Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats: The Morning After

(Left to r) Luke Mossman, Joseph Pope III, Jeff Dazey, Scott Frock, Nathaniel Rateliff, Mark Shusterman, Patrick Meese, Andreas Wild. Photos by Brantley Gutierrez

The first time Joseph Pope realized his life might be about to change, he was in a recording studio in Belgium trying to figure out how to cover The Beatles. After performing with his musical partner Nathaniel Rateliff on and off for the better part of 15 years in a series of bands and side-projects that remained largely unrecognized outside of their native Denver, the duo’s latest iteration — a roots-rock  meets r&b revue dance band called Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats — was in a recording studio together for the first time feeling out what it felt like to record music together in a room.

The Night Sweats had already released their debut album, but that record had been recorded primarily by Rateliff and drummer Patrick Meese, with the rest of the group adding their parts later.

The band, which first formed in 2013, was still in its relative infancy, with Rateliff serving as the group’s burly, emotive frontman, when they were asked to record a track for a tribute album celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ Revolver.

When the band began toying around with a rendition of “Got To Get You Into My Life,” Pope immediately noticed a spark.

“Something happened this time around where Nathaniel was really able to lean on the band in a way that I had never seen him be able to do,” he says. “We went in there and Nathaniel just said, ‘Go for it.’ He’s never been that hands off before.”

“Got To Get You Into My Life” — a fast-tempo, hard-chugging rock song that relies heavily on horns — would end up being a fitting genesis of sorts for Rateliff’s Night Sweats, who perform a blend of rock and soul that Rateliff most often describes as a mix of The Band and Sam & Dave.

By the time the Night Sweats were finished recording the McCartney song, they were ecstatic. “We were really happy with the way it went,” says Pope. “I just remember being so excited and thinking, ‘Oh my god, I can’t wait to go record a record with this band.’”

A year and a half or so later, the collective would record their first full album together, Tearing At The Seams, which the group released earlier this spring to great acclaim. Little more than a few years after convening in Belgium, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats have emerged as one of the most unlikely success stories in contemporary roots rock. The group’s self-titled debut, released in August 2015, would become a sleeper hit, spawning revival cult-anthems like “I Need Never Get Old” and the viral hit “S.O.B.,” a jubilant soul-party anthem that nonetheless chronicles Rateliff’s struggles with sobriety.

The latter song, which has accumulated nearly 40 million YouTube views to date, would catapult the band into a several years-long tour of sold-out theaters around the world and even resulted in Rateliff jamming with digitized hamsters in a high-profile Kia commercial.

“The last three years are such a blur in so many ways,” says Pope.

Speaking with the band on the verge of releasing their highly-anticipated second album, Rateliff & The Night Sweats are both enthusiastic about the several years of touring that are sure to follow and acutely cognizant of the demands of their newfound semi-stardom.

Calling during some rare downtime at the Los Angeles airport earlier this year, Rateliff sounded tired, if not vaguely wary of his newfound attention.

“I like to actually sit by myself and write words, so there’s a lot I want to do,” he says when asked if he’s found it difficult to write on the road over the past few years, “but I’ve pretty much given all my time away to everyone, so it’s just hard to do.”

The band’s new album encompasses a more adventurous, expansive vision of what Rateliff and co. are capable of, musically, than its predecessor. On Tearing At The Seams, Rateliff’s anxious meditations on love, faith and commitment are set to a mix of feel-good 70’s r&b that’s now mixed with dark-edge modern rock on several tracks. The album, once again, was tastefully arranged by producer Richard Swift, who infuses the band’s sound with a series of breakbeats and rhythm tracks inspired by 90’s hip-hop.

The group’s lead single, “You Worry Me” offers a contemporary rock anthem in the vein of the Black Keys that only vaguely resembles the template the Night Sweats established on their debut, so much so, in fact, that Rateliff was hesitant to release the song as a single.

“I was reluctant,” he says. “I questioned whether or not that should be the first single, but I think the idea was for that to attract different listeners other than the ones we have now.”

The gambit paid off: less than two months after it was released, “You Worry Me” became the group’s second Number One single on Triple A radio, one of the most important industry benchmarks in independent rock.

“You Worry Me” was just one of several dozen songs the band brought to Cottage Grove, Oregon to the home-studio of producer Richard Swift. But before recording, the group had spent an extensive amount of time collaborating and composing their latest batch of songs, a luxury not afforded to the ragtag eight-piece the first time around. To try to make Tearing At The Seams more genuinely collaborative, Rateliff convened the group in New Mexico for a writing retreat.

“I wanted to have everybody around while I collected all these ideas: voice memos, journal entries, that kind of shit,” says Rateliff. “This record was the first time where I really wanted the whole band to write with me in the process, something where I can talk to the band about where different chord progressions should go and that sort of thing. That really helped, and freed me up to do different stuff.”

“This was definitely a much larger team effort,” says Richard Swift, who has produced records for Valerie June, Damien Jurado and The Shins. The band, staying at a rental home near Swift’s house, would come over in the morning, record a couple songs each day, then take the night off to go swimming or walk downtown for patty melt’s at the local bowling alley.

But according to Swift, the reasons for implementing such a structured daily routine were also personal. “Both Nathaniel and I, well, actually a lot of us in the band, were going through a lot of extra personal stuff at the time,” he says. “I’m not sure if it informed the record but it did cause us to focus a little bit more. There was a lot more emphasis, and this sounds somewhat embarrassing, but there was way more focus on sobriety, on just kind of showing up to work. It was still a very emotive process, but you still do have to clock in.”

As was the case with their debut album, the often-euphoric arrangements and carefree retro sing-alongs that comprise a good portion of Tearing At The Seams mask pained confessional lyrics from Rateliff, who has recently said he’s presently in the process of going through a divorce.

“I really feel like every record I made was about the same thing,” Rateliff told Billboard in March, “and I just finally had the balls to say goodbye.”

Several songs on his new album chronicle personal relationships in various states of decay and disrepair. “Ya baby, we could set the whole thing on fire,” Rateliff sings with heartbreaking casualness on the opening line to “Still Out There Running,” a song that in the span of five minutes chronicles the full disintegration of a once-sturdy partnership. “You see the fire has full surrounded us,” he sings by the time he’s arrived at the story’s conclusion. “I’m choking upon the ashes of the friends and the love I used to know.”

One song later, Rateliff takes a step back on the meditative title track. “The heart, if not to feel, is a wandering waste,” he sings, before documenting a barren landscape of communal despair where “they have half of us tied and half of us in chains.”

“That song was me trying to change the words from being personal to trying to talk about what we see going on nowadays in this country,” says Rateliff.

In the past few years, Rateliff and his band have begun to find ways to use their newfound success for social good. During our recent interview, Rateliff is never more animated than when he begins discussing his band’s recent efforts to help support homeless veterans in his hometown of Denver.

“We’re trying to find out what they really need and the best way to give it to them, so that it’s not just our vision but we’re actually connecting with the people we’re trying to help and we’re making sure we’re hearing them out,” he says. “It’s a funny thing to live in such a patriotic, nationalistic society where the veterans are out to keep our freedom, but yet the government takes advantage of them so easily.”

*****

Nathaniel Rateliff was a 36-year-old veteran of the Denver music scene when he first began touring with his new band the Night Sweats in 2015. It was his latest musical iteration after more than a decade of gigging locally and low budget touring as a journeyman singer-songwriter. The singer first began playing music with Pope in their blues-rock band called Born in the Flood in the early 00’s, before eventually focusing on more contemplative, downcast material as Nathaniel Rateliff And The Wheel until roughly 2014.

During that dozen-year span, Rateliff released a handful of records that received occasionally glowing reviews, but the singer found a newfound grace as a singer, performer and songwriter when he began working with the expanded Night Sweats lineup in 2015.

“When Nathaniel first wrote the demos for the first [Night Sweats] record, he sent them to me,” says Pope. “I told him, ‘Dude, this is the most natural thing I’ve ever heard you do.’”

When the Night Sweats first brought their exuberant rock and soul dance party to Europe, where Rateliff had developed small followings for his somber folk music in countries like Germany and Amsterdam, some fans were confused. “There was always somebody standing in front, not moving, arms at his elbow just staring at us like, ‘What have you done?’” says Pope.

Since then, Rateliff And The Night Sweats have come to represent, alongside Leon Bridges and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, one of the most successful acts who have revived and reworked Southern soul from the 60’s and 70’s for young, Spotify-listening audiences. The group, however, doesn’t quite see it that way. “I don’t really feel like that’s what we’re doing,” says Rateliff. “I feel like we’ve taken the influences and then started to do our own thing.”

Generally speaking, Rateliff pleads ignorance, or at least apathy, to the ways in which his group is situated in a contemporary moment in which the sonic styles and rhythms of Muscle Shoals and Stax (Rateliff & the Night Sweats release music under the Stax label) have become an omnipresent production style across genres ranging from Top 40 pop to mainstream country to Americana. “I’m not actually too hip on pop culture,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is not necessarily trendy.”

Rateliff’s disinterest in situating his group within a larger soul revival hints at a more general, and perhaps more troubling, indifference when it comes to engaging with the racial and social histories of the music his group has assumed as their own. Both Rateliff and Pope make a curious point of referring to soul and r&b as “working class” music, a seemingly pointed rhetorical gesture that absolves the group of any need to engage with the bundle of thorny questions raised by a group of eight white men performing an explicitly black art form.

Asked last year if anyone has ever raised the question of cultural appropriation with the band, Rateliff deflected. “I’m not even sure I’ve heard that phrase before,” he told a British newspaper. “I’ve heard the term ‘blue-eyed soul’ before, but I don’t know … if you look at Stax Records or Booker T and the MGs, it’s not ‘race music.’”

For his part, Pope believes that one of the Night Sweats’ most radical functions can be serving as a conduit for young fans to get turned on to artists like Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. “Those people were really speaking about the world in a real way,” he says, before offering up his best attempt at an earnest explanation of the message he and Rateliff ultimately hope to communicate with Night Sweats on-stage.

“Considering the polarization in the States and across the world, if we can just get people as people, if we can get them into the same room to have this shared experience, it chips away a little bit at the sense of otherness that’s being perpetuated so much in our culture. Soul music has a great ability to do that. There’s something about being in a sweaty room with a band playing their ass off that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”