The sound of modern life
The wildly eclectic Rainbow Kitten Surprise aims to make a soundtrack for the theatre of the times
Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s charmingly laid-back singer, Sam Melo, admits that things are happening fast when he’s reached on his cell in Salt Lake City. In some ways, his upcoming tour stop in Vancouver is a microcosm of the group’s current career trajectory. Rainbow Kitten Surprise was supposed to play the Imperial for its inaugural Lotusland appearance. Due to overwhelming demand, the show was moved to the larger (and promptly sold-out) Vogue.
Rainbow Kitten Surprise has gotten used to outgrowing rooms across North America. The group started out as a bedroom project and promptly blew up into a juggernaut buzz band. While there were days paying dues in grimy bars everywhere from Toad Suck, Arkansas, to Roachtown, Illinois, it never felt like the band was spinning its wheels.
“For the past couple of years we have never really played the same place twice,” Melo says, speaking with a soft North Carolina twang. “Everything has changed every time we go on tour. It’s been wild, the dramatic difference between now and when we started. In the beginning you have to try and make barrooms work. That’s when you’re sort of taking the band out of the garage and into the real world. You go in and set up knowing the difference between club shows and bar shows is that, first of all, nobody cares that you’re there at a bar until you start playing and win them over. Back then, we had no idea what this life would be like, and we weren’t even sure we would get here.”
For Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s just-released third album, How to: Friend, Love, Freefall, Melo and his bandmates—guitarists Darrick Keller and Ethan Goodpaster, drummer Jess Haney, and bassist Charlie Holt—went into the writing process knowing something big might happen. Starting out as a bedroom project of Keller and Melo’s, the band followed an appearance on the VH1 reality show Make a Band Famous with wellreceived singles such as “Devil Like Me” and “Cocaine Jesus”.
That early flush of success raised the stakes. Things got tricky during the writing of How to: Friend, Love, Freefall when the band realized the music business is a game with a thousand losers for every winner. That informed “Mission to Mars” lyrics like “Fading, faded, we never made it” and “Blow enough smoke to punch a hole in the ozone/ And all you say is ‘we should’ve stayed home.’”
“We were gaining a fair bit of momentum,” Melo says, “but even as we were making the record we were taking breaks to do festival sets, then going back to the studio. That kept us grounded. But there was also this feeling, especially in reference to ‘Mission to Mars’, that things were imploding in our personal lives back at home. As far as the band dynamics went, things weren’t working out great. It seemed like things would get to where we are now if we could just keep it together. But it also didn’t seem like we would be able to.
“We basically weren’t sure how, financially, this would pay off,” he continues. “Everyone had one foot in the band, and one foot out the door if things went sour. Even now, there are still bills and concerns for the future. That’s where the tension came from.”
When How to: Friend, Love, Freefall was done, Rainbow Kitten Surprise had an album that achieved the goal of capturing the times we live in. The days of pledging allegiance to a single genre—whether it be crusty gutter punk, Norwegian black metal, or made-in-compton hiphop—are long gone.
After taking a soul-jacked approach to indie folk, Rainbow Kitten Surprise stretched out on How to: Friend, Love, Freefall. Listen for traces of muggy Afrobeat in “Pacific Love” and throwback prog in “When It Lands”. Towering postrock guitars give “It’s Called: Freefall” and “Mission to Mars” a hypnotically meditative vibe, and Melo isn’t shy about unleashing his inner Kendrick Lamar on the reggae-dipped “Fever Pitch”.
“I think we’ve always looked to make music that’s what I call theatre of the times,” Melo says. “Hopefully, what we’re doing sounds relevant to what’s being done elsewhere right now. When I hear something that I really like, the first thing I wonder is ‘What year was this made in?’ That time context makes all the difference to me. I think it’s because there’s a slightly competitive nature to songwriting where you try to deconstruct an existing popular sound.”
If that sounds confusing, consider the other thinking that went into How to: Friend, Love, Freefall. A good reason for the quick rise of Rainbow Kitten Surprise has been a live show that’s reportedly nothing less than cathartic. For a primer, check out the band’s brilliant video for “Hide”; most of the clip’s six-and-a-half minutes are devoted, beautifully, to stories of drag queens coming out to their families in the American South. In the brief time RKS is shown on-screen, performing in a church, the band is magnetic.
That might explain why the group has quickly outgrown venues in almost every city it’s played in.
“Pretty early on, I think it was our third show, we were playing with this local North Carolina band called Jonas Sees in Color,” Melo says. “We opened. I remember going out for a cig, and then coming back in and seeing the singer standing in the middle of the audience. He went to the bar,
ordered a shot, took it, and then gets up on the bar, not stopping the performance at all. He’s walking along the bar, somehow navigating his mike and his cord, the crowd helping him every step of the way. I was like, ‘Man, that’s how you gotta engage people—you gotta be all-in.’ There were probably only 30 or 40 people in the room. But what that taught me is that you really have to give people a memorable experience. And that means going balls to the wall.”
Rainbow Kitten Surprise plays the Vogue Theatre on Friday (May 4).
From soul-jacked indie folk and muggy Afrobeat to throwback prog and towering postrock, Rainbow Kitten Surprise incorporates a wide range of influences.