Nathaniel Rateliff on the Sobering Story Behind "S.O.B."

Last week, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats began a lengthy tour that will take the Denver soul sensation from Salt Lake City to Europe, with a stop at Red Rocks over the weekend.

“We’ll be gone until about Thanksgiving,” Rateliff said just before leaving for the forty-show run. “All the venues sold out, and then were moved to bigger rooms and sold out again. I’m excited, but it’s gonna be a lot of work. I like being able to sleep with my wife. That’s nice.”

The elephant in the room, perhaps, for those who were well aware of Rateliff’s talents before he and the Night Sweats slayed “S.O.B.” on The Tonight Show in August, is what such a sudden breakthrough (the band’s eponymous LP just sold over 20,000 copies in its first week) feels like after years of slow progress.

“I think I’m overwhelmed with the amount of work I have to do,” Rateliff says. “Mostly I get nervous about backlash, because I’ve been doing this for a long time. As soon as you do something people like, there are people who don’t like you because of that. We’ll see. You can’t make everybody happy. You can’t make everybody love you.”

“S.O.B.,” the revival-worthy song Rateliff sang on The Tonight Show, definitely seems to make everybody happy. It’s a foot-stomping drinking song — or might seem to be at first listen. But Rateliff got deeply introspective when asked how he wrote such a cathartic, intensely personal song about substance abuse without glorifying alcoholism, which is such a serious subject at its roots.
“I wrote that song about having delirium tremors in order to make light of it, but it was a pretty traumatic situation,” he says. “I thought I was dying. I was in another country, and I was alone. When we first started to play the song, Joseph [Pope] — who I’ve been playing with for 21 years now — said at one point, ‘Man, when I first heard that song, I just wanted to cry because I feel like such a bad friend. I’m sorry I let it get to that and I wasn’t there to help you.’”

It’s not just Rateliff's bandmates who’ve been moved by “S.O.B.” and its tale of hands shaking while a heart is aching.

“I had one person come up to me because her husband was an alcoholic and has been sober for twenty years now. She said, ‘We love [“S.O.B.”], and it’s brought up a lot of stuff. It’s kind of healing for some of the old wounds we have and things we’ve never talked about.’ I think for a lot of people it’s a fun drinking/party song, which is fine; but at the same time…I guess in some ways it’s kind of heavy.”

“Some people will party to it and some other people will probably be introspective or relate to it and know exactly what I’m talking about. I definitely don’t want to glorify substance abuse. It’s one of the things I have struggled with in my life, and it’s definitely not the thing that makes me creative. If it does anything, it’s a severe distraction from what I really love, which is creating, writing, working. It’s an easy cop-out, and it’s an easy cover-up — and sometimes it’s still fun. “

Rateliff’s modern twist on heartfelt soul and R&B is something he’s 100% committed to. Asked if his old, more indie-oriented songs are difficult to arrange for the new band, he said flatly, “Right now we’re playing all Night Sweats stuff on tour. I’m just kind of letting the other stuff be for now. I don’t intend to mix the two.”

Although Rateliff’s dynamite performance on The Tonight Show last month has helped make him the most famous Colorado musician in recent memory, he says he doesn’t feel like the face of Denver music.

“There’s still a lot going on here besides me. We’ve been a big part of the scene for a long time. It’s exciting to get out of town again. Hopefully people won’t move here.”
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Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry