Straight Outta North Carolina
Camden is a far cry from the wooded haven of Boone, North Carolina. The two locations, in fact, couldn’t be more different if they tried. One has been home for many decades to a plethora of artists, many of whom survive only in the folklore of pubs they used to frequent. The other? Well, there’s a statue of an old bluegrass musician by the name of Doc Watson. Apparently
Hailing from said college-town haven is Rainbow Kitten Surprise, a five-piece that will just about blow away any expectation you’ll set upon them after hearing their name. They come complete with tracks that rarely repeat, instead offering complex and detailed lyrics that intricately weave around themselves. Currently, they’re getting compared to Kings of Leon (Aha Shake Heartbreak era at best) by way of Modest Mouse, and it’s not incorrect, but it feels like that’s typecasting them for easy access. In reality, RKS offer themselves as a little bit of everything - you could quite as easily cherry-pick the Americana sounds, as you can smooth R'n'B, soul, and even hip-hop.
For the first time in their careers, they’re over in London to play a show. Not just any show but a sold out debut in the heart of Camden where it’s almost too easy to see how they’ve been able to go from recording their debut album in their dorm bedroom, to releasing their third on the legendary Elektra label and selling out, far in advance, their first overseas show.
“I think it’s just London kids are hip and they always just stay up on stuff,” Sam Melo, the band's bearded brainchild astutely observes through a tired southern drawl the next day up in the heavens of their record label's HQ.
This observation ties nicely into another story which they run parallel against in certain aspects - just a more modern version if you will. Back in 2007 Kings of Leon, a band who ambled out of the woods of Tennessee to critical acclaim littering religious imagery along the way, came to release "Fans", an homage to the country that bore their success, truly cementing the knowledge that England, London specifically, has its finger on the pulse.
Fast forward to just over a decade later, and the same sentiment is being felt from another band of guys from the next state over. Thanks to the new modernity we’re living in, we in England weren’t the first to light the fuse of RKS’ success. Bandcamp offered them an ease of access to the world that previous generational bands simply did not have. So while it may have taken RKS a bit longer than Kings of Leon to hit the public eye, the fuse is now well and truly burning.
The band look visibly tired from a well-deserved late night out in Camden Town and are also still clearly processing the situation before them. Melo muses on how being a new band in 2018 poses its own challenges: “Things just move faster than you can physically can. We had a fan base long before we started touring, [but] people were perceiving us as this active band, you know, because they’re engaging it, in an active way.
“But we’re sitting around, like, the same room for months, just trying to get a gig somewhere - you know what I mean? And, it’s kind of the opposite way it used to work. You used to have to go out, to get your name out there, so it feels like we finally caught up, like we can go out and meet the people who have been listening to us for a while.”
And that they have done. After an incredibly successful festival circuit run last year, the band quickly fell under the tag of ‘must-see’. Five friends who look like they genuinely enjoy playing music together, couple perfectly with the idea that if you removed the crowd, the energy and physicality wouldn’t falter for even one second.
The night before we meet, the band's performance at Dingwalls in Camden sees Melo centre stage and the preacher allegories practically write themselves. Bassist Charlie Holt, on his right, moves as if fighting the gravity. Over on his left, Darrick ‘Bozzy’ Keller, and Ethan Goodpaster, both on guitar and harmonies are caught up in their own rush, while drummer Jess Haney is mouthing every lyric perfectly in time while the party rages before them.
“We played for three years before we ever went on a real tour. People were asking us, like ‘Come to London!’” Holt says, smiling excitedly. “And we’re like, we haven’t even been to California or Texas!” Now that they’ve firmly caught up to the madness that so swiftly spiralled out of control, the five-piece are gearing up to take on the world with their third full-length release How To: Friend, Love and Freefall. It was also their first recorded in an actual studio; rather than a dorm bedroom (Seven + Mary, 2013), or using students at their college (RKS, 2015).
The two albums previous to How To... are maybe more standardised to their influences, whereas they’ve launched deeply into forging their own way on this third release. Building each piece of the cobbled road brick by brick, an amalgamation of themselves, it’s as complex as it is simple. You can listen through once and think you understand it all, but by the fourth or fifth time around, you realise that there’s a whole other world to what they do. This all stems from Melo, and what the rest of the band call his incredibly focused, factory-like state, the ’rabbit-hole’.
"There is no homogenous musical taste in this group. This is a very diverse group.” - Sam Melo
“It’ll go on for maybe two weeks, a lot of the time it’s two months or six months, or even a year, a year and a half in this last albums case,” he haphazardly remembers. “And I don’t know what’s going on. All I know is that at the end of the day, I can trust everybody to know what was good. They kind of just let me work through the madness and just start pulling out the good parts, and at the end of the day just present to me, like, this is the story you’re trying to tell.”
Holt supports this method by revealing, “It drives you to tell the story, to make it better. It’s kind of when it hits you in your soul, you know?” With complete sincerity in his face, he begins to recall one such incident.
“I remember Sam was like... he wrote all night, woke me up at 7 am... and he said, ‘Hey I want to show you something, come into the band room’. He’s sat at the piano, and he just played something that was kind of like the new album...I was just sitting there listening and I was just crying my eyes out. It just hit me so hard, it was just so relatable. When I’m playing it when I’m hearing it...always...the songs have helped me a lot.”
This is what How To: Friend, Love and Freefall is filled to the brim with - the name giving that away immediately. Every song is a carving of each titular component and invokes you to listen to what Melo is saying because, rather than singing, it feels like a gospel of life.
Even citing rap as the gel between the separate components - specifically Kendrick Lamar - makes total sense when you step back and take a second look. Melo's lyricism allows prose to wrap around itself on the journey to hone in on any emotional epicentre while there’s a smooth rhythm that dances into your soul.
All of this culminates from one simple fact, which Melo summarises: “There is no homogenous musical taste in this group. This is a very diverse group... I’ve discovered a tonne of music from everybody, like we all bring a different things to the table, and like genre preferences would kind of meander too much, so I think what we ended up making together, over time, was this, I guess reductive form of all of the music that we liked and just kind of created a baseline that we could all get behind.”
Though do be wary of how you try to pigeonhole them - they don’t actually want to belong to a certain genre. “I hate genres you know, and we’ve never wanted people to put us in a genre,” Holt confesses. “Like, I hate going to a show and being like, I know that sound. At a show the last thing you want somebody to tell you is, ‘oh, man, you sound exactly like...’insert here’'...or whatever.”
“There was a solid chunk of people who had just discovered us on Bandcamp, you know, locally, and they were there because they liked it!” - Darrick ‘Bozzy’ Keller
Their hometown of Boone is part of the reason for the eclectic combination. “It’s a college town so it’s a really transitory music scene” informs Melo. Not only that, but it also has a population smaller than that of Camden. So it's perfectly understandable that they’ve struggled to keep up with the sudden internet-boom. With no single scene to attach too, RKS have been building everything from the ground up - including simply going to the nearest bar and asking if they could play.
“Shout out to the first show that Bozz ever booked us a Galileo's!” Melo jovially exclaims referring to a bar in their hometown. “I mean, there was like a hundred people that showed up there. They were mostly our friends, and they were mostly there because they promised they would be...”
Though Keller quickly interjects. “There was a solid chunk of people who had just discovered us on Bandcamp, you know, locally, and they were there because they liked it!”
Which is the real key part of their story, and where their most prominent feature comes in handy - their name.
Before the band were a five-piece it was just Bozz and Melo performing acoustic as a duo. It’s Keller today, who first broaches the actual subject matter of the name itself by asking if we know the story behind it. Leading to Melo recalling it as if we were in a dive bar telling swapping stories after a couple of beers.
Their beginnings lie back at Appalachian State University. One of their friends developed a severe case of bacterial meningitis leading to an emergency hospital visit where it was pretty much touch and go as to whether or not he would survive. After three days he pulls through, which is where the ingenuity kicked in.
"We go visit him right, just me and Bozz about to go play our first coffee house set, and...we needed a name to sign up,” Melo explains. So naturally, they posited the question to him. “So, what should our name be? And they’d just taken the spinal tap out of him, he was like, ‘Rainbow Kitten Surprise, man’.”
Being the savvy and switched on mind that he is, Melo saw past something that could’ve easily been passed off as the slurred words of a medically-high mind. “But, like, so here’s my thing though - usually...I’d play that off comically and say that he was like, on all sorts of medication - which he was...but I really think on his part, that’s a little genius.” Continuing his explanation, he says. “I think that that was very intentional, to be honest. He’s very into the Reddit culture, like sub-Reddits and stuff, and the level of like arbitrariness of all those terms being put together...it’s like SUPER internety!”
"The energy has always been huge for us, I think we’re all just like ADHD kids with something to prove" - Sam Melo
Relishing in the opportunity before them, RKS have truly taken ownership of who they are to the point where they’re unstoppable. Though the trepidations were always there in regards to the name, it’s come to offer far more pros than cons, which Keller explains. “When you’re playing with multiple bands on a bill, like in the beginning, it was like, ok, people...they see our name...they have no idea what to expect, and we know that so...the music's gotta speak for itself you know? We gotta do what we do.”
Which they did with supreme grace, fortitude and being fuelled by the prospect of free beer in the early days. “We were cocky as hell...” Melo admits, to which Holt adds. “Fuck yeah we were! But we were just trying to get ourselves out there...in the process of doing that, and getting better, things did change a lot...”
Once the ball had started rolling, and they’d achieved their first paying gig (“We got it out of the ATM and just threw it all in our apartment!” Ethan shares enthusiastically.) that was it. They were unleashed.
“We stuck out like a sore thumb,” Melo begins. “But, I think being from North Carolina helped us immensely, I think we’re in the middle of a really prominent sort of music scene - not to say that there’s plenty happening in North Carolina, you know, I think it’s growing...it’s...the fact that there’s not that much to do. Like, ‘why not go to the show?’, as opposed to there’s everything to do in places like New York and LA - why would you?” Ethan slyly says through laughter, “[And] the surprise is that we didn’t suck...”
The future looks incredibly bright for RKS, as long as they’re able to keep up with the runaway train of the internet. Melo ends by breaking down exactly what the core of RKS belongs to. “The energy has always been huge for us, I think we’re all just like ADHD kids, just, with something to prove. That’s always who we have been, and you know, the name is ours and we’ll own it.”
They should have no problem becoming a permanent fixture in a fragile world that needs to cherish the idea of multiple components working in harmony to create something that really is thatlittle bit special. And the band are more than ready, as Melo finalises. “We sort of toiled for a long time, and with not a whole lot on our plates, so now it’s like, feed us as much as you can.”