Flood Waters

Born in the Flood's passionate rock sets a high-water mark.

If you didn't cry a little back there," says Lisa Gedgaudas, "there's something wrong with you."

Gedgaudas's boyfriend, Born in the Flood frontman Nathaniel Rateliff, has just finished an especially moving set at the Acoma Center. As he steps off the stage, his own tears are nearly indistinguishable from the beads of sweat running down his face. His bandmates -- bassist Joseph Pope III, guitarist Matt Fox and drummer Mike Hall -- look equally enervated, yet strangely energized.

"There's a liberation," Pope points out, "that comes from being totally balls-out passionate and letting yourself be disfigured at times."

When the levee breaks: Matt Fox (from left), Joseph 
Pope III, Nathaniel Rateliff and Mike Hall are Born in 
the Flood.
Anthony Camera
When the levee breaks: Matt Fox (from left), Joseph Pope III, Nathaniel Rateliff and Mike Hall are Born in the Flood.

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Over the years, both Rateliff and Pope, who grew up together and founded the band, have relied on music as a form of catharsis, helping them overcome adversity. From difficult childhoods to painful, trying periods as adults, the pair has made a conscious effort to incorporate their past experiences -- however joyful or painful they may have been -- into their music. Take the title of the act's new EP, for example: The Fear That We May Not Be. It almost seems to be a direct allusion to a particularly tumultuous time in Pope's life. On June 12, 2002, the 23-year old bassist was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Early the next morning he was rushed into surgery to cut out the renegade cells that threatened his life. Just a week later, Pope's life officially turned upside down when his girlfriend discovered she was pregnant. But Rateliff stood by Pope's side, cooking and cleaning for his friend as he recovered from surgery, underwent an intensive twelve-week cycle of chemotherapy and prepared for fatherhood. And when Pope's hair began to fall out, Rateliff was the first to pull out a razor and shave off his own locks.

"I think me getting cancer was a blessing for all of us," Pope asserts. "You realize you can't fuck around."

Clearly, Pope's brush with mortality stirred something within Rateliff and the rest of the band. Early on, Born in the Flood had a rootsy Southern rock flavor, which later gave way to more of a nouveau garage aesthetic with underlying waves of Brit rock ethereality on the band's 2003 self-titled debut EP. On Fear, the group has evolved even further and crafted a literate, emotionally affecting sound that's at once introspective and exhibitionist, elated and dejected. Having tapped into the power and extraordinary melodies that distinguished U2's early career and made arena rockers out of mega-moping Coldplay, Born in the Flood's impassioned performances are spellbinding. Rateliff -- who's equal parts Matt Pond, Frank Black and Chris Martin -- moves effortlessly from a vaguely effeminate falsetto to a grating, Janovian wail, adding gravity and earnestness to his hazily hopeful, melancholy lyrics. The chime of his guitar intertwines with Fox's alternately soothing and searing leads, while Pope's bass lines pulse with unbridled vitality and Hall's flawless drumming holds the flood at bay. The result is an undeniably sincere wallop of genuinely emotive rock.

"In the original Born in the Flood, I was more aimed at writing clever things, not so much personal stories," Rateliff explains. "But once Joe got sick, I started writing different stuff. Regardless of how difficult it might be emotionally, it's your choice to deal with things the right way or the wrong way. You can let these things crush you and make you bitter, so bitter that it makes your bones brittle."

Or you can turn sour grapes into vintage wine, as folks have done for ages in Pope's and Rateliff's hometown. Hermann, Missouri, is a small Midwestern town of fewer than 3,000 people, famous for its outstanding wines, most notably the hearty Missouri state grape, Norton/Cynthiana. "We used to prune those vines," says Pope, recalling just one of the difficult jobs he and Rateliff were tasked with as kids to help their families get by.

"People have had harder lives," says Rateliff, whose formal education ended in seventh grade, when his father died, and he was forced to start working full-time. "But there were times when I'd be at work, just breaking down in tears. I had to be an adult and I didn't want to be. I'm glad I went through it then. I'd hate to have to go through that now."

"We ended up working in this factory, making plastic bottles on a twelve-hour nightshift," Pope adds. "It was a hot-ass factory, and all you could smell was molten plastic. We were working with people three and four times our age who went to our local high school. I'm not criticizing them, but they weren't aware of a lot of things."

It was during those hard times that Pope and Rateliff realized they were meant for something else. They formed a creative bond -- in seclusion and out of desperation -- that has become the core of Born in the Flood's artistry. "Where we grew up, you were either a jock or a redneck, or you just kinda did your own thing," says Rateliff, summarizing every small-town American boy's existence. "We weren't really rednecks, because our parents were hippies. And we weren't jocks, because our parents got beat up by the jocks. So we ended up doing what we did, listening to whatever music we could find -- oldies, doo-wop, blues, whatever."

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