Ratboys are growing together

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Ratboys interview

Ratboys aren’t the band they once were. Back in their earliest incarnation in 2011 when they formed in South Bend, Indiana, they were barely even a band, comprising then Notre Dame students singer Julia Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan as a primarily acoustic duo. To hear the songs they released on their debut 2011 EP Ratboy is to hear a mere suggestion of what they’d become—lo-fi, stripped down sketches of future indie rock anthems—warm, charmingly DIY songs that carry more than a glimpse of their knack for crafting charged-up pop, delivered on a shoestring budget.

It wasn’t until around 2016, when they were introduced to a booking agent at a New York City show, opening for their drummer Marcus Nuccio’s other band, Pet Symmetry, that Steiner realized Ratboys were becoming something bigger than they had previously envisioned—even if she wasn’t sure if they were ready for it.

“[The booking agent] introduced himself to us, and I remember sheepishly going up to him and saying ‘hey, we don’t have a permanent drummer’,” she says via a Zoom call from the band’s Chicago basement home studio. “And they were like, ‘that’s fine, no problem.’ The fact that anyone wanted to invest their time with working with us was a big turning point for us.”

Seven years later—after a 10-year anniversary milestone and an opening slot for Senator Bernie Sanders during his 2020 presidential campaign—and Ratboys are a solidified, full-time four-piece band, having formally added Nuccio and bassist Sean Neumann as full time members. And with the release of their fourth album The Window via longtime label Topshelf, they establish themselves as much a cohesive and collaborative group in the studio as they are on stage. As the band expanded and built up steam over the years, fleshing out their songs into bigger arrangements with higher fidelity, Steiner and Sagan remained the core songwriting duo, their songs taking final form in the studio. With The Window, however, all four members of the group shaped the songs from the beginning, marking a new milestone in their journey.

The difference is immediately apparent in the finished product. Where past albums like Printer’s Devil showcased their ability to craft bright and immediate power pop songs with a blend of earnest reflection and wit. The Window finds Ratboys’ growth accelerating as both songwriters and a cohesive unit, with the four musicians locking into a rollicking alt-country choogle on “Morning Zoo” or stretching out into a dreamy, maximalist epic on “Black Earth, WI.” The songs themselves, Steiner says, aren’t necessarily more complicated, but the experience of bringing together everyone into the creative process early on allowed them to flourish in ways that their previous method of operation might not have allowed.

“Some of these songs are deceptively simple. I’m thinking of a song like ‘“’Morning Zoo,’ which is the second song on the record,” Steiner says. “It’s just verse-chorus, three times. It’s a typical song, and the combination of everyone playing very well and writing really solid parts and going into the studio to really experiment and add stuff, we just piled so much into that songs. I don’t think the songs were necessarily more interesting on their own, it’s just a product of having more time to work on them and having more heads in the room.”

When I hear (The Window), I mainly think of the people. The relationships I have with my bandmates and the way we were able to grow together.

The Window is also the first album that Ratboys recorded with Chris Walla, spending three weeks at the former Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and prolific producer’s Hall of Justice studio in Seattle—the longest stretch of time they’d ever spent in a recording session. The members of the band had expressed interesting in working with him after hearing his work on Foxing’s 2018 album Nearer My God, which Steiner calls their “maximalist masterpiece,” and his contributions to the record comprised both the nuts-and-bolts of more technical engineering expertise to a more “philosophical, intangible” approach to music that didn’t always take the shape of concrete directions or descriptions.

Walla and the members of Ratboys also allowed themselves the luxury of actually listening to music in the studio as both inspiration and points of reference, both introducing each other to new musical experiences as well as forming a bond in the studio over something as simple as listening to a song. And not always a song that would seem obvious based on the end result.

“There’s this video on Youtube, a performance from this band called Focus, a prog band from the ‘70s, and they were doing a TV appearance, and they only had 5 minutes, but they wanted to play their song ‘Hocus Pocus,’ which is seven minutes,” she says. “So instead of cutting out a part they just played it really fast. It’s the most badass shit ever. And the singer does a crazy yodel, a whistle solo through the gap in his teeth, a jazz flute comes out at some point. I don’t even know why we were watching it, but that was one of our all time favorite performances, so we watched that.

“(Walla) made space for us to talk about and listen to music in the studio, which we hadn’t had the luxury of spending time doing that before,” she adds. “Just as much as we enjoyed the quest of recording music, we enjoyed music appreciation and sharing our favorite songs together. I feel like that, whether it’s a direct consequence on the record or just how happy we were in the studio because we had the opportunity to share music, it definitely had an effect. He showed us the song ‘Hammond Song’ by the Roches when we were doing harmonies, for inspiration. He pulled up some Laurie Anderson videos, Sting, Sparks. All sorts of bands. There wasn’t a linear journey that I can remember, it was just like, if we thought of something, let’s check it out.”

The album also features some of the group’s most anguished and personal material. In particular, the title track is a heartbreaking song that reflects on the death of Steiner’s grandmother, who she wasn’t able to visit during her final days because of pandemic lockdown restrictions back in 2020. So she says goodbye the only way she can, through an open window: “We locked eyes and the window/Was open, felt the wind blow/I looked in and I felt you with me.”

When it comes to some of her more personal songwriting, Steiner admits that she doesn’t necessarily consider who’s listening or how they’ll receive it. But she also has a failsafe for ever letting it cut a little too close to the bone.

“I write an idea of a song, and I show it to Dave, who plays guitar and is my life partner, and if he has any reservations about it being too on the nose or too personal or too intense, I really take his suggestions to heart,” she says. “He’s the first filter. He’s definitely said, not with any of the songs on this record, ‘yeah, this might be a little too much.’ So there are songs that are probably never going to see the light of day.”

As much as The Window feels like a next-level moment for Ratboys on a creative level, Steiner tends to think of the album in different terms—less about perfecting an art (a goal that she says is still well ahead of them) than solidifying friendships and savoring the camaraderie that contributed to its creation. It sounds like a band growing stronger simply because the people in it grew closer.

“When I hear it, I mainly think of the people,” she says. “The relationships I have with my bandmates and the way we were able to grow together. I’m so close to it, but when I hear these songs I remember where I was when I wrote them, alone, and how proud I am that they grew and evolved over time.

“A song like ‘Black Earth, WI,’ I wrote the parts that had vocals, which is maybe 20 percent of the song, and over the course of many many weeks, it transformed into this huge thing,” she continues. “And that’s the perfect encapsulation of what we can do when we want to or when we put our minds to it. It makes me excited to know that we’re getting to that point that we’re capable of but didn’t have the chance to reach. We have a long way to go still, and I wake up every day thinking I’ll write my best song. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’ll keep trying.”

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