From 2014 to 2017, Vundabar's Brandon Hagen cared for a loved one that had fallen into a debilitating state of mental and physical decline. For four years his sickness and the eventual loss that followed became the focal point of Hagen’s life as well as his family’s. It was the bell jar under which they lived. Hagen was fractured into two selves; one, largely insular, racked by grief and loss and the other putting it on, touring relentlessly and hoping to be as affable as possible lest he ruin the opportunities at hand. These were the fencings and borders he made for himself and for a time he let them stand. He presented a shell of charisma and withdrew into isolation and despair, convinced he was doing right by the old dogma of stoicism. He didn’t tell a soul out of shame and embarrassment; whose he didn’t know.
Unsurprisingly these two poles couldn’t stand for long. The tension bore down on Hagen’s skull until it felt something might break. It reared its ugly head from time to time. He became withdrawn, irritable and inactive and suffered more than one nervous break. It came to a point where he had to deal with it or it was going to deal with him.
In reflection Hagen realized the point that had led his loved one to a collapse and subsequent dissolution held parallels to his own. As a child, bereft of stability, he created a larger than life persona to live within. He buried his insecurities and traumas deep and kept them there for most of his adult life, until, unable to maintain the house on stilts he’d built for himself, he collapsed completely. And here Hagen was in the face of this loss, about to repeat the cycle.
Hagen wondered was this stoicism, this shame, this impasse even his own or had it been pressed upon him. From the earliest memories of boyhood he could recall one of the most integral attributes of male-ness being an ability to suppress emotion. Concealment was touted as a point of pride and here he watched as it leveled the one who held it in his hand.
'Smell Smoke', the band's anticipated 2018 follow up to their breakout 2015 album 'Gawk,' is an attempt at openness and vulnerability. It’s an attempt at unlearning. It’s a document of grief; a child crying into the dark.
Born out of fierce friendship and a mutual affection for melody, Chicago͛s Ratboys – anchored by the partnership of Julia Steiner and Dave Sagan – aims to ͚write songs that tell stories and honor the intimacy of memory,͛ according to Steiner. GN, the group͛s second full-length album via Topshelf Records, offers a bevy of tales, laments and triumphs, which recount near-tragedies by the train tracks, crippling episodes of loneliness, remembrances of a deceased family pet with freezer burn, and on and on. The songs shift and breathe as worlds all their own, tied together by the group͛s self-proclaimed ͚post-country͛ sound, which combines moments of distortion and a DIY aesthetic with a devotion to simple songwriting and ties to the Americana sounds of years past. Drawing influence from the down-to-earth sincerity of late-90s Sheryl Crow and the confessional confidence of Kim Deal and Jenny Lewis, the songs on GN (aka ͚goodnight͛) ͞largely detail experiences of saying goodbye, finding your way home, and then figuring out what the hell to do once you͛re back,͟says Steiner. The songs chosen to close both sides of the record – the slow-burning ͚Crying About the Planets͛ and quizzical ͚Peter the Wild Boy͛– unpack the respective journeys of two real people who were quite literally lost and found. ͚͛Crying͛ tells the survival story of Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson from a first-person perspective, and ͚Peter͛ reflects on the life of a feral child in Germany who was eventually adopted by the King of England,͛ according to Steiner. ͚Writing as and about these people is the best way I can attempt to empathize with them and really just wrap my mind around these bits of history that otherwise might not get talked about. And it helps me understand my own experiences a little bit better,͛ she says. Certain personal stories – the tour adventures recapped in ͚GM,͛ the struggle to learn to show affection as divulged in ͚Molly͛– find Ratboys just as eagerly exploring subject matter that comes from within, and then illustrating the highs and lows with soaring hooks and plaintive ones. Even in the moments that lie somewhere between bliss and misery, a tension persists between Steiner͛s sweet vocal delivery and Sagan͛s physical, almost-off-the-hinges guitar playing that lends each song a deeper sense of color and movement. Steiner and Sagan felt the impulse to make music together from the get-go – they first met as university students, quickly put out an EP together, and started performing as an acoustic two-piece in dorm rooms and backyards. During the next few years, the friends traveled separately, eventually reunited, and recorded what would become the first Ratboys record, AOID, which the folks at GoldFlakePaint describe as ͚a gleaming, joyous, raucous display of melodic indie-rock.͛After a year and a half of touring the US and Europe as a plugged-in full band (featuring the additions of drums, bass, and trumpet), the members of Ratboys returned to Chicago and holed up at Atlas Studios for two weeks to record with engineer Mikey Crotty (who had previously worked with the group on the songs ͚Not Again͛ and ͚Light Pollution͛). ͚This time around, we were lucky enough to feature the talents of friends who play the pedal steel, accordion, cello and violin to give the songs an extra something,͛ says Steiner. ͚Dave finally got to show off his ridiculous skills on the pocket piano, and the whole thing felt like one big loving experiment.'