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Thresholds and catharsis in Ratboys’ The Window

Members of the band Ratboys sitting and/or laying on the floor. The floor and the backdrop are off-white. The female member is laying down across the photo in the front and the three male members are sitting or laying on the floor behind her
Ratboys on Facebook

In a few days, Champaign-Urbana will get to welcome the band Ratboys, as they begin their long tour with a set at this year’s PYGMALION. I had the opportunity to talk to singer, songwriter, and guitarist Julia Steiner recently, where we talked about their impending tour, their new album, and the cathartic release that comes with songwriting. This won’t be the first time Ratboys plays in Champaign, far from it. Indeed, they played PYGMALION back in 2018, and have played countless DIY shows here over the years. With the permanent addition of bassist Sean Neumann, whose Champaign roots go deep, the town looms large on the Ratboy’s horizon. As Steiner said, “We’re really excited to start the tour in a place that’s familiar and that we’re fond of!”

Ratboys hasn’t had a proper tour in a while, since their brief stint on the West Coast with alternative legends Guster last fall. But with the release of their new album The Window in August, it’s time to hit the road again. Steiner and I spoke at length about the new album’s recording process, which marked a distinct departure for the band. For the first time, they decided to leave their home base of Chicago and record the album in Seattle at producer Chris Walla’s studio. According to Steiner, the process of leaving home to record changed everything. They bonded and grew even closer during the process, as they spent a month living and making music together. This month of recording came on the heels of an intense songwriting and practice period. The addition of Neumann and Marcus Nuccio on drums, as opposed to just Steiner and guitarist David Sagan writing all the parts, fleshed out their sound and added a truly collaborative and cohesive element to their process.

This cohesiveness is evident in the final product, as The Window marks a distinct evolution of the band’s sound. Steiner was quick to point out that they’ve always been evolving together, as talented musicians often do, striving to discover new sounds, new genres, and eras of music. But this latest album points to something bigger. There’s a sophistication in the songwriting of The Window that, while not entirely absent from their previous efforts, points to a band that’s maturing and coming into their prime.

Ratboys on Facebook

The theme of ripening change permeates the album. Steiner commented on the notion of thresholds and liminality within the album’s lyrics, noting that many of the songs on The Window deal with “being on the precipice of a big life change,” and the challenges that come while standing on that precipice. Having just turned thirty-one, and now solidly entering a new decade of life, she noted that she felt that she was entering a new phase of life, ready to “grapple with these big life changes.” 

Nowhere is the idea of thresholds more tangible than in the title track. The song recounts the death of Steiner’s maternal grandmother in June 2020. While her grandmother didn’t have COVID-19, the pandemic nonetheless pervaded the moment of death. The song describes her grandfather’s last goodbye to his lifelong partner through the window of her hospital room, a forced physical separation due to pandemic restrictions. Although Steiner wasn’t present for this moment, she talked about how her mother called her soon after to recount the news. As Steiner described it, she was immediately inspired to write the song.

For Steiner, the scene that her mother described over the phone was incredibly vivid and powerful, and she felt honored and grateful that her mother was willing to share it with her. The phone conversation between mother and daughter was cathartic, as the two women grieved the loss of a beloved matriarch. “A lot of musicians feel that it’s a helpful and dependable outlet to have, whenever there’s big changes in your life, to process things directly by writing about them,” Steiner says. To turn to music in a time of grief, processing those intense emotions via creation. In this specific case, Steiner says that it “felt like a natural way to honor their relationship,” and she incorporated the last words her grandfather spoke to her grandmother into the song’s lyrics. The song’s composition happened very fast and very naturally, and as Steiner says, “music is so amazing and transformative, and makes things real.”

As a listener, I was struck by how Steiner had written a song about the global and universal trauma of the pandemic without even mentioning it. Without the pandemic, there wouldn’t have been a window at all. Yet, in this socio-historical context, the window becomes a symbol of that complex and unspoken sorrow of 2020. As Steiner said, the image of the window creates “a tangible disconnect, being able to see something but not touch it.” She went on to discuss how the window further illustrates “a loss of our ability to see people that we love and interact with them.” By narrowing in on the personal, Steiner adds a distinct, human voice to the vast and universal.

With their new album, Ratboys now stands on the threshold of a new chapter of their career. Just as they’ve navigated the intricacies of life’s changes through their music, they now stand poised to share these profound experiences with us at PYGMALION. With this new musical offering, Ratboys offers us a window into their world, revealing the poignancy that can be found in catharsis, and reminding us that, even in the face of universal challenges, our personal stories are what bring us together in the end.

Ratboys with Free Range and Snack’d Out
Rose Bowl Tavern
Thu, September 21st
$15 advance / $20 door

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