Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats: Still Out There Running
This article appears as the cover story in the October/November 2018 issue of Relix.
“It wasn’t cool like Southern Baptists,” Nathaniel Rateliff says with a grin, describing his early years growing up in rural Missouri. “With everybody clapping like the scene from The Blues Brothers where James Brown is the preacher. It wasn’t that kind of stuff.”
Rateliff, frontman of the Denver-based, classic R&B-influenced outfit The Night Sweats, is lounging backstage at Queens’ classic Forest Hills Stadium, having just taken a pre-show dip in the tennis-arena-cum-music-venue’s pool. Donning an unbuttoned, Hawaiian-style shirt and an American Agriculture Movement farmer’s cap that pair well with his thick beard and numerous forearm tattoos, Rateliff cuts the striking figure of a man who is unshakably comfortable in his own skin.
“When I was really young, we didn’t listen to secular music that much,” he continues, looking back on a religious upbringing that included playing in his family’s traveling gospel band. “But my dad always snuck stuff in because he was a hippie at heart.”
When Rateliff was just 13, his father died in a car accident. Following the tragedy, he picked up a guitar, learned some chords from his mother and made his first forays into songwriting. (“The most ridiculous things ever sung,” Rateliff admits.) And his father’s influence continued to guide him.
“I was left with his things, and I started to rummage through his record collection. I felt like that was a part of him—a lot of it was ‘60s and ‘70s Americana, rock-and-roll, soul and even some early Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy and that stuff,” Rateliff says. “It was a mixture, and that was my way of getting into the ‘60s-era hippie stuff. It was a window into all the stories my dad told me about himself growing up—stories that I wasn’t gonna get to hear anymore.”
Rateliff doesn’t necessarily look like the guy you’d see dressed in his Sunday best at church over the weekend—though his live performances with The Night Sweats do gravitate toward the unmistakable soul-saving buzz of a gospel revival—but his religious upbringing helped set him on his long and winding musical path. His participation in the family band was mostly as a drummer, but he was later forced (against his wishes) to lend vocals as well. “I would sing with my head out the window of the car all fucking day, but singing in front of people was never what I thought about doing,” he says.
Removed from the rigid house of worship that colored his early years, Rateliff can now see the similarities between that world and the one he currently inhabits—he likens the impressive communal spirit and collective passion of a massive gathering at a packed megachurch to a frenzied audience at a concert—yet he also freely discusses the moment when he knew it was time for him to separate himself from that community. When he was 18 years old, Rateliff and his longtime friend, collaborator and future Night Sweats bassist Joseph Pope III followed another friend out to Denver from their hometown of Hermann, Mo., to participate in a part self-help, part missionary organization that had Rateliff and others working with underserved populations in Colorado.
“At first, we worked with a lot of homeless people, which I loved, but I didn’t like doing it under the guise of trying to minister to people,” Rateliff says. “I liked the idea of meeting people where they are. A lot of them are just down on their luck, but they never get treated like humans—like people. Then we also worked with Native Americans, and that was my turning point. I love the history and culture and ideas of Native Americans—at least the ones I know about—but I just felt embarrassed to be there, on their land, essentially trying to convert them. That was what made me look at things differently and remove myself from religion. As a kid, you just don’t realize when you’re raised a certain way. You haven’t grown up enough to start to think for yourself. I grew into that self-discovery later on, years from then, in finding Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell and that sort of stuff.”
However, the trip to Colorado did introduce Rateliff and Pope to the city where they would begin their music careers in earnest and eventually call home for the ensuing two decades. It turned out to be quite a switch from small-town Missouri, but Denver allowed them to jump into the young-musician hustle with both feet.
“I had basically never driven on a one-way street before I got here,” Pope says. “We were in the middle of nowhere, and we just threw ourselves out into the world and clawed and scratched our way around for a while. But the goal was to play music—it’s funny to think back now about how eager and earnest we were as these young kids in the city for the first time, going out to open mics.”
The duo had already gone through a couple of band iterations in their hometown and eventually formed Born in the Flood. That project ended up moving through a number of then-current stylistic evolutions over the better part of a decade—shifting from a Cream-inspired trio with some Allman Brothers Band-leaning guitarmonies into a five-piece group that dove more into anthemic indie-rock with shoegaze inclinations—and even signed with Madison House’s management wing.
“I realized the best way to describe it was we thought we sounded like Radiohead, but we actually sounded more like Coldplay,” Pope admits with a laugh.
photo by Marc Millman
Both Rateliff and Pope speak on their early Denver years with fondness—Rateliff tells the story of how they used to play pool at a local bar and queue up the Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” on repeat on the jukebox right as they left just to screw with the other bar patrons—but after years of Born in the Flood, Rateliff began to tire of the group’s output and the grind of playing an endless string of shows without gaining attention outside of their home city. “We got to be a big band in Denver, but then we’d leave town,” Rateliff remembers. “You play for a thousand people in Denver who love you and then you’re out on a week tour, eight hours away in Kansas, and you’re playing for the sound guy and the other band—it just sucks. There’s nobody there, and you’re like, ‘This is never gonna happen.’ So I started to move away from that and thought more about what [sort of songs] I wanted to be writing.”
Even a hefty contract offer from Roadrunner Records didn’t sweeten the Born in the Flood pot enough for Rateliff, who began to pen a series of more low-key, solo singer-songwriter tunes that would lead him to form The Wheel, with Pope still at his side. Both musicians refer to The Wheel as their “folk-band days,” and Rateliff’s vocal approach changed drastically from the high-register singing he was doing in Born in the Flood. At a pseudo-reunion of the latter group in recent years, Rateliff remembers balking at having to revisit those songs and almost “popping an eyeball out” when trying to hit the higher notes.
“I got more comfortable with my voice over the years, and I got tired of screaming, too—although I’ve now gotten back to that,” Rateliff says. “In the Born in the Flood days, I was going through a phase where I was maybe too embarrassed about what I was writing, so I’d try to sing differently. I love good crooners and singers—songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt, and even soul singers like Nat King Cole or Sam Cooke, who really enunciate what they’re saying so you never question what it is.”
As Nathaniel Rateliff & The Wheel—which also featured Pope’s wife Julie Davis when Rateliff wasn’t touring solo to save money—gained their own modest momentum, Rateliff and Pope continued paying the bills with other jobs, like working for a trucking company, gardening and painting houses. Eventually, serious doubts about their long-term career prospects in the music business began to creep in.
“We’d been touring for six or seven years with the project,” Pope says. “And we had the same desire and drive, but it just got to this point where we felt like we had been treading water for a while—and then it’s like, ‘Wait, are we sinking?’”
Ultimately, Rateliff’s label dropped him, leaving him to release his last solo album himself and question what the next move would be for him and his bandmates.
“You get involved with people, whether it’s a label or whatever, and everybody is genuinely excited and you start to believe what they’re saying—like, ‘If we do this thing at South by Southwest, you’re gonna come out of here like Bon Iver did last year.’ And that didn’t happen for us,” Rateliff says. “I spent a lot of time on the road alone to try to keep going, and some [band members] would bail—‘I found a job I like, I don’t know if I can get time off to tour and I don’t wanna be living in the van anymore.’ You get older. How do you raise kids and put them through college or get a house and have some sense of security that your spouse wants to have? Before The Night Sweats started, Joseph and I had a conversation—he’s like, ‘I just don’t know if I can keep doing this.’”
“It wasn’t an issue of whether we would keep playing music; it just became an issue of viability,” Pope adds, recounting how one of his house-painting jobs was for Isaac Slade of The Fray, with whom he and Rateliff had toured just a couple months before. “It was just like, ‘Fuck—what’s happening here? I’m 35. Maybe I should go to college or something.’
“It was a hard time for us,” he continues. “When Nathaniel started writing for The Night Sweats in the first place, he was just trying to find an outlet for his frustration, and that’s where the first handful of songs came from. It was a crucial turning point for us, and we got lucky that what came out of that desperation was something that has changed our lives.”
Pope is stretched out and napping on a pool chair backstage at Forest Hills in an outdoor patio area, with his hat covering his eyes. Rateliff, who has yet to change into his onstage getup—a white, flat-brimmed, Stetson-type hat and a stylish white jacket topping a (half-buttoned) black dress shirt—is thinking back on the years and mileage that he’d racked up in his career even before The Night Sweats’ success.
“When I was younger, people were like, ‘Well, if you stay together for 10 years, you’ll make it,’” he says. “As if there was some time limit you had to put in, and it definitely feels like that at times. We’ve paid our dues, and now we’re finally playing venues like this—which is pretty crazy.”
Rateliff was at the height of his career frustrations when he began writing toward what would become The Night Sweats. After Rateliff’s label dropped him and he was forced to self-release his album Falling Faster Than You Can Run in 2013, he became disenchanted with the music he was making. His “folk-band days” were suddenly coming to an end.
“It came out of discouragement,” Rateliff says of his first songs for The Night Sweats, which he originally wrote for a short, one-off studio session with a fellow musician. “You can keep making records that you love—it doesn’t mean they’ll come across to the audience. When my buddy asked me to come to the studio, I was like, ‘Well, I always wanted to do R&B and soul.’”
For Rateliff, writing those first Night Sweats songs was akin to breaking down a creative dam that he didn’t even know was there. The songs were already in him; they just needed to be let out. Inspired by a version of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” that he and a bandmate had worked out previously, Rateliff started writing music that sounded “kind of like The Band and Sam & Dave were doing a song together.” “Trying So Hard Not to Know,” “Look It Here,” “Howling at Nothing” and “I Need Never Get Old” all came out of Rateliff in one weekend—and all appeared on The Night Sweats’ self-titled debut. Pope was one of the first people to hear Rateliff’s new direction.
“I’ve seen his songwriting process all this time, and it’s not that what he was doing before was unnatural for him, but the moment I first heard The Night Sweats stuff, I felt like everything clicked in place,” Pope says. “The way he was singing over these progressions felt like the most transparent and guttural manifestation of this man’s writing that I’ve ever seen him do.”
“I was so excited about what was coming out of me,” Rateliff remembers. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how this is fucking happening.’ Even my manager at the time called me and was like, ‘What are these fucking songs? They’re amazing!’ I was like, ‘I was just goofing off over the weekend,’ and he says, ‘Well, keep fucking goofing off!’”
Even though Rateliff and Pope had renewed faith in the music they were creating, they knew that success in the music business is elusive no matter the quality of the product. “We were excited about the band and about the prospects but, you know, we’ve been excited by everything that we’ve done,” Pope says. “Just because you’re in love with it or excited about it doesn’t mean anyone is going to give a shit.”
The first move, though, was to record The Night Sweats’ debut album. At the suggestion of a friend, Rateliff sent some demos to producer and musician Richard Swift, whose studio credits include work with an array of artists from The Shins and Dan Auerbach to John Prine, Kevin Morby and Marco Benevento.
“It’s always weird when you meet a producer, but we hit it off immediately and were cracking jokes,” Rateliff says. “He was charming—one of the funniest people I’ve known. We were both pretty lighthearted and liked hanging out with each other, so it made it easy to work together.”
Thanks to the runaway success of raucous lead single “S.O.B.” (which Rateliff initially didn’t want to put on the record), The Night Sweats’ self-titled LP—released on legendary soul label Stax in 2015—brought them into the spotlight and decidedly out of the funk they were in near the end of The Wheel. Pope remembers the moment he realized they had something special going: The band was in Berlin and got the call that they were going to appear on The Tonight Show, which Rateliff says marked the end of his friend’s house-painting days.
Sadly, Swift passed away in early July, succumbing to complications from hepatitis as well as liver and kidney issues that partly arose from his longtime battle with alcoholism. The tragedy prompted Rateliff to express his sorrow with a touching Instagram post featuring a clip of his song “Would You?” and a caption that read, “My eyes only open to cry. My ears only listen for your voice and the sound of your laughter filling the room. My mouth opens only to release a song that is your name. My heart is forever broken. Richard, I will miss you for a lifetime. Good night my friend, may you find rest.”
Following a breakout is never easy, though, and for round two, Rateliff wanted to take a new approach. After writing and recording most of the first album by himself with Swift and drummer Patrick Meese, Rateliff arranged for The Night Sweats—which gradually coalesced over many months of touring into their current lineup of Rateliff, Meese, bassist Pope, guitarist Luke Mossman, keyboardist Mark Shusterman, saxophonists Jeff Dazey and Andreas Wild, and trumpeter Scott Frock—to gather in an adobe house in New Mexico for an extended writing and demo-recording session.
“It was something I always wanted to do, and I wanted to do it as a band since we changed so much,” Rateliff says. “I trust those guys a lot more now that we’ve been a band for a while, and I wanted to be able to have their input and to bounce shit off of them.”
The New Mexico trip produced 11 new songs, and then the band made their way to Oregon to reconnect with Swift, recording the tracks over a three-week period. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats had their sophomore album—but something wasn’t right.
Jeff Dazey, Scott Frock, Joseph Pope III, Mark Shusterman, Andreas Wild, Patrick Meese, Nathaniel Rateliff, Luke Mossman (l-r)
“We all really enjoyed working with each other but, at the end of that time with Richard, I didn’t feel like it was the right record. It felt like a divorce record,” Rateliff says. During the summer of 2017, he and his wife of 11 years split up, and their break is a major theme that runs throughout tracks like the nostalgic, melancholy “Still Out There Running.” “I think the songs I was writing for that were important and very cathartic for me, but I felt a responsibility to deliver a follow-up to the first record, and I didn’t feel that early rendition of the album was a good second record. So I went away to Arizona by myself to be sober and try to get some headspace, try to write. And I didn’t come up with shit!”
Pope praises the band’s label team for allowing them the time to go back in the studio with Swift in the fall instead of releasing the record as it stood. And though Rateliff didn’t have any more completed songs than he had in the spring, he and his band members tapped into some collaborative magic in Oregon, writing and recording the songs that now make up around half of Tearing at the Seams, including “Be There,” “A Little Honey,” “Say It Louder” and the title track—along with a non-album song “tentatively named ‘Hot Dog’” that Rateliff likens to “a pretty rocking Stones song.”
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Pope says of the weeklong studio session. “And we were sober the entire time; we had made a conscious decision to not drink in the studio and to be as productive as possible, and it really worked. The very last night we were there—the last hour—we finished the lyrics to “Tearing at the Seams,” went into the studio, and it ended up being the title track of the record and probably the song I’m most proud to be a part of. It was all of us in the room—no headphones—just listening to each other. I remember hitting the last note and feeling like I was hyperventilating, looking around the room and feeling this overwhelming emotion that came out of people trusting each other in the studio and leaning on each other. We felt like the song was greater than its parts, and it became a much bigger and more powerful thing than we thought it would ever be when we started.”
Going from considering throwing in their music-career towel to experiencing that kind of musical nirvana in just a few years isn’t something that Pope and Rateliff take lightly. Tearing at the Seams is really the first full-band album for The Night Sweats, and its range of emotion and strength of songwriting prove that the group isn’t a flash in the pan that was only around because people liked dancing and drinking to “S.O.B.”
“From a very young age, this is what Nathaniel and I knew we wanted to do. So, in some ways, even though our lives have changed drastically, it feels like a progression of something we started a long time ago,” Pope reflects. “He’s grown into himself. It’s not that I feel that there’s a difference from the inception—from the moment I was 15 and first heard him play a song—it’s just coalesced. There’s no formula. It’s just a matter of not giving up.
“I never thought I would own a house, and it’s a house that I own by being able to tour the world and play music with my best buds,” he continues. “The reality of that is hard to accept sometimes. We still have an underdog mentality, and part of that is the way we grew up. If I’m not able to accept it, then it’s kind of like I’m being ungrateful but, at the same time, you never accept that you’ve arrived anywhere—you just keep trying to do the thing that you set out to do from the beginning. It’s the uneasiness that causes us to write music in the first place. We’re still trying to challenge ourselves and go out and play every show like it’s our last.”
This article originally appears as the cover story in the October/November issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.