By all accounts, the laptop computer has transformed the world of music. Thanks to relatively inexpensive programs like GarageBand, the need for a proper studio, a record contract or even a living, breathing rhythm section has dwindled — and not just for weekend warriors composing slapdash sonatas in their bedrooms. The same goes for the more accomplished tech-savvy artists producing “laptop records” you’ll actually buy (err, download).
Take New York-based electro duo Ratatat. In 2003, college chums Evan “E*vax” Mast and Mike Stroud holed up in a Crown Heights apartment and rolled the dice on this promising digital tool.
Between the two of them, they had just three instruments. Well, four technically.
Plugging a synthesizer, guitar and bass directly into Mast’s PowerBook, the pair began to drop beats and conjure the instrumental technotronic epics that wound up on their fortuitous self-titled debut in 2004. Because they had no recording costs and no A&R guy telling them to add vocals or put less hip in their hop, the two took some hearty artistic gambles. Bouncing around any and every idea, they wrote, tinkered and tweaked until their unique visions had melded into one.
“We would work on a song and just try to make it as crazy as possible,” explains Stroud on a pleasant August evening in New York. “That’s still how we work now. A lot of times it’s like, ‘Is this cool?’ And sometimes the answer is ‘No.’ But there’s those times where it’s just like ‘Yes!’”
Considering how produced and electronic the arrangements are, it’s crucial to note that a laptop alone couldn’t have yielded such grandiose music (though Stroud says Mast has become quite the beat-making engineer).
In addition to all of the fuzzy, buzzy synth melodies, there are upwards of half a dozen layered guitar parts, turbo-charged stadium rock riffs that hint at what Eddie Van Halen would have laid down circa ’82 — if only he’d been co-produced by Brian Eno and the Sugarhill Gang.
A self-proclaimed “Jimmy Page fanatic,” Stroud says he’ll sometimes sit at home mastering and reworking the solos of the legendary Led Zeppelin guitarist (Incidentally, he adds, “The hardest one to learn was “Heartbreaker.”).
Stroud hasn’t always enjoyed the freedom to incorporate such blistering fingerwork, however.
When “Seventeen Years,” Ratatat’s hallmark single on Portland, Ore.-based label Audio Dregs, helped land them a coveted spot opening for Interpol in 2004, it wasn’t Stroud’s first time playing to such immense crowds. Prior to teaming up with Mast, he cut his teeth as a touring player for acts that really couldn’t diverge more from Ratatat. In 2000, at the ripe age of 21, Stroud wound up wielding a significantly less bombastic axe for then-teen-icon and emo-posterboy Dashboard Confessional. Eventually Stroud was hired to sit in with power pop, singer-songwriter Ben Kweller, who was, to say the least, a more enjoyable artist to work for, according to Stroud.
Nevertheless, by 2003, he’d had enough.
“When you're a hired gun, especially for a big solo act, you have to do what they say,” Stroud recalls, “And I just like a lot of my ideas, so I don't enjoy having no say or control. That’s why I've never been a good employee — for anyone. I think it’s important to have fun and be inspired by what you’re doing.”
Imbuing their sophomore effort “Classics” with a more drastic range of far-out experimentation, Ratatat are now packing their tracks with everything from slide guitar and piano to congas and accordion. Oh, and they’ve even gone so far as to sample panther-like sound effects (“Wildcat”).
Sure they plugged into proper amps this time around. But regardless of how the process evolves, theirs is a career and a story sprung undeniably from the gentle glow of a simple rectangular electronic box.
It’s nearing 9 p.m. and Stroud is ready to meet up with friends for a beer. Before he goes, one question remains.
Where’s the PowerBook that started it all?
“Evan gave it to me,” laughs Stroud, “It’s actually my first laptop. I'm not a computer person, really.”