Before Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s sold-out show at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul last month, I met up with Sam Melo (lead vocals and keys) and Charlie Holt (bass).
The North Carolina band have been on the fast track to success in recent years, their first two albums gaining enough support that they began playing some of the largest festivals in the nation. After the release of their third album, How To: Friend, Love, Freefall (2018), they continued on that high, selling out some of the largest venues in cities around the country. Their music blends alt-rock, hip-hop, pop, and electronic with stream-of-consciousness lyrics by Melo.
I caught Melo and Holt after their VIP acoustic set for about 50 or so fans, where they played in the middle of the GA floor with everyone gathered around them. When they were finished meeting with fans, Melo and Holt led me to a greenroom backstage, their arms slung over each other’s shoulders chatting about how cool the slight and off-the-cuff variations in the songs were while they were jamming during the acoustic session.
Here’s what they had to say about each song on the album.
Charlie Holt: “Pacific Love” had that bass line with the rotary filter on it and then the harmonies came after that, but it was a full song.
Sam Melo: Yeah, it was several full songs. It was the first thing that was ever written, like in early scratch recordings for the album, and so just the necessity on principle to include it at the top of the album, even if in retrospect…
Holt: Trying really hard to make the song work, and then it’s like, “Well, that a capella part at the beginning!”
Melo: Right. It went from three to two to 20 seconds, and then it was just like, “Cool, cool. Let’s just do that.”
“Mission to Mars”
Melo: We had “Mission to Mars” towards the end of the record and I think [producer] Jay [Joyce] was like, “Yo, you should put it at the beginning.”
Holt: We just laid down a jam, a tinkering kind of swell thing.
Melo: It assumed form, but it’s more aesthetic than anything.
Melo: “Fever Pitch” is a long time in the making.
Holt: That was the first song we tracked in the studio, as soon as we got in.
Melo: In one of our really early recordings, we had just the bass part doing the holy roll thing. “I got that holy roll,” and just doing that for like 30 minutes, you know. It went nowhere until I sat down to try and finish it out and could never really get a second verse. Then I was like, this is a rap song, it just keeps devolving — not devolving into that, but devolving into that, you know what I mean? I don’t know how to make this not a rap song, and then is it rap-rock at that point. The word rap-rock…it’s just like, “Please don’t bring it back, oh man, come on dog!” But at the end of the day, we had the song and it was playable and I just had to get a second verse. They were all like, “Dude, you have a second verse. Just do that ‘well I know you can’t walk’!”
“It’s Called: Freefall”
Melo: That was on a Lowrey Genie organ and only two keys worked — G and D — so I just started alternating between those. I got the organ, I had to replace the plug, and this was to replace another Genie organ that we had had a couple years before. I was excited I had a Lowrey back, you know. So I replaced the plug, plugged it in, and finally got it to turn on and I stepped on the key bass and was like, “It works!” But then I pressed the actual keys and only two of them [worked]. This was twice as heavy as the last one was, so I was like, whatever, and threw it to like this sequence of things that just starts going “bumbum bum bumbum” and it just had that “call to the devil and the devil did come/ said to the devil” kind of vibe. It just kind of came into being and flowed pretty quickly after that.
Holt: It was one of the first ones we played live. We played it a lot and had it down before we went into the studio, where a lot of these songs were figured out in the studio. “Freefall” is one that the road built.
Holt: It used to just be a piano track and I was like, “Oh my gosh, Sam, that’s what it is, it’s just a piano track and you.” But then he came and showed me this new idea to make it sound like a war and I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it!”
Melo: With the “kaboom” sound. It was towards the end of when we were in the studio that I was getting into the really abstract sort of soundscape stuff, and trying to fill out the harmonic spectrum as much as possible to just blow it all the way up. A lot of the ideas seemed pretty farfetched when I was pitching them; luckily we had a producer that was twice as crazy as I was and could make it work. He was like, “I see where you’re going and I’m gonna take it a step further!”
Holt: In Columbia, we were playing at some punk venue and there was no greenroom in that venue. It was like a bar. I was looking for Sam; we were all hanging out at the bar talking to people. I go and look in the van, and back where all the gear is, there’s Sam surrounded by like four or five giant pieces of paper and Sharpies, just writing out the lyrics to “Matchbox.” He looks up and goes, “I wrote a song called ‘Matchbox,’ can I play it for you?” And he did!
Melo: Yeah. I was like, “I can’t actually play this because I don’t have any chords to it, but I’ll just do the thing.”
Holt: Oh, I remember! “Moody Orange” came first through a mixtape. Sam made a mixtape of rap music and I was like, this song is too much of a banger to not be a Rainbow Kitten Surprise song! It was just organ originally, and that guitar riff.
Maia Jacobson: Did the mixtape ever come out?
Melo: Oh it never went out, thank God.
Jacobson: We talked a little bit about the coming out story and music video for “Hide” last time we spoke, and you’ve been interviewed on that a lot recently. Is there anything else to say?
Melo: I feel like we’ve been talking about a lot of the sounds today.
Holt: Yeah, we can talk about the sounds and how we did that. That song was one of those things that we kind of fleshed out in the moment.
Melo: Well! I got a pretty clear timeline on it because I had to dig it up a couple months ago. Interestingly enough, that song took three shapes in about three years; just about every year it was different. At first, it was just on the original Lowrey Genie organ I had.
Jacobson: The one that wasn’t broken.
Melo: I mean they’re all sort of broken because they’re ’70s electronics! But, so that first one was kind of a pop chord progression with the first verse and didn’t have any of the “Hide,” like raw components to it. I let that sit; that was circa Bonnaroo 2015. The next component of that was a song called “Clutches,” which is that middle portion, which is a whole song just based around that guitar riff that plays for all of five seconds. We sat with that and tried to work that out for the next year, and when we were going into the studio, I started lumping all of the back catalog, B-side stuff together, trying to compress it as much as possible. That’s actually how we got the “Holy War” weirdness: because I’m just trying to take all the songs I’ve ever written, at all, and put them into as much material that we can produce so when we go in there we have stuff to work with. “Hide” became a sandwich of all that and nobody had really heard it. We had never tried to work it out because I had never been willing to show it to anybody. But when we started to work it out, jamming on a chord progression, I was like, “Well, I’ve got nothing else, I might as well sing the lyrics,” and somehow just singing the lyrics fed this undercurrent of what I had been trying to go for in tracks that literally nobody had heard, and somehow we replicated and there was information embedded in the words.
Holt: We had our first records out but our live show is really high-energy and to get that vocal take was really like, “Wow, we finally captured what we’re looking for. That’s us.”
Melo: Yeah, that’s us.
“When It Lands”
Holt: We played that one live a bit before it came out.
Melo: That was a couple of songs
Holt: “Sugar City.”
Melo: Yeah, “Sugar City,” which is really just a weird sort of trip-hop, EDM-y, sort of R&B fusion dance instrumental track, mostly. A pretty odd sort of cacophony of things, and what came out when I switched to piano. We worked that song from the ground up, like really played the hell out of it just to get it on the road. Because when we were going into this it’s like, “All right, Sam, you’ve got 18 songs here, and about 12 of them are playable by a live band and the rest by computer. Let’s pick one of them and work on it for six months and hopefully we’ll have half a song by the end of that.”
Melo: That one came together pretty quickly. It was just a guitar riff, and then that first line comes out. I actually wasn’t going to finish that song, but we finished it because we got a message detailing somebody losing a friend to a heroin overdose.
Jacobson: I’m sorry to hear that.
Melo: We didn’t know these people until they hit us up. And it was just kind of out of the blue and it was historic, just this huge, huge message detailing this whole ins and outs of this friend group and it was like, “Well, if I wasn’t gonna finish this song before, I definitely am now.” You never know how far to go down that hole because everybody has experience with it, it’s a reality. Even commenting on it is not really affecting it, necessarily. That might be a little cynical, but it’s like, how much do you acknowledge it, how much do you make light of what can be made light of and then if nothing else, just make it bearable? It doesn’t have to be sad, it doesn’t have to be mad, it doesn’t have to be regretful, just call it what it is and move on.
Holt: We played that one a lot but never played it live. It was a lot slower and kind of had a “Lady Lie” swing-y feel to it, and it had a crazy dubstep bass drop.
Melo: Oh man, it had that gate right?! Trance gate on it, like a synthy “swoop, woop woop woop” on it.
Melo: Man, it seems like every single song on that record is diving in a day in the studio and just making a mess! Just a hot mess of like eight minutes worth of tracks that we thought were absolutely essential to the song and cutting it down to two.
Holt: I remember hearing Sam record the vocal track for “Recktify” before I had any idea of what it was going to be. It was just insane! Love that song!
Jacobson: It’s an interesting title!
Melo: I had to do it, had to do it! Made a promise. That was just kind of a side track that I never really pitched to be on the record. It was something that was just a personal project of mine, and I made a promise to a friend that she would be the last track on whatever the next album was and we hadn’t recorded RKS yet. We we had just tracked “Recktify,” it was the last day in the studio and we were gonna end the record with what, 11 songs?
Holt: I think it was nine then
Melo: Yeah, nine songs! Yeah, it’s not going down like that! So I was like “Jay, I think I’ve got a couple more things, we’ve still got three hours, right?” He said we could lay something down and see what happens and I said to [drummer] Jess [Haney], “I showed you that thing called ‘Possum Queen,’ do you remember what it is?” He said yeah, like a “doo doo, da, doodoo da da.” This sort of offbeat, breakbeat thing. He came in and out just at perfect timing, and think that was the first take. We still had some time so I was like, “All right, you remember that ‘Polite Company’ ‘Radar’ jam thing? I’m gonna try and lay that down.” They go and mic the piano with probably 45 minutes left in the session and just start banging it out.
Holt: Yeah he lays down “Polite Company” and the track was rolling. Boz and I were just sitting in our chairs with our guitars and we just started playing “Radar” immediately afterward, and and we thought we were going to put them next to each other, but that we’d track them separately. It ended up just being that one take. You can hear Jess, like, pick up his drumsticks and go into the booth.
Melo: Yeah, Jess didn’t know we were rolling at all until [guitarist] Ethan [Goodpaster] was like, “Is everybody ready?” and Charlie was like, “No, everybody is not ready, guys!”