When his father passed away in seventh grade, Nathan Rateliff quit school and started working in a factory to help support his family in his blue-collar hometown of Hermann, Mo. He, along with friend/bassist Joe Pope, moved to Denver 10 years ago to volunteer at a homeless mission; later he started work at a trucking company.
Rateliff now heads two music projects, one as anthemic rock troupe Born in the Flood and solo as the Wheel, where he performs more singer/songwriter-y fare. Local bands like the Fray, Flobots, Meese and Devotchka used to share the stage—and even open for—Born in the Flood before they blew up bigger than their Denver origins.
It seems that nothing has ever been handed to the songwriter—but earlier this month, Rateliff put in his two weeks’ notice at his job to focus on music. “This is the time to be doing this,” he says.
Born in the Flood played Denver’s Red Rocks venue three times last year, performing with the Fray, for the Monolith Music Festival with Spoon and Cake, and supporting Film on the Rocks.
Its 2007 album “If This Thing Should Spill” won just about all of the important local press awards from the Denver Post and Westword; the song “I’ll Lead Them Out” was featured in indie film “The Elephant King.”
During the last year or so, the band played South by Southwest with Yo La Tengo and CMJ with Mates of State; directly supported Kings of Leon, Paolo Nutini and Andrew Bird; and will support bands like Fiery Furnaces and Devotchka in coming weeks, booked by the Agency Group.
So indeed it is time for Rateliff to be doing this: With songs this good, it’d be a tragedy if he didn’t. “If This Thing Should Spill” is as intense as the title implies, brimming with complex emotions and gargantuan arrangements. Rateliff’s arching, aching voice delivers literate lyrics that speak to much bigger topics than boy-meets-girl or boy-am-I-blue. Whereas Born in the Flood paints blockbusting landscapes, his tracks as the Wheel are more like intimate portraits, his acoustic leading the way with the help of a shimmering string section. The band is currently in the studio recording an effort for release later this year.
The expressive grandeur of it all is a hit onstage, big or small, leaving audiences and the band members themselves sometimes in tears, sweat or both. “I don’t come from much of an education . . . I just write simple songs that I guess move people somehow. Regardless of what the band does, we have to keep our humility in check,” Rateliff says. “At the Red Rocks, we were playing for 10,000 people . . . but it wasn’t because we’re necessarily deserving of it. I play like it’s not owed to me. It keeps us working really, really hard.”