In the early 20th century and before, a young “printer’s devil” would help set type and clean the floors in print shops. He learned his trade as all apprentices do, by watching carefully and, eventually, by doing. Julia Steiner, who leads Midwestern band Ratboys, found herself with a unique task not long ago: sorting through decades of memories and artifacts as her parents cleared out her childhood home in Louisville, Kentucky. She’d become the printer’s devil of her own life.
Steiner trekked back to the house she grew up in, down in the Kentucky humidity and sunshine, with trusted Ratboys collaborator Dave Sagan. The two formed the band in the 2010s after meeting at the University of Notre Dame; two albums later, and after dozens of good SpongeBob tweets shared in the van on the way to live gigs, they needed a place to finalize and demo some expansive new songs, just as she’d done in high school. They picked the only room left with a bed in it.
“Logistically it was really easy,” Steiner told MTV News. “No one was there, obviously, because my parents had already moved out, and we camped out in their bedroom, which was kind of funny. It had tall ceilings. We got to just turn up and camp out in that space and try to go out with a bang, as far as just writing some music in that house for one more time.”
The fruits of their excursion burst forth on Printer’s Devil, the adventurous third Ratboys album out this Friday, February 28, via Topshelf Records. (You can hear an advance stream of the album above.) It picks up the folksy yarn from 2017’s GN and knits an entire wardrobe out of it, merging pop-punk and moony ballads with one experimental jam that could easily double its 4:32 runtime and still not overstay its welcome.
That jam is the title track, a spaced-out vision inspired by epics like Wilco’s 10-minute “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and Cat Power’s 18-minute “Willie Deadwilder.” Steiner said they chased “the idea trying to create more of a meditation or a mantra” and ended up making her favorite song on the album. “We jammed on that little pattern for 20 minutes. I feel like I could play that for an hour. It’s so nice. I’m proud that we were able to write a song like that, that feels intentional but also has a ton of open space and just had space in itself to go where it needs to go.”
Ratboys have visited the jamosphere before, often allotting guitarist Sagan ample real estate on live versions of GN’s airy “Dangerous Visions.” But “Printer’s Devil” feels like a turning point, a statement that finds the group unlocking new horizons for themselves. Instead of cutting ad-hoc vocal takes in a campus chapel or laundry room like they did when Ratboys began, Steiner and Sagan summited the attic of a hollowed-out house, subsequently bailed after 10 minutes without air conditioning, mellowed out over some Kentucky backroad drives, walked around familiar parks, and funneled those simple, powerful moments into their best album yet. “They sound cliché or novel when you just read them on a lyric sheet. But for me it is grounded in real memories that I cherish,” Steiner said.
She opens “Look To” as a little girl “bombing hills in the summertime” and closes the loop on “I Go Out at Night,” a song she began writing as a teenager and finished at her parents’. “Photographs fill my mind,” she sings, “I’m sleeping here for the last time.” Its emotionality lives in the loss, rendered in detail by Sagan’s dreamy fills and Steiner’s specificity of place; its Halloween-themed video finds the four-piece band — Steiner and Sagan, plus Sean Neumann on bass and Marcus Nuccio on drums — haunting the suburbs in their trick-or-treating best. Just one track before, on “Anj,” Steiner lays out a tender ode to a former babysitter who she’s kept in touch with as they’ve both grown older. Musically, it’s a firecracker.
“We demoed through it two or three different times because we weren’t really sure how to just keep the energy carrying over,” Sagan said. “The lyrics got really intense from verse to verse, and then by the end, you really want to bring the energy up. We were really indecisive on, should this be a chiller song?” The demo is lovely, brimming with that chunky octave riff that gives the song its immediacy, but Sagan said the real magic happened thanks to Nuccio’s explosive drumming.
Printer’s Devil is full of level-up moments like this, sonic embellishments that unify the album and more closely echo the dynamic Ratboys live experience. Unlike the band’s previous LPs, the musicians who played in Ratboys on the road are the same who recorded the album, lending every crunch and chord change added tightness. “We went through this period where we were playing with a bunch of different drummers” — nine, to be exact — “and every time, every lineup was a slightly different sound, too. Sean and Marcus have been there for a long time now, and they’re permanent. We just really wanted to capture that.”
Left to right: Dave Sagan, Julia Steiner, Marcus Nuccio, and Sean Neumann
The chemistry also comes from the four also playing in Jupiter Styles, a band fronted by Neumann, and the fact that Steiner, Sagan, and Neumann all live together in Chicago. This allows for being “very attuned to one another’s sense of humor and mood,” Steiner said, and there’s a palpable feeling in both listening to the album and seeing a Ratboys show that these people actually all really like each other — Steiner and Sagan especially. They’ve been a couple for seven years, though they don’t like to make it the focus of the band’s story. There’s also little time for romance when the demands of a tour beckon.
“But at the same time, you have to make space for that away,” Sagan said, prompting Steiner to dig a little deeper: “We’re so lucky because even if we’re not able to express all the different facets of our relationship on the road, we’re still together every day, all day, and that is a huge comfort for me. Honestly, I don’t know if I could go on tour without Dave.”
There aren’t many Ratboys songs about their relationship. “Pretty much none of them. No offense, Dave,” Steiner said. But she writes about different types of love. “Anj” celebrates the symbiotic evolution of a decades-spanning friendship. Meanwhile, “My Hands Grow” probes inward with lines like “I know that it’s hard to feel my love” as images of clouds and blades of grass float by. Printer’s Devil’s love songs are unexpected.
Also unexpected: that two musical partners who linked up in South Bend, Indiana, wouldn’t gravitate toward Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Presidential election. He was mayor when they lived there, and he even came to a show at a prominent DIY space. They’d see him around town, and they liked him. Steiner said she was excited when he announced his campaign last year, but since then, “things have changed. I feel like he pivoted to the big picture and the wider race a little bit too soon for my taste.”
Instead, Steiner and Sagan played an acoustic set at a Davenport, Iowa, rally in support of Bernie Sanders. After the senator thanked them by name in his preamble, the clip amassed thousands of likes and retweets.
“His plans for health care are so important,” Steiner said. “It’s really hard being a musician, self-employed and having to rely on government health insurance. A lot of young artists are attracted to his campaign for that, but for so many other reasons too.”
“Bernie Sanders is the most famous person I’ve ever met,” Sagan adds.
It’s possible that Printer’s Devil could change that. Ratboys are set for a headlining tour, playing longer sets in bigger rooms to more receptive crowds, and even a few gigs opening for their heroes in Wilco. It all still feels like the exciting beginning of something much greater. Still, Steiner often uses the @Ratboysband Twitter handle to champion her friends’ projects and great SpongeBob moments more than her own band. “I will share those memes on Twitter forever until someone forces me to stop,” she said. She’s just happy to keep playing whenever they can, for whoever will listen.
“It would just go against all of my instincts to suppress any sort of enthusiasm or hype I’m feeling,” she said. “I just want to shout from the mountaintops all the cool stuff that’s going on.” Luckily, Ratboys just made the best album of their career. This time, plenty of others can do the shouting.