OTwo Interviews: Julia Steiner of Ratboys

Image Credit: Julia Steiner

Isabella Ambrosio chats with lead singer and co-founder of the decade old band, Julia Steiner of Ratboys.

My brother has always had a large influence on my music taste. During a visit home, he handed me a CD called AOID and just smiled. Since then, my family and I have been heavily interested in the band Ratboys. Formed by Julia Steiner and Dave Sagan who met when studying in Notre Dame, Ratboys would be considered an American indie rock band, but their influences consist of punk drums, rock guitars and the addition of brass instruments. I guess ‘indie’ would suit them, because they don’t have any specific genre. They  use it to their advantage. Over time, they’ve added Sean Neumann, on bass, and Marcus Nuccio on drums. Since their new additions, they released a record together, titled Printer’s Devil. A beautiful record that showcases Steiner’s songwriting capabilities and the beautiful harmony that all four members bring to the table. They had released Printer’s Devil in 2020, fully prepared to tour the album that MTV had said was “the best album of their career” and Pitchfork commented on the album’s lyrical depth as “comforting and sobering all at once”. But, COVID struck and they were confined to their homes.

She smiled, greeting me with a ‘Hey, Bella!’. I had met Steiner once before, briefly, but she was just as friendly as I remembered.

Julia Steiner sat on her sofa when she joined the meeting room. She was wearing the same Ratboys jumper that I had bought at the beginning of the lockdown. She smiled, greeting me with a ‘Hey, Bella!’. I had met Steiner once before, briefly, but she was just as friendly as I remembered. We spent a few minutes chatting, reminiscing. Steiner didn’t realise that I was attending UCD, a place where she had stayed for six months while working at RTE. She was familiar with Dublin and it was nice to have a chat about a place that’s been a part of either of our lives.

Ratboys, arguably, could be considered a thing that has been a part of either of our lives as well, so I asked about their recent ten year anniversary, and how the band started and how they’ve evolved since then.

“Well, I guess it all started when I went away to college when I was 18,” Steiner starts, looking away, reflecting on the beginning of the band, “Definitely didn’t leave home planning to start a band or looking for bandmates, or anything. Right when I moved in at Notre Dame in Indiana, where I went to school, I met Dave [Sagan] who was into the same kind of bands that I was into and we became friends really quickly and bonded right away over our mutual love of music. There isn’t a huge community of musicians, and the arts community at Notre Dame was a little smaller than other comparable colleges. So, when we found each other really fast and realised we had a lot in common, we kind of bonded really quickly. Eventually, we started playing guitar together, I showed him some songs that I had written during high school and some songs that I was writing then. And we kind of started working on them together and eventually, that next semester, we put them up on the internet, just for our friends to check out. And then we started playing some shows at friends houses and really enjoyed it. So, over the years, we started asking other friends of ours to play with us, and we were able to meet some people and play some shows out of town, booking our own tours. I just really enjoyed it and we had a lot of fun. So, we kind of just kept doing that. And kept growing over time, and it’s definitely been a gradual evolution, for sure.”

Steiner is a deeply intelligent soul and I can’t wait for her to tell me more through her songwriting.

I asked if she had withdrawn from college due to the band, something that some artists tend to do when they’ve found their stride, but she graduated. She talks about not having pressure to write songs while in college, there were no deadlines, which led me perfectly to my next question. I asked about her songwriting, how it started, who influences her and what journey has writing songs brought her on. “I started writing songs pretty soon after I started learning how to play guitar. The summer between eighth grade and freshman year in high school.” I remarked that she was young and she credits her start to doing piano lessons as a child, “But my mom played guitar when she was younger, so there was a guitar laying around the house. I picked it up and she kind of taught me a few chords and a friend of mine at the time was also learning how to play guitar, so we helped each other learn chords. I kind of started fiddling around with the guitar… I eventually started writing little songs for my friends to make them laugh about the drama in like eighth grade, or whatever. So I’ve always enjoyed making something out of nothing with music and eventually, it became a very cathartic way to deal with things that were going on in my family and just processing the world around me as a growing teenager… I feel like I got to know myself pretty well back then. Over the years, I just try to keep doing what feels right and sounds good, and once I met Dave, he was like the ultimate sounding board. I would show him an idea and if he liked it, it would kind of be my greenlight to keep going with it. And he often has suggestions on how to hone things down. It’s been a process.”

I asked her who or what are her influences for songwriting and how she makes it her own. “I mean, in general, influences on my songwriting are mainly the people around me, like my family, you kind of get a lot of influence from people you meet on the road, little things you see or experience, it sounds trivial, but you’re putting yourself out there in a way where you can kind of see your experience, things that you otherwise wouldn’t, the small things like a sunset on the coast you would never be otherwise, just seeing someone on the side of a road, you never know. That’s something I’ve really missed since COVID, we haven’t been able to tour, so we haven’t been able to really have those spontaneous experiences. I just love listening to music, finding new music, and obviously listening to stuff that I’ve loved for a long time. I have bands that are always going to be touchstones in my brain. Like, Death Cab [for Cutie], Built to Spill, or Cheryl Crow. She’s my favourite songwriter, she’s so awesome. So there are certain musical influences that will always be there. And I’m discovering new things, constantly, that’s something I look forward to.”

We chatted for longer, much longer, but the comment on the people around Steiner made me reflect. We are all melting pots of the people around us, how they impact us, what they teach us. And it was a beautiful way to think about influences. Steiner is a deeply intelligent soul and I can’t wait for her to tell me more through her songwriting.