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Nathaniel Rateliff, Honky-Tonk Soul Man, Stumbles Into A Hit

Aug 29, 2015
Originally published on August 29, 2015 5:40 pm

There's a song out there right now that's catching a lot of people off guard. "S.O.B" sounds kind of familiar, maybe like a revived oldie, but it's not: It's fresh off the new self-titled album from the Denver ensemble Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.

Rateliff, the band's leader and songwriter, spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about rolling with the punches of an unexpected hit, and landing himself in the middle of an equally unexpected style revival. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

Arun Rath: Were you surprised that "S.O.B." took off? It's got a good groove, obviously.

Nathaniel Rateliff: I've never really had a hit before, I so I don't know what the perfect equation is for it. But yeah, it was a surprise! It's still a surprise. I'm just mostly waiting for backlash -- like, "Well, something's gonna go wrong at some point."

There's a retro feel, certainly, to this music. How would you define it?

I mean, it falls into the vein of R&B and soul, but the stuff that was influencing me was the Bang sessions of Van Morrison and Sam & Dave and Otis Redding. I really wanted to try to mix that Southern soul sound with with a little bit of honky-tonk, and what our Missouri roots are.

There's been something of a soul revival lately, wouldn't you say? What do you make of that?

You know, it's been happening for a couple years — and two years ago when I started writing these songs I thought, "Man, I gotta get this record out before I just end up looking like some guy who came in on the coattails of everybody else."

You're not just catching this wave.

No, I'm just a horrible surfer. But yeah, I think there's a resurgence of this style — and soul and R&B and blues and all that kind of stuff is still, you know, Americana music. It's kind of the beauty of the history of music in the United States, and what the different cultures that came here made. It's just a bummer that it went away, so I'm excited that it's back. I hope it lasts, and I hope other people have new and inventive ways to play soul and R&B that are real and a part of them.

When you sing, you really bring it. How do you maintain that intensity, and bring that to a song every time you sing it?

Well, it's a part of the song — so it's just the work you've gotta do. It's been a challenge as far as how many nights in a row you can do that, but we're figuring that out — or I am, rather. I think it's a lot of not talking, and less drinking. I don't know, I feel like the songs require me to be a part of them, and those parts really move me, so I feel like it's on me to do the best I can to be real with it.

That makes me think of the song "I've Been Failing," which you've said is one of your favorite songs on this album.

We do a different version of it live; it's more like a Tom Petty song. But for the record — I don't know, the version we had demoed before was a little too "dad rock," so we're trying to keep away from that as much as possible.

[Laughing] Explain that! What's dad rock about it?

I don't know, just loud guitars with bad tones. Expensive guitars with bad tones.

You don't go for perfection in the studio, though, right?

No, not at all. I actually had a friend who, I had sent him one of the first songs we did, and he was like, "I like the song. I'm surprised you kept those guitars in there — they're wildly out of tune." And I was like, "Great!" I think the mistakes make it a little more human, you know?

Something I've gotta ask you — and I read this on the Internet, so if it's not true, tell me — did you used to be a missionary?

I first moved to Denver to work with a group called YWAM, "Youth With a Mission." I was a kid — I was 18 — and did some work with homeless people. Really, trying to convert people is sort of an awful position to find yourself in, so I quickly, on my own, grew out of religious ideas.

It's hard to escape that your songs are kind of about the reprobate life: drinking, sin, consequences.

Right — not in a bad way, though. Sinning and drinking, if you can do it at the same time, it's a hell of a day.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

There's a song out right now that's catching a few people off guard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "S.O.B.")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) I'm going to need someone to help me. I'm going to need somebody's hand.

RATH: It sounds kind of familiar, maybe a revived oldie. But it's not. It's fresh off the new album from Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. It's called "S.O.B."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "S.O.B.")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) Son of a [expletive] give me a drink. One more night, I just can't be me. Son of a [expletive], if I can't get clean, I'm going to drink my life away.

RATH: Nathaniel Rateliff joins me from Colorado Public Radio outside of Denver. Welcome to the program.

NATHANIEL RATELIFF: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

RATH: So, you know, because we're NPR, we had to secure special clearance to play that song.

RATELIFF: Oh, really?

RATH: Yeah (laughter). It's not words we're supposed to use, upholding the community standards.

RATELIFF: I understand completely.

RATH: Were you surprised that "S.O.B." took off? Because it's got a good groove, obviously.

RATELIFF: I've never really had a hit before, so I - you know, I don't know what the - the perfect equation is for it. But yeah, it's - it was a surprise - or it's still a surprise. I'm just mostly waiting for backlash, so...

(LAUGHTER)

RATELIFF: So I was like, well, something's going to - you know, something's going to go wrong at some point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) Shake baby. I feel it when you shake, baby.

RATH: There's a retro feel, certainly, to some - to this music. What genre - how would you define this?

RATELIFF: I mean, it falls into the vein of R&B and soul. But the stuff that was influencing me was Bang sessions of Van Morrison and Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. And I really wanted to try to kind of mix that Southern soul sound with a little bit of honky-tonk and sort of what our, you know, Missouri roots are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WASTING TIME")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) Think of all the time, time, time, time, time, think of all the time, time, time, time, time.

RATH: There's been something of a soul revival lately, wouldn't you say? What do you make of that?

RATELIFF: You know, it's been happening for a couple of years. And two years ago, when I first started writing these songs, I was like man, I've got to get this record out before I just end up looking like some guy who came in on the coat tails of everybody else who was driving the plow. So...

RATH: You're not just catching this wave.

RATELIFF: No, I'm just a horrible surfer, so...

RATH: (Laughter).

RATELIFF: But yeah, you know, I think there's, like, a resurgence of this style of music. And I think it's soul and R&B and blues and all that kind of stuff is still, you know, Americana music. You know, it's kind of the beauty of history of music in the United States and what the different cultures that came here made. It's just a bummer that it went away, so I'm excited that it's back. I hope it lasts, and I hope other people have new and inventive ways to play soul and R&B that's real and a part of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS SONG, "HOWLING AT NOTHING")

RATH: I'm talking with Nathaniel Rateliff about his new album with the Night Sweats. When you sing, you really bring it. I want to play a little bit of "Howling At Nothing."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOWLING AT NOTHING")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) We were howling at the moon. We were shaking our hips. Danced until we flat out falling into bed, but I won't let you go.

RATH: How do you maintain that intensity - you know, bring that to the song every time you sing it?

RATELIFF: Well, that's a part of the song, so, you know, it's just the work you've got to do.

RATH: Got howling in there, so I guess you've got to.

RATELIFF: Yeah. And, you know, it's been a challenge as far as, like, how many nights in a row you can do that. But we're figuring that out - or I am, rather. I think it's a lot of not talking (laughter) and less drinking.

RATH: (Laughter).

RATELIFF: But - I don't know, you know, I feel like the songs require for me to be a part of them. And those parts really move me, so I feel it's important to, like, do the best I can to be real with it.

RATH: You're making me think of the song "I've Been Failing."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE BEEN FAILING")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) Well, I needed you and not just someone. I've been so long failing you, dear. I said I'd care for all of this, darling. Yet I buried all of it again. Ah yeah, come on, baby. Yeah. We could be good. Oh, honey. It's just the two of us now.

RATH: And you said this was one of your favorite songs off this album.

RATELIFF: Yeah, we do a different version of it live. It's more like a Tom Petty song or - but for the record, we - I don't know, the version we had sort of demoed before was a little too dad rock. So we were trying to keep away from that as much as possible.

RATH: (Laughter) Explain that - too much dad rock.

RATELIFF: I don't know, just loud guitars with bad tones.

RATH: OK (laughter).

RATELIFF: Expensive guitars with bad tones.

RATH: You don't go for perfection in the studio though, right?

RATELIFF: No, not at all. I actually had a friend who I had sent him one of the first songs we did. And he was like I like this song. I'm surprised that you kept those guitars in there. They're wildly out of tune. I was like great. But yeah, I think the mistakes make it a little more human, you know.

RATH: Something I've got to ask you. Now, I read this on the Internet, so maybe it's not true. Tell me, did you used to be a missionary?

RATELIFF: I first moved to Denver, Colo., to work with a group called YWAM - Youth With A Mission. I was a kid. So I was 18 and did some work with homeless people and really, you know, to - trying to convert people is sort of an awful position to find yourself in. So I quickly, on my own, grew out of religious ideas. So...

RATH: Well, it's kind of hard to escape your songs are a lot about the reprobate life - you know, drinking, sin and consequences.

RATELIFF: Right - not in a bad way, though.

RATH: No, of course not.

(LAUGHTER)

RATELIFF: Sinning and drinking - if you can do it at the same time, it's a hell of a day.

RATH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) Spend your years, spend your time...

RATH: Nathaniel Rateliff, his new album is "Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats." It's been great speaking with you. Thank you.

RATELIFF: Oh, thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU")

NATHANIEL RATELIFF AND THE NIGHT SWEATS: (Singing) I just want to thank you. I just want to thank you. I just want to thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.