Through contorted body rolls and a sweat-drenched beard, Rainbow Kitten Surprise frontman Sam Melo gives himself entirely to his audience. The indie-folk-rock-jam band formed in Boone, North Carolina in 2013 and has been making show attendees jump, dance, scream and clap ever since. Their music has always been infectious and weird with songs like “Cocaine Jesus” and “Devil Like Me” but on their newest album How To: Friend, Love, Freefall, Melo puts his emotions front and center—particularly on the track “Hide,” which was inspired by a transformative trip to Bonnaroo. “[You have] the ability to be whatever you want to be, for at least those three days,” Melo explains.
“I didn’t want to be a poster child,” he says of his first massively personal song. Melo says he was completely captivated after attending Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in 2015, by the freeing atmosphere. Returning home after such a filled with so much stimulus and human interaction and an open-minded culture led him to an introspective moment of songwriting.
Coming off that high-intensity weekend of freedom of expression, Melo says he was empowered to tackle previously unexplored emotions in the process of writing “Hide.” “I was working through recently discovering I was gay,” he says. “I had come out to [my bandmates] already but I didn’t know how they would feel about singing lyrics like, ‘he’s a better kisser than you’d think,’” he admits.
During a recording session later on, Melo says the band “caught a groove” and he knew it was time to share these lyrics. “I just let it out and it ended up being this full-force screaming into the mic. That was the first time I sung it in front of everybody,” he says. For the rest of Rainbow Kitten Surprise, to see their bandmate get so raw and real was an empowering moment. “To hear that intensity, I loved it. I was like, hell yeah,” bassist Charlie Holt says. Guitarist Ethan Goodpaster adds that though they recorded a few takes of the song, the version on the album is that very first take. Melo continues to tell me how in that first recording of “Hide” you can hear the band finding their footing and implementing real-time musical responses to each other’s different instruments. “Everybody was finding their way,” he says, in an unknowingly metaphoric manner.
The music video for “Hide” continues the band’s inclusive mission; what began as a drag-infused video morphed into a mini-documentary that follows the lives of four drag queens living in New Orleans—including one whose coming out process is captured on camera. “At the time, my boyfriend was getting really into RuPaul’s Drag Race and I thought we should get some fab drag queens to tell their stories,” Melo says of the video’s inspiration. “We grew up in the South, so we figured it was important to show what it was like to grow up in the deep-south as a drag queen. Those queens in New Orleans have a completely different story than a drag queen who grew up in New York City,” bassist Holt adds.
The power and emotion of the video for “Hide” is nothing short of the power that Rainbow Kitten Surprise delivers through each and every song on How To: Friend, Love, Freefall. Part of the power comes from the fact that the whole album was a collaborative effort. “Listening to the record sounds like five individuals making what they feel the song is, and playing off each other. There are a lot of real-time responses from everybody playing,” Melo says of the band’s collaborative spirit. With Melo at the helm of the songwriting, the band as a whole each add something special and unique to the creative process. “It’s their passion,” Melo says of his bandmates. “If they can connect with it and breathe life into it, it makes the song a reality. Otherwise, it just stays an idea.”
That spirit comes alive at Rainbow Kitten Surprise’s freewheeling live performances. And despite its personal subject matter, “Hide” has proved to be a fitting vehicle for Melo’s signature spinning and dancing onstage. “We were really stoked about it because we had never felt that energy be captured before on an audio recording,” Holt says. With their high-energy and raw emotions, Rainbow Kitten Surprise delivers a fearless sound rooted in a collaborative effort. You can catch them spinning and sweating onstage this summer at Forecastle Festival, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival.