I should get the dictionary out," says Nathaniel Rateliff, "and look up the word I'm trying to say."
It's rare for a prolific songwriter like Rateliff to be at a loss for words. But right now he is. Sitting in the living room of his home in the Baker neighborhood, he tilts back in his chair and gazes intently at the ceiling before fiddling with the half-empty tumbler of Knob Creek in his hand.
After taking another sip of whiskey — despite an earlier proclamation that he currently isn't drinking, smoking or eating cheese — the moment passes, and Rateliff abandons his quest for just the right word. A few beats later, he's musing about his primary musical endeavor, Born in the Flood, versus the Wheel, his singer-songwriter alter ego. While the former continues to garner critical and popular praise, both here and across the country, the latter has quietly — almost clandestinely — developed into one of Denver's most honest and engaging acoustic acts.
"A lot of people say, 'I like Born in the Flood, but I really love the Wheel,'" says the 29-year-old singer. "But I'm not seeing the thousands of people that show up at Red Rocks for Born in the Flood coming to the Wheel shows."
Still, the Wheel draws a large and impassioned crowd, whether at an intimate venue like the hi-dive or in larger rooms such as the Bluebird. While Born in the Flood's emotionally dynamic, anthemic rock is accessible to fans of U2 and Coldplay, the Wheel takes its cues from darker muses like early Leonard Cohen, the hopeless moments of Gordon Lightfoot and the most naked works of Nick Cave. "People seem to like Born in the Flood because of what we have dynamically among the four of us," says Rateliff. "But the Wheel is just about my voice and the words."
Those two elements, which are so undeniably striking live, have finally been captured on record. The Wheel's debut, Desire and Dissolving Men, was recorded largely on an eight-track recorder in Rateliff's living room, with some recording, mixing and mastering by Andrew Vastola of Rocky Mountain Recorders. The album is a moving song cycle of longing, languor and lamentation, with violin provided by Carrie Beeder of Nathan & Stephen and Bela Karoli, and upright bass courtesy of Bela Karoli's Julie Davis. Desire is otherwise entirely the product of Rateliff's vision, with the songwriter playing all other instruments, including guitars, vibraphone, organ, piano and drums.
"It's the first album I've ever made on which all of the songs I recorded are exactly what I wanted them to be," says Rateliff enthusiastically. "I like that there are little things in every song. Maybe it was the middle of the night and there are crickets in the background, or it was early morning and there are birds in the song."
Though Rateliff completed and self-released the record several months ago — and even sold it through Fancy Tiger, a Baker-area boutique — Desire will officially be issued this month on Public Service Records. Although the label's co-owner, Ben Desoto, and Rateliff have known each other for years, Desoto was skeptical about including one of the original tracks on this version of the album.
"Ben didn't really want to put it on there," says Rateliff, speaking of "When We Were Towers," the album's closing track. "But I thought it completed the idea of desire and dissolving men." The nearly eight-minute-long piece — recorded in one take through the condenser microphone of a cheap tape deck — is possibly the most harrowing, raw and visceral expression of emotion ever recorded. For the first two and a half minutes, the simple piano-and-vocal track follows the confessional, emotional arc of Desire's preceding compositions. After that point, however, Rateliff's subdued sobbing becomes audible. Two minutes later, the singer is barely able to choke out the lyrics through his tears, but he soldiers on. By the seven-minute mark, his wordless vocalizations have devolved from uncontrolled bawling to nearly Janovian howls of despair. Finally, mercifully, with the abrupt click of a "stop" button, it's over.
"I think you only need to hear it once," Rateliff notes before adding, "and I only needed to play it once. My mentor told me, 'The first time I listened to it, it broke my heart, and the second time, I just laughed.'"
In fact, the emotional experience of listening to "Towers" is the logical extension of the Wheel's guileless sincerity. Several of Rateliff's tunes tread on similarly thin psychological ice but tiptoe off just as the fissures begin to spread across the surface. This particular recording, however, pounds its fists furiously until the ice breaks, plunging both performer and listener into the bracing, startling cold beneath.
Despite Rateliff's insistence that "When We Were Towers" existed only in the moment of its creation, he plans to perform it just one more time — at his CD-release party. He's been working with James Han, pianist for the Wheel's live incarnation, to relearn the song. And he hopes to capture the crude pain of the original.
"I have James working on telling me how to play it," relates Rateliff. "I've forgotten the chords, and he has a better ear. And then I'll write down what I said and perform it.
"The thing that sustains both the Wheel and Born in the Flood," he explains, "is reliving those emotional moments. You have to prepare yourself before you play, to go through in your head what it meant and what you felt when you wrote a song."
For Rateliff, this Strasbergian approach to music performance is simply part of his duty to the audience. "It's kind of weird and sadistic to hurt yourself a little bit," he says, "but I don't want to rip anybody off, and I don't want to be fake. It has to do with the way you look at the audience, and not the way you look. You have to wear a heaviness."
If the dramatic approach and confessional nature of the Wheel's music seem a bit self-indulgent, that's kind of the point. "I think the whole thing is self-indulgence and self-loathing," Rateliff notes. "That's what depression is about. You're totally blinded with apathy, and you get stuck with that. That's my problem — along with some severe panic attacks. I used to tremble and get a tic at work. When you let yourself sink into that, one little waking-up-in-a-bad-mood turns into this idea that everyone's against you, and these little bits of hatred about yourself keep rolling over and over in your head. Then you're either shaking or shutting down."
Fortunately for listeners, Rateliff has channeled those responses into prodigious output for his musical projects. In fact, while recording Desire, he also recorded all of the songs for another, thematically different album, titled In Memory of Loss, which has not yet been scheduled for release. His abundant creative output and high profile in the local music scene has even led Rateliff to license one of Desire's tracks, "My Hanging Surrender," for the indie film Skills Like This. Andy Monley — a longtime Denver fixture who has played with Jux County and the Czars, among others — produced the original music for the film, while Vastola and his father, Paul, did sound editing. "They were going to put a Rolling Stones song at one point in the film," says Rateliff, "but there was some kind of problem with the licensing. Andrew and I had just finished recording 'Surrender,' so he played it for the director, and he loved it."
Because licensing and publishing deals are one of the few avenues left for musicians to actually make money from their art, this is a small but important victory for Rateliff. However, it doesn't mean the rough-hewn boy from Hermann, Missouri, has gone Hollywood. In fact, the modest creative and commercial success he has recently experienced has made him even more mindful of the things that are really important. This is part of the motivation behind trying to control his drinking, smoking and diet as he sets off on the road for another tour and CMJ appearance with Born in the Flood.
"I've given so much of my life to excess," he confesses, "and I don't regret any of it. But I would like to be more sober so that I can educate myself. I only went to school through the seventh grade, and that's sort of an insecurity of mine. In all these years of boozing, I could have a doctorate or something even more meaningful. I'm not an idiot. I have no excuse." He pauses for a moment, takes another sip of bourbon, and offhandedly sums it all up.
"It's funny what too much serotonin will do for you."