Ratboys returning to South Bend
Erin McAuliffe | Tuesday, March 22, 2016
Ratboys’ lo-fi sweet sound emanates from Notre Dame alums Julia Steiner (’14) and Dave Sagan (’15) alongside Will Lange and Pat Kennedy on their album “AOID,” released in June 2015 under Topshelf Records. They will be performing at McCormick’s this Thursday at 10 p.m. I talked to Julia Steiner, vocals and guitar, in a phone interview Monday.
From her eleventh day on the road of their current tour, Steiner reflected on recent performances.
“We went down to South by Southwest but didn’t play any of the official shows, which was cool because we got to avoid the crowds and chaos,” she said. “The Topshelf show was really fun in Austin, [Texas], we got to play for the guys that run our label and we never really get to see them — they live in San Diego. And there was free La Croix so that was dope. And we played with this band The Enemies that I’m obsessed with … We also go to play a skate shop in Wichita, [Kansas]. It was actually the first day it was open, so that was pretty special.”
Ratboys opened for Julien Baker (Scene alum Matt Munhall touted her 2015 album “Sprained Ankle” as “one of the most affecting, assured debuts in recent memory”) in Denton, Texas, on March 14.
Ratboys have a similar do-it-yourself, regional styling. Where Baker pulls from the Memphis music scene, Ratboys pull from their time in South Bend, and now Chicago, to deliver affectingly relatable lyrics and an endearingly campfire-esque sound featuring amiable strumming and a warm crackling underlay (of the aforementioned DIY persona) that furthers the personal aspect of Steiner’s lyrical storytelling.
Steiner addressed the fortunate serendipity in finding her bandmate Dave Sagan early in her time at Notre Dame.
“I met Dave my first day on campus, we kinda just clicked and started making music together. He lived in Dillon, I lived in BP and by the end of freshman year we started recording some stuff,” she said. “I did my parts in the [Breen-Phillips] chapel, he did his at home over spring break. And when we put it out, people seemed to like it … which was kinda strange.
“Sophomore year, we were a little more confident and started doing some secret shows on campus — I feel comfortable disclosing this now because I don’t think they can take away my diploma. We did some in the basement of Bond, outside of Mendoza, in BP. We invited some artists from South Bend to come and do it — it was nice and it kinda felt like we were breaking the rules, which was exciting. It also kind of gave me pause and made me think, why wouldn’t the University sanction this? It seemed like a very healthy, exciting thing for us to be doing.”
Steiner encourages Notre Dame students to pursue music and seek out bandmates, if they’re considering it.
“It’s not the most fleshed out music scene in the world, which is okay because it’s a great opportunity for people to grow it and make it something really organic and exciting.”
Steiner and Sagan both studied abroad in their junior year, Steiner in Dublin and Sagan in Rome as part of the architecture program.
“When we were back and 21 we were able to get more into the South Bend music scene, which I can’t emphasize enough,” Steiner said. “It exists, it’s really fruitful. It’s tough to break into sometimes because a lot of the shows happen in bars, but we got to play a lot, make friends and bring our Notre Dame friends into the community so that was exciting.”
Steiner stressed the important opportunities the South Bend music scene provided her and Sagan’s musical pursuits. She listed The Birdsell, Chicory Café, LangLab, The Well, Fiddler’s Hearth and The Pool (Sagan lived there in 2015, it has since been retired as a music venue) as spots they frequented and made connections at.
Steiner, a class of 2014 English major, continually draws on her education and campus experiences in her songwriting.
“The lyrics definitely sprung from education in a lot of ways. And it was fun because I would go write a few songs as assignments for classes, like “Have A Heart” — it’s not on the LP but we play it a lot,” she said.
“When I lived in the dorms it was nice because I felt like I had a lot of room to write. Even though there were a lot of people around, I still had a lot of solitude and serene time alone. Especially in the BP chapel, that was dope.”
Although some of the songs on “AOID” predate her college years, Steiner cites Charles Bernstein and her freshman seminar on American poetry with Professor Stephen Fredman as especially influential.
“I have a dream that Charles Bernstein will hear the song ‘Charles Bernstein’ and come out to a show,” Steiner said. “While writing that song, I was getting into a new romantic relationship and exploring that, but I didn’t really want to reveal who I was writing this about and how I was feeling, so I sort of put on this mask that I was writing it about Bernstein — who I do love, so it was about him in someway.”
Since graduating, Steiner sometimes misses the effects a concurrent education had on her songwriting.
“I’ve definitely noticed that I miss the constant interaction with words and texts and dealing with language in a group. Interesting words and phrases don’t just spring up in my mind like they used to,” she said. “It’s not a struggle but it’s a journey to keep on that literary path without as much motivation as grades and tuition and all that.”
“AOID” embodies Steiner’s musical influences — Jeff Tweedy, Cheryl Crow, Chad van Galem, Jenny Lewis and Kim Deal — and literary inspirations — Wallace Stevens, Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Bernstein. Her English background and observational tendencies (embodied in her extensive phone note of “strange phrases and words that sound cool”) collide to craft lyrics reminiscent of some of my favorite lyricists and writers.
“Postman Song” channels Courtney Barnett’s “Elevator Operator” in its dialogue over mundane, repetitive career choices: “Why do you have a frown whenever I see you? / Is it because your dreams never came true? / Well, listen up buddy, yeah I’ll tell you a secret / Just deliver the mail, don’t you worry about regrets.” (The lyrics also mirror the worries many Notre Dame students struggle with in transition from college to a career.)
The track “Bugs!” channels Annie Dillard’s essay “The Death of The Moth” in vivid, ethereal yet grimy imagery and existential insect themes: “Bugs behaving badly, get ‘em to the prison now … Bugs follow on like constellations frozen in the sky.”
On her songwriting process, Steiner encourages free writing as an exercise for aspiring writers and artists to overcome writer’s block. She recommends putting a pen to paper stream of consciousness style or picking up your guitar, pressing record on your phone and singing from your subconscious.
“That’s how most interesting stuff happens — it just happens. It’s exciting and it’s almost something you have to tease out of yourself, at least for me.”
“AOID” saw Ratboys grow in membership and sound: the band recruited drummer Pat Kennedy from a national ad and bassist Will Lange from Sagan’s grade school days. The band has since added Cody Owens on trumpet. Comparing the band’s “Space Blows” EP to “AOID,” the track “Folk Song For Jazz” stands out as representative of the transition to a smoother, complex sound — fading out to near silence at the 2:25 mark before looping back with circuitous, sparkly melodies in a sort of reverse overture.
Steiner said that Ratboys have a couple of new songs set to come out this year and that they plan to record a new album this fall. Before you can hear the band’s new sounds on your iPod classic (which Steiner touts as “the last facet of non-Internet music devices”), phonograph (“don’t get a Crosley,” Steiner warns from experience) or cassette player (Steiner applauds their “collectible, fun and portable” nature, while admitting she is “stuck in the 2000s and loves it”), get out to McCormick’s Thursday night to hear them play “AOID” with Steiner on electric guitar.
“I love being on electric, it’s louder and more rockin’ — I feel like a bad ass … For people who have never heard us play live, it definitely sounds different than the record,” she said. “Hopefully in a good, they’re-bringing-something-new-to-the-table way.”
This will be Ratboys’ first time in South Bend since May 2015, as they’ve been touring pretty consistently since Sagan graduated. Vagabonds (Grand Rapids, Michigan) will be performing a solo set and After Ours (South Bend) will also perform at McCormick’s on Thursday.