I meet Ratboys at Sleeping Village in Chicago, the venue on Belmont recently opened by The Whistler people. The five of us slide into a large booth in the corner before their bassist’s band, Jupiter Styles, plays in the middle of a bill in December.
Sean Neumann on bass and Marcus Nuccio on drums are the newest members of Ratboys, a band formed in 2011 by Julia Steiner and Dave Sagan. The two met during freshman orientation at Notre Dame in South Bend. Marching bands may be a big thing for the Fighting Irish, but rock bands were not. “There weren’t a lot of students in our class who came to college looking for a music friend,” as Steiner puts it, and the two “bonded over our love of music.”
Ratboys (whose moniker was inspired by a high school nickname) put out some music for free on the Internet and started playing live the summer following their first year at Notre Dame, but didn’t really start touring until after they graduated and released two full-length albums, “AIOD” and “GN,” in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
From the beginning, Steiner and Sagan’s combination has been an obviously talented one-two punch of winsome melodies propelled by power-pop guitar crunch, with Steiner’s helium-soaked soprano conveying her lyrics, which alternate between highly personal anecdotes and impressionistic word paintings. Their outstanding new album, “Printer’s Devil,” due in February from Topshelf Records, does not change that winning formula, but builds on the strengths of their previous output while adding additional musical muscle.
As if reading my mind, Steiner says that sonically, “Printer’s Devil” is indeed “pretty different,” as recently Ratboys has had “really cool opportunities to play in bigger rooms on tour opening for bands who are bigger than us and so we got a chance to understand how it feels to fill those rooms with sound, and so we took that idea and ran with it.” She says that allowed them to “take a big step forward with the sonics on the record, recording it live.”
Sagan concurs that they “were playing with a lot of bands that had so much energy, that it was kind of infectious… Every tour is different, but if we were touring with a loud or hilarious band, we were naturally louder and more hilarious than we already are. We kind of played as a bunch of different flavors depending on who we were playing with, and we tried to bring that to the record too, that energy that we got from tour we wanted to put that down on tape.”
He’s speaking metaphorically, since, of course, as Steiner is quick to point out, the album was recorded digitally, at Decade Music Studios in Chicago, produced by the band and engineer Erik Rasmussen. This was the first time all four of the current members were in the control room together, “building these songs,” and they agree it was more of a team effort.
While Sagan, Neumann and Nuccio grew up playing in punk bands in the Chicago suburbs, lead singer and lyricist Steiner grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, penning what she describes as “singer-songwriter”-type songs (integrating country inspirations) in her bedroom beginning at thirteen. In fact, her old Kentucky home, where she had lived since age seven, being sold by her parents heavily informs the song composition on “Printer’s Devil.” Many of the songs on the record seem to be reminiscences of her experiences growing up there and moving away, and Sagan and Steiner actually demoed the songs for the record in her house there, after her parents had moved out of it and into a condo. “It was nice to be able to put the punctuation mark at the end of that sentence, to sit in my old bedroom and attempt to make a list of songs I had written there and pay my respects.” She describes the experience as a “special thing,” given that a lot of her “musical discoveries happened in that house.”
Steiner sometimes worries that her lyrics border on the “too personal,” but she never wants to pull back, because she doesn’t think the songs would be as “compelling to listen to… It is something to think about,” she continues, citing the song “Anj” as being “about a specific person in my life and I haven’t had the chance to speak with her about that song. I really want to get together with her before the record comes out because it’s semi-autobiographical, [although] the last verse veers off into an extension of reality.”
The topic is of greater concern to her with songs she’s currently working on: “There are a lot of changes happening in my family right now, and that’s the main thing I want to write about, [but] it’s gonna be weird down the line to find an appropriate and graceful way to explain it.” One of those new songs features the chorus, “I don’t want to talk about that.” But thankfully that’s not as much of an issue for the time being, as those issues don’t inform, “Printer’s Devil,” which was largely written in the summer of 2018.
Sagan says these songs still seem fresh, given Ratboys played them on the road for the first time in 2019, and the band uses the experience of recording the songs to inform how these songs are played onstage. Steiner says these songs still mean a lot to her. “I tried to keep a pretty good journal when we were demoing and recording it, so I’ve been reading that back to remind myself where we were at. It was such a long, drawn-out process,” she admits, but says she still feels pretty “in it, to be honest.”
Steiner always knew the record should commence with “Alien With A Sleep Mask On,” the first single, and end with the title track, “a different song than anything we’d written before,” and she sees ending the record that way as “like the final kind of ‘statement’ in my head.” Between those two bookends, of course, there are all kinds of rocking power-pop goodness and some winsome, lovely ballads too. It’s clear from our conversation that the band agonized over the sequencing, and the results speak to the attention paid to that portion of the finished product. The end result is all killer, no filler.
Ratboys kick off their “Printer’s Devil” tour with a headlining show February 28 at Lincoln Hall (2424 North Lincoln), then continue through the spring, including shows during South By Southwest.
Craig Bechtel is a freelance writer and has also been a Senior Staff Writer for Pop’stache. He is also a DJ, volunteer and Assistant Music Director for CHIRP Radio, 107.1 FM, and contributes occasionally to the CHIRP blog. As DJ Craig Reptile, you can hear him play music on the FM dial or at www.chirpradio.org most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm. He previously worked in radio at KVOE AM and Fox 105 in Emporia, Kansas, and served as a DJ, music director and general manager for WVKC at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he also won the Davenport Prize for Poetry and earned a B.A. in English writing. Craig has been working in various capacities within the hotel and meetings industry for over twenty years, and presently works at a company that uses proprietary systems to develop proven data strategies that increase revenue, room nights and meeting attendance. In his spare time, he also fancies himself an armchair herpetologist, and thus in addition to a wife, son and cat, he has a day gecko and a veiled chameleon in his collection.