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Among the famous alumni from the University of Notre Dame are politicians (Condoleezza Rice), talk show hosts (Regis Philbin, Phil Donahue), Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (Joe Montana, Joe Theismann), and one Norm from Cheers (George Wendt). There aren’t, however, all that many significant indie-rock musicians.
Which might be why Julia Steiner and Dave Sagan didn’t have any expectations about forming a band when they entered Notre Dame in 2010. In high school, Louisville native Steiner was a folkie who wrote songs inspired by Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, and the underrated singer-songwriter A.A. Bondy. Meanwhile in Chicago, Sagan was a musical sponge playing in a post-hardcore band and listening to everything from AC/DC to Phillip Glass. They both wanted to keep on playing music, but Notre Dame wasn’t exactly known for being a hotbed of a young rockers.
Then Steiner and Sagan met. And the seeming musical opposites — on paper at least — instantly clicked.
“It totally just opened up my whole world,” Steiner, 27, recalled. “Most of the students there didn’t go to college with the intention of starting a band or trying to meet someone to make music with. That wasn’t really a priority for like 98 percent of the student body. So when Dave and I met by chance right away, it was really exciting because we bonded over that immediately, and just kind of clung on each other.”
The band they formed, Ratboys, is distinguished by the differing musical perspectives that Steiner and Sagan, also 27, bring to the band. (The moniker is taken from Steiner’s old high school nickname. They added an “s” after another band already had the name Ratboy.) On their excellent second album GN, one of my favorite LPs of 2017, Steiner’s thoughtful and observational songs are blown apart by Sagan’s explosive and incisive guitar licks, creating a heart-rending sound that Steiner once jokingly dubbed “post-country.”
While there’s actually very little that’s country-sounding about Ratboys, the made-up genre tag does convey a certain high lonesome feeling that comes across in the band’s steadfastly melodic and deceptively bouncy emo-pop songs. You can hear the way Steiner and Sagan complement each other in slow-burners like “Westside”: Steiner’s coy vocal, reminiscent of ’90s alt-rock stars like Kim Deal of the Breeders and Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt, teases out the mystery of the despondent lyric, while Sagan’s surly guitar glowers on the horizon, a storm cloud that threatens to burst without ever quite doing so.
“We were both going through this big change in life, going to college, and kind of latching on to whatever good opportunity presented itself,” Sagan said. “We found out that we are into different stuff and just approached music differently. But part of wanting to have new experiences was just embracing that.”
In time, Steiner and Sagan would also become romantically involved, which Sagan insists enhances their musical partnership. “I think the number one thing is we’re both just looking out for each other, so we can always take a step back with any decision we have to come to,” he said. “If we need to take a step back, that’s what comes first.”
For Ratboys’ forthcoming third album, Printer’s Devil (due out February 28), Steiner and Sagan once again embrace change. On their previous releases, they functioned as a duo backed by a revolving cast of backing musicians. The extra muscle came in handy on the road given that they frequently toured with punk bands, including the bruising and boisterous Canadian outfit Pup. While GN and the accompanying 2018 EP GL lean more in a folk-rock direction, Ratboys morphed into a big-sounding rock band on stage, with Sagan’s fattened riffs pushing Steiner out of her introspective comfort zone and toward something more aggressive and commanding.
“We played, like, 150 shows in the States,” Sagan said. “We just had become very comfortable with being a loud band. I think a lot of what happened on those tours was we were paired with bands that had a lot of energy and personality, and we had to take it upon ourselves to match that in different ways.”
By the time it was time to start working on a new record, a powerful full-time rhythm section made up of bassist Sean Neumann and drummer Marcus Nuccio finally coalesced around Steiner and Sagan. And that naturally informed the sorts of songs they came up with. For instance, the first single from Printer’s Devil, “Alien With A Sleep Mask On,” is a joyous slice of grungy, ’90s-style indie-rock, like old-school Superchunk crossed with the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack. It is louder, thicker, and riff-ier than anything on previous Ratboys releases, and immediately sets the tone for the rest of Printer’s Devil.
Not that Ratboys have completely set the literary sensitivity of GN aside. (The title Printer’s Devil is an old-timey term for a printer’s apprentice, which Steiner discovered while reading about one of her favorite writers, Walt Whitman.) But the album is a decisive move toward rawk, which is clear when Steiner shares the demo version of “Alien With A Sleep Mask On.” In this form, the song isn’t all that far removed from the inward-looking electrified folk of GN.
“It’s pretty bare-bones,” said Steiner, who nevertheless felt that the song could go in a different direction. “Because we had those experiences, playing in a full band with such bombastic musicians, we were like, ‘Yeah, this could be something.’ Not huge as in reach or whatever, but just something that sounds really big.”
For the album’s songwriting sessions, Steiner and Sagan decamped to her childhood home in Louisville, which was in the process of being sold by her parents. For Ratboys, it was a convenient space to turn up loud without disturbing the neighbors. But the emotional weight of bidding farewell to a piece of her own history was also heavy for Steiner. Saying goodbye to the house you grew up in, even years after you’ve moved away, is often a melancholy turning point in life. The opportunity to visit where you came from, like a museum of your past life, is no longer accessible. Suddenly, you’re cut off from your own past.
“It was a little eerie,” she said. “Sleeping there and hearing all the creaks and cracks of the house, and just knowing that time passes. And, yeah, in a few days you’re going to leave and that’s it. You will never come back.”
While Printer’s Devil isn’t really a concept record, that “time passes” vibe inspired by Steiner’s disappearing family home informs the emotional texture of the album. Two of the album’s best tracks, “Anj” and “Look To,” are about “how relationships change as you get older,” Steiner said. While the music glistens and rocks like one of the singles from Celebrity Skin, “Anj” ruminates lyrically on a former babysitter of Steiner’s who confided in her as an adult during a difficult time.
“Our relationship had completely evolved from what it once was, when I was a tiny, helpless baby,” she reflected. “It’s a part of growing up. I suppose maybe everyone knows it is coming. But when it actually happens, it’s kind of a wild thing.”
Growing up is hard to do, but by leaning into change on the winning Printer’s Devil, Ratboys have taken another step forward in a highly promising career.
Printer’s Devil is out on February 28 via Topshelf. Pre-order it here.