One of the most pleasant surprises of 2015 was the creative rebirth of Colorado music vet Nathaniel Rateliff as he transformed from earnest Dead Oceans-inspired nu-folker to the most genuine white soul man America has enjoyed since Daryl Hall in his heyday.
Produced by the renowned Richard Swift (currently a member of Dan Auerbach’s The Arcs), the eponymous debut album from Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats is a pure, raging slab of blue-eyed rhythm and blues that finds this wild common ground between Booker T and the MGs and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the most organic way possible. And it’s anchored by the single “S.O.B.”, this year’s “Rolling In The Deep” which, upon first listen, inspired Jimmy Fallon to immediately get them booked on The Tonight Show. And it only took that one barnburner of a performance of Rateliff’s signature tune on NBC’s long-running late night institution to make him and his crew household names, helping the record jump to No. 4 on the Billboard rock album charts and scoring them an extensive tour of both Europe and the U.S. through March of 2016.
Paste had the pleasure of speaking with Rateliff on the eve of the band’s short tour of the UK and Ireland in late October before he returns home for a string of dates in the upper Midwest, including a Halloween gig at the Codfish Hollow Barn in Maquoketa, Iowa.
: How long have you been making music now?
Nathaniel Rateliff: [Night Sweats guitarist] Joseph [Pope III] and I have been making music for 21 years we figured out the other day.
: Long time, man.
Rateliff: Yeah, man. We did the college circuit, which is odd thinking about, given my daughter now goes to college [laughs]. We did a bunch of shit touring. But we also did some shows with people that we really loved like Bon Iver, Low Anthem and Tallest Man on Earth. Mumford & Sons. The Lumineers. Dr. Dog. Delta Spirit. It’s cool over the years how many names you rack up. It’s not that big of a world once you travel around and you end up running into people all the time.
: The classic soul sound is getting a serious shot in the arm in 2015 with your record and the Leon Bridges album and Curtis Harding. What inspired you to go in this direction?
Rateliff: The first song I wrote for this project was “Trying So Hard,” and I was so stoked like I did the thing like I demoed it at home. And I was like, “Man, I fuckin’ did it. I made a record that sounds like Sam & Dave harmonies with a Band vibe to it.” I wanted to be R&B and soul, but I wanted that Hawks style to it. That gritty, don’t-give-a-shit flavor. I don’t want it to be as smooth as it can be.
: And now you have a new album that sounds like it could have been discovered in a dusty bin in the back of an old record shop. But it’s very much a now record that truly places a renewed emphasis on the Stax label as a tastemaker as well.
Rateliff: It’s interesting, because I got dumped by Rounder but then signed by Concord, which is the parent company. It’s really a funny business the way all that shit works.
: Hey, at least you and Wilco have a similar story to share between you all [laughs]. But the fact they wound up using the Stax name for your album was a really cool move.
Rateliff: When I signed to Concord, I knew they had bought out Stax. And I said to them, “You know, for what I’m trying to do for this record I’m making, it would be really cool if it said Stax on it!” And it was great we got them to come through with that.
: Those snapping fingers carry a lot of prestige, no doubt.
Rateliff: It was cool to me. And when we were doing the album art, I pulled out an old Sam & Dave record I have and took this picture of it and was like, “Can we make the album cover look something like this, cause this looks fuckin’ classic to me.” That mustard yellow logo…
: Those old Stax covers are so great. What are some of your other favorite albums from the label?
Rateliff: Otis, for sure. I always love Otis Redding. I had a bunch of Isaac Hayes records at one point as well, which went from really interesting to totally ridiculous. He was a pretty over-the-top motherfucker. Black Moses is the best, with the album jacket that folds out like a cross.
: Black Moses is the truth. And that Live at the Sahara Tahoe with the doors that open on the front cover.
Rateliff: Nobody does that shit anymore. People try to do it, but record companies get really bent out of shape when you try and do something interesting. Like, “You want it on 180 gram vinyl? Jesus!” [laughs]
: It’s great to see records making such a comeback.
Rateliff: I grew up with records. My dad loved vinyl, and he had a pretty big collection. I remember picking them up and my dad would be like, “Don’t touch the vinyl, hold it on the sides!” I thought how cool that was. Or going through his old collection and finding stuff and asking him, “Who’s the Moody Blues? Who’s this Van Morrison guy?” You’d have all these discoveries and things I would have never found out if I wasn’t intrigued by going through all those dusty old boxes.
: What are your thoughts on digital music?
Rateliff: I think of a record as side A and B. The digital world now, man, is so shitty, because people aren’t really present for anything. They’re just looking for the next song or they’re on Instagram or doing a million different things in a million different places. You can’t just really enjoy where you’re at in that regard. Just get up and turn the fucking record over. It sounds good.
: The sound of this Night Sweats album definitely is made for vinyl. It owes as much to The Band as it does the Bar-Kays in every way, and neither of those groups ever sounded better than when played on a turntable.
Rateliff: Losing Levon was a big bummer for me. When we were doing that Austin to Boston thing that’s now a documentary, one of the highlights was gonna be that we were going to go to Woodstock and hang out at Levon’s place. I don’t get starstruck too much with the people I meet; I always see it as we’re just people doing it is what we’re doing. But I was pretty stoked at the potential of hanging out with Levon Helm. We got there and he had left two days before, and he passed away a week later. So we ended up not going to his place. I was like, “Man, what a fuckin’ drag.” And that’s coming from the standpoint of someone who really appreciates him as a person and what he did to inspire me. But I’m sure it was a lot harder if you were his best friend or a family member.
: That version of “The Shape I’m In” you guys do in concert is surely a fitting testament to the impression his legacy has left on your music.
Rateliff: That’s been a tour standard of ours for the longest time. One of our friends was like, “You guys still do that?” Fuck yeah, we’re gonna still keep doing it. At least until I can come up with another cover that sounds just as good. And even then, I dunno. It’s funny. I’ve never been much of a cover band guy in all our years playing live—even in colleges and at parties. Sometimes we’d do “Cheap Sunglasses” by ZZ Top or “Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills and Nash. But that was when I was in my Duane Allman phase. I had the Duane facial hair and a ponytail and these Levi’s bellbottoms, a top hat and shit. I was definitely not getting laid back then [laughs].
: The style you and the band are rocking now seems to be a success, however. What’s the significance of the turquoise jewelry on the album cover?
Rateliff: I collect that stuff. My wedding band is a turquoise ring. I have another really nice turquoise and silver taos a friend of mine gave me, Gil Landry, who is another musician [formerly of The Old Crow Medicine Show]. It’s kind of like the area we’re at. We’re just north of New Mexico and you have the Taos Pueblo and Cochise and Navajo reservations not too far away, not to mention the Sand Creek massacre site. I’ve always been into Native American history. I’m reading The Heart of Everything That Is, which is about Chief Red Cloud. And there’s another one about the Comanche called Empire of the Summer Moon that’s really good.
: What inspired the pose on the jacket?
Rateliff: I wanted to go for a New Riders of the Purple Sage vibe. I remember jerking off to the Best Of cover when I was a kid [laughs].