Artist Spotlight: Ratboys

    Ratboys started out when Julia Steiner and David Sagan met as freshmen at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Having relocated to Chicago in 2015, the band released its debut album, AOID, via Topshelf Records, following up with 2017’s GN and 2020’s Printer’s Devil. The latter marked the first time Ratboys’ current lineup – rounded out by bassist Sean Neumann and drummer Marcus Nuccio – wrote an album collaboratively from start to finish, though the entirety of their first headline tour was then cancelled due to COVID. Celebrating their 10th anniversary, Ratboys put out Happy Birthday, Ratboy!, which featured re-recordings of several early songs, in 2021. For their remarkable new album The Window, out Friday, the band recruited producer Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie), who helped realize the widescreen ambition of their tenderly infectious and heartfelt brand of so-called “post-country.” Though it deals with themes of grief and isolation, the music’s joyful aliveness radiates through not only the band’s tight performances but Steiner’s lyrics, whose unflinching honesty and immediacy spins the white noise of confusion into pure love. “I love this feeling,” she sings as she looks back on the band’s early days on ‘I Want You (2010)’. “Burning all my blank CDs never meant so much to me.” In the present, it somehow still feels like the start of forever.

    We caught up with Ratboys’ Julia Steiner for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about emotional directness, the process behind The Window, working with Chris Walla, and more.

    Have you thought about how the arrangements on The Window might have shaped up if you’d been able to tour through the pandemic? Apart from the timing and practical side of it, do you think the energy might have been different?

    We’ve never had the opportunity to road-test a bunch of new songs. It’s always exciting to have one or two in your pocket that you can play for unsuspecting fans, but the timing has never quite worked out for us in that way, where we tour right before we hit the studio or something. I think not touring kind of helped in an odd way, just because we had so much time to workshop them at home. We were very lucky that we practiced in the basement of the house where Dave and I live, and it’s allowed us to have a lot of flexibility and a lot of time to workshop things and get together and just jam very openly, without a time deadline or without pressure to learn something by a tour coming up.

    We played a few of the songs coming out of the studio on that Europe tour last year, and it would have been interesting – I don’t know going into the studio if I realized how much the song ‘The Window’ would resonate with people, or how that arrangement we were working on was more solid than I realized. When we went into the studio, I personally was kinda like, “It’s good,” but I wasn’t like, “This is awesome.” Going on tour playing that song live after we recorded it, it was kind of apparent every day that people were enjoying it, but also getting more out of it and that the arrangement we had come up with was working. It would have been cool to maybe play that one a few times before the studio, just to get even more confidence for myself personally.

    What made it apparent? What specifically did you realize people were resonating with?

    I think it has a lot to do with the lyrics and the thematic content of the song. It deals with this unique, strange situation of someone, in this case my grandpa, saying goodbye to a loved one, in this case my grandma, through a window. Not being able to be there in person, having this strange disconnect that you can’t control, a physical limitation in that way. It’s on the surface of sad story, but also captures some of the strange reality of the world we’re living in at the time. There’s something really intangible – I don’t know how to really talk about it, but when you’re on stage, it’s really easy to perceive the energy in the room. During that song and after, you could just feel that people were paying attention, and that there was some sort of connection happening between us and the audience. That was exciting to pick up on because I wasn’t sure how it would go over.

    Did going back to some of your earliest songs with Happy Birthday, Ratboy affect you personally or creatively in a way that comes through on The Window?

    That’s a good question, I haven’t really thought about how those two records are connected. The cool thing about Happy Birthday, Ratboy is that we recorded a lot of it at home because we were in lockdown and not able to leave our house for a while. We we went into a friend’s studio – it’s kind of a great mix of a DIY space and a wonderful functioning studio with nice gear. We went in there to do the drums and the bass and some of the guitars and vocals, but a lot of it we recorded at home. I found that to be a really cool way to reconnect with the original recordings, because we were obviously recording that all at home, in my dorm room, as it were. It was a cool way to connect with the whole reason for doing the project. But also, it was a great way to get comfortable in our basement and just keep figuring out how to record down here and get better at demoing. We ended up recording a lot of our practices for The Window down here, and Dave got pretty adept at how to mic our instruments in this space. It kind of solidified this space in our house as our creative hub. I’m not sure musically how much those two records feed into each other, just because the songs on Happy Birthday, Ratboy are so much older and they were already finished for a while, but definitely the fun of experimenting and trying things without much of a time deadline for Happy Birthday, Ratboy was a great experience that led into our continued experience of writing The Window at home.

    I definitely feel that the songwriting on The Window is grounded in the present, but ‘I Want You (Fall 2010)’ stands out because it’s clearly reflecting on the past. I just don’t know how far it dates back, if there were scraps of it written a long time ago or if it’s all in retrospect.

    That song, oddly enough, was actually the newest one. We wrote ittwo months before we went into the studio, whereas we started working on some of the ones two years before. I’m just very fond of that time in my life and my personal history and relationship history. I came up with the chorus first for that song, and the whole “I want you” lyrics just came out. I was like, it’d be cool to write just a straight-ahead love song – no complications, no worries, just a love song. I hadn’t really done that as intentionally. Some of the songs in this record, my goal was to really just be as clear as possible and very direct. I’d done that with ‘The Window’, so I was like, maybe I could try to write as direct a love song as possible about that time and those memories. We went into the studio really fresh on that one, and it was fun to figure it out while we were in there because we didn’t have a lot of the parts figured out for that song.

    What I love about that directness is that it doesn’t feel like a way of masking vulnerability. I’m taking the line out of context, but “I’m not gonna pick my brain apart” on ‘Making Noise for the Ones You Love’ – that feels to me almost ironic, because not picking your brain apart lyrically ends up revealing more on an emotional level. Do you feel like that approach brought you closer to what you really wanted to say?

    Totally. It’s a win-win for me, because that’s definitely an outcome, what you just mentioned. It allowed me to be more honest and more vulnerable and more real with my perspective and what I’m trying to say. That song specifically, ‘Making Noise’, definitely was kind of the scariest one for me, just because it is so raw and I’m being so open. At the same time, the lyrics are very open-ended, and I hope that people can put their own story on top of it and not even think about what I’m gesturing toward. But it’s exciting to be so vulnerable in the context of a loud rock song, being here with my bandmates and truly making noise for the ones we love. But it was also a win-win in the sense that it was a songwriting challenge for me. In the past, I have kind of given into my indulgent instincts to write a different set of lyrics for every chorus or write another verse when maybe it’s not necessary. I wanted to try to be a little bit more concise in some of these songs. Sometimes less is more, and you can really get a lot more across with either a simple line or fewer words than you might think. And it’s something I’m still trying to do, just having more compact presentation. If you can really get a lot across in 8 lines or whatever, then you’re winning.

    I wanted to ask about ‘Morning Zoo’, which of all the singles you’ve put out is probably the one with the most country flair. What was it like to lean into that in the context of a record as expansive as The Window?

    Going into the studio, our demo for ‘Morning Zoo’ was pretty bare-bones. We had the structure, my chords, the bass drum idea, and then the lyrics, but we knew that this one was a blank canvas to add ideas and textures. That was why we were so grateful that we had not only this long amount of time in the studio – we had 24 days to work – but also, we were working with Chris Walla, who is just a textural guru in the studio. We were excited to see what ideas he might have or where his instincts would take us to. It was interesting that Dave’s – I saw someone call it “tumbling” – guitar riff throughout the song really was a north star for us.

    What ended up being the violin part, which was played by Abby Gundersen, who’s just an amazing musician, we originally were thinking maybe that should be horns, but then we found out Abby was available and it became clear that having it be a violin or fiddle would sound even cooler. Mike Vernon Davis, who also works at the studio and is an absolute wizard, came in and very generously laid down the keys, and the colors of the chords that he chose were like so dreamy – they reminded us of Bruce Hornsby, who’s one of our favorite musicians and piano players. It’s one of those studio experiences where you’re like, “This is what I always dreamed would happen.” This person would just drop in like a balloon and completely transform the song, and we just sit back and watch it happen.

    What excited you the most about the idea of working with Chris Walla, and what excites you now listening to his influence on the record?

    It’s hard to pinpoint exactly specifically what excited us going into it because we just had this outside vision of Chris that was so mythical. We all grew up listening to Death Cab for Cutie, that was one of my first entry points into indie rock music. There’s so many people my age who had the same experience – I watched The OC as a young child, and Death Cab featured prominently on that show. That was a massive pivotal moment in my life of discovering this new genre of music and all these new bands, and very quickly discovered that Chris was the man behind the curtain with their recordings. He had always been this studio hero of ours, so when we were able to make contact with him, and when he was interested in working with us, it was the coolest, most surreal, happiest email to receive.

    There’s that saying, “Never meet your heroes,” so we were mentally prepared for like, “What if we don’t jive in person? What if our workflow is different?” I wasn’t anticipating these things happening, but in the back of my mind, I was allowing space for a worst-case scenario. But the best thing happened where we got to Seattle and turns out Chris is an absolute lovely person to spend time with – not just in the studio, but anywhere. We have a lot of the same taste in music and a lot of the same instincts – like love of routine in a certain way, and appreciating the sunset, and the smell of the trees in the morning – and we immediately clicked in a way that I didn’t want to get my hopes up to think might happen, but it did. We were excited to work with him from a musical standpoint, and now, looking back on our time in Seattle, we are obviously so thrilled with the results that we were able to achieve together –  but also the interpersonal connection and experience we had being in the same places for a month was really powerful and really cemented my love of making music and my sonic curiosity.

    How did you feel when you laid down ‘Black Earth, WI’? Did you have a strong sense of how it was going to stretch out?

    No, I didn’t have a strong sense of how long it would stretch out. I originally wrote that song, the verses and choruses – anywhere there’s vocals before the guitar solo was a chunk of a song that I was working on. I was very passively working on it for a couple of years, most of 2019, and then I would try to wrap it in a bow and finish it and it just never felt right. We we did a demo trip up in Michigan in 2020, just the four of us, and that was really fun. We kind of started to jam on it up there, and then it really took in the basement that next year. But we weren’t even really actively working on it as a song – in my memory it was a way to kind of let off some steam and get in tune with one another, almost like a warm up.

    At least the second half of 2021, we were sending our practice recordings to Chris to workshop the songs together, and we didn’t end up sending ‘Black Part’ to him until pretty late in the game. But he liked it and encouraged us to keep working on it, so we went into it then with a more intentional idea of figuring out the structure and how long it should be. It kind of just happened very naturally. Marcus suggested adding another vocal part to wrap it up at the end, so that was the very last thing I wrote for the record.

    You asked about how it felt to lay it down – we did two takes of it. We knew we could only fit three takes onto a reel of tape, so after take two, we sat down and were like, “We think we might have something good.” I was just befuddled. It’s one of those songs where even still, when I listen back to, I’m like, “Oh my god, oh my god, I hope something doesn’t go wrong.” But it never does. I’m just very grateful that that worked out it. Dave had some sort of magic in his fingers that afternoon.

    The cover for the album this wonderful, really photorealistic painting by Jennifer Cronin. What was the collaboration like, and how do think it frames the title and the motifs around the album?

    I’ve been a huge fan of Jen’s art for years now, and you nailed her style – it’s just photorealistic to a T. It’s extremely surreal in the way that it’s so photorealistic, just because you don’t realize that it’s a painting necessarily. It’s truly a very unique style that I haven’t really seen elsewhere. I approached her about commissioning two paintings for the record, because she did the front and back covers. The original idea was to have the window be the subject of the painting rather than a person, and to have this amorphous, indistinct, colorful presence within the room, and jive with the feeling of looking for a presence of someone who’s not there anymore, someone that’s left at one point or another – we wanted to leave it kind of open-ended.

    She and I had a really wonderful conversation just about themes of the record, and specifically of the title track. It really resonated with her, just these themes of nostalgia and memory, strange loss and grief and place. She likes to take her own reference photos for her paintings, and she was able to go back to her childhood home and take the photo of the album cover that she ended up painting, so there was a personal connection for her as well. The back cover is the reverse perspective, it’s from in inside the room looking out. She just nailed it. It’s hard for me to describe or even really understand, but I feel the emotions of the music when I look at the painting. It just fit perfectly for me.

    Did that conversation reveal something to you or put the album into context in a new way?

    I think it just made me realize that these are universal themes that we’re touching on and that there’s a real potential there to reach people, connect with people’s stories through the music, and also through the visual presentation of it. I’m not sure if it really illuminated something new in my experience, but it was just wonderful to talk about these things openly with a friend and to hear that it meant something to her.

    Could you share one thing that inspires you about each member of the band?

    It’s hard to pick one thing. These are like my brothers, I love them deeply. Starting off with Marcus, our drummer, he has this sort of easy confidence in the way he approaches the world. He knows who he is, he knows what he brings to the table, what he’s capable of, and knows what he likes. It’s inspiring to just watch him go through the world and feel so self-assured. That that kind of extends to all of us – I feel more confident playing with him than I have with anyone else. He’s very dependable, and it’s just this feeling of calm reassurance that you know things are gonna go great if he is behind the kit.

    Sean is a very old friend, he plays bass. He’s extremely funny. I think it’s important to have those people in your life who are, like, sneaky funny – you might not know upon meeting them for the first time just how witty and fast, and I love that about him. Two things – he’s also extremely tough, physically and mentally. He has the highest pain tolerance. He’s had to deal with chronic illness on the road for many years, and you wouldn’t know without someone telling you. He’s just an extremely resilient individual. I always admire that, as someone myself who has a very low pain tolerance and is kind of a baby a lot of the time. [laughs] I always look to Sean for inspiration on that front.

    I mean, Dave is my best friend, my life partner. One thing about Dave that I love is – well, two things – musically, he’s very creative. He can have a part for a song but play it slightly differently each time. He has that ability to improvise or make something feel fresh, even if he’s played it a million times. I don’t find that comes naturally for me, so I look to him for inspiration in that regard. And then, he’s the kind of person that can make friends wherever he goes. Dave makes friends so fast and has this very inviting, authentic demeanor that I think allows people in and helps people feel comfortable right away. He’s really good at making people feel comfortable and safe, and I love that about him.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Ratboys’ The Window is out August 25 via Topshelf.

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