They had just finished mooning Pet Symmetry on the highway when they got pulled over by the police. Ratboys — songwriter and guitarist Julia Steiner, guitarist David Sagan, bassist Sean Neumann, and trumpeter Cody Owens — have long done the deed as a tour prank.
“I was driving and behind two other cars and we’re all going the same speed,” Steiner says. “It felt like I was going the speed limit when I see the cop going the other direction about half an hour after the mooning took place, look behind to see if he turned around, kept going.”
“Fifteen minutes later, the cop tries to pass our group and I slow down to let him in the group of cars. He pulls over the two cars in front of me; I tried to go around him to let them through and he yelled to pull over two and pulled us all over for speeding from fifteen minutes before. He was a supercop.”
“Dave says he’s not gonna moon anyone anymore because of that, but we’ll see.”
Pet Symmetry holds no grudges to the mooning (though their drummer claims the speeding ticket is justice), still inviting Steiner to do a Joey Ramone imitation for a cover song each night of their tour, but the moment encapsulates Ratboys style perfectly: Goodhearted with the edge of showmanship, more youthful than immature. The post-country quartet’s new album, GN, comes out on Topshelf Records on June 30.
They are a quartet not by trade but by necessity, going through a Spinal Tap-esque parade of drummers. Steiner longs for The Final Band Member, but touring drummers are generally Chicago stalwarts like Brother Nature’s Evan Loritsch or Pet Symmetry’s Marcus Nuccio. “Each different person we play with, there’s always one different song where that person does it best,” Steiner says. “It’s cool in a weird way. But we always kick ass no matter who plays drums.”
Even with a rotating drummer always providing a slightly different feel for the songs, the Chicago band’s musical chemistry stays intact, boosted further by Steiner’s and Sagan’s genuine platonic affection for each other.
“Dave and I started playing music together in college,” Steiner says. “He and I met on the first day, and he was my first really good friend there. There was a night where we got kind of drunk. There was this rule at Notre Dame where the men’s and women’s dorms were strictly separated, and the opposite sex couldn’t be in the other’s dorm after midnight. We were drunk writing a song called ‘The Pariah’s Blues,’ which was about how it sucked we couldn’t hang out together past midnight.”
Even with the odd time curfew on their hangouts, the two stuck it out to become close friends and obvious bandmates, starting as a two person acoustic act and gradually adding more friends along the way. The band name’s origin story is simple enough: She was always called “Ratboy” dating back to high school by both her close friends and her family, and that was originally the band name until an artist named Ratboy threatened legal action and the “s” was added. (“There is no story! It sucks!” Steiner quips.)
Despite the rugged name, their sound is anything but –- they feel like a hug from a friend that hasn’t been seen in a decade more so than a rowdy, rough-faced person, more like the chill calming sense of a night in, rather than the mischievous nature of a night out. They sound like a warmer Summerteeth-era Wilco or a gentler version of former tour compadres Pinegrove. Logically, Steiner’s favorite part of songwriting isn’t just the story behind the songs but the story behind the craft itself.
“I’m a huge sucker of sharing the stories behind songs and specific details about how they developed and changed overtime, the songwriting aspect,” she says. “Maybe I’m still in the stage in my life as a songwriter where I’m super proud of all the little changes in how the songs take shape.”
“Like, T Bone Burnett probably doesn’t even remember the songs he wrote at 25 and how they started, but I’m still precious about stuff like that. I like the stories the songs tells, but I also like the stories of the songs themselves.”
The epitome of that is perhaps “Postman Song” from their album AOID: though the sixth song on their sixth release listed on Bandcamp, it was literally the first song Steiner ever wrote according to Steiner’s interview on the Better Yet podcast (at age fourteen, no less). It went through more than its fair share of lyrical changes and production differences, but the core of the melody and song structure itself remain. She actually wrote an absurd amount of songs as a teen.
“I was alone,” Steiner says in between laughs. “I wrote a lot in the bathroom because it was far away from the rest of the house.”
Steiner’s unusual path of revisionist songwriting matches her odd musical development: She started on piano at a young age, but was taught to hear intervals before reading sheet music via the Suzuki Method. She abandoned the instrument, but switched over to guitar and picked up The Beatles songbook, where Lennon-McCartney ingrained melody-first songwriting. (The White Album and Abbey Road are her two favorite Beatles albums, with “Martha, My Dear” as her personal favorite song given she’s a Paul person.)
The band has been around for a while — their first Bandcamp release is from 2009 — but only started going hard when Sagan graduated college. From that May till the end of the calendar year, they played over 80 shows. Naturally, this had its breaking points, but Steiner got through it with some family help.
“My Dad is a psychiatrist, which is extra dope because he can prescribe medicine, so whenever I got sick on the road he would help me out,” she said. “I don’t get sick on the road much anymore because I’m sober on tour; I used to drink and smoke weed a lot on tour. I had a thought one day: ‘Maybe I wouldn’t get sick if I stay hydrated and don’t smoke on tour.’ This is my third tour sober now and it’s helped. I still drink sometimes but I’m pretty straight these days. I’m drinking a lot of La Croix.”
The heavy touring wasn’t done with the mentality of making it; it was done solely because they wanted to play music and see the world, more self-fulfillment than goal-accomplishment.
“We were going for it for us,” she exclaims. “We weren’t seeking out management or success. None of us had been places, so we were going for in the sense of that it was fun. We got to be us.”
When GN releases, it’ll be for us, too.