INTERVIEW with DAVID FAGAN of RATS ON RAFTS!
"Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs a Net of Rabbit Paths" is a must-hear, especially after you enjoy this mind-opening gaze into their world.
Over the last five years, Rotterdam's Rats on Rafts have been writing an album that encapsulates their travels. Years ago following a spot at a festival, the quartet was handpicked by Franz Ferdinand to open for them on their upcoming tour of Japan. What happened next completely changed the trajectory for the fledgling band. Digging into Japanese music brought Rats on Rafts back to a wide swath of influences from the '60s, '70s, and '80s. In collecting their stories, all of these fragments came together under the singular vision that is "Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths." The new LP is spellbinding but never overwhelming. Vocalist/guitarist David Fagan gives us the history, explains some of their work ethic, and lifts the veil on their brand new critically-acclaimed Fire/Redeye release.
T-BONES: When you listen to "Chapter 3" do you feel like there is a point in the recording where you really felt the central idea of your sound breakthrough?
DAVID FAGAN: Though some parts of the recording process could be called “spontaneous” I felt the record coming together when we started to work on the first song we mixed: "Fragments." During the mixing process we realized all the ideas we put into the song worked for us and we all seemed overwhelmed by the results. That kind of made it more exciting to see what the other songs would turn out like.
T-BONES: There is a maxim in Punk Rock about being direct and concise, but the songs on "Chapter 3" that really stand out ("A Trail of Wind and Fire") need a lot of time and space to develop. When you were writing these songs for the album, did you feel like you could be sort of sharp and direct in the riffs you play, yet very expansive and also experimental with the atmosphere you create around them?
DAVID FAGAN: Yes, it seemed interesting to add some texture and some atmosphere to the songs so they would feel like they have more than one thing to say. For instance, “A Trail Of Wind And Fire” Is made up out of two parts. The ambient, Japanese string like theme called “Rain” and the song “A Trail Of Wind And Fire” When we started working on “A Trail Of Wind And Fire,” it was in a different key and it seemed to lack atmosphere. It was very straight forward. When working on “Rain,” we wondered if we could make more of a song out of that part but everything we tried did not seem to work. One day while practicing we combined both songs, changing the chords to “A Trail Of Wind And Fire” so it would fit in with “Rain” and just played both at the same time, adding the atmosphere and the song structure both separate parts seemed to miss.
T-BONE'S: Is that the practice of adding/subtracting to a Rats on Rafts song? Just putting enough in there not to overwhelm?
DAVID FAGAN: We are often looking for new combinations to make things interesting for ourselves. But in general, we just combine stuff we like sound-wise as we go along. I always love listening to records that have many layers of sounds yet you can’t get really place everything you hear. When things blend it becomes more interesting. Balancing everything is very important but we are certainly trying to find the boundaries, how far can we take a certain thing? You have to go overboard to realize that you are going overboard and decide what to do with it once it appears.
T-BONE'S: Your songs have so many stops. However, unlike normal stops in songs - I think this is where you are slipping your song into another gear without listeners like me noticing the restructuring. Without giving away the magic, what makes you think "This is where we need to put a brief stop?"
DAVID FAGAN: It's all based on what we feel while working on the songs, finding the right balance, if you play one thing longer it can affect the part that comes afterward. The same goes for shortening, if stuff becomes very busy a stop/pause can add the right amount of oxygen to keep it alive.
T-BONE'S: Is there a narrative thread that unites the songs together? They seem to speak from a collective experience. Could you really push them all together in a form of a suite?
DAVID FAGAN: “Excerpts From Chapter 3” refers to this being our third record, all songs are “Excerpts” taken from the last 4 to 5 years of our lives. The separate stories are mostly a mixture of things that happened in the past few years they refer to one another but the great thing is you can mix them up and find different ways to connect them again. At the end of the day, it is a sort of cycle, and I think that’s why you can move parts around, it might color the emotion, but it won’t ruin it. I think a longer stay in a certain place could certainly be inspiring, I’m thinking of a long trip to Spitsbergen.
T-BONE'S: A lot of today's music is purposely very loud and in your face. Your songs depend less on that visceral cutting through in favor of collections of little blinding riffs that give you room to work with dynamics and sound. How do you account for the difference in sound between you and other bands?
DAVID FAGAN: We have never tried to keep up with what’s fashionable in terms of sound and delivery. We have our own thoughts about the recording and writing process. “Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths” was recorded on tape and mixed from tape to tape. The lacquers for the vinyl have been cut directly from the master tapes keeping the entire process analog. I guess working on tape is different nowadays cause 99.9% of all music is recorded digitally. If they use tape, it’s usually as some sort of effect. Ultimately, I think the results hand you a pure sounding and feeling record. The digital age gives people a lot of new options yet they all go down the same road: quantizing, compressing, boring.
T-BONE'S: How do you feel "Chapter 3" differs from "Tape Hiss"?
DAVID FAGAN: “Chapter 3” has more of a collective feel from the start to finish, “Tape Hiss” had a bit of that, but "Chapter 3" certainly has it from start to finish and it seems more diverse to me. I also think the arrangements add an extra dimension to the album. Just before we started mixing “Chapter 3” we played the master tapes of “Tape Hiss” and that’s when we realized that we had made a huge step forward - it was a great feeling.
T-BONE'S: There is a lot of East-meets-West in your music. "Tokyo Music Experience" obviously alludes to your time in that city. However, the high end of a lot of your melodies has that twangy chime. Are you greatly influenced by Japanese music? Could you see your travels to other places bringing out completely different ideas to insert in your writing as well?
DAVID FAGAN: I think we have always been influenced by Eastern-sounding music. But in recent years there has definitely been a “Japanese” influence. Records by artists like Inoyamaland, Mariah, Phew, Miharu Koshi have been a big influence. Some of the productions in 1980’s Tokyo are so futuristic, yet you can also hear some very old musical traditions there. That’s what I really like about it. But we listen to a lot of different music and we never deliberately start to play in a different style/genre - it grows into that.
T-BONE'S: Back to the beginning. How did this start? Is it true you could not even play your instruments when you formed? Also, you must have had quite the shared list of influences, care to divulge?
DAVID FAGAN: We started in a middelbare school. I was 16 and I just really wanted to be in a band. But I lacked the discipline to learn how to play my guitar. We had similar taste in music which was very important because everything around us: nu-metal stuff and that was awful. We listened to stuff like Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, Lemonheads, Dinosaur Jr. that moved back into punk Pistols, Clash, Chaos UK, Ramones until we discovered the Cure’s early records and that opened the New Wave door. Arnoud borrowed a guitar and within weeks he could play a lot better than I did, so that motivated me to practice more! We told our old bass player he looked like a bass player and convinced him to pick up a bass guitar. The first few months we had a drummer, a friend of ours who could actually play every instrument, we played our first show in did two awful covers of “Killing an Arab” by The Cure and “Taste The Floor” by The Jesus and Mary Chain. He left after that show! Another friend of ours at the time attended the show and loved it - so he joined but he had never played the drums before. He practiced “air” drums to “A Forest” by The Cure and Ramones songs and well it took us a good few years before we could all get through a song without any big mistakes!
T-BONE'S: Your vocals are kind of cloaked in reverb. Is there anything you were trying to emphasize by this practice? When you all sing together sometimes it is this amazing hair-raising banshee wail - but never overwhelming the song.
DAVID FAGAN: We just love the sound of reverb and the many options it gives you, I think reverb means life. Everywhere you go you will find different reverbs, it’s only until you step into one of those “dead” rooms that you realize it’s everywhere around you. By manipulating it, I feel we can add a lot of color to our sound and carefully place stuff in our audio horizon.
T-BONE'S: When you are playing and writing songs like these on "Chapter 3" what is the first hint you have something that is working?
DAVID FAGAN: That’s different every time, I could tell you exactly how each song came about, but it’s hard to put your finger on why it stands out, most of them have different reasons. Usually, there’s a certain feeling that you're discovering some new territory and I guess you have to get hooked at some stage by what you are hearing.
T-BONE'S: How does it feel to play and find that sort of groundswell of energy when you are all churning together?
DAVID FAGAN: The moments in which you create something and have the feeling you’ve found something special is the absolute best. Your communicating and understanding each other through sound and everyone in the room has that same feeling while your playing. Nothing really goes beyond that.
Our thanks to David, Arnoud, Natasha, and Mathjis, as well as Fire Records and Redeye Distribution. “Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs a Net of Rabbit Paths” is now available from T-BONES on LP and CD.
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