Denver’s Nathaniel Rateliff Goes Back To His Roots On New Album

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Photo: Nathaniel Rateliff portrait
Nathaniel Rateliff sits in the makeshift studio he built in the attic of his Denver home on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015.

When Denver band Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats took the stage in front of a packed hometown crowd on July 24, 2015, it wasn’t at an auditorium or at a bar. Instead they performed in a backyard on a deck that Rateliff helped build by hand.

“There’s no advanced technology,” the frontman said. “It’s like a rat’s nest of cables.”

The band took the gig because of the intimate setting, Rateliff said. But the setup brought certain challenges. Like when someone tripped over one of those cables and cut the power during the group’s new single, “S.O.B.” But the crowd carried the tune, singing the melody until the lights and the speakers turned back on and Rateliff picked up right where he left off.

It was a different story 12 days later, when Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats performed the same song on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The band appeared on the late-night television program in anticipation of its debut album, which is out today. The performance left Fallon giddy. And it earned the musicians a standing ovation from the studio audience.

“It’s a big deal because things changed right after that happened, and it’s going to make a difference in our families’ lives and that kind of stuff,” Rateliff said. “But I don’t want it to get too loaded.”

Rateliff has made rock and folk music in Denver for years. But he’s now finding international attention. Although it’s not for his folk music. It’s for a new soul sound that’s steeped in the artist’s working class background.

Growing Up In A Musical Household

Rateliff grew up in the small, rural town of Hermann, Missouri. His parents often performed and listened to music around the house. Rateliff took up drums when he was 7 and then joined his family in the church band.

One day Rateliff’s father, Bud, ran late to mass. His mom, who was the worship leader, decided to start the service without her husband.

“Midway through, the phone kept ringing in the church office and so finally the deacon came out,” Rateliff said.

“The pastor went back and then just stopped everything. He’s like, ‘We need to go to the hospital, Bud’s been in an accident.’”

Rateliff’s father died in a car crash on his way to church. Rateliff was 13. His dad left behind a lot of music, including records and a suitcase full of harmonicas.

“It was like the piece of him that he left to me,” Rateliff said.

Rateliff’s mom taught him some basic chords on the guitar. He practiced by playing along to some of his dad’s old albums by artists like Muddy Waters and the Allman Brothers. Eventually, Rateliff started his own band with his friend Joseph Pope III.

The teenagers worked at a restaurant together and often closed the shop at night. But before leaving, they’d play music in the back.

“He played a song for me on the guitar one night, and I really felt a shift in my life at that point,” Pope, who played trumpet in his high school band, said. “I felt like I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that this guy had some incredible talent and that he needed somebody to be by his side to help him out.”

At age 18, Rateliff moved with Pope to Denver.

From Worldwide Tours To Rejection

Rateliff and Pope first generated buzz with a rock band called Born in the Flood. But in 2009, they switched gears and dedicated themselves to making folk music. Rateliff says that's because he likes the lyricism and melancholy mood of artists like Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen.

“I like the response of an audience that people are just sitting and listening and quiet, and I didn’t have to like yell or get anybody’s attention,” Rateliff said.

Rateliff built a following in Colorado and went on to tour the world, opening for the likes of Mumford and Sons. In 2011, Nashville’s Rounder Records was on track to put out Rateliff’s new album after releasing “In Memory of Loss” the year before.

Rateliff was excited about the new songs, but after Rounder sat on them for months while the musician toured on his own, the label decided not to release them.

“I was pretty devastated, and I felt like I had worked at the cost of my relationships and my friendships and busting my knuckles and utterly lonely,” Rateliff said. “All for naught is what it felt like at the end.”

The band’s management formed its own label in order to self-release “Falling Faster Than You Can Run” in 2013. But Rateliff teetered on the edge of burnout.

The artist considered no longer making music. Instead he switched gears again after a friend asked him to come to a studio and record new music.

Working Class Edge

The musician channeled his frustration into his first soul song, titled “Trying So Hard Not To Know.”

“I liked it rhythmically, I liked how it was kind of abrasive and questioning all the work and time that we put into music together as a group and as friends,” he said.

Rateliff formed the Night Sweats band and kept writing. This time, he tapped into the music styles he often heard in Missouri.

“We were driving around listening to Sam Cooke, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Everly Brothers,” he said. “Some of the lyrics were fluff, but also at the same time some of that soul stuff was its own secret message to the community for civil rights and (saying) like, ‘Hey, we’re people.’”

That message resonated with Rateliff, who worked for trucking companies, gardeners and landscapers to support his music.

“There’s definitely a working class kind of edge to a lot of that music,” Rateliff said.

Recently revived, the storied soul label Stax Records -- whose brightest star in the 1960s was Otis Redding -- agreed to release the debut album by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. Pope, who plays bass in the band, said this new material captures Rateliff’s true voice.

“When I first heard the demos he recorded, it was kind of the most natural thing I’d ever heard him do,” Pope said. “It was a longing, it was a lot of struggle and sorrow and tragedy for sure. That’s what I heard the first time I heard him sing, and that’s what I hear today.”

Part Of A Larger Soul Revival

Rateliff joins a lot of contemporary acts currently drawing from 1960s and 70s soul and R&B music, according to The Guardian’s music editor Michael Hann. That includes Fitz and the Tantrums, Leon Bridges and Vintage Trouble.

Hann first saw Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats live in London earlier this year.

“From the moment they started, I was absolutely thrilled,” Hann said. “It’s like an explosion of joy.”

But Hann said he wonders how far the bands reviving soul music can carry this momentum.

“Because the very thing that makes it exciting -- the limitations -- are exactly what can end up making something seem quite dull after a little while,” he said.

However, Rateliff isn’t too worried about that. He said he succeeded years ago when he first got paid to play music full time.

“If everything stops right now, I’ll be pretty happy with everything that’s already happened,” the musician said. Though he hopes that maybe one day, he'll make enough money to buy a farm in the country.

In the meantime, he and his band are focused on what lies ahead. After two sold out shows in Denver next week, they'll play across the country and Europe.