- 28 Aug 18
An old school gentleman of the road, Rateliff discusses his winning combination of "The Band and Sam & Dave Playing Together" and even throws out a few words as Gaeilge. "Maith An Fear!" says Pat Carty
Nathaniel Rateliff gives it his best “Conas atá tú?” when he comes on the phone from England – “hanging with the Tans!” as he puts it himself. He’s apparently been given the low down on our beautiful mother tongue from his sound man, who hails from Tipperary. It’s appreciated, but he’s a busy man, trying to eat dinner as we talk, so it’s best not to waste any time.
The redoubtable Mr Rateliff is currently on the road promoting Tearing At The Seams, his second studio album with his big band collective, The Night Sweats which fans of The Last Waltz or early Springsteen will find easy to love. Before that though, there were solo records like In Memory of Loss and Falling Faster Than You Can Run - what prompted the change in tack from the earlier, folkier style? “It was kind of out of discouragement”, he remembers, “I’d been a singer-songwriter playing that Americana style for ten years and I was just about ready to stop and go back to being a gardener. Soul and R&B was something I always wanted to do, I’d just finished Falling Faster and it looked like it wasn’t even going to come out, so I didn’t want to do anything with an acoustic guitar. Instead, I tried to come up with stuff that sounded like The Band and Sam & Dave playing together.”
You couldn’t ask for a better description of the man’s music, although it’s a feeling that has kind of been there all along. There are songs on Falling Faster like ‘Laborman’ that, if you put a horn section on them, wouldn’t be a million miles away from where he ended up anyway. “Actually, last summer we did a festival where we played all that old material, with the full band and the horns and we had a blast, I thought everyone would be hollering at me to play ‘SOB’ but it turned out people actually wanted to hear those songs. It was really encouraging to hear that admiration for the other stuff.”
If you’re aiming to sound like Sam & Dave then you might as well do it on the Stax label, how did that come about? “I was hesitant to work with a label at all after previous experience” says Rateliff, “but Concord approached me and these people were excited about what I was doing and that’s what’s important, so once we delivered the record, I found out they worked with Stax, so I said wait a minute!”
It must be a thrill to see that logo on your releases? “Yeah, that Southern soul sound is really what I was aiming for, and I love the Stax story, how they helped the poor community around them in Memphis, that kinda stuff is really needed right now.”
You mentioned the big hit SOB earlier, almost ruefully, has it become a chain around your neck? “There are definitely times when I feel people have showed up to hear just this one song, but it’s really part of the show, people get excited about it and I have a good time with it.” It’s the song that got you there in the first place. “Yeah, I had no idea people were gonna respond to it, but I feel very grateful that they did, and it was our opportunity. The appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show changed a lot of things for us, we owe him a lot. The record did very well because of it, although we did our best to not turn it into a mega hit, we refused to do any edits or a big radio campaign”
So, despite your best efforts, it was hit anyway? “Yeah, it was a management decision really to say ‘if they play it they play it’, which I think was the right one, but really, after all that time, to have a record go gold because of this one song, is great.”
The world tour on the back of this success landed in Dublin’s Academy and included a somewhat shaky go at “Whiskey In The Jar”. I put it to Nathaniel, as gently as I can, that it sounded a bit ramshackle, but he refutes the notion that he learnt it back stage.
“Actually I’ve known it a long time from a Jerry Garcia version”, he retorts. I humbly apologise, although I’m not buying that for a second.
After the tour ended, the band, hot from the road, went to Mexico to work “We got a little house, just to be together without distractions”, Rateliff remembers. Collaboration was the order of the day, as opposed to the first record where he did everything himself. “We had really become a band by that point. I wanted to make sure everyone felt they had their own horse in this race, and they also influence my own writing.”
The sound of the best tracks on the record, like ‘Shoe Boot’ and ‘Intro’, is very much that of a live band. “Yes, that’s us playing in a room, although it’s funny, with the songs you mentioned, cause record companies aren’t used to taking deliveries of instrumentals!” The album, those songs included, veers all over the various strands of American music. “When I think of Americana, I think of soul and honky tonk, so my aim was to be a band like The Band who could go from covering ‘Don’t Do It’ to covering ‘Long Black Veil’ and all points in between.”
The band recently earned a standing ovation at The Grand Old Opry. “The best thing was being able to call my Mom and say ‘I’m on the Opry!’” Rateliff says with a laugh, “Unfortunately, Country has turned into a lot of hogwash pop music that sounds like shit to me, but there are people like Sturgill Simpson and Margo price, there’s still real country out there.”
This leads nicely on to my next question, Rateliff has been asked to take part in Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Tour, playing with Nelson himself, as well as Neil Young and the afore mentioned Simpson, the music fan in you must have been jumping up and down?. “Yeah! I love doing the stuff with Wille and we’ve really tried to become a bigger part of Farm Aid.” Farm Aid being a benefit concert series organised by Nelson and others to help America’s struggling farm families. “Those things are really important, I don’t know if I can carry the torch like they have, but I’ll do my damnedest to continue with their vision. The Outlaw tour is not strictly part of that, but the stand Willie took with the original Outlaw movement resonates with us.”
The band are on the road for most of this year, but Rateliff has other plans too. “I’m still trying to find time to make another singer-songwriter record before doing another Night Sweats record. I’m always on that train thinking what the hell are we gonna do next!”
And with that, I let the man get back to his dinner, but not before he gives me a “go raibh maith agat”, in between mouthfuls. Fair play to him.