Rats On Rafts Discuss Their Difficult Yet Incredible Third Album | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, February 27th, 2021  

Rats On Rafts Discuss Their Difficult Yet Incredible Third Album

Founder member David Fagan talks new music, lockdown and the impact of Brexit on touring in the future

Feb 15, 2021 Photography by Jasmijn Slegh Web Exclusive
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Rotterdam-based four-piece Rats On RaftsDavid Fagan, Arnoud Verheul, Natasha Van Waardenburg, and Mathjis Burglerhave just released their most definitive collection of songs to date and one of 2021's finest albums thus far.

Entitled Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs a Net of Rabbit Paths, it's a sprawling opus that takes the form of a mythical concept album inspired by similar artifacts from the 1960s and 1970s (think The Pretty Things' SF Sorrow or An Electrical Storm by White Noise as starting points, only updated for the 21st century via punk's DIY philosophy). Rats On Rafts have made the record they've been threatening to for some time and one that marks a stark progression from its predecessor (2015's Tape Hiss). 

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic making face-to-face interviews nigh on impossible, Under the Radar is at the behest of modern technology. On the other end of the telephone is founder member David Fagan. It's a big day for Fagan and the band. Excerpts From Chapter 3... finally came out this morning. Five years of hard toil and graft culminating in a record everyone associated with the band and their label Fire Records is immensely proud of.

For the next hour, Fagan and yours truly will discuss the making of Rats On Rafts, incredible new album, the calamitous Brexit that's threatening the touring industry for musicians, inimitable UK journalist, and fellow Rotterdam inhabitant Richard Foster, along with our respective cities and associated local breweries and alehouses.

Dom Gourlay (Under the Radar): Rats On Rafts' long awaited and eagerly anticipated third album Excerpts From Chapter 3: The Mind Runs a Net of Rabbit Paths just came out. It's arguably the band's finest collection to date and a massive progression from its predecessor Tape Hiss in many ways.

David Fagan: Definitely. Not just in sound but also from a composition point of view too. We forced ourselves to go upwards in that sense.

When did you first start writing the songs for Excerpts From Chapter 3?

As soon as we finished Tape Hiss, we started writing new material. But a lot of things happened along the way which meant we had to constantly stop then start again. When Tape Hiss came out, we did a lot of touring. Then we had a few line-up changes so ended up rehearsing loads as we wanted to keep the quality of the live shows at a maximum level. After that we recorded a record with De Kift, which came out in 2016. We played with them at Eurosonic in 2017 and were meant to play with them at Glastonbury too, but they couldn't make it.

I remember the Glastonbury set on the William's Green stage in 2017. Thousands of people headed to the Pyramid Stage to watch a speech from Labour politician Jeremy Corbyn but a bunch of us watched your set instead, which was one of the highlights of the weekend.

It was a strange one for us as everyone went to watch the politician yet we still had a great time. At the end of the day, I can understand why people would go and watch him, especially with the whole Brexit situation that was just starting to unfold back then.

Brexit is going to have a significant impact on both the UK and European music industries, particularly when it comes to touring. Has it forced Rats On Rafts to change their plans with regards to playing the UK again any time soon?

It's very worrying. I haven't been monitoring it that closely for a few weeks, but I've spoken to a few UK bands and none of them seem to know what's going to happen or how things will play out. It sounds like they'll need work permits to play in Europe and we'll need them to play in the UK, but the exact details I don't know yet.

The UK government has made an absolute mess of everything since coming into power, from Brexit to the management of COVID-19 to the rise in unemployment and homeless numbers. So, I don't hold out much hope for them dealing very well with the visa situation for touring artists either.

I can imagine. What we see over here it sounds like a nightmare in the UK. When the Brexit thing happened, right wing politicians in the Netherlands tried to orchestrate a "Nexit" which quickly died a death. Brexit has divided the UK but I guess most people involved in music or travelling realised at an early stage it wasn't going to be beneficial for them. Even some of the smaller things are having a big effect such as postage, which is something I deal with every day. Not only has the price of postage and shipping gone up, but you also have to fill in a lot of forms as well. It will result in products becoming more expensive, which is a pity because we've previously sent a lot of orders to the UK. I don't see any advantages because everything is so international nowadays that you have to find common ground to work together and trade. It's like when we first had the Euro on the mainland and people complained about keeping our own currency to start with. But then as time's gone on, you soon realize it's actually quite handy to have the same currency as Germany or Spain or France so when you're travelling through those countries you don't have the hassle of having to change currencies.

What's most saddening about Brexit is I'm yet to meet a single leave voter that can give a viable reason for voting that way or tangible benefit of leaving without mentioning immigrants or resorting to nationalism.

That's what you get with most people that vote for right wing ideologies like Brexit. It's a universal thing. Brexiteers are the same people that support Trump. In Holland we've got right wing parties and they vote for the same kind of things. They all think Donald Trump is great and believe everything in the news is fake. They don't really say anything intelligent or that even makes sense. Usually, it comes down to something simple like a hatred of foreigners. That's one thing you keep hearing. That foreign people took their jobs, foreign people are ruining the country, all that kind of stuff.

The UK media are also complicit in promoting this right-wing agenda on behalf of the Conservative Party. There is no balance here.

It's a pity that so many people believe everything they're told without questioning any of it. We're quite lucky in the Netherlands that the media leans a little bit more towards the sane side! Would you say the big media outlets in the UK are controlled by the government and vice versa?

Definitely. The Rupert Murdoch empire has a lot to answer for in the UK. As does the BBC. The worrying thing is that despite passing 100,000 COVID related fatalities and now having the highest death rate per capita in the world, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are still at 42% in the opinion polls. It's a very scary time.

Didn't Boris Johnson say COVID-19 was a load of nonsense before catching it himself? People tend to forget that. Especially as the media made a big thing about him getting sick. It seems to have worked in his advantage.

Everything seems to be working to his advantage but again that's largely down to the media. Newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail regularly run with nationalist headlines like "If you don't like it here, go and live somewhere else!" that fuel the fire and only make the divide even bigger.

Which is nonsense because Brexit has closed the doors on that. It's also unfair to say to people that disagree with something while living in a country their entire lives, "Piss off if you don't agree with us." We will always have differences, so therefore need to find a way for everyone to fit into that or find a place. Right now, a lot of people feel excluded from the entire system in that sense and that's dangerous.

I remember the Miners Strike in the 1980s when I was growing up as my father was a miner and we lived in a small mining town. It caused a lot of divisions within communities, many of which have never healed. Yet I believe the divisions caused by Brexit are far wider reaching and potentially more damaging. It's baffling how a third of the UK electorate bought into something that's going to have a negative impact on their lives and children's futures.

From the perspective we're at in The Netherlands it feels like the UK has now become independent, so has to go through all the growing pains. But at the same time, it doesn't really make any sense why they've chosen to become independent. It must be a nightmare for you to live in. I hope it will become better and at some stage, the UK has a chance of re-joining the EU.

I'm hoping that happens too, but it certainly won't be the case under this Conservative government. So, I think it's probably fair to say things will get substantially worse before they get any better. A lot of people I know in bands are already bracing themselves for never being able to tour Europe again.

When we toured England for the first few times, we immediately noticed it was a lot harder over there than in Europe. From the perspective of getting a proper fee for a show to finding a good place to sleep or eat. When we get bands over to Holland from England for the first time, they're usually quite amazed that the promoter's sorted a sleeping place. They get proper meals and get paid a reasonable fee which covers their costs. Whereas in England it's a lot harder in that sense and I guess after Brexit it will become even worse. There are a lot of things we can't see at this stage because everything is closed due to COVID-19. Hopefully things will get sorted between each country with the work permits and visas so that once everywhere is open again, people can start moving immediately.

How's lockdown been for you? Has it stifled Rats On Rafts plans? How has the band adapted to working within COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines?

Today is the release day for our album, so normally that would be a good excuse to have a release party! The tradition with every album has been to play our first show of the tour in Rotterdam. We have shows scheduled for February but I really doubt they will go ahead. We have a strict lockdown in the Netherlands at the moment. All shops, pubs, anything that's not essential is closed. We have an evening curfew so have to be in for 9 p.m. That last rule is the one making it tough because we have our own practice place. A few years ago, we found this place we could rent so built our own studio from scratch. We recorded new album there, so when this all happened, we were already quite isolated working on that record and finishing stuff. We could keep going there and work, whereas now we have to be back home by 9 p.m. Usually, we'd work in the night time because people work in that same building during the day so we have to be careful with noise restrictions. That's affecting us and it's affected the release schedule for the album as well. There are a lot of people who've lost their jobs through this so I try to keep it all in perspective. It's been crap for us but at least the record's out so people can finally hear it.

Was it always your intention for Excerpts From Chapter 3 to become a concept album?

The idea at first was that it would be a concept album. We thought it would be interesting to have longer pieces of music blended together by smaller fragments. We also wanted to have pieces of music that would appear early on then return at a later stage only in a different form. Maybe slower or with different vocals. We had that as an idea in the back of our minds but it seemed a little bit suffocating so we dropped all that and just started to write songs. Eventually, we had a few of those parts and realised we were able to do what we wanted to do at the start. But we didn't want it to be one of those forced progressive records that sounds like somebody's thought about it far too long. It had to be spontaneous. When we had all the bits and pieces together at the end that's when we realised, we still had some sort of a concept.

What were the recurring themes that influenced the various concepts within the album?

We're big fans of records like SF Sorrow and Ogden's Nut Gone Flake. We've always been interested in that psychedelic era. We were listening to a lot of different stuff at that stage. One of the British records we listened to was An Electrical Storm by White Noise. That was a really interesting record sonically, and the songs are brilliant too. Another record we were listening to was Frank Zappa's We're Only In It For the Money, which I still love. Song Cycle by Van Dyke Parks was very important as was Smile era Beach Boys. A lot of psychedelic stuff was very important at that stage. It just naturally became the music we listened to on a daily basis. We had to see what we could do with that and make it sound modern rather than suddenly turn into a '60s covers band. We try to stay honest to our roots as well, because we also love to listen to lots of punk and post-punk records too. That's always been our main thing.

Were any of the songs on the new record in the live set prior to the first lockdown?

No, not really. We used to play one of the songs ("Fragments") with De Kift, usually during the encores at the end of the show. But that's about it. We had a lot of those songs kicking around but felt the arrangements weren't finished at that point. We played them occasionally at a show but would usually end up disappointed, which meant we'd end up going back and working on them again. We did that for a few years, certainly up to 2018. Then we played some of them again when we got the chance to tour Japan with Franz Ferdinand.

Are there any other songs that were written and demoed around the same time that didn't make it onto the album? If so, will they be revisited in the future?

Yes, certainly. We were working on three albums at the same time, which might sound strange. But we have lots of songs from the same period we really like that didn't fit with the ones on this record, so we're not sure what we'll do with those in the future. Once we can focus on playing and rehearsing again, we're going to start trying to find a place for those songs.

When the time comes to be able to play live again, will you be playing Excerpts From Chapter 3 in its entirety, or will the live set be a mix of all the band's back catalogue?

We have no intention of playing the old stuff anymore. We want to play this record and new stuff, so we really want to move forward in that sense. I always enjoy bands that take enormous risks. For example, one of the things I used to love about going to see The Fall was that they'd always play their new record even if it was a shit record. They'd just play the new songs then maybe thrown a couple of B-sides or obscure tracks. I always felt that was great because it's an honest energy. I can't imagine being in a band that just keeps playing the same songs over and over again. That's going to stop your development. At the same time, that doesn't mean I don't enjoy bands that play their back catalogue either. If I go and see a band like Echo and the Bunnymen whose set mostly consists of songs I've been listening to all my life, that's great too. But personally, I couldn't do that. I just want to move forward. It's easy for us because we've never had a hit anyway! I always think if you're a fan of a band and they've released a new record, go and see them when that record comes out because that's the best it will get. Don't moan when you didn't go and see them at the time then five years later, they aren't playing those any more. We used to get that a lot in Holland with our first record. When we were playing Tape Hiss, I always had at least one person come up to me after every show complaining that we hadn't played anything off the first record. Occasionally you'll go and see a band who've just released a new record and they play three songs off it then everything else in the set is old. Which immediately says to me they don't really like their new material.

That certainly suggests either a lack of confidence in themselves or a lack of confidence in their audience. Either way, it does defeat the object of releasing then touring a new album if you're not going to play anything off it.

Exactly. You have to be your own worst critic. You have to enjoy what you're doing because if you're just releasing something for the sake of it or someone else, you'll get found out.

Obviously with the pandemic showing little sign of abating it's probably difficult to make concrete plans, but what are Rats On Rafts hoping to be able to achieve for the rest of 2021?

At the moment we're looking to do some sessions. We had a session planned yesterday which unfortunately got cancelled because there's been a COVID-19 case in our area so a few of us have to self-isolate and stay inside. If things improve with the pandemic, we'd like to be able to do something either during or after the summer, and hopefully outside of Holland as well. We'd love to go back to the UK but it seems that might take a while.

You recently played a short live streamed set for Eurosonic Noorderslag (ESNS). Is live streaming something you'd consider doing regularly if the pandemic continues well into this year?

It's weird to be honest. I get it's only a temporary replacement for not being able to play live. I certainly don't think it's the future and I really hope that its just a phase. It's great to watch a session by a band and we've recorded them in the past when there's been an actual audience there. That's such a big difference, because playing in front of four cameras is just like a rehearsal to me.

What advice would you give a new band that's just starting out?

There are so many things you could tell people that would make sense. The most important thing would be to stay honest to what you're doing. Don't let someone disliking your music distract you into changing, because that very reason they dislike you could be the same one others like about your band. I often think people should look for the extremes and keep doing what they want to do instead of becoming mediocre.

www.ratsonrafts.com

www.ratsonrafts.bandcamp.com

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