Ratboys isn't planning on slowing down. They've just wrapped up a short tour supporting Pet Symmetry's new album, but vocalist/guitarist Julia Steiner and guitarist Dave Sagan still have another two months on the road -- including the July 23 stop at the Duck Room -- as they travel across North America for the release of their own album, GN. It's a wonderfully charming record that blurs the lines between the twang of country and the intensity of rock, all tied together with the pensive whimsicality of Steiner's songwriting. Pet cats and feral children, sisters and Antarctic expeditions; GN manages to weave seemingly disparate fragments into a collection of powerfully personal stories.
When I talk with Steiner over the phone, she and Sagan were at home in Chicago, taking a brief respite from touring before heading out to a show in Iowa later that day. (At one point, Steiner breaks off to check out the new strings Dave had put on the bass. "How are they sounding?" she asks; to which I hear the sound of a bass being strummed in reply.) It's not hard to believe that she's the voice behind Ratboys: she speaks with the deliberation and eloquence of a seasoned writer. "It's always a fun challenge to tell a story within the confines of a song," she tells me. "You have to be economical and concise." We discuss the tour, the making of the new LP, and the genre-bending power of "post-country."
Claire Ma: How is life on the road?
Julia Steiner: It's good! I definitely wouldn't be doing this if I didn't like it. There are new experiences being added each day, even though the actual routine of touring is remarkably consistent. But it's the perfect mix for me: I really like planning and routine, but at the same time, there's lots of new adventures to be had. I'm lucky because I get to tour with Dave, who's my partner and my best friend. I can understand for certain people it'd be really difficult to tour because they're leaving their partner at home or something like that, but we're in a lucky spot where we're together all the time.
CM: Did you write the song "GM" as an ode to touring?
JS: Yes! It's one of those songs where I was excited to say some of my friends' names and put them down forever on a recording. As we keep making music, I'd like to just keep adding verses and make a Bob Dylan-esque, ten-minute long, self-indulgent folk song.
CM: Your latest album, GN, shows more of an emphasis on the narrative element of the songs, as opposed to previous releases. How did the songwriting process differ?
JS: The first time we recorded AOID, it was very spontaneous. There wasn't any deliberation about a tracklist or certain ideas or stories that we wanted to include; they were just songs we had been playing for a long time, and it felt right to do those. This time around, there was a lot more -- well, it sounds kind of lame to say "planned," but we definitely took time to think about what songs we wanted to put on there. There were certain songs that I knew I wanted to finish that didn't have lyrics or a focus. Dave and I actually went up to Michigan for a few weeks, not just to record demos but to let me write and revise the lyrics to some of the songs -- that's how "Control" and "Crying About the Planets" came about.
I really love storytelling, and in college, when I was studying English, I just soaked up as many stories as I could. Now that I'm out of that environment, I really miss that a lot. It feels good to tell stories through songwriting.
CM: Are there any authors that have really affected your own writing?
JS: I've been reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut. He has this collection of short stories called Look at the Birdie which is amazing. I love his direct style and how he can be so whimsical but straightforward in one sentence.; I definitely try to write that way, too.
CM: With songs like "Molly," "Control," and "Elvis in the Freezer," there's definitely a familial bent to GN. How did your family influence this record?
JS: I really miss my family: I'm the only one here who lives in Chicago -- the rest of them are all over the place, so I don't get to see them very often. GN was kind of a way to connect with them and gesture toward them in a permanent, solid way. When I was growing up, I struggled with being able to show affection, especially to my siblings. It's not that I thought I was too cool -- it just didn't come naturally to me. This was a way for me to make up lost time and be very direct about how I feel and what my siblings and my parents mean to me. At this point, it's just a way for me to stay close to them, even when they're not there. Plus, it's fun to sing my sister's name on stage every night.
CM: 'Molly' is about your sister, right?
JS: Yeah! She did the cover drawing for the record as well. She's an amazing artist and it worked out really well. It was fun to collaborate like that -- we had never done that before. The idea was meditating --- very tranquil and serene -- but also with the rock hands.
CM: Ratboys is often labelled "post-country," which is an odd term considering you've played with acts from all over the spectrum, from math rock to Midwest emo -- basically, genres one wouldn't typically associate with country.
JS: 'Post-country' is a goofy term that I made up in college. When I was growing up, I had never really heard of these funny genres, like post-hardcore, post-rock, post-whatever; it's a strange thing to just assume that anything ever truly ends, as far as genres go. So when I was introduced to these things in college by Dave, I was, like, "Well, we kind of have a little bit of a country thing going, but it's definitely not straight country, and it's more indie than anything. Let's just lump ourselves in with some goofy post-genre." But I honestly do think there's a lot of merit to it -- you know, making music that really respects and utilizes certain impulses of traditional country music but made for indie fans and made by people people who -- speaking for myself -- grew up listening to more indie music than anything.
We play with so, so many different kinds of bands, and that's something I'm really proud of. With our music, there's a lot of versatility, and there's a lot of overlap between different crowds. The Free Throw/Sorority Noise tour definitely solidified that, even though we make music that's not the same as bands in their genre, it definitely fits; we'd meet people every night who said 'We've never heard of you, but we enjoy what you're doing,' and that was really affirming for us.
CM: Recently, I've heard "post-country" being thrown at artists like Alex G, so maybe you've coined something big here.
JS: There you go! I actually have a plan -- [laughs] I sound so arrogant for trying to take credit for this -- but when I have time, I'm going to sit down and try to come up with some analysis or literature about the term, because I really do want to explain it a bit more. Genre is so cool, and I think that'd be a fascinating way to analyze it -- like, a "Post-Country Manifesto."
CM: Do you guys have any future projects in mind?
JS: Definitely. We're actually going back to that same house in Michigan in December to demo out some new songs, and that's gonna be awesome because it's going to be all snowy and strange. And, back in May, we recorded four more songs that were B-sides for GN -- songs that we didn't really have a chance to record initially. Those are almost finished, and that'll be a little EP that'll be out on Topshelf soon. It's funny -- GN just came out, but my mind is so forward-focused at this point, so I'm excited to work on the next thing.
We may be "walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match-head," but every Friday evening in August offers St. Louis blues lovers good times and great music at the Blues at the Arch concert series. Started in 2016, the series grew out of desire by the Gateway Arch Park Foundation to draw attention to the $380 million renovation of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and its unique role as a national park that sits in the heart of a major urban area.
"The Foundation was established in 2009 to help fund and design the construction that begins at Keiner Plaza," explained Ryan McClure their Communication Director: "Now it was time to transform into a conservancy organization, much like Forest Park Forever. We wanted to do something to highlight the progress and call attention to the expanded facilities. The Arch was one trademark and our music, the blues, another."
The idea also coincided with the April 2016 opening of the National Blues Museum just a few blocks away on Washington Avenue. To curate the festival, McClure called on Dion Brown, the NBM Executive Director, and their board chair Rob Endicott and they loved the proposal. Brown saw it as "a partnership that would publicize the park and draw a diverse crowd to the site" as well as an "an opportunity for the NBM to spread its wings and be a bridge to blues community."
The result was a free three-week concert series at the Luther Ely Smith Square which sits between the Old Federal Courthouse and the Arch. The series featured local and national acts, including the National Park Service Centennial Jazz Band. They deliberately timed it to end on the final Friday in August prior to the Big Muddy Blues Festival. The partners were thrilled as the crowds doubled each week of the six band three-night series and drew more than 4,000 people.
This year they hope to draw a lot more fans to the free series with a new site and a program expanded to include ten bands every Friday night from 6 to 8:30 throughout August. The new location will be in the amphitheater by the Northgate entrance to the park, adjacent to Laclede's Landing and the Eads Bridge Metrolink station. The stage will face south with vendors' booths along the walkway on either side of the stage. The grassy location can accommodate and estimated 5,000 people.
The Gateway Arch Park Foundation and National Blues Museum want to fill the amphitheater. Their dual goals for Blues at the Arch remain raising awareness about the Arch grounds' renovation and St. Louis' thriving blues scene. To that end the National Blues Museum has curated a stellar mix of local talent and Delta blues musicians.
The life of William Christopher Handy, the Father of the Blues, is a tale long overdue to be told. After a ten-year effort, acclaimed Emmy-winning filmmaker Joanne Fish is ready to tell it on June 25, at a private event at the MX theater on Washington Avenue. Billed as "A St. Louis Celebration," it will be the first showing of Mr. Handy's Blues.
The St. Louis show honors this city's central role in the Handy story. As Fish explains it: "St. Louis was his crossroads moment either to go home and teach or be a vagabond musician. It was his spiritual moment. St. Louis is the soul of the Handy story, Memphis the heart."
It was in 1894 when a 20-year-old Handy found himself broke, starving and sleeping on the cobblestones beneath the Eads Bridge. He never forgot the pain and despair of those desperate times, nor the blues lament he heard from a woman stumbling down the street: "Ma man's got a heart like a rock cast in de sea." Twenty years later it became a key line in "The St. Louis Blues," one of the most recorded songs in history.
The St. Louis showing is also a thank you to all the local individuals and musicians who helped her along the way. One of those is the local co-producer Dr. Rosalind Norman, a long time educator, black theater advocate and business consultant. She shared Fish's vision of showing Handy's "economic empowerment, optimism, and his rising above the challenge of Jim Crow violence." "It is an important message for St. Louis after Ferguson," Norman says. "It is an opportunity to see a person of color in spite of racism and poverty rise above it and become an international icon."
Fish's interest in Handy began while working in Nashville for TNT and doing a documentary on the "Queen of Rockabilly," Wanda Jackson. Wanting to learn more about those musical roots and a fortuitous 2007 film festival trip to Florence Alabama, Handy's 1873 birthplace, led her to the W.C. Handy museum. "I learned so much, so many cool things," she says. She was also shocked to learn there were no documentaries about this towering figure of twentieth-century music. Joanne was hooked, and the journey began.
There are two stories embedded in Mr. Handy's Blues. According to Fish, one "is a tale of family conflict, racial tensions and redemption, his love of music and his talent for transforming the oral traditions of his African American countrymen into a unique and commercial musical genre, namely the blues."
The other is the story of a successful African American businessman who, with his partner Harry Pace, created the first black-owned music publishing company in 1912 and moved it to Tin Pan Alley in the heart of Broadway in 1918. A century later the Handy Brothers Music Company is still in business. His songs "St. Louis Blues," "The Memphis Blues," "Beale Street Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues" and many more are considered masterpieces in both the blues and jazz worlds.
W.C. Handy's arrival in New York also coincides with the early years of the Great Migration and the start of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a black businessman, a living example of what Marcus Garvey preached in Harlem about starting black owned businesses. He co-wrote song lyrics with Langston Hughes and organized the first blues performance in New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1928. Handy also wrote and was musical director for the first blues movie, St. Louis Blues, starring Bessie Smith and an all African American cast. (The film can be seen daily at the National Blues Museum.)
Handy was also a musicologist. Long before Alan Lomax took to the Delta with his recording machine, W.C. Handy and Abbe Niles wrote Blues: An Anthology (1926) which was illustrated by renowned Mexican illustrator Miguel Covarrubias and is considered the most famous blues collection in history. Two more important historical texts followed in the 1930s, Negro Authors and Composers of the United States in 1935 and W.C. Handy's Collection of Negro Spirituals in 1938.
The filmmaker uses W.C. Handy to tell his own story himself by using film clips, recordings and his 1941 autobiography Father of the Blues. She also brings the film to life with interviews with family members, historians and musicians like Bobby Rush, Taj Mahal and a 16-year-old Matt "Rattlesnake" Lesch playing a Handy song. Other St. Louis musicians appearing in the film include Miss Jubilee, Kim Massie, Kasimu Taylor, Sarah Jane and the Blue Notes, The Voodoo Blues Band and Race Simmons and the School of Rock Band.
The film and celebration have been supported locally by the Catherine Manley Gaylord Foundation, Cherry Red Productions, and STLBlues.net. The co-presenters for the event are The St. Louis Black Radio Hall of Fame, National Blues Museum, and the St. Louis Blues Society.
Mr. Handy's Blues has been accepted at a number of upcoming festivals in the summer and fall, including July dates at both the Macon Film Festival and at the W.C. Handy Musical Festival in Handy's hometown of Florence, Alabama. Watch for additional festival announcements. Discussions are also underway with several networks for a national broadcast of the film, as well as talks for the republishing of Handy's autobiography which paints a candid portrait of the violence of the Jim Crow era and an African-American musician trying to make it in society. The journey has been a long one for Joanne Fish and her Labor of Love production company but with the making of Mr. Handy's Blues she can take pride in her important contribution to African-American and musical history.
Since their formation, guitarist Will Sergeant has been the only regular member of Echo & the Bunnymen, a band who burst onto the indie music scene with their 1980 debut Crocodiles. From there Sergeant and vocalist Ian McCulloch would serve as the bedrock for a string of 30 singles and the classic albums, Heaven Up Here, Porcupine, Ocean Rain and their commercially successful 1987 self-titled Echo & the Bunnymen. After a brief separation the duo regrouped in the mid-nineties as Electrafixion before properly reforming Echo & the Bunnymen and releasing another string of albums, beginning with 1997's Evergreen and culminating in 2014's Meteorites. Sergeant has also created several albums of ambient-tinged instrumental psychedelic rock under the moniker of Glide.
In advance of Echo & the Bunnymen's July 22 performance alongside Violent Femmes at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Sergeant spoke to KDHX's Rob Levy via Skype from the guitarist's home in the UK. An edited version of the interview was aired on the July 12 broadcast of Juxtaposition.
Coming off the duo's debut album, Swear I'm Good At This, Diet Cig are one of the biggest breakout bands of 2017 and the defining sound of the breakout genre they call "slop pop." Alex Luciano (guitar/vox) and Noah Bowman (drums) met at a show that Bowman was playing in at New Paltz, NY. Then Luciano's offer to make a music video for Bowman ended up turning them into one of the most exciting acts in indie music today. Before their show Friday, June 2 at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, I had a chance to talk to Alex and Noah about festivals, adulthood, and the precision skills needed to properly pack a van.
Matt:: So you're at Bled Fest and from social media I see you've just finished a show.
Alex: Yeah, it was a really fun set, the festival is really cool.
Matt:: You’re in Michigan right now?
Alex: Howell, Michigan at an old high school, I think. It's pretty wild.
Matt:: Is it an actual festival or a DIY kind of festival?
Noah: It’s kind of like a hybrid, somewhere in the middle -- it has real sound systems and everything and there’s many stages but we’re spread out through the building.
Alex: Like we just played a stage in the big cafeteria. There’s other stages in classrooms and other rooms. It’s run by real production companies and it’s very organized, just smaller than a typical festival.
Matt:: That seems simultaneously really cool and "Oh my god, I’m back here -- I thought I was able to leave this place so long ago."
Noah: Yeah! It kinda feels like when we walked because it’s just a bunch of kids since it’s an all age thing. It feels like you’re in some 2000s music video.
Alex: There’s pop-punk in the background and kids in the hallway. There’s lockers and everyone’s hanging out and it’s really weird. So definitely music-video vibes.
Matt:: That didn’t come to mind but as you said that I thought, "How did I not get that right away?!"
Noah: [laughs] We just had a beer.
Matt:: I have a couple of questions for you guys if you’re ready to answer them.
Alex & Noah: Sure!
Matt:: So my first question is that I feel like recently there's been this huge wave of young songwriters essentially writing about their transition into adulthood that I think your band is definitely part of with the album title Swear I’m Good At This. Being a part of this generation, I feel like we’re being forced to grow up but we don’t quite know how to because it feels like we weren’t properly taught. So I guess my question is how has this transition into adulthood affected your outlook on life and in turn, your songwriting.
Alex: I mean I'm only 21 and so as I was writing these songs I was kinda in that transition like you’re saying. All of my songs are really very honest and about experiences that I've had. Because of that, I think this kind of transition into adulthood that I've been going through has really affected the songs. Honestly, when I write songs I take situations that have happened to me and different things that have happened in my life and kind of take them and reclaim them in a way -- turn them into something that I can be proud of and excited to share with people. So I think a lot of the hard things and the shitty things that have gone on in my life that I feel like I’m inclined to write songs about have been these transitional periods and not knowing where I fit in the world or with anyone else. I think those feelings are really intense for a lot of people who are going through that phase and I definitely felt them and just decided to own them and be like, "This is real and this is my life, and I'm gonna turn this into something I’m excited to play and share and that I'm proud of."
Matt:: So this next one is a bit of a small question but one I wish others would ask more often. Since you have been touring for two or three years now, how down is your unpacking and packing method for the van?
Noah: Oh, let me tell you that is my favorite thing and I appreciate that you asked that question because no one ever cares about that part and I live for the pack and the unpack -- I’m not even being sarcastic, I love it! I think we have it down to a science.
Alex: Oh yeah, it's like Tetris.
Noah: It is. It's like Tetris and our van I’ve kinda built out to fit our needs, so we have a bed in our van too and a lock chamber for all of our stuff.
Alex: There's only one way it all fits.
Noah: Yeah, there’s really only one way it all fits and I know it and our tour manager Nate knows it, and if you put something in the wrong place…you’re fucked.
Alex: Hey, this time I know something, okay? So interesting enough, on this tour we added a whole big speaker cab and we were like, "How is this all gonna fit?" We had it down perfectly before and funny enough, the first time I help figure out the Tetris move to pack the van, we pack the giant cabinet and have extra space.
Noah: Yeah, she nailed it.
Alex: So I was pretty proud of that.
Noah: Yeah, that was good.
Alex: But that’s really kind of Noah’s territory and his pride and joy on tour.
Noah: I'm such a neat freak and like to have things just organized so I love that part of the day.
Matt:: I'm glad you appreciated the question. Actually, there's a video out there that A.V. Club did where Pinegrove and Into It. Over It. compete to see who can pack their van the fastest.
Alex: Oh my god, we should do that! We would freaking win against anybody.
Noah: I'd do it in like what, 45 seconds? No?
Alex: I don't know about that.
Noah: No, but that's a fun thing I didn’t even know that they did that.
Alex: I'll have to look that up, I like that.
Matt:: Speaking of vans and driving, what's been some of your favorite music to listen to on this tour?
Noah: I've been driving a lot and as lame as it is I just don't put any music on because everyone sleeps and I usually drive in the morning. But if I am going to throw something on, I really like that Pinegrove record, their newest one, and today I threw on some throwbacks. I listened to Local Natives, that first record they did, Gorilla Manor, that's a good one.
Alex: You listened to Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American like every day.
Noah: Yeah, that's a really good record.
Alex: I have some newer bands that I love like Sylvan Esso and some other ones but I feel like we're just sick of all the songs we listen to constantly, so I've been trying to throw it back to some '70s jams. The other day we had a really good time listening to "September" [Earth, Wind and Fire] and "December, 1963" [The Four Seasons].
Matt:: So what are you excited to do in St. Louis?
Alex: City Museum! We want to go and play in a ball pit…really bad. We’ve heard from friends that this is the only thing that we have to do when we’re there and that’s all I want to do.
Matt:: I agree, City Museum, you gotta go.
Alex: Yeah, that's our goal. We didn’t get to go last time and we really want to so…catch us in the ball pit!