What is genre in the streaming age?
Strict musical niches made sense in yesteryear. When physical distance and money are more of an obstacle, specialty is not only the most economic option, but the most practical.
Today, however, the only thing one needs to explore a new sound or musical style is the initiative to search for it on a computer or phone. In an era of endless consumption, it is natural to cherry-pick elements from different things we enjoy and make them our own. And in most cases, music is all the richer for it.
This is definitely true in the case of Rainbow Kitten Surprise, a hybrid group clearly built on a folk and Americana foundation but with an alternative rock aesthetic that occasional dips into the sounds of pop, R&B and hip-hop.
Perhaps getting a start in an unlikely spot like Boone, North Carolina, liberated the band from the shackles of precedent and expectation. RKS is most recognized for its distinctly bearded songwriter, keyboardist and frontman Sam Melo. Charlie Holt plays bass and operates as a secondary vocalist. Drummer Jess Haney and guitarists Ethan Goodpaster and Derrick “Bozzy” Keller round out the roster.
Doors open 7 p.m. Aug. 21 for RKS’ local stop at The Jones Assembly, 901 W. Sheridan Ave. Tickets are $22.50-$55. Los Angeles alternative four-piece Wilderado opens the show.
Comparisons to Kings of Leon will be inevitable, but the truth is RKS is one of one. In April, the band released the LP How to: Friend, Love, Freefall — its debut on Elektra Records, a label that also houses Zac Brown Band, Young the Giant, Shooter Jennings and more.
The band — which allegedly got its name after a friend repeatedly muttered the phrase while under the influence of postsurgical pain relief drugs — met and began on the campus of Appalachian State University. Its early recordings certainly carry a dorm-rock feel, but Friend, Love, Freefall brings the sound to a cosmic level through the magic of Nashville’s Neon Cross Music studio.
RKS has always aspired to grand and eclectic soundscapes, even in the days it was not quite capable of achieving it. Melo told Minnesota’s KCMP The Current that the group’s debut studio product feels like a dream finally actualized.
“You can listen to the early recordings, and even if it’s just like two acoustic guitars and an electric drum kit 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,” Melo told The Current. “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.”
RKS grows more than just sonically on Friend, Love, Freefall. It is also the first album the band has put out since Melo has publically come out as gay. Rather than relegating personal sexuality and orientation as a side note in the band’s history, this album is a platform on which larger ideas are communicated.
“Hide,” the song that might well be the best tune in the relatively short RKS catalogue, is certainly the best RKS music video.
Director Kyle Thrash, whose incredible work music fans might recognize from cuts like The Menzingers’ “After the Party” or Sorority Noise’s “No Halo,” shoots in beautiful high resolution to bring the story of four real New Orleans-based drag queens to life.
In a video interview with Paste Magazine, Melo said “Hide” was an early song in the record writing process that was not fully fleshed out until the band was finally in the studio. It is his coming-out story, but it also has a broader message of acceptance.
“It’s just a song about discovering a part of you that was truly essential — in my case — to who I would become,” Melo told Paste. “It helped me grow into, I don’t know, a more accepting person.”
The song opens up with Kev, who enters his car and tells the cameraman that he is on a journey to reveal to his father that he is a drag queen for the first time. He has no idea how he will react, but uncertainty is not stopping him.
“I’m going to have a very open and honest relationship with him,” Kev says in the video, “whether he accepts it or not.”
Thrash, in an interview with Billboard, said he was recruited to do the video by Melo. They found all the drag queens in the video without a casting call. News organically spread from one person to another.
“It was us approaching different queens through different circles,” Thrash told Billboard. “Some through word of mouth, some through social media. It got around that we were doing this project and the New Orleans drag community, where we shot it, is amazing; I can’t speak more highly of it. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and helpful.”
The video achieves real, heart-racing drama when Kev, in full drag, arrives at his father’s house, gets out of the car and knocks on the door. The viewer has no idea where the story is about to go, and Thrash said in the moment he was not sure either.
“We were all sitting in the car that night, kind of a nervous wreck,” Thrash said. “We were nervous about what would happen and how his father would react. I had never done anything like that before.”
His father’s reaction is shock, and understandably so. His father explains that he was raised differently and understands why his son feels like he needs to hide certain things from him. But at the end of the video, the father offers nothing but acceptance.
“I’m your biggest fan — whatever you do, you know?” he tells his son. “Whatever you do, I’m your biggest fan.”
“Hide” highlights drag as an art form and provides a vehicle for communicating the band’s great potential to a larger audience. Thrash thanked everyone who shared their stories with the world.
“Hopefully people will see it on a number of different levels, especially on a human level,” he told Billboard. “These are beautiful people on the inside and out who have these moments of struggle in the landscape of the South and being so brave to do what they do.”