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The Return Of The Rad Ratboys

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The Return Of The Rad Ratboys

The Return Of The Rad Ratboys

Chicago’s indie rock darlings are riding high since the release of their acclaimed new album, The Window. And they’re also riding high.

It’s fitting that 2020 was the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, as it brought with it both massive challenges and unique inspiration for the members of Chicago-based indie rock quartet Ratboys. Since no musicians were able to tour as usual, band founders and romantic partners Julia Steiner (vocals, guitar) and Dave Sagan (guitar) filled their days early in the pandemic by demoing new songs, some of which would ultimately appear on their new, critically acclaimed album, The Window.

But they also had another focus: tending to a homegrown cannabis plant nicknamed Little Dave. “Dave grew a plant in our backyard,” Steiner says. “It started in a plastic shot glass on our windowsill, and it grew to be five feet tall.” Raised from March to September that year, Sagan says he was content to let the plant grow without aid of special fertilizers. And, later that fall, the two rightfully enjoyed their just rewards. “We smoked it!” Steiner says triumphantly. “We harvested it, and it was…wonderful.”

In many ways, cannabis has long wafted in the background of Ratboys’ creative output. After they first met as freshmen at Notre Dame University, Steiner fondly recalls the nights she and Sagan spent sharing a joint and driving around the country backroads of northern Indiana and southern Michigan, just listening to music. “That was one of the main things we bonded over,” she says. “It was one of the things that helped us get to know each other so well and so quickly.”

Reflecting on the type of long, shifting songs they’d often gravitate to during those rides, Steiner namechecks Wilco’s “Spiders” and Chalk Talk’s “Memo: Sploof.” Those songs would soundtrack a period that Steiner acknowledges today as “one of the most formative experiences of my time as a music listener.” Now, nearly three years after smoking Little Dave, Steiner and Sagan—along with Marcus Nuccio (drums) and Sean Neumann (bass, vocals)—are finally enjoying the fruits of their latest musical labors as well.

Cover art for Ratboy’s The Window by Jennifer Cronin.

The Window has earned lofty praise from Pitchfork, which called it Ratboys’ “level-up record,” and Stereogum, which hailed it as “one of the absolute best albums of 2023.” Among the record’s highlights is the sprawling, epic “Black Earth, WI.” Clocking in at a hefty 8:34, the track’s sonic turns feel right at home with the type of fare that once populated Steiner and Sagan’s car stereo. In another fitting twist, the title itself, though not a THC-inspired invention, was conceived when the band was stoned and driving around and happened to stumble upon a road sign for the real-life town of Black Earth. “It was just such a beautiful, strange name for a town that it really caught our attention,” Steiner says.

Serendipity serving as inspiration is a common occurrence for Ratboys, who also enjoy a penchant for giving their songs surreal-sounding titles including “Elvis in the Freezer” and “Alien With a Sleep Mask On.” While those specific examples are, rather incredibly, both inspired by real-life events, Sagan shares his belief that the band’s collective affinity for cannabis manages to inevitably feed their creative output. “In a sense, it’s like you have stoner ideas living next to very profound, sober ideas and then they all just mix together,” he says.

That’s how drummer Marcus Nuccio sees it, too. “I like the idea of the ‘stoner’s mind,’ where you’re not high all the time but you know what it’s like to be high,” he says. One memorable example of the latter? The day of January 1, 2020, when the band decided to celebrate the birth of legal adult-use cannabis in Chicago by seeing Cats while very, very stoned. “Everyone in the theater was so high,” Steiner said. “It was the most joyous movie-going experience I’ve ever had.”

As the foursome pivoted to their current tour supporting The Window, Sagan says their itinerary includes the chance to visit a few cannabis retailers along the way. “We definitely have our short list of places that we have to stop at,” he says grinning. “And, yeah, there are some dispensaries are on that list, for sure.”

It would appear that The Window is open, once again.

This story was originally published in issue 50 of the print edition of Cannabis Now.

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