Ratboys Break Down Their Heavy (But So Fun) “Printer’s Devil” Track by Track
The introspective Chicago rockers detail their latest for Topshelf Records, out this Friday.
Back in 2008, I gifted my fairly conservative, Talking Heads–loving father the David Byrne & Brian Eno CD Everything That Happens Will Happen Today for Christmas, which he immediately blasted from the living room speakers. I am not exaggerating when I say that Byrne’s recitation of the line “When the angel fucks the whore” on the second track ruined an otherwise pleasant holiday for my entire family.
Ratboys’ Julia Steiner had a fairly different experience with the record, citing a lyric from the track “Life Is Long” as a direct inspiration on the vaguely emo Chicago band’s third and latest LP, Printer’s Devil. “I’m lost but I’m not afraid” has become the unofficial mantra for the record, summing up the uneasy transitions occurring in Steiner’s life during the album’s inception period. Paralleling these changes was a shift in the band’s chemistry—once a two-piece comprised of Steiner and Dave Sagan, PD is the first Ratboys album to feature a full band, adding touring members Sean Neumann and Marcus Nuccio to the mix.
The result is something deeply personal, while injected with something of a Wikipedia-wormhole curiosity (several tracks seem to explore bizarre histories detailed on the free online encyclopedia) and a tinge of science fiction. All in all, probably a better choice of Christmas present for my dad this year.
Printer’s Devil is streaming now, and will be officially released tomorrow via Topshelf Records—order it here. Listen below, and read on to hear what Steiner had to say about the history of each track.
This was the first song that we recorded when we got into the studio. We took a couple hours to get drum sounds and make the guitars sound good, and then we just went for it. I started writing this song while we were on tour—after we had soundchecked one day I was feeling pretty exhausted mentally and needed to get some space. I walked to our car and just played guitar for a while. The bones of the song came out right away, and they felt really fresh and urgent. The melody and hook had kind of been stewing in my mind for a while, which helped me just let it out I think.
I kept workshopping the song during sound checks throughout the rest of the tour, just singing and playing the parts I had so far and improvising them in that small amount of time. I always like doing that with new ideas on tour. Eventually Dave and I demoed out the song and nailed down the structure in Kentucky a few weeks later, and then we built it out even more with Sean and Marcus from there. For me, the song is about the disorienting reality of life on the road. And just about being inside your own head all the time, to the point where you start to question how you come off to others. It’s kind of a heavy topic, but I wanted it to be lighthearted too, because that’s kind of how tour feels a lot of the time—heavy, but so fun.
2. “Look To”
This song rocks, and we had so much fun recording it. I remember it took us a while to find the right tempo, but once we got it I feel like we just locked in 100 percent as a band. The lyrics of this one deal with family relationships getting more complicated as you grow older. When we were demoing at the house where I grew up, I kind of found myself taking stock of the bonds I share with my family, specifically with my parents, and just thinking about how they’ve changed over time. The idea of helping your mom or dad through a hard time is so powerful to me, so that became the central image of the song in my eyes.
And then confessing a bit of frustration in the chorus, that things aren’t as simple as they seemed before. This song is very, very fun to play, we like to go absolutely wild with it. Then finally we tacked on a bit at the end—we wanted it to sound like you were walking into a sing-along at a party. That bit is an idea I woke up singing in the middle of the night. I recorded it right then in a little voice memo, which you can hear at the very end of the song.
3. “My Hands Grow”
This song is one of two on the record (the other being “Printer’s Devil,” the title track) that was based around a series of drum loops and overdubs, rather than using a live band performance as the base of the track. This one was really fun to put together, it almost felt like doing a puzzle. I love how clean everything sounds—I remember Erik (Rasmussen, who recorded the album) had to run an errand at one point, but he left a minute-long instrumental loop of the song going while he was gone. It must have been going for, like, thirty minutes, but all of us were just reading and chilling, we didn’t even notice the time passing or the song looping.
We realized after he got back that the music must be pretty nice if we could just listen to it for that long without stirring. The lyrics are based around some memories I have of spending time with two of my best friends from high school, driving down the back roads in Kentucky and hanging out by the river during the summer. I wanted to write lyrics that sort of reassure them that I’ll always be there to love them and protect them, even if I don’t say that out loud nearly enough. It’s a song about friendship and spending time outside in the sun.
4. “A Vision”
This song came together very quickly—I think I wrote it in less than an hour, all at once. I remember I was in my bedroom in my old apartment, and we had some friends over, but I got sucked into this moment where I had to write the song. That happens very rarely, so when it does and you know you’re 100 percent onto something, you have to follow it, no matter what else is going on. I had known for a few months that I wanted to write a song about a specific rainy morning that I had experienced on the road. It felt almost like a fantasy or a dream, so the song had to be that too. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was able to connect some rhymes across the length of the song, which doesn’t often happen naturally for me. I think that makes it really pleasing to sing.
I’m also really proud of how the studio recording turned out, because we were somehow able to capture the essence of the song while all playing together in the same room. I remember Ian (Paine-Jesam, our friend who played drums on this song) had to play extremely quietly, so that the drums didn’t drown out my acoustic guitar. We had a lot of fun adding some strange little overdubs. Lots of noises and textures, things that I can’t even remember now what we used.
This was the first song that Dave and I wrote for the new record. As soon as we unloaded and set up all of our gear for the first demo session, the riff for this song is the first thing I played, the first thing that came out. It felt natural right away, and we had so much fun just jamming on the progression because it’s so simple. For me, the lyrics are drawn from my life, specifically from my relationship with the woman who watched my siblings and me throughout my childhood. The time and effort she put into raising us while my parents worked is something I’m just now starting to really appreciate, so I wanted to write a song for her, to try to tell her how much I care for her and how I want to be there for her, to give some of that nurturing love back in some way. I think the song has that same mixture of heaviness and lightness that I find so appealing. Marcus’ drumming makes the whole song sound so huge and poppy—it was the final element we needed to really go full force and drive home the hook.
6. “I Go Out at Night”
This song is actually the oldest one of the bunch in the sense that it’s the only one that uses an older idea that we re-discovered and re-purposed for the album. I wrote the first verse and main guitar riff when I was nineteen or twenty, sometime around 2011. I always hoped that we would build the right little world for this song, and luckily the time was right and it happened. To me this song is about feeling a little restless, about figuring out the world in the midst of big change or creeping anxiety. Just kind of floating above everything.
We knew we wanted this song to feel different from the rest, something like a daydream. I ended up writing the bridge during our time demoing in Kentucky, and the lyrics deal directly with moving out of your home and saying goodbye to the places that shaped you. That physical sensation of the sun waking you up, of the day breaking and pushing you onto the next phase. I experienced that during the end of our stay in KY, and it was powerful. I had to acknowledge and honor that sunlight. As silly as that sounds, it moved me.
7. “Victorian Slumhouse”
OK so this song is pretty ridiculous, and it’s one of my favorites on the album. I think it’s the first time we’ve ever just said “fuck it, let’s have some fun” and gotten really loose with our ideas. I remember that the inspiration for this song came about when Dave and I were visiting his parents and watching PBS after dinner. This British reality TV show called Victorian Slum House came on. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s based around a historical re-enactment, where all of the participants volunteered to be on the show because they have ancestral ties to the slums of Victorian England. It’s hard to explain, but the show is so entertaining—all of the participants constantly dwell on how much they miss the conveniences of modern life, and there’s a ton of drama.
We were kind of just sitting there mystified watching this and having so much fun, so I remember I started strumming the guitar and came up with the little opening vocal tag and guitar riff to make Dave laugh. Eventually we kept jamming on it because it was too much fun. I decided that I wanted the song to be about reality TV, and how it’s so voyeuristic and strange. I spent a lot of time imagining what it must have been like to be on that set, in the carefully recreated Victorian-era slum, but also surrounded by tons of high-end film production equipment and the whole crew, trying to tease content out of you at all hours of the day and night. I find I’m often drawn to crazy contrasts, and that’s this show for me. The song is a rocker, and we absolutely love playing it, especially the outro riff that just circles on and on.
8. “Clever Hans”
This song is based on a true story that I came across while reading Wikipedia one day. It’s told from the perspective of a horse named Clever Hans, who became famous in the 1800s because his owner claimed he could do math and tell the days of the week and stuff like that. Huge crowds would come and watch the horse, and eventually, teams of psychologists came to study Clever Hans. They realized rather quickly that the horse couldn’t, in fact, do math—but they noticed that Hans always picked the right answer out of a multiple choice set, because he perceived tiny, subconscious cues in his owner’s face when the correct answer was read.
Long story short, it turns out that Clever Hans was, in fact, extremely intelligent, just not in the ways everybody expected. He was emotionally intelligent. After reading that story, it made me wonder about all of the ways that animals feel and perceive the world around them, ways that we may never fully understand. So I wanted to write the song from Clever Hans’ perspective, to write poetry as a horse. Something tells me that horses are capable of writing poetry, in their own ways. So that’s really what this one is about.
I wrote this song one morning during the KY demo session immediately after I learned of the passing of Anthony Bourdain. This is the only song we didn’t demo—we finished arranging it in the studio.
10. “Printer’s Devil”
This is the title track, and my personal favorite song on the album. It feels like an artist statement to me. Dave and I sort of stumbled into this jam while we were demoing, and it had this meditative, almost addictive quality to it, like we couldn’t stop playing it. Eventually I started improvising vocal phrases on top of the guitar, which loops over and over again for the whole song. I wrote a ton of lyrics and ended up whitling them down to what’s on the recording.
The lyrics were inspired by some stories I had read about the poet Walt Whitman, about how he worked as a “printer’s devil” (or printer’s apprentice) as a young boy. I read about how Whitman’s boss in the print shop was obsessed with this radical Quaker theologian named Elias Hicks—so obsessed that he dragged Whitman and another employee to the cemetery in the middle of the night, to dig up Hicks’ grave. They were caught, and Whitman moved on to a different print shop, where he kept learning the trade.
I also read about how Whitman would test the ink in the shop by putting down lines of “little sentimental bits,” which made me think that maybe this job was the place where he started experimenting with poetry or just pondering language in general. That idea of just putting down lines, combined with reading about the teachings of Elias Hicks, fueled me to write and write and write, as if I were testing out the ink in the shop. The song felt right immediately, and we were able to record it and find the right sounds very quickly in the studio. It was a joy to make.