It can be overstated that musical development is something that belongs to a bygone era. That you really only get one chance these days to make your mark, and if it doesn't work out, well there is always Plan B. Whatever that may be. But, it usually doesn't involve playing music. However, Nathaniel Rateliff is one artist who comprehensively debunks that old chestnut. He's been making music and been on the scene, as it were, for over a decade. Firstly with his alt-indie Born In The Flood band, which made a decent name for itself in the Denver area of the USA, before embarking on a solo career that saw him release two critically acclaimed folk/americana albums, and garner a decent audience here in Europe. But, it was only with the formation of his new band, the swinging soul and steaming r'n'b infused Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats in 2013 that things really took off. For many newcomers to the Nathaniel Rateliff name, it appears as if he has come out of nowhere. The reality is that he has developed his songwriting craft, changed course a few times, and worked hard and persevered despite the many ups and downs (of which there were many) over the years.
Five years ago, Rateliff appeared on Jools Holland, accompanied by just an acoustic guitar and a singer, performing one of his many folk-based numbers. Standing still, but delivering the song in alternatively hushed tones and mighty growls, Rateliff looked and sounded hugely impressive, a tattooed bear of a man who wore his heart on his sleeve. But things weren't working out the way he hoped them to, despite the fact that he could hold an audience in quiet rapture. He had released In Memory of Loss the year before, which had won many great reviews, but by the time of the follow up, Falling Faster Than You Can Run in 2013, he had been dropped by his label, and he had to independently release the album, which only gained a limited release here in the UK.
Though Amazon named In Memory of Loss the year’s “No 1 album you might have missed”, and Rateliff had acquired a following in Europe, he fell short of the success he had hoped for. “In the industry, there are always people saying: ‘This is going to be so huge, this is going to be the biggest thing ever!’” he said. “And then, when it’s not, everybody’s like: ‘Oh well, sorry!’ and you’re thinking: ‘Wait, I just ruined my marriage for this!’"
But, roll on to 2016, and suddenly Rateliff is everywhere. This former missionary worker has brilliantly transformed himself into a high energy soul and r’n’b singer, backed up by a six-piece band that provides a tremendously powerful Stax meets Motown r'n'b sound, but still with a little of the earlier rootsy flavours of his previous solo albums. “A lot more people like this” says Nathaniel, matter of factly. “After touring a bunch as a singer-songwriter – I love playing acoustic guitar, I was just tired of everyone else playing it – I had finished Falling Faster Than You Can Run, I didn’t have a label, which was discouraging… You just feel utterly alone. Because you’re giving out a lot every night, especially with that material. It’s quiet, and I needed the audience to listen to it to make it worth it for me.”
He started drinking heavily, and falling into depression, stating that he would rather be home, to be with his wife. But he persevered. "I wasn't sure it was going to come out," he says referring to Falling Faster Than You Can Run. "I had been pursuing Americana singer song-writing for seven or eight years and wanted to do something different. I didn't even know if I wanted to pursue music as a career. I always wanted to do soul and r'n'b and ended up writing a couple of songs like that and it just took off. I put a band together (featuring friends old and new, including long time guitarist Joseph Pope III) and we formed The Night Sweats. It kind of happened. It felt like a natural development.”
From the emotional, heart-on-sleeve acoustica of the old Nathaniel Rateliff, to the big soulful grooves and on-stage dancing of Nathaniel Rateliff mark II, the transformation is complete. The first song he wrote was Trying So Hard Not to Know. “I was just excited about it,” he says. “I was just like, ‘Holy shit!’ I’d just got this old Epiphone guitar and I thought: ‘I really want to write something that’s kind of like The Band and kind of like Sam & Dave'. I love to dance and I love the way those songs make me feel. I wanted to do it for a long time but I couldn’t figure out a way to do it without being cheesy. My friend (Joseph Pope III) said: ‘You know, when you wrote all this stuff it was the first time I really heard you be you.’
“I’ve always wanted to write music that moved people,” he says. “That moves them the way that music moves me. That’s why I started writing, for that feeling you get in your chest when you listen to music that makes you feel overwhelmed and like you might cry, and you don’t know why you’re going to do that. I wanted that. I wanted other people to feel that way.”
“The first gig we did with The Night Sweats was a little over two years ago, at a venue in Denver. Somebody asked me to do a show, and I agreed, so I scrambled to get together a band, and it worked out. I think we had only 30 minutes of material, but it was really exciting to play that music for the first time. Everyone was hollering, and I started doing dance moves, and people loved it. It was pretty hilarious.
“Back then I’d just be standing still at shows, but now I’m dancing and moving around. There’s a lot of hip movement. I danced at the first Night Sweats show and immediately people went crazy. I thought ‘I’ve loved to dance for years, I should have done this a long time ago!’”
"What I wanted to do was have the energy of Otis Redding, which is hard, because I’m not in very good shape, mixed with a southern twangy sound. You need energy and the right amount of drinks, which is just a couple. Everybody in the band has a different poison, but mine is bourbon and water.” Indeed, The Night Sweats doesn't refer to having a fever, as you might think. "It's supposed to be about the alcohol withdrawal syndromes. The night sweats," he explains.
From a religious, yet musical, family in rural Missouri, Rateliff didn't always have access to the kind of music most take for granted these days. Indeed, there was a strong religious streak to his upbringing which included going to church regularly, singing in church, and having to deal with an environment that wasn't always conducive to secular music. "(Secular) music wasn't a big part of my life as a child. But music was a big deal. I did have access to secular music. We just weren't supposed to have it in the house. But my mum was a huge James Taylor fan. As a young teen I was into a lot of soul, oldies, doo-wop and r'n'b."
When Rateliff was 13, his father was killed in a car crash, as he drove to church one day, and it was only then that Rateliff set aside the drums (which he had been learning from a young age, and which he still plays on his records) and took up guitar. He was taught three chords by his mother, then slowly fumbled his way through the songs of blues and rock artists such as Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker. He then also began to investigate his father’s records, still stored in the family garage. "After he passed away I went through his records. When he was younger he was the guy with the biggest record collection. But one Sunday, one of the ministers told him he should get rid of all that – told the congregation they should get rid of all that secular music. He was young and stupid, so he did that and immediately regretted it and tried to get back some of the records he'd given away. But he couldn't get everything back.
"There was a barn near my house and I found a tape of Led Zeppelin IV. I was already a drummer, and started playing drums to Led Zeppelin IV all the time. I loved it, listened to it over and over again." As he has said elsewhere, "I remember thinking: ‘Well, if God created music, why is his music in church not as good as this?’”
Still immersed in religion, he moved to Denver when he was 18. "I started to get involved with the music scene there, tried out a bunch of different styles of music." And it was here that he began to lose faith, in his faith. “The organisation I was affiliated with, it’s not a cult or anything, but you really separate yourself from everybody else,” he explained. “And the first part of the school is to work on yourself. You take classes and you study the Bible and, in doing all of that, I realised that I was not a believer.”
Although he may have lost his faith, his music with The Night Sweats has an almost gospel, sermonising feel, but without being preachy. Stax the label is full of music that is incredibly uplifting, energising and simply joyful, but in a secular way. And with hindsight, Nathaniel Rateliff and his band were meant to be on Stax.
As fate would have it, Stax the label was re-activated in 2004 via its parent company, Concord Records, whom Rateliff subsequently signed to, “I was with a label who I didn’t know were working with Stax, but I found out they owned the Stax imprint, and I was like, ‘I think you could put this record out through Stax. It would be pretty apt, a southern soul sound.' They did, and now Rateliff has joined a long list of legends, including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the M.G’s and Isaac Hayes, who have been on the label.
And so, Rateliff made his return to the studios of Later… with Jools Holland, for another go last year. With a buzz brewing about this brilliant 'new' live act, Rateliff and co obliged by tearing the house down with their signature tune, S.O.B, a song about drinking. “I wrote it to make light of a bad situation," he explained. “I’d screwed up a bunch of stuff back home because I’d been drinking too much. So I quit. But I’d been drinking a lot, every day for a long time, and I went into withdrawals and had delirium tremors. Like a lot of the songs on the record, it’s upbeat but with heavy lyrical contents.” As explained before, drinking seems to be a part of the band's image and sound, and perhaps help to up the temperature at their often rowdy gigs. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats are one of the live acts on everyone's lips at the moment. Even Britney Spears is in on the act. Recently she used one of Rateliff's songs to dance to on Instagram, tagging him in. Rateliff responded by donning a bra and a blonde wig and doing his own moves.
He's got other high profile fans. Ed Sheerhan apparently loved his earlier, guitar based music, and they bumped into each at Latitude last year…. "My manager found out he was a fan of mine from when I was doing the singer-songwriter stuff. I was like, ‘who the fuck’s Ed Sheeran?’ He was just hanging out at Latitude. We had some drinks and partied a little bit. Then he played a surprise show on the Other Voices stage and I loaned him my guitar, a shitty vintage Gibson!”
It was just last October that The Night Sweats played Patterns in Brighton (capacity 200). This March they are playing Concorde 2 (sold out months ago). This Autumn they play the Brixton Academy, with its near 5000 capacity. Rateliff, of course, had little idea it would pan out like this. "A lot of people ask me about the success that we've had so far, and did I think it was going to be like that. And I was like 'No!'" he laughs. "I would have done it a long time ago if I'd known the right formula. I don't actually want to think of music as a formula… we'll make another Night Sweats record after this. it's not like we'll write another S.O.B. I write songs that I like and hope that people enjoy them. But, there's no guarantee…
Before The Night Sweats took off, Rateliff combined being a musician with odd jobs, here and there. How does he cope with his new found fame, and the demands of being a full time singer, songwriter and performer? "I don't know, I like to be a little oblivious to what's going on and then irritated too," he says dryly. "That's kind of a joke we all have," he laughs. "I definitely have the capabilities of knowing what we're doing the next day. Sometimes it can be a little overwhelming, but I just keep going, do what we're supposed to do, be appreciative and try and be nice to everybody."