On June 30, Chicago’s Ratboys will be releasing their new album “GN” via Topshelf Records. For those not in the know, GN is short for good night… and the name of a very good album filled with beautiful post-country songs. We caught up with vocalist/guitarist Julia Steiner to talk about the new album and broken trunk handles.
PRT: First of all… were you able to fix the broken trunk handle before you left on tour with Pet Symmetry?
Julia: We were indeed - Dave’s dad is quite knowledgeable around cars and was able to help us find and replace the part we needed.
PRT: According to one user of Urban Dictionary, the abbreviation GN is ‘a good way to show people that you don't care enough about them to write them full words.’ So what’s up with that Ratboys?
Julia: That's definitely not how we look at it.. We started using the phrases ‘GN’ and ‘GM’ in spoken conversation rather than written conversation, so it wasn't at all about saving time or energy. We were on tour with some friends and we liked to start and end our days by wishing each other GM & GN. Once the tour was finished and we were home, I was reminiscing about our experiences and those interactions stood out to me. They make me smile and they represent the ways we try to feel at home and build community while we’re on tour.
PRT: I read that you started writing “Control” years ago but that it took until now to work out the full band version. Does that go for a lot of your songs or are most of them written a lot faster?
Julia: That is true, and yeah it's correct that I first wrote many of the songs on ‘GN’ a while ago. It's not really that I write them slowly, it's more that I get the structures and melodies down and then just let them sit for a long time before I come back to them. I like doing it that way because I really enjoy the revision process. I like returning to a song after some time has passed because my perspective has inevitably changed in some way.
PRT: Going from the EP over “AOID” to “GN”, your sound seems to just keep getting richer. This time around you added pedal steel, accordion, cello and violin to the album. Is that something you were hoping to be able to do from the start or just an opportunity that presented itself?
Julia: Thank you, I think so too. Once we started really rehearsing the songs we came up with some ideas of different sounds we’d like to include on certain songs if we could. We’re lucky to know quite a few talented musicians in Chicago, so we were able to call on them to play with us. So it wasn't an entirely spontaneous decision made in the studio, but it also wasn't years in the making.
PRT: Lyrically, the songs touch upon a variety of subjects ranging from memories of a deceased family pet with freezer burn and the tale of a feral child in Germany who was eventually adopted by the King of England to the survival story of Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson and a near-fatal experience by the train tracks. What triggers you in a story to write a song about it?
Julia: It's hard to pin down. On the one hand I think I'm attracted to vivid imagery and the extremes of humanity and nature. Like there's nothing more extreme than death or a blizzard on Antarctica. Or Peter’s story, where a person went from living entirely outside of society - in the woods alone - to living at the center of society - in the British Royal palace. That story specifically is just wildly ironic. But, at the same time, I think it's fascinating and really funny sometimes to think about mundane details in the context of those same extremes. Like Douglas Mawson bending down to tie his shoe in the middle of a freezing wasteland, or picking which blanket to swaddle a family’s recently-deceased pet cat. Stories that offer up a really clear entry point for finding that sort of humor or irony or minutiae are my favorites.
PRT: You’ve said that the songs on “GN” detail experiences of saying goodbye, finding your way home, and then figuring out what the hell to do once you’re back. Are those the steps you go through every time you are on tour as well?
Julia: Absolutely. It can be a bit disorienting returning from tour and all of a sudden being in one place again for a while - any musician will tell you that. We definitely miss out on a lot that goes on in Chicago while we’re gone, so that's a bummer. It tends to even out though, because we make lots of memories and meet lots of good people all over the place.
PRT: Your online presence always across as happy and upbeat, while there always seems to be a certain degree of sadness in your songs. What is it about the sadder things in life that makes you write about them more often than the happy moments?
Julia: I suppose there is a degree of sadness in our songs, but thinking about the track list of ‘GN’ quickly I feel like there are probably only two truly sad songs - maybe ‘Crying about the Planets’ and ‘Dangerous Visions.’ But even those two, I feel like with the former the music kind of supersedes the words and implies an atmosphere of calm and then of triumph that hints toward the fact that the main character does in fact survive his ordeal. And then with ‘Dangerous Visions’ my goal was to write from the perspective of a pre-teen (a la Sam Weir from Freaks and Geeks) and explore their melodramatic feelings about having been rejected by a crush. So it's more poignant or tongue-in-cheek than anything.
I guess I just really like the tension that arises when I layer upbeat or joyous music with ‘sad’ or contemplative lyrics. It’s more complex that way, it mirrors real life. Because we don't just feel one way at once.
PRT: If “AOID” was the album that put you on the map, what do you hope and dream “GN” will do for Ratboys?
Julia: I hope we’ll be able to play lots of shows and share these songs with people and connect with them that way. We chose to record these 10 songs because we find them interesting and fun to play, so I hope that other people will feel the same.
PRT: What’s up next for Ratboys once the new album comes out later this month?
Julia: We’re hitting the road to play all over the Eastern USA - we have some dates with Diet Cig, All Get Out, Mother Evergreen, Slothrust, and some on our own. It's going to be really awesome to play a bunch of these new songs outside of Chicago. Hopefully we’ll make it back to the UK and Europe again before too long also.
PRT: Last question… if Ratboys was a cocktail, what would be in it and what time of day should it be consumed heavily?
Julia: This one is easy - we’d be Rat’s Blood. Equal parts Welch’s grape juice and Finlandia Vodka. Room temperature, ideally served in the original grape juice container or otherwise in a coffee mug. Dangerously easy to drink. Have a cup in the early afternoon, take a walk around the neighborhood, and listen to the birdies.