CHICAGO — When 18-year-old Nathaniel Rateliff moved with a missionary group from his rural hometown of Hermann, Missouri, to Denver, the journey was more difficult than he anticipated.
“We actually were caught in a pretty gnarly blizzard. Interstate 70 closed behind us as we were going west. And there was just one other car behind us. It was pretty scary, like a 20-miles-an-hour drive,” he recalls. “But we were kids.”
Missionary work didn’t take for Rateliff, a singer, guitarist and songwriter, or his friend, Joseph Pope III. They’d initially planned to live near the ocean in San Diego but wound up finding work in Denver.
“I didn’t have a lot of opportunity. Didn’t have a high school education. Made $21 an hour for the trucking company. It’s pretty good pay for not having a diploma,” Rateliff says. “I ran freight for a long time, then got promoted to yard hostler, where you basically back up the trailers all day. I’m good at backing up trailers.”
Today, Rateliff, 39, is frontman for the Night Sweats, a soul band best known for its out-of-the-blue 2016 hit “S.O.B.,” which has the call-and-response feel of an old Southern church service. It’s a long road from Hermann, where he and Pope had worked at a Subway as teenagers; at one point, Rateliff showed up with an acoustic guitar and played one of his own songs. They struck up a fast friendship, and have played in bands ever since, including their earlier one, the bluesy but nondescript Born In the Flood.
“I just knew we were going to be buddies forever. I felt like fate had brought us together for some reason,” he says. “We’re still closer than most people are with their friends or their families. As you get older, things change slightly, but not much has changed for us.”
Since Night Sweats and “S.O.B.” have taken off, Rateliff has had to work zero day jobs — and he kind of misses them. “I was continuing to get gardening jobs and any kind of physical labor jobs I could when I was in town and not on tour,” he says by phone from a Philadelphia tour stop. “I really love working hard. I love physical labor — I love being a gardener, actually, and I’m a helluva hole-digger, you know. … There’s something about being able to work and let your mind get into the job you’re doing, whereas music is slightly different. I have to be slightly more present than I want to be.”
Rateliff initially planned to make his latest album, this year’s “Tearing at the Seams,” an extension of the spooky, old-school sound of 2016’s “A Little Something from Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats.” As it stands, the album is upbeat, full of horns, like the ones that dance around for nearly a minute and a half before Rateliff’s distinctively sweet-and-gruff voice arrives on “Shoe Boot.” But it wasn’t always that way.
Rateliff had been going through a divorce while making the album — he’s still dealing with the repercussions — and it initially came across darker than he expected. The band had spent a week recording 18 songs at a New Mexico studio, but Rateliff listened to them and, as he told one interviewer, “We didn’t have the record I wanted.” He returned to the studio for five extra days with the band’s rhythm section, then another three days with the horns. They recorded seven or eight new songs. “I just felt like it was a little too sad,” he says. “So I went back and tried to write some songs that were appropriate, the right tempo and the right mood. No pressure by anyone else other than ourselves.”
A tinge of sadness hangs over the album, as it does with many R&B productions, but there are no overt tearjerkers. Even the starkest minor-key songs, like “Baby I Lost My Way (But I’m Going Home),” are mostly hopeful. Asked if music was a therapeutic way of dealing with personal problems, Rateliff responds straightforwardly: “I don’t know. I prefer to be making music not going through a divorce. You know?”
Over the past few years, the Night Sweats have commercially separated themselves from other performers in the same contemporary-soul genre, such as Lee Fields and Leon Bridges. On this summer tour, Rateliff is playing arenas and amphitheaters, including his hometown Red Rocks in Morrison, Colo.; the new “You Worry Me” is up to 7.6 million Spotify streams. But Rateliff talks like a guy who knows he could always return to gardening, if not working at the Hermann, Mo., Subway, if music doesn’t pan out.
“Well, I still don’t own a house. Still waiting to be a rich guy,” says Rateliff, who is living these days in Night Sweats drummer Patrick Meese’sDenver basement. “There are no kings in this industry. One day you can be on top, and the next thing you know, you don’t have a job anymore. But the last record kind of did well, and ‘S.O.B.’ was the first time to actually feel like, ‘Hey, maybe people will be interested in what we put out next.’”