Interview: Meet Ratboys, a Chicago Band Standing at ‘The Window’ of Opportunity

Ratboys © Alexa Viscius
Ratboys © Alexa Viscius
A shift to Seattle and team-up with Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie have spurred some major creative expansion for Ratboys, as can be heard across their vibrant new record, ‘The Window.’
Stream: ‘The Window’ – Ratboys

“When I wound up going to college, I met a new friend named Dave [Sagan] who was also very into music,” Ratboys’ lead singer and guitarist Julia Steiner recalls. “We started playing music together and sharing our favorite bands and records. We really enjoyed getting our toes wet and figuring out how to play shows in” South Bend, Indiana, while they were both studying there at the University of Notre Dame.

In addition, the duo often made the relatively short trip to Sagan’s native Chicagoland, a well-known rock ‘n roll haven, to perform and collaborate with various local artists. Upon graduating, the two mutually decided to relocate to Chi-Town and pursue their musical passions more deliberately.

Ratboys © Alexa Viscius
Ratboys © Alexa Viscius

“After college, it was just a no-brainer to just be there and be real life friends with all of those people I had just met in passing,” Steiner explains. “Everything here is really cool because there are so many different types of bands that just play on bill here…. it’s easy to just rub elbows with as many different kinds of musicians as you can.”

Two of those musicians— drummer Marcus Nuccio and bassist Sean Neumann— were ultimately added to Ratboys’ lineup and made a quartet out of the original two-piece band. That lineup has largely stayed consistent across the group’s formal recording history, all the way through The Window, released this past August.

The Window - Ratboys © Jennifer Cronin
The Window – Ratboys

Although Ratboys remain primarily based in Chicago, this latest project took them on a 2,000 mile, 3-day drive out to Seattle, where they eventually joined forces at the Hall of Justice studio with founder and owner, Chris Walla. He is best known as a former key member of Death Cab for Cutie – among the many leading Seattle-based rock groups, Nirvana, Soundgarden and Modest Mouse among them, who have called Hall of Justice home at one point or another.

“It was a really wonderful trip,” Steiner reflects. “Chris Walla is someone we’d been fans of since we were kids— just listening to Death Cab for Cutie and all the wonderful records he had produced. It was very surreal and it was an opportunity that we were very excited about, getting to be in a room for a month with him or so. We had never made a record with that much time and that many resources that we’d had in the studio…. It was really pretty special.”

In addition, having all the band members together in one place for the recording process – a 24-day session at the Hall of Justice in February 2022 – and writing an entire album collaboratively for the first time granted The Window a level of sonic cohesion that sets it apart from the rest of Ratboys’ catalogue, in Steiner’s mind.

“In the past, we’d always made records here in Chicago with a more fluid lineup of people coming in and out of the studio, or we’d just recorded at home,” she describes. “This time, each of us in the band [was able to] take more ownership of these parts and just develop them over time. We used our creative minds to express ourselves more fully in that way.”

Ratboys © Alexa Viscius
Ratboys © Alexa Viscius

That determination for full-scale creative expression paid off. Throughout The Window, Ratboys’ signature midwestern rock sounds are on supreme display, but multiple shades of country, folk, power pop, punk and other genres are also sketched in on various tracks, yielding the group’s most sonically diverse album to date.

“Each record, you just kind of go in with the thoughts that you’ve been writing over the past couple of years and figuring out which ones work best together,” Steiner summarizes this open-minded approach. “We don’t really discount something just because it sounds totally different from another song. All four of us just really like different types of music and all sorts of sounds…. We just like messing around with different things. Life’s short— we’re not trying to limit ourselves to one niche of music.”

And tying together all of these sonically diverse tracks is a rather unconventional lyrical theme: Windows.

I saw you through the window,” Steiner sings on the title track. “We locked eyes and the window was open. [I] felt the wind blow. I saw you through it.”

Given the metaphor that windows represent as a portal to the outside world, Steiner relies on this literary device to illustrate the record’s main narrative topics: “My life, the people I know, relationships and how they change over time, and the weird way we drive the change that happens in our lives.”

How could I have known that
You wouldn’t come back home?
I sit down at the table
And I fiddle with the phone
I wish you were right next to me
Instead I’m alone
But, I’ll always have the memories
Of our life together
So take this part of me, last in the middle
Making sure to breathe one last time
The window, I saw you through the window
We locked eyes and the window
Was open, felt the wind blow
I looked in, and I felt you with me
Yeah, I felt you with me
When you waved your hand
I felt you with me

The Window also allowed for Ratboys to break new ground in another important regard.

To promote the album upon its August 25th release, the group embarked on its first-ever domestic headlining tour across the U.S., with fellow Chicago indie rock group Free Range joining as an opening act.

“When we play live, we’re just there to play the songs and be the best rock band we can be in the moment,” Steiner says. “We’re not really trying to pull any tricks or gimmicks–  it’s just playing the songs for the folks that want to hear them. We try to just be ourselves and as authentically present in the room as we can be.”

As long as they do indeed remain their authentic selves, there is plenty to be excited about when it comes to Ratboys and their rockin’ new release, The Window.

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:: stream/purchase The Window here ::
:: connect with Ratboys here ::

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The Window - Ratboys © Jennifer Cronin

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