What were you up to when you were 16? Squeezing spots? Perhaps a bit of light tennis-racquet guitar in front of the mirror? I’m guessing you weren’t roaming the world in a tour bus, drumming hard with your older brothers, playing devilish punk rock to unhinged crowds.
Solomon Radke is 16 and looks younger. If you saw this short, skinny kid alone in a supermarket you’d ask him if he needed help finding his mummy and daddy. But alongside bassist Isaiah, 19, and singer-guitarist Dee, just turned 21, his band Radkey will tomorrow support Aerosmith on Clapham Common. It’s all thanks to an unusual childhood in St Joseph, Missouri, that hothoused them for the rock ’n’ roll dream.
“I guess it’s a thing to think your parents are lame but a lot of people do have lame parents. We don’t,” says Isaiah. He’s referring to their mum, who home-schooled the trio in lessons that often didn’t start till 3pm, and dad Matt, who quit his job in loss-prevention at Walmart to become Radkey’s full-time manager.
“Our home day was really relaxed. Ever since we were young our mum let us sleep,” says Isaiah, the band’s spokesperson both on and off stage. Dee looks tired and withdrawn, having just celebrated his 21st birthday in appropriate style at the metal festival Download, and Solomon just seems shy. “School started at three and finished at nine, or maybe seven depending on how fast we got our stuff done. You could do extra and have a day off too. We dropped out for music before we got any qualifications, and there are a lot of things I don’t know, but it doesn’t affect my day-to-day life at all. I know addition, subtraction; I know how to read and how to write music, and that’s pretty much all I need. When I need to know more, I’ll learn it, I guess.”
Their musical education began after the day’s more conventional lessons were over, with noisy sessions of Foo Fighters, Nirvana, The Ramones and Led Zeppelin with Dad. When we meet in the bowels of the Southbank Centre, where the band have been picked by Meltdown Festival curator James Lavelle to play a rowdy show in the unorthodox surrounds of a basement loading bay, I don’t notice their dad Matt among their small entourage.
This is partly because he’s white and looks like a lifelong roadie with his straggly beard and board shorts, and also because he seems to be avoiding introducing himself or talking to the journalist.
He looks nothing like the classic pushy parent, and the brothers insist he’s not living vicariously through them. He’s never been in a band, they say, but is clearly a music-lover. “There was always good music around, all our lives. I’ve always dug pretty much everything he played us,” says Isaiah when he’s out of the room. “With management, he just winged it and did a really good job.”
He landed them a prestigious first gig supporting notable US rockers Fishbone back in 2011, skilfully neglecting to mention their ages or the fact that they didn’t have enough songs to play for the allotted half hour.
Otherwise, getting early bookings in their home town proved to be a struggle. Their age kept them out of a lot of bar venues, and preconceptions didn’t help either. “We sent a demo to this venue in St Joe. They just looked at the picture and said they didn’t book rap groups. We were dressed like this, too,” says Isaiah, indicating his sleveless denim jacket with a badge that reads: “My answer to your first question is SHADDAP.”
They don’t generally deal with race in song, apart from their early composition N.I.G.G.A (Not Okay), which is about a black kid they knew at a mostly white school who seemed not to mind people addressing him by the N-word.
Nevertheless, they can’t help but see how white the world of hard rock is. “I feel like we fit in but we’re always the only weird teenage black kids in the room. It is definitely bizarre. Sometimes you never see any other black dudes. I guess there aren’t many black dudes like us doing music like us, so a lot of people notice that.”
That song appears on Radkey’s first EP, Cat & Mouse from 2013. I recommend you head first for the slightly more polished follow-up, the Devil Fruit EP. It features the relentless Start Freaking Out, which definitely achieves the goal of its title in concert, and their best song so far, Romance Dawn, with its initial dirty thud bursting into a terrific gear-change for its wild chorus. It isn’t their race or age that really sets them apart from all the other fast and loud rock bands but Dee’s surprising voice, a deep almost croon that gives depth amid the distortion.
A more recent single, Feed My Brain, sounds more ambitious again, with various segments and voices massed together for the huge finale. They are progressing fast, and their debut album might be very different again when it finally arrives at the start of next year.
They’ve recorded half of it so far with producer Ross Orton, who has worked with Arctic Monkeys. “It shouldn’t be too hard to get the second half done. We’re one session away,” says Dee with the confidence of someone who knows how good he is.
For now they’re in such demand as a live band that they barely need an album as a calling card. “A lot of bands have an album when they start out, and we just didn’t do it, which I think is cool,” says Isaiah. Life on the bus isn’t that different from home, where the three shared a bedroom anyway, and it sure beats living in St Joseph, a town an hour away from Kansas City whose chief claim to fame seems to be that Eminem’s mum drives a taxi there. “St Joseph is, you know, not that awesome. We get a lot of crap for saying that, but I don’t stop because it’s how I feel.”
The siblings socialised almost entirely with each other while growing up and maintain that, unlike the Gallagher brothers, they are still best friends. With Dad on the road too, supervising some of the most exciting new rock music around, keeping it in the family is definitely working.