Unless you’re a hardcore fan of singer-songwriter Americana, you wouldn’t have heard of Nathaniel Rateliff a year ago. After a handful of fantastic albums got ignored “thanks to record label fuck-ups”, the loveable hard-drinking Colorado bluesman was considering his future.
So were his touring band The Night Sweats, who were falling apart trying to back a singer who had failed to capitalise on a Later With Jools Holland appearance around his 2011 album In Memory Of Loss.
Well into their thirties, Rateliff and his bandmate – and teenage best friend – Joseph Pope III were working as gardeners. Rateliff was resigned to making music as a hobby, realising “I have no other life skills other than being able to back up trailers real well.”
“I was finding goodness in small achievements, not thinking ‘Who’s going to suck my dick tonight?'”
Then he made his new album. Now aged 38, after 20 years of trying to make it, Rateliff and his touring band – now fully credited on their self-titled first official band record Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats – got their breakthrough largely thanks to Jimmy Fallon.
Fallon’s US chatshow was the first people saw of the band’s manic dancing and new gospel flavours. Their song SOB has since soundtracked Britney Spears dancing on a stripper pole on her Instagram.
Rateliff and bassist Pope talk about being stalked by Britney in our exclusive video interview. And they also sat down to discuss their remarkable career.
Firmly established as festival favourites thanks to the wild album and ecstatic dancing revue shows, The Night Sweats should be relishing their hard-fought success.
But, even though Rateliff and Pope talk to Loaded at a suite at swanky London hotel The Westbury, success feels a long way off when you can’t afford a proper fridge…
Loaded: How does it feel to be an overnight sensation after 20 years making music?
Nathaniel Rateliff: Awesome. After so long into this, I was resigned to being a not-very-successful musician. I was considering my options, and they were looking pretty slim.
Joseph Pope III: All of a sudden, you’ve been making music for a looong time. And this is a young man or young woman’s game and I’m not a young man. Or woman. We’re passionate about music, and moved by it in a way nothing else makes us feel. But the idea of being wildly famous? That was something we last thought of when we were kids, the same way you think you might one day be an astronaut.
Loaded: What other jobs were you considering?
Nathaniel: I’d always continue to make music, but I realised – as I’d always known – that it was about finding the goodness in small achievements and appreciating them. Rather than thinking “Who’s going to suck my dick tonight?”
Joseph: I was considering college for the first time in my life. The other jobs I’d done, like painting houses, were to fund touring. And I’d begun thinking I wasn’t going to travel on tour anymore. But we got lucky in the end.
“Girls were screaming in the front row. I thought “What have I been doing all these years? I’m married and in my late thirties, and I could have been having threesomes for fucking years if I’d just shaken my hips.”
Loaded: Is the fact you were thinking of stopping what makes The Night Sweats album so intense? Were you thinking it was shit or bust?
Nathaniel: Not really. I wasn’t making the record thinking ‘I’d better fucking make it happen, because this is it!’ It wasn’t fake it or make it, it was just excitement at having songs that sounded different.
Joseph: We had no idea our trajectory was going to be so different.
Nathaniel: We’ve had people previously say to us “This record is going to be such a big deal!” After four albums of it not being a big deal, you lower your expectations and get more realistic.
Joseph: My wife is a bassist, and she’s been through this before too. Basically, we had a deal where I’d see this album through and if nothing moved forward, it was time for me to step back.
Loaded: The obvious statement that this record is different is that it’s released as Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats, not just Nathaniel Rateliff. What was the thinking behind that?
Nathaniel: It felt more like a side-project, a breath of fresh air that allowed me to walk on stage and act like a dickweed so I could dance around and have people cheer for me. It was exciting to do something different, but I don’t love the songs any more than those on my other records. Those records just didn’t connect with people like this one has.
Was the dancing always going to be such a feature of the live shows?
Joseph: Honestly? We just started vamping on SOB because we didn’t have enough material for a whole show.
Nathaniel: I was just dancing around while people in the band were playing solos. I’m no dancer, my thinking was simply “I don’t have anything else, so here goes.” But then girls in the front row were screaming as soon as I started shaking my hips. I thought “What have I been doing all these years? I’m married and in my late thirties, and I could have been having threesomes for fucking years if I’d just shaken my hips.”
Loaded: Are there nights when you don’t feel like dancing?
Nathaniel: There are, but it’s worse when the stage floor is shitty. People want you to do it, and there’s nowhere to slide around.
Joseph: It’s a topic among the band that we’re playing bigger shows than ever, but we’re trying not to assume people’s enjoyment should look a certain way.
“There are times when you feel like a dancing bear”
Nathaniel: Right. The Strokes was the best fucking show I’ve ever seen. But I wasn’t jumping up and down. I had my arms folded, studying them and thinking “Man, these guys know what the fuck they’re doing!”
Joesph: Playing to 1500 people can still feel intimate, like you’re drunk with everyone. The energy is palpable in a tiny room, and we’re still figuring out how to transfer that.
Nathaniel: Any venue above 1,000 people and it’s a mob mentality. All your moves have to become really animated, otherwise people think you’re just standing there. There’s genuine excitement for us, and that makes our job easier. But there are times when you feel like a dancing bear. “When are we going to get to the big thing? Do the song I heard! Come on, get to that part of the show!” But that feeling is also me being depressed, over-sensitive and self-loathing.
Loaded: Do you care if people don’t realise that SOB is about your struggles with drink?
Nathaniel: I’m over that part of it. There are other of our songs, like How To Make Friends, where I think ‘Man, this song is so clever.’
Joseph: Everyone is in on the story of SOB a little bit now, I think.
Nathaniel: I think there’s a wittiness and sarcasm to our songs. At times, it’s a big fuck-you to the listener. I hope people listen and think ‘Man, I can’t believe he’s getting away with being such an asshole.’ But I’m not witty enough sometimes, because people often say ‘Oh, his voice sounds real nice on that.’ Well, thanks…
Rateliff is bearded, tattooed and has a look of mischief in his eyes at all times. He’s hilarious company, a journalist’s dream of speaking in headlines pretty much constantly. As his albums make clear, there is a darkness to him. But on casual acquaintance it’s easy to overlook that and just wait for the next one-liner to come forth.
Pope is drier. Unlike Rateliff, he looks as if he might just about be able to hold down a regular job in a college. But he matches Rateliff for humour with a sardonic wit.
The two met when Rateliff shared an apartment in their native Missouri with Pope’s older brother Jeremy. The singer soon persuaded Pope junior to work with him at Subway, where they’d get stoned and stack sandwich boxes in the alley and drive into them, film car-chase style.
“My wife is doing bartending shifts. Rich? We’re not even fucking close”
Aged 18, the pair moved to Colorado and began their musical adventures. The Night Sweats headline the 10,000-capacity local Colorado outdoor arena Red Rocks in August, made famous by U2’s 1983 album Live At Red Rocks.
“When we first moved to Colorado, Joseph and I sat smoking a joint on the stage saying ‘We’re going to play here one day!’” recalls Rateliff, who is married to wife Jules with a teenage daughter. “I’m pretty sure I’ll cry when we headline there.” Pope, also married with children aged 13 and two, interjects: “Of course, we might be completely burnt out by August.”
Having worked so long to get to this stage, The Night Sweats are touring their arse off, aware that, as Rateliff admits: “People go from saying ‘That song is what my life is, man!’ to six months later moaning ‘Oh fuck, not those guys again.’ We can all be fickle.”
But for the meantime, they’re enjoying themselves. Mostly…
Loaded: Where does getting more success leave you emotionally for writing the next album? Will you have nothing to complain about?
Nathaniel: “Don’t worry, I’m fucking shit up left right and centre.”
Joseph: “We’re excited every night, but we’re away from home for weeks at a time. There’s 10 of us travelling together and we’re friends, but it’s 10 lonely people missing their partners. It’s a very unnatural way to live your life.”
Nathaniel: “It’s hard to have a relationship at home. My wife is doing bartednding shifts. Some of our friends in Denver think we’ve really made it – ‘They must be really rich!’ We’re not anywhere fucking close. We’re finally keeping our heads above water. This is a really rad vacation that just happens to be work, but there’s seven people in our band to pay.”
“Almost everyone now feels more at home in a hotel room than their own house”
Loaded: You’re not quite buying solid gold houses yet, then?
Nathaniel: “Interviewers always ask ‘How are you enjoying success?’ I’ll let you know when I’m riding on a jet-ski on a lake I own property on, and I have a refrigerator that makes crushed ice. When I get that shit, I’ll give you a call. At this point, my wife is worried about how we can pay our daughter’s rent for college. Talking to someone in the real world, ‘success’ couldn’t be more different.
Loaded: What’s the reality of touring like among the band?
Nathaniel: “When Joseph and I were gardeners last year, with our other best friend Bob, it was like being back in high school. We’d hang out and come up with stupid songs, real seventh-grade stupid boy shit. You’d go home and babble ‘Joseph did this song and it was so funny!’ My wife would go ‘You guys are fucking idiots!’ And that’s what being on tour is like. It’s fart jokes and talking about how many times you’ve taken a shit that day – because that stuff is important when you live on a bus. You talk to your partner and they go ‘Are you guys children?’ There’s nothing you can tell them that doesn’t make you sound like a fucking idiot.”
Loaded: Are there members of The Night Sweats who worry that this relative success isn’t what they hoped?
Nathaniel: “Everyone is excited. But it’s hard to connect with people at home. Almost everyone now feels more comfortable in a hotel room than their own house, because your house has become a foreign place that isn’t yours. When our drummer Patrick got upset at something, his now ex-wife said: ‘You have no business telling me what to do, because you’re never fucking here. This is my life, not yours.’
Joseph: “So it’s challenging. The idea that we’ve made it? It doesn’t feel like that. Just because it’s going really well, that doesn’t mean it won’t be over next year.”
That’s too bleak a point to end on. Instead, picture Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats tearing up festivals this summer. As Rateliff concludes: “We’ve been on tour for 20 years and we finally have a full schedule. This could be it. And if that’s the case, then I’m happy.”
Nathaniel Rateliff And The Night Sweats’ new single I Need Never Get Old is out now. They play Latitude, T In The Park and Citadel festivals and tour from Monday. Dates are:
Brighton Concorde (March 7)
Bristol O2 Academy (9)
Manchester Ritz (10)
Glasgow O2 ABC (11)
Dublin Olympia (13)
Southampton O2 Guildhall (November 9)
Leeds O2 Academy (10)
Glasgow Barrowlands (11)
Birmingham O2 Academy (14)
Brixton O2 Academy (15)
Leicester De Montfort Hall (17)
Manchester O2 Apollo (18)
Bristol Colston Hall (19)
Norwich UEA (20)
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn