Nathaniel Rateliff is due to return to the UK and Ireland for a tour starting on 20th January, with a full band in tow. At the end of last year he played a couple of intimate, solo acoustic shows in London to capacity crowds. They were the first shows he’d played in the UK for a while and I had the chance to catch up with him in a Putney boozer in the afterglow of what had proved to be a welcome chance to reconnect with a UK, or at least a London audience.
He’s amiable and relaxed and our conversation takes the scenic route around a lot of different subjects, not all of it strictly relevant to the usual interview format. But then he gives the impression of someone that’s easy to talk to, strike up a conversation and you’re away. He’s occasionally thoughtful, but there’s no artifice as such and he’s open, honest and equally willing to talk about the pleasures of inheriting his parent’s vinyl collection, to the more personal details of a colourful childhood and even the life changing tragedy within that. If anything he’s keen to downplay it with a glass half full philosophy, but more of that later.
Initially, I simply ask how the trip has been and his immediate response is, “Good,” but he confesses, “This time I’ve been a little jet lagged, which I haven’t had in the past, so that’s a little strange. I always thought it was just people being lazy,” he chuckles, “But it’s not at all.” None the less he acknowledges the gig at The Shacklewell Arms went well, “It’s been a while since I’ve been here, so it was good to find that people are still interested.” There’s an unforced modesty in his answer, but the truth is that he kept the audience in absolute rapt attention, with scarcely a murmur other than the enthusiastic response to the conclusion of each song and a few shouts for favourites, egged on by the man himself.
Turning our attention Stateside he reveals, “I’ve been very lucky growing up on the scene in Denver with my previous band Born In The Flood, but it was great before I started there, always evolving. There’s all kinds of different music being made, but it all gets thrown in together. So you see a lot of people who are making all kinds of different genres of music at the same shows.”
Nathaniel talks about the band he’s currently working with and explains that regular bassist, Julie Davis won’t make the coming tour, “She’s pregnant and due in February, so they won’t even let her on the plane. I have a friend called Jenna, who plays cello who’ll stand in.” He admits there’s quite a team involved now telling me, “For the last few shows we’ve had horns as well.” I ask if this has anything to do with his soul band, The Nightsweats, but Nathaniel explains, “Andy Wild and Joe Tobano played on the record, but it goes back to before the Nightsweats. I’ve been working with clarinet players, sax and baritone sax and so on. It’s introduced me to these jazz circles, which I haven’t been tapped into before and that’s kinda interesting. You know, people make jokes about drummers, but I tell you, horn players are their own kind of people too,” he laughs, “I guess we all are.”
I challenge him as I understand Nathaniel started as a drummer and he confirms, “Yes I did, I got my first drum kit when I was seven years old,” he continues, “I play some drums on the new record, although it’s mostly Patrick Meese. He’s a much better drummer than me, but we worked together on what the beats should be and I play on some of it as well.” But I also wonder whether the soul style of The Nightsweats has affected his vocal style as I suggest his voice sounds stronger on this record compared with the last one. With a grin he replies, “Well that’s good to know. As I get older I wonder what’s going to happen to my voice and I wonder whether Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits are going to be my only options.” Again he cracks up a little as he adds, “Mind you I haven’t been smoking any cigarettes, so maybe it won’t get too gravelly, I’d rather keep it on the smooth side.”
Nathaniel puts what I describe as, “A little extra oomph,” down to feeling of being more comfortable in the studio. He describes Hideaway where the recording was done as, “Somewhere I just fell in love with. If I had money I’d buy the property, it’s my ideal kind of place – a house with a studio on the side and a barn with a stage, so you can go play in there if you want to.”
The differences in approach didn’t end there as Nathaniel explains, “This time I wasn’t working with a producer, but just a friend who’s an engineer and who had previously produced a couple of things and one of the band also engineering.” We talk about Brian Deck, who produced the last record and has worked with Iron & Wine amongst others and Nathaniel acknowledges, “I have a great rapport with Brian, when I told him about The Nightsweats and my idea to put a soul band together and write some music in that style, he told me that if I didn’t let him record it he’d hate me forever.” Nathaniel chuckles again, but continues, “He said, ‘What you mean a whole band in one room playing live and recording to tape,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, like the way they used to do it,’ but we’ll see.”
This leads into a whole discussion about analogue and the pleasures of vinyl. These are mostly my peccadilloes I know, but there’s still a glint in Nathaniel’s eye as he talks about inheriting his parent’s records and the feel of a record in the hands, the cover art, the way it demands your attention and so forth. But it seems we also share a perverse delight in the random things that an iPod in shuffle mode dredges up. Horses for courses perhaps.
Returning to the thread, I ask Nathaniel about growing up and he’s surprisingly frank. He grew up in rural Missouri and explains, “I never like to make a big deal out of it because a lot of people have a had it a lot harder than I did, but we were a pretty poor family. We hunted a lot, ate squirrel if needs be and venison. I know that’s a big treat over here, but we used to shoot about four deer a year and so I ate it all of the time. We also kept a pretty big garden, canned, pickled and made preserves.”
If that all has a sound of a back to nature idyll, he also tells me, “We didn’t have a phone most of the time and our TV could only pick up one channel,” which again you might think not a problem. But there were also times when living in a town of about 25,000 people that they couldn’t afford to buy fuel for the heating, so the entire family had to sleep on the kitchen floor around the stove. Still it wasn’t all like that and returning to the remoter, country life he tells me, “The heating there was all wood fired and it was my job to split the logs. It’s amazing how many logs you need to see you through a winter. My wife and I joke about this stuff, we know that whatever else happens, we could always go back to basics and still live a good life.”
Despite the inconveniences and deprivations, you get the impression that Nathaniel had a happy childhood, even if he had to get a job at a very early age for the pocket money. But when only just into his teens tragedy struck and his father was killed. He tells me, “He died in a car accident on the way to church. Yeah, the irony of it. But we were in the church band and my mom, my sister and me were getting ready to play and were waiting for my dad to come, but he was late. Anyway they had to stop the service because they got a call from the hospital with the news. When we got there we were told that he’s passed away.” If there’s a moment of reflection, it’s fleeting and Nathaniel quickly returns to a more upbeat tone, fondly remembering working on stuff like roofing the house with his dad, even if he never quite hit the required mark of craftsmanship. We agree that dads aren’t always the best teachers and I confess my own failings in that regard.
It was a life changing event none the less, but again we are quickly onto a more positive line as his father’s passing spurred him on. “I pretty much quit school and had to get a job,” he explains, but it was also then that his interest in music started to really take flight. He recalls, “I had an electric guitar, but I didn’t really know how to play it. After my dad passed away, for some reason I suddenly started to get really interested in my mom’s acoustic. She showed me a couple of chords and then my friend Matt showed me a couple more and I just started strumming my ass off. I’d go into my room and play and sing and I started writing songs straight away. Admittedly they weren’t very good and some of them were like, joking songs about having a pizza party and stuff like that, but it all came out pretty naturally and happened pretty quick.”
Again he laughs as he tells me, “Now writing songs, or writing good songs at least, seems to take forever.” He continues again with a chuckle, “Actually I still don’t know whether I’m writing good songs, but I just try and write songs that I like. Mind you I liked those old songs too at the time, so who knows? I didn’t really set out to be a songwriter, I actually wanted to be an amazing guitarist. It’s funny how these things work out.”
It wasn’t long before Nathaniel had a band together, formed with friend Joseph Pope, with the two sharing vocal duties and song writing. As Nathaniel describes it they had a pretty full song book when they headed out for Denver. “We were into shoe-gaze and Radiohead and making a lot of noise and stuff. But that eventually just sort of fizzled out and for some reason I really got into playing blues and then psychedelic music. It was weird because it was my parents records that got me into making music, then I found my own more modern music but then I drifted back into playing my parents music and taking even older influences. We tried that for some time and Born In The Flood became this sort of cross between The Allman Brothers and The Band. Eventually it shifted towards a more ethereal melodic sound, really emotive.”
I ask Nathaniel about the narrative sense of his songwriting, both the Allmans and The Band are very strong in that regard, whereas Nathaniel offer glimpses, fragments feelings. He smiles as he says, “Well you don’t want to be too obvious. I think people would hate me if I was, I don’t mean the listener,” again there’s a little chuckle as he says, “I mean the people around me.” He continues, “It’s funny when I sit down to write stuff, I don’t always know what it’s about. Sometimes it can be kind of shattering to work it out, as it comes more from the subconscious and could be stuff that I’m not even ready to deal with.” He pauses momentarily then tells me, “In some ways I wish I could write more songs like You Should Have Seen The Other Guy, it’s a story but it’s pretty much me in that song.”
He draws an analogy with Townes Van Zandt, “ It’s like when you compare Poncho And Lefty against No Place To Fall. I love Poncho And Lefty, it’s a great story and a great song, but I find No Place To Fall heart wrenching. Then there’s Waiting Around To Die, another great story, or there’s Flyin’Shoes. It’s those kind of songs that hint at something, they aren’t very direct, as a listener, as a lover of song, I feel like they draw you in more. You’re not just getting the basic storyline.” He acknowledges, however, that, “It’s hard to tell what an audience wants. Our society isn’t about taking your time any more. I suppose that’s why albums aren’t as important as they were.”
We return to Falling Faster Than You Can Run and Nathaniel admits there are two main themes that fed into the album as he tells me, “I wrote most of it while I was on tour and so it’s about isolation, that sense of feeling alone despite being surrounded by people. The other part of it is about struggling with the music industry and giving people what they consider to be a hit, a radio song I can’t write up beat stuff on demand and songs like Nothing To Show For are about that. Its original title was Just Another Radio Song and Don’t Get Too Too Close is also about that and about being told what to do.”
We move on to the relative age of audiences, about respect for performers and just about the pros and cons of getting older. Despite agreeing that we are both probably set in our ways, the conversation comes out positively. If anything, it’s Nathaniel’s tendency to disarm everything with a smile or a laugh that stands out from our meeting.
As we wind down, the conversation drifts onwards into the merits of playing the game, having a career and other mavericks who kick against it all, like Neil Young. While he identifies with the artistic purity he tells me, “I certainly haven’t set out to go that way.” But Nathaniel also lights up as he tells me, “I got pretty hung up about Nilsson’s A Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night, which was all just jazz standards. I’d love to put out a record like that. Then a bunch of friends pointed out, ‘Well it worked so well for him and he was already an established artist.’ They’re right it didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want to do that.” Who says Americans don’t get irony?
Then he turns it on it’s head and acknowledges, “But lets face it, I wouldn’t be here now if there wasn’t a market for what I do. I just want to write songs that I like. I want to play stuff that moves me and play with other people who feel that for an audience that gets that too.” It’s a simple enough goal, but equally I wouldn’t be here either if that wasn’t the aim. The results speak for themselves, just ask any of the people who crammed into The Shacklewell Arms or The Islington, they sure as hell got it.
Review by: Simon Holland
Nathaniel Rateliff – Still Trying (Mahogany Session)
Don’t Get Too Close
UK Release: 20 Jan 2014 via Mod y Vi Records
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UK Tour Dates
01/20 Belfast, McHughs Basement
01/21 Dublin, Ireland Academy 2
01/23 Leeds, Belgrave Music Hall
01/24 Liverpool, Leaf
01/25 Glasgow, Broadcast
01/26 Manchester, Soup Kitchen
01/28 London, Dingwalls
01/29 Brighton, Green Door Store
01/30 Cambridge, Portland Arms
01/31 Nottingham, Bodega
02/01 Bristol, Louisiana