Ratboys is one of those duos that are really having fun with their careers, making good music out of the joy of it. After Julia Steiner and David Sagan met in college, their fast friendship produced a song writing duo that would last them all the way through graduation, when they could finally pursue the music full time. With their debut LP AOID catching traction after a quiet release they’ve finally decided to follow it up with GN, getting deeper and more personal than ever before in their indie-country blend. We caught up with singer and guitarist Julia Steiner before their next massive tour to talk lyrics, friendship and why calling themselves “Post-country” hasn’t gone exactly as planned.
Northern Transmissions: How did you two start writing together and when did it become more of a serious project?
Julia Steiner: We both started at University in the fall of 2010, and he comes from Chicago and I’m from Kentucky so we didn’t know each other before going to Notre Dame. We met pretty quickly, clicked right away and started hanging out a lot. We realized that we both played, and started hanging out playing acoustic guitar, innocent jamming. Over the course of our first year, I showed Dave these songs I’d been writing, along with older songs from high school. He was very encouraging that we should record them to share and to have them. We recorded them and put it up as an EP on April Fools. We thought we should play at our friends’ house shows, and got the bug from that. We wanted to try to tour full-time but wanted to get our degrees, so we didn’t start until the summer of 2015 when we hit the road for our first long tour.
NT: There’s a notably personal to your lyrics that make each song feel like a deeper peek into your lives than most artists allow, is this ever a difficult process for you as a writer?
JS: It definitely feels natural, and luckily my family is very supportive of us. My sister asked me recently “When are you going to mention me?” They’re not too worried I’m divulging things about them. On the other hand, we’re already on the next thing, and my family’s been going through some rough times recently and I really want to write about it. I want to be private while also being really authentic so I have to figure it out. I come from a close family so it’s just a way to honour them and let people know them. It’s a line that’s tough to toe sometimes.
NT: A few songs you’ve put out recently lean to more narrative styles of lyric writing and writing on other people, is there something about this that speaks to you more being vague?
JS: I’ve always gravitated towards narratives and picking them out in real life. My degree is in English Literature. If it didn’t cost a million dollars I would go back to school and read an amazing piece of literature and go to class to talk about it. That was the coolest thing I’d ever gotten to do before this. I really enjoy the art of storytelling. I wouldn’t know how to write a novel or even my life story so this is the closest way for me to tell stories in a way that feels right. I felt a void after college, there’s not constant stories in life, so I’m seeking them out on my own time on the internet and in books.
NT: While I think the gritty guitars contrast your vocals in a really exciting way, did you ever worry it wasn’t going to work?
JS: I never worried to much about it because when Dave and I played together it was like magic, we had a really good sense and our instincts are really aligned. We have a lot of the same opinions about structure and making sure the important parts shine, allowing songs to breathe and not living and breathing by a single hook. I was actually kind of worried how this “Post-country” term would float out with the press, because we didn’t do any press for our first album, no singles nothing. I think people don’t like this term, which is totally fine. I came up with it when we first started playing music together. It was kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing to make us stand out in the college crowd. But it has some merit to it because I really love playing cowboy chords and certain chord progressions that country musicians use a lot. The narrative focus is also a huge force of country music tradition. That being said, the music that brought us together is indie. We exchanged CDs when we first met, he gave me Visitor by The Dodos and I gave him A Ghost is Born by Wilco. I would say we’re indie more than anything but genre is a funny thing, so it’s confused people more than anything.
NT: How have you found dealing with the constantly rotating set of drummers you’ve dealt with trying to tour?
JS: It’s definitely not by choice that we don’t have a drummer. We haven’t been able to find anyone who fits. We’re lucky to live in a city with a vibrant music community, and have toured with seven or eight drummers. Some of these drummers like Evan who’s on this next tour, was the first drummer we ever played with, so he knows our Ratboy EP so we’re playing some songs from that. We definitely cater our set list to who we’re playing with and it keeps it fresh for us. Someday it would be really cool to have a person we can rely on to go on tour every time.
Words by Owen Maxwell