The larger-than-life blues-folk crooner Nathaniel Rateliff is notoriously hard to pin down, but if you do manage to wrangle him for a chat or even catch a live performance of him with his backing band, The Night Sweats, there’s no doubt you’re in for a treat.
We caught up with the Missouri-born mover and shaker to get the low down about life on the ranch with Willie Nelson, his upcoming appearance at Bluesfest and honouring a commitment he made with his friend, the late, great Richard Swift.
“We were really close, we didn’t have to communicate that much about what we wanna have happen when we were in the studio. It just sort of happened naturally,” Rateliff says. “We had a really good time working together.”
Swift, known for his work with The Shins, Foxygen and as the touring bassist for The Black Keys (amongst other projects) passed away in 2018, leaving the world to grieve the loss of a major talent. “Richard produced The Night Sweats’ self-titled album in 2015, and I’d been wanting to do some material that doesn’t really fit with The Night Sweats so we had talked about doing some stuff together before he passed away.
“And I really wanted to perform some of our stuff so for some crazy reason I decided to volunteer to go to SXSW,” he laughs. “It’s my way of following up and keeping my end of the bargain I made with Richard.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, Rateliff also found time to appear at the Luck Reunion at his mate Willie’s place. “We do a lot of work with Willie for Farm Aid. It’s like seeing family when we are all together, and it’s so exciting to get out there and play around on the set of the Red Headed Stranger,” he smiles.
The Denver-based musician who has worked as a carpenter, a gardener and at trucking depot, says his love affair with music began at the age of seven, playing drums in the family band. “I’ve always lived for music, always had it in me.” However, he admits he didn’t take playing music seriously until he was 13, when his father was tragically killed in a head-on collision on the way to church.
Despite now living his dream, Rateliff is the first to say life on the road hasn’t been easy. Following the release of their debut album, the eight-piece played over 350 shows, and soon loneliness and isolation mixed with freedom on tour (which included a whirlwind tour down the east coast of Australia last year, not to mention a night fuelled by Adderall and mushrooms in Paris) lead to the breakdown of his marriage.
In need of a change of scenery Rateliff packed up and caught a ride to the desert to sweat it out. “There is a big difference from our first album compared to [last year’s one, Tearing at the Seams]. Last time I came up with all of the ideas myself and then took them to the band. But this time very early on in the writing process we all went down to New Mexico with Jamie Mefford, our front of house engineer, who helped produce the record,” Rateliff says.
“We needed to make an experience for ourselves and I wanted to have the input of everyone because over the last couple of years touring we’d changed so much and become a band, and made a lot of sacrifices,” he adds. “I thought the way they approached their instruments would contribute to the way I write, and also help me to come up with different ideas.”
“It’s a real blessing,” reveals the former missionary when asked about the response to their latest album. “We were surprised by the reaction to our first record [2015’s self-titled album that is certified gold] as well, but it just keeps getting better.”
Such success could’ve spurred from unrivalled songwriting or it could’ve been the dynamics of the band, the latter of which Rateliff says is one of the outfit’s greatest assets. “We laugh a lot. I think that’s what I love about the guys in the band. We get along so well, we have a good time. Besides making music that’s really all we’re trying to do, and we just hope people enjoy it.”
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats will be in town next month to play two nights (the first show is completely sold out) at The Croxton before heading to Tallarook for Boogie Festival. They will cap off the Australia leg with a return to Bluesfest.
“One of the first times we got over to Australia we played the Byron Bay Bluesfest and it’s just so beautiful there. I was blown away, and everyone was really kind. So I’m excited to go back and be a part of that again and I’ll try to come up with some new dance moves by the time I get there.”
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats will perform two sets at Bluesfest on Sunday April 21 and Monday April 22. They’ll also drop into The Croxton on Wednesday April 17 and Thursday April 18 (sold out). Head to respective festival and venue websites for tickets.