Photo: Alexa Viscius / Pitch Perfect PR

Ratboys Seize ‘The Window’ of Opportunity

After breaking through with a lockdown-inspired set of songs, the Ratboys’ “post-country” stylings find a new audience, opening for the Decemberists.

The Window
25 August 2023

After steadily building an audience from a decade of well-regarded releases and tours with bands such as Soccer Mommy, PUP, and Foxing, Ratboys are truly having their moment.

Ratboys’ latest album, The Window, released last August, earned rave reviews and wound up on many Best of 2023 lists. Earlier this year, the Chicago-based band made an appearance on CBS Sunday Morning and is about to start a headlining spring tour at the end of this month, followed by a summer that will be spent opening for the Decemberists. It is exciting to see a band continue to reach greater and greater heights after putting in the work to build their audience steadily.

Lead singer and guitarist Julia Steiner and guitarist David Sagan started the band while they were in college together at Notre Dame. After relocating to Chicago, they added Sagan’s friend Sean Neumann in 2016 and Marcus Nuccio, who is also in Pet Symmetry with Into It, Over It’s Evan Thomas Weiss, and Dowsing’s Erik Czaja in 2017.

Ratboys’ indie rock with elements of folk and country has been called “post-country” (initially coined by a half-joking Steiner), but the sound has continued to evolve its sound over the past 15 years. The group began to generate critical buzz with their second album, 2017’s GN, and built upon that with 2020’s Printers Devil. In 2021, the band celebrated their tenth anniversary with Happy Birthday, Ratboy, which features re-recordings of their first release, along with rarities and one of their more popular songs, a new track called “Go Outside”, which turned up in a Walmart ad campaign, provided a hint about Ratboys’ next chapter. 

With touring on hold in 2020, Ratboys spent most of that year writing the songs that would become The Window. “We had about 18 months to work together,” said lead singer Julia Steiner. “We were really coming into our own as a four-piece, exchanging ideas in a democratic way. Four minds on the songs, stretching them even further. We definitely want to keep pushing ourselves down that path.”

For Steiner, having the extra downtime was one upside of lockdown. “I don’t write music on tour, but I gather lyric ideas and observations on my phone. Not having the time on the road was not much of a change to my process. In fact, the indefinite nature of things and not having a deadline were liberating; there were no time constraints since we didn’t know when we would do anything again. It gave us the time to slowly chip away at ideas.”

After locking down the songs that would become The Window, Ratboys reached out to Chris Walla, formerly of Death Cab for Cutie and now known as the go-to producer for guiding emo and indie bands to career peaks, including Tegan and Sara‘s The Con, Foxing’s Nearer My God, and the Decemberists’ Picaresque and The Crane Wife. “We met Chris when we were opening for Foxing. I was so blown away by his production of Nearer My God. It’s one of my favorite albums; so many big, bold production choices. When it was time to record, I cold-messaged him,” Steiner said.

The partnership with Walla turned out to be everything Ratboys hoped it would be. For the first time, the group recorded to tape to get more of an in-the-room live sound. “We really clicked with him. He has this combination of technical expertise and an intangible sense of how to bring a song to life and how to add different flavors and energies to songs. His approach is multisensory, not just how it sounds, but how it feels, too. Having more time in the studio allowed us to sink our teeth into these songs more than we had on previous records,” Steiner said.

Photo: Alexa Viscius / Pitch Perfect PR

The title The Window is where many of us watched life from in 2020, and Steiner’s understated lyrics revisit the lockdown experience without putting the listener through the wringer. “It’s Alive” collects moments like watching birds, feeling breezes through windows, and marking the time spent at home wondering when things might get back to normal. “Morning Zoo” deals with repetitive daily life and the anxiety and paralysis that comes with making changes. “I wrote that one on Leap Day of 2020. It feels weirdly prescient,” she said.

As he did with Foxing and many other bands, Walla has helped Ratboys deliver their best collection of songs yet. From the first listen, every aspect of what made the band great sounds leveled up. It is unsurprising that The Window has led to the band getting more attention than ever.

The title track is about her grandfather having to say goodbye to her grandmother through the nursing home window because of COVID-19 restrictions. The lyrics are beautifully understated and moving, a passing captured with bittersweet sentiment. The record also contains some upbeat, high-energy tracks like opener “Making Noise for the Ones You Love” and “Crossed that Line”. “I Want You (Fall 2010)” is a sweet, catchy love song destined to land on countless playlists for crushes. “Black Earth, WI” is something else altogether, a jam stretching out for several minutes.

With near-unanimous critical acclaim, including an appearance in PopMatters‘ Best Rock Albums of 2023 and the CBS Sunday Morning appearance, Ratboys’ profile has never been higher. “I have to give a shout out to our publicist, who made it happen. We had never done a national TV show. It was cool to see the work that goes into doing a show. Also, many of our families were stoked to see us on TV,” Steiner said. 

Ratboys toured The Window last fall, and this spring begins with a series of headlining shows.

Since live music returned, show attendance has ebbed and flowed for many touring bands. Fortunately, Ratboys has been able to draw well post-shutdown. “We don’t have anything to compare our upcoming headlining shows because before 2020, we hadn’t really been the headliner,” she said. “This tour has some smaller cities, and all are selling well. It finally feels like things are comfortable again at shows without as much worry about getting sick. It’s nice to be back,” Steiner said. “There are always some tickets that are sold but not used. Venues and promoters have told us it’s like this for everyone right now. Some people get sick and decide not to show up to avoid getting sick. We seem to be doing as well as everyone else right now.”

As for the summer tour with the Decemberists, Steiner is excited to see what their audience is like and how they respond to Ratboys. “It’s a challenge that we enjoy, winning over a crowd. When you know the audience is there to see you, it’s a different dynamic. Being the opener sets a different tone for the show. And the shows with the Decemberists are larger venues, and that also creates a different flow to the day, with that size and scale.”

She hopes the mix of whimsy and moroseness in songs like “Elvis Is in the Freezer” will win over the Decemberists’ fan base. “It will be fun to tell the stories behind the songs to new people,” she said. “Our longtime fans have heard all my stories a few times by now.” Pretty sure they don’t mind.