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By Michael E. Miller
Vocalists get the prima donna's share of attention in most groups. But according to Evan Mast, who represents half of the Brooklyn-based instrumental duo Ratatat, their presence can put a damper on creativity.
"As a band, Ratatat can get away with doing a whole spectrum of styles," he points out. "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."
Mast came to this conclusion partly because of the pain he suffered while having to listen to his own attempts at warbling. In his teens, he says, "I spent a lot of time in my bedroom multitracking stuff — playing guitar and bass and singing... unfortunately." After a laugh, he adds, "That was always part of the process I wasn't too confident about."
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In the end, Mast found his voice by no longer using it. A couple of years after graduating from New York's Skidmore College, he was living in Brooklyn and working as a graphic designer when he bumped into one of his former classmates, guitarist Mike Stroud, and their casual decision to get together led to musical experimentation. They started out making "half-joke, kind of baroque bad songs," Mast recalls.
But as they grew more serious, they began posting examples of their new sound on the website associated with Audio Dregs, a Portland, Oregon indie run by Mast's brother Eric, who performs under the moniker E*Rock. A couple of imprints quickly reached out, and their entreaties forced the Ratatat twosome to make a decision. "We only had four songs; we'd never played a single show," Mast remembers. "It was like, 'Oh, we should actually do something with this.'"
Ratatat's self-titled 2004 debut was issued by XL Recordings, one of the original companies that had expressed interest, and two more discs have followed, including last year's LP3, a strange but beguiling collection featuring an array of vintage keyboards: a Mellotron, an Optigan, and others. Reviews have been largely positive, but even some of the kindest journalists have suggested that the tracks might sound better if someone sang over them.
"I definitely feel like they're missing the point," Mast says about such critics. "If you give it a chance and you really pay attention — turn it up really loud — I think there's plenty there." Except for words, that is. And who needs those?