Ratboys Are The Gentle Poet Laureates Of The College Dorm
Julia Steiner wrote some of her first songs in high school. The 25-year-old singer and guitarist of Chicago band Ratboys worked "in seclusion" then and started to spin childhood memories into melodic narratives. A few years later, Steiner had channeled a near-train derailment involving her brother Paul into a song called "Control," driven by gentle, instantly hummable melodies.
"Control," one of the best songs on the band's new album, GN (like how you'd text the words "good night"), tells that story in five minutes amid busy drums and country guitar licks courtesy of the band's other half, Dave Sagan, also 25. The two met in college in 2010. Across GN, his noisy guitar casts gorgeous shadows on Steiner's earnest examinations of self and purpose. Sometimes they're explored through the lens of historical figures — the icy thud of "Crying About the Planets" recounts a harrowing Antarctic journey taken by British explorers in 1910 — and other times they're sheer biography.
As GN proves, Steiner can write a hell of a sneaky melody. Her lyrical decorations, too, can just level you with odd turns of phrase ("Elvis is in the freezer / I got your tail, I'm teasin'") that deposit themselves in the back of your brain for weeks. Now, the band is signed to Topshelf Records with a run of East Coast shows booked through the fall. But before all that, Ratboys began with a friend request.
Steiner and Sagan met as freshmen at the University of Notre Dame, though technically they had their first interaction over the summer in a Facebook group for incoming students. Someone would crowdsource a question about moving in — "like, 'What kind of fridge do I get?' or 'Is anyone driving from Missouri?'" Steiner recalls — and others would answer. She saw a comment Sagan had posted but was more intrigued by his profile photo. She clicked on it. "It was him without a shirt playing this beautiful Rickenbacker bass," she told MTV News recently, "and I was like, I'd like to be friends with this guy. So I friend-requested him, as people did back then."
Sagan was game: "I saw Julia and realized she played music and she was probably a person I'd like to make music with." He accepted her request. A few months later, the pair met up during freshman orientation and ended up exchanging some favorite albums they'd burned for each other — Steiner chose Wilco and Gorillaz; Sagan went with The Microphones and The Dodos.
"We gave each other the mixes to listen to, and I was like, 'Dude you put on my favorite Radiohead song on the mix,'" Steiner said. "And he was like, 'You put my favorite Radiohead song.' It was just a classic indie friendship being born."
With the musical foundation laid, the two started jamming. Notre Dame's strict dorm rules meant they couldn't be in each other's rooms past a certain hour, so they'd fit in as much as they could before parting. Sagan's guitar added a heft to Steiner's early acoustic songs and newer ones she was writing, like "The Stanza," a sparse early official Ratboys release. "I came from playing in punk and hardcore bands in high school, but I was into everything," Sagan said. "I’d just have to chill out my playing to kind of mesh with Julia, and I think Julia had to pick it up a bit."
There was no studio time booked, so the pair used what they had available to them on campus to make it. Steiner recorded vocals in the chapel and wrote guitar parts in dorm lounges. The two met up to share new songs and exchange notes on tracks in the communal laundry room. As the hook on "The Stanza" — where a moony Steiner sings "I wonder why and where we have to go" — reveals, this was a time of total exploration for the young students.
Inspired partly by "these really crazy four-hour, five-hour country drives in northern Indiana" they took by the end of their first year when they were allowed cars on campus, the first handful of Ratboys songs were folky with touches of twee — accessible pop that wouldn't be out of place at a campus open mic. They're an important part of what would eventually become the definitive Ratboys sound, the sound that GN cements as Steiner sings, "I just wanna love my family / Hold my shelter and lie in the symmetry" on its opening track.
Some of what ended up on GN dates from this time, too, like "Elvis in the Freezer," an elegy to Steiner's dead cat and an exhalation of guilt for letting a personal relationship lapse, and "Peter the Wild Boy," the album's closing track which could be a sonic sequel to Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm." But the pair graduated years ago. Why the delay in releasing tracks that date back to their days as students?
"We knew we couldn't really tour until we finished [school] just because Notre Dame is so expensive, and it was a sacrifice that our parents were making and an investment that we had made," Steiner said. "But at the same time, I think we both knew that as soon as we graduated, we wanted to really give this a shot."
So they did. The band's 2015 debut, AOID, was recorded while Sagan finished up his final year in school and could only contribute on weekends. Now with GN and the songs born from their years-old indie companionship out in the world, Steiner stressed that going all in on their band had less to do than trying to get a record deal than with finding someone you can explore your own musical and creative impulses with. That happened naturally over the course of their years at college.
"[For] someone who's just about to go to college and is kind of setting out to meet someone to play music with, it's cool to know that you can take it slow and just create things in the context of going to school and not be in a huge, huge rush to enter any sort of industry or scene necessarily," Steiner said. In other words, don't hesitate. Send that friend request already.