Ratboys have been recording and releasing music for over a decade, but their newest album, The Window (Topshelf Records, August 2023), marks a number of firsts for the band. For starters, it was the first time they’d ever traveled outside their home base of Chicago to record an album, journeying to Seattle to work with producer Chris Walla for three weeks. It was also the first time they’d ever written an album collaboratively from start to finish, having added full-time members Sean Neumann on bass and Marcus Nuccio on drums in recent years. The new approaches to writing and recording are immediately apparent on The Window, which showcases the fullest, most expansive version of Ratboys’ sound.
“It was the first time we were fully able to collaborate on a record, from beginning to end,” says frontwoman Julia Steiner. “In the past, I’d write songs alone and bring them to Dave [Sagan, guitarist]. Then we’d ask friends if they’d be willing to come to the studio to help us record. But slowly that began to change. On The Window, I wrote the seeds of the songs on my own and brought them to Dave, Sean, and Marcus all at once for the first time. We worked on the arrangements together over the course of a year and half.”
By the time the band showed up to the Hall of Justice Recording Studio, in February 2022, The Window’s songs were well rehearsed and airtight. “In 2020, we weren’t playing shows, so our schedule was wide open,” Steiner says. “We spent that year demoing the songs, and spent 2021 practicing them. We practiced twice a week for six months, exploring the songs and developing them. We’d send early versions to Chris and he’d give us notes. It went like that for weeks. It was such a dedicated and intentional process.”
But while The Window was nearly fully formed going into the studio, the band also left some space for experimentation with Walla, whose production techniques they adored on releases from Foxing, Tegan and Sara, and his own Death Cab for Cutie. The sessions struck the perfect balance between preparation and experimentation, injecting new life into the band’s style of soft-hearted Midwestern indie rock with an ever so subtle Americana twist. Walla’s studio sensibilities pushed Ratboys to stretch and expand their vision, adding unexpected elements and instruments like rototoms, talkboxes, and fiddles. The result is Ratboys’ most sonically diverse record, shifting wildly from track to track. It flexes everything from fuzzy power pop choruses on “Crossed That Line” to a warm country twang on “Morning Zoo” to mournful folk on the title track.
“The language Chris uses when speaking about music comes from a very emotionally centered place, and that’s something that resonated with us. He would say things like, ‘This cymbal hurts my feelings,’ or ‘This song is like a cat,’” says Nuccio. “It was such a disarming thing,” adds Neumann. “We didn’t get bogged down in technical terms, and he never placed pressure on us in that way. With Chris steering the ship, we were free to go off on little creative expeditions and come up with parts and ideas we’d never imagined.”
Hunting for sonic inspiration, Walla and the band sometimes spent hours just listening to their favorite albums, spinning everything from Sloan to Brainiac to The Roches. “We listened to so much music while making the record,” says Sagan. “It helped us gain new perspectives and feel more connected to the songs we were making together.”
Lyrically, The Window sees Steiner at her most personal, reflecting on love and grief with occasional humor and levity. She frequently leans on windows as a theme—the idea of an interrupted connection, the feeling of being near someone without being fully present. Sometimes the looking-glass imagery is metaphorical, like on the nearly nine-minute epic, “Black Earth, WI,” or on the pounding lead single, “It’s Alive!” Other times, the windows are literal, like on the album’s titular centerpiece. “I wrote that song a few days after the death of my grandma in June of 2020,” Steiner explains. “She didn’t have Covid, but because of the pandemic my grandpa wasn’t able to visit her in person at the nursing home to say goodbye. He ended up standing outside her room and saying goodbye through an open window. A lot of the lyrics are direct quotes of things he said to her in those moments.”
After more than ten years and four studio albums together, The Window finally captures Ratboys as they were always meant to be heard—expansive while still intimate, audacious while still tender. But most importantly, The Window is the sound of friends operating as a single, cohesive unit. “My dream ever since I started writing songs was to be in a band—a proper band with a consistent lineup,” Steiner says. “To finally have the chance to play with dear friends who are fully committed, it was all I could ever ask for.”