R&B doesn’t have to mean the beige blandness of Sam Smith, he of the insipid James Bond theme tune. It can be applied equally to the gritty rock’n’soul of Nathaniel Rateliff.
On his new album, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, the 37-year-old from Missouri hollers and testifies like a possessed cleric, preaching the gospel of excess, most notably on standout S.O.B., on which he roars: ‘Son of a bitch, give me a drink!’
Today he’s living up to his image. In a bar close to the East London venue where he and his six-piece revue-style band, the eponymous Night Sweats, will later play a storming set, he orders a whisky on ice. Doesn’t alcohol slow him down? “It’s a balance,” he says drily. “I drink a little bit, then I eat a bunch of speed.”
Newcomers to Rateliff might reasonably assume he’s a died-in-the-wool, hard-living soul man. The kind of rasping powerhouse who half a century ago would have been a mainstay of the legendary Stax Records label alongside Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave et al. And while Rateliff ’s new album was indeed released on a reactivated Stax, he hasn’t always been a swaggering blueswailer.
In fact, for most of the past 10 years he’s been a glum-faced troubadour, his four previous albums filled with lugubrious acoustic tales of woe that make acoustic guitar-toting contemporaries such as Bon Iver sound like Big Bill Broonzy. It’s one hell of a makeover, up there with Marc Bolan’s metamorphosis from elfin folkie to glam sex thimble, or Status Quo’s shift from psych to boogie.
“Dylan had tons of transformations, so did the Stones,” he points out.“It’s less of a transformation, more a detour. I know it comes across as completely different, but the topics are the same, as are the struggles. I’m still having the same problems, I haven’t learned very much.”
You can’t imagine Rateliff fretting about the consequences of his opinions. His stetson and beard are just fine; it’s the tattoos, knuckle rings and stocky build that make him look like the kind of person you’d cross the road to avoid. And he quite likes the idea.
“That’s exactly the look I’ve been going for,” he deadpans. And then, more seriously: “I’ve been boxing a lot on the road, to stay in shape.”
Is he any good? “I can hit real hard,” he replies. “Nobody ever fucks with me. They might run their mouth and be like: ‘You look like a tough motherfucker.’ But I’m like: ’That’s fuckin’ right!’ Just tell them you are and they back off.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Rateliff was born into a strict religious family. His parents performed in church, and rock’n’roll was frowned on in the Rateliff household. “It’s funny, though, because the Christian metal that I’d listen to in my rebellious, skater phase, my dad would think was evil,” he says with a laugh.
Rateliff Sr died in a car crash on his way to church, but luckily for his son, he’d loosened up enough to allow Dylan, Beatles and Van Morrison records into the house. But it was Led Zeppelin IV that really turned the young Nathaniel’s head.
Aged seven he began playing drums, and by 12 he was practising for hours every day. Soon he was equally proficient on guitar. When he was 18 he gave up the church completely for life as a professional musician. “My mum and my uncles were like: ‘We’re praying for you,’” he says with a faint smile. “I was like: ‘I appreciate that.’”
His music fitted in perfectly with the wave of acoustic Americana that crested in the late noughties, but he struggled to make himself heard above the competition. In fact it was diminishing returns that prompted his crisis of musical faith.
“I was pretty discouraged,” he remembers. “I was struggling to keep it together. I didn’t know if it was worth it. But I’d always wanted to make a soul album, so one day my friend suggested I write something in that style. I went home and within a week I had eight new R&B songs.”
The Night Sweats album bridges the worlds of soul and rock’n’roll perfectly, while Rateliff’s honey-and-grit vocals echo such greats as Otis Redding and, on the slow-burning Howling At Nothing, Sam Cooke – soul men who met an early end, basically.
“It’s a hard life,” he says, acknowledging the hard-drinking reputation that his own songs portray.
Has his drinking been overplayed?
“No. I think it’s been overplayed because I drink a lot,” he says. “If you party too much or don’t take care of yourself you fuck shit up. I don’t fuck shit up to keep in the right zone, artistically. I just do it because I’m a fuck-up.”