Rats on Rafts

Skype interview by Brenda Bosma
Photos shot by Florian Braakman in Rotterdam, Netherlands

Rotterdam foursome Rats on Rafts has proven themselves to be a nonconformist bunch. Their live shows are loud and no words are uttered to the audience. Beyond the music, there really is no need for communication. This feeling extends to their releases. Newest album Tape Hiss was recorded live on tape and meticulously mixed using analogue techniques, a painstaking endeavour frontman David Fagan explains. Whether it’s the hiss of the tape or the singer’s own that permeates each song often remains up for interpretation. What is indisputable however is its ferocious energy, one that pulls you under, or as he prefers it: ‘runs you over’. This is not necessarily a warning sign. We called up David on a Sunday evening, right after Studio Sport, to talk perfection in sound and being below the music.

Hello David, what are you up to on this Sunday night?

I just had some food with my girlfriend and watched football. PSV-Feyenoord. It wasn’t that good, they lost 3-1, but yeah, it happens now and again.

That can stir up some strong emotions. You sound quite calm.

I am now.

I just listened to Tape Hiss. It was a short and destructive ride. Is that the notorious Rotterdam candor or maybe just yourself?

I was born and raised in Rotterdam. The general mentality is reasonably direct, yes, and the music has also got it, but to say that’s the reason…

Do you feel comfortable in that directness?

I do. I often get the question if Rotterdam is a source of inspiration. And I think: Yes, it must be so, I’ve lived here my whole life.

You have a good nose for catchy guitar riffs and choruses…

We didn’t think a lot about the basic stuff, the songs, that is. The pieces take shape, carry something with them, and at a certain moment, the melodies are there. Then we just keep improvising until it takes the natural form of a song.

What’s your idea of a natural form?

You tend to choose what you want to hear in something. That’s why songs don’t come about written in stone. Coincidence plays a big part. For instance, the B-side of the record was recorded in one take.

It’s exciting the way the songs rumble along.

I hope people will get the notion that they are being run over by a steamroller when they listen to it. And that they enjoy that feeling.

That’s a funny way to put it.

I’ve had similar experiences with music, that it runs you over really hard and you actually enjoy it. One time I had that feeling during a The Men show.

Does it also run right through you?

[Laughs] I always use the word ‘over’, but maybe ‘through’ is a better expression. Onstage we also play our songs without pauses in between and without saying anything to the audience.

What’s the hurry?

There’s no hurry, just a need to keep some tension in our playing; to me, it comes naturally that way.

You recorded the album on tape and also mixed it analogue. That’s quite a constraint, and maybe also a reason to be really focused. What was it like?

Obviously, we were well prepared. On the other hand, it has a certain charm when it’s not perfect all the time. We were looking both for perfection and imperfection. The mixing was stressful though. You have to work with a lot of analogue equipment that gets warm and sounds different at different times. Most of the time we worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Then you must really want something.

For me, it was more about the fact that since I was young I’ve been listening to records that came from an original analogue master; a digital version doesn’t even get close to that sound. That’s the sound we were chasing. If we had worked with a computer, maybe it would have taken us just as long. It’s not better or worse or easier or more difficult, but as far as I’m concerned it’s more beautiful, and it gives us energy. It’s a sound you love.

You sound a bit like a purist now.

Why wouldn’t you be a purist about the way you record your music when you’re also being a purist about the music you’re making? It’s all related.

I was not sure whether to use ‘perfectionist’ or ‘purist’.

Some people may think it’s snobbish. That you’re looking down on other methods. But that’s not the case. I think it’s important for our music. It’s a personal choice and, as for the recording method, a better one. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t completely go for it, you know. A lot of people are afraid to give clear and straightforward answers because they fear hurting others or are afraid of being misunderstood.

What else is important to you?

In the eleven years that we spent playing together we have always recorded in such a way that our music live is at the core. That way you can capture the energy and the feeling, at least that’s my experience. To differentiate that, certain energy gets lost, plus you don’t have microphone bleed.

The album sounds layered, but you don’t hear all the layers.

That’s a deliberate choice, to go for overdrive. It’s to make it more like we’re playing Vera kelderbar in Groningen.

The loudness makes it hard to follow the lyrics. Don’t you wish to be understood?

All my life I’ve heard people telling me they don’t understand anything I sing. For me personally, it’s not really important that people get the lyrics. I had this discussion the other day with our engineer. He wanted to start the tape while I was still working on a text. He said: ‘Come on, it’s not that anyone will understand the words.’

But you do have something to say, don’t you?

All lyrics are different and belong to the song. I don’t have the urge to… I mean with our music it’s not really that important, it’s more that the voice is like the guitar, for instance, just another instrument. For me it’s clear and just the way it is. Mostly, it’s a sound thing.

What about other people’s lyrics?

I really like to listen to music where the lyrics and voice are upfront. For instance, when I listen to music from Peru, I can enjoy that a lot, but understand none of it. With Lee Hazlewood, I like that I get his lyrics. Or with The Smiths — Morrissey tells a story and knows how to perfectly find the words to tie the song together. That’s very fascinating. With The Fall, you cannot really hear what he’s singing, but his voice carries something I find very intriguing. On my part, I’m always glad when the lyrics are done.

So there’s no clarity and you don’t show your notebook to anyone?

No, not even to my bandmates. It doesn’t bother me and as long as it doesn’t bother them, it’s good. We understand each other. I think that in the urgency of the energy you can hear something is being said, but perhaps it’s only understood on a different level of consciousness. I also believe the music speaks for itself. The words don’t have to be put on top.

Are you below the music?

I think you’re always at the service of the song. I don’t feel like imitating Morrissey or The Clash, for me it’s more important that it sounds like an instrument.

You have the chance to see the Rats waltz over you this Thursday, 3 September when they DJ the opening of the newest Urban Outfitters store in Rotterdam alongside LA-based but Amsterdam-sprung lo-fi house savant Palmbomen. Doors open at 17.00 at Lijnbaan 150. Attend here and see you there 😉