of the glitzy clubs in metropolitan areas also noticed the notion of indie-electronica. This method of channeling listeners from different angles proved to be an effective way to attract audiences as well as connect musicians. Instead of segregated, competing genres, indie-electronica suggests a cooperative approach to music â€“ not as separately existing styles, but each genre as a mix of its kin. A potential fusion of fans promises another union on a social scale. As Mast and Stroud point out in an interview, â€œItâ€™s weird whoâ€™s at our shows. It changes. Sometimes there are a lot of real jock-y guys up front, ball caps and big muscle-y dudesâ€¦ At some shows there are like people dancing on tablesâ€¦ We played a lot of Vermont colleges and, yeah, they go crazy. But a lot of people just stand there tooâ€? (Everlasting Bass). The variations in audience participation reflect on their crowdsâ€™ diverse style and music tastes, confirming Ratatatâ€™s cross-genre appeal. Music has always been a large part of culture, style, and guide to life. When music of certain cultures blends to create a great product, the listening communities come together and mingle as well.
As Ratatat enhances music, indie-electronica enriches culture by blending together genres, and in turn, their diverse fans. Older generation fans of punk and disco can appreciate it as much as any modern hipster, even if they develop different meanings for the same melody. The relative unpopularity of Ratatat-type music may not necessarily be a bad thing â€“ lack of restrictions that mainstream labels set lets them roam the endless musical universe of possibilities and go on to create even more impressive albums.