Rainbow Kitten Surprise evolves to keep going

Listen to a profile of Rainbow Kitten Surprise

The vast majority of bands that start in a college dorm room — playing the likes of dive bars and keg parties — don’t last past graduation.

Rainbow Kitten Surprise, formed on the campus of Appalachian State in 2013, has defied those odds for over a decade. And that has more than a little to do with the group dynamics its members have cultivated. Though RKS has weathered profound change and even come close to calling it quits — particularly in the years leading up to new album Love Hate Music Box — its willingness to evolve musically, and make room for its members to evolve personally, has kept it going.

That adaptation was on full display when RKS convened in Nashville in April to prepare for its first tour in a good, long while. As they ran through a set list combining new and old material, lead guitarist Ethan Goodpaster had to do some experimenting. He tapped his pedal board with his toe, strummed a chord and sent watery tones through the sound system that he’d never needed to make with his instrument before.

“It was really fun to go through all these new pedals and effects,” he said after rehearsal, “to figure out, ‘Okay, how do we make this guitar sound like a synthesizer?’ ”

Goodpaster and many of his band mates hailed from tiny North Carolina towns, and they found each other at college, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The hearty folk singalongs they played at first sounded like where they were from. Very quickly, though, they expanded into other styles, including rhythmically intricate indie rock and elastic fusions of hip-hop and jam band sensibilities. Though they relied primarily on hand-played instruments, occasionally, the music would even mirror the structure of EDM, crescendoing to dramatic drops.

But the music RKS is making now relies more heavily on electronic elements.

Ultimately, we’re not the same people we were,” reasoned rhythm guitarist and harmony singer Darrick “Bozzy” Keller. “When we started this band, we were basically kids in college. I would have never specifically pictured this as a destination.”

Leading the way has been agile, slyly magnetic vocalist Ela Melo, who’s written most of the material on her own. From the beginning, she saw a significant difference between the ways that initial RKS songs and the final arrangements came together, treating the former as vehicles for her individual expression and the latter as a collaborative effort.

“It’s always been hard to let go of this stuff that I was creating in my room and let it take shape as Rainbow Kitten Surprise,” she observed. “That’s where it gets its wings.”

Reaching big realizations in the spotlight

Early recording projects brought the band internet buzz and choice festival bookings. They signed to a major label for their Jay Joyce-produced 2018 album, How To: Friend, Love, Freefall, and vaulted into greater visibility.

People paid a lot of attention to a track on it called “Hide” that had a spiky, angular feel, but conveyed a vulnerable sentiment. The music video depicted drag queens in the South coming out to loved ones. Melo hadn’t yet transitioned to living as a woman, and the song was interpreted as a sort of anthem for men who love men. But in interviews at the time, she was reluctant to emphasize it as her own coming out moment.

“I just remember conversations with the label and stuff, people wanting to be like, ‘Are we trying to make a statement here?’” she said. “And, no, that wasn’t my intention at all. I was just shy about it.”

“I never felt comfortable with that identity, of being, like, this gay man. And now I look back and I say, ‘That’s why!’” she chuckles. “[But] when I came out as trans, it’s like, ‘No, you need to know this, and you need to know this tomorrow.’”

That happened a couple of years ago, and Melo made sure to share the news with each of bandmate individually. “It was a beautiful thing to see, like she was taking a deep breath,” Goodpaster recalled. “And we’re just like, ‘Hell yeah! Let’s go!”

Melo reintroduced herself to RKS fans in a social media post, and they embraced her too. Says Goodpaster, “We have a really cool fanbase. It’s a very strong-willed group of people, and they’ve stuck with us.”

But those who had tickets to RKS shows during the latter half of 2023 didn’t get to see their beloved band. The dates were cancelled.

‘A stressful job’

Melo was psychologically drained.

“I was so explicit in saying that I couldn’t do it anymore, and it took me months to kind of climb out of that hole.”

“Yeah, there were times when I really just thought that this was not going to work out,” Keller echoed in a separate interview.

Even though Melo’s band mates were in limbo, Goodpaster, perched on a chair next to Keller, remembered everyone responding with understanding. “It’s a stressful job,” he noted, “and the longer you do it and the bigger you get at it, the more stressful it gets. And keeping everybody’s mental health in the forefront of this whole business is really the only practical way to do it.”

Melo’s mental health improved once she received the diagnosis and treatment she needed. She found that she could write again, and started piling up demos for what would become a new RKS album.

She scrolled through a Google drive filled with those old recordings on her phone and cued up one of them. “OK, so this is what became the first song off the record.” The recording captured her repeating “lost boys, lost boys” like a mantra, over dystopian-sounding synthesizer surges. Eventually the vocals morph into something like a one-sided conversation. “It goes on for about five minutes,” Melo said over it. “It’s just kind of ad-libbed, you know, off the cuff king of thing.”

She moved on to another demo, this one pitch-shifted up to a strange, chipmunk-like register. There were such long chunks of tape of her making her way through thickets of perceptions, images and ideas that that she sped them up, she explained, so that she could search through them more quickly. “At a certain point, I just started chasing soundscapes.”

The imagery in many of the lyrics Melo was writing blurred the lines between supernatural and slangy, and she was up front about why she thinks that is. “Let me be very frank about what is literal and what is what is not, and what is dreamed and what is not,” she began. “As a person with bipolar one who experienced quite a bit of — I don’t know what you call it; psychosis or manic episodes — it’s very hard to separate what was real and what was not.”

‘Clawing at the walls’

When Melo first shared those seeds of songs with her band mates, Goodpaster recalled, he found it to be “a lot to sort through. But I don’t think we’ve ever made a record the same way twice, so it was just a new way of doing it.”

A more striking development is the way Melo’s expanded the range of her vocal expression. When she transitioned, she’d looked into, and decided against, making surgical changes to her voice. Instead, she’s played with new ways of using her instrument, making subtle adjustments to her tone or inflection and reaching for confiding bass and airy falsetto notes alike.

“I sing the lowest on this record that I’ve ever sang, and there’s like a huge part of me that grapples with that,” she said. “But I also sing as high as I’ve ever sang, and as light and as soft as I’ve ever sang. It’s sort of me clawing at the walls of what’s possible.”

That extended to instrumentation. In the studio with her co-producers Daniel Tashian and Konrad Snyder, she worried that synthesizer and drum machine patterns she was gravitating towards might be a stretch for the band. “My first thought,” she remembered, “was, ‘Okay, well, who’s going to be playing all this?’”

The members worked it out, like they always have. For the first time, they’ve added a touring keyboardist. Goodpaster expanded his arsenal of guitar effects, and drummer Jess Haney incorporated new textures. And since they parted ways with founding bassist Charlie Holt after completing Love Hate Music Box — the one change that Melo still finds difficult to talk about — they had to search for a replacement who could execute those parts on the road.

It’s typical, even trite, for artists to describe their latest work as their greatest work, but it carries actual meaning when Melo says that now about Rainbow Kitten Surprise. “I’ll just say this is the most proud I’ve ever been of anything that we, as a collective, have put out there,” she summed up. “Sonically, it wasn’t quite what I imagined, but it’s better. That’s never happened before, as far as I’m concerned. The difference is I dreamed a thing, and then the reality was better than my dream.”