Monday, August 15, 2022

First Boone, then the world: Rainbow Kitten Surprise drummer talks the fast-track of success

Rainbow Kitten Surprise will perform at downtown Wilmington’s Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park on Saturday. (Photo by Aubrey Denis)

When Jess Haney was asked to join Rainbow Kitten Surprise — at a time when the band members attended college at Appalachian State University — he certainly wasn’t thinking it would be a long-term commitment. In fact, as commitments go, it was as minimal as it gets.   

“I got into the band through Ethan,” Haney said, referencing guitarist Ethan Goodpaster during a recent phone interview.

The two went to high school together and played in Haney’s basement, often performing their favorite covers.

“I wasn’t like a full-time drummer,” Haney said. “It was just kind of a thing I did in high school with my friends.”

Goodpaster volunteered Haney to pitch in during a few shows with RKS. He reluctantly agreed to one show, Haney recalled. “I always thought it was funny that I was insistent that I was only going to do one — it changed my life forever.”

RKS started out as duo, featuring singer Sam Melo — who recently announced on Twitter he now is referred to as “Ela Melo” and goes by pronouns she/her/hers — and guitarist Darrick “Bozzy” Keller. They played shows around the Boone, N.C., area in between writing and recording some of the earliest RKS tracks.

Before long, Melo and Keller had grown RKS into a full band with Haney, Goodpaster and bassist Charlie Holt. 

Even by this early stage, there were signs RKS might balloon beyond a just-for-fun college-years band. In 2013, Melo and Keller self-released a three-song EP, “Mary,” and the band followed with a self-released full-length, “Seven.”

The group then worked out a deal with Split Rail Records, a student-run label at Appalachian State’s Hayes School of Music, and released a self-titled album.

Things have since snowballed quickly for the band, which got its unique name when visiting a friend in the hospital. While in a heavily medicated state, the friend inexplicably kept repeating the phrase “Rainbow Kitten Surprise.”

One trigger of RKS’s success came after they submitted their song “Devil Like Me” for the VH-1 reality show “Make a Band Famous”; it was voted into the top 24. RKS appeared on the show, and even though the group was eliminated in the first round of competition, it brought a notable measure of exposure.

“Devil Like Me” went on to score radio play, along with “Cocaine Jesus” and “Lady Lie.” It propelled RKS on to tours and appearances at notable festivals as Bonnaroo and Sasquatch. In turn, it drew the attention of Elektra Records, which signed RKS, setting the table for an even bigger breakout. 

“It was zero to 100 for us, really,” Haney said and called it “surreal.” “It all just happened so fast. One day we were all sitting in Boone and the next thing we were touring the world. It was incredible. I just couldn’t be more thankful to be able to do what we do.”

The move to Elektra Records put the band on a very different level. Suddenly, the five musicians found themselves driving to Nashville (where they all now live), setting up shop in the high-end studio (Neon Cross Studios) and working with one of the most in-demand producers, Jay Joyce.

“[D]oing it with Jay Joyce in Nashville in like this incredible studio with all of this support behind us … it is incredible,” Haney said.

Learning how to navigate the technology and capabilities that come with a true professional studio wasn’t the only challenge for RKS. Haney said they saw themselves as “kids playing music in bars in Boone.”

The band arrived in Nashville with only a couple of songs written and roughly two-and-a-half weeks to flesh out the songs and record the rest of what became the 2018 album, “How To Friend, Love, Freefall.”

“It was something we had to get acclimated to a bit,” Haney said.

It was going to be the first time all five band members were involved in the creative process from the ground-up. The time constraints worked in their favor, Haney said.

“We were pumping out a song a day and it felt good. Obviously, some days we didn’t get anything. But then some days we got more than one song. … it was a lot of fun”

The rise in popularity was significant upon the release of “How To Friend.” Songs like “It’s Called: Freefall,” “Fever Pitch” and “Hide,” all from the latest LP, have helped push the band’s total number of streams past a half-billion.

What’s also contributed mightily to RKS’s success is their exuberant and energetic live shows. The band’s music is a distinctly modern, vocally layered, wide-ranging mix of rock, hip-hop, world beat, folk and pop. It evades categorization yet somehow feels accessible and highly inclusive.

The RKS live experience was documented with a release last year of the 25-song concert release, “Live From Athens Georgia,” recorded on tour in 2019. Timing played a part in the decision for its release — it’s something Haney said the band had always considered doing: a live record.

“Then the pandemic came along, and the world didn’t get to have live music anymore,” he said. “So it just kind of seemed like the right time to give that to the people when they needed it the most. Obviously, it’s not going to show, like being there, but it’s about as close as you can get. And that’s kind of what we were going for.”

Fans that see RKS on tour this summer can expect some visual pizazz and a wide-ranging setlist and show inspired by a three-show stand the band played between Christmas and New Year’s Day at the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville.

“Over those three nights, we played the entire catalog and some new ones,” Haney said. “So we’re trying to take that forward and just play as many of the songs as we can, and as many of the new ones (the band is working on a fourth studio album) that we can fit in there, too. Hopefully we’ve still got it from Christmas.”

RKS will perform Saturday, July 2, at Live Oak Bank Pavilion at Riverfront Park. Some tickets are still available for the 7:30 p.m. show.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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