When Jess Haney was asked to join Rainbow Kitten Surprise while the band members were in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, 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. “Me and Ethan went to high school together and we kind of played in my basement and did covers of random things. I wasn’t like a full-time drummer. It was just kind of a thing I did in high school with my friends. And Ethan ended up getting into the band and he was like ‘Well, my roommate used to play drums and he might be able to help us out with a few shows. I was like ‘OK, I’ll do one show with you guys and then we’ll figure it out from there.’
“I always thought it was funny that I was insistent that I was only going to do one show,” Haney said. “It changed my life forever.”
Up to then, Rainbow Kitten Surprise had been the duo of singer Ela Melo and guitarist Darrick “Bozzy” Keller. They had started playing shows around the Boone area and wrote and recorded the earliest Rainbow Kitten Surprise songs as a duo.
But before long, Melo and Keller decided they wanted to have a full band, and that’s when fellow students Haney, Goodpaster and bassist Charlie Holt joined up.
In 2013, Melo and Keller had self-released a three-song EP, Mary, and the band followed that with a self-released full-length, Seven. followed by the album RKS. Things have happened fast since then for the band, which got its unique name when visiting a friend in the hospital, who while in a heavily medicated state, inexplicably kept repeating the phrase Rainbow Kitten Surprise.
When the band submitted their song “Devil Like Me” for the VH-1 reality show Make a Band Famous, it went on to get radio play, which propelled the band to performances at notable festivals like Bonnaroo and Sasquatch and drew the attention of Elektra Records.
“It was all just very surreal,” Haney said. “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 found the five musicians driving to Nashville (where they all now live), setting up shop in Neon Cross Studios and working with in-demand producer Jay Joyce.
“Yeah, it was zero to 100 for us, really,” Haney said. “It was like, we did RKS. We did that on a studio-run label thing, and all of that was cool. Then a couple of years later we’re doing it with Jay Joyce in Nashville in like this incredible studio with all of this (label) support behind us. It was incredible, but it was a lot to take on at the time. Somewhere in our minds, we’re still just the kids playing music in bars in Boone. So to make that jump was definitely a little bit of a shock for all of us. I think it was something we had to get acclimated to a bit.”
Learning how to navigate the technology and capabilities that come with a true professional studio wasn’t the only challenge for Rainbow Kitten Surprise.
The band had arrived in Nashville with only a couple of songs somewhat written and all of roughly two and a half weeks to write and record the rest of the songs for what became the 2018 album, How To Friend, Love, Freefall. What’s more, this was going to be the first time all five band members were involved in the creative process from the ground up.
“I think the (time) restraint was probably good for us,” Haney said. “Yeah, 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 ended up working out, and we did it. I don’t know, it was a lot of fun.”
What’s also been fun has been the significant growth in the popularity of Rainbow Kitten Surprise since the release of How To Friend. The band has especially found success on streaming platforms, where songs from the latest album, such as “It’s Called: Freefall,” “Fever Pitch” and “Hide,” have helped push the band’s total number of streams past a half-billion.
What’s also contributed mightily to the band’s success is their exuberant and energetic live shows. The band’s music is a distinctly modern, vocally layered wide-ranging mix of styles – including rock, hip-hop, world beat, folk and pop – that evades categorizing, but somehow feels accessible and highly inclusive. The Rainbow Surprise live experience was documented with the release last year of the 25-song concert release, Live From Athens Georgia, which was recorded on tour in 2019.
Timing played a part in the decision to release Live From Athens Georgia.
“We had always kind of kicked around the idea of a live record because the live show is a very important part of Rainbow Kitten Surprise,” Haney said. “Obviously, we always wanted to do it. And then the pandemic came along, and the world didn’t get to have live music anymore. 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 Rainbow Kitten Surprise on the band’s current tour can expect some visual pizazz and a wide-ranging set list 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.”
Rainbow Kitten Surprise play The Criterion Dec. 12.