Toward the climax of the 1980 film adaption of Flash Gordon, heroine Dale Arden screams, "Flash! Flash! I love you, but we only have 14 minutes to save the Earth." The soundtrack, by Queen, is blazing and triumphant. Ming the Merciless is defeated (spoiler alert) to the most royal, eloquent guitar and keyboard rock possible.
Brooklyn duo Ratatat pull essential strands of their DNA from the embossed, stadium-filling sonics so articulately varnished and layered by Queen's guitarist, Brian May. Ratatat's fifth album, Magnifique (out July 17 on XL), sees Evan Mast and Mike Stroud drop into a reposed, nocturnal gear for slower tracks where they play pedal steel guitar. Magnifique is palatial and booming from start to finish, and worth the five-year wait since their previous release. Choice rhythms and hopping beats stutter and slice under Mast and Stroud's tag-team guitar tones. They may not save Earth, but put some Ratatat in your Block Party readiness-pack for your climax-scene needs. Evan Mast spoke from New York.
Where do Ratatat's guitar riffs come from? Sex, fire, and what else?
There's no real formula for me, other than the sex and the fire [laughs]. You might just be walking down the street and a melody pops into your head. An idea will hit me and I'll hum it into my phone, and then take it home and try to transpose it to guitar or keyboard. After transposing it, the idea morphs into something else. You might put in a hundred layers of guitars that end up inspiring an idea, then you have to take out those layers and just leave the idea.
Name your top three riffs of all time. Are you a Zeppelin guy?
I'd say "Taxman" by the Beatles. I'm not a huge Led Zeppelin guy. Mike is the Zeppelin fan. I know they're the riff people. I'd also say the Kinks song "Mindless Child of Motherhood." It may be more a part than a riff, but it's a sweet little guitar hook right there.
I was hoping you'd say, "Riffs are everywhere, in the wind through the trees, in the sound of the leaves."
Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me." That qualifies as one of my favorite riffs. Definitely the wind through the trees on that one.
When you hear AC/DC's "Back in Black," what fantasies dance through your imagination?
How does that one go? I don't know much about AC/DC. I saw them play at Coachella this year. It was over the top. Excessive in a super-macho way. That's the sound of classic rock radio when I was in grade school in Cleveland, Ohio. So the fantasies dancing are about being overly macho, and bulldozers.
I wanted to jump in on the Brian May aspect of Ratatat's sound.
We're huge fans of his for sure. Especially with the new record, we really studied how he achieved his sound and arrangements. When we were recording our first record, we did a cover of the "Killer Queen" guitar solo. We broke it down and figured out all the parts to see how Brian May did it. No one layers like him. It's like classical music, the way he fits harmonies together. When I listen to Queen records, I'll just fast-forward to the guitar solos.
You all play pedal steel on this album. Who are some pedal steel players you've discovered?
Guys from the '50s and '60s, like Alvino Rey. And Pete Drake, who was doing steel guitar hooked up to an early version of a talk box, which is really cool. And an insanely good player named Buddy Merrill who was playing The Lawrence Welk Show. It's like he's superhuman, some of the things he did. Our slower Hawaiian-style songs came out of listening to that stuff.
You handled steel guitar on the album with moxie, like Bon Jovi handling his leather pants on the butte in that "Blaze of Glory" video.
It's fun to write melodies on a steel guitar. With the slide, you're always finding the note as you go. You end up choosing notes unexpectedly. It was a good way to throw a curveball into the way we write. We have so many habits. The steel helps you surprise yourself. It's all about coordination and feel. You have start playing when you're like 9 years old to get any good. Mike is much better than I am. I haven't graduated to leather pants or buttes yet.
How did you all get to know Björk and do a remix for her?
Mike's wife used to work for Björk doing makeup. So we met her that way. She let us record a bunch of our second record at her house in Palisades, New York. Then we played a couple shows together, and she asked us to do a remix.
And when Björk asks you to remix her song, you say yes. You all have also remixed Biggie and the Knife. Do you ever get feedback from the people you remix?
Biggie and I talk frequently [laughs]. I wish. We haven't had any interaction with Björk in a while. I got the impression that the Knife didn't like our remix. They had a very specific thing in mind, and sent lots of guidelines telling us what we could and couldn't do. So we disregarded it and did what we wanted to do.
Biggie sends you signs from the heavens showing you he approves of your remix.
Yeah. There's been weird crop circles turning up where we record. Puffy appears in the clouds smiling.
Some of Magnifique was recorded in Jamaica. Did the otherworldly super-ganja there help you write reggae hits?
It's weird, the music we made there doesn't sound like reggae at all. What we recorded there are the more aggressive, danceable tracks. It's the inverse of what you'd expect. The laid-back, Hawaiian-sounding songs happened at another studio. A friend of a friend had a house in Port Antonio, Jamaica, that was empty, so we brought down a bunch of equipment and set up a studio. It was right on the water, which is crystal clear. Amazing spot. We'd go into town and check out what was going on. The DJs have these battles there. A guy working on the house told us all these stories about the DJs making fun of each other. A lot of the battle is just the DJs insulting each other.
What does Ratatat disagree on? I want some nitty-gritty shit. The arguments about who doesn't roll up the toothpaste, all of that.
Musically we tend to agree for the most part. It's very rare one of us will have an idea the other one doesn't like. I guess disagreements happen over practical issues. When we started making music, it was just totally for fun. The musical side is always fun, but then it became a business, and now it's both of our jobs. But we always sort everything out. Mike doesn't roll up the toothpaste, and I always forget to put the toilet seat down. Yet somehow we soldier on.