Nathaniel Rateliff - Interview

23 October 2015

An Interview with Nathaniel Rateliff

An Interview with Nathaniel Rateliff

Nathaniel Rateliff and his band The Night Sweats seem to have hit on a winning formula. Their debut album together has sparked international interest in Rateliff's superbly crafted Soul compositions. But Rateliff is keen to remind people that his hit single 'S.O.B' isn't the whole story, in fact there's a whole back catalogue of material waiting to be discovered by the masses.

We caught up with Nathaniel ahead of his recent show in Brighton. Fresh from sound-check, the 37-year-old was nursing a cup of hot lemon in the dressing room to ward off a throat infection. Sporting his trademark hat and impressive beard, Rateliff is a warm and welcoming interviewee, who even after the allotted time kept chatting about his love of Dylan and The Band's The Basement Tapes.

Contactmusic - Congratulations, the last two months have seen great success for your new album and the single 'S.O.B.', but by my calculation this is your fourth record in the last eight years, or so. What's new this time around?
Nathaniel Rateliff - I just decided that I wanted to do Soul and R 'n' B. The last album, 'Falling Faster Than You Can Run', I was really proud of, but then I didn't actually know whether it was going to come out on any label at all. So I didn't know if anyone was going to hear it. Then of course we ended up doing another EP after that called 'Closer'. But I started writing the Soul and R n' B out of discouragement, because it was something I wanted to do for a long time, I just hadn't figured out a way to do it in a way that I wanted to. I wanted to sing about the topics and the content that I had been, and try to convey that same emotion into the R n' B music that I like so much. It just took me a while to figure that out, that's like two years ago when 'Falling Faster Than You Can Run' had just finished and I started to write these songs. So I really had no intention of putting out a Soul record. Well I take that back, the first two songs I recorded, 'Trying So Hard Not To Know' and 'Look It Here', I put out on a 45 on my own. Just the recordings I had done at home. Then I continued to create that stuff at home and put together a band, which is now The Night Sweats. It was kind of for fun and to do it in Denver, and I didn't want to come across as a blue-eyed Soul singer; of course I am I guess, whatever that means.

CM - A lot of people have pointed out that your lyrics are very confessional. Normally in the mainstream consciousness, confessional means a singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar. People don't instantly associate Soul with that type of songwriting. But would you say that the religious heritage behind the Gospel roots of Soul gives you a perfect opportunity to be confessional?
NR - Yes, I've been doing the personal acoustic side of it for a long time. I definitely feel like that gets the point across, but it's nice to do it this way. As far as the religious aspect of it goes, I think it can be confessional without being religious as well. There are roots in Soul and Blues that come from that in early Gospel and even work songs though.

CM - To go from being a solo and acoustic performer to fronting a seven-piece band must be really exciting.
NR - I toured a lot in the UK and Europe solo for a lack of funds really. I left people I'd been playing with for years at home, just because I couldn't afford it. So for a long time on and off there has been a five-piece band, so the seven to eight piece isn't that big of a jump. Well, actually having two or three more people is like herding cats.

CM - The way that I hear this record is what I'd describe as Garage Soul. That's not something that a mainstream audience is used to hearing, but that's the audience that's embraced it. Do you think people are re-discovering Soul because of that overlap with Garage Rock and other genres?
NR - I think that Garage, Psych-Rock and Soul have all had their moment in the popular spotlight on and off over the last ten years probably, but I don't know that those types of music ever went away either. As far as mainstream interest, it just takes one song for the masses, the label, radio, and everyone else. To get pushed into the ears and hopefully hearts of the larger audience.

CM - Radio's often ask artists to tweak slightly explicit songs for mainstream airplay. It's interesting then, that your song 'S.O.B' has been embraced by the media, even with the word 'B***h' in the title. Was that a surprise?
NR - Sort of, although I think the BBC was having a hard time with it. There have also been a couple of radio stations, I know of one in the US - a college station, that will play everything else on the record, but won't play that song. It's because of the word 'B***h', it's deemed derogatory. I was wondering when that would happen, but I definitely am not a bigot or sexist. In the context of its use in the song, it's not meant to be derogatory towards women. I think it's funny that the industry can get so upset about things like that, but then you can have a Hip Hop song that uses the same word over and over again. Even if they bleep it, the word is still there. It's like the Louis CK bit about the 'N word', it's still there, and you're putting it into the minds of everyone. Words are a funny thing. They have power, it can be used in a non-derogatory way, but it still means the same thing to a lot of people nonetheless.

CM - Was it a surprise then that was the song that opened the door to the Tonight Show, a return to Later With Jools Holland, to bringing the full band to Europe with you this time around? That song seems to have opened all of those doors.
NR - Yeah definitely. I wrote it as sort of a thing to do at the end of the show; we can jam on it and go back into this sing-a-long chorus. Everybody likes a sing-a-long. But the words to the song are about a situation, which happened to me, so the topics are real.

CM - If that's not your favourite song on the record, what is?
NR - It's not my favourite lyrically, but I really like the way 'I've Been Failing' turned out. We do a different version of it live, which is the way I had demoed it and the way we had arranged it. When we went into the studio the producer, Richard (Swift), said it sounded like a bad dad garage band doing a Tom Petty song, so let's change it.

CM - It's a change of pace from the opening songs on the album though, why do you play a different version live? Is it because it's more fun to tweak with it?
NR - We play a different version live, because we have a lot of mid-tempo songs, which are my favourite thing to do. But it's easier to get the audience moving around if you have that upbeat tempo song. I really like the album version more than the one we play live, but it's still fun to play, and until we write more upbeat songs like that.

CM - This is your first album on legendary label Stax. That must be exciting. I'm presuming you're getting a lot of support from the label, because of the momentum the record is picking up. The history of Stax must excite you?
NR - It's an honour to be a part of the roster of so many amazing musicians and artists that really changed music.

CM - Coming from Missouri originally, Soul is an interesting choice for you to arrive at. What are the records that paved the way for you as you were growing up?
NR - Everything from The Platters, The Moonglows, The Soul Stirrers, Sam and Dave, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, The Allman Brothers, Booker T & The MG's, The Band. I love artists now like Damien Jurado too.

CM - You're a pretty fresh face in this country, what should a UK audience know about you?
NR - I've had a pretty good following for some of the Americana stuff I was doing, but what we're doing now is totally different. If anything I'd say go back and give some of the other stuff a listen, because I think there are some really great gems in there, the history of me as a writer. Joseph Pope III and I have been playing together for twenty-one years so the stuff we've done over the years has changed drastically and I think it helped to shape what we're doing now.

CM - How has life been on the road this time around? Has it been difficult having more people on the bus for example?
NR - There are twelve of us sometimes, and we're still in a van, there are ten people at the moment, that's a lot. We drive during the day to the show and we usually drive after the show, fitting in promo and I'm no spring chicken (laughs). I've been pretty exhausted; I've got a throat infection right now, so it can be exhausting. But we have to work when the work is there, so we stay positive. It's a funny thing for people to be so excited, since we've been doing it for such a long time. There have been so many years of being jaded (laughs), you know "Well f**k people for not giving a s**t about the good stuff I've been writing all these years", that's what I felt like in the past. You're struggling and struggling for a long time, and now we're still struggling, but at some point things will change.

CM - Any final thoughts?
NR - There's a lot of members in the band, they all have projects. My original project was called The Wheel, there's a record out there called Desire & The Dissolving Man, The Memory Of Loss as well. There's also Falling Faster Than You Can Run, also Closer, all of that's on our website. But there's also Joseph Pope III who has Miss America by Weary. His wife who sang with me for a long time has Blue Book and Fair Children. Mark Shusterman has a band called Blue Rider, which is Garage and Psych-Rock. Wesley Watkins has a band called The Other Black that's fabulous. Andy (Wild) plays in a band called A. Tom Collins and also Reverend Deadeye. Patrick Meese has a band called the Centennial and used to be in a band called Meese, and Luke (Mossman) has played in a bunch of bands too. So look into that stuff, it's all very different to what we're doing now, but you can see the span of time we've been playing together and Joseph and I were in a band called Born In The Flood years and years ago that went through multiple different stylistic changes. It's funny to have worked so long to be 'discovered' now, having gone through so many things over the years.

Jim Pusey

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