Ratboys are a band that started at Freshman orientation at a notable university in South Bend, Indiana. Lead singer Julia Steiner came in from Kentucky where she’d listened to music without a music community surrounding her. Then she met soon-to-be Ratboys guitarist Dave Sagan, a kid from the south suburbs of Chicago, who had played in bands in high school and went to shows all the time. “I just didn’t know that world existed,” Steiner told me over the phone. “And so when I met Dave, he kind of showed me this whole community and this whole like always this show space that I wasn’t familiar with.”
Because Dave was doing a five-year architecture program Julia graduated first and chose to move to Chicago to be a part of that music community she’d heard about. “We were just kind of in and around the city and in the vibrant music community in Chicago. It’s a very welcoming scene. And we felt really at home there,” she said.
At first Julia only had an acoustic guitar, but over the past ten years in Chicago, Ratboys have grown tremendously. They added Sean Neumann on bass. At the time he didn’t even know how to play bass, but they liked hanging out with him so much they asked him to learn for the band and he agreed. On drums they brought in Chicago DIY legend Marcus Nuccio, who carries several songs on The Window including the joyous on-ramp at the opening of “It’s Alive.” “He’s a very lyrical drummer. He writes parts that are almost hooks in themselves,” Steiner says. Also, Julia finally bought that electric guitar.
On this album, The Window, Ratboys also recruited one of most sought after producers in indie rock, Chris Walla. Walla produced breakthrough records like The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, Tegan and Sara’s The Con, and both Transatlanticism and Plans for his former band, Death Cab For Cutie. Walla’s touch on The Window maximizes the ten years of Ratboys coming together to make the transformative album of their career. It’s earthy and comforting. It accomplishes big moments without sounding like it’s trying too hard. Moments soar, moments wander, moments come back to earth and settle in.
Below, Ratboys lead singer Julia Steiner shares some thoughts on The Window, WNXP’s Record of the Week
On the story of “The Window”
So basically in 2020, my grandmother had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for a while and at the time was living in a nursing home whose staff called my mom and said, “Hey, you might want to come, you know, see her. She’s not doing so hot.” My grandpa arrived at the center where my grandma was living and wasn’t able, or, wasn’t allowed to go inside to speak with her and say goodbye.
This was on the first floor of the building. But he was able to kind of speak with her through this open window and have their final conversation. He told her everything he wanted to tell her and then she waved goodbye.
It’s not a unique story, you know? It’s devastating to lose someone you love, especially someone you’ve been married to for five decades. I think my grandpa felt so grateful also to have the opportunity to say goodbye, even in that kind of interrupted context. It was so powerful for them.
On the contributions of producer Chris Walla
We didn’t go into the studio really with any vocal harmonies written. Usually I try to get those all figured out ahead of time just to not waste time. But we had the luxury of time in the studio on this go-around. So Chris and Sean and I really spent a lot of time ironing out the vocal harmonies. On this song “Morning Zoo,” one of my favorites was the very last chorus. All four of us sing together This “How looooong” harmony. It’s held out over the length of the chorus. Chris had this idea was that we should kind of sing as if we were like, tired, early morning commuters on the subway. He called it our “commuter choir moment.”
He brings this intangible perspective to a song. He has great ideas and also has really unique ways to frame those ideas to get a certain sound.
On “Black Earth, WI”
So in 2019 I had the best birthday ever. That day, Dave and I went on a road trip up to the House on the Rock.
For anyone who doesn’t know, The House on the Rock is kind of like a hoarder situation. It’s this deceased man’s, like, vast collections of stuff. All in this Frank Lloyd Wright-ish house that sits on top of a rock. There is a substantial collection of animatronic orchestras. It’s so weird and truly worth going to. I can’t recommend it enough.
On the way we passed through Black Earth, Wisconsin and just I was extremely struck by that place name. And it’s a beautiful part of the country. I have so many fond memories of driving the backroads through southern Wisconsin. It felt like a cool place to kind of memorialize in my memory.
The drum and bass groove, which is so locked in together, is the foundation for Dave’s guitar solo in this song. My main goal with the song is truly to just stay out of the way and let them shine. So it’s really cool.
We didn’t even really think of it as like a potential song for the album. It was more just like a jam that we enjoyed playing. Eventually we kind of fell into this structure. Even though it might sound pretty meandering, it’s pretty like patterned out. It kind of just came together over the course of many weeks and months of just tinkering and jamming and, and not really worrying about a deadline, you know?