More about: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
While Gigwise is sat waiting for Nathaniel Rateliff to arrive to our interview, taking place in a modest Ibis hotel room in south London, the atmosphere is slightly stilted. Drummer Patrick Meese, with whom we’re making small talk, is friendly but perhaps still reeling from the outburst of energy that was their intimate War Child benefit show at Omeara, but it’s not until the leader of his band The Night Sweats arrives that the atmosphere suddenly lifts.
Rateliff seems like he’s reeling too when he strides through the door, cowboy hat in hand, but such is his imperious presence that even here he has the power to take over a room. “That was alright!” he beams with a tired glint in his eye when we discuss the gig, “I like the smaller venues…”
The band are on a low-key tour packed with press engagements to prepare for three consecutive shows at Shepherd’s Bush Empire later in the year as part of their European tour, a prospect they’re clearly relishing. They are, he assures me, most definitely a ‘live band’ and will always be, but nevertheless the pressure’s on in the studio after the runaway success of Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats’ debut LP, a record that after decades of hard graft saw Rateliff skyrocket to mass attention across both his native United States and the rest of the globe.
However young his career with The Night Sweats, however, Rateliff is a dab hand when it comes to managing success. He worked for a trucking company in his native Denver for a decade, constantly recording thoughts and writing down ideas on his smoke-breaks and playing at every given opportunity on the weekend. Though he feels the weight of expectation to follow up such a hit, he’s as relaxed and assured as the album is itself.
You might also like...
Over the course of our interview he takes us through navigating newfound success whether live or in the studio, and the responsibility he feels to use his platform for good, especially when a number of his fans support both him and Donald Trump.
Gigwise: You’ve been playing for years, but this is the first time you’ve had to follow up a massive success, how does that feel?
Nathaniel Rateliff: Well I feel really good about the record, everyone in the band really loves it and we loved the experience of making it. I’m not anxious but I’m interested to see how people respond to it.
GW: Did you feel pressured or anxious when you were making it?
NR: Both, yes. I feel a lot of personal pressure, I wanted to do something I could be happy about and proud of artistically, and there’s also the fact that I want to do well because I feel responsibility for everyone in the band. This is a career now, and if it doesn’t do well it affects everyone personally, and their families.
GW: How do you feel about it, Pat?
Patrick Meese: I just play the drums man! I’ve got the easy job. The band has a supportive role behind Nathaniel but we’re all feeling the pressures and stresses of touring. But there’s a good energy to us where making the record was a pleasurable experience.
GW: Did you take advantage of the power that comes with increased status when it came to the resources you had at hand?
NR: Some of it was the same but in a lot of ways it was very different. Since we’ve become a band I wanted the rest of them to be involved in the writing process, and now that we’ve become a bit more successful we can actually choose to go somewhere. We went to New Mexico and set up a studio in a small house down there, took time to write and hang out so we had the luxury of that. Before we’d struggle to have time to work at all.
GW: Do you think that’s why the album feels so relaxed and assured when you listen to it?
NR: In the studio and working with each other we feel so comfortable as a band and with Richard [Swift, producer]. We’re all friends. I feel like sometimes people go into the studio and there’s this pressure or people have this idea about what it’s supposed to be. It’s just us having a good time, you’re excited about what songs you’re gonna work on. There are times where it’s a struggle but you break through and have amazing moments of creativity and laughter.
GW: It’s texturally diverse, there’s lots of instrumentation was there a deliberate impetus to get as many layers as you could?
NR: In terms of song style, we wrote a lot of different stuff for the record, and a lot of things didn’t make it. We ended up picking the songs that we thought would make it a good listen. There’s songs that I really love more that aren’t on the record but I left them off to use later. This collection made sense, it had a good flow and makes a statement about what we think of us as a band.
GW: What do you mean by making a statement?
NR: We picked Shoe Boot to be the first track instead of something else, it started as an instrumental on our first day in the studio with Richard. Instead of leading the record with [lead single] You Worry Me or something more commercially friendly and following the idea of ‘you’ve got to hit them with the best three songs first!’. You Worry Me is the ninth. ‘Shoe Boot’ to us was saying ‘we’re the Night Sweats, here is what we’re going to do.’
PM: You’ve got to wait a minute and 30 seconds for the vocals to kick in, and if you can last that long then listen to the rest.
NR: That’s what we meant by statement, and also to say we’re capable of doing different types of tunes, hopefully without losing our audience.
GW: Everywhere you’re written about it’s said you have to be seen live, do you take that as a compliment or does it detract from your recording powers?
NR: A lot of people listen to the records and enjoy them but we’re a live band, that’s why we did most of the record live in the studio. I feel it’s a compliment, it shows that we’ve worked years to be good at our craft.
GW: What was your first ever live gig?
NR: The first time I played in front of anyone was in church. I remember the first Night sweats show, the same day Joe King had his album release party! At the Blueberry Theatre in Denver
GW: Has your career had a consistently upward trajectory since then?
NR: They’re getting bigger, but I don’t want to be a stadium band. Maybe we’ll grow to that, but I’d prefer to play small shows. We’re doing Shepherd’s Bush three times in a row, and we’re doing that in all the cities we’re in, cos I like that feeling of not dealing with a mob, you feel the audience and you’re connected.
GW: How much did starting out in Denver shape you as a performer?
NR: The sun shines most of the time, so that’s nice. For us musically we had the Hi-Dive and other small clubs that allowed us to figure out what we were doing in terms of what band we were in and what style we were doing. You have a community that comes to all different types of shows, and they always had our backs. You can kind of test things out. We’re Denver’s band in a lot of ways. It’s like a homecoming when we’re there, and ever when we’re not, when we first played Fallon everyone was cheering us and rooting for us on TV
PM: We were all in different bands in Denver, we all knew each other so it was nice when this band started. Denver’s kind of an island of a place, there’s nothing for eight hours in any direction!
GW: Is that something of a downside to Denver, breaking out of the city?
NR: It is the Denver curse! Joseph [Pope III, bass player] and I’s first band was great in Denver, and we could play for a thousand people in Denver then drive to Lawrence, Kansas and play for the bartender, the other band and a sound guy who could give two shits about you being there. It’s the way it works, you just have to tour and keep going to different cities, over and over again until you finally have an audience.
It feels notable that your big breakthrough has come with the Night Sweats, rather than solo. How important are they to your success?
NR: It’s the best band I’ve ever been in! They’re very important to me, on this record we tried to share the experience rather than me cutting away and writing about myself. I would still go and sit by myself to write out words but we’d be bouncing a lot of ideas off each other. I had a written song for the record that we finished together, Mark [Shusterman, keys] had been jamming on this thing in soundcheck for years and it ended up being Shoe Boot. When I was younger I was afraid, and Pat would have the same thing, that when you’re trying to record and write you already have everything in your head and you can save a lot of time by just saying ‘get away, I’ll do this by myself,’ but doing it with a band you have other people who hear things differently from you, and you can let them elaborate on that.
GW: Pat, how did you find the recording experience?
PM: I found it worked just great, it was Nathaniel and I that went in with Richard on the first record and by that point we hadn’t really been a band that long. But this time we’d toured so much we felt like we had to tap into that live energy How much is to be read into a title like ‘Tearing at the Seams’?
NR: At first, I was trying to write a song from a personal perspective, but then I wanted to change the narrative so it was talking about how I feel about what’s going on in the culture in the United States. We’re moving further and further back and undoing all the good that’s been done over the past few years.
GW: So you have a political edge, then?
NR: I don’t consider myself to be a protest songwriter by any means, what I feel is most important is not to alienate people that have such vast differences and don’t feel like they have a voice. I’d like to be some sort of a mediator between those groups of people because not just in the United States, even here in the UK, you have such a divide between even just working class people, and instead of alienating them I’d like to bring them together, have them realise that people are what’s important, that the ties that politicians and corporations have with each other, what big business has done and what capitalism does, how corrupt that is. It only effects the lives of the average person in a negative way and it continues to create a bigger gap and inequality in the way people are able to live their lives.
GW: Is this a new development in you since the events of the last couple of years?
NR: Things have definitely changed and there’s the kind of mentality where people are like ‘just shut up and sing’ but then we also have to use the platform we have to do good. We’ve been able to work with people like [music-based family farming awareness initiative] Farm Aid and you learn stuff sitting on a panel like what a food desert is in a community, urban gardening and how to get food to people that only have access to McDonalds and shit food. Those things made it hard to be ignorant, now I have a responsibility to talk about those things, and if I don’t it makes me a liar. There’s lots of people who aren’t doing anything. We’ve started a foundation and we’re trying to work on inequality in our community. I think the best thing we can do is, rather than focus on who’s right or wrong, is to continue to help people wherever they’re at.
GW: Tell me more about your own work
NR: We were originally trying to get homeless veterans off the streets and that’s the vision and the goal. There’s two to three hundred men and women without access to healthcare, with PTSD and with problems with addiction and it’s hard to work through the red tape the government has set up for people to get access to healthcare. It’s funny to be in a country full of nationalists and hear a bunch of patriotic rhetoric when you have homeless veterans on the streets. I think working in your community to try and improve the kind of food that’s in your schools, we also worked with Take Note which is a charity that makes sure that kids have access to instruments from kindergarten to 12th. grade.
These are things that should be provided by the government, this is why we pay taxes. It’s funny that a congressman can have such great healthcare while a serviceperson is homeless and living in a tent next to a drainage ditch. I talk about making a small difference in your community, instead of saying Donald Trump is this or that. I think that only adds to his fucking circus. He won the election by distraction and lying, and he’s still doing it. There’s people I know who are fans of ours that voted for Donald Trump. The South and the Midwest and rural America, they’ve all been duped by fake news, the shit they’ve been listening to. I watched Fox News the other day and I was like ‘what in the fuck are they even talking about?’ We’re on the cusp of some really horrible things happening, we’re gonna run out of water! Why are we still using oil? What’s most important is that we need to start working in our communities, then hopefully we can turn into one global community, thinking of the person next you as not just important but more important than yourself.
GW: So it’s all about inclusion?
NR: Those people voted for Donald Trump because they have no voice. They can see the corruption that’s in American politics but also have been duped by years of Republican rhetoric to think that those super wealthy people have the working classes’ backs.
GW: Let’s bring it back to the album…
NR: I’m getting fired up over here!
GW: How much do you feel the need to draw directly from specific experiences, or do you write with a specific universal theme in mind?
NR: I was definitely writing about my life experiences and the way I see things. That can be through metaphor – ‘Hey mama’ isn’t literally about me talking to my mother but there’s something in the idea of that – so I was writing from a personal standpoint but trying to change the narrative enough for it to connect with people. I’m trying to write in a way that you can see the situation and interpret it as you see fit.
GW: Can you give me an example of a specific experience in your life that has directly informed a piece of music?
NR: I can think of a lot of things, some of them I can’t talk about right now. I wrote S.O.B. about a specific experience in London. I’d taken drinking to a level that was a dark place and I’d quit, and then I was having delirium tremors, which I thought only old men would get. I tried to make light of the situation and turn it into a bit of a joke.
GW: You worked in a trucking company for a long period of your life, do those days still inform you as a songwriter?
NR: For ten years. A lot on the docks then I got promoted to the yard and backing up trailers. I never did line haul or over the road. I worked there for over ten years but since I don’t have a high school education there’s no way to move up into management. There’s still guys I know working there, doing the same job. You can’t get out of it.
GW: Are you still influenced by that part of your life?
NR: Not just that job but working hard in general for most of my life. I’m lucky that my parents instilled that in me. No matter how shitty the job is I took pride in everything I did. Regardless of how much work we do I really try to put everything into it.
Tearing At The Seams’ is released 9 March on Stax/Caroline International
Words: Patrick Clarke
Photos: Allegro Creative Agency
More about: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats