Ratboys: “Open up this closet and there’s some weird thing in there”

The Chicago indie-rock band manifesting some weird stuff

Beloved Chicago four-piece Ratboys have been getting their house in order since 2010, and with a loyal following and four studio albums to date, it seems that with their latest, The Window, they’ve arrived somewhere that finally feels like home. They’ve been working on arrangements since as far back as 2018, so it’s a highly considered piece of work, the songs developing as the band themselves developed as musicians.

“This feels like our first full band record,” says vocalist and guitarist Julia Steiner. “Even though the previous album had that live band sound, this very much feels like the product of a group of people playing together and putting their heads together in a room.”

Forming out of Indiana’s University of Notre Dame before finding their way back to Chicago, Ratboys have garnered critical praise for their releases so far and have toured with the likes of Soccer Mommy and Pinegrove. The Window has ushered in a new era which will see them embark on their first headline tour, armed with some homemade displays made out of old windows that guitarist Dave Sagan proudly shows off during our Zoom call.

Leaving behind the Windy City to record in Seattle’s famed Wall of Justice Recording Studio, which has seen the likes of Nirvana and Sleater Kinney pass through its hallowed halls, the obvious direction would be to go a little bit grunge, but their sound went down a much more unexpected path. “I don’t think we were necessarily trying to channel [those band’s] sound when we were recording there,” Steiner says. “I read a review this morning that said we were ‘steeped in the Seattle sound’ while we were recording there, and I think the bigger difference was just getting out of our comfort zone and leaving home and recording in a place where we were fully immersed.”

With Chris Walla, formerly of Death Cab for Cutie, at the helm on production duties, their collaboration came about through the power of manifestation. With a wishlist to rival only that of an eight-year-old armed with a Sharpie and an Argos catalogue, a nudge from their manager to shoot for something bigger, followed by a cold call, led to them getting what they really want. “We did need to get out of our comfort zone. It’s our fourth record, and we were like, let’s just do this thing,” says Sagan.

“Chris was very available in the weeks and months leading up to the studio time,” Steiner continues. “We were in pretty close contact with him, like, sending him practice recordings and brainstorming about the songs and even the logistics of the studio. We were talking all the time going into it. So he already established this baseline level of approachability and relatability. And so I felt really comfortable going in.”

This level of comfort shines through in the music. Ratboys are arguably making their most expansive yet cohesive work to date, and The Window is the perfect encapsulation of a band that is at peak experimentation, flitting between sardonic power pop to alt-country, to sombre folk and just about everything in between. As a lyricist, Steiner believes that she isn’t good at “writing fiction”, with earnest tales of love and loss peppered throughout, adding to the band’s newfound confidence in their sound.

Collaborating as a quartet for the first time in the full making of the album, the “deeply curious individual” that is Chris Walla brought out a more playful side of the group in the form of a Pandora’s box of studio equipment. “It felt like we were playing a video game and there was just an infinite toolbox of things at the studio,” bassist Sean Neumann laughs. “It was like, open up this drawer and there’s some weird thing in there. Open up this closet and there’s some weird thing in there. Chris was just such a free-thinking kind of person. It felt very fun to just try things and see if they worked out and there were points where Marcus [the band’s drummer] and I were like waving microphones around just to try to get a more round sound going on. Dave was in a closet waving a talk box tube trying to get some noise in there, and we were playing with swords at one point to get some percussion stuff that had bells attached to them. There was just all this weird stuff in there, it was cool.”