The first time I heard of Radkey was in the Fall of 2018 in Washington, D.C. where they were opening for punk rock legends The Damned. Excited and nursing a drink, I found a side seat bench just inches from the stage, where the opening act soon began warming up the crowd. Dee, Isaiah, and Solomon Radke are a rock band of brothers, and they settled into their respective instruments, tearing into the tracks that made up their album, Delicious Rock Noise (which quickly made its way into my record collection). I knew instantly that this was not the last time that I’d be hearing about Radkey. Despite their obvious musical talent, they have something else––that special ‘it’ factor, if you will. And I couldn’t wait to see what they would do next.
For almost a decade, these three home-schooled brothers had a lot of time to perfect their sound. If they weren’t studying algebra, they were studying music. They spent afternoons and weekends raiding their music-loving father’s record collection where they listened to Weezer, Foo Fighters, and The Beatles. They devoured the documentary Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, in which the band outlines particulars of “how to be a band,” from recording to touring and everything in-between.
In 2010, they decided it was time to form their own band with eldest brother, Dee on vocals and guitar, Isaiah providing backup vocals and bass, and Solomon (aka Sol) on drums. Organic and self-taught, Radkey has since emerged from “a little green room in a shitty pink house,” and found themselves on a whirlwind journey, even opening for San Fernando’s Fishbone as their first-ever show. “That was a really good motivator,” says Isaiah, the band’s usual spokesperson. “When your first show is that big, it’s really hard to come back from that. It makes you want to keep going.” And away they went.
Since that show in D.C., I’ve closely watched Radkey as—even amidst a pandemic—they were taking up, shaking up, and rocking the gauntlet passed down by the post-punk revival bands of the early 2000s like The White Stripes, Interpol, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and She Wants Revenge. Personally, I haven’t seen such a revival movement since Interpol dropped “Obstacle 1” or The White Stripes attacked us all with “Seven Nation Army”—and it’s been a long time coming. In short, if you thought rock was dead, Radkey is here to loudly proclaim otherwise, so do yourself a favor and turn them up.
As if their impressive debut show wasn’t enough, Radkey then went on to perform with Jack White, L7, Descendents, and The Offspring along with playing festivals like SXSW, Riot Fest, Afropunk, and the U.K.’s Download Festival. Through Jennifer Finch of L7, Radkey was put in touch with Dave Grohl (frontman of Foo Fighters for anyone living under a rock) to be a part of his latest documentary. What Drives Us is a film that’s meant as a love letter to musicians who have crowded into cruddy vans for the sake of living unconventionally on the road as they pursue their love of music and lawlessness (all in good fun, obviously). Grohl was looking for bands that are still hitting the pavement in the age of digital streams and virtual concerts, and thanks to Finch, he found Radkey.
“We did the L7 shows, and those were amazing,” remarks Isaiah. “Then Jennifer Finch hits us up about being in What Drives Us. They were looking for ground-level bands and we were just like ‘Sweet!’ It was cool.”
The band was on the road at the time, under the management of their father, Matt Radke (affectionately known as “Dadkey”). They were eating at McDonald’s when that call from Finch began a whole new chapter in Radkey’s story. Isaiah talked about staring at his food, thinking about how there was a possibility that they would no longer have to eat fast food for breakfast every day: “Everything in my head was just like ‘Wow…everything changes now.’”
Eerily, it’s what Radkey set out to do. It’s something they had talked about in their tiny, shared bedroom as kids, the now-famous “little green room” while living in the “shitty pink house.” They wanted to rock and be one of the big rock bands, just like Foo Fighters. So to be approached by one of their idols who wanted to interview them was something that, in the eyes of Radkey, solidified their place in rock music.
The beauty of What Drives Us is the commonality of every featured musician’s story. Each artist has their reasons for choosing such a life, and they all echo the same great advice: you’ve got to keep going, and you have to put in the miles in that “fart-can van” to make it in music. It can take a lifetime for some people to realize the gifts of time, boredom, and isolation. Part of Radkey’s success was the investment of time and the discipline to use it properly. According to Isaiah, a lot of their songs come from sitting around and doing nothing, something their hometown of Saint Joseph, Missouri offered to a band of motivated misfits looking for creative space. Isaiah describes “St. Jo” as being “boring” to grow up in with “nothing going on.” But where some creative minds might wither in such a dreary place, Radkey used it as an excuse to color in the gray scenery with music.
While Radkey was founded in the punk arena with their first two albums: Delicious Rock Noise and No Strange Cats, Green Room (named for, you guessed it, that tiny green bedroom) is their melodic break from fast, aggressive punk tracks, and it’s just oh so good. “Bend” is my favorite track on the album, though it’s honestly hard to choose. The song itself, like many Radkey tracks, is a “touching and personal song that hits really close to each member’s personality,” reflecting on a time in their career when the shows were dry and not as many things seemed to be happening for them. It’s a beautiful song, with Dee on piano for a touching, melodic sequence that adds a new depth to the Radkey sound.
I’ve heard one or two complaints about Green Room in comparison to Delicious Rock Noise, but if you’re expecting Green Room to be the ‘Delicious Rock Noise Part II,’ then you’ll be disappointed. Green Room is just as fantastic, and for all the right reasons. But it’s a melodic rock album, not solely punk. And that’s exactly what Radkey wants.
Right now Dee, Isaiah, and Sol (and, of course, Dadkey) are kicking off a tour with Foo Fighters, one of the many bands whose albums littered the floor of their pink house, and whose documentary helped shape their journey from the beginning. That documentary and the musicians behind it heavily inspired three bored kids to smash the walls of that little green room and light Saint Jo, MO on fire with a razor-edged sound that’s so full of mature angst it punches you in the face. And rather than singing high school “bubble-gum gunk rock” about not wanting to be in class, Radkey is saying something important… for ears that can catch it, anyway.
Dee’s vocals are often compared to Danzig, but Dee is more than just a pissed-off punk. There’s real feeling. There’s a depth that’s heavy, hard to discern; a brooding that’s secretive and akin to other mystery-men singers like Justin Warfield (She Wants Revenge) and Paul Banks (Interpol). Two perfect examples are “Real Deal,” and “Bend,” which are lyrically intertwined with the anxiety that comes from the lows of creativity and feeling invisible. Sure, “Real Deal” is a punk-driven anthem, but the words are haunting and aching. Regardless of whether I’m correct in my understanding as to what they’re about, Radkey has captured my attention beyond the pounding, hypnotic drumming, big, grinding guitar solos, and catchy chorus chants that are the signature Radkey sound.
Still, the boys of Radkey are as far from unapproachable rockstars as you can get, with their ever-present love of comic books, all things nerdy, and especially cats. They even allowed fans who chose a specific Kickstarter tier “to memorialize their cats on their own personalized album cover.” All in all, the band personalized over 50 covers for No Strange Cats and Green Room.
“It’s just a layer that brings people closer so that they can relate,” Isaiah says, commenting on the band’s humanity and love for felines. “Our main thing is to make awesome music. We don’t want to pretend that we’re anything that we’re not. We have a bunch of cats, and we put that stuff out there. So it feels less like we’re trying to be these cool rock stars that aren’t going to talk to you. We’re pretty much nerds and we play rock music!”
Diving a little deeper into the realm of comics and anime, I mention my own upbringing, being inspired by and finding meaning in shows like Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon. “It’s true!” Isaiah says, smiling. “A lot of the messages in anime keep you strong. [It] gets you through hardship, that’s all really inspiring. That’s what we’re always writing about. Quite a bit of [anime] is really good.”
Radkey understands just how much their success is thanks to their fans. During the pandemic, Green Room was made possible by support through their Patreon. If you visit their social media handles, you see it all the time: total appreciation for their fans. As creative endeavors grow, that sort of humility can get lost in the chaos of work/travel and the increasing demands on your time. I asked how Radkey intends to navigate that and how they would hold onto the ties that helped them grow and stay connected to their fan base.
“We write for ourselves and the fans,” Isaiah explains. “So as long as we go for the music that makes us feel good, as long as we keep everything Radkey and we’re enjoying the music, that’s the important thing. We never let a song slide that we’re not totally into. As long as we don’t compromise, I think that’s the key.”
Radkey is never without feeling; they have yet to produce an album that I turn away from. Their latest work, Green Room is still founded in the roots of their earlier, punk-driven riffs. But Green Room explores a more artistic, rock ballad type refinement that showcases a mature rock sound that demands respect.
While typically classified as a punk/garage rock band, this box is far too limiting for Radkey. I get it. The usual categories and comparisons are given to them, like the tired parallels between The Ramones, The Misfits, and lead-singer Dee’s label as “the new Danzig” are meant as compliments. But Radkey sounds like, well, Radkey. They aren’t the next Misfits, because there’s already a Misfits. And Dee isn’t the next Danzig, because there’s already a Danzig. Dee is Dee, and Radkey is Radkey. Whether they know it or not, Radkey has already succeeded in breaking through the underground and stamping a space in rock music, and they’re not stopping. To quote the driving “P.A.W.” from their second album, “Are they scared of me? They appear to be,” because if someone’s always watching, you might as well give’em a show.
Radkey tour dates can be found at their website RADKEY.net. Be sure to check them out on the Foo Fighters 26th Anniversary Tour and pick up some awesome merch! Find Radkey on all streaming platforms: Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Youtube, Amazon Music. Keep up with these Radcats on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and support them on Patreon.
*Photos courtesy of Ben McBee Photography.
*If you love cats, follow the Radkey cats on Instagram.