As the August heat fried my brain and I tried to convince myself that September would come soon, with “cooler” days in store, there were a few things that brought me true solace. But as the month wore on, they fizzled away. I could only eat so many popsicles, drink so many Sonic Diet Cokes. Then, as the heat blistered and September approached with little to no breeze, I was given Ratboys’ new album, The Window. And finally, I had an oasis. Months later, I’m still going back for relief.
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I’ve always relished Ratboys, (as has Bernie Sanders). Their astute take on Midwestern indie rock feels like a tongue-in-cheek take on the Modest Mouse and Wilco alt radio hits I heard growing up — the grown-up, cooler cousin to those tracks that fit what I need now, as a somewhat adult. But with The Window, their fifth studio album as a band, the Chicago outfit truly shattered whatever ceiling, glass or otherwise, that might have been poised above us previously. And I say us, because as the listener, I learned and grew alongside them with this one. Traversing the grounds of genres outside of their bounds before, Ratboys play with folky melodies, pop hooks, and dip into the country landscape with twangy fiddles. Lyrically, The Window shifts gears, uncovering a deeply personal, raw solemnity that finds its rhythm seamlessly in the sea that is Ratboys’ new and uncharted soundscape. Wavering between uncomfortable to deeply comforting, it’s an incredibly tender album to keep on repeat, and certainly an album you’ll want to hear live — and luckily they’re on tour, playing new songs, right now. We sat down with lyricist and vocalist Julia Steiner to discuss where the “rat” came from, long songs, and Ken Burns.
Where did the name come from?
When I was 14, a bunch of my friends gave me the nickname “Ratboy.” It became a favorite inside joke of ours, and then when I started writing songs and recording solo stuff a couple years later, I kept the name. Eventually I met Dave [Sagan], and after we started recording together, he was cool with keeping the name. Eventually we added the “s” to appease another Ratboy in upstate New York, and the rest is history.
Your music has always been pretty descriptive of events going on in your actual lives, which is evident in lyricism, but in which ways does this show up in the soundscape of it all? What’s your process for writing? Do you intentionally look inward, or does this happen more organically?
I’d say it happens more organically. 99% of the time. The idea for a song will come about when I’m improvising on the guitar and singing gibberish, and then some melody or stream-of-consciousness lyric sticks out from the rest. Then I’ll cull it back and focus on figuring out a possible mood or meaning or perspective for the song based on that spontaneous melody or lyric. Almost all of our songs deal with relationships in my life and experiences I’ve had, I think just because that’s what feels the most natural to write about and reflect on. Sometimes it’s a fun challenge to write based on a prompt or to write about someone I’ve never met, just to get outside my own head a bit. Some of my favorite Ratboys songs fall into that category, like “Crossed that Line” and “Crying About the Planets.”
I’m fascinated by how your music seems to capture this feeling of “growing up,” unpacking time passage, and memories, painful and otherwise. It’s almost therapeutic, super personal, and feels very nostalgic. Over the last 10 years, your band has likely had to grow up as a group itself, in other ways. How would you describe that process, and in which ways has your work changed throughout it, and because of it, in the last decade, and what would you credit to those transitions?
I think we’re very fortunate because we’ve had a lot of time to slowly acclimate to the realities of life on the road and playing different types of shows and just continuing to make music throughout the ups and downs of life. Our growth has felt quite gradual at times, but I think that’s allowed us to keep a pretty grounded outlook on our day-to-day lives as a band and to set our sights on realistic goals. Even just making the transition from playing acoustic guitar onstage to playing electric guitar during the early years of the band felt like such a huge step forward to me. I feel like I learn to appreciate every milestone more and more the longer we keep doing this, and then looking back in the rearview mirror, it’s cool to see the places we’ve been able to go and the ways we’ve been able to expand our sound and surprise ourselves over the years.
Five years ago, you claimed your music to be “full of shakily proud unburdenings and fun imagination.” How would you describe it now?
I think someone from Rolling Stone said that actually! And it’s a such a cool compliment. Hopefully our music continues to capture that sentiment, and now I’d venture to say that the sonic character of our records is becoming more solidly self-assured and more adventurous.
Outside of personal experiences, what have you been most influenced by recently: on the internet, in the world, on the radio, on the road?
I love this question, because it’s true that so often something other than music or something in addition to music will serve as great inspiration to write a song or to get in that zone or just to get the mind moving. I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary Prohibition, and I’ve had such a great time doing a deep dive on that era of American history. Barbenheimer really blew my mind, too. It’s been a fun summer of historical and existential deep dives, which I don’t think I saw coming.
What’s your favorite and least favorite thing about touring? What are your must-have items on the road?
My favorite thing is definitely seeing old friends all over the world and meeting new people each time we go out. Must-have items for me are my sleep mask, earplugs, my BMO neck pillow, and a million packets of Emergen-C.
In which ways does Chicago show up in your music?
Chicago’s music scene is so welcoming and quite musically diverse. We came up playing on a lot of mixed-genre bills, and that was completely normal. The artist NNAMDÏ, who I consider a pillar of the Chicago music community, is completely genre-agnostic and fearless when it comes to making music that sounds however he wants it to in the moment, and I think we felt encouraged to explore different sounds and try new things early on just by playing shows with him and the many other bands here who love all different types of music. It’s a great and supportive place to be a band.
What’s your favorite track you’ve made, and why? What was the story behind it?
I think my favorite is “Black Earth, WI” just because of how it evolved over time with the involvement of our bassist Sean [Neumann] and drummer Marcus [Nuccio]. The song started out as a pretty normal and short verse-chorus idea, and it kept stalling out there when I worked on it alone. Once we started jamming on it with the band, though, it slowly started expanding each time we’d play it, and we’d get more comfortable and relax into a really satisfying arrangement. It happened so gradually and naturally. I know this sounds cheesy, but I just feel grateful to have been a part of something like that. And then everyone’s performance live on the floor in the studio, especially Dave’s guitar solo, just blew me away. Also, gotta say, I love a long song. I’m definitely a long song apologist.
While we can all argue that genre isn’t the most relevant concept, how would you describe your own music, if you had to put it in that kind of box, or if you want to create one for it, what would it be?
I truly have no idea! Maybe we could say “choose your own adventure indie”?
What have you been listening to?
This summer, a lot of Billy Joel and Frank Sinatra. Lord help me.