“In the past, with all the other records I’ve put out, you have people surrounding you in the industry saying ‘Oh, this is going to be such a big deal, it’s going to be huge, people are going to love this fucking song,’” Rateliff reflects. “So you bust your ass getting the record out, pouring your heart into it, and nobody gives a shit about it, and neither does the label. And that’s horribly, utterly discouraging. You’re out touring, sacrificing your family and relationship time, you’re doing it all out of pocket. The times you’re home you’re thinking of how you’re going to make any cash. Maybe you can write a song for a commercial that will pay enough that you can pay the band. So you’re pushing really hard, but at the same time the people who are telling you the record’s going to be huge are the same ones who already have a house and a salary, while the musicians are living in a van somewhere, crying because they can’t remember when they last saw their wives. You put so much of your life into it, and it doesn’t work out. But now, it’s started to work out! [S.O.B]’s definitely not my favourite song, but what the fuck are you going to do?”
He laughs, while in the background the muddied sounds of live music swells and a crowd starts cheering. If at first Rateliff seems to be mired in doom and gloom about the industry, he is at pains to insist he is not a pessimist. Indeed, even when conversation touches on the harsher side of life and touring, he still sounds jovial about the strange road a musician wanders. In the past he has been described as a pensive songwriter, and while there are certainly moments of sombre reflection in his work the scale of his output is much more varied.
“I think of myself as a lot of different things. At times I’ve been pensive and introspective, and then I’m also a bit of a ‘dickweed’ and crazy, with a wild hair up my ass. I make different records at different times to fulfil those different parts of me. I always feel the need to personally challenge myself, in a very lazy way. I’m not a very ambitious person, so when I say challenge I mean in the laziest way possible. Lazy and self-loathing. And kind of horny. You combine those things, there’s the secret to writing songs. ‘You know, I’m pretty horny, but I haaaate myself. Ah, fuck it, I’ll write a song.’”
These different sides to Rateliff are expressed rather brilliantly on his and the Night Sweat’s eponymous debut. It is like a brief, intense overview of the sounds and styles that have influenced him over the years, although any strict meaning or insight into their composition is something he would prefer to remain ephemeral.
“I’m always a little reluctant to give information on what songs are about. I think the thing about art that’s most interesting is people’s own interpretations, versus giving away some kind of secret. I might have written a song that somebody got married to, and I probably wrote it on the shitter, I might have been having a real bad day. The thing about music is that the listener’s interpretation is often more important than the artist’s. When people try and get into the head of artists, well, people are obviously quite obsessed with fame and have been for a long time, which is really kind of creepy and strange, how [Western] culture relates to quote-unquote popularity. I think it’s kind of nice to keep it a bit of a mystery. I’d love to know what Leonard Cohen thinks about his songs, but I’d also rather never know.”
He makes a fair (if colourful) point, and one which many listeners struggle to fully appreciate; that the song you’ve connected with, that means so very much to you, has a vastly different history for the composer. Listening to the new record conjures many different impressions, thanks not only to Rateliff’s stentorian voice and a rollicking band, but the arrangement of songs themselves. You hear the album as a short-story collection, each track a distinct vignette.
“I always think of the record as having a Side A and B, like a vinyl. You have to listen to the first side, and those songs have to be good enough and keep your attention that you want to keep up off the couch and flip it over for more. All of the records I grew up listening to are like that. I remember sitting down playing cards and listening to The Basement Tapes over and over again. Even stuff like Beck’s One Foot in the Grave, I love that record. I had a bunch of Night Sweat songs written, and just before we went to record I kind of hunkered down at my house and started writing, and ended up with another fifteen or sixteen songs. I had something like thirty songs that we went into the studio with, but at that time I was just writing whatever came to me. I liked Wasting Time a lot, but I didn’t know if it was going to fit. We had other songs that were ruckus-ey, R&B, soul songs, but I thought it was important to showcase different emotions, to have the songs reflect what I feel personally. You have to feel it in order for it to be real.”
The fact there were so many songs that just missed the album cut is a fine revelation to end on, before Rateliff disappears back towards the bar for another whiskey. Nor is the prospect of one day hearing these tracks a hollow hope.
“For years, I’ve been wanting to put out a record called C Sides. All the stuff I’ve accumulated over the years, tape recordings and demos on shitty 8-tracks. There’s a lot of material there. The nice thing is about having been writing for such a long time is that a song like ‘Mellow Out’ I wrote seven years ago for the hell of it. It kind of came back to my memory while I was preparing songs for the studio with Richard [Swift], and I reworked it for the record. It’s a song I never thought I was going to use that somehow resurfaced again, and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that song. Forgot about you. Welcome back.’”
March 22 – 28 – Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW
March 30 – 170 Russell, Melbourne VIC
March 31 – Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats are playing Bluesfest. For more information, visit www.bluesfest.com.au.