Music superstar and Friend of the Folklore Center, Nathaniel Rateliff recently took some time during his busy touring schedule to speak with us about his career, musical influences and what it’s like to perform for live audiences again.
Back on Tour
Nathaniel is thrilled to be back on tour and says “it feels fantastic to be playing for live audiences again. I think it was 395 days since the last Night Sweats’ show, which was prior to our little run up to the Newport folk festival and some dates surrounding that. Then I had put out "And It’s Still Alright", so most of the guys in the band were in that band as well. We were still making music together just not as the Night Sweats. Newport was interesting because we played both projects, so I was trying to memorize and remember all the Night Sweats’ songs I hadn’t sang in over a year and then also make sure I’m not screwing up the other record we were performing which has more subtlety. I had to remember at least 40 songs. It was fun.”
Audiences are thrilled to see Nathaniel and the band and to experience live music again, so they are pretty forgiving of the occasional slipup. “I had a piano break on me at a concert last night (in Oregon). I had to go over to Mark (Shusterman) and in the middle of playing Joseph (Pope) – we communicate over these little mics without the audience hearing – said, ‘Great transition, man! Saved the day there!’ Because I’m playing piano on the whole song and all of a sudden, the piano crapped out, but I have to carry the song. But it’s been fun and people are just excited.”
Performing live also means being aware of the proverbial elephant in the room and Nathaniel “feels a lot of responsibility” to try to keep those who attend his concerts safe. “All the shows right now are in markets we don’t normally go to - they’re all outdoor amphitheaters - which has proven to be the safest thing right now with Covid and the variant. Some of our friends who are doing indoor shows have had to cancel their tours. We have a pretty strict protocol. It’s part of our job to make sure we don’t create an environment for more people to get sick.”
The Colorado Connection
Nathaniel and his friend (Night Sweats’ bassist) Joseph Pope “moved to Denver in 1998 from Missouri, so I’ve been in Denver for more than half my life.” It wasn’t long after that he found out about the Folklore Center. “I heard about the early days of Bob Dylan and people coming through town, so I was always very curious about that. At one point I thought I was going to take fiddle lessons and I still have yet to.”
He jokes that the fiddle still haunts him. “That instrument really…even for my 40th birthday I was like ‘I’m going to get this thing this year’, and then seeing musicians put out old fiddle tune records…I’m just like ‘Ah! I could be doing this!’ I play a little, but for some reason I feel like the violin and the pedal steel, I just don’t know if I’ll ever really get them.”
Like a Rolling Stone
Musically, Nathaniel began as a drummer, later learning to play the guitar, and his musical tastes were largely impacted by the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. When he moved to Denver “my musical influences were all over the place. I was kind of caught between what I had cut my teeth on, which was old Muddy Waters’ records that my dad had handed down to me, and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. I was also a big fan of the Allman Brothers.”
“I definitely went through phases where I wanted to be Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix. And that wasn’t really any different when I moved to Denver. I loved Radiohead as they continued to progress and come out with things that were blowing us all away and reconnected with the (Rolling) Stones and The Stooges, then The Strokes came out with a record. I was really confused for a long time about what I wanted to be doing.”
What he didn’t want to do was to become a singer-songwriter, especially considering how much he hated singing when he was younger. “But I just couldn’t get away from the writing aspect and at some point you find your voice.”
The band Nathaniel and Joseph were in at the time (Born in the Flood) “just kept developing. The early days of that were very jam band, but I kept saying ‘we’re not a jam band’ even though we had a song that was like 45 minutes long.” Slowly that band transitioned and “I wanted to write and perform songs that moved people emotionally. My goal even back then was, if the listener can feel what I feel when I listen and perform music, that’s all I want. I wanted people to be introspective and just allow themselves to feel emotion, because I think a lot of times we don’t allow ourselves to do that.
Finding His Voice
Born in the Flood fizzled out after about seven years and Nathaniel began a project called The Wheel (which later went under his name). “We did our best to tour the record, then I got dropped from that label (Rounder Records).” As he was making the second record, Falling Faster than You Can Run, he started his own label. “Then it was another seven years trying to make it as a singer-songwriter.”
Around this time bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers started coming up and transforming the acoustic music scene. “I was friends with those bands and toured a lot with them, but my approach to songs was very different. Mine was more about making the audience listen and sit still and be introspective. And at the time I felt like the scene had changed and I kind of got tired of playing acoustic guitar, even though that’s my love and I consider that (the acoustic guitar) my instrument even more than the electric. There’s so much subtlety in that instrument and my tone is really defined by my right hand and just trying to have finesse and strength all at the same time so that the tonality comes out.”
Nathaniel also collects acoustic guitars. “I feel like they each have their own…acoustic instruments are so different from one another. I have two Gibson Country Westerns, they’re both from ‘67 and they are very different. I love that about acoustic instruments. But I started to move away from that.”
Wang Dang Doodle
Around this time Nathaniel had an idea - “I had always wanted to have a band that sounded like if Sam & Dave and The Band had formed a band together.” So, he began experimenting with this concept. “I had been doing a cover of (The Band’s) "The Shape I’m In" and started taking the rhythm of that song and incorporated it into my own song. I ended up writing "Trying So Hard Not to Know" and "Look It Here" for the Night Sweats and recorded it at home. I feel like once I cracked that code on the first song I was like ‘Oh, this is it!’ I think I had been singing about such heavy stuff for so long it was refreshing to think about approaching songwriting without that heaviness.”
The third song he wrote from that perspective was called “Howling at Nothing”. “I based that off of "Wang Dang Doodle" (a song he’d always loved). Willie Dixon wrote the song but Howlin’ Wolf (Eric Clapton and members of the Rolling Stones) did a version of it for the London Sessions. The whole song is this story about everybody getting together and ‘We're gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long’ - I don’t even know what that means. And I thought, what if I write a song like that. It was based on this old idea of the Howlin’ Wolf song, but it made me feel like, I’m certainly taking the song seriously, but not in the way I was approaching writing before.”
A Different Approach
Nathaniel and the Night Sweats released their latest single “Survivor” on August 18th and their new album (The Future) drops on November 5th. “I’m excited about it! We worked with Brad Cook (producer). He came out and helped us finish the record and we mixed it with him as well. It’s a different approach. Before it was about the looseness of everything and how do you keep that raw feeling of live music in a recording. With this (new record) we wanted to continue to sound like we’re a band playing together but have more clarity and leave more space for instruments to hold their part instead of playing on top of each other. I like both but we ended up doing a great job.”
The band is currently on tour with Delta Spirit. “We have all new production and keep trying to elevate what we’re doing, which means this time there’s three buses of people and three semis worth of gear. We have an amazing crew and it feels like we’re a big family. Their days are long now and we’re definitely blessed to have them.”
If you get a chance go see Nathaniel and the Night Sweats on tour. And learn more about them on their website.