This review comes with a warning. I can say with the utmost confidence I am New Zealand’s number one fan of Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. It was quite a journey researching Nathaniel’s history and hearing about his background with bands like Born in the Flood, and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel. While understanding his influences, like Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave, you will get a sense of just what makes this man tick and what we can expect at his concert at the Powerstation on the 10th of April. I’m going to call it now: this will be the concert of the year, bringing his signature Americana and vintage rhythm & blues smile to our New Zealand shores.
If you haven’t heard of Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, don’t worry you probably aren’t alone. I first heard their single I Need Never Get Old pounding out of a small bar’s jukebox in Washington DC nearly three years ago and couldn’t help smiling. As soon as I got back home, I popped into Southbound Records expecting to have to order it but, as fate (or the good taste of the owner) would have it... Southbound Records had their debut album on vinyl and it’s been on high rotation at my place ever since.
By way of background, Nathaniel was born in St Louis back in 1978. He learnt the drums at age seven and joined his family’s gospel band. Sadly, at 13, his father was killed in a car accident and this is where he learnt to play the guitar and start his songwriting journey. From there he held jobs in a plastic factory, as a carpenter, trucking depot operator, and gardener, but all the time focusing on getting a band together.
In 2002 he formed Born in the Flood and caught the attention of record label Road Runner. However, he decided not to take up the offer of a recording contract, instead of going back to a more stripped down sound and forming Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel in 2007.
Amongst this and other solo projects Nathaniel decided, for his next project, to develop a more upbeat soulful sound and formed Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats with longtime collaborator Joseph Pope III. Together they and the band released their self-titled debut album, leading off with the knee-slapping, beer-swigging ditty S.O.B. Rumour has it he was going to throw in the towel if he didn’t get some traction with this latest project and thankfully he did.
Why did I think it was important to offer this background you might ask? I guess it shows to me that having a back-story like his highlights how Nathaniel got to where he is today. Not via some terrible music TV competition show or, dare I say it, by sexual innuendos and sleazy videos. The back story to me says a lot about his character and has shaped his sound through life’s experiences and adversities, that most of us have to deal with at some time, notwithstanding a lot of hard work and a little luck along the way. So it was a pleasure to be called up by him from Denver, Colorado and get the oil on a few burning questions I had.
Nathaniel Rateliff has a knack to sing about the dark shadows we all deal with, yet somehow make you feel like the sun is on your back.
After introductions, we were off. I was one of many interviews set aside that day so had a limited amount of time to chat but I wanted to make sure my background research was correct. Indeed it was, with a little bit of surprise in his voice... so a good start.
I asked Nathaniel if he’d ever headed this far from home before: “No, this will be my first time to New Zealand and in fact, I’m coming over earlier to spend more time to kick back, check out some hot spots before the show.”
I explained how I found out about his band and have been a fan ever since and we got onto who writes: is it all him or does the heavy lifting get spread out over the band?
“I have written all the songs to date. For the first album, for example, I came up with all the songs by just doing the demos myself in the attic of my house. Where for the second album much came from just playing live in the studio with some ideas I had and it was a more organic approach with the band, and I really enjoyed that experience.”
One key thing, to get back to the sound he has got today, was understanding what his influences were. Nathaniel quoted American soul and R&B duo Sam & Dave as early influences followed, of course, by the Stax record label catalogue, including Otis Redding and Sam Cook. Essentially a real cocktail of soul, rhythm and blues, with the Blues Brothers’ toe-tapping humour thrown in for good measure, especially in their first album.
Asked what his experience has been like playing outside the United States, Nathaniel said they have been well received, with most getting into the party mode. I suggested that the band would be welcomed with open arms and to expect quite a bit of interaction and banter during the night.
There is quite a distinctive difference between their debut album and latest offering Tearing At The Seams (2018), the latter sounding a more polished affair yet both albums were produced by Richard Swift, so what contributed to the difference?
Nathaniel said: “It’s a crazy thing when the first album had some success, I felt a lot of pressure to follow it up and it was very intimidating. I wanted to make something that I would be proud of and give something that the fans will want as well. The influence from Richard for the second was a little different and he wanted to do a couple of things differently. An example being You Worry Me... he knew exactly what he wanted to do. Some of the other songs were just live takes in the studio. The label was saying these songs sound different and I replied well that’s because they have been recorded totally different from the last album."
The first album was generally recorded with one microphone in the studio, while there was more set up in the second, but with fewer layers being applied following the final recording.
If you read the sleeve note (a pleasure to savour when buying vinyl) it was written by Sean Moeller, which was a wonderful piece about the album and I noted to Nathaniel he has had quite a history with him and wondered how that all started?
It seems Sean has a knack of discovering bands or artists and writes about them. When he spotlighted the project with the Wheels, way back in 2005, he took an interest in Nathaniel’s work, which has lasted ever since and the two are now very good friends. In fact, they curated a festival recently in Maquoketa, Iowa.
Nathaniel said: “I actually got a message from Sean this week asking if me if I ever wanted to do a biography he was the man to write it.” We both laughed given at 40, there still seems time to build a few more chapters before thinking about doing something like that.
This let me segue nicely into my burning question around the track I Need Never Get Old, which was the third song he wrote when building the first album.
“Well, once I cracked the code with the style and elements of R&B and soul and the big break at the beginning it kind of took a life of its own.” He wanted a big band sound and to bring a little lightness in along the way.
With that, our time was up, but I managed to squeeze in one last question about work on the next album and any songs that we might expect to be showcased at the concert.
“Well, we hardly ever stop touring; in fact, this has been the longest break we have had, so I’ve been doing some other stuff with Richard on some solo ideas, while also working on some new stuff with The Night Sweats.”
Perhaps we may get to hear a new track if we are lucky but he wasn’t saying.
We said our goodbyes and I wished him all the best with his upcoming tour and visit to New Zealand.
I will finish how I started: learning a bit more about Nathaniel Rateliff, the band, and the experiences he has had only reaffirmed my belief that this gig will be the gig of the year. But don’t take my word for it: be there.