Rock band Radkey on meeting Dave Grohl, the future of rock music and playing the festival
Radkey, the rock trio from St. Joseph, Missouri, had been crisscrossing the country in a van for years when they caught the attention of the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. Grohl invited Radkey to be part of his documentary What Drives Us — an ode to touring, featuring A-listers from Steven Tyler to St. Vincent. Now, brothers Dee, Solomon and Isaiah Radke who comprise Radkey, are performing with the Foo Fighters’ 26th Anniversary Tour. This Sunday, they’ll also play for thousands at Lollapalooza.
Lucky as they may be, Radkey have earned their good fortune. They’ve been honing their sound for over a decade in seedy jaunts and dive bars. Their latest release, the self-produced LP Green Room, is a testament to those labors. It’s raucous and catchy like any great rock album, but with a tightness that can only result from musicians who share blood.
When Redacted caught up with Isaiah Radke on Monday, the band was en-route to Cincinnati for the Foo Fighters’ tour. From there they’d go to Milwaukee, and then to Chicago for Lollapalooza. As their van rumbled on, we discussed their humble beginnings, the Foo Fighters’ documentary and the band’s affinity for Chicago. The full conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
Redacted: So, can you start of by telling me about how you started your career?
Isaiah: It was a long time ago. We were home-schooled brothers from St. Joseph, Missouri. We were hanging out and our dad brought back this movie School of Rock. That had a bunch of music like the Ramones, Led Zeppelin, and just a bunch of AC/DC, cool stuff that makes you want to be in a band. Once we saw that movie, we got instruments and started learning how to play.
How old were you guys?
We had to be 6, 8 and 9 or something? We listened to our dad’s record collection and he had a bunch of that music. We started digging in there, and at some point, we decided we’ll start a band. And once we ended up playing a few songs, that’s when we figured, we really think that we can take this to the next level and really continue to make music.
When did you make the transition from messing around to actually being like, OK, we’re doing this?
Once our older brother Dee, who’s on guitar, played a few of the songs that he had written, we figured that we would really be able to do some stuff. Because we had some songs with vocals and arrangements, we thought that we would be able to really, really do it. So that was when we were like, OK, we’re maybe able to do the band stuff.
What were some of your first gigs?
Our first gig was opening for Fishbone. Which was cool, because a band dropped off, and we were underage at the time. It was cool that we were able to get that gig without being asked too many questions. That really drove us to keep going, to play another show in front of that many people.
What about after that?
It was pretty bad. We played a lot of bad, dead shows. But we just kept playing and playing and then we played South by Southwest. After that, we were able to get signed to a British label and started really making some noise.
Did you ever play gigs in St. Joseph?
We actually didn’t play very many gigs in St. Joseph. There wasn’t very much of a music scene there, to be honest. We had to go outside of St. Joe to do anything. We played Lawrence, Kansas, Kansas City. They were a lot more open to having us.
What bands have influenced you?
Our favorite bands are Weezer, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles — stuff like that. Those are the main bands. Cheap Trick. Bands that have really catchy, big sounds.
A lot of people call Radkey a punk band. Do you agree with that description?
Not really. In a way, you could say the fact that we do whatever we want to do with our music is punk. But a lot of our more punky sounding stuff came from us not really knowing what to do besides perform fast and hard. Once we learned how to make different kinds of songs, we started making bigger songs. We’ll still do the odd, fast punk track here and there, but we’ve always considered ourselves a rock band even back when we were kids.
What were some of the first songs that you guys wrote?
“Start Freaking Out” and “Cat and Mouse.” Those are real old ones that give a pretty good idea of what we were doing back in the day.
And how has your sound has evolved since then?
We’ve learned to experiment with tempos, we’ve learned a lot about production. When it comes to our music, we’ve been able to make a bigger, catchier sound, where you can get people to start dancing. And that’s when we did on No Strange Cats. That record got our music across to other people, because as we matured and kept writing different kinds of songs, we kept pulling in different kinds of music fans.
Some say rock music is dying, or rock music is dead. Do you guys have any take on that?
I mean, there aren’t a lot of fresh artists, if that’s the way you want to look at it. But it seems like it’s starting to come back a little bit. You’ve got us. And I think the fact that our band gets to do any big show means rock is coming back a little bit. We’ve been at this for a while and we didn’t really get any big rock tours before. Rock was not easy to be in for a lot of years. But you’ve got people switching to rock, like Miley Cyrus. So, things are changing, and we’ll be an option to anyone who wants to check out rock. It’s getting a lot more inclusive.
What do you mean by more inclusive?
For a while, back in the day, rock was hard to get into because there’s all of this lore you have to learn. You can’t just buy a band T-shirt and listen to two of the songs like maybe a lot of people do with a lot of music. In the rock scene, that’s sometimes frowned upon. There was a weird vibe with rock for a while and I think we broke a lot of that, especially with us writing songs to dance to, just like Weezer does. There’s fun stuff you can do with rock. You don’t have to just research it to death and know every single thing about it to wear T-shirts or whatever.
What do you bring to the table that’s new, that hasn’t been done yet in rock?
Well, I don’t know if we’re doing anything that hasn’t been done. We pretty much play all the songs, no tracks, write them as catchy as we can and try to perform them in a way where it’s like, ‘Hey, this is just straight up like rock music.’ Something that we do that not a lot of people are doing right now is putting shredding guitar solos in the middle of catchy songs. A lot of people can’t attempt some of these solos that are in our popular songs. So that’s something that we bring. Weezer does that too. And because there aren’t that many young, fresh rock bands out there, we happen to be one of the few making catchy rock you can dance to.
Do you think that’s something you’re going to explore more in the future? Maybe pop-punk?
I don’t know, we went pretty far with No Strange Cats. I don’t know how much further we would ever go than songs like “St. Elwood” or “Not Smart.” There are a lot of Beatles songs and Beach Boys songs you can dance to, and that’s kind of where we lead into. We like to get the dancing going through the melody. There’s always room for our guitars, and the songs are always gonna sound crazy live.
I know you guys are not signed to a record label now — you’re totally independent. What motivated that decision?
Sony dropped us because we needed no strings attached. We didn’t want songwriters – there was a lot of stuff going on like that. I think that they wanted us to sound like 21 Pilots. I ended up hearing that from one of the engineers. They weren’t seeing a whole lot of money in us, I don’t think. It was more for art. And at that time, no one was doing rock bands. We couldn’t get signed to any label, even if they dug the band. It was just crazy. Sometimes labels take a minute, you know. Sometimes they just don’t know what’s going on.
But we got out of it with a really great deal. We got to do 500 copies of No Strange Cats. We didn’t lose all of our music. We just didn’t see eye to eye on the songwriting process. We wanted to make the rock music that we make. We didn’t want to compromise in any way, and that will get you dropped. Luckily, the Foo Fighters stuff came along right then.
Yeah, what was that like? Just getting a phone call from Dave Grohl?
So, we named our album Green Room because we started in our little green room upstairs in St. Joe, just jamming and writing songs to hopefully someday be a band that could play in front of huge audiences — a band like Foo Fighters. To get that call and hear ‘Hey, Dave wants to interview you.’ it was just crazy. You’ve got Dave asking you about your band, and you’re in this movie with all your heroes. It was the feeling of reaching the goal.
Were Foo Fighters a band that you guys looked up to?
We definitely we grew up listening to Foo Fighters. Their way of having hard rock and catchiness always inspired our band. One of the reasons we have so many different sounds is because of bands like Foo Fighters and Weezer. They’ll do all kinds of different stuff — some stuff real punky, almost metal. And then poppy stuff.
And you’ve toured with some pretty big names too: Jack White, the Damned…
Flogging Molly, Rise Against, Descendants.
What was that like?
It’s great. It’s great to play with bands that have awesome chops so you can get really inspired after playing your sets. It’s pretty sweet. I enjoyed all those tours.
Switching gears to the pandemic, did you have tours lined up before COVID?
We did. It was crazy switching to streaming and we actually used a lot of that time to finish writing and recording Green Room. We were really lucky that we were able to get our Patreon up and running to make ends meet for long enough. Without the strong fan base, we would not have been able to do that.
Given what’s happened, what’s it like getting to play Lollapalooza?
I feel very excited. I miss festivals a lot. And to be playing one that kickass? I’m stoked.
Have you been through Chicago before?
We love Chicago. We always played Double Door, we’ve played Cobra lounge a bunch of times, Subterranean. And it’s our No. 1 Spotify city. Most of our listeners are in Chicago. We love Chicago.
Featured image credit: Vinny Dingo
Kira Leadholm is the co-editor-in-chief of Redacted Magazine. Kira recently returned from a year living in Kazakhstan where she reported on the climate crisis, LGBT+ rights, labor issues and the arts. Currently, she studies social justice and investigative reporting at Medill School of Journalism, and she holds a B.A. from the University of Chicago.