Best of What’s Next: Nathaniel Rateliff

Music Features Nathaniel Rateliff

Nathaniel Rateliff’s newest LP In Memory of Loss (out now) rings with the ease, tenderness and lightness of heart that often mark a new romance. And rightly so: Much of the album was written to woo a woman. Ambling guitar riffs and light touches of piano sound like aimless strolls through town; Rateliff’s rich voice and his bandmates’ textured harmonies sound like long and comfortable conversations, and the songwriter’s occasional raw vocal rattle sounds like those sweet moments of when new lovers are bold to share hard truths—family secrets, old friends, regrets—and ask big questions. Paste recently talked with Rateliff, the door-collector and sometime-gardener, while he was at home in Denver, Colo., just before he set out on romp around the rural Midwest with Daytrotter’s third Barnstormer tour.

Paste: Are you on a little break right now from touring, Nathaniel?
Nathaniel Rateliff: I am. I think I leave again Monday. Not too much of a break—just long enough to work for a week doing irrigation.

Paste: Is that your other work?
Rateliff: Yeah, I’m a gardener—I don’t normally do irrigation. I don’t really know much about irrigation, but basically all I did was dig holes for four days.

Paste: Have you been gardening for a long time?
Rateliff: I started the gardening two years ago through some friends. I’ll probably work with them when I’m not on tour for the most part. It pays well and I get to learn about plants and I make a little extra money, because I really don’t like to have to worry about money. And being a musician, it’s one of the things that you worry about.

Paste: Are you living in urban, metropolitan Denver, or are you a little ways out?
Rateliff: I am in the heart of Denver. You’ve probably never been here before, but I live in one of the historical neighborhoods, just down from downtown proper where all of the big buildings are, which is nice because you don’t really want to live down there anyways. But, you know, I live by one of my favorite clubs—it’s a nice little neighborhood. Most of my friends and most of the band live really close.

Paste: I read that you spent some time in your childhood in a town with a population of 60.
Rateliff: I did. We ended up living there twice, actually. Once, my family were caretakers for some wealthy people, and another time we rented this five bedroom farmhouse for 175 bucks a month. So you went into the town of 60 or something, and made a right turn, and drove down the road ‘til the pavement ended and it turned gravel, and there was like seven miles of gravel road, and our house was really way the heck out there.

Paste: Having come from a background like that, how do you find living in the city?
Rateliff: I like living in the country and I miss it a lot, actually. Hopefully, we’ll be able to buy property someday. Otherwise, saving all of these wine bottles and doors I keep collecting is going to be hard.

Paste: Do you have a purpose for all of those wine bottles and doors?
Rateliff: I think I was just trying to find a door that would fit my back door so I could put a dog door in it, but now it seems like I have a bunch of these doors laying around still. I could do anything with them, I guess. I could build a greenhouse.

Paste: You could make a table.
Rateliff: I could make a table—I’ve seen someone do that and it was actually pretty cool. I don’t really have any room to put another table in my house.

Paste: You could make some outdoor tables for your yard.
Rateliff: I could. I could make a door-picnic table. So yeah, I lived in that town called Bay, and then I also lived in another town, Hermann, with 2,500 people.

Paste: Do you have family there still? Do you go there often?
Rateliff: Joseph Pope, who plays in the band with me—he plays guitar and harmonica and sings—we grew up there together and his mom still lives in Hermann, so we go back there when we can. And my mom still lives not too far from there, and my younger sister and my older sister as well.

Paste: Did you and Joseph move to Denver together?
Rateliff: We did. We actually were in a band together in Hermann. You know, we played at some outdoor stage and got shut down by the cops and tried to play shows. Then we moved out here and that band fizzled out and we started another band called Born In The Flood, and that actually did really well. I made the decision to go for a solo act as we were being looked at by different labels.

Paste: Is your old band The Wheel now under the moniker “Nathaniel Rateliff”?
Rateliff: Yup.

Paste: So it’s pretty much the same group of people?
Rateliff: It is the same group of people. I really wanted to be able to use The Wheel, but I guess there was some copyright infringement thing with Willie Nelson and some metal band, so that was out, and the label really wanted me to use my name. It’s not really what I ever wanted to do. It was going to be “Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel,” but, you know, I never really liked band names with…

Paste: …with the “and the’s”?
Rateliff: The “and the’s.” Yeah.

Paste: What did you love about the name The Wheel?
Rateliff: I just felt like it was anonymous, you know? Even though I had written all of the songs, I felt like I was still retaining a little bit of privacy. Now anybody can find out where I live. Not that anybody cares.

Paste: When did you move to Denver?
Rateliff: Twelve years ago, so 1998 or ’99? When I was 19.

Paste: And why Denver?
Rateliff: One of my best friends had moved out here and I just kind of followed. We were going to try to move to San Diego, which we never did. We both got jobs at a trucking company, and we kind of got stuck. I was at that trucking company for nine years. Yeah, it was a real career job.

Paste: I read that when you were 13 years old your father died, and that same year you started playing the guitar. Was that also the year that you stopped going to school?
Rateliff: It was. It was my 7th grade year. I almost finished out the year. My father was on his way to church. I kind of grew up with this religious background but it’s not necessarily anything that sustains me now, I guess. I try to say that without being offensive to anybody. But he was on his way to church and was taking a shortcut on a gravel road and got hit broadside and passed away. The funny thing is that normally I would have taken the bus home from school and gone with him. But that day I stayed in town and was going to skate with my buddy after school and meet at church on a Tuesday night or something. I don’t know if you had to go to church when you were a kid but we were there two or three times a week.

Paste: What kind of church was it?
Rateliff: It was non-denominational Christian.

Paste: Did you start playing music right after that?
Rateliff: No, I had started playing drums when I was 7. Both my mom and my dad both played, so music was a pretty big part of my family. My sister played piano and sang.

Paste: Did you play together as kids?
Rateliff: We did. We would play church shows and stuff. My mom was the worship leader at the church, and my dad sang and played multiple wind instruments, and my sister would sing and play piano. I bought a guitar for me and my childhood best friend—I bought him a guitar with some money I had made from cutting grass. I had to be probably 11. I saved my money and bought him a guitar because he wanted one but he was a poor kid, too. It was like fifty bucks or something, and I thought we were gonna start a rock band and wind up being real cool. I was never real cool. And the guitar I bought then, I never really played because my mom set me up with lessons and I didn’t really want to learn how to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the guitar. So I kept playing the drums, playing along to Led Zeppelin and Nevermind and played to the radio. When my dad passed away I had a little more interest in guitar. My mom had a Martin 12-string that was just layin’ around, and I asked her to teach me a couple chords and she taught me three, and my best friend taught me a few more, and I just started writing.

Paste: So did you start on a 12-string?
Rateliff: It was just what was lying around. My mom ended up buying me another guitar because she didn’t want me to use hers. But yeah, I fooled around with that until she bought me my own six-string, and then we just kept acquiring gear. I learned how to play the piano years later.

Paste: So you’ve been writing for a very long time.
Rateliff: I wouldn’t say I was necessarily good back then.

Paste: That’s allowed. You don’t have to be good at 13. So we now have In Memory of Loss just shy of a decade later. I’m curious to know from your perspective if there is a particular season of your life that this record documents. Are there particular things that you were learning or mourning or celebrating or obsessing over during the time that you were writing these songs?
Rateliff: Yeah, actually. I wrote them right around the time I had written the first record that I self-released, Desire and Dissolving Men, which I put out under The Wheel and also under Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel. I guess at that time in my life, I’m still living in the same house I was then, and I was getting along for the most part. I was single for the first time in a long time and kind of lonely but kind of excited about it. I was still working for the trucking company and I had met somebody, so some of the songs are intended to woo this person. And I wrote one of the songs for one of my best friends. Sometimes when you grow up, it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. I’m not saying that happened to me at all, I mean, I am very fortunate that everything’s turning out really well. But I think for other people that I grew up with, I think maybe they had expectations about life and it just doesn’t turn out so great all the time, you know? Sometimes you end up being a construction worker and having kids and a wife and working hard and trying to get along with your family, and you’re struggling and trying to love them, and you don’t end up being a great poet or a rock star or whatever. And that’s fine—there’s nothing wrong with that. But I kind of wrote “When We Could” about my friend, thinking back on being younger. And then “You Should’ve Seen The Other Guy” I kind of wrote about a fight. It’s a sort of metaphorical fight about a real one that was actually happening in my life. And the other part of it is about my great-grandfather who was a bootlegger. He made moonshine during Prohibition and was living on making his own whiskey and selling it out of the jar. He was walking home and was tired so he thought he’d sit down by a tree, and froze to death because he didn’t know how cold he was. But yeah, I never knew the guy or anything.

Paste: Did that story haunt your family’s legacy in any way?
Rateliff: No, because everybody—it was my dad’s side of the family that that happened to, and so you know my dad had never met him either, but that side of the family has always struggled with excess, I guess, and I do too. But I’m getting better with it in my thirties. I was never much for drugs. Always liked liquor better, but it can definitely be the devil’s sauce. Not that I necessarily believe in the devil.

Paste: Metaphorically speaking. So you mentioned that you wrote a few songs to woo a woman. How did that go?
Rateliff: Well, I married her.

Paste: Oh, good work buddy!
Rateliff: I still try to woo her. I think that’s your job as a lover and a partner is to continue in that same sort of feeling that you had when you first met. Not that that’s always possible because it’s a little too dreamy for it to stay exactly the way it is when you first meet somebody.

Paste: Do you still write for her?
Rateliff: Yeah, I do. She always makes me play for her.

Paste: When did y’all get married?
Rateliff: September 20, the year before last. Last September was our first anniversary, and I was on the road. But she knew that’s what to expect, so he wasn’t upset about it. We celebrated when I was home.

Paste: Is she able to come on the road with you sometimes?
Rateliff: Yeah, I try to get her to come out to New York when I’m out there. And I think she and her daughter are going to come out to Barnstormers with me.

Paste: Oh, that’ll be so fun! Tell me a bit about that tour.
Rateliff: It’s gonna be fun, I know that! Delta Spirit will be there, and I’m really good friends with Matt [Vasquez] and the rest of the guys. I really like their stuff, so it’s fun when you have friends and you also really enjoy their music. And there’s Ra Ra Riot, and I can’t remember the other two bands that are touring with us, but they’re all really good. Sean Moeller from Daytrotter has set up this thing to play all of these shows in barns throughout the Midwest, and I guess as far as the driving distance, it’s pretty close, so we might see a lot of the same people at the different shows. They’ll kind of come on the tour with us.

Paste: It sounds like such a fun community thing. Especially if people are traveling with you guys, it’ll be really relational. You’ll actually get to know some people. That’ll be good.
Rateliff: It’s always nice, if you’re on tour with a band and you really like them and you connect on more than just a musical level.

Paste: How’s it going with The Low Anthem? Are you in the middle of touring with them or have you finished that?
Rateliff: We finished that. That went really well. We’ve only had really good experiences with bands we’ve gone out with. Their audience is really rad—it’s a really good listening audience. I think that’s probably what everybody wants, right? But it’s really nice when you actually get it.

Paste: How long were you on the road with them?
Rateliff: We only did six dates with them, so not very long. But we’re doing almost a month with The Tallest Man on Earth, and then I guess in July we’re doing our first headlining tour. So that’s exciting and scary. It’s just a matter of whether people will come out. I have pretty modest expectations. I’m not necessarily expecting to be a rich man by the next year. Those aren’t really my goals either. My goals are to play music for people that like what I do and be remotely successful, and maybe buy property.

Paste: Where did you say that you would like to buy if you could?
Rateliff: You know, I don’t know yet. I’ve looked at Colorado, I’ve looked at New Mexico, but I don’t really have any plans of moving right now because I don’t have any money. I wouldn’t move until my daughter’s out of high school. She goes right down the street, so it’s pretty convenient.

Paste: How old is she?
Rateliff: She’s 14. I mean, she is my step-daughter. I didn’t have a kid at 16.

Paste: That’s great. Is she on the record in any way?
Rateliff: No, she’s not. I haven’t written any songs for her yet. I think she’s more of a Beyoncé fan anyway.

Paste: I bet you could tap into the Beyoncé sound.
Rateliff: You know, we’re talking about doing an R&B record. When we were in the middle of recording with Brian Deck and I was like, “You know, I always wanted to do a soul/R&B thing.” And he was like, “You mean like, older stuff, right?” I was like, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, I’m in.”

Paste: That’s awesome. You could do it! You’ve got the voice for it, I think.
Rateliff: Yeah, it’s just a matter of writing the material for it.

Paste: Are you writing right now? Are you able to write during these seasons of touring and promoting?
Rateliff: I am, but the way I write is usually that I don’t write for a while and then all of the sudden I write a bunch of songs, and then I don’t write for a while again. I never force it. I never worry that I won’t end up writing because it all comes back.

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