ABOUT NATHANIEL RATELIFF & THE NIGHT SWEATS
”For a long time I always had to go off on my own,” says Nathaniel Rateliff of his creative process. “For the first Night Sweats record, I demo’ed everything up and created most of the parts. But for this new record, I felt like we’d all spent so much time on the road that we should all go off somewhere together. We should have that experience together. I wanted the guys to feel like they were giving something to the project beyond just playing.”
In other words, the Missouri-bred, Denver-based frontman wanted to make the band disappear along with him—out in the middle of the desert at first, and then deep in the woods. The result is the aptly titled Tearing at the Seams, a vivacious and inventive full-band record, with significant contributions from all eight members of The Night Sweats. These songs are grounded in old-school soul and r&b but are far too urgent for the retro or revivalist tag. There are familiar elements of soul and garage rock, but also jazz and folk and even country: the crackling energy on opener “Shoe Boot,” the cathartic sing-along of “Coolin’ Out,” the melancholy folk of the closing title track. “The future of this band is to take everything we’ve ever done in the past and just do it with our own little twist,” says Rateliff. “I hear that in my favorite bands. They just sucked everything up.”
Like his heroes, Rateliff has always been an omnivorous listener and player. Growing up in Hermann, Missouri, a small town with a booming tourism industry as well as a rampant meth epidemic, he started his music career playing in his family’s band at church, but that came to a tragic end when his father was killed in a car accident. Music became an obsession for him and his friends. “We would walk around these deserted country roads and talk about music all the time, how it can change the world and how it could change our world,” recalls Night Sweats bassist Joseph Pope III. “Music was what we thought would save us.”
In 1998 Pope and Rateliff moved to Denver where they worked nightshifts at a bottle factory and a trucking company while testing out their songs at open-mic nights. Their first band, Born in the Flood, attracted some major-label interest, but the pair had moved on by then, gravitating from heavy rock toward a folksier sound. Rateliff released an album on Rounder Records with a backing band called The Wheel, but despite the critical success of that and subsequent albums, he was still trying to find the right sound, the right outlet for what he needed to say.
A set of rough demos recorded in the early 2010s and based on old Stax and Motown records pointed Rateliff in a new direction. “That old soul stuff meant a lot to him when we were young,” says Pope. “Of all the projects we had done and all the different genres we had played, this was the most natural thing I’d heard him do. It sounded like it came from a really deep place in him, but it took this really meandering path to come through.”
Those demos eventually developed into the band’s 2015 self-titled debut, which became a massive hit and pushed them out on the road for two long years. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats blasted their way through hundreds of shows in North America, England, Ireland, and Australia, and they played Coachella, Farm Aid, Newport Folk Festival, and the Monterey Pop Festival’s 50th Anniversary. The crowds grew larger with every show and The Night Sweats grew tighter and more vigorous.
In May 2017, they brought that same boundless energy to the opens plains and prickly cacti of Rodeo, New Mexico, where the entire band disappeared for a week to write songs for their follow-up. “We just did what we like to do best,” says Rateliff, “which is hang out and be a family.” They recorded a number of demos, some complete songs and others fragments or just ideas, but all were anchored by the preternaturally tight rhythm section of Pope and drummer Patrick Meese, then buoyed by the rambunctious keyboard runs from Mark Shusterman and the textural guitar riffs of Luke Mossman.
It was a sunny setting for emotionally overcast music. Together, The Night Sweats created a set of songs that comprise both an r&b party record and deeply personal confessional from Rateliff, who penned all the lyrics. The album recounts moments in the last few years of his life, some good and others not so much. “I remember finishing one song and just losing my shit and breaking down. These songs are so personal, but not everyone will get that. I get to leave little secrets in there for myself, so that everybody else gets to have their own individual interpretations of the songs.”
From New Mexico, The Night Sweats headed north to rural Oregon, specifically to the home studio of producer Richard Swift, who has helmed records for The Shins and Foxygen in addition to The Night Sweats’ debut. “He’s like a brother to me,” says Rateliff. “We hit it off during the last record. I feel like I get what Richard’s trying to do and he gets me. And his studio doesn’t really feel like a studio. It’s in this little building behind his house. That’s why I like it so much.”
In that tiny space The Night Sweats jammed hard, building off the demos they’d recorded in Rodeo. Often Swift would get dynamic takes without the band realizing he was even recording, which creates a loose, live sound on Tearing at the Seams. “Sometimes it just takes time for songs to reveal themselves to you,” says Rateliff. “You try not to get in the way of the songs and just let them be what they need to be or what everybody understands them to be.”
That’s how “Hey Mama” evolved from an acoustic guitar riff Rateliff devised in one of hundreds of green rooms the band has occupied pre-show into one of the catchiest songs on the album. He admits he wasn’t satisfied with his first stab at lyrics and melody, but “everybody in the band would walk around singing that melody and I’m like, Goddammit! I have to write a new melody! But if everybody’s singing it, it must be okay.”
The band took several cracks at “Intro,” a showstopper that opens the second side with a pretzel horn riff courtesy of tenor saxophonist Andreas Wild and trumpeter Scott Frock. A few measures later, Jeff Dazey unfurls a blazing alto sax solo. “We played that song live for a while,” says Rateliff. “It was a jam we came up with before we were really a band. We tried to record it so many different times in so many different places, but it never turned out the way we wanted it to sound. Finally, we just put it together at Richard’s one night. It was a drunken mess, but we got it.”
The album shows The Night Sweats tearing at their own seams, at their own sturdy sound, at their long-held definitions of friend and family and band. It’s an album that builds on the sound of their debut but dramatically redefines what they can do and where they can go next. Says Rateliff, “I want—and I need—everybody to feel like they’re a part of this band. I want them to feel like they’re contributing artistically and emotionally to the experience of writing and creating this music. We’ve all had to make sacrifices to be in The Night Sweats, and I want them all to know that it’s worth something.”
ABOUT THE HEAD & THE HEART
In 2014, exhausted after four years of non-stop touring, the six members of the Head And The Heart pointed their individual compasses to new cities, new relationships and new adventures. Pianist Kenny Hensley learned to fly planes and enrolled in kung-fu training in China, while bassist Chris Zasche packed up a camper and went off the grid in the Canadian Rockies. Drummer Tyler Williams put down stakes across the country and immersed himself in the burgeoning music scene in Richmond, Va., while vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Charity Rose Thielen honed her compositional skills by writing for such legends as Mavis Staples.
After his own cross-country trip to reconnect with family and friends, vocalist/guitarist Jonathan Russell traveled to Haiti and found inspiration working with the non-profit Artists For Peace And Justice. “When I found out we were going to have a significant amount of time off, I saw it as an opportunity to touch base again — to listen to what other people were saying and what they were going through,” he says. “I really wanted to make sure that I reconnected with a world that was starting to feel farther and farther away.”
When the Head And The Heart regrouped last summer in Stinson Beach, Ca., to start writing together again, “it almost felt like we were a new band, trying things we hadn’t tried,” Zasche recalls. “We stayed at a bungalow on the beach. We’d wake up, have coffee and go boogie boarding. We were ready and excited to be back together.”
That renewed sense of purpose can be felt throughout “Signs Of Light,” the group’s first release for Warner Bros. Records. “This album isn’t about us now having achieved our dreams,” says Thielen. “The day we started being able to live off our art was the day we achieved our dreams, in my mind. This is the album where we really fell into our true voices as those artists.”
Recorded in Nashville with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Cage The Elephant), “Signs Of Light” crackles with the upbeat, sing-a-long energy of the Head And The Heart’s finest work. Lead single “All We Ever Knew,” which was written during the “Let’s Be Still” era but never captured to the band’s satisfaction until now, is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, while “Turn It Around” seems primed to be a future concert staple, matching its inspirational message with a lush and multi-layered soundscape.
Throughout, the colors are brighter, the electric guitars are louder and the musical touchstones more universal. The propulsive, smile-inducing ode to Los Angeles “City Of Angels” and the head-nodding “Rhythm & Blues” nod to classic Fleetwood Mac, while the organ-flecked “Dreamer” is a timeless-sounding ballad that could have been beamed straight out of an old jukebox.
“Jay was really adamant about getting a great performance,” Russell says. “We have all the tools in the world to make something sound real or more excitable, but it’s never really as true as the band in the room for the whole take. ‘City Of Angels’ — we had previously re-cut that song and played it so many times. But within two takes in Nashville, we nailed it. It felt like we were playing on a massive stage in front of tons of people.”
Elsewhere, Thielen’s “Library Magic” could almost be seen as a letter to the other five members, acknowledging the ups-and-downs of life in a successful band while celebrating the unique and constantly evolving bond between them. “I wrote that song after having our first real time off as a band,” she says. “It touches on the storied relationships between band members trying to survive living in a van off of accelerated time and gas station crafts for years straight, but it also applies to any of life’s relationships.”
The Head And The Heart’s 2011 self-titled debut album captured a nascent but undeniable creative partnership between six strangers thrown together by little more than a shared love of music. It became one of Sub Pop Records’ best-selling debut releases ever, and rocketed the band to acclaim well beyond its then-home base in Seattle. The formative experiences that followed both on and off the stage heavily informed the 2013 follow-up “Let’s Be Still,” which continues to remind Russell of “the stale beer, bleach and potato chips from all the venues we saw once this became our livelihood.”
On “Signs Of Light,” that gamut of emotions is felt most deeply on the Josiah Johnson-penned title track, which none of the other members had ever heard until they happened to walk in on him playing it over and over at the piano during pre-production in El Paso, Texas. “It was one of those moments where no one talks,” Russell remembers. “No one needs the chords; no one is looking up. You simply pick up your instrument and play. The next thing you know, nearly 10 minutes have gone by and you have no idea how or why or what just happened.”