Text: Susanne van Hooft
Pictures: Jasmijn Slegh
Only recently, Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths, the new album by Rats on Rafts was released. The Rotterdam band has been following its own course for years. An example of that independence is that the last album was released on their own label Kurious Recordings and was recorded completely analogue. And the band has announced a number of gigs in April and May. Time for a chat with singer David Fagan.
To get straight to the point: your album was recorded analogue. Why is it so important for your music to be recorded this way?
‘There’s so much more feeling in the sound when you record it analogue and cut straight from the master tape. The whole experience of the band is about the vinyl. Of course you can’t escape digital anymore, but that doesn’t work for us. I can give technical details, but it’s best to just use your ears. You can listen to both our CD and LP and you will notice the difference in sound and quality. I first noticed it when I started buying original records from the seventies or eighties of albums that I had bought on CD as a teenager. Suddenly they sounded so cool. If the signal remains completely analogue, you keep a certain quality that is essential to certain music. With digitalisation, a certain feeling disappears and there’s a twist in the character. It’s also kind of logical that everything becomes different when you change sound into zeros and ones.’
In the meantime, the album release was a while ago. What has it been like for you all this time without playing concerts?
‘It feels like the whole physical dimension really disappears. I’m starting to get a weird feeling about it. Normally when you release an album, you have a lot of live performances. People ask each other, “have you heard that new album yet?” And in record shops the records are on display. With the loss of the live performances, the whole thing you’re doing it for also falls away. We did do some live sessions, a Twee Meter Sessie and a Eurosonic session. You see that there is a lot of interest in those. People then let us know that they are waiting for shows.
Your songs always seem to unfold and tell a story. When we listen to the record, everything seems to have been thought about. Do you still manage to improvise live or do you want everything to sound exactly as it is on the record?
‘Not everything, but also a lot on the record has come from improvisation. Some things were recorded last minute and we made choices while improvising. When we play live, we want to keep the feeling of the album, but translate it to how it works live. That means we don’t necessarily follow the order of a record and we don’t necessarily follow the length of the songs. It’s different if you listen to a record at home or if you hear the songs during a performance. We have to do it differently live, but that’s what I like about it: to see how you can create something even better from something you have.
Improvisation is certainly still an important element, but not as prominent as it used to be. When we perform, we agree on a few things, like where to start. But the best thing is not to make any agreements about the interludes. That forces everyone to react sharply during the performance and to keep their focus. The most interesting part of a performance is of course when someone breaks a string, especially on the bass guitar or when something goes wrong with the drums. Then the rule is to continue playing, so then you see how you can work your way out. Those are interesting moments that allow you to stand out. It can only boost the energy and the focus that you have together. And it’s also a challenge, because if someone takes the lead, then you have to go along with that.’
What was the moment with the most effort/presto-chango in a show?
‘That’s quite a lot of moments. The past few years it’s not so bad, but in 2015 when we played at Incubate, something broke down. I think there was something with the amplifier and we had to keep playing while that was being replaced. Then a whole new piece of music was created. A lot of songs came into being that way. We often play something by accident. I always think it’s very important not to underestimate coincidence. If something happens by accident, then it’s important to recognise what’s happening, so you can use that again later. That is part two: to turn it around properly.’
And does that give you a thrill and do you enjoy it? Or are your hands all sweaty?
‘In the beginning you think: shit, what is going on here? And then you start to fill it in. But if you are filling it in and you are just concentrating, then everything around you disappears. But once you’re done with that and you realise that the problem hasn’t been solved yet, then you start to worry again (laughs).
What do you think determines whether a performance is good?
‘You are dependent on the audience, or at least I don’t think you should be dependent on the audience, but the audience can have an influence. What happens spontaneously. The nice thing about live is that anything can happen. I like the idea that at any moment something can go completely wrong. I also want to experience that when I’m at a gig, that something unique happens. We’ve been to a lot of gigs that ended well or badly. You can work so hard towards a performance, but sometimes it’s just not your day. Then you’re already grumpy before the gig has even started and nothing can change that. And sometimes you think it’s not going to work out and then somehow it takes a different turn.
Do you have an example of a performance that turned out to be very surprising?
‘An example is the performance in Brest, in France. One of the last performances before Corona. That was special. The French did everything relaxed. We had a great meal and we had lots of time, plenty of time to soundcheck and everything. Then we had to go on stage and suddenly the room was full and I immediately felt: this is wrong. They made us too relaxed and kept our energy level too low. Then we had to step it up a notch. And I tried really hard and the audience seemed to be having a good time, but the whole band had the same feeling afterwards. We weren’t at the energy level we wanted to be at. I’ve also experienced it the other way round. I can remember a gig in Brighton. I was very irritated and I was yelling at the sound engineer and he was yelling at me. Then we started playing the show and it was rock solid. Because then the energy comes in. So it can go either way.
Your latest album is called ‘Excerpts From Chapter 3 The Mind Runs A Net Of Rabbit Paths’. What does the title actually mean?
‘It’s a part I got from a book, which was then corrupted into a song, but basically it refers to the pathway through your brain that makes different connections. A rabbit trail. But in your head, of course, there are all kinds of trapdoors. Something that triggers you opens a door somewhere else. That is what it refers to.
That you end up somewhere you didn’t expect to be, just like with coincidence and dreams. That’s also what songs from your album are about.
‘That is definitely part of the record. How random things can be, that you have no control over your subconscious. ‘Where Is My Dream’ is actually made up of different stages of a dream. What I find interesting is that you can wake up in the middle of a dream and think: that was a nice dream, I’ll dream on for a while. And then it turns into a nightmare. You never end up in the same story; there’s always a twist. I think that song is actually a primitive rendition of that feeling.’
You talk about coincidence and dreams, is the mental life important to you?
‘Do you mean the spiritual? No, not really. I’m quite down-to-earth, not religious. But you have to pursue certain philosophies to create a fictional truth in which you can function. The difference with someone who is religious is that I don’t see it as the truth. I see it as my truth that I have to create to work in. I am aware that it lives in my head.’
How you look at dreams and the fictional truth you create is part of your music, but for you it’s mostly an individual thing?
‘Yes, absolutely. And going back to that analogue story that I think has a scientific truth in it: I don’t think that’s important for everyone either.
You’ve mentioned truth a few times now. To what extent is truth important to you?
‘The truth? Well, honesty is something I value enormously, as well as truth and reality. I find it interesting how our brains can take us out of the truth, and out of reality. That’s very interesting.’
And we see that tension and surrealism reflected in your album.
‘Yes, I suffered from mood swings during that period. One day I could hear a piece of music and I would love it, and the next day I would actually throw it in the bin. So that alone already had a big influence on the question: what do you really think of it? In the end, it did turn out well. You probably lack focus or there are other things on your mind that make it difficult to focus.
How do you know you haven’t thrown away any pearls?
‘You never know. I don’t think so. We didn’t throw away much. We almost didn’t put the Tokyo song (Tokyo Music Experience) on the record. We thought it was more of a real single and that’s why it was hard to find a place for it on the album. It turned out that the song added an ingredient to the album that it needed. Now I think it’s one of the strengths of the album, because it brings diversity.