Rainbow Kitten Surprise's Jess Haney talks about the band's 'surreal' journey to success

The band is scheduled to play a sold-out show at New Braunfels' Whitewater Amphitheater on Saturday, July 9.

click to enlarge The band got its name when someone's hospitalized, heavily medicated friend kept repeating the phrase Rainbow Kitten Surprise. - Aubrey Denis
Aubrey Denis
The band got its name when someone's hospitalized, heavily medicated friend kept repeating the phrase Rainbow Kitten Surprise.

When Jess Haney was asked to join Rainbow Kitten Surprise while its band members were in college at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., he certainly wasn't thinking it would be a long-term commitment. In fact, as commitments go, he thought it was as minimal as it gets.   

"I got into the band through Ethan," Haney said, referencing guitarist Ethan Goodpaster during a recent phone interview. "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."

Since then, Rainbow Kitten Surprise's engaging blend of indie pop and a variety of other genres has won it high-profile festival appearances and a fervent nationwide following. The band is scheduled to play a sold-out show at New Braunfels' Whitewater Amphitheater on Saturday, July 9.

Up to the point Haney joined the band, Rainbow Kitten Surprise had been the duo of singer Sam 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 — who recently announced on Twitter that she is trans, her pronouns are she/her and that she wants to be referred to as Ela 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. 

Even at this early stage, there were signs that Rainbow Kitten Surprise might grow into something more than a just-for-fun college-years band. 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.

The group then worked out a deal with Split Rail Records, a student-run label at Appalachian State's Hayes School of Music, and in 2015, released the album RKS.

Things have happened fast since then for the band, which got its unique name when someone's hospitalized, heavily medicated friend inexplicably kept repeating the phrase Rainbow Kitten Surprise.

One trigger for the success came when the band submitted their song "Devil Like Me" to the VH-1 reality show Make a Band Famous and saw it voted into the top 24.

Rainbow Kitten Surprise appeared on the show, and even though the group was eliminated in the first round of competition, the appearance brought a notable measure of exposure.

"Devil Like Me" went on to get radio play, as did two songs from RKS — "Cocaine Jesus" and "Lady Lie" — propelling Rainbow Kitten Surprise onto tours and appearances at notable festivals including Bonnaroo and Sasquatch.

That success drew the attention of Elektra Records, and the major label signed Rainbow Kitten Surprise, setting the table for an even bigger breakout.

"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 put the band on a different level. Suddenly, the five musicians found themselves driving to Nashville, where they all now live, setting up shop in the high-end Neon Cross Studios and working with one of the city's most in-demand producers, 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 partially written and all 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, it was 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."

Sold out, 8 p.m., Saturday, July 9, Whitewater Amphitheater, 11860 FM306, New Braunfels, (830) 964-3800, whitewaterrocks.com.

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