Interview: Nathaniel Rateliff gets sweaty
Denver singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff played quiet, introspective folk, akin to Bon Iver and Iron & Wine until one night, to simply dodge a contractual obligation, he incidentally set his career in a whole new trajectory of soulful rock n roll and rhythm n blues. Colin Delaney finds out more:
Where in the world are you right now?
London tonight. We’ve been doing some promotional things for a week or so. It’s nice to be stationary for more than a day. I am comfortable in London. Back in my singer-songwriter days I thought I’d move here but I don’t like commuting much or having to navigate to get a sandwich. I think it’s a great town and I feel comfortable now. It can feel like a second home.
For a long time you were a folk singer-songwriter. Has there been an adjustment to traveling with a gang rather than by yourself?
Though it was just my name, I had a group of players for years – Joseph Pope has been playing with me for 20 years. Wesley Watkins [the Night Sweats’ Trumpeter] said he thinks I’m both the strong male figure and also a drunk uncle [on tour]. Even though we have a tour manager and we all work together, I do feel like I can be the grumpy dad. But if I’m screwing around someone else will become the grumpy one. I feel like we hold each other accountable. But it’s nice to be not utterly alone. However if I can have a room by myself, that’s amazing.
From the top – were your parents musicians? Was music a big part of your upbringing?
Yup. My mum and dad were both musicians. It was a really big part of their life. Dad played and Mum wrote songs and my sister sang and still sings wonderfully. Mum and Dad would make us perform, singing four part-harmonies but I didn’t like it. I’d sing all day by myself but as soon as I sang with other people I was uncomfortable.
That seems the opposite to most people – shouldn’t the support give you confidence. Why did you feel more comfortable by yourself?
I remember driving down the highway – in Missouri it’s a rule you’re 30 minutes from everywhere – and I remember sticking my head out the window and singing. Also, I always thought humming was something only I could hear in my own head. There’s something about being alone. I also used to do the vacuuming and try to hear the resonance of it and match the note of it.
You moved from Missouri to Denver aged 18 to work with a Christian youth mission. Now you’re calling bartenders ‘Sons of Bitches’ and ‘Howling at Nothing’. What happened?
I moved to Denver in ‘98. I quit going to school when I was 14. I didn’t have much of an education but neither does anyone who grows up in Missouri. I lived on my own when I was 16 but there were no opportunities in Missouri so I moved to Colorado. We were raised in the Bible belt so religion wasn’t a foreign thing at all. It was part of our community. It didn’t seem like a strange thing. We thought God wanted us to move to Colorado. At 18 you’re in between a child and adult and I soon realized I didn’t want to do it but loved working with people in need. The breaking point was evangelizing to a Hopi (Native American) reserve and I thought, ‘this is fucked up’. If you look at history, it proves religion to be fucked up, so I moved out. Once I left the religious ideas, and being controlled and feared by guilt, I didn’t think too much about it. Once I stopped worrying about it, it was no longer an issue. I definitely try not to do too much blasphemous stuff. People said ‘so what do you believe in?’ and I said ‘I believe in being the best to the people around me and helping them and making what we got going on to be the best’.
Would the 18-year-old Nathaniel approve of your music?
I think I’d be really excited. I was a big fan of doo-wop and soul and Everly Bros. 18-year-old me was also into shoe gaze and playing as loud as possible because I didn’t know what I was doing. My parents were part of the 70s hippy religious movement rather than the super conservative movement. So that kind of music was always in the house. But Mum didn’t drink or smoke pot, and Dad stopped when he became a believer.
Skip ahead a few years, why did you make the shift from the quieter folk to the bombastic rock n soul?
I’ve always loved the bombastic side of American music but I started with the singer-songwriter stuff to be Leonard Cohen or Steve Van Zandt, singing quietly so as to be paid attention to, but the more I traveled the more I thought, ‘I gotta have one upbeat song!’ So you end up yelling again and I love the quiet stuff but even with the bombastic stuff you need the space, space creates great tension. Joseph has a child every ten years with a different woman. And I change my music every seven years. Gosh, if only we’d been gay it would’ve been easier.
How did the Night Sweats come about – who are these dudes?
Some I’ve been playing with for several years at that point, like Joseph and drummer Patrick Meese, but the new additions; Andy Wild he could play a handful of things; horns, sax, clarinet. He could add to melodies that I’d sing to him. Wes Watkins was just a great trumpet player in town. He’s a bit of a loose cannon but an amazing singer, a great player and a spark of energy. Luke is the guitar player and he’s just another guy who we knew and I’d asked along when we played shows in London. I asked ‘Do you wanna go on tour and do you have a passport?’ He was teaching guitar lessons to snotty suburb kids who didn’t wanna learn. It was an easy sell.
What was that first gig with the Night Sweats like? Did the audience expect one thing and then Bam, rock and roll.
First gig. It was kinda funny. I was asked by a friend who was putting his first solo record out separate from his band. And I said, contractually, I can’t actually play as me. I have these other shows in town and some clause about not playing… He said ‘you can do whatever’. I was like ‘Well I’ve been playing these soul songs’. So I put the band together and started writing. I had two songs so I was on a roll to make sure I had enough. And ‘SOB’ came from that, I thought we’ll play that and we can take turns doing solos or I can dance.
S.O.B. stands out as a party track… but it’s kind of dark.
Right. For me, there’s some sad shit about what the song is about. It’s interpreted a bunch of different ways. Basically I was in London and I decided to quit drinking and but I started having hallucinations and hot flashes, which is also where Night Sweats comes from. Basically, if you fuck up enough yet not take yourself so seriously, you can turn it into something fun.
I think the other part of that song is, regardless if it was a hard time for me, it was about picking at yourself for doing the same thing over and over again without change. ‘Still Trying’ is written around the principal where you get hammered and regret it as you lie in bed and tell yourself you are going to be different tomorrow and then you wake up and you’re so hungover you need that drink. I feel like writing songs is an inside joke all the time.
Robert Johnson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Alice Cooper… is rock n roll the Devil’s music or does it sooth the savage beast?
Rock n roll is whatever it is. I still thing of myself of a guy writing songs. The topic might be about drinking but I write when I’m sober, when the house is clean. It’s a redemptive quality. And it comes to you and you think ‘I can’t believe it’s happening.’ I don’t feel like it’s the devil’s music, because, it’s such a release in so many ways. You may not know when you begin writing it but it can be a hard truth when you discover what you’re singing about. Because you can feel like you’re outside of yourself when you’re writing. But all in all, rock in roll can’t be bad! If there is a God, He or She or It is rocking out and enjoying music and dancing. Rock n roll is having a great time.
Catch Nathaniel at the following places:
170 Russell, Melbourne, Wednesday 30 March
Metro Theatre, Sydney, Thursday 31 March
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is out now on Caroline.
And there’s more! Our mates at Young Henrys have announced a new distillery collaboration with Nathaniel. ‘NIGHTSWEAT’ Moonshine will be launched by the band at Young Henrys tasting bar in Newtown, Sydney on April 1 as an ultra limited release, coinciding with this debut Australian tour. ‘NIGHTSWEAT’ will be available for limited release via www.younghenrys.com and selected local bars.
Interview by Colin Delaney