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Interview: Rainbow Kitten Surprise

Grant Walters Grant Walters Interview: Rainbow Kitten SurprisePhoto by Matthew Salacuse.
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Boasting perhaps the most gleeful band names in the business, the acclaimed North Carolina quintet plays a sold out show tonight at Express LIVE! in support of their latest album "How To: Friend, Love, Freefall"

Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s vividly colorful name lives up to the splashes of sonic magnificence on their major label debut album for Elektra Records, How To: Friend, Love, Freefall.

The Boone, North Carolina quintet was formed in 2013 when lead vocalist and principal songwriter, Sam Melo, and rhythm guitarist Darrick “Bozzy” Keller met as students at Appalachian State University. Ethan Goodpaster (lead guitar, vocals), Charlie Holt (bass, vocals), and Jess Haney (drums), were soon added to complete the roster. Later in the year, they independently released their first album, Seven + Mary, followed by 2016’s semi-eponymous RKS.

How To… marks a pivotal evolution in the band’s sound and creative direction, chronicling the growing pains, personal struggles, and life lessons the band has experienced collectively and individually over the past five years. Mapping out the multiple genres that stretch across the album’s eleven tracks is essentially a fruitless task, as they swirl and sweep so freely. No matter how you describe it, it’s an incredibly strong record that deserves recurring spins to peel back its richly spread layers.

“It’s our first album that’s a fully collaborative piece, and, I don’t know, I feel the songs kind of morphed and became part of us, in a weird way,” Bozzy Keller explains to me during a phone interview on a tour stop in Toronto earlier this week. “So, I still grow to love them more every day – it’s crazy.”

RKS’ audience seems to feel the same way. Last month, they sold out shows on two consecutive nights at New York’s historic Hammerstein Ballroom, and they’ve already maxed out a June date at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Half of their remaining tour dates through the summer are also sold out, including their show tonight in Columbus at Express LIVE!

The album’s latest single, “Fever Pitch,” is an excellent representation of How To…’s strengths, with its glimmering verses that get delightfully punched by an infectious R&B/rap thump breakdown — and the icing on the cake are the delectable bursts of harmony ad-libs that follow the beat. It’s a triumph.

Bozzy and I take a few minutes after the band’s soundcheck at Danforth Music Hall to take a deeper dive into RKS’ past and present.

Most of the press I’ve seen about the band talks about what happened after you’d formed, but I’m curious what you were doing musically before RKS. What made you want to pick up your first six-string and get out and play?

“As cheesy as this sounds, in probably the sixth or seventh grade, you know, I was just this weird 12-year-old kid who would probably classify as a loser. But, I hung out with people who were my friends and they introduced me…one of my good friends played guitar, and my other friend played drums. So, it was, like, ‘well, you’ve gotta play, too.’ They introduced me to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, you know – the classics. And Jimi Hendrix. [He] was my first ‘holy shit! I wanna play guitar! I wanna be like him!’ I’m obviously not Jimi Hendrix, but…we all started playing, and, honestly, we were just some rejects playing in our basement, you know, eating pizza and having fun.

That’s kind of how it was until I met Sam in college. Music was something that I did because I was bored and depressed sitting in my room. Instead of falling into that negative cycle, I’d play music and it was my best friend, so to speak.”

Do you remember your first guitar?

“Yeah, my first instrument, my first guitar, was a Washburn. I can’t remember the model – I know that it’s been discontinued since then. I still have it. It’s not the nicest guitar, but my parents went out on a limb there – it’s like a $400 guitar, and they bought it one year for Christmas. It was, like, ‘I really hope he plays this thing,’ because I told them I’d wanted [it].”

What were those early days at Appalachian State like when you and Sam first got together and started working on music?

“It’s kind of funny – when I met Sam…growing up with my friends and just messing around in our basement, I know it sounds weird to say, but I’d never met anyone of my friends who could actually write real music and not just the crap we were writing in our basement [laughs]. I really didn’t even know Sam played music. We were friends and we hung out, and he went to an open mic night that I was playing at, and he was, you know, very supportive.

But, then one night – I don’t know, it was probably two in the morning – he said, ‘hey man, I wrote a song. Do you want to hear it?’ I was, like, ‘sure, man – yeah!’ And then he played ‘All That And More (Sailboat).’ Sam is a very, very humble guy, you know? I was, like, ‘dude, you have to record this. People need to hear this – it’s beautiful art.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, man! I don’t know about that.’

So, at that point, it was me just basically urging Sam to record and get that art out there. The songs were basically finished, and there wasn’t anything for me to do, so he just let me sing on the track. On our earliest recordings, anyway, it’s just my vocals – the first two albums are pretty much like that. They were basically complete already. So, yeah, that’s how it started.”

You mentioned this being a more collaborative effort. How has that manifested as you crafted these songs together? Do you tend to work from a vibe, or is there something more concrete you use as a starting point?

“Well, generally – especially with this album and how it seems like it’s going to work going forward – Sam will write the chords, the lyrics, that sort of structure. [He’s] very genius and takes concepts from each of the songs and kind of, like, ties them all together – there are recurring themes, I guess you could say. And, so, we get stuck on these themes.

As a rhythm guitarist and backup vocals, I think my role creatively is to add a little more depth to the songs, and dynamics. That could be playing at this certain point in the song and dropping out, or vice versa, or singing really loud in this part of the song, or not singing at all. Whatever vibe we’re feeling on the specific song is where we take it to, if that makes sense.”

One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Mission To Mars,” and I hope I’m interpreting correctly, but it’s this great sort of poetic deconstruction of how you all have come of age as a band. What would you say are the most important challenges you’re continuing to work on as a group?

“I think this last album kind of touched on that. It’s sort of a how-to-grow-up, like, a life manual almost, and I think that’s relatable to musicians. But, I just think in general, we were at a very important part of our lives. We were growing up and leaving college, and finding significant others, having kids, you know – whatever. It was a description of that, and that’s sort of an ongoing thing. We’re still at that stage and we’re learning – still learning how to be band mates, and friends, and lovers, husbands, or even sons. We’re still figuring this thing out. But we’re catching up, I guess! [laughs]”

So, what would you say are your values as a band? Are there certain criteria upon which you’ve all agreed you need to adhere or sustain in so that you evolve as a creative unit?

“I mean, at the end of the day, we all have to still want it. Obviously, we all have personal lives, but is this what we love? Is this what we want to give a hundred percent to? I hope that’s still the case years from now, but it definitely is right now. We all just want to go out and make a positive impact in the world. At the venues, you know, when we up and leave form a show, is the staff all, like, ‘those guys were really nice,’ or are they, like, ‘wow, those dudes are dicks!’ You know? It definitely makes a difference. We want to make a positive impact on others’ lives and in our interactions, and I think we all definitely have to want to do that in order to move forward.”

As joyful as this record is to hear, you’re not afraid to tackle some really heavy subject matter, and as I listen to songs like “Painkillers,” and “Holy War,” and Hide, you’re contending with themes of identity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and addiction. How has your audience reacted to that?

“We’ve had a lot of support from that. With religion and addiction on ‘Painkillers,’ as just one example, religion is something that affected us all growing up, and may or may not still, at least indirectly. We all know or knew someone who struggled with addiction or overdose, you know? We get a lot of heartfelt messages, and some of them are really sad, where ‘Painkillers’ has really touched a group of friends because they had a friend who may have passed away recently, or had an overdose. It really hits you in the heart, and you’re, like, ‘damn.

In that instance, we’re still a positive influence on people’s lives, and I just think, really, somebody needs to talk about it because it’s a problem that affects millions of people. And it just kind of goes unnoticed as, like, a criminal…it just doesn’t get talked about and it gets swept under the rug.”

I’ve spoken to quite a few bands who find themselves in the throes of rising success. The industry is, rightfully, lauding you for your creative work and audiences, rightfully, are responding by buying up tickets at a rapid pace. Now that you’re stepping out on tour and seeing all of this laid out in front of you, how does it feel?

“It definitely…it feels overwhelming and exhilarating, in the best way possible. We have great support, and we’ve built a great crew. It’s just reaffirming every night – it’s like, ‘is this really happening?’ Fuck yeah, it is! Sometimes it just doesn’t feel real. I’m really excited to see where it goes. It all feels really great.”

Rainbow Kitten Surprise takes the stage tonight for a sold out show (resale tickets may be available) at Express LIVE! Their latest album, “How To: Friend, Love, Freefall,” is available via the band’s official website. Follow them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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