The Crazy Guitars and Amps of Ratatat’s Mike Stroud

December 22nd, 2015

This is a story from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Gary Clark Jr. and his guitar collection, Rudy Pensa’s world-class collection of fine archtops, Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, the vintage and boutique guitars of Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

ratatat-mike-stroud

INSTRU-MENTAL: Inspired by an insanely diverse variety of styles and artists, Ratatat guitarist Mike Stroud crafts the band’s distinctive sound with his crazy collection of guitars and amps.

By Chris Gill | Photos by Rayon Richards

Ratatat’s Wikipedia page describes the band as a “rocktronica duo,” but this short description is woefully inadequate and inaccurate for a band whose music truly defies the usual compartmentalized stylistic descriptors. First of all, the music created by Mike Stroud (guitars, keyboards, percussion) and Evan Mast (bass, synthesizers, percussion) generally features guitars front and center while electronic instrumentation and production techniques play more subtle supporting roles. Also, the duo is inspired by an incredibly deep and diverse assortment of musical styles and artists, resulting in an individualistic and characteristic sound that doesn’t fit neatly into any single genre definition.

While Ratatat’s music often incorporates programmed beats, funky synth flourishes, and offbeat sampled loops, their songs are just as likely to feature instruments not associated with electronica, like acoustic and pedal–steel guitars. The duo’s fifth and latest album, Magnifique, is their most guitar-heavy effort to date, featuring the quirky Alvino Rey talking steel guitar–inspired “Drift,” the dreamy Santo and Johnny–like “Supreme,” the Afro-reggae-meets-Daft Punk stomp of “Cream on Chrome,” the bouncy Jeff Lynne–style melodic guitar pop of “Abrasive,” and a faithful cover of Phil Cordell’s Springwater tune “I Will Return,” among numerous other guitar delights. While the sound of each song jumps abruptly from one style to another and even one decade to another—like larger versions of the brief, radio channel-skipping audio snippets at the end of several songs—overall it results in a satisfying cohesive whole when the album is listened to in its entirety.

Part of this is due to the album’s main common link between most of the tracks—the lushly orchestrated and harmonized guitar parts that often sound more like keyboards, synths, and even brass and string orchestras than typical guitar parts. According to Stroud, this is inspired by his and Mast’s love of Brian May’s work with Queen. That influence is particularly evident in “Intro,” which sounds like an instrumental outtake of “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon,” and “Cold Fingers,” with its muted horn-like harmonies reminiscent of “Killer Queen.”

“We’re both really into Brian May,” Stroud says, “especially the way he does his arrangements and orchestrations entirely with guitars. I’m sure you can hear that influence. That’s a big part of what we were trying to do with this record. We learned how he got his sounds, and I even got a Brian May Red Special guitar and a Rangemaster treble booster and plugged them into a bunch of these tiny old lap-steel amps. I could really dial into the right tone that way. It’s distorted, but it sounds clean at the same time. I’d layer each part one track at a time. It sounds so much better that way. I also made sure that each overdub had its own tone, which adds to the richness of the whole sound. Sometimes it’s just a different wah setting, or I’d use a different amp.”

However, Brian May is just one of many surprising guitar influences that inspire Ratatat’s music. “Our musical tastes are all over the place,” admits Stroud. “Both of us are record collectors. For a while during the early 2000s we were really into hip-hop. I really like old rock and roll, like the Zombies and the Kinks, which is one of my favorite bands ever. I’m also into the Beatles, Stones, and stuff that Jeff Lynne produced, like ELO. We’re both into dub, reggae, and Bob Marley, too. I got a pedal steel while we were making Magnifique, so I’ve been listening to steel players like Pete Drake and Buddy Merrill. I also go through phases where I listen to a lot of classical music. My tastes are pretty much across the board, although I don’t really like new country music, or that much new music in general.”

One attribute that Ratatat does share in common with electronic artists is how they produce their music. Mast and Stroud prefer to work out of various houses in locations like Brooklyn, Long Island, upstate New York’s Catskills, and Jamaica (the island, not the region of Queens) that they either own or that friends invite them to stay at to do their work. Their main studio setup—consisting of Logic software installed on an Apple Macintosh laptop, a couple of microphones, and some preamps and compressors—goes with them and their instruments to each location.

“It’s definitely primitive,” Stroud says. “When we record, it’s always just the two of us. When one of us is playing, the other one is doing the engineering. Half of the time we don’t really know what we’re doing, so we keep it simple. It just works better for us to go to a house and bring our gear. A commercial studio can be such a sterile environment. It gets too expensive to work that way too, especially since it took us about four years to finish this record. We scrapped probably 100 songs before settling on the 14 songs for Magnifique.”

While a 1968 Epiphone Wilshire is Stroud’s main guitar for live performances, on Magnifique he played a wider variety of instruments. In addition to the aforementioned Brian May Red Special, Stroud’s guitar collection includes several instruments from the Sixties: a 1965 Fender Stratocaster, a 1968 Fender Jazzmaster, and a 1969 Gibson ES-330. “I also have a Gibson J-50 flattop acoustic, although I don’t know what year it is,” he says. “There’s also a Fender Mustang and a couple of basses, including a Fender Mustang bass.”

The pedal steel heard on several cuts on Magnifique is a Fender 1000 from the Fifties with a pair of eight-string necks, both tuned to C6 tuning, and eight pedals. “Pedal steel is the most difficult instrument I’ve learned to play,” Stroud says. “It’s like being a drummer but using pitch as well. When we were recording ‘Drift,’ I was just starting to learn to play pedal steel, so I could only play the notes. Evan controlled the tone knob to create the Alvino Rey talking guitar sounds while I played. I couldn’t do it by myself like Alvino did. That guy was a total genius.

“We also did a bunch of layers of baritone guitar on this record,” Stroud continues. “It was a cheap Danelectro model that was laying around the studio. We had recorded a few songs that sounded a little too Nineties due to the distortion I used on the guitar parts. We re-recorded those parts with the baritone guitar, and it made the tracks sound more modern. I’m a big fan of fuzz pedals, and I have a ton of older models—a Fuzz Face, Super Fuzz, Vox Tone Bender, and a Color Sound. I also love the Z. Vex Wooly Mammoth and Fuzz Factory, which I use a lot.”

Most of the amps that Stroud used to record his guitar parts were the aforementioned small lap-steel models. “I have a Dickerson, a few Magnatones, an Oahu,” he says. “They’re all small student-model lap-steel amps. You can still pick up a lot of these amps for a couple of hundred bucks. I’ve bought a few that I thought were going to be the exact same amp, but they all sound pretty different. All of the pedal-steel stuff was played through a Sixties Fender Twin Reverb. I have a Vox AC30 HW2 Handwired that I play live, but I didn’t use it much on this record.”

As Ratatat’s popularity increases, so do the requests for them to collaborate on projects with other artists or to create soundtracks. However, Stroud says that he and Mast prefer to concentrate on their own work. “We say no to a lot of things,” he says. “Part of the reason is that we’ve had such an intense touring schedule that we’ve had no time to work on anything else. But I’m more interested in making my own music from the ground up right now. We want to do exactly what we want. We seem to get a little bigger with each record we put out, so that allows us to keep doing that. I hope that things keep going in that direction.”

This is a story from the all-new JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on Gary Clark Jr. and his guitar collection, Rudy Pensa’s world-class collection of fine archtops, Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s 1966 Fender Telecaster, the vintage and boutique guitars of Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

GA_2016_01_for-web

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!

Reply

Comment guidelines, edit this message in your Wordpress admin panel