To twangy Chicago indie rockers Ratboys, making music is all about good, honest fun. Their new song, “Black Earth, WI,” lives up to that promise. An epic, eight-and-half-minute journey through the eye of a storm, the track boasts visual storytelling, a charming “Hey Jude”-adjacent refrain, and one of the best guitar solos you’ll hear this year. We caught up with singer and guitarist Julia Steiner for a chat about how the track came to life, whether Ratboys is bringing back the guitar solo (they are), and the secret sauce that makes their music so road-trip-ready.
Nick Seip: Hi Julia! I wanted to start off just by saying congrats on “Black Earth, WI.” It’s been on repeat.
Julia Steiner: Thanks, man. We’re really excited to have it out.
NS: I just love the songwriting and imagery it conjures. The guitar solo. The vocal processing and piano at the end.
JS: Thanks! Yeah, it’s funny, we tried our best not to add too much to the song. But what’s there we wanted it to really shine. But it was very exciting because when we went into the studio, we wanted to achieve this live band in a room sound. Specifically, that very open, almost ‘70s roomy vibe. And with this song, I think it really came through and it was just all one take and we were just so thrilled that it worked out.
NS: So you recorded it live to tape in one take?
JS: Yeah, it was an interesting experience. As our first time recording to tape, we had always wanted to experiment with that, but we never had the right opportunity. And so when we went into the studio, this tape machine was just there and fully functional and we started to try it out. It was a cool workflow, because we recorded the live band track (drums, the two guitars, and the bass) altogether to tape and then we bounced that into the computer and did a bunch of overdubs. So it was a cool combination of analog and digital recording styles. And very freeing.
NS: Do you usually do everything live in the studio like that? Or do you typically layer your tracks?
JS: The first time we tried that was with Printer’s Devil, a record that we put out in 2020. That whole record, with the exception of two songs, was recorded as a live band in a room. And that was our first time doing it, so I was kind of unfamiliar with the way it works. Going into that, I was always under the impression that, if someone made a mistake while we were all playing, it would screw up the whole take and we’d have to start over. But we can isolate instruments. There’s a lot more room for error than I realized. And so when we fully embraced that, leaned into it, it actually was very liberating and oddly enough made the whole process go way faster. All of a sudden, you play the song once, you have it recorded, and you’re good to go.
NS: I think that’s a testament to your strength as a live band. Especially given the fact that “Black Earth” is over 8 minutes long. What made you want to do such a long song?
JS: Well, thank you for saying that. The song developed a lot over time. Since it came out, I’ve been trying to hunt down the earliest iterations of it that I can find on my phone. Most of our songs start out as a little seed, where I’m playing by myself and just coming up with a chord progression or melody idea. And for this song, that seed came in like 2019. And then over the course of the next two-and-a-half years, we kind of just slowly started jamming on this idea. And that riff that Dave plays at kind of the climax of the guitar solo part was another part that was in the same key in the same tempo, so we just dragged it in. Over the course of playing the tune, with no real deadline, just enjoying ourselves and figuring out the best arrangement in a very slow, natural, organic way with the band. We kind of settled into this groove and this like length, for the song. I will say the final piece of the puzzle was that final verse that I sing at the end. For the longest time, we had the architecture of the shape of the song, but didn’t know how to end it. And Marcus, our drummer, suggested to me, “You know, you need to add another verse.” And so I came up with that at the 11th hour, a few weeks before we went into the studio. So yeah, it came together very gradually, but it let us really enjoy ourselves, getting to figure it out over time.
NS: Did you have any reference points for the track?
JS: Yeah, kinda. I grew up really enjoying A Ghost Is Born by Wilco, and the song “Spiders” on that record is like nine minutes long, I think maybe ten. And I would always go to visit my friend when I was like 17 or 18 and just got my license, feeling like this new freedom and that song was the exact length of time that it would take me to drive home from his house. And so I just had so many special, wonderful memories of listening to that song and driving home and just getting lost in it. And so that feeling is kind of something that has always been very special to me. I don’t presume to think that our song would have that impact for someone, but if it came close to something like that for anyone else that would be really cool.
NS: I love that. I’ve always felt like Ratboys is such good road trip music. I was introduced to your music on a road trip and there’s something about it that’s so good for putting on in the car. Do you write a lot of songs in the car or on the road?
JS: You know, not really. It’s tough because I do most of the driving on tour. I’m kind of a control freak. I love to drive. So I don’t have a ton of opportunity, especially when I’m with the guys. We’re usually listening to music or listening to podcasts. But you’re right – sometimes there’s something about driving on the open road where your brain has so much room to wander, that little lines or snippets will just like pop into my brain. I’ve definitely, you know, had little moments where I’ll write something down if it’s safe to do so. Or especially if I’m alone and driving, I’ve definitely enjoyed just singing by myself and figuring stuff out. Just messing around. That spirit and that energy of moving and enjoying music with very few distractions and getting really lost in it is something that I think I’m able to channel or remember when working on songs. So it’s nice to hear that. That might come through a little bit.
NS: It definitely does. Before we move on from “Black Earth, WI,” I wanted to ask: There’s this “whoosh” sound that’s featured throughout, which is maybe my favorite part. What is that sound?
JS: So that is actually a reverse tambourine hit. That was one really fun thing with recording to tape, playing with the idea of reversing things and playing with varispeed and all that stuff. It just sounds so much cooler than it would on the computer. So yeah, that was, I believe, a tambourine hit that Chris reversed. And then just placed it, like, at the end of each big bar.
NS: It’s a very cool effect. And Chris Walla is the producer on the track?
JS: Yeah, we got to work with Chris Walla. It was amazing. Absolute dream come true. He’s one of our favorite producers and musicians in general. He was in Death Cab for Cutie and produced a lot of their albums. He made The Con by Tegan and Sara which is one of my all-time favorites and a special record to me. He made a Foxing record that came out in 2018 that’s just mind-blowing. Yeah, I could go on.
NS: Is it fair to say that “Black Earth, WI” feels like a turning point for Ratboys? Is this an indication of what’s to come?
JS: Yeah, we have some more new music to share soon. And yeah, I think the song really speaks to the level of collaboration between us. It feels very fully realized to me from what it started out as. And I think that was something that we really had the time and space and like, energy to do with a lot of our new tunes. It just feels the most collaborative and “us” sounding record that we’ve made so far. So very excited to share more.
NS: Is it fair to say that Ratboys is bringing back the guitar solo?
JS: Dude, yes. I would be honored if someone said that. Ratboys is bringing back the guitar solo. I’m biased. I’m just a huge fan of Dave’s guitar playing. And I feel like this is, like, the ultimate showcase of what he can do.
NS: You’re playing at SXSW this week and this is your first time back since the pandemic began.
JS: Yeah. We haven’t been to SXSW since 2019, so it’s gonna be great. We always love going down there. There’s just this insane circus energy that happens over the course of the week. You get to see so many awesome bands and see a bunch of friends all in the same place. It doesn’t really happen any other time of the year. So we always really look forward to it.
NS: Yeah, there’s like a summer camp kind of energy. Do you have a mission, so to speak, for SXSW this year?
JS: Well, that’s a great question. There’s a few different goals. We originally were thinking, like, “Ah, maybe we shouldn’t go down this year.” Like, we don’t have a new record out, you know, but we were thinking about it. We were supposed to play in 2020 and didn’t get to. We had a new record out that year that we never got to play in Texas and at SXSW specifically. So the goal is to play those songs for the first time down in Texas, even though they’re three years old now. We want to give Printer’s Devil its due down at SXSW. We also put out a record a year after called Happy Birthday Ratboy, that’s a bunch of old songs, but with new arrangements, and so we’re gonna play some of those. And then throw some of these new tunes in the mix and see how people feel. And we might try to make a couple of music videos there, too. So it’s gonna be a busy week, but it’s gonna be really fun. We’re excited.
NS: Yeah, I wanted to talk about Happy Birthday Ratboy, too. It’s such a cool concept, revisiting older songs. Was there a song that stood out to you when you were revisiting it that maybe took on new meaning?
JS: Yeah, that’s a nice question. It was really strange and fun, inhabiting those songs again, and some for the first time. We had played some of them live from time to time, but a few of them we had never played live as a full band. And so diving back into those and figuring out how I played guitar when I was 18 was really wonderful and strange. It made me kind of appreciate the whole scope of my time playing music. The song “88 Fingers Edward” was something we demoed out for Printer’s Devil. It’s an old, old, old song that we never properly recorded. And it just felt like it fit on this project. The song was only a minute and a half long. It initially ended where the vocals end. And I don’t remember who, it might have been Marcus again, suggested we add a jam to it as an outro. Kind of like a Built to Spill vibe. And it just was the best choice – the song feels very reimagined and new. And actually, that was the first time that we asked Dave to kind of do an extended guitar solo. And it went well. It kind of felt like it laid the groundwork a little bit for this new song, “Black Earth, WI.”
NS: Yeah, it sounds like it’s like Ratboys as a band whose members all throw in ideas.
JS: Yes. I mean, that’s always been all I’ve ever wanted. Like, I grew up playing music by myself, like in the bathroom, you know what I mean? I always wanted people to play with. I just didn’t know anyone else who played music outside of like choir. So when I met Dave, and then by extension met a bunch of other friends and musicians, it just opened up all the possibilities. So, I’m just so thrilled to have bandmates who are so open to collaboration and just love music and want to make cool stuff.
NS: I wanted to talk about the video for “Black Earth, WI,” which consists of footage of storm chasers paired with footage of the band. And I find in it this beautiful chaos of this band chasing shows from one city to another like one would chasing storms.
JS: Totally. Our friend just mentioned that the other day. He’s like, all these guys hopping in vans makes me think of going on tour. And I did not think of that at all while we were making the video, but that’s such a cool observation. Because that is totally how it feels sometimes. It’s funny, the gist of the song “Black Earth” itself was based around this idea of a bunch of friends driving around in, like, the rural Midwest in the middle of a tornado warning. And so that storm imagery was always top of mind when thinking about the song. And we had thrown around the idea of making a music video where we were storm chasers. But when it came down to it, we realized it’s like the dead of winter in the Midwest, and would be very difficult to film an accurate storm chaser video because that stuff usually happens in spring and summer. So yeah, we ended up finding all of this crazy old VHS footage of actual professional storm chasers doing their thing. I’ve always been a huge fan of meteorology. My earliest dream as a child was to be a meteorologist, and so diving into this crazy rabbit hole of extreme weather was awesome. I can’t even describe it. I just felt like I was underwater for two weeks, like just fully immersed in this footage. And then it was a total accident – we plugged in this old camcorder and it interacted in this really glitchy colorful way that we couldn’t control. We were supposed to have band practice that night, and ended up just playing around with this camera for like six hours. We did not practice that night. It felt like something that was happening to us. You know, like we couldn’t control it. It was really cool. It felt like a happy accident.
NS: Kind of like the weather.
JS: Exactly. I love it.
NS: Your videos can be very cinematic and contain a lot of film references. Like “Alien With a Sleep Mask On” has big Gravity and Apollo 13 vibes. What kind of movies are you into?
JS: Oh my god. That’s so funny as I’ve been consciously trying to get more into film over the last few years because I always joked that compared to every other human on Earth, I haven’t seen very many movies in general. But John, the director of the “Alien” video, made me watch Gravity the night before we filmed it. And honestly, I am kind of terrified of outer space. So it was actually a very good thing to do because it calmed me down a little bit in a weird way. I usually gravitate more toward, like, dark comedy. I am just simply obsessed with The Banshees of Inisherin that came out last year. I just watched it last night. Oh my god, what did you think?
NS: I loved it. I love that director too, Martin McDonagh. I can be pretty late to the party when it comes to movies, too, sometimes.
JS: It’s the combination of morbid darkness and whimsical absurdity. When those two things collide, that is just my favorite thing. So that movie blew my mind. It was very sad, but I also just found it so funny. I’ve watched it like five times. I also love the movie Coraline. That’s another one where it’s just kind of, like, dark but whimsical. Wet Hot American Summer is another one.
NS: Your video for “I Go Out At Night” captures that – it’s got a bit of darkness but it’s very cute and wholesome.
JS: That video was really fun because it does play with those two things. Like, when you shine a light on your fears, you can find the lightness in it and find that everything’s okay. Especially when you’re with your friends or people you trust. That was a really, really fun video to make. And that was also John TerEick. Who we love collaborating with and who we’re going to collaborate with again when we’re in Austin.
NS: Is there a core ethos to Ratboys?
JS: I don’t know. The other day someone asked, how would you describe your band in three words? And I was trying to think of an answer. And what I came up with was: good, honest, fun. So I think that’s what we’re after. We want to be good at what we do. And be ourselves authentically and write music that’s honest to who we are. And also just have a fucking good time. So that’s our goal. It’s just some good honest fun, I think.