Interview: Ratboys

Photos by Justin Filippone

Photos by Justin Filippone

Companions & bandmates Julia Steiner + Dave Sagan operate as Chicago “Post-Country” group Ratboys. Their brand of heart-on-sleeve indie rock is paired with a tender inkling of folk that’s garnered comparisons to Sheryl Crow’s earlier material, (Sandy) Alex G’s latest & has landed them tours with Pinegrove & Diet Cig.

We caught up with Julia [Dave was assigned to driving duties] on a Wednesday afternoon as the two headed north to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Life seems to be going well. The two recently wrapped up a short leg of dates with fellow Chicagoans, Pet Symmetry, & in a mere few weeks their sophomore record GN (shorthand for ‘Goodnight’) will be released to the world via Topshelf Records. It’s a fantastic body of work that shifts from strumming folk rock to distorted atmospheres & wistful croons that examine the concepts of saying ‘goodbye’ & human memory — all while capturing the wayfaring spirit of life on the road.

We talk for an hour. Julia jauntily responds to each question with a breezy string of thoughtfulness. It’s easy to picture her lounging in the passenger seat, sipping Blackberry Wave Smooth Finish Gatorade Flow in total serenity. It’s a sort of familiarity, like a vague memory that abruptly reappears into your consciousness, that makes Ratboys’ music so agreeable. The same can be said about conversing with Julia. Though we’ve never met in person, there’s something about her tone, cadence & conversational mannerisms that feel oddly familiar — like an old friend, forgotten over time due to distance & growing older. We had the chance to speak about finding comfort & intimacy in other people's lives, touring & the new Ratboys LP.


hope: Do you think that growing up in Kentucky had any sort of influence on the music that you make?

Julia: Outside of my family, I don’t know if there was really a ton of influence on me as a musician being from there. My mom taught me how to play guitar in the beginning & introduced me to a lot of really compelling female songwriters like Sheryl Crow, Joan Baez, Lucinda Williams as I was growing up. But she’s not from Kentucky, so it’s just kind of a happy coincidence that that’s where I grew up. 
hope: Was there any sort of DIY scene or music scene in Louisville?
Julia: There definitely was in the 90s from what I’ve heard — but I’m too young to have been a part of that. When I was growing up I went to an all-women Catholic High School. I didn’t really have any friends who were into playing music — so I was kind of alone.. 
hope: Did you have any teachers that inspired you to make more music?
Julia: I never really had a proper guitar teacher. I took lessons from one guy, looking back now he was a total stoner & wasn’t very engaged, but he did convince me to buy an electric guitar because it’s easier to learn. I didn’t end up playing it for years, but I gave it to Dave when we met. We still use that guitar sometimes. 
I was pretty alone as far as making music goes. I had a good social life, but being alone gave me a lot of time to actually write songs & do my own thing. 

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hope: When did you & Dave meet?
Julia: Dave & I met in college — pretty much the first week. It was a pretty instantaneous connection & we started playing music in the dorms. It was just the two of us for a long time, then we started performing for people.
hope: Did you ever play campus-affiliated events?
Julia: Kind of. We opened for Matt Costa one time. He’s like one of Jack Johnson’s proteges. That was really cool for me because I really liked him in high school. Then all of a sudden we were doing whiskey shots with Matt Costa — which was kind of weird...
We definitely booked some rogue shows — like in the Architecture building [Dave studied architecture], the basement of my dorm, or the art building... I’m surprised we didn’t get in trouble. We felt pretty underground. That’s not really the norm at Notre Dame.
hope: How do you avoid getting burnt out on tour?

Julia: As cheesy as it sounds, it’s just what we love to do. It’s what brings us together, not just Dave & I, but our friends that we had play on the album too. It’s how we like to spend our time. We all work other dumb jobs to make ends meet. Dave & I work for a grocery delivery app called InstaCart — it’s kind of like Uber for groceries. It’s pretty strange.

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hope: So you deliver groceries to people?
Julia: Yeah! We buy people’s groceries & deliver them as an all-inclusive service. It’s pretty fun. I’ve always liked grocery shopping & I love spending other people’s money, so it’s pretty dope. 
We’re pretty lucky that we have these flexible jobs that can give us the time off to tour. We’re at the spot now where we’re playing a lot fun shows with cool bands & it’s pretty tough to get burnt out when you’re traveling to places you’ve never been & playing with other awesome musicians. It’s been fun, but we’ve definitely had our fair share of difficult stretches.
We’ve also just been playing short stints recently. But last fall we had a ten week tour & it was the longest that we’ve done. It was pretty ridiculous but, personally I’d prefer to be doing this than being in the same place every day.
hope: Who are some of your favorite artists that you’ve toured + performed with?
Julia: We had a really good tour last summer with Pinegrove.
hope: That was right when they were blowing up..
Julia: Yeah, It was like 4 months after they put out Cardinal. You could kind of see their success right in front of your eyes. It was so cool. We really like their music.
This past March we were out with a band called Slingshot Dakota from Pennsylvania. They’re unbelievable soulmates & they’re friends of ours. They make really powerful music as a two-piece — which is not easy to do. They’re on our label too, which is how we met. They’re wonderful.

hope: Other than Slingshot Dakota, who do you think are the all-time greatest performers that are also a couple? 
Julia: Johnny & June?
hope: My first thought as well. 
Julia: It’s a really good question. I don’t know. I feel like there are a lot of performers that are a couple & I don’t even realize it. That’s one thing about Slingshot: they proclaim their marriage & love on stage constantly. Dave & I are partners which is one huge thing that I take for granted. It’s kind of how we don’t get burnt out on touring. We don’t have that separation or loneliness factor of missing our significant other on tour because we’re together all of the time. 
hope: Yeah, it’s like a long road trip with your partner — that rules. 
Julia: Yeah. My favorite partner collaboration right now is Half Waif. Nandi & Zack are partners & they’re just an absolute force. Their music is interesting, emotional & they really have a devotion to talk about memory & family. I feel like we are kind of on the same page about a lot of things.

hope: In what ways was writing & recording this album different than the last one?
Julia: Lots of ways. It was very different.
With this one we knew that people were going to hear it. We knew that it was going to come out on Topshelf & it was fun because we could anticipate talking to people about it. Even having a conversation like this. I had a feeling that this was going to happen… 

It’s not like we went into making the record based on the fact that we knew people were going to hear it. It was just an exciting thing like “Okay, let’s really try to do our best to make something cool” because we know that people are going to hear it. This was awesome because we had pretty much just recorded the first album for ourselves & it was finished like 5 months before we were even able to get it to Topshelf.  When they released it they just kind of got it from us & a week later it was on the internet. It happened very quickly. So with “GN” it was a little bit more methodical as far as the release. We took a lot more time, demoed out songs & put a lot of care into writing drum parts that were actually going to BE the parts. Same with bass & guitar. There was a lot more planning that went into it.
hope: You had more set goals.
Julia: Yeah, & we just devoted more time. For AOID we literally went to the studio — which was more like a warehouse/practice space. We went there with our drummer & bassist that we had been playing with at the time, practiced the 10 songs in order once & then we were like “OK that sounded good”. Then we had Pat play the drums & he did it all in one day. It was very much a spontaneous thing that we didn’t really plan out.. But with that being said it took us months to record it because Dave was still in school & some other little things... All of the vocals for AOID were recorded  between like 3 & 6 in the morning because the space wasn’t sound proofed & we had to wait for a time when there was nobody else playing. There were a lot of dads that practice in that space & it was all bleeding through.

hope: Right. Where did you record it & who engineered it?
Julia: Our friend Seth Engel engineered it. He’s extremely talented & has put out tons of awesome records. The space that he worked out of at the time [Wright on Carroll in Chicago] a lot of bands use for practice spaces. He’s since moved into a more legitimate studio that doesn’t have those sort of problems.
hope: Something a little more accessible?
Julia: Right. At the time it was really cheap & it was the place that all of our friends were doing everything. So it was a no-brainer to work with our friends & do it there. I wouldn’t change a thing about that. BUT for GN we decided to work with our friend Mikey Crotty (from Dowsing) who is a very talented engineer & pretty underutilized. I don’t think people realize how talented he really is. So we took a lot more time with GN & demoed songs out, rehearsed them, and we gave ourselves a very concrete span of time that we would record. 

Julia: I don’t know if this is appropriate, but I’ve been using a weird sexual metaphor to describe this:
If the rehearsing & the planning is ‘foreplay’, & the recording is the actual act of ‘Doing it’. Then the first record we had absolutely no foreplay but we DID IT for like 5 months.

hope: Sick..
Julia: Then, for GN, we had weeks of foreplay & just did it really quick. 
I would prefer the second scenario any day — It was better. It gave us a lot more time to figure out what we were doing & what we wanted to do. Once we got in there it all happened the way we wanted it to.  They were definitely different experiences.

hope: There’s a conversation that opens up the first track on the album. The voices are kind of just warbles… Who are they & what are they saying?

Julia: We have no idea who that is... Dave bought an old reel-to-reel tape recorder at a flea market & it was loaded with tape. We played what was on it & to our amazement it was a lot of newscasts from the Vietnam war era & a lot of just background conversations from the people who owned it. There was some really good stuff in there. I don’t think that they realized that it was recording because they were talking about how they didn’t know how to use it. The clip that we used was kind of just them testing the tape — maybe it was the first day that they owned it or something.. It’s pretty funny & ironic because the man in the clip says “I won’t ever let anyone hear this…” I guess we kind of screwed that up for him...
We knew that “Molly” was going to be the first song on the album & we wanted to make it a little bit more special than the same old ~Julia by herself intro~ which is how most of our songs start. When we heard the recording it struck us as intimate & special. 
hope: I often scour vintage boutiques & antique stores for intimate old photographs that I find ways to connect with — which is a similar idea.
Julia: Yeah, I tend to do the same thing. One thing that really gets me: when picture frames get donated with actual pictures in them. It’s an actual memory of someone that is now up for grabs. I don’t really analyze that clip or anything. On the surface level it’s nice because it kind of connects with broader themes of the record: memory, family. It’s so cool to have access to someone’s memories or experiences.
hope: Let’s talk a little bit about these Sheryl Crow influences. I feel like the comparison gets thrown around quite a bit… 
Julia: I’m psyched that it gets thrown around too because for a while now I’ve been saying how much I love her and how much her music means to me. It’s cool that it comes across to people. Obviously no artist is saying “I wanna sound like THIS” but her songs have always been really special to me. I remember the first album of hers that I heard, The Globe Sessions, it’s probably my favorite still — I like it so much. I remember my mom driving me to school when I was really young & we would listen to that album every single day. There is just a certain soulfulness & yearning that has always stuck out to me.

Sheryl Crow is so cool. She’s a badass. She was singing about a lot of things I couldn’t really connect with or understand at the time — a lot of her songs were about mourning the end of a relationship or an imbalance in a relationship where one person is giving more than the other. I was nine & I didn’t really understand what was going on in the songs but I really connected with the yearning in her voice. I was like “Wow she is on a journey! I wanna be on that same journey even if it’s a sad one”. 
There was a moment in the studio — I think we were recording “Control” & I just couldn’t sing it right. I started to ask myself “Can I even sing?”
hope: You were doubting yourself?
Julia: Yeah! I was feeling not very confident — so Dave & Mike were like “Ok here’s what we’re going to do: We’re gonna put on your favorite Sheryl Crow song & we’re going to give you some whiskey.”
hope: Oh my god...
Julia: And that’s what happened! We listened to “The Difficult Kind” by Sheryl Crow — which is a ridiculously sad & beautiful song & it got me going again.
hope: That’s a great story.
Julia: It was wild. That song was tough. I don’t really get drunk that much… But we ended up just kind of getting drunk in the studio that night & letting loose. We came in the next day & Dave’s part was way easier…

hope: “Control” has some pretty fantastical imagery. Is the story behind that song completely fictional or is it based on true events in your life?
Julia: It’s kind of a mix. When I was six & my brother was four we were hanging out in my neighborhood in Kentucky. We were on a walk with my dad & I must have been causing trouble because he had his attention turned to me. When he looked back, my brother was walking quickly towards some train tracks where a train was rapidly approaching. It was incredibly frightening for my dad — he had to run over & grab him before the train came. That moment for him kind of cemented his belief in the existence of angels or some sort of intervening force. He tells me “there’s no reason that your brother shouldn’t have just kept walking”. My brother kind of stopped in his tracks which gave my dad an extra moment to grab him. My dad is not the most forthright person, so when he shared that with me I told myself that I couldn’t forget that story... So I put it into “Control”. 
That song is actually weird because it’s very old. I started writing the structure & melody of it  when I was like seventeen. So the lyrics were totally different. They were nonsense about my friends or something. The first stanza about the train wreck was the same, but it was kind of just nonsense when I wrote it. But then I realized that I could just make the song about my dad’s story...

hope: Kind of serendipitous…
Julia: Yeah it just worked out perfectly. I was six when that happened so I don’t even know if the memories that I have are real or something that I conjured up based on what I was told. When I was writing it I was kind of like going off of  memories that I have of that place & of when I was that age. So it is kind of a mix of fiction & truth. I’m not sure if the details that I have are entirely right.

hope: Is that something that you tend to do with your songwriting: Mix fact with fiction or stories?
Julia: Yeah, I write songs about other people’s experiences — actual things that have happened but to others but not necessarily to me. I try to write from that perspective. A lot of it is just kind of using my imagination to insert myself into a different person’s experiences. 
“Peter the Wild Boy” & “Crying about the planets” were really the two songs on GN that were based in history where I was trying to understand someone else’s experiences by putting myself close to them. For instance, “Crying...” is about this expedition to Antarctica that went really wrong. It was a three-man party called “The Far Eastern Party”. It’s a long story but this one guy [Douglas Mawson] ended up completely by himself trekking back to the basecamp. I was just imagining how it would feel to be just laying on the ground completely alone, having just lost your two travel partners, looking up around you where everything is white & it feels like you’re literally nowhere. 
hope: Sounds terrifying..
Julia: Who knows if Douglas Mawson actually lied on the ground like that — but maybe he did. I was more imagining his emotions. It’s really fun. Kind of like an exercise in empathy & human imagination.

hope: “Peter the Wild Boy” uses the story of a feral child who was found in the woods in Hamelin, Germany. He was discovered & then adopted by the King of Great Britian. 
Julia: Yeah! Isn’t that crazy?
hope: Yeah. It’s very interesting. How did you come across that story?
Julia: I don’t remember exactly. I get on Wikipedia a lot & somehow end up in a totally different place than where I started. I might have been hanging out with my friend Liz, who is one of my oldest friends. She & I had this strange interest in feral children. Wikipedia is just this ridiculous democratic database of all sorts of information. So I think that we were just reading about different people & kind of stumbled upon ‘Peter the Wild Boy’. It’s an absolutely amazing story because it focuses on the extremes of humanity: living alone in the woods, in the dirt as a feral child & then going on to live in a palace in luxury, hyper-society. 
hope: He apparently escaped or went missing, right?
Julia: I haven’t read about him in a really long time. Maybe he escaped & then was caught. I remember him dying in royal custody really old...

hope: Yeah, I think he lived a normal-aged life. The town where he was from, Hamelin, was also home to “The Pied Piper of Germany” Did you look into that at all? 
Julia: No, I didn’t.
hope: It’s some old folklore about a musician that was hired during a rat infestation after the city had been hit with the plague. The Pied Piper would play his flute to drive the rats away. If citizens refused to pay for his service, he’d use his magic flute to drive children away — just as he did with the rats. 
Julia: Woah!
hope: It got me thinking that maybe Peter the Wild Boy was one of these children driven away by The Pied Piper... 
Julia: Ok, that is pretty mind-blowing. 
hope: I know! So do you think that makes Peter a “Ratboy”?
Julia: Oh my god! Maybe — I mean, Christ! I don’t even really know what a “Ratboy” is! But it sounds like a very literal possibility!
hope: Yeah I’m not sure if the time periods add up though.
Julia: Let’s just go with it...


'GN' is out on Friday, July 30th via Topshelf Records. Ratboys play Burlington, VT, on Saturday, July 8th with Clever Girls at SideBar. Entry to the event is free, but come prepared with a $5-10 donation for the performing artists. RSVP to the event here.

- hope all is well