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When Rats on Rafts returned last year with new record, Excerpts from Chapter 3: The Mind Runs A Net of Rabbit Paths, much had changed. Band members had come and gone. (Only dual-pronged figureheads David Fagan (vox/guitar) and Arnoud Verheul (guitar) remained of Tape Hiss’ sophomore lineup from 2015.) Natasha Van Waardenburg (bass/vocals) came aboard in 2015, followed by Mathijs Burgler (drums) in 2018. Doortje Hiddema completed the lineup on keys last summer. Or, as Fagan humbly reasons, “adding a little bit of positive energy to four miserable people.”
Dialing in from his home in Rotterdam in a signature monochrome palette, frontman Fagan recalls how, even with the group format firmed up, the world remained in a state of flux. “All our tours got cancelled in Holland. In England. Everywhere. We had to think of a new way of getting the music to the people instead of playing live.” This fresh concept appeared in the form of Visions of Chapter 3, an immersive, multidisciplinary spectacle that reimagined the full extent of the record in a one-off performance recorded at Utrecht’s TivoliVredenburg, the venue that acts as the main hub for Le Guess Who? each November.
It's not the first time the band has tested themselves as creatives though. In 2016, they teamed up with Dutch underground brass ensemble De Kift, locking themselves up for a month to record a completely analogue record. For Fagan, it was important to push the boundaries of what artists could deliver during this hybrid period with Visions... “We thought if we're gonna do a live show, let's try and do something special. We'd done some sessions [but] I realised by the last one, we were playing the same four songs and it was like 'What am I doing? It felt a bit pointless.'”
Visions… calls on a whole collective of local exports from creative designer Jochen Lange to costume designer Eva Arends. Previous collaborators A Small Production Company led proceedings (they’re the team behind Rats on Rafts’ ‘A Trail of Fire and Wind’ and ‘Tokyo Music Experience’ videos) and, as Fagan shares, they were immediately drawn to the synergy of their previous projects together. “For each song, we wanted a different approach but we also wanted to have a narrative moving through. This abstract figure is based on the cover person of our record who doesn't have a face. It was like an empty canvas.”
The rough outline of Rats on Rafts formed back in 2005 against the backdrop of Rotterdam’s industrial port. Despite being the second largest in Holland, Fagan believes the city has always been something of an outsider. For a group of musicians experiencing their teens with a playlist of English post-punk though (think the sonic textures of Bauhaus and primitive rhythms of The Fall), they too were often the outliers. “Growing up, a lot of people didn't like the same music we did. We've always been quite isolated. We're a bit weird, I suppose,” he finishes with a self-deprecating laugh.
It was only natural then that the band would find a home on British indie, Fire Records, famed for putting out those early Pulp albums, cult neo-psychedelia rockers Spaceman3 and one of the American underground’s most influential bands Pere Ubu. In fact, last year Fagan and the band covered the latter’s ‘Visions of the Moon’ which led to them performing alongside the avant garage group with their adaption of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. An innovative approach to music making that surely must’ve impacted on Rats on Rafts own ambitions for Visions… on stage? Fagan agrees. “What interests me has always been [Pere Ubu’s] abstract way of putting words to music and painting pictures in your brain.”
So last summer, propelled by Pere and while many other artists were dishing out lo-fi acoustic home recordings on Instagram Live, Rats on Rafts presented Visions… in the bellows of Pandora. Fagan begins listing out the cast members who’ll be coming together for its first and only public-facing debut this November. “We've got five in the band. The choir which will be probably six people. Then we've got three dancers. The instructor. There's Jaco who does the visuals. There’ll probably be someone for lighting. Our sound engineer Chris. We might have a second engineer. We'll also need somebody to do the production…” he trails off. Suffice to say, it’s not going to be an easy task. “Oh, I'm forgetting one thing. There's also the actors, of course, so that will be another five or six people!”
But then Le Guess Who? has always been about pushing boundaries and encouraging its artists to embrace the wild and experimental. The festival’s belief in his band is clearly hugely rewarding for Fagan. “For me, it's a big compliment that they want to host this show because that means that they find it challenging enough to be part of their programme.” Aware of the parallels with his own ambition as an artist, he adds with a wry smile. “Le Guess Who? is definitely a festival for people who want to be challenged.”
Catch Rats on Rafts one-off live performance of Visions of Chapter 3 (live) at Utecht’s Stadsschouwburg on Thursday 10 November. Pick up your day tickets for the festival here.
The group have just announced the release of 'Excerpts From Chapter 3 DELUXE', which will appear digitally on September 23, and as limited edition LP on the same day as their performance at Le Guess Who?. Pre-orders are available here.