E.VAX: The Cabbages Interview
The Ratatat member and hip-hop producer discusses his eponymous new solo album and working with Kanye West.
Producer Evan Mast saw his career soar as half of Brooklyn electro-rock duo Ratatat, but his musical journey began as E.VAX. That moniker first appeared on a pair of singles prior to 2001's Parking Lot Music, a glitchy yet melodic solo album of electronic music with a few instrumental hip-hop nods. Now, 20 years after that under-appreciated debut, he returns almost unexpectedly with an eponymous full-length follow-up that speaks to his subsequent and more recent work producing for rappers such as Jay-Z, Nas, and Kanye West while still adhering to his own unique artistic vision.
I think I bought Parking Lot Music on CD 20 years ago at Other Music in the East Village. As somebody who goes back to that first E.VAX record, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about it.
Well, that's cool. It's surprising that you brought that one up. Not too many people that still remember that one. It's funny that you bought it at Other Music too; I think probably half of the copies of that record that were sold were sold from Other Music. But yeah, it was a long time ago. I guess I was right out of college. I may have even started working on that record when I was still in college. I was kinda just getting into electronic music and was always trying to find more melodic stuff. But there weren't really any artists, or very few artists, that were getting as melodic with it as I wanted them to. I was super into Aphex Twin, and he would always have two or three songs on an album that were more on the melodic side and then a lot of more aggressive stuff. So, I was trying to make the record that I wanted to hear, basically, which was something that was more focused on melody and those kinds of moods.
Back then, I came at it from the perspective of someone who liked what was happening with Warp Records and Schematic, labels like that. But ahead of this conversation, I went back to the record and there's literally a song on there called "S.Carter." The hip-hop influence is quite present–and somewhat prescient in retrospect.
Yeah, that was definitely a Jay-Z reference. I was super into Jay-Z at that time. But music has changed so much since then. The idea of there being any sort of crossover between, like, the Warp Records world and that whole genre of music and the hip-hop world–there was nothing happening that was linking those two worlds at that time. It really didn't happen for another 10 years after that or something. So, naming a song after Jay-Z on that type of album was a little inside joke. But I did genuinely love that music, hip-hop and electronic music. It's kinda interesting now. There's nothing shocking you can do with crossing genre barriers anymore. Everybody uses everything. And even like so much of the hip-hop that's on the radio now, it's basically just ambient electronic music some 808 sounds over it.
Oh yeah. Sometimes I'll hear a single with production that would have been, in 1999 terms, this completely uncommercial and radical thing. And now it's on the Billboard Hot 100. It's huge.
I guess that's just the way music goes. That's the history of music; something that's cutting edge one day becomes oldies a few decades later. Something that's offending all the parents, a couple of decades later, is something they play at weddings.
So what led you to follow up Parking Lot Music after all these years?
Basically, I just had time to develop it, really. Ratatat was so consuming for so many years. I was always making songs on my own throughout that whole time period. And periodically I would get motivated to try and put a release together. Then something would happen and we'd have another tour unexpectedly or some opportunity would come up with Ratatat and I would just shift my focus there. It required so much time and energy on my part that I just never managed to get the E.VAX stuff going at the same time. So, the last few years, kind of taking a break from all that, I had a lot more opportunity to not only do the E.VAX stuff, but to do a lot of production for other artists, just expand on all of these projects that I hadn't been able to do before.
I was always making songs. I had this massive library of unreleased music and, every once in a while, I'd dig through it and see what was in there. I slowly started to piece something together that felt cohesive and started writing new songs to fill in the gaps. What ended up happening was all the old material, for the most part, got pushed out and I ended up writing mostly new stuff. I finished that about a year ago.
You were initially writing this new album in Brooklyn and then you finished it in Montana. What were you able to accomplish in Montana that you weren't able to complete during your time in Brooklyn?
The time in Brooklyn, a lot of it was the peak pandemic lockdown period. It was just such a bizarre time to be in New York. It got so eerily quiet. The walk to my studio is about a mile and normally I'd pass hundreds of people on that walk. And during that time, it was like, you might see like two people. It just felt very strange. I mean, it was such a strange time for everyone. But I got into a rhythm for a couple of months where I was just going into the studio all day, trying to crank through ideas as quickly as possible. Often I would start with a drum beat and then I might write like five different ideas over the same drums.
It's easy for me to get judgmental while I'm working on music and dismiss things. So I was trying to forego that part of the process, make stuff quickly and not decide what was good or bad, and then set it aside and come back to it a few months later with fresh ears. Then my girlfriend and I ended up going out to Montana to stay on a friend's property there with 12 other friends. We had a little COVID bubble going. It was great. It was in the most beautiful spot, like 40 minutes outside Bozeman and the mountains. Everybody who was there was a visual artist on some level. Everybody's working on these sculptures and paintings and prints throughout the day, and then we'd get together and have dinner at night. Super fun. I ended up setting up a makeshift studio in my friend's art gallery out there. And then it was kind of like returning to the songs I'd started in New York and figuring out which ones had potential and polishing them. It was a really good place to do that, because there were so many other people motivated and working on their projects that it made me feel like I needed to put the same level of work into what I was doing. Everybody encouraged each other...
Having that community, that's a big boost whenever you're working on something. The pandemic ended up being so isolating, obviously, for so many people. My practice typically is kind of isolated. Most of the time I'm in my studio working alone, unless I'm producing for somebody else. I'm pretty used to spending a lot of hours by myself working on music. And then oddly during the pandemic, I ended up in a situation where I was way more social than I am in my normal life. I was having these big group dinners every single night and seeing lots of friends. So it was a backwards effect for me.
Listening to the new record, there are these decidedly non-Western elements and attributes throughout. It even goes into the song titles like "Kolkata" and "Manila." What is it that specifically drew you to those themes?
Well, I've really been into traveling for a long time. Doing all the touring with Ratatat even boosted that more. We went to all these really incredible places and generally didn't have time to see them, just the inside of a nightclub for a day or whatever. It planted this thing in me, all these places I wanted to go back to and explore. I've always really been drawn to the feeling of being an alien in a foreign place, not understanding the language and the characters, and the sense of freedom that that brings.
Then a couple of years ago, after a trip to China, I started trying to learn to speak Mandarin. I got into using language learning apps to link up with people in China who were trying to learn English. You end up having these like broken conversations where neither one of you speaks very clearly. I got interested in the sort of errors that people make when they're learning a language. You can skirt some of the niceties. People end up being more honest, or they can accidentally say something that's more true than what they intended to say. That was something that I was trying to bring into the music. In the same way, I'd go into the studio and I would try to improvise everything or work with tools that I wasn't accustomed to, to try and get at something that felt more sincere, to bypass all the brain's processes that usually happen where I talk myself into or out of an idea.
One of my favorites on the album is "Koko," which has this almost RZA-esque quality to it, albeit with your sonic sensibility. It's definitely one of the more hip-hop sounding tracks on the record. Can you tell me a bit more about how that song specifically came together?
I definitely agree there's a sort of RZA sound to it. I'm huge fan of his, obviously, so that was knowingly there. The beginning of the song and the more RZA sounding part came together at different times. I found a way to match them together after the fact. Each song really becomes its own world, and when you can find a way to bridge one into the next, or even button them up against each other and create an interesting conflict, I'm always happy when those things happen. I did a bunch of takes on different instruments and just kept throwing different things at it. For a lot of the songs on the album, that was the process. I would do a lot of improvising and then go through and look for bits and pieces that felt right. It's sort of like learning to develop this muscle of knowing when something feels right or when it doesn't. Not in a music theory sort of way, but on some gut level to be able to recognize when something is saying something to you or when it isn't.
I started thinking a lot about that approach to music after working on hip-hop stuff with artists that were always freestyling lyrics, particularly working with Kanye. He doesn't have a music theory [background]. Neither do I. He's able to think about things on a conceptual level or react to stuff on a gut level and have an innate sense of knowing. Like, every one else in the room might hate this word, this line, or this little piece of melody, but he seems to have an innate sense of knowing when something has potential to be something great.
Working with Kanye, who also isn't coming from a music theory background, is it easier to communicate thoughts and ideas with one another, or is it more like learning a new language with somebody were you find that common ground?
It's a little bit of both. The way I work is super different than the way somebody like Kanye works. But, then again, it's pretty different from the way somebody with a lot of music theory works too. I guess everybody is sort of in their own place with it. Whenever you're collaborating with somebody else, you have to decide where the shared language is. Like, I can sit down at a piano and play chords and write at a keyboard and write on a guitar and all that. I was working with a guy recently. I'd play him something I was working on, and he was like, oh, it's interesting. You went from the three chord to the minor fifth and just go on like talking numbers and stuff. I was like, dude, I have no idea what you're talking about...
I think there's just like a back and forth all the time. Like, the more I learn about and get comfortable playing piano, or I learn about how to make chord progressions that work, you can use those tools, but you don't have to learn it so well that you don't have to think about it. It just has to be somewhere in the back of your brain. Whenever you start to actively try and think your way through, like, I'm playing the C major, what could I possibly play next? Well, according to theory, this would work. I feel like as soon as I get into that type of thinking, I might as well just give up. The song's not going to be fun to listen to.
With Donda, the most recent Kanye album, the general public got three distinct opportunities to hear pre-release versions of the album beforehand, in very large public settings and streaming live online. As someone who has a number of credits on the record, what was it like to have your work heard before the quote-unquote final product was out? Did that made you uncomfortable or self-conscious?
I wouldn't say it troubled me. It was exciting, for sure. I mean, you really had no idea what was going to happen. We were just working and then we heard there was going to be a listening party. But up until the moment it happened, we really didn't even know what songs were going to get played or what versions of these songs going to get played. He was definitely keeping us on our toes too. It was exciting more than anything. I think Kanye is going to do what Kanye is going to do. So you can't get too invested in like, oh, I really want this version of this song to get on the album. 'Cause it very likely won't. The song that you love the most might never end up coming out at all. I enjoyed the experience so much and I got so much out of the experience, but I didn't get too attached to that type of thing. It was more like a period of time where I can be here and be learning from Kanye and from all the other collaborators. That's the value for me.
Something of interest to the readers of this publication is your work with Despot, particularly your production presence on "Look Alive" off Definitive Jux Presents IV. Is there anything you can recall about working on that track as well as working later on "House Of Bricks" with him?
"Look Alive" was a beat I had made. Ratatat did a couple of remix mixtapes, where I was just taking rap acapellas and making new beats to them. I made that beat initially to a Beanie Sigel acapella. I can't remember which song it was. Despot liked the beat, so we kind of reworked it for him. "House Of Bricks" came a couple of years later. We've made so many other songs in between, like perpetually working on this album that may or may not ever see the light of day. There's been a lot of other tracks that happened in the meantime. I mean, I see him all the time too. We're good friends, so we hang out a lot. He still asks for beats now and again. He'd start telling me he was writing stuff even, though he hasn't released any tracks in years at this point...
The last time he performed, as far as I know, was at Madison Square Garden. I was deejaying for him at the show. We were opening for Vampire Weekend, sort of an odd pairing to begin with. Yeah, he's like the most successful rapper who never puts out music.
'E.VAX' is out now and available wherever music is streamed or sold.