No matter what state you are in, chances are there is a big debate about the semantics of geography. The Jersey version of this is the Central Jersey debate (it’s real). Kentucky, as a whole, faces the same debate that cities like Toms River, Bordentown and Florence have in Jersey—is it south or central?
Ratboys singer and Louisville, Kentucky, native Julia Steiner saw the debate play out over the years, and thinks Kentucky and Louisville is a mix of both.
“Louisville was a fascinating place to grow up,” says Steiner on the phone from Chicago. “It’s a mix of midwestern culture and southern U.S. culture. Overall it’s a chill place to live and very green.’’
The same debate can be had about Ratboys’ style of music. In the 12 years since Ratboys formed, the band has experimented with country, ’90s-sounding alt-rock, folk and indie rock.
“I don’t write songs with the intention of fitting into a certain genre or thinking about a bigger sound necessarily,” explains Steiner. “Our music is kind of weird. It’s all over the place sometimes, but I’m proud of it.”
In the past, Steiner self-described the band’s style of music as “post-country.” No matter the genre of music, you’ll hear Steiner’s personal stories, like finding her cat Elvis in the freezer.
“We got Elvis when he was a kitten, and we put this collar on him with a little bell,” remembers Steiner. “I wouldn’t know where he was, but I could hear the bell. He was a funny cat and didn’t have a tail, and he was clumsy. I loved him though, and I loved cats and always dreamt of having one. When I went away to college I didn’t expect that would be the last time I ever see him, and it was sad when he passed away really young. He was one of the great animals I have met over the years.”
The road to singing about Elvis started off in South Bend, where Steiner went to Notre Dame, and met future Ratboys guitarist Dave Sagan when she was a freshman. Music isn’t the first thought that pops into people’s minds when Notre Dame is brought up, and while it isn’t Gainesville or New Brunswick, South Bend has a music scene that can be characterized like Rudy. Small, but mighty.
“There’s not a huge art scene at Notre Dame,” recalls Steiner. “There’s one in South Bend that is small and mighty, but Notre Dame is definitely not an arts school. Most people don’t go to Notre Dame with the intention of starting a band. When I got there, I was hoping I would find some friends to play guitar with, but I didn’t go there with the intention of establishing a career in music.”
While at Notre Dame, Steinert and Sagan recorded their first EP, Ratboy, and the EP was released as an LP, Happy Birthday, Ratboy, in April of 2021 for the 10-year anniversary of the release of the original EP.
“I get very sentimental and nostalgic about dates,’’ says Steiner. “Even before COVID, I was looking forward to 2021 as the 10-year anniversary of this project. For a long time I was hoping that we would be able to re-record those five songs with more of a full band. The original plan was to put the new recordings on the A side, and the college recordings on the B side. But I figured if we were going to press this, it would be cool to have an entire record full of up-to-date recordings. There were a few other songs from college that we have played over the years that made the cut as well.”
One of the songs that were on the original EP is “The Stanza,” which is about starting a new chapter in life.
“That song represents and still does represent an excitement about starting fresh,” explains Steiner. “It’s about looking ahead to the future with curiosity and joy rather than anxiety. I wouldn’t say I struggle with it, but it’s something I think about fairly often. The song isn’t rooted in any specific experiences, it was just something I was feeling at the time. It’s a song that we played over the years, and it was exciting to record it as a full band.”
Re-recording old music can bring up past emotions, and it was something that Steiner was aware of early on in the process.
“Going into this project I wasn’t weary of it, but I was aware of the possibility that I might feel some element of cringe and embarrassment, just because these songs were so old,” says Steiner. “But I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn’t the case, and I was happy with how much these songs still resonated with me. At this point, my relationship to those songs is that I was proud that I wrote them when I was so young because I think they are pretty good. But there are plenty of songs in that period that I wrote that weren’t very good and I didn’t record them.”
Ratboys released their first LP in 2015 called AOID and were signed by Topshelf Records; Steiner and Sagan then had a moment when they realized what they were getting into musically.
“That summer in 2015, we put out our first LP and I felt validated and motivated,” says Steiner. “I wanted to tour as much as I could. They signed us and pressed the record, and didn’t even meet us. We played basement shows that summer, and I remember playing a show in Akron, and people would say, ‘Oh, we are here because you are the new Topshelf band,’ I was like, ‘Wow, we’re in Akron for the first time and people are actually in the basement with us. This is pretty cool.’”
Ratboys would go on from playing basement shows in Akron to playing in some pretty impressive places. Not many bands can say they played in the center of the Earth, Shrek’s Swamp, and the moon.
“You can only dream of these things,” says Steiner. “It was fun to make it happen.”
Ratboys, rounded out by Sean Neumann (bass+ vocals) and Marcus Nuccio (drums), traveled to these places in 2020 on a virtual tour. In 2020, Ratboys was set to go on a headline tour for their third release, Printer’s Devil. The album received praise from several reputable music sites. Ratboys only got to play a couple record release shows before the world shut down. Steiner made the most out of a situation that she described as “confusing.”
“We ordered a cheap webcam on the internet and started to livestream from our basement,” says Steiner. “We would pretend to play in various different places. We had nothing to do and it was fun because we were able to keep in touch with friends that way. The virtual tour had a lot of episodes, and we would do three a week. It eventually turned into a once a week thing, and now we don’t really do it anymore. It was an outlet to play music and connect with people.”
The Chicago-based band will be playing in Jersey on July 22 at Asbury Lanes with Hop Along. Steiner, a diehard Steelers fan, will be playing only four miles from where Steelers first round pick QB and Oakhurst native Kenny Pickett grew up. While being a Steelers fan isn’t in the same horror novel category as, let’s say, being a Jets fan, Steiner appreciates the story that sports provides.
“There’s a divide that surrounds people who play music or are in the arts community and they don’t feel connected to the sports community or don’t feel like there is a reason to follow sports,” says Steiner. “For me, different sports provide different entertainment. A couple years ago I moved to Chicago, and I started following baseball. Now it’s routine for me to check in on how the Cubs are doing. Whereas with football and soccer, it’s a weekly thing. There’s a storytelling aspect to sports that I really enjoy and that unites the teams I follow.”
Steiner is also anticipating playing in New Jersey. Previously, Ratboys have played at TCNJ and Montclair State, and are looking forward to playing at the Lanes for the first time.
“We play Philly and NYC so much, and we haven’t had the chance to play in Jersey that much,” says Steiner. “When we saw that we would be playing at Asbury Lanes with Hop Along, we were really excited. Asbury Lanes has been a venue that has been on our bucket list for a while now, and playing with Hop Along will be a bonus.”
Ratboys will be playing at Asbury Lanes along with Hop Along on July 22. Ticket information can be found here.