Entertainment Spotlight

Radkey’s self-taught sound opens doors

Updated: 2012-11-30T12:28:44Z

By TIMOTHY FINN

The Kansas City Star

This is their father’s music. That’s where the story of Radkey begins.

Music was a big part of the Radke household in St. Joseph, where Matt Radke and his wife, Tamiko, raised and home-schooled their three sons, Dee, 19, Isaiah, 17, and Solomon, 15. Since the boys were young, they had open access to their father’s vast collection of recorded music.

“Everything from the Who and the Beatles, the Misfits, Nirvana, lots of punk and alternative ’80s — the Pixies, Faith No More, Fishbone — a lot of Fishbone,” said Matt Radke. “They listened to it all.”

About two years ago, the brothers decided to put together a band, though none had any formal music training.

“They’re all self-taught,” Matt Radke said. “Dee took two drum lessons several years ago and hated it.”

“It turned me off to drumming, so I started playing guitar,” said Dee Radke, who has been playing for more than 10 years now.

In summer 2010, Isaiah took up the bass, Solomon took up the drums and the three began practicing furiously, learning covers and fusing the music they’d been listening to for years into their own songs. It has already paid off.

Over the past 15 months, the band has opened for national touring bands such as Titus Andronicus, the Supersuckers and Fishbone, one of their earliest heroes. An invitation to play a New Year’s Eve show in Chicago, opening for Naked Raygun and the Dwarves, had to be declined because of a scheduling problem.

Radkey has been invited to two AfroPunk festivals in New York, recorded a video at the Wreck Room in Brooklyn, a studio and label founded by Adrian Grenier (of the HBO series “Entourage”) and, most recently, got word that it will perform at an official showcase at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, in March.

It will also be part of the Wreck Room Records showcase at South by Southwest.

If you’re dubious and are wondering whether all this momentum is only hype generated by novelty and gimmick — three brothers getting cute with their father’s music — you need to see Radkey live. Or take the word of someone who has.

“There is this gimmicky, teenage band aspect to it when you first see them,” said Benjamin Brueland, who booked Radkey for at show at the 400 Club in Minneapolis earlier this month. “But it isn’t. They exceeded expectations. No offense to the other bands on the bill, but (Radkey) stole the show.”

“When they first got here, they had this ‘deer-in-headlights’ personae,” said Mike Frankie of Brooklyn’s Wreck Room. “But once they got behind their instruments and started playing and the lead singer started singing, it was phenomenal.”

“They’re the first band to inject raw energy into the local scene in a long time,” said Robert Moore, host of “Sonic Spectrum,” a weekly radio program on KRBZ (96.5 FM). “These kids are doing it for the right reasons, and it shows.”

Heroes and influences

Each member of the band has his music idol or mentor. Dee Radke cited Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain as his favorite guitarists.

“I take it from there and do whatever I want,” he said. “I just make sure my solos aren’t super long. I like to keep them short and sweet.”

Isaiah: “My two biggest influences are definitely John Entwistle (of the Who) and Paul McCartney. McCartney because he’s up front and he plays really well and he sings, too. I don’t want to be the guy who hangs in back with the drummer and just keeps time. And Entwistle because he is insane. And he plays with his fingers, not a pick, which I respect a lot. I don’t use a pick. I think you can be groovier and funkier with your fingers.”

Solomon, who is as thin as the sticks he uses to bash and batter his drums, has two favorites: Ringo Starr and Neil Peart of the progressive rock band Rush.

“I can’t really play like Neil Peart,” he admitted.

“You don’t have enough drums for that,” Isaiah said.

The band draws a lot of comparisons, and they start with the Misfits, thanks largely to Dee Radke’s voice, which can bear a strong resemblance to Glenn Danzig’s.

“Yeah, we get compared to them a lot,” Isaiah Radke said. “We listened to more Danzig solo before we did the Misfits, but I guess there is a big Misfits element in it.

“We hear Bad Brains, too, and the Descendants. We’ve heard the Strokes, which is weird, and Lenny Kravitz. We get a lot of ‘this meets that,’ like Hendrix meets the Ramones. And a lot of Doors comparisons, for some reason.”

That music is an impressive and appealing mix of melody, speed, heaviness, crunch and groove.

“There are influences in it because what we listen to does get into (the music),” Isaiah Radke said. “But we don’t say, ‘Let’s sound like the White Stripes or Foo Fighters on this song.’ We just write what we feel like writing.”

In March 2011, six months after it had become a formal band, Radkey played its first live show. It was an auspicious start. The band opened for Fishbone at Aftershock in Merriam.

“I saw they needed an opening band, so I threw our hat in the ring,” said Matt Radke. “I told (the band) it was a long shot and not to worry about it. Then I got the call. I’d sent the club a rough demo and they dug it. They said, ‘You guys are in.’ They didn’t ask ages or how long they’d been playing, so we didn’t tell them. And they didn’t know until we showed up.

“But at that point I think it was like, we were there, they had time to fill and so they went with it.”

“It was scary at first but it was really cool,” Dee Radke said. “Once we stated playing, it felt really natural. And everyone seemed to like it.”

After the Fishbone show, it got progressively easier for the band to book shows locally, including showcase venues such as the RecordBar and the Riot Room, where the band continued to redeem the hype that often preceded it.

Steve Tulipana, co-owner of the RecordBar and a member of several local rock bands, has booked Radkey several times.

“They have an affinity for melody and pop hooks,” he said. “I, too, believe the hype is founded. We’ll be listening to Radkey records for years to come, if we’re lucky.”

Tim Gutschenritter, who books bands at the Riot Room and Czar Bar, said, “Radkey is young, they aren’t jaded and they are fueled by the classics, which you do not see in the youth of today. I think they still have tons of room to grow as a band and musicians … but these kids are for real.”

Shea Conner, entertainment writer for the St. Joseph News-Press, saw Radkey for the first time in January, playing with other local bands at a club called the Rendezvous in St. Joe.

“There were several instances where I could see people mouthing the word ‘wow’ to their friends while they were playing,” he told The Star. “When Dee kicked into the ‘Mind Ride’ solo, there was a tangible feeling in the air that people were watching something special. Even the guys from IT knew they had been bested.”

IT was the headliner that night. In his review of the show, Conner quoted what that band’s lead singer told the crowd that night: “ ‘When they come back for their homecoming show when they’re on tour in four years, you can say, “Eh, I saw ‘em at the Vous.” There’ll be like 800 people who said they were here.’ ”

East Coast fans

Radkey has generated the same reactions in places far from its hometown. In August, the band traveled to New York for the second straight year to be part of AfroPunk, a two-day festival in Brooklyn.

“We sent them an email that said we’d beg, borrow or steal to be part of the festival,” Matt Radke said, “We got a response a few days later saying, ‘You’re in.’ It was another case of throwing a Hail Mary and it came through.”

The 2011 festival was canceled because of Hurricane Irene. This year, Radkey opened the festival as part of a lineup that included local heroine Janelle Monae, Erykah Badu, Gym Class Heroes, Reggie Watts, TV on the Radio, Das Rascist and Toro Y Moi.

“It was definitely the biggest show we’ve ever done,” Isaiah Radkey said. “Very cool. Tons of people everywhere. The place was packed, and we got a great response.”

With the help of FreshKills, a band from New York, Radkey also booked another show that same weekend, at a club in Williamsburg, N.Y., called the Grand Victory, and again it made an impression.

“The promoter wanted to book us again right away,” Matt Radke said. “He had a festival going on the next weekend, and he wanted us for that. But we had to get back to Missouri. He books shows at larger clubs and wants us to come back and play one of those as soon as possible.”

The band practices regularly and diligently, depending on how busy its live schedule is.

“It’s pretty much practice every day,” Dee Radke said. “We may take a day or two off after a show so we don’t get sick of it. But we practice solo or jam together every day, just trying to keep getting better.”

What impresses observers as much as the band’s songwriting and musicianship, which is still evolving, is its polished stage manner, which is uncommon for a band this young and new.

“I was amazed by the sophistication of their stage presence and things like their banter with the crowd and how they filled time between songs,” Brueland said of the show at the 400 Club, a 300-person venue that recently hosted titan rock bands like Archers of Loaf and Mission of Burma. “Even when someone in the crowd yelled something, the bass player was ready for a comeback. I’ve seen bands who have done this for 20 years who haven’t figured that out.”

“It just comes pretty naturally,” Isaiah Radke said. “We’re not super social. We’re home-schooled; we don’t talk to a lot of people, especially strangers. But being on stage feels natural for some reason.”

Radkey has about 15 original songs in its repertoire and several covers, including Fishbone’s “Servitude,” Faith No More’s “Digging the Grave,” OutKast’s “Hey, Ya!” and a few Ramones songs it learned for a recent Sonic Spectrum tribute show at the RecordBar. A five-song EP is in the finishing stages, but Matt Radke said that EP may be scrapped or become part of a new recording to be released in March, before SXSW.

In the meantime, the band is winding down its 2012 schedule, which includes a show Dec. 8 at Club 906 with the Architects, who have become fans.

“It takes guts these days to be unpretentious, and those kids are that,” said Brandon Phillips, lead singer and guitarist for the Architects.

“The earnest talent of a band like Radkey reminds all of us old dogs why we started playing music in the first place,” said Keenan Nichols, lead guitarist for the Architects. “How could anyone not support that?”

The brothers continue to absorb new sounds, some of them older, some contemporary, citing Blondie, Foo Fighters, Weezer and new albums by Green Day and Local H. But its foundation still lies in the sounds a father visited upon his sons.

Brueland, who has made Radkey an offer to play again in Minneapolis, said the key is how steeped the brothers are in those sounds.

“It’d be real easy for kids that age to go into a Target and buy a Jimi Hendrix shirt and call him an influence,” he said. “But once you see what they do and hear them, you can tell that, musically, they’re well-studied. They draw from a number of prominent influences that you don’t expect kids that age to draw from.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com.

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