Backstage before their recent sold-out show at First Avenue, I sat down with most of Rainbow Kitten Surprise. The North Carolinians are on the come-up in the national alternative music scene after a successful festival season during summer 2017.
The band comprise Jess Haney, drums; Sam Melo, vocals and keys; Derrick “Bozzy” Keller, vocals and guitar; Ethan Goodpaster, guitar; and Charlie Holt, backup vocals, bass, and self-proclaimed yo-yo playing hype-man. All but Bozzy were able to join me for a chat.
Maia Jacobson: Let’s start with a little bit of background just so those who aren’t super familiar with ya’ll can get to know who you guys are, where you’re from, how long you’ve been playing together, that kind of thing.
Sam Melo: Well, we’re from Boone, North Carolina and we’ve been playing together for about five years now. It started off as this folk-guitar duo, [and] shortly after we added guitar, drums, bass with these guys.
Charlie Holt: We were college kids in a town of only college students and there’s nothing else to do — the nearest interstate is like an hour away — so we all just kinda hung out and played music.
Jess Haney: We all lived in the same dorm our freshman year. That’s how we met.
Since Prince’s passing people here have been talking more and more about the Minneapolis Sound and the rise of Prince and all his cohorts here. Is there anyone like that in North Carolina for you, that influenced you as much as Prince has influenced artists here?
Holt: We have a really strong folk music tradition and a lot of that stems from old gospel and stuff in the south — but for a long time, if you wanted to hear music, you had to go listen to people playing music, probably down at a church or somebody’s house and they were just jamming. That idea that anybody can make music and that it’s for anybody to play and consume is a really southern, Appalachian tradition.
Ethan Goodpaster: I think there’s a lot of good North Carolina bands. The Avett Brothers were huge to all of us.
Melo: I don’t think we’ve had anybody quite at a Prince caliber, anyone with that sort of definitive sound, but that almost spurs you on more to try and build that. Right now coming out of North Carolina you’ve got Future Islands, you’ve got Sylvan Esso, and especially in the Triangle area, there’s a lot coming out…but I think we’re trying to build [on] that sound more than calling back to a past.
Holt: We became a band in a college town, which is really transitory anyway. There’s not really a culture of music in any college town because so many people are moving in and out all the time.
With this latest release, How to: Friends, Love, Freefall, the evolution in your sound is fairly evident from the dorm room recordings to studio production. Where do you find yourselves in that changing sound…how do you navigate the evolution?
Haney: When the band started, I know I wasn’t that great of a musician. We all grew together as musicians and as a band, and I think that has helped grow our band into something not only more collaborative, but that’s also musically intricate.
Melo: You can listen to the early recordings and even if it’s just like two acoustic guitars and an electric drumkit and an electric guitar and bass, it’ll be super simple chord progressions or song structures with eighth notes, but it has the spirit of trying to be more intricate. It’s attempting. It’s a folk song attempting at rock or attempting at alt or electronic, and as we’ve come into more ways to produce sound, it felt like a natural integration to do that. We’re making the music now that we always wanted to make but maybe didn’t know how to make. You grow, and you learn how to produce.
A lot of indie bands, not unlike yourselves, hold this idea of honesty really close to them. Do you think this album is your most honest?
Melo: Yeah, I think that this is the most honest for sure. Part of that is because on the early records, I was making a lot of electronic music on the side and trying to merge this folk and electronic together. The guys were like, “you’ve got something good in there but like there’s way too many ideas. You got to cut it down; it sounds like nonsense as it is. Just find the kernel and run with that.” So that’s what we were trying to do with style and production and sampling and chopping and looping, so a lot of the early work is a sample-based work. We would record five minutes and chop it down to a minute, working with the overtones and making it line up, as opposed to this album which is truer to a live performance. It’s more based on a response than a post-production kind of thing.
So then how are your older albums translating into live shows now that you have this content that is truer to a live performance in its recorded form?
Holt: A lot of aspects of the new sound was developed slowly by touring with the old records. We didn’t release the record for two years, so we were touring with a lot of the material before it was released.
Melo: Yeah and to pick up with what Charlie said, the sound was the effort to translate something that was largely sample-based into a live performance. I mean, you hear the show and you hear the recording and they sound different, but the development we did, playing the old material out and elaborating on it is what allowed for this album to exist.
Goodpaster: The way we play the old stuff now is definitely more upbeat, a little rockier than what it is on the albums.
Haney: Yeah, there’s just a whole different vibe to the music then versus how we play it now –
Melo: Yeah, because it’s headphone music on the recording. It’s a rock show and there’s a lot more energy to get out on stage, you know?
Goodpaster: I think us trying to figure out how to play those headphone songs live really created the sound for the new album.
Holt: There was a lot of communication and talking to get through with this last album.
Melo: A lot of arguing!
Holt: A lot of arguing! But at the end of it, we were all stoked and I feel like everyone’s voice got heard and we were able to create something that was truly us. And this was the first time that we listened to the album and were like “this is us.”
Melo: I feel like we had a really nicely decorated room that we were trying to do a photoshoot in and we all ended up getting in a fight and ended up like tearing the chandelier down and what we ended up making at the end of the day was a still art, this deconstructed beautiful thing that through a happy accident felt more natural in the end.
In the end of “Hide,” you sing “You better hide your love / Hide your love.” Would you mind explaining some of that? Who is supposed to be hiding their love and why?
Melo: I think it’s a broader thing, it’s more conceptual. Where it comes from is predominately…oh God, I hate to just insert my personal narrative into this, but I grew up in the Dominican Republic, which has a really macho-istic culture and it’s not okay to be gay, it’s still not, even in 2018. I knew about three gay kids when I was growing up that got picked on every day for being gay and it was just horrible. To be open about it was social suicide, and it that’s where it comes from; if you want your love to last, don’t show it off.
Holt: In the south too, in the Bible Belt, having a gay relationship that lasts years without either of you meeting each other’s families of talking about it in any form until the day you die is very very normal. I also think of it, like with the video we did, the idea of social suicide and for a heterosexual supporter in some circles in the south will have to hide their love for their child, or their friend, because of who they are. To me it’s almost satirical. I mean, “hide your love,” what does that even mean? You’re supposed to let your light shine! Oh God, Sunday school is coming out now! Just, be who you are, love who you are!
Melo: Also, maybe hide what’s really sacred to you behind an overly flashy façade. Sometimes it’s a defense mechanism to let it all hang out.
Holt: I could talk about that song forever.
You sold out the 7th St Entry last year, and you sold out the Mainroom tonight. H ow does that feel? Any thoughts on Minneapolis?
Holt: I love Minneapolis! I love Gay 90’s bar!
Goodpaster: I remember when we played 7th St and we walked into [the Mainroom] and were like “holy s—, this place is huge!” And then we walked in here today and it seemed smaller than we remembered it being.
Holt: Last time we played here was our first time touring outside of the main east coast market we had done before, and everyone on our team was like “Alright guys, you’re about to hit the Midwest, be prepared, nobody is going to come see your shows, you’re gonna be playing really small rooms.” But the reaction that we got in the Midwest was…[clutches heart].
Melo: I just remember how great it felt to play to a crowd of 200-300 people with the response they gave was better than any 700-800 person show.
Holt: Friendly, and just great! I had never been to the Midwest before and the friendliness was different. It’s not the tongue-in-cheek southern hospitality.
Melo: This is where my mom’s side of the family is from. My grandma lives in Wilbur, Minnesota, and I have family in Minneapolis. So, I remember this place from a long time ago, and to come back and feel this welcomed is just awesome.
Holt: We also love Minnesota bands like Hippo Campus.
Melo: Yeah, we do. We love it here.