Nathaniel Rateliff on His Small-Town Roots and the Dark Backstory Behind 'S.O.B.'

The singer-songwriter also opens up about his father's death, life after a hit song and the personal pain that fueled his new LP

In an in-depth interview with David Fricke, Nathaniel Rateliff opens up about his small-town roots, the dark backstory of hit song 'S.O.B.' and more. Credit: James Minchin III for Rolling Stone

For his first feature story in Rolling Stone, Nathaniel Rateliff did not just sit down for an interview. The singer, songwriter and leader of Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats sat for a few of them – over drinks, at dinner, between band rehearsals and even while waiting at traffic lights as he drove around his adopted hometown of Denver, Colorado, noting points of interest in the city and his musical life there, across two days in February. There was one conversation on the first night over a plate of honey-stung chicken at the Hornet, a restaurant on Broadway in Denver's Baker district, Rateliff's neighborhood for many years. Then Rateliff – who emigrated from the small town of Hermann, Missouri, with his best friend, Night Sweats bassist Joseph Pope III, two decades ago – stopped in at the Hi-Dive, a bar just up the street where he and Pope played with their first band in town and launched the Night Sweats in 2013.

Later, there was a visit to Pope's home nearby, where the bassist had rounded up some friends to staple soundproofing on the walls of a shed next to the house. The next day, Rateliff and the Night Sweats – Pope, drummer Patrick Meese, guitarist Luke Mossman, keyboard player Mark Shusterman, trumpeter Scott Frock and saxophonist Andreas Wild – were rehearsing in that shed, minus one member (saxophonist Jeff Dazey missed a flight from Texas), for some promotional gigs the following week in advance of the band's second studio album, Tearing at the Seams. Even after singing for an hour, when it was time for a break, Rateliff adjourned to Pope's front porch to answer more questions.

"The last three years have changed me so much," Rateliff, 39, said, nursing a can of beer and reflecting on his mid-life ride to success – a gold debut album, worldwide tours, an improbable hit single in the jubilant "S.O.B." – after he and the Night Sweats introduced that song, actually about alcoholic desperation, to late-night America on The Tonight Show in August 2015. "I feel like I have a different responsibility than I had three years ago – to my craft, the people around me and now an audience.

"My job is to be totally honest," he went on, "to be open and available to the people we perform for. At some point, all of this moves beyond ourselves" – he gestured toward the back of the house, where the rest of the Night Sweats were hanging out. "Now we're part of this shared experience at a show, listening to music together. It's a thing that I hope reaches people that way."

For the story in the current issue of Rolling Stone, Rateliff spoke frankly of his early life in Hermann, including his strict Christian upbringing and the death of his father when Rateliff was 13; the struggling years in Denver as Rateliff tried to make it as a solo artist; the classic-R&B birth of the Night Sweats; the breakdown of his marriage and its impact on his songs for the new album; and that Tonight Show debut. What follows are additional, colorful excerpts from the first of the interviews: a long happy-hour session at the Buckhorn Exchange, a Denver bar and restaurant that boasts the state's oldest liquor license – it opened in 1893 – where, as Rateliff talked, an elderly gentleman in a cowboy hat sang traditional ranch-hand songs for drinkers in an adjacent lounge.


Where is Hermann, Missouri?

[Rolls up a sleeve of his denim jacket and points at a tattoo of the Missouri state lines on his left arm] It's on the Missouri River. There are only 2,500 people there. It's been nice, since I separated from my wife, to go back. She hated Missouri. There's things I hate about it too. But the landscape will forever be a part of me. I've always been a little bummed – melancholy, maybe [laughs]. I just kind of wandered the woods, checked things out. I'd spend a lot of time doing that. But I've always had the same thing with writing songs, the imagination to drift and space out. There's some peace in that.

But to get anywhere in music, or anything else, you have to risk breaking that peace.
I was just back there. The dad of one of my best friends – he has a couple hundred acres. My buddy was like, "You want to go for a walk?" We just walked into the woods. There were some caves, a bobcat's den. It all seemed so familiar to me. It's just so fucking hot in the summertime, though. I don't think I'd want to move east ever again.

Had you travelled outside Missouri before you moved to Colorado?
We were too broke. Whenever we had a vacation, we went camping, because it was free. My dad would hunt while we were doing it. Once I thought he was walking back with a turkey. He was trying to fool everybody. It was actually a [tree] stump. It wasn't turkey season. But he would have shot one, poached it for sure. He hunted a lot of squirrel.

How did your relationship with your mother change after your father died?
We were already really close. My dad loved my older sister. I was the one who got the short end of the stick. So my sister was devastated when my father passed away. It was a freak accident on his way to church. My mom was the worship leader, the bandleader. My dad, sister and I all played in the band. He was on his way to church. We were starting the service, and he didn't show up. The hospital called the church. By the time we got there, he had passed.

Was he a difficult man?
Strict in the sense of "Yes, sir," "No, ma'am," "Please" and "You're welcome." At the same time, we'd be driving down a gravel road. He'd stop and say, "We're going swimming." We'd strip down to our underwear and jump in the creek.

He definitely had some problems, but he was a sweet, caring guy. When I was back in Missouri, I talked to a woman who started a foundation to help abused women because my dad had helped her. She said, "Nobody else gave a shit about me. He'd call me everyday and talk to me."

Much of the music you sing and play with the Night Sweats is rooted in the church – that's where soul comes from.
But it's funny – my mom grew up in the Seventies. She loves James Taylor. That's what I heard. I met James Taylor at a benefit and thought, "My mom's gonna shit a brick.'" [Laughs] It was not like we were doing cool Southern Baptist spirituals in church.

You ended up finding some of your dad's records after he passed. What was he like before he joined the church?
He was a roughneck hippie – kind of hillbilly, grew up poor, loved to party. He loved Joe Cocker. Early on in his Christianity, he gave his record collection away – and then changed his mind and tried to get a bunch of it back. Before he died, he started listening to the radio again. I remember the first time I heard "Rainy Day Women" by Bob Dylan. I was 12 – [sings in gravelly R&B voice] "Well, they stone you when you're trying to be so good." I thought it was the coolest thing ever. He was like, "Don't sing that."

I remember someone played me "Imagine" [by John Lennon]. I had that stuck in my head for weeks. I'd sing it all the time. My dad would go, "Don't sing that, it's a humanist song." I'm like, "We're humans. And if God created music, why aren't our songs as good as this one?"

I started to hear other things digging through my dad's records like Van Morrison and the Moody Blues, A Question of Balance. Going back to those records was like finding pieces of my dad [after his death] that I didn't know anything about. I discovered [1960's] Muddy Waters Sings Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters' Folk Singer [1964], which is one of my favorite albums.

Why did it take so long for you to make music inspired by those records? Your early albums, before the Night Sweats, sound more influenced by Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake. The songs are just as emotional, but the singing is more interior.
I was trying to figure everything out. I love Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan still. And I loved R&B and soul. I just couldn't figure out how I could do it. James Brown can sing, "Gee whiz, I love you," and it worked every time. That's not the way I wanted to write. A lot of the early records was me figuring out how I wanted to write something.

Out of all the early stuff, my favorite is the record I made at home [his 2007 independent debut as Nathaniel Rateliff and the Wheel, Desire and Dissolving Men]. I was discovering everything. Each of those songs was written and recorded at the same time. I describe it as like the first time you sleep with someone – this excitement but it's mysterious and crazy. You can't believe it's happening. I was like, "I don't know where this is coming from. I have to allow myself to be a vessel."

Really, I wanted to be Leonard Cohen. I'm just not that cool, too much of a goofball.


How much do you draw from your personal life in your songwriting? And what are some examples on the new album, Tearing at the Seams?

It was hard because I knew what I was writing about – what I was going through in my relationship. I was like, "How am I going to disguise this so it's not full-on goodbye?" "Baby I Know" has a lot of that. As I was writing it, I just had to be honest with myself: "This is the song. It happens to be about what's happening in my life." "Still Out There Running" has a lot of truth.

What about the title song?
I was trying to change the narrative of that a bit, so it can connect, even have a political aspect to it. "A liar on the stage with a young child's eyes" could be a Donald Trump figure. Or it could be myself.

Actually, I thought it was you, wrestling with doubts and hard truths in a relationship that is not working.
That was a unique experience, recording that song. I had written it and Pat kept at me: "What about that song?" It was our last time at [producer] Richard Swift's studio. "OK, I need to tidy up the end." I went back through it and rewrote what I had, came up with a solid structure. The band played it seven times in the studio. And the seventh time it was so ... [shakes his head in amazement] the snare hit going into that second verse.

I went to the mic. It was actually one of the drum mics. I turned it toward me. I had my notebook, and I just sang. I put myself into the song and did it in one take: [sings] "He's tearing at the seams of all that's been." Joey was crying. He said, "I didn't know what to do with myself. It felt so ..." [pauses and sighs] That's what music is supposed to do. Maybe no one else will feel that way about the record. But as long as we made ourselves feel that way, that's the only thing that's important.

"S.O.B." is a great party song about the depth of excess. How bad was it?
I was in London [on a tour]. I was drinking a lot. I had it pretty bad. It was over a liter of booze a day – by myself. I remember waking up one morning, and I had an email from my wife. She just said, "Don't come home." I couldn't figure out why. I couldn't remember this thing that had happened. When I got that email, I knew I fucked up, because I'd been drinking like crazy. And I just quit.

I had really bad delirium tremens. We were still trying to do interviews. My manager at the time put me on a train. I didn't have a phone or anything – he put a note in my pocket. "If you find my friend and he's having problems, call my number." I was so hungover that I had to have a drink. I thought this happened to old men. I thought this was what grandpas do. It was horrible.

I wrote the song years later. Some of it, I was talking about my relationship. But I was also talking about excess, trying to get a grip on things.

Coming from a religious background, did you have reservations about singing the word "bitch" in the chorus?
I heard some radio stations didn't want to play it because of "bitch." And I'm like, "Are you kidding?" What about the whole hip-hop culture? There is nothing derogatory in the song. I've never called my mom a bitch. It was really off the cuff.

It's the kind of thing anyone might say, pounding their fist on the bar, when they're thirsty.
A lot of people remind me of that [laughs].

Have you felt any pressure – from your record label, from yourself – to follow up the success of "S.O.B."?
It's not that I don't listen to anybody. I take advice, but I continue to do what I think is best. There always has to be some compromise. But we intentionally didn't do a push for "S.O.B." at Top 40 radio. [Rateliff's manager] Chris Tetzeli thought it would make us that band with just one song.

But I love people like Harry Nilsson. Look at what he did after that hit record, [1971's] Nilsson Schmilsson. What is the next single? "You're Breakin' My Heart" [from 1972's Son of Schmilson – Rateliff sings the opening lines: "You're breakin' my heart/You're tearin' it apart/So fuck you"]. He was going through a divorce. And then you have [1973's] A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. It's my favorite Harry Nilsson record: "Now I want to do standards with an orchestra." I think that was the smartest move for him to make, to do what you feel. In the long run, what's the better thing?

We actually have jokes within the band – having a song just the same as "S.O.B." but changing the words around, changing the key. Just make one and send it to the label. We were working on demos [for the new album] at a place in the desert. We were wearing white a lot, having some mushrooms [grins]. We're out there, nothing but stars. Everybody goes back to the house, Mark does this [makes bouncy riff sound like "S.O.B."] and we play this thing. We called it "White Suit." We sent that to the label first: "Hey, man, the sessions are going great." [Laughs]

The funny thing is we sent all the demos to our producer, Richard. His first response was, "I know you guys are just dicking around. But I think there's something pretty good about this 'White Suit.'"