Rat Dreams channels togetherness in a time of isolation

Joel Oliphint
Rat Dreams, left to right: Will Myers, Carrie Stratton and Jack Doran in front, Dan Siebert and Laura Cook in back.

Long before the coronavirus took hold, Will Myers knew what it felt like to be cooped up at home, venturing out only when necessary, and only in a mask.

In December of 2017, doctors discovered a large tumor in Myers’ chest. It turned out to be a rare form of germ cell cancer, which necessitated months of intensive chemotherapy and a surgery in April of 2018. During much of that uncertain time, Myers was immunocompromised, so he mostly stayed at home.

“I would be in the hospital for five days, and it would be terrible. I’d get home, and I'd be really sick for two or three days, and then I'd have a week of feeling kind of normal and being able to do some normal things,” said Myers, a singer and guitarist who used those intermittent good days to work on Not at Home, the debut album from his band, Rat Dreams.

Towards the end of that time, though, he began writing new material that reflected his precarious situation. In those early months of 2018, Myers didn’t know if the chemo and surgery would take care of the cancer, or if the cancer would take his life. “I spent a lot of time worrying about myself and what was happening and how things were going to turn out,” he said.

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Fortunately, Myers emerged from surgery cancer-free, and for the next year-and-a-half he began working on a new chamber-folk album with his Rat Dreams bandmates: Carrie Stratton (bass, vocals), Laura Cook (flute, synth, mandolin), Andrea Gutmann Fuentes (violin), Dan Seibert (percussion) and Jack Doran (piano). Whereas Not at Home felt closer to a solo endeavor, these new songs took shape collaboratively, with Myers giving the musicians the space and creative freedom to experiment with the songs’ loose structures.

“My number one goal with this album was, this is a band album. These are songs we were working on together,” Myers said. “I also knew that I wanted to record as much of it in single takes with as many people in the room together as possible.”

To accomplish that goal, Rat Dreams convened in the fall of 2019 at the wooded Athens County property to which Myer moved from Columbus a year and a half ago. “We can basically walk across the street and we’re in Wayne National Forest,” Myers said. “There’s 100 acres of woods on the property that are part of the rental, which is wild. It's a very important place to me. It's really changed my relationship with nature living here.”

It also created the perfect creative space for Rat Dreams to craft new album In December, out Friday, Dec. 4. “It felt like the music camp of my dreams,” said Stratton, speaking recently via Zoom with Myers and Cook. “I was sleeping in Will's woods, and we'd get up and have a bomb-ass breakfast, and then we'd go to the garage and just record and jam. I feel like a lot of the breath and the space that was captured is what we were feeling. When I listen to the songs, I almost feel like I'm back at Will's house, drinking tea in the garage.”

In December reflects those loose, casual recording sessions, with songs sometimes stretching past the seven-minute mark as violin, flute and guitar swell and fade and swell and fade. “It has such a feeling of togetherness. I can hear everyone being in the room together, which, of course, is almost unimaginable right now,” Myers said.

Stratton, Cook and Myers met through a church they no longer attend, and throughout In December, Myers wrestles with existential crises of faith and mortality and the weighty specter of meaninglessness. “The album is about a lot of different types of loss, and the feeling of some amount of collapse,” Myers said. “We are constantly faced with the meaninglessness of existence, and that doesn't mean that there isn't any meaning. But I really felt like that is a constant feature. It's not a bug. It's a feature.”

Still, the bandmates contend it’s not all doom and gloom. In December has moments of levity, too. “It's kind of crushing, but not in a way that is overwhelming. … Will is bringing attention to some things that we all know exist, but he's saying, ‘Hey, look at this a little longer and just sit with it,’” Cook said. "When we recorded this album, we definitely never had the intention of it being released in such a time of isolation. But it feels fitting to me, [particularly as we] cope with the loss of expectations and dreams. This album holds such a special place in these times.”