(Not) Lost in Translation: Rainbow Danger Club’s Music Explores New Frontiers

By Doug Murano

What do you think of when you read the words “Rainbow Danger Club?” Now, say them aloud. What do you feel? Jesse Munson ’02 B.S.B.A.,dreamt up the particular combination of words hoping they would elicit a specific set of images in his audience’s imagination. “I wanted something that evoked the image of a bunch of kids putting on paper hats and pretending to be explorers in a tree house,” he explained. “Also the idea of contrast, darkness and light, danger and brightness, was important.”

Indeed, the words signal adventure—not only for Munson’s audience, but for Munson himself. His journey has taken him from South Dakota to the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, where Rainbow Danger Club’s music and performances have earned acclaim in the regional music scene. They have become one of the country’s most sought-after live acts, and their records have built a steady buzz amongst the region’s premier tastemakers. From humble beginnings in dive bars and clubs, they’ve elevated their status enough to play some of the country’s most high profile venues and festivals. I n 2010, the band released their debut LP, “Where Maps End,” to a warm reception from audiences and critics alike. Their single, “Neighbors on the Rooftops,” earned the 2010 Shanghai Grammy (not affiliated with the American Grammy) for best new song.

For Every Voyage, a Beginning
Munson was born and raised in the Sioux Falls and Brandon, S.D. areas. His first memories of music came at an early age. “I think my first strong musical memory was my dad playing guitar and singing in the living room,” Munson said. “When he would perform stuff like ‘Annie’s Song’ [by John Denver] it would send me to a mystical place. I remember thinking how amazing it was that someone could conjure that with a voice and two hands. It seemed like an impossibly magical thing to do.”

Though Munson’s own interest in playing the guitar came much later, at around age 14, he said his love affair began instantly upon picking up the instrument, and it hasn’t let up since. Munson described his relationship with his guitar and the music-making process as an obsession. “It was something I couldn’t get bored with because it could never be solved, you could just hope to understand it at different levels,” he said. No sooner had he learned a few chords, did he begin to write songs and make simple home recordings. “I had this boom box with a tape deck and crappy mic and was recording things right away,” he said.

Out of the Doldrums
But by the time Munson arrived at USD, his life lacked direction. He felt a distance between himself and many of his peers, who had a laser-beam focus on their futures. That said, Munson’s experiences on campus helped him grow and mature. “It was during those years I started coming to terms with what kind of person I wanted to be versus what kind of person other people expected me to be,” he said. “Though, I’m 32 and this process is still going on. Maybe I’m a late bloomer.” Munson chose to attend USD because of its affordability and strong business program. The son of a manager at Dockendorf Equipment and a real estate agent, Munson believed knowledge of business would form the basis for virtually any career he decided to pursue.

“That sold it for me,” he said. “You could go on a limb and say that all other majors are just a subset of business. I’m still fascinated with economics and the philosophy exchange and Austrian economics.” Perhaps more than any lesson or mentor, Munson values his USD experience for what it taught him about persistence “I began to realize that the motivations for your actions should come within and not as some obligatory thing,” Munson said. “There is more power in your actions when they come from your desires as opposed to the expectations of others. It sounds like a motivational poster, but I think it’s true.”

This is especially helpful, Munson noted, when honing the ideas for songs, a painstaking process that often requires up to a year to complete. “I like starting ideas, but finishing them takes a lot of work and isn’t so fun,” he said. “In my opinion if you’re just in it for fun, you’ll never get anywhere. I had a hard time finishing songs when I was in my early 20s because I didn’t have the right work ethic. I had to stop needing instant gratification.”

The Stars Align
Six months after graduation, Munson moved to Japan to begin a job teaching English. He soon realized that the cost of living there made it impossible for him to save money, so he began looking for opportunities in other parts of the world.
Shanghai offered the best deal, so he decided to move there. “I started at Shanghai International High School as a teacher and am now in a teacher/manager position,” he said. “I liked it enough to stay for six years.” Over the next few years, Munson spent much of his free time developing songs and hatching his idea for what would become Rainbow Danger Club. Despite Shanghai’s population density, finding three other people who shared the same taste, commitment, skill-set, schedule and long-term plans presented a challenge. “I spent about three years auditioning people,” he noted. “For a while, starting a band seemed kind of hopeless, but I never quit. It was a miracle I found these guys, but it was worth the effort.” The band played its first show at a venue called Harley Bar, which Munson described as a “train wreck.” “Graffiti on the wall. Smelled like pee,” he said. “Other people say it wasn’t that bad, but I tend to catastrophize these things.”

The band pressed on, and as they honed their sound, tightened up their songs and expanded their live show, audiences and area bloggers began to take notice. They began to play in better venues to larger crowds. Ultimately, though, Munson said recording and releasing a high-quality album did the most to put them on the map, so to speak. “A record is a document that will always exist,” he said. “A live show might be seen by 200 people one time in one place, after it’s done it’s faded away—but a record can be heard by anyone, anytime.”

A Record about Sailing off the Edge of the World
When setting out to create “Where Maps End,” Munson and the band tried not to limit the scope of their collective imagination, which led them to some interesting places in terms of inspiration. The resulting album is simultaneously grand and intimate, futuristic and of the distant past. The songs tell the story of a Victorian explorer setting sail in the age of the “flat earth.” Soaring guitars intertwine with brass horns and the sighing melody of “Neighbors on the Rooftops,” creating a sense of hope checked by the trepidation one might feel when setting off into uncharted waters. Another track features instruments and voices that are distorted and bent until they resemble whale songs echoing into infinite space. With its gramophone crackle and shuffling Charleston rhythm, “Enduring Love” sounds like a love letter from the turn of the 20th century—until it degenerates into an ominous cacophony of squealing guitars, gurgling trumpets and bombastic lyrics tinged with obsession.

“Weird, yes,” said Munson admitted. “But interesting, I think. We wanted the songs to evoke a Jules Verne-kind of Victorian-age world that runs together like a fairy tale.” It’s hard not to draw parallels between the themes Munson explores throughout the record—the thrill of adventure juxtaposed against the isolation and desperation of being a stranger in a strange land—and his own life’s journey. However, Munson is quick to point out that he’s not exactly alone in Shanghai, a city of millions of people, many of whom are foreign transplants, like him. It’s one of the reasons he said songs with English lyrics can succeed in the region.

“It’s interesting to note that there are actually more English speakers in Shanghai than in Sioux Falls,” he said. “There are a few hundred thousand foreigners working here from Japan, the U.S., France, Korea, Kenya, everywhere. There’s a big foreign community here.” Beyond that, Munson said that English has become the standard language of music in cultures worldwide, in much the same way that it has become the language of business, so a language barrier has never presented much of a problem. Ultimately, though, it comes down to the music. Munson always sets out to write outstanding lyrics, but he also understands music’s power to transcend speech.

“A good song tends to sound good in any language,” he said. “I do take the lyrics very seriously, but the song has to work on a sonic level to be embraced on a large scale.” One might assume that Chinese audiences, who live within a relatively restricted society when compared to that of America, might hold narrow opinions of what music should be.

Munson explained that recent decades in Chinese history have in fact created a situation that has produced adventurous listeners, free from preconceptions about style and genre. “Remember that China only opened up 30 years ago,” he said. “Fifty years of western music hit them at once. Rockabilly was introduced at the same time as hip-hop. They don’t have the same decade baggage associated with genres that we do.”

Where Maps End—The Prequel?
Currently, the band is at work on a new album, which Munson expects will continue the story started in “Where Maps End.” Then again, maybe not. “It might be a prequel,” he said. “Has anyone done a prequel album? We should do that.” The band is also planning a “mini-tour” of American dates for the summer of 2012. And, since every good story circles back to where it began, the band may make a stop on Munson’s home turf. “It’ll be something like 10–20 shows,” he noted. “Sioux Falls will be included, I hope!” I f the next record earns attention and acclaim, Munson wouldn’t mind if the band was invited on some tours, but his main goals are to continue to make music about which he can feel proud, and to play good shows. He’s not sure where Rainbow Danger Club’s journey will end, but he brings the same sense of optimism and adventure into his life that he breathes into his music. “I don’t know where I’ll end up,” he said. “Anyway, I don’t think people should think in terms of national boundaries. You are not the property of where you were born. Go where you want.”

Watch a live Rainbow Danger Club video performance of "To Where Maps End" here:

You can listen to songs from “Where Maps End” with the player below; download the album for free at http://rainbowdangerclub.bandcamp.com.

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