“We’re so excited to play as many new songs as we can fit in, maybe all of them… We’ve just been practicing the new record for the release show, the 25th at Schubas in Chicago,” says Julia Steiner, vocalist, lyricist, and guitarist for Chicago post-country (a term championed by Steiner) quartet Ratboys. The record that she’s discussing with me, during a recent phone chat, is The Window, the band’s fourth full-length, which drops this Friday via Topshelf Records. After the album release show, Ratboys will embark on a massive headlining tour of the US this September, October, and November, before heading overseas for their first-ever Europe and UK headlining jaunt in the second half of November (They’ll return to Chicago to close out the year with an additional hometown show on December 22nd at Thalia Hall.)
Tuesday, September 26th, Ratboys will be returning to the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection to headline our favorite “mini rock n’ roll ballroom,” Johnny Brenda’s. Ratboys have played the 215 a lot over the past decade, and Julia tells me that she feels a sort of kinship with our [insert your own favorite Philthy-appropriate adjective] city: “We’re so lucky that we’ve gotten to go there a lot. It feels like there’s a pipeline from Philly to Chicago. I’ve got friends in each who grew up in one and then moved to the other.” She says that the band are big fans of Wawa, Dottie’s Donuts, and, “Doing picklebacks with Kississippi.” But she tells me that the venues themselves have also left a meaningful impression on Ratboys.
“We love all the great venues, like PhilaMOCA and Johnny Brenda’s. It’s got some of the best under-500 cap venues… We play small enough venues where they each have their own unique thing. It’s cool to just feel like a place where you remember it’s Philly, and not just have them blend into the abyss. And you’ve got places like Everybody Hits and The Church and, even for a big venue, Union Transfer has its own unique thing…”
However, Julia admits that all of their dates wind up being exciting in their own way: “We just love touring! Full-stop, that is our favorite thing about being a band.” And, discussing their upcoming tour, she tells me, “We’re really excited for Boston and Montreal, where we haven’t played in more than four years,” before adding, “It’s always fun to play places that are very different from where we live, like California and Europe.” A similar sentiment rings true for the recording of The Window, which was the first time the band ever traveled outside of Chicago to make a record.
The Window had Ratboys relocate to Seattle to work with producer Chris Walla, formerly of Death Cab For Cutie, known for his production work with the likes of Foxing, Tegan and Sara, and The Decembrists. “Seattle is a cool city, and we’ve played there a few times, but we’ve never really fully experienced it and immersed ourselves in the city,” says Steiner, before going on to clarify, “We love Chicago. We’re huge advocates for Chicago, but it was nice to be removed from our day-to-day routine at home. It felt so special and a real time of our life!”
Paste wrote, “The Window is not just an ambitious, poised masterwork; it’s the product of a decade-old band being so far in their own bag that they can’t do anything but sock certified dingers,” and Steiner seems to agree: “I think it’s not a radically different shift in our sound, but I like to think that this new record is the most realized, or consistently fleshed-out, of our releases. We had a lot more time, and we had a lot more room to grow.”
Steiner also admits that Chris Walla – whose work in Death Cab For Cutie she tells me they were all huge fans of – played a major role in the fourth Ratboys LP. “We weren’t sure if he’d have a radical approach to restructuring these songs, which we were open to…” she tells me, before going on to say that, “His role was just as much about the bigger picture things… We would talk about how the music made us feel as much as the technical aspects of it.” However, he did have the group trying some new (or “old”) things technically; it was the first time they recorded to tape. “We’d never had the chance to record using analog recording techniques. And really being able to navigate these vintage machines felt like another language, and he was a master at that,” says Steiner.
It seems, though, that the most memorable experiences Ratboys had with the former DCFC guitarist and songwriter were during their “downtime,” when they were listening to some of each other’s favorite songs for inspiration, with Walla introducing Ratboys to Canadian alt-rock legends Sloan, and Steiner sharing some of her favorite works of fellow-Canadians Land Of Talk: “Elizabeth Powell is one of my absolute favorite songwriters!” “We would bounce back and forth and share specific songs with each other,” Julia explains. She also tells me that these sessions often served to bridge a generation gap: “He loves New Edition, and he loves Janet Jackson, and Def Leppard. He had a lot of ‘80s reference points that we weren’t really familiar with, because he’s like 15 years older than us, so he introduced us to that, and we showed him some stuff from the early 2010s.” However, she tells me one of their favorite tracks to regularly listen to wasn’t really ever meant as an influence: “’Bongo Bongo’ by Steve Miller, which didn’t so much inspire us, but the video was something we’d watch whenever we had to turn off our brains and have a mental reset and laugh together.”
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