Nathaniel Rateliff grew up in the small river town of Hermann Missouri, which sits about half way between St Louis and Columbia, where there wasn’t much to do for kids who weren’t into sports. His father’s interest in hunting didn’t really rub off on him, so Rateliff spent most of his time swimming, spelunking and listening to music. In his early years Rateliff’s parents allowed only Gospel music at home but a little later he was also exposed to early James Taylor, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. He got his start playing music at age seven when he started playing the drums in church. His mother played a twelve string guitar while his father played harmonica and Nathaniel and his sister Hannah joined in, and together they all did four part harmonies. Being more or less forced into participating in the family band, Rateliff at an early age, had very little interest in music as a profession. Then one day he was fooling around in the garage and he came across a cassette of Led Zeppelin IV. He popped the tape into a cassette player and was blown away by the sound he heard. After that there was no stopping him. His father realized that, and lightened up on the censorship of the music that could be played in the family home. His dad introduced his son to the music of Van Morrison when he brought home a cassette of Moondance. Then one Sunday morning Nathaniel’s father was killed in a car crash, on his way to join the rest of the family at church. The pastor of their church drove Nathaniel and his mother to the hospital, but by the time they got there his dad had already passed away. Losing your father is always hard, but at the age of thirteen it can be a life changing event. After his father’s death, Rateliff began going through his dad’s record collection which was stored in boxes in the garage. As he listened, he realized he was learning things about his dad that he had never been aware of. The record collection was all secular music and it was like opening a book about his father’s life. After listening to records from his dad‘s collection Nathaniel decided he wanted to learn to play guitar. His mother taught him a few chords and a friend taught him a little more. He began playing along with the records and fumbled his way through songs by Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix and The Allman Brothers, he also started singing along with records by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and James Brown.
When Rateliff was eighteen he left Missouri and headed to Denver with a missionary group. He soon learned that his beliefs weren’t the same as the people doing the missionary work. The group was forcing their own religious beliefs on Native Americans who just wanted to be left alone with their own spirituality. He returned to Hermann for a couple of months and took a job in the plastic factory. Doing meaningless work, putting your limbs and your life on the line day after day, being part of the labor force where you just go through the motions, tends to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. On the side, Nathaniel and Joseph Pope began playing at parties in a band called 76 Drown. Rateliff played lead guitar and wrote what he calls cheesy love songs, while Pope did the lead vocals. Pope and Rateliff soon packed up and moved to Denver where they formed a blues/alt-rock band called Born in the Flood. In the beginning Pope again handled lead vocals while Rateliff hid behind his guitar. During the day they picked up work as carpenters and then at a trucking depot. Denver was better, but the hard life seemed to follow them where ever they went. Pope was diagnosed with cancer at the age of twenty-two and a couple weeks after getting that news he found out his new girlfriend was pregnant. Going through those hard times actually strengthened Rateliff and Pope’s connection. The pair continued to work on music and found refuge in doing so. Pope has now been in remission for over a decade. With a home base firmly established in Denver, Born in the Flood became a premier band in the Denver music scene. Outside of Denver however, they were still virtually unknown. Trying to change that by taking a 2008 trip to the CMJ (College Media Journal) festival in New York, Rateliff was forced to decide between his longtime band and a solo career. The reason for the trip was to showcase Born in the Flood, but Rateliff also played a solo show. Rateliff had been experimenting with other music in an acoustic style, performing under the name the Wheel. The Wheel had a gig at the CMJ Festival and at that gig Dave Godowsky of Rounder Records saw him perform, offered to sign him and Rateliff accepted. Rateliff asked Pope to join him in this new venture and also added Julie Davis, James Han and Patrick Meese and the Wheel became a full band called Nathaniel Rateliff and Fairchildren. The band began the new undertaking by recording and releasing the highly revered “In Memory of Loss” in 2010. The follow-up record, “Falling Faster Than You Can Run”, was rejected by Rounder and was eventually self-released in late 2013. Rateliff started doing some solo touring because he couldn’t afford to take a whole band out on the road, during this time he also became part of the two week Communion Tour, which was filmed and released as a documentary called From Austin To Boston. All of that solo work led to problems with the band and it turned into a low point in his music career. Nathaniel had begun thinking that this was not the life he wanted to live. He was considering giving up on a music career. Just when things had taken a drastic downturn, Jeff Linsenmaier approached him with an offer that he couldn’t refuse. Linsenmaier said that Rateliff could record anything he wanted in his studio, and asked him if he had anything new that he wanted to try. Rateliff admitted that he had always wanted to try some Soul and R&B stuff. So instead of giving up, and with no pressure on him, he started working on a new project. After writing a new song (“Trying So Hard Not To Know”) on his new guitar, he began getting more excited about music again. He had been thinking about ways to combine the sounds of 60’s soul music like Sam & Dave with the sound of The Band for a while, and he finally came up with an infusion that worked. Thinking about ways to add horns, and popping in and out of bed to record ideas, he was able to write several more songs in the same vein. Rateliff then brought together long time Denver musicians, Andy Wild (saxophone), Mark Shusterman (keyboards), Luke Mossman (guitar) and Wesley Watkins (trumpet) who joined with Joseph Pope and Patrick Meese and became Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. The Night Sweats first gig was as an opening act at Denver’s Bluebird Theater. The crowd responded to the new upbeat rock and soul sounds by working itself into a euphoric frenzy! It was then that Rateliff knew that this new sound and lineup was going to work.
The band’s first single, a rocking gospel inspired number called S.O.B. got them a spot on the “Tonight Show” where they got a standing ovation and Jimmy Fallon gushed over the band before and after their performance. Since that time they have graced the stages of other TV shows like Conan, Colbert’s Late Show and others. They have been booked for shows in clubs that have seating for a few hundred and then forced to move those shows to bigger venues with more seating all across the country. Their album debuted at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart. Like old Jerry Reed says, “When you’re hot, you’re hot”. I saw them for the third time at their third performance at Codfish Hollow in Maquoketa Iowa. It was Halloween night, so most people were dressed in costumes. Rateliff was wearing some eye makeup and a wig that matched the color of his beard. I wasn’t sure if it was him until he saw the look on my face, he laughed and said “Yeah, it’s me.” Nathaniel was nice enough to sit down and answer a few questions for me.
Billy Rose: Wow! You guys have really taken off since you were here a couple months ago.
Nathaniel Rateliff: Yeah it’s been going good. We’ve been going non-stop.
Billy Rose: How did you start playing and writing music? Was it the family thing?
Nathaniel Rateliff: Yep! My mom played guitar, my dad played harmonica. It started as a church thing. I started playing drums and we all sang. I started playing guitar when I was thirteen, my mom showed me a couple chords, then I just learned on my own. My uncle Ernie had a band when I was kid. He gave me my first amp, a Fender Champ. As far as writing songs, I always kind of wrote. Even when I was a kid, I wrote things that weren’t any good.
Billy Rose: What did you listen to?
Nathaniel Rateliff: Everything. Van Morrison, Roger Miller, Led Zepplin, The Allman Brothers, Leonard Cohen. Then I went through my skater phase, Fugazi and all that 90’s stuff.
Billy Rose: Do you have a process that you go through when writing?
Nathaniel Rateliff: Sometimes it just comes out. Sometimes it’s a struggle. I find it helpful to go for a bike ride and let my mind wander. That helps, but I don’t really go through a process.
Billy Rose: Do you write other things, like poetry?
Nathaniel Rateliff: I’ve tried a few poems. None have turned out that great.
Billy Rose: With this new record, you went in a different direction. Why did you do a Soul album?
Nathaniel Rateliff: I always loved Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes that good old southern soul thing. I’ve wanted to do that for years. I didn’t know how to get the sound. I didn’t want it to sound old. I wanted it to fit in with the current stuff I was doing. I thought for a long time, if I could somehow combine Sam and Dave and The Band, it would be really cool. Then when I wrote Trying So Hard Not To Know, I got pretty excited. I thought I finally did it, combined the sounds I wanted.
Billy Rose: So is that what you had in mind when you went into the studio?
Nathaniel Rateliff: A friend who has a studio said I should come by and record a couple of songs, maybe make a 45. So I thought it would be a good time to try some R&B. The songs just started to pour out. We had about ten songs in a short time. Then we went into the studio and knocked them out in about two weeks.
Billy Rose: The new material is more up-beat and different.
Nathaniel Rateliff: The material is different but the subject hasn’t changed. The delivery has changed. The content is still sad songs with an upbeat delivery.
Billy Rose: Are you going to stay in this vein? Is your next album going to be similar to this style?
Nathaniel Ratliff: Yep, the next will be more of the same. I wrote probably thirty songs for this project.
Billy Rose: When you write a song, and you have it all laid out and you can hear it in your mind, is that the sound you end up with. Or does it change in the studio?
Nathaniel Rateliff: Sometimes. Sometimes it is totally different after we record it. Songs change with time.
Billy Rose: You guys have become a great live band. Fun to watch. Like when you think a song is at its end and then all of sudden it ramps up again. Do you set up the things you do on stage or does it just happen?
Nathaniel Rateliff: Somethings just happen. If it works out good, we try to remember it. When you do a concert it should be a show. More than just music. When the audience gets involved, clapping and stomping and singing along, that makes the show that much better. So we try to think of things that will build excitement. At the end when the audience keeps the chant going, whoo-oooh that is something that really sets off the end of the show. We love when everybody joins in on the clapping and singing along. When they are actually paying attention and not just staring at their phones.
Billy Rose: How does it feel, to know that you have made it? The band has definitely made an impact. You’re getting world-wide notoriety. People are dancing and moving to your songs. The songs seem to inspire people.
Nathaniel Rateliff: I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Everything has been good. Maybe too good. In the music industry everybody always tell you this is the next big thing. Then when it doesn’t happen they say, Oh, we were wrong. So I’m skeptical. The shows have been really fun to play. I like the way I feel after the show compared to the old days. Joseph Pope, who I’ve been playing with for twenty-one years now, said this was the first time, doing this music that I’ve sounded like myself. It’s nice to hear that from someone you have known for so many years.