Photo: Alexa Viscius

On Deck: Five songs Ratboys listened to while making new album The Window

Tomorrow, August 25, sees the release of Ratboys‘ new album The Window via Topshelf Records. The beloved Chicago band have moved from strength to strength with each album, as proven by the release of Happy Birthday Ratboy in 2021, which celebrated their 10th anniversary as a band and featured re-recordings of early favourites, showing how much they’ve grown and evolved.

The Window is yet another level up for the group, combining their most sonically-advanced recordings with their most musically and lyrically intricate work to date. Its recording saw them depart Chicago for the first time, heading to Seattle to record with erstwhile Death Cab For Cutie guitarist and all-round mega producer Chris Walla. The result is an album chock-full of dynamic guitar work, understated-but-technical percussion and Julia Steiner’s trademark storytelling that gets to the heart of matters in minutiae that feel universal.

Steiner has been kind enough to give us an (ahem) window into the recording process for The Window by telling us about five songs they had on in the studio during its creation. You can enjoy a Spotify playlist of Ratboys’ five song picks here.

Check out the stories behind each song below, but first enjoy one of the album’s many highlights, “Morning Zoo”.

The Roches – “Hammond Song”

[Warner Bros; 1979]

One thing that I was really excited about heading into the studio was that we hadn’t written any vocal harmonies ahead of time. The plan was to lay down the lead vocal tracks for each song, and then to go back through and come up with harmonies on the spot, letting unexpected things happen in the moment. When it finally came time to tackle the vocal harmonies, Chris [Walla] put on this song to serve as inspiration. None of the four of us in the band had heard it before, and it truly felt like a religious experience hearing these sisters’ harmonies guide the course of this song and carry so much emotional weight. It was a great reminder of just how much some simple harmonies, when sung with conviction, can transform a song into something bigger and better.

Brainiac – “V1NC3NT COM3 ON DOWN”

[Touch and Go; 1996]

If memory serves, I think our drummer Marcus brought up this song as a reference point while we were working on the song “Crossed that Line”. We knew we wanted that song to have this deranged, slightly batty but fun vibe to it, and this Braniac song has that exact feeling we were after. The sort of screechy, whirring synth lead was a direct inspiration for the high synth lead at the end of “Crossed that Line”.

I had never listened to Braniac before, but Chris was already a fan – it was cool to discover a band from Dayton, OH (my parents’ hometown) who made subversive, weird music that very much holds up. 

Algernon Cadwallader – “Horror”

[Lauren; 2008]

Algernon Cadwallader is a touchstone band for all of us in the band, and it was exciting to share this song with Chris when we were talking about the inspiration for our song “I Want You (Fall 2010)”. This band was one of the first that Dave showed me when we met as 18-year-old college students, and since we wanted “I Want You” to be sort of a tribute to that time, it made a lot of sense to draw on specific bands and styles of music that we became obsessed with back then. Specifically, the noodly guitar riff that Dave plays during the outro section is meant as an homage to Algernon, Snowing, Maps & Atlases, and all of the bands from that era that we love. Chris had never heard this song before, and it felt like introducing an old friend to a new one.

Steve Miller Band – “Bongo Bongo”

[Capitol; 1984]

According to my notes from the studio, Chris showed us this song (and its extremely entertaining music video) on Day 20, as inspiration for Marcus to track a full nine-minute long bongo take on “Black Earth, WI,” which may or may not still be buried somewhere in the mix. We all loved the song and video so much that for the final few days in the studio we would put this on from time to time, just to break up the day and reset our brains. I’m not sure how much of a musical impact this song had on the record, but it’s definitely in there somewhere…

Focus – “Hocus Pocus”

[Imperial/Polydor; 1971]

Okay. I’m gonna need to include a link for this one because the studio version of this song simply isn’t the best version out there. The NBC Midnight Special Live in ‘73 performance of “Hocus Pocus” by Focus is one of our absolute favorite videos/songs to share with anyone, so it was a real treat to pull it up on the first day of vocal tracking and share it with Chris while I got in the zone.

The lore behind this performance is that, while the studio version of this song nears a seven minute run time, the guys in Focus only had a four minute time slot on this TV show; so, instead of cutting out certain sections of the song (or playing a different song), they chose to play the song like 20 bpm faster than the studio version. The results are an absolute triumph of vocal ability, lightning fast guitar, drum, and bass chops, and, most importantly, of not giving a fuck. That last point was the main inspiration I took from this, heading into the vocal zone, which was to just have fun and give it my all. And it was really just a great excuse to watch this video again– I mean… the teeth whistling… the flute solo… it has everything you’d want and more.

Ratboys’ new album The Window arrives tomorrow, August 25, through Topshelf Records (pre-order/save).

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