10 years ago this April, Chicago’s Ratboys put out their first collection of songs. The RATBOY EP, consisting of five indie-folk dorm room recordings, was free to download on Bandcamp and humbly passed around to friends on social media.
Cut to 2021, and Ratboys would normally be celebrating their 10-year anniversary on the road, playing a mix of songs from their very first release to their most recent, last year’s critically-acclaimed Printer’s Devil. Instead, just two weeks after the album’s February 2020 release and mere days before heading out on their first headline tour, the COVID-19 pandemic forced all touring to a halt. Despite not being able to play in-person shows for the past year, Ratboys has managed to stay busy by performing their music online via their own Virtual Tour series and by finding a different way to celebrate their first decade of being a band.
OK. So this is what I consider to be the “first” Ratboys song. It’s the first song that I wrote after I moved away to college, which is where I met Dave, in the late summer of 2010. It was a time of total change and excitement in my life, and I remember feeling really nervous, but also really eager… like I could appreciate, in the moment, how life-changing this time was going to be in the grand scheme of things (as cliche as that feels to admit now).
So anyway, I remember writing the first verse and that’s it, and then sitting on it for a few months, which is where the title comes from. I just referred to it as “The Stanza” because that’s all it was for a while. Eventually I was able to flesh out some more ideas and work on it with Dave, who had a lot of input and gave me confidence to keep the pre-chorus and chorus parts, which I thought were kind of weird at the time. I had never played music with anyone else before then, so having someone to share ideas with was this amazing new experience.
This was the first song on our first release, an EP called RATBOY, which we put up on Bandcamp on April 1, 2011. We started playing our first shows a couple months later, and we haven’t really stopped playing this song since. So over the years, as we played with different drummers and changed up our sound little by little, we would add new ideas to the live arrangement of the song (like that triplet after the instrumental middle part, the bass drum dropping out in the third verse, getting loud at the very end, etc). So over time it became a song we would play every night, but eventually it sounded quite different from the only recorded version, which was from our dorm rooms 10 years ago.
We were really excited to finally record a studio version of this song for that reason, just to have a recording that sounds like how we play the song now. We went into the studio and knew exactly what we wanted to do. This song still feels really fresh to me, and the line “I wonder why and where we have to go” still hits home for some reason, I don’t even know why. Just that feeling of looking toward the future not with fear, but with curiosity. That’s still what I wanna do.
“Down the River”
This was a song that I wrote in high school and showed to Dave when we first met. I wrote it when I was 16, right after a pretty traumatic death in my family. It’s that classic trick of hiding super dark or cynical lyrics behind a bright melody; that was the goal. It was a nice coping mechanism, I think. But anyway, I recorded the original EP version in my dorm room with a ukulele, which I didn’t (and still don’t) really know how to play. For the album version, Dave took over the uke duties and added in a couple new riffs. It was also really nice to add in the drums and bass. I think I played “percussion” on the original recording using one of those microbead pillows from back in the day? Who knows. But, it felt nice to play this song with the band and figure out how to play it together because this is one that we hadn’t played live since I transitioned from performing with an acoustic guitar to an electric guitar in late 2014.
This was probably the most challenging song to re-imagine for the new record. When I first wrote this song in 2010 (a date that I shout out in the lyrics lol) it was very sparse, just acoustic guitar and a single vocal track. Then when I showed it to Dave, we didn’t end up adding much to it, just bass and shaker I think. This time we knew we wanted to add drums, but we wanted the song to maintain this airy, almost hypnotizing vibe and still feel super light and weird. We tried a few different ideas, and I’m stoked with what we ended up doing.
I wrote this song about a time I spent wandering around a park in Louisville with one of my best friends from high school. We went on this crazy walk through the woods and ended up chilling in a spot we loved, which overlooked the entrance to a tunnel on the highway. We just sat in silence and watched the cars all afternoon. Then I went home and wrote the song.
This is probably my favorite song out of the five EP songs because it’s so sparse and kinda strange, at least compared to the rest of our songs. It kinda just floats along. It also has this cool little riff at the end of each verse, which was exciting then and is still exciting now… it’s not every day that I write a cool little riff.
So this was another song that I wrote during the summer of 2010, a couple months before I met Dave. This is pretty cheesy to admit now, but I had just started smoking weed for the first time that summer, and I was having a really nice, innocent and good time just hanging out with my friends. We would literally get Wendy’s, go to my friend’s backyard, lay down in the grass, and watch the clouds… and listen to Imogen Heap. Those were simple times man.
So anyway, I was having fun experiencing this new thing, and I wrote “Key” about it. So silly. I still like it though. I like how the lyrics are really wide and open, and how there aren’t that many words. The chords are open too, and I think I just appreciate this song even more now because it’s nothing like the songs I write nowadays (for better or worse lol). It’s kind of a strange finger-picking pattern, and it was sort of tough getting in the groove of that pattern again when we started working on it again last year. This was definitely a song, like the rest of the EP songs except “The Stanza,” that we hadn’t played live since at least 2014.
There’s so much room to add fun stuff on this song though, so after we added the drums and percussion we knew we wanted to experiment with some synth elements and keys. Luckily our friend Evan Loritsch (Mother Evergreen) was down to come into Type One — the studio where we recorded Happy Birthday, Ratboy — one day on a whim and play the Rhodes. He did a beautiful job. Dave also played some pocket piano during the solo and at the end. It made the song feel even more whimsical and chill than it had back in the day. This song is silly, but I’m still happy it exists. It’s an especially nice one to put on or play when it’s nice out.
“at 39 is annie the oldest cat?”
This is the final song on the original EP and probably the weirdest one. I remember that I wrote this song in December 2010 while I was home for Christmas, and it was inspired by a story I read on StumbleUpon.com (RIP) about a cat named Annie who had just turned 39 years old. I was amazed that a cat could live that long and just wrote this little tongue-in-cheek minute long song about Annie the oldest cat. I showed it to Dave, and he had the idea that I should repeat the guitar loop for like three minutes after the vocals ended… so I did. Then, he took the acoustic recording I made and added a ton of crazy stuff on top of it, like all this distorted electronic stuff, I still have no idea what it was.
Anyways, the only time we ever played this song live was at the first show we ever played in a legit venue, when we got to open for Maps and Atlases in South Bend in September 2011. We played this song to close out our set, but the SPD we were borrowing malfunctioned, and it was pretty much a total disaster. So naturally we never tried to play it again lol.
For that reason this song sort of became a “studio project” more than any other song on the new record. We didn’t rehearse this one as a band, but rather we recorded each part spontaneously and tried a ton of different ideas. Like, way too much stuff going on. We recorded ourselves typing on computer keyboards and dropping car keys and shit. It was wild. Eventually we sent everything off to Jason Cupp, who mixed the new record, and asked him to choose what he liked best and sculpt something out of it. Luckily he did a great job and made something that sounds really cool out of what we sent. I didn’t realize until the very end that we accidentally recorded the song a whole step lower than the 2011 version, but it sounds heavier now I think. I still love this song to end the side of a record.
Alrighty, so this song starts off the B-side of Happy Birthday, Ratboy, which is made up mostly of other songs that we wrote in college and never really released or gave the full-band recording treatment. “Space Blows” is a song that I wrote completely spontaneously in one go in the fall of 2013. That pretty much never happens, truly never, that I can write a song on the spot and have it pretty much be the final lyrics and melody and chords from the start. I think this is the only time it’s worked out like that. So, this song was very special to me, it just sort of came out one day, and then it was there. After I listened back to the lyrics it made me think of an apocalyptic scenario, where an asteroid has just struck the earth and everyone’s running around freaking out. I’ve always been super freaked out by the concept of outer space and the universe, so I called it “Space Blows.” And that was that.
Dave and I first recorded this song in his basement in the spring of 2014 and did our best to record the drums and everything. It was super lo-fi. We started playing this song live pretty much immediately, especially after I switched over to playing electric guitar later that year. Much like “The Stanza” we’ve played this song live consistently ever since then, so going into the studio last year we were excited to record this song like we had been playing it at shows. I also had a ton of fun picking out which different harmonies to record. We buried a sample of a NASA space shuttle launch countdown (3…2…1… we have liftoff!) somewhere in there. I love the way this song pushes and pulls, I remember this was the only song on the new record that we didn’t record to a metronome.
This song is sort of the sister song to “Space Blows” in my mind. I wrote this song for a class I was taking during my last year of college called “Gender and Rock n Roll” (it was awesome). I don’t remember the exact assignment, but for my final project I decided to document the process and how it felt to make a loud song for the first time ever. This song was loud on purpose, and I had never written a song with that intention before. I wanted the lyrics to be about my experience as a woman playing music, how sometimes it feels like music fans, mainly men, “collect” frontwomen in bands almost like trading cards or dolls on a shelf. How, from a young age, boys are encouraged to be loud and bold and big, while girls are told to play nicely and quietly. Obviously this isn’t always the case, but it struck me how a woman in rock with a powerful voice is often viewed as special and different, as an anomaly.
So anyways, I realized that I didn’t really know what it felt like to inhabit that kind of space, so I wrote this song to change that. We originally recorded it at the same time as “Space Blows,” and I submitted the songs together to my professor. This one is pretty much a straightforward rock jam, and we had so much fun rehearsing it for the studio this time around. The “breakdown” in the middle is absolutely ridiculous, and I had a great time recording the harmonies at home, just going ham with the darkest choral vowels I could make. I really wanted them to sound like harmonies from a Yes song. One day Marcus said that this song sounds like Rilo Kiley on Radio Disney, and I took that as a very high compliment. That’s the vibe for sure.
“Cacao to Cacao”
I wrote this song in 2012, I think when I was living in Dublin, Ireland for my third year of school. I had just started watching Portlandia, and this song was based on a bit in Season 1 Episode 2, where the characters Lance and Nina start using “cacao” as a safe word during sex, and it gets out of hand. It’s so ridiculous, and I just wrote this song about that situation. I wanted it to be sort of the opposite of “Down the River,” where it’s a song that sounds super serious and dramatic, but is actually about something that’s light-hearted and silly. I wanted it to be a song about when you’re on the verge of breaking up with someone, and it’s a lover trying to convince the other to stay. A very romantic, sensual song… about Nina and Lance. It still makes me smile and laugh.
This is a song that we hadn’t released before or ever played live as a band (I think). We originally recorded a demo of this song when we were working on songs for our last album, Printer’s Devil, but it didn’t quite fit when we went into the studio to make that record. So it felt like a natural thing to record it for this new record. We had fun adding in the percussion elements, I think it was just a shaker, stick clicks, and Marcus hitting a microphone case with the heel of his palm. It was a good time, just messing around with ideas like that in our basement, taking our time and seeing what worked and felt good. We were going for a sort of Maps and Atlases or Tune-Yards vibe with the percussion stuff. Those two bands were huge early influences when Dave and I first started playing together.
“Have a Heart”
This is another song that I wrote for a class in college, this time for “Arthurian Literature” (books, poems, tales, etc. about King Arthur). I originally recorded this song by myself when I submitted it for class, and it was about a story we had read where Queen Guinevere tricks King Arthur by accusing this guy named Lanval of hitting on her. Arthur leaves at once, vowing to avenge this treachery, without knowing the truth: that Queen Gwen had actually pursued Lanval, and twisted the story when he rejected her advances. What a jerk. So anyway, the song is from the perspective of King Arthur, basically putting his wife on a pedestal and vowing revenge, without knowing what’s actually going on, that she doesn’t really love him.
It’s basically a medieval soap opera, and it was a fun song to write back in the day. We then recorded this song during the sessions for our first album AOID, but we never put it out physically (with the exception of a run of 40 cassette tapes I made of the original EP and this song for a tour in late 2014). Anyways, Adam Beck, who recorded Happy Birthday, Ratboy, suggested adding strings to this song, which was a great idea. We contacted Mallory Linehan and Lizzy Jordan to play violin and cello, and they were able to record their parts at home and send them in, which was clutch with COVID and all. They did a lovely job, and it adds a certain extra layer of emotion to the song. Poor King Arthur. Meant well, but what a dummy.
“88 Fingers Edward”
This is the last “old” song of the bunch, and it’s one I wrote sometime in early 2011. This one isn’t specifically “about” anything at all, but I remember that for some school assignment that semester I had to do a “study of human behavior,” so naturally I chose to sit at a street corner and watch people in their cars while they were stopped at red lights, and then write down what they did while they were waiting for the light to turn green. I thought I’d see some exciting stuff, maybe some folks belting a song at the top of their lungs, or picking their nose, or putting on makeup… but no. Ninety-nine percent of the people I watched just stared straight ahead. Exciting stuff.
Nowadays you’d probably see lots of people texting or otherwise on their phones, but back then it was just a lot of staring. So that’s what the line about “the amount of people I’ve seen staring at the traffic light forgetting that they can be seen” is referencing. Otherwise, I wanted the lyrics to sort of ramble and flow together from line to line and be one big continuous thought. The title is referencing an episode of Ed, Edd, and Eddy where Double D is suddenly revealed to be super good at the pedal steel, like this complete prodigy out of nowhere. I loved that show, and that episode in particular is amazing.
Anyways, like “Cacao to Cacao” we demoed out this song when we were writing Printer’s Devil because we had never done anything with it up to that point. The demo version was super short — it ended right after the vocals ended. I don’t remember who it was — maybe Marcus? — but when we were working on this one again last year someone had the idea to add on a long jam section at the end. We were very much going for a Built to Spill vibe with that. It was a blast to add that part, especially to write the little bass and guitar call and response thing that happens leading into the jam (I love that part). Then Dave ripped a very long guitar solo, and that was that. Marcus added a fakeout ending, which is dope. That whole jam at the end has very strong “last track” energy in my opinion, so it felt good to put it at the end of the record. The jam part also ended up being longer than the original song, which I love. It turned into something much cooler than the original seed of the idea.
Last song! This is the only song of the bunch that was written post-2013, post-college. Dave and I wrote this song in April 2019 during a break from touring. It was this super innocent, at the time kinda meaningless folk jam about wanting to hang out with friends and be outside in the sun. Then, of course, once COVID happened and we were all forced to be indoors for a prolonged period of time, the song took on a whole new sense of meaning. We were originally thinking of waiting to record this song and releasing it later on down the line, but Kevin and Seth at Topshelf had the idea to add a newer song to the end of the record as a bonus track. When we looked at the new songs we had written, this was the perfect choice, because the lyrics were suddenly so relevant. Almost weirdly relevant, in 2020 and beyond.
This song came together super quickly when we recorded it, I almost don’t even remember working on it. We recorded one acoustic guitar track up in Michigan, one acoustic guitar track and the lead vocals at Type One, and then everything else we recorded at home — except for the pedal steel, which the amazing Pat Lyons recorded at his home in Nashville, in like no time at all. He is a wizard of twang.
I think my favorite part of working on this song was figuring out the harmonies. They criss cross the lead vocal melody a lot, which was really challenging and fun to figure out. Sean had the idea to add a high harmony on the lines “my main street” and “float off with the angels,” which was a great call. He also suggested recording a little “hocketed” vocal part during the guitar solo, such sounds almost like a synth. I’m stoked with how that turned out, and with how the whole song turned out. It felt very natural to get this one down.