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.
Julia Steiner fronts the Chicago-based indie rock band Ratboys; El Kempner fronts the New-York-via-Boston indie rock trio Palehound (whose latest record, Eye On The Bat, just came out last month on Polyvinyl). Ratboys’ new record, The Window, is out tomorrow via Topshelf Records, so to celebrate, the two friends got on a Zoom call to catch up about it, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Julia Steiner: The last time we saw each other, was it 2018 or 2019? When you were on tour with Cherry Glazerr.
El Kempner: Oh, my god. Yeah, 2019 — but the beginning of 2019.
Julia: That was a lovely time. Dave [Sagan, Ratboys guitarist] reminded me of this, but do you remember when we listened to the Black Friday test press?
El: Dude, I do remember that. Oh, my god, this was so long ago. It’s been too long.
Julia: I know. How you doing?
El: I’m alright, I’m good. I’m living in New York now, which I wasn’t doing in 2019.
Julia: Are you in Brooklyn?
El: I’m in Brooklyn. It’s nice. I’m living alone; I have a cat now.
Julia: What a dream. Living alone with a cat sounds like my fantasy.
El: It is a fantasy. But then sometimes I’m like, Where is everybody?
Julia: Yeah, fair enough. What kind of cat do you have?
El: He’s right here. [El pans the camera to their cat.]
Julia: Oh, my god. What’s his name?
Julia: Angel. That rocks.
El: Yeah, he does. He rocks.
Julia: Is he excited about the album release?
El: Oh, yeah. No, actually, it’s so funny, he could not be less supportive of my career. I woke up the day the album came out, and I had texts from friends and family like, “Congrats!” And then I look over at the only living thing in my vicinity and he’s just glaring at me for food. [Laughs.]
Julia: “Feed me!”
El: What about you, dude? I got the link for your record and it’s so sick. I’m so excited about it for you guys. It’s awesome.
Julia: Yeah, we’re stoked to put it out. I mean, it’s the old cliche, but it’s been done for a while.
El: Has it? When did you record it?
Julia: We recorded it February and March of ‘22. It took a while to mix and then we got it mastered in August of last year. So it’s been fully done for almost a year.
El: Dude, it takes so long, especially with the vinyl. Is that the reason it’s taken so long for y’all, the vinyl?
Julia: It’s a whole thing. We were finished with our previous contract, all that, yada yada, and it took a minute to figure out what we wanted to do with it. Also Chris [Walla], who recorded the album, and his wife had a baby, so the mixing took a little longer just because he was learning how to be a dad.
El: A new dad.
Julia: Totally respect that. But I mean, I’m down to get dirty in the details, so I’m definitely a reason that the mixing took a while too. I’m like, “Can we actually turn this one tiny thing down?”
El: It paid off, because it sounds amazing. I think it’s your best record, in terms of — I mean, you guys have always slayed, but it’s a real slay with the songs and the instrumentation. Also the production is so awesome.
Julia: Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say. I mean, it’s funny: The feeling is extremely mutual with Eye on the Bat. It’s wonderful. Sam [Owens, producer] had the perfect touch on your style.
El: Sam is the best. Do you know Sam?
Julia: Yeah, and I was curious to hear how you’ve gotten to know him as well. We’ve met a couple times, but I actually first met and saw Sam way back in the day — are you familiar with his band Celestial Shore.
Julia: I knew you would be.
El: You know I love that shit.
Julia: Real heads know. I am a huge fan of that band. I first saw Celestial Shore — OK, this is maybe my favorite show I’ve ever been to, ever. I’ll go in reverse order: The opener was a band called The Rutabaga from South Bend; wonderful band. Then Awkwafina, doing a rap set.
El: That’s so weird.
Julia: I know. Then Celestial Shore, and then Deerhoof.
El: Oh, yeah. They love Deerhoof, and Deerhoof loves them. I saw Deerhoof a few months ago and I was like, Right, the best band.
Julia: Dude, they are still crushing it.
El: They’re unbelievable.
Julia: My favorite band on Earth.
El: Every time I see them, I remember, That’s it. That’s the band.
Julia: They just make me feel like a child. I feel so happy. Their love of music and playing together is so infectious.
El: You know that they still tour in a minivan?
Julia: I know, they’re lifers. Like, definition.
El: It’s so funny, I was talking to Larz [Brogan, Palehound multi-instrumentalist] about it and I was like, “You and I are such huge babies. These people have been touring for our entire lives, and they’re still in a minivan with all of their gear and their merch and probably a TM.”
Julia: I saw them last week and Greg [Saunier] said, “We’re entering the 29th year of this tour.” I was like, You’re my hero.
El: Oh, my god. But yeah, I got to know Celestial Shore when I was living at home, actually, as a teenager. I was in high school and I got a Bandcamp link for three of their songs, and I was like, What the fuck is this! Why is this so good? I became obsessed with Sam. I was just like, That guy is so fucking good at guitar. I cannot believe what he’s doing. His voice is that of an angel. The songs are pop hits and they sound insane and the drums are also insane.
Julia: Jazz chaos.
El: Jazz chaos. And so then I was a huge super fan of Sam’s, and was scared of him — even though we started kind of playing shows together. Once I was doing the Exploding In Sound thing, I was kind of starting to get booked on shows with them. I was so intimidated by him because he’s so talented and so hot and so cool. I was like, I don’t know how to talk to this guy. I think the moment we bonded was when we actually played a house show together in Fort Worth, Texas. That was the most depressing show ever, where it was just us, Celestial Shore, and then a local high school band who was putting on the show. The only people there were the bands that were playing. And Sam was like, “This shit is fucking hard, man.” We got real with each other. But of course, I was not having a bad day because I was playing with Celestial Shore. So I was like, “Yeah, this shit is hard…”
Julia: But secretly you’re like, This is sick. That’s real bonding hours, right?
El: It was. And then for this record, Polyvinyl actually suggested him, and I was like, oh, duh, why the fuck wouldn’t I hit up Sam?
Julia: Nice. Had you been up to [Sam’s studio] Flying Cloud before?
El: No. Have you been up there?
Julia: No, I’ve just seen photos on Instagram.
El: You guys should go up there.
Julia: I want to check it out. It’s in nature, right?
El: Super in nature. It’s him and his partner, Hannah [Cohen]. She’s really sweet, they live in this gorgeous house with a lot of land, and they have a big field and their dog. They have a river that runs through the the property.
Julia: And an ATV. Did you ride on the ATV?
El: Hell no. It’s so sick because Sam is so good at house stuff — he fixed the electricity when we were there once, and he drove one of those snowplow things around their yard. Me and Larz were just saluting him from inside. We call him an honorary lesbian because, honestly, he is.
Julia: Bless him. I can see him now with a bunch of chopped wood in the back of his ATV.
El: With the recording studio. He’s really living the dream up there.
Julia: I would love to just see it. I’m curious if you found recording in that environment — being out in nature, surrounded by green space — made a difference in the session itself, or how the days felt as they kept going on and on?
El: Yeah, definitely. I think more than the nature, though, was just the vibe of being [there]. Sam and Hannah feel like your parents sometimes, especially when you’re there — they’re cooking all the meals, they’re making sure your bed is made. They’re really amazing hosts and they make you feel really cared for. I think that actually had more of an effect. Being isolated in the nature and all that was great, but also the vibe was like, Oh, we’re just jamming in a friend’s living room. And that was really what it was. We’ve recorded in fancy studios that have been in nature before, but I feel like the vibe of fancy — like really fancy — studios is really intimidating for me.
Julia: It’s high pressure, because you know you’re paying for it.
El: You’re just like, I have to use every minute of this extremely expensive gear that I can.
El: Sam has super nice gear, but it’s not like sleek, pristine studio vibes.
Julia: So was it just you and Larz playing everything?
El: Zoë Brecher — do you know Zoe?
Julia: Are they the lefty?
El: Yeah, that’s the lefty. They played drums on two of the tracks, and they were at some of the sessions. But Larz is an amazing drummer, so Larz did most of the drums on the record.
Julia: Larz can do anything, dude.
El: Larz is crazy. Larz is one of those people that literally can pick up any instrument and be the best at it. They went to Berklee for guitar and they barely play guitar anymore. They’re an incredible drummer, they’re an incredible bassist. aAnd we’ve been friends for eight years, and last year they were, “Yeah, I was first chair violin in high school.” [Laughs.] I was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
Julia: Alright, fuck off, Larz. We get it.
El: So where did you record? Were you in Chicago?
Julia: No, actually, this is the first time that we left Chicago to record. We drove out to Seattle.
El: Wow. With all your gear?
Julia: With all our gear.
El: You guys own a van, right?
Julia: We actually just bought a van in the last month. We always toured in an SUV — a Toyota Sequoia SUV with a small trailer on the back.
El: That’s hardcore.
Julia: Well, honestly, it’s a very comfortable car. I love it. And we got a really, really good deal on that trailer — our buddy Mikey’s dad sold it to us for, like, $600 back in the day.
El: That’s good. So the car is pretty empty. There’s a lot of room to just chill in the car, you’re not sitting on top of things.
Julia: Yeah, there’s room for sure. And it’s always just been the four of us, so we’ve never had a crew or anything. Hopefully now that we have a van, we could bring someone with us. But we just piled in the SUV, drove out [to Seattle]. It took three days each way. It was a long drive. Then we got out there and had the longest time we’ve ever had in the studio. When we were talking with Chris about how we should plan this, he was like, “I think this is a 24 day record.”
El: Woah. I mean, that’s a lot of record.
Julia: It’s long, yeah.
El: But it doesn’t feel long. I was just like, Woah, this is a sizable album. Lots of guitar solos, which, you know I love.
Julia: You love to hear it, yes. I want to talk about your riffs too, because they’ve never been better. But yeah, it was so funny — he was like “24. Not 23, not 25; 24.” And we were like, “OK.”
El: So he’s in Seattle, and that’s his studio?
Julia: It’s his studio that he’s worked out of for a long time, but Chris actually lives in Norway now. His wife is a linguist — it’s like another world.
El: That’s hot.
Julia: Yeah. But he flew to Seattle to make this record with us. And every part of it — like, The fact that you fucking know who we are is shocking enough to me; the fact that you’re willing to fly across the world to work with us is truly ridiculous and insane.
El: Not ridiculous to me, because y’all are a fucking sick band and you’ve been a very sick band for a minute.
Julia: Thank you. We were all just huge fans of Chris’s work before meeting him, so it was just very surreal. But yeah, it was a good time. And it was cool to be out there — we’ve always made records and then come home to sleep in our own beds at night, so it was cool to all be there together, all the time.
El: Did the studio have lodging or did you have to get an Airbnb or something?
Julia: No, we actually ended up subletting our friend’s house.
El: That’s lucky.
Julia: Yeah. And we were cat sitting the whole time, this cat named Moose. We slept in the same room as Moose — she’s my spirit animaI. Every time I listen to any songs from the record, I think of Moose. She was keeping me going.
El: Having an animal around in a recording session is really important.
Julia: I know. She was there when we left each morning and she was there when we came home each night.
El: Your friend!
Julia: It was just so pleasant. Our buddy Tom, who we were staying at his house, was like, “Sorry, you gotta watch my cat.” And we were like, “Bruh, you do not understand. This is a huge bonus.” You said there was a dog at Flying Cloud?
El: Yeah, Jan the dog. She’s an amazing dog. She’s really shy and really skittish — we did this record in chunks, because it was easy for us to drive up and back, and with every visit, she got closer with us. By the end, she let us pet her and throw her ball to her. That was cool to work up the trust with her.
Julia: You earned it. That rocks.
El: Sure did. What record is this for y’all?
Julia: It’s four, technically. What about you? Is this four for you, too?
Julia: Lucky number four.
El: We’re out here, man.
Julia: We out here. Had you demoed most of it out before you got in there?
El: Some of it. Some of them were not demoed at all. “My Evil” had no plan going into the studio. I didn’t even think I was going to record that one. “The Clutch” had a demo. Some of them had pretty full-fledged demos, and then a lot of them I just kind of wanted to wing it and trust the live element, because that’s kind of what I was going for with this. I was like, “We love playing live so much and we are a good live band, we should just try to capture that energy in the studio as much as we can.” So because of that, I didn’t really want to go in with a ton of expectations for some of the songs. What about you?
Julia: I don’t know if we demoed all of them, but we were rehearsing them a lot, and we would record our practices.
El: I like that vibe too. We did a couple like that. I don’t think that counts as a demo, necessarily.
Julia: Yeah, it really wasn’t.
El: You’re not setting stuff in stone. It’s a jam.
Julia: I was excited to go in without certain things set in stone. I wrote none of the harmonies ahead of time. The vocal harmonies were all in the moment, which was really fun. I’m not sure how I feel about it, demoing. I kind of hate it. Part of me is like, “Let’s just go make it.” But I’m curious how you view it. Did it change this time?
El: I love demoing because I grew up a GarageBand kid. Really at the end of the day, I wish I could make my own records myself and I wish I knew the gear well enough. And I’m saying this like it’s not something I could learn — I could definitely just take the time to learn what a compressor actually does. But I do like recording, so I think I’ve always had a knack for that. I like demoing, but also I do feel like I’ve learned the beauty of not doing it recently. The Bachelor album, we had not a single song written or demoed going into that session. That is when I learned how fun that can be. That’s how Melina [Duterte, aka Jay Som] works, which is awesome.
Julia: That’s the beauty and the freedom of being able to just record as you go.
El: That’s the thing: Melina is this amazing producer and genius with gear, so she can do that — she can be writing and recording the final product at the same time. I want to get to that point.
Julia: Yeah, I’m definitely not in that camp either.
El: It’s so hard. [Laughs.]
Julia: It’s so hard. So many knobs and I just don’t know what they do.
El: And money — it’s so expensive to even learn how to use that stuff, you know?
Julia: Yeah, totally. Which is why if you meet someone that knows—
El: You just have to be like, “Who has all the gear?”
Julia: I also feel like you can make the coolest stuff on accident, and when you don’t know what you’re doing maybe that lends itself to the most interesting, original sounds. I saw you talked about how “U Want It U Got It” was from the demo that you made when you were fucking around with gear that you had never used, and it sounds really cool.
El: That one turned out great, but mainly because Sam mixed it — so then I realized I could be producing stuff and having someone mix it. But we had to rerecord a couple things. For example, I don’t know how to record live drums. I can’t fucking do that. So we had to record the live drums in the studio, and stuff like that. But some weird shit can definitely come with that, and that song is weird as fuck.
Julia: Yeah, weird in a good way. I like weird shit. I feel like I just don’t experiment as much these days with recording. I was kind of a GarageBand kid too — I was literally using a Snowball mic into my MacBook. After I stopped doing that is when I started working with friends to make records, and so I never really kept going on my journey. I want to learn more.
El: I’m sure someone out there is teaching. I think all of us have to get together and learn this stuff.
Julia: You’re right. We should start—
El: A summer camp. A recording summer camp.
Julia: Yeah. Melina should teach us all.
El: Honestly, she would destroy that. She’s way too busy for that shit right now, though.
Julia: Fair enough. Are you excited for those shows you’re playing with Jimmy Eat World?
El: It’s so exciting. I love Jimmy Eat World. It’s crazy. We have really not toured successfully since—
Julia: Shit got in the way.
El: Shit got in the way. We’ve done a lot of support stuff over the past couple of years that has been really rough with the pandemic, just in terms of not having control over what happens.
Julia: You’re the band that when people are like, “How was it dealing with the shutdown?” I’m like, “Y’all, there were literally bands out there that were across the country from their home and had to drive all the way back.” Correct me if I’m wrong, you were in San Francisco?
El: Oregon, but you’re close. Our last show was San Francisco.
Julia: And you had to drive to Boston.
El: New York. It’s 45 hours. We had a San Francisco show, then we had a day off and then we were supposed to play Portland. And on the day off, I got a call from my manager like, “Uh, the NBA has canceled the rest of their season and SXSW is canceled. You can probably play your Denver show next week, but the Pacific Northwest is canceled, so you should probably kill time until the Denver show, because that’ll probably happen.” Then we killed time — luckily my mom lives in Wyoming, so we stayed at her house for a couple days. But, dude, it was terrifying because we were driving across the country — you know what that’s like. That’s already terrifying on the best of days. And then McDonald’s drive-thrus are closed and hotels are shutting down and the grocery stores are completely barren. So it was just like, “Will we find something to eat? Will we find somewhere to sleep?” We just didn’t know every day.
Julia: That’s so gnarly. My chest is getting tight just thinking about it.
El: It was a total nightmare. [Laughs.]
Julia: Yeah. The, “Eye on the Bat” lyric about listening to Black Sabbath — was that referencing that drive specifically?
El: Yeah. I was just writing lyrics about how fucked up everything was in the car. I was like, Well, I don’t even know what’s happening… They were joke lyrics. So anyway, I’m excited to get back into some really serious, good shit. It’s just been L after L.
Julia: Yeah, I don’t blame you. I’m curious what you think about when you think back on that time. I really, really, really love the line about, “I don’t want to see the other path,” from the “Independence Day” song. Maybe I’m projecting my own feelings about the situation — I don’t know if it’s out of survival instinct or self-preservation or what, but some people are like, “What do you think would have happened if COVID never happened? How would that have affected your career?” I literally cannot think about that. I can’t, because that fucking crushes me.
El: It’s crushing. Were you on an album cycle when that happened?
Julia: Yeah, we were two days away from leaving for our first headline tour.
El: That sucks too, though. You guys got fucked too.
Julia: Where do you think that comes from? “I don’t want to see the other path.” Does that come from a place of self-preservation for you, or is that a different emotion?
El: Well, that’s more about like a relationship — that’s about a breakup, making that choice and being like, What if we had stayed together, and moved across the country together?
Julia: Like not doubting yourself.
El: Yeah. The lyric as I wrote it was more about being like, I don’t want to know if I made the right choice or not. But it’s interesting to hear about it in terms of COVID, where it’s something out of your hands. But I do think about that sometimes; I can’t think about what it would have been like, because the day we shut down the tour was the day before a string of sold out shows that I’d been waiting for, for eight years at that point, and working towards. So that was heartbreaking because I was just like, We’re finally selling out shows. We’ve been touring for so long, we’ve never gotten close to this, and now it’s finally happening, and then it just got shut down. The Bachelor record got fucked by it too.
Julia: Was that done already?
El: It was tracked already so Melina and I spent hours and hours over Zoom mixing it. Then we never played a single Bachelor show. Not one. So I don’t know what it would have been. I think all of us can can relate to that, that all of our shit got so fucked.
Julia: There is so much lingering trauma — I really do think that most of us who were in those kinds of situations do have some sort of weird PTSD we need to work through. But the one comfort is everyone got fucked. I hate to see my friends hurting, and so many bands that I love and admire just completely hung out to dry by this impossible situation. But I’m so grateful that it wasn’t just one person, a mistake that someone made, you know what I mean? It’s truly out of our hands.
El: This might be kind of dark to say, but we did all have this unifying experience: All of us taking such a hit and all of us realizing what we had been taking for granted, what we needed to fight harder for. I’ve been finding myself feeling depressed recently about how little has changed as a result of that happening, in terms of how little this industry has changed. Do you think about that ever?
Julia: I do. I honestly kind of feel like we’re back at square one, except I’m three years older. It feels really weird. And I don’t mean “we” just us in our little insular bubble of a band, but the world at large. And here I am three years later like, Did we not learn anything from this whole experience? We’re still treating each other like garbage as far as pay structure,and the way that the music industry works as far as how our music is valued. It’s like more of a public utility now than it ever has been. I just feel like that’s so backwards.
El: It’s so backwards. I really remember at the time thinking like, Well, this is horrible, but I really have hope that this whole industry is going to change as a result of this and our priorities will shift. But we’re still back on our shit. We’re still counting streams and Pitchfork scores and all of this fucking bullshit that I was hoping would go away. The number aspect of everything, the capitalism of it all, I guess.
Julia: Totally. That’s my biggest concern looking forward, that not as many people are going to start bands because they’re nervous that they’re never going to be able to reach those number benchmarks.
El: Which is so stupid.
Julia: Yeah, it makes me sad and it makes me really worried that the DIY community is just going to go away. To be honest, I don’t really know if I feel like I’m a part of it anymore. We don’t really play DIY shows anymore, and I wish that I still had some sort of tether because I’m worried that it’s going to go away.
El: I hear that. At the time, I was so optimistic. I was like, What this is going to lead to is DIY politics taking over the industry and what’s going to happen is that the greater industry is going to learn how to value music the way that local music scenes do — where it’s about community, it’s about expression, it’s about these things that we are spending so much time talking about during this lockdown. Then we just got right back to our shit, where it’s numbers and fees and streams and all that fucking shit.
I miss DIY so much, too. We don’t play DIY shows anymore because we don’t—
Julia: We’re trying to put food on the table.
El: Exactly. And I just wish that could go hand in hand. I really had hope for that. And it really just has been so disappointing.
Julia: Well, I just wanted to say, one thing that I’m still very grateful for that still is around — even though it’s flying in the face of current trends of short songs and fucking endless single releases — is just the format of the long player album. Bands are still making wonderful, thoughtfully sequenced albums, and I feel like yours is such a precious example of that, especially the sequence. I am obsessed with it.
El: Wow, that’s such a cool compliment.
Julia: I’m really curious where you stand with sequencing and where that comes from. One thing that I really love about the album sequence is that you kind of start out in the past tense, looking back on these relationships, and then the big thesis line: “There’s nothing to life if you can’t edit the past.” And then you proceed to kind of try to edit the past in the next few songs; you move into the present tense and it’s really, really interesting. I wonder, do you come at that before you record or after?
El: I usually put so much thought into sequencing. This one, honestly, we were sitting in the studio — just me, Sam and Larz — and we were trying to upload the final mixes for Heba [Kadry] — who I know you work with as well. She’s the G.O.A.T. We were just like, “Well, this makes sense going to this one. This one fits really well right here.” And it just kind of sequenced itself. It’s so interesting because it almost was in chronological order of when the songs were written. Almost, but not really. But yeah, I think when I sequence a record, I’m not thinking as much about lyrical content as I am about just, how would a live set flow?
Julia: So you picture the album sequence like a set list?. That’s so sick. I’ve never done that.
El: How do you picture it?
Julia: I literally just — a song finishes and I’m like, OK, what do I want to hear right now?
El: Yours flows so well, your record.
Julia: Thank you. You hit the ball out of the park, to use the baseball metaphor. I think it’s badass and the way the lyrics develop is really cool.
El: Thank you, dude. I appreciate that. The song I’m looking at the tracklist of your record right now — because I’ve listened to it a bunch of times, but as full album streams. That song “Morning Zoo” coming in second — I love a second track. That’s something I love in sequencing, when the second track is like, Bam. That’s a hit.
Julia: That’s one of my very faves because that came really far from the original. We did demo that one and there was nothing on it, it was very bare bones. So we just piled shit on in the studio.
El: That’s that classic Ratboy shit I love. You guys just have this unbelievable vibe that you accomplish on all your recordings. As a Ratboys fan, this record delivers so hard, because it’s Ratboys but you guys have definitely – it’s elevated. And it’s so cool to watch you all grow.
Julia: I appreciate it. I feel such the same admiration for you. Honestly, I’m just addicted to this feeling, listening to music where it’s like a ball of tension and then a big release, and I feel like you’re very accomplished with that as well, sometimes even within songs. It’s a huge achievement to create that feeling of tension and then to just blow it up from the inside.
El: I feel like you do that within songs super well. That’s a thing that I associate with your music, the release — I just feel like your music is so cathartic. I love it.
Are you touring soon?
Julia: We’re finally doing it. We’re going to be on the East Coast in September — I think we play New York September 27. I don’t know if we’re going to be out at the same time.
El: [Laughs.] We are.
Julia: That’s the way it goes, baby. But that’s a good thing. That means we’re both playing.
El: That’s true. I want to hang!
Julia: Yeah, dude. We will. We must.
El: I miss you.
Julia: You too. We’ll listen to more test presses. We’ll go to the Handlebar. We’ll hang out with Larz. It’ll be fun.
(Photo Credit: right, Alexa Viscius)