EXCLUSIVE | Ratboys Find Their View
Watch the music video for "It's Alive!" and read our profile on the Chicago rock quartet below.Photos by Alexa Viscius Music Features Ratboys
On a humid Tuesday night at SXSW in Austin two months ago, Ratboys sat together at a picnic table next to Arlo’s—a vegan BBQ truck stationed in front of Cheer Up Charlie’s. It was almost midnight, as the clear-skied night cracked open and an aperture of neon washed over the entire venue. Julia Steiner, Dave Sagan, Marcus Nuccio and Sean Neumann slid a mountain of tater tots around the table to each hungry mouth, fueling up for their end-of-the-night set at High Road Touring’s showcase. Perhaps it was the romantic in me—or just my exhausted, plane-fatigued brain on night one of SXSW—but everything came together so perfectly under the sparkle of a Texan evening, as the light pollution ensconced the whole joint just right.
Ratboys began 13 years ago in South Bend at the University of Notre Dame, where Steiner and Sagan were studying. Making music together in dorm rooms, there weren’t many goals on the table aside from, as Steiner put it, “making music that we thought sounded good and showing it to our friends.” Fast forward to a decade and nine drummers later, and you’ll find the quartet deeply immersed in their own mountainous groove. Sagan noted that a big part of the work now is building an infrastructure to play music they’re proud of and can make a living off of it, too.
“We’re definitely focused on trying to make it sustainable and do it as well as possible,” Nuccio, who’s been with Ratboys since 2017 and also drums in local groups Pet Symmetry, What Gives and The Please & Thank Yous, chimed in. It made sense that we were gathered at High Road’s showcase at that very moment, given how they became such an integral part of Ratboys’ evolution from a strictly DIY band six years ago. “We were still booking everything ourselves,” Neumann, who became the band’s permanent bassist in 2016, added. “[High Road] took a lot of pressure off us so we could focus on making records and what we were putting into the live show, versus ‘Fuck, the show fell through today. We need to book another one.’”
Steiner graduated from Notre Dame a year before Sagan—who was finishing a five-year program—and would bounce from a short Men’s World Cup internship stint in Dublin to briefly taking shelter at her parents’ house in Kentucky before settling down in Chicago. The first fall Steiner was in the city, she and Sagan made the first Ratboys album, AOID. “We recorded sporadically, whenever Dave was able to come home,” she said. “We recorded [AOID] in a shared practice space, so [through the walls] you could hear other bands practicing. So I recorded all the vocals for that record in the middle of the night when no one else was there.”
Most of the first Ratboys shows were played alongside acts from Sagan’s hometown of Oak Forest, a South Chicago suburb. Those initial years—where it was mostly Steiner and Sagan and, sometimes, a rotating supporting cast—were integral to the band’s DNA and really steam-rolled them towards the greenest pastures. “Starting with that DIY foundation, you learn so much about how to be a band first. I think that sets up a band for success, when you’re able to build that strong connection. You can know how to operate,” Nuccio said.
Keeping company with peers like Dowsing, NNAMDÏ and Sinai Vessel, the band found a place within the local emo scene—eventually signing with famed emo label Topshelf Records—despite their tunes being a pastiche of pop-punk, indie-folk and outlaw country. In 2021, they celebrated that era by releasing Happy Birthday, Ratboy, an album where they re-recorded songs from their 2011 RATBOY EP and other origin-story-era gems.
Luckily, few cities are as deep-pocketed as Chicago, and the flourishing music communities there are as rich as ever. “Sometimes, cities and scenes have the luxury of having a cultivated thing, be it a house venue or a show series that gets passed down to the next class every time,” Sagan mentioned. “Not every city has that luxury, but I think Chicago does have it. But, it’s something that stays irrespective of age, so it’s really on us to keep up with it. Sometimes you gotta dig deep, but that’s how we started.” More than any other band working right now, Ratboys are emblematic of Heartland rock ‘n’ roll; a quartet more than comfortable staying put in the place they cut their teeth in, no matter what.
When I got together with Ratboys in Austin, it was a bit of a bittersweet moment for them. They were supposed to play SXSW in 2020 to celebrate the then-recent release of Printer’s Devil, but the pandemic nixed that trip and their entire forthcoming tour. “COVID fucked up so many bands and really ruined a lot of people’s momentum. We were very lucky that three of us lived together during all of the pandemic, so we were able to keep collaborating,” Steiner said. The band was able to keep in touch with their listeners by starting a Patreon, having a Ratboys Discord channel and regularly streaming “Virtual Tour Nights” on Twitch.
But, for 10 years, the band’s lifeblood has been their impeccable live-show reputation, and having to take a seat and not give Printer’s Devil its proper shake on-stage was a big blow. “That’s the part of every album release that we’re most excited about, playing it out on the road and seeing how people interpret the songs. We missed out on something that could’ve been really fucking great,” Sagan added. Ratboys’ set after our interview would mark the first-ever performance of songs like “Alien with a Sleep Mask On” and “I Go Out at Night” in Texas.
A few weeks before SXSW, Ratboys released “Black Earth, Wi,” the soaring, near-nine-minute opus that became the band’s greatest song upon release. The title came from a birthday road trip that Steiner and Sagan took to the House on the Rock—a tourist hub of kitschy odds and ends and weirdo architecture in Southern Wisconsin—and passed through Black Earth while en route. Coupled with a music video that collages VHS-style, storm-chaser tornado clips with snippets of guitar-playing, “Black Earth, Wi” kicked off a new chapter for the band—though the song’s roots date back to July 2019, on one of Steiner’s many, many voice memos stored on her phone. “I tend to sit on ideas for a long time,” she said. “Dave and I were just jamming out, just the two of us for a few months, and the lyrics are based on the general vibe of road-tripping with a friend throughout the Midwest—particularly when there’s some ominous weather on the horizon.”
“Black Earth, Wi” is unlike anything Ratboys have ever made before. As Sagan put it, what we hear is them “playing the best we ever played that idea.” “We didn’t know there was gonna be a five-minute guitar solo,” he added, laughing in-between cigarette drags. Recorded live to tape like a 1970s, open-room, rock ‘n’ roll talisman, the band didn’t map out what the song would become, choosing to instead riff off of their own collective chemistry and let the pent-up momentum and techniques from Printer’s Devil pave the way. “The idea of recording ‘Black Earth, Wi’ together, on the floor, and then working off that, I think it captured that energy that the four of us, together, had been gathering for years,” Neumann said. “Black Earth, Wi” evokes the true ethos of Ratboys and their generosity towards—and admiration for—the craft:
“We’re all just deeply addicted to everything that goes into being a band. Playing live and having that connection with people over art, that shared interaction, is the best thing on Earth. Recording and making music that wasn’t there before is, literally, magic,” Steiner concluded, before she and the band escaped into the ocean of people overflowing onto Red River Street. And then, beneath the pale of a waking Wednesday dawn, Ratboys emerged—Steiner with her new Flying V in hand—and lit the Cheer Up Charlie’s stage ablaze. It was good to have them back.
I discovered the colorful world of Ratboys sometime in late 2017, as I was 30,000-feet in the sky and flirting with a concerning irregular heartbeat spurred by a speedball of caffeine and sleep-deprivation. I had recently purchased Earth Day—a 22-song tribute to Green Day compiled by thanku billiejoe—on Bandcamp while waiting to board a Southwest flight at the Austin, Texas airport. I was heading back home to Cleveland, Ohio, blissfully unaware of Ratboys’ recent release GN—an album I would, eventually, fall in love with over and over. All I had from the band then was a rendition of “Pulling Teeth” that managed to take numerous shapes within a 2:29 runtime. Across the aisle on that flight was the woman who was not yet my partner but would be within a month’s time. She was nursing a hangover, as was almost the rest of our cohort. I handed my phone to her and said Play track three. I remember her crack-of-dawn grin as Steiner’s voice rang in and not much else. But what else could I have ever needed?
It was then, as 2018 crept up on me, that I discovered GN and felt nurtured by songs like “Molly” and “Elvis Is in the Freezer” and “Westside.” It was at a point when I had discovered language arts rock and its revitalization of perfect vocals built-up by imperfect twang. There was a moment happening in rock ‘n’ roll spheres, a convergence of alt-country, emo and Americana that everyone seemed to dig, including myself. DIY bands like Florist and Lomelda and Adult Mom were finding great critical acclaim and, in some regards, that momentum still feels alive, as they continue to churn out great tunes; often, though, it feels like an indie era as bygone from the immediate critical eye as the genre influences it pulled from.
But, finding so much safety in a record like GN meant that I would grow into young adulthood just as Ratboys were growing into themselves as a band. And if you’ve ever measured great milestones in your life in-tandem with albums that soundtracked those checkpoints, then, perhaps, you understand what GN might still mean to this writer—and you, too, might have a similar piece of the world you hold close. Though I’m no longer a teenager, I’m still enraptured by the linguistic architecture that Steiner materialized across those 10 songs. The person I was madly in love with around that time is no longer around, but I’ve still got Ratboys—one of the few remaining acts of their time with so much left to give. They haven’t stretched their potential too thin by always being in the limelight with a gazillion releases. No, instead, they tour often and take their time making standalone albums that fuck exponentially.
A month after SXSW’s conclusion, I call up Steiner once more to talk. This time, we spend over an hour digging deep into The Window, Ratboys’ upcoming fifth album. It was on the horizon a month ago—and many critics had collectively clocked the band’s release of “Black Earth, Wi” and its “record on the way” energy—but things were still being kept under wraps when they took to Austin. Now, The Window closes the book on a near-two-year marathon of shows in America and Europe, as the band took to the road, once quarantine lifted, to give Printer’s Devil the celebration it deserved in 2020. Now more than ever, Ratboys are on everyone’s radar; their pedigree vaulted even further into the echelons of Midwestern excellence after Walmart used their 2021 single “Go Outside” in a commercial.
The 11 tracks on The Window are something of a real majesty. Ratboys zero in on everything they do exceptionally well and put it in a blender. Steiner’s songwriting, in particular, is at a pinnacle—which says a lot, given how dense and heavy and immaculate Printer’s Devil was, the demos for which were tracked in the emptied rooms of her childhood home in Louisville after it was sold. Somewhere on the spectrum in-between Rilo Kiley and Wildflowers-era Tom Petty, Ratboys have made it to a place in their own artistry where they have ample reserves of courage to execute risks.
At the center of it all are Steiner—whose lyrics probe familiar and personal imagery through Lake Michigan parables and wholehearted reflections—and Sagan—whose guitar-playing is one of immense finesse and subdued shredding. Together, they write themselves out of longing, through the anxieties of isolation still frozen in the stars, into moments of smoke sessions and graveyard escapes. They burn blank CDs and turn a life-changing freshman orientation encounter into a time capsule of stubbornly curious poetry.
Much like its title suggests, The Window is a portal into a world Steiner is still considering the weight of. No longer fixated on how the grief of childhood can tumble into adulthood, the work here examines what chapter comes next: the ways that love and what-could’ve-beens can haunt the present. “I get up / And write some stuff / Feel you here no matter what,” she concludes on opener “Making Noise for the Ones You Love.” What I’ve loved most about the Ratboys universe is how Steiner adopts a Frank O’Hara-style of attention to her own communal details.
On records like GN and Printer’s Devil—and now, The Window—there are many bodies curving around the echoes of her lyrics, and each of them get showered with the affection of a story to call their own. To love Ratboys is to also love the people in the band’s orbit and whatever shape they take—whether it’s Steiner’s sister, her childhood cat Elvis or a loved one named Sue who returns to her in dreams. The cosmos that’s alive in the Ratboys cannon is one of abundant joy and miraculous familiarity; folks we’ve long known and adored who now come to us with different names and faces.
Steiner has been working on the stems of this record for nearly five years, shortly after she and the band finished recording Printer’s Devil. More than ever, the songs here are transparent and overcast with uncertain fixtures of desire, mourning and grace. “I feel like I grew a lot writing the songs for Printer’s Devil, just as far as how personal they were to my life. And I wanted to keep doing that [on The Window] and challenge myself to be more personal in some of these songs, more direct. I get so excited about having a lot to say, sometimes. And often I find, especially as I’m getting older, just lyrically, I find that less is more. I challenged myself to be as concise as possible while still being vulnerable and being as personal and honest as I could be.” Steiner says.
Steiner returns to window imagery on the album often, as it’s one of the few motifs that properly captures the helplessness and isolation of quarantine, which undoubtedly shaped much of this album. Being pent up inside, where else did we have to turn but towards our small glimpse at the hope still moving next to us? But, instead of looking over her shoulder and considering what’s growing beyond the panes, Steiner is on the outside peering in, still grieving and sketching the pieces of her past unshaken by the crumbling world encased all around it. And from those reflections comes sirens of hope. “So take this part of me / Carry it with you / Wherever it leads / Don’t be scared,” she sings during “The Window.”
Rather than adopting the steadfast, Ratboys sound by steamrolling through emo directions and country chords, Steiner takes those textures on The Window and uses them to embellish her own love for catchy pop music through elaborate, balmy and well-crafted choruses. “Music is my ultimate quest, my mission in life,” she asserts. Though the album is just as literary as GN, the arrangements are intentionally simple and binary with heavy hooks and big-league grooves.
There is no overarching concept to The Window; it’s Steiner and the crew honing their craft by installing past doorways onto new frames: The infectious, raucous “Crossed That Line” was written for a friend’s short film about a fictional punk band (which didn’t end up getting made); “I Want You (Fall 2010)” is Steiner’s delicate ode to a decade-long companionship with Sagan that ends in a cheeky Midwest emo riff; “Morning Zoo” is the best country-rock song you’ll hear this summer; “Empty” features introductory, distorted vocalizations reminiscent of “Molly.”
The Window was produced by Chris Walla, the Death Cab for Cutie bassist who has also helmed projects by Tegan and Sara, Nada Surf and The Decemberists over the last 20 years. When Foxing toured for their Walla-produced 2018 album Nearer My God, Ratboys opened shows for them—which is how they got linked up with Walla to begin with, at their gig in Montreal.
“I had discovered The Con by Tegan and Sara that spring, in 2018, and that’s the last time I can remember absolutely falling in love with the record to the point where I couldn’t sleep,” Steiner says. “I was so excited and looking up all the details of who wrote which song, how it was recorded. So, meeting [Walla] in Montreal, that’s all I could say. I was like, ‘I’m obsessed with this. You made this. Nice to meet you.’ We didn’t even really talk that night, but I guess he remembered us and, when we were writing the songs for [The Window] and trying to figure out how to record it, I reached out to him to see if he’d ever be interested. And he was!”
The band met up with Walla again in 2021 while on tour in Seattle, where they decided to make a record together. Six months later, Ratboys demoed their new tracks and started taping their rehearsals to send to Walla—who’d give them notes as the songs were taking shape. “By the time we got into the studio, we were pretty well-rehearsed and ready to go with the bones of the songs,” Steiner says. “[Walla] was pretty vocal, from the very get-go. He was like, ‘This feels like a 24-day record to me.’ And we were like, ‘Great, we’ll take your word for it.’ So, we allotted 24 days, which is way more than we’ve ever had. Printer’s Devil, we [recorded it] in 10 days.”
The Window was made at the storied, mythical Hall of Justice recording studio in Seattle. Some of the most-primitive and influential rock albums of the last 35 years were built there, including Nirvana’s Bleach, Built to Spill’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out and Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. But, the two projects that Steiner was excited to make company with were Special Explosion’s To Infinity and Great Grandpa’s Four of Arrows. “Being there and being in Seattle and coming to the studio every day, the air just feels different in a way that I don’t really know how to describe,” she says. “It feels very clean and invigorating, and it really matched the creative process that we were undertaking in the studio.”
When Tegan and Sara released The Con in 2007, they also uploaded accompanying video chapters—that served as behind-the-scenes looks into the recording process—to YouTube. In the diary portions of those dispatches, the duo are surrounded by fake pine trees, all of which were resurrected during Ratboys’ making of “Bad Reaction.” “Chris busted those pine trees out and laid them out all around me to make me feel like I was in the Tegan and Sara forest,” Steiner says. “I asked him a lot of questions about how he got certain tones on certain Death Cab for Cutie records, and he was super game to talk about it. You know, we lived those influences, as well. They were in there.”
The warm, vintage, band-in-a-room rawness of “Black Earth, Wi” was not a one-off. All of The Window embraces that sonic presentation, as—per Walla’s guidance—Ratboys recorded the entire album straight to tape and built the foundational sound of the project off of that technique. “The songs themselves are pretty stylistically all over the map, but that fidelity makes any song sound better—whether it’s a rock song or a folk song,” Steiner says. “We were excited to try and harness that. We weren’t totally sure how it would sound. I mean, we knew it would sound amazing, because so many amazing records have come out of the [Hall of Justice]. But, just being in that room, there’s not a ton of natural reverb. You get a sense that it’s a well-treated room.”
Beyond Sagan’s absurd, career-defining guitar solo, “Black Earth, Wi” is the epitome of what Ratboys are. For longer than I’ve loved their music, they have been one of the greatest live bands around—exuding an ecosystem of guiling alchemy into hour-long sets for 10 years. With Steiner’s voice—which is, undoubtedly, one of the uniquest, most-singular vocal gifts in all of rock ‘n’ roll—fashioned as the band’s twangy North Star, and a never-ending appetite for challenging the elasticity of their own talents, Ratboys are beholden to their own well-earned destiny. “I wouldn’t want to be in a band with anyone else. These guys are my best friends, and we’re able to communicate about music in ways where the goal is always the same for all of us: Make something that we love playing and love listening to,” Steiner says.
But the world is changing, and Ratboys understand that. Steiner talks greatly about her hometown, how newer artists like Free Range and Lucky Cloud are now starting to bear the torch in Chicago and influence the next generation of performers coming up in the Second City. But the foundations that Ratboys have built there will keep them seated at the table for a long, long time. That’s the beauty of a place that buys into its own scene; “every man for himself” holds no water as house shows and 200-cap venues thunder forward. But still, on “Morning Zoo,” Steiner ponders what it might look like when her—and her peers’—time on the road is over, singing: “How long does it take / To find the peace that I want? / And how long must I wait / To decide that it’s over and done?”
But Ratboys aren’t going anywhere. This fall, despite having been around for so long, they will finally embark on their first-ever headlining tour for a record release. When I discovered GN six years ago, I was convinced that they were the best-kept secret in rock ‘n’ roll. A long time has passed now, and it feels poetic and romantic and unbelievable that I linked up with them in the same place I found them six years ago. The world is funny like that, especially if you’re the type of person who believes in the spiritual force of chance. How lucky we are to have made it to this place; how lucky we are that Steiner, Sagan, Nuccio and Neumann are still here and still rocking out with us, together. At the end of “Bad Reaction,” Steiner sings: “What’s the one thing you love?” As The Window concludes, the answer is clear: Ratboys love each other so deeply that they will endure far beyond the rest of us. And what a beautiful truth to know and cherish.
It’s been nearly three months since that night at Cheer Up Charlie’s, but I think about one part of it often. When I finished interviewing the band, a very drunk (but incredibly nice) woman came up to us and asked if she could take our picture—citing us all as “looking perfect.” Without a hitch, she was ready to take our portrait on her own phone, until Steiner slipped hers into the woman’s hands. Whoever she was, she probably didn’t know that she was photographing Ratboys and was likely just blissfully riding the breeze of SXSW’s impenetrable vibe. But I hold onto that moment with the band, because I think it was the last time someone didn’t know their name. When The Window arrives this August, I’ll bet the house on that turning true, and I’ll be first in line to chant it to the heavens with everyone else.
The Window is out August 25 via Topshelf Records. Pre-order here.
Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne. Watch Ratboys’ Paste studio session from 2021 below.