RATTLE & HUM

They may be pioneers of “rodent rock,” but Ratboys are something else, too. They’re folky and indie and there’s a little twee in there as well (think Belle & Sebastian). Their latest, AOID, is a breezy voyage through songs about breakups and family and dead dogs. And while the themes and subject matter don’t appear earth-shattering, the delivery is what seals the deal. Lead singer Julia Steiner’s voice is eerie, nostalgic, and innocent, and the rest of the Rats — Dave Sagan on guitar, Will Lange on bass and Jordan Parel on drums — compliment her delivery with shiny melodies and a little bit of fuzz. Folio Weekly Magazine caught up with Julia to talk about some of the songs on the album, what exactly a Ratboy is and why she’s always making faces (to wit, see here: youtube.com/watch?v=H3c_s7LUak8).

Folio Weekly: What works its way into your songs? There seems to be a lot of emotion tucked in with the music, even when the songs rock a little more. There’s tenderness there.
Julia Steiner: I don’t know. It’s funny because a lot of the songs are from different points in my adolescent life. I wish I could say there is a chronological order to the album, but it’s not really. A lot of it is about my developing relationships over time. I like that word, “tenderness,” because one of my favorite things is to make sure the songs aren’t all encompassing. If I want to write an angry song or a sad song, I like to put the music behind it and sound really happy while the lyrics are depressing. “1914” is an example of that. That was one of the worst, lowest weekends of my life, but I didn’t want it to be completely obvious, and I wanted people to be able to enjoy the melody.

I watched a couple of your performances on YouTube, some with just you and an acoustic guitar. You seem to really invest in what you’re singing with your awesome facial gestures. Are you aware of that, and how deeply into the music do you go?
I am definitely aware of the face thing because a lot of people tell me that. It just kind of happens. To be honest, I have a low register to my voice so I have to reach up for those higher notes, and that is what happens. At the end of the day, though, when I’m playing it’s all about that song. I try to cut out any thoughts or emotions about what else may be going on and pour myself into the performance. I wish it was something cool and theatrical, but it isn’t.

On “Postman Song,” you ask the subject if “they are a postman delivering letters or if they’re stuffing something better.” It starts out all saucy, but then it seems to turn into a song about someone with issues. What is going on here?
That song is kind of the first song I ever wrote when I was younger. It stuck around, and the lyrics are a little silly, but it was always a goal of mine to record that. I wrote that song for my aunt. We were going through a little family tragedy in 2007 and she was at the center of that and I wanted to cheer her up and make her life. The message was about not shutting herself off and that we would all get through it together. I actually never played it for her and we were just together for Thanksgiving. I gave her a copy of the album, and I meant to tell her it was on there and about her, but I forgot to. Hopefully I’ll tell her one day.

On “MCMXIV” you sing, “All I Am is Just a Ratboy.” It sounds so sad.
I love that you got sad out of it. It’s kind of strange, my friends gave me that nickname in high school … people called me that pretty regularly, and we came up with a whole musical idea and the main song we had was called “All I Am is Just a Ratboy.” That line stuck with me, and I used it as an inside joke. As for the song itself, it was an ego-death weekend for me. I wrote the song right when I got back and it was affirming what remained after the weekend. It was an “everything’s going to be fine” sort of thing. It was a breakup, and it’s not as dramatic as I’m making it out to be. But it was a breakup, and I had to leave immediately for a choir trip. I couldn’t deal with the problems, and I was in charge of the trip, so it was dramatic at the time.

“Folk Song for Jazz” is touching. Is there family influence here, particularly with the line about your paternal grandfather?
Absolutely. That song is about my dog. She died in March. It’s a couple of years old; I wrote it when she was alive. I don’t know where the “paternal grandfather” line came from — it just poured out. The song is about family and my dog and my house in Kentucky.

What does a Ratboy do for fun?
Oh my gosh, so many different things. We love to just chill and drink beer and hang out. We love sports. Football, hockey, fantasy sports … we’re into that. We obviously love to play music, but we’re also pretty big sports fans. There’s a strong legion of music and sports crossover.

 

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