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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."
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."
"Plus, there were like twenty family names that would get you a job or into school," Pope continues. "So not only would you have to deal with the kids, but you'd have to deal with their parents. Redneck kids' parents were also rednecks, so you had to watch what you were doing. But for as restrictive as an environment like that can be, you can also exist totally outside of that."
That sort of idealism was fostered by some like-minded mentors. "We found this group of older people who were into the arts," remembers Rateliff. "They were our parents' age. Really brilliant people." And soon that exposure spurred the two budding artists to look for a world outside of Hermann. Through missionary work with the homeless, which eventually brought the pair to Denver, they found kindred spirits in Fox -- who plays music for Alzheimer's patients in his spare time -- and Hall. Today, the four of them share an artistic mission that continues to evolve.
"I want to get to the point where I'm constantly reinventing myself, based on what I know and who I am," says Pope. "It's about transformation of who we are and becoming more of what we're supposed to be. The lifestyle we're trying to create together is the same I want for my daughter, and I'm not gonna be any kind of father unless I'm honest to the point of pain."
Rateliff sees Born in the Flood as a chance to reconcile with his past while also making a break from it. "I want people to know the Rateliff name and think something good about it," he says, "and not just think of us as drunks." In these words, Rateliff means no judgment or condemnation of his hard-working, hard-living relatives, but rather an acknowledgement of their struggles, and a hope that he might be able to lighten their load a bit, however transiently.
But sometimes the emotional task of taking all those private feelings and collected memories and offering them up to a crowd can be a bit much. More and more, Rateliff has found himself moved to tears on stage.
"I really let the things that I write about affect me on stage," he confesses. "I allow myself to get into some sort of emotional frenzy, and a lot of times when that happens, I just get kinda overwhelmed."
"Playing music for a lot of people," he concludes, "is like being naked in front of a lot of people. I just try to be bare up there."
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