St. Joseph, Missouri, is burning to the ground, according to recent concerns voiced by the city's police and fire departments. A mysterious rash of fires has blazed through the city this year — 19 unsolved arsons in cars, Dumpsters and vacant structures — and nobody seems to know who is starting them, or why. Arguably eerier is the surplus of commercial real estate in the once-thriving river town. You think the West Bottoms is Instagram-rich with poignant urban decay? Try driving an hour north to downtown St. Jo, where the abandoned brick warehouses and empty vintage storefronts tell a bleaker tale of a city left behind by the harsh realities of a global economy.
There's no creative class rushing in to rescue these buildings and recast them as lofts and artisanal cheese shops. On Sixth Street, a rock club called Room 107 is shuttered — just a deserted building with a faded advertisement for "ROCK & METAL" painted on the front. Around the corner, on Felix Street, is the Rendezvous Bar, a dark dive, with black plastic ashtrays on the tables and a nook in the back that doubles as a stage for bands.
"This is pretty much the only place in town we play," says Darrion (Dee) Radke, the 19-year-old guitarist for St. Jo punk trio Radkey. He's seated at a table between his bandmates and brothers: Isaiah (17, bass) and Solomon (14, drums). The only other people in the Rendezvous on a Wednesday evening are the bartender and two middle-aged men.
Radkey is not all doom and gloom about its hometown, though. "I was kind of surprised to find out that there's a cool little music scene here," says Isaiah, the most extroverted of the brothers. "Some rock bands, some indie type of bands, joke bands, cover bands. And everyone's really nice. They've all been pretty cool to us."
Over the last year, though, Radkey has been playing less around St. Jo and more at places like the Riot Room and the Replay Lounge, where their very existence elicits a certain amount of confusion. The gist being: How do three black teenagers from St. Jo end up playing Ramones-style punk rock?
Parenting appears to have something to do with it. One of the middle-aged men at the Rendezvous is their father, Matt Radke. Originally from Kansas City, he moved the family up to St. Jo (where he had relatives) after Isaiah was born. With his long, gray, fuzzy beard, glasses and Spinal Tap T-shirt, Matt Radke looks like a man who might have seen 40 Descendents shows back in the day. He opened up his record collection to his sons early on. "I basically just let them have at it," he says. "I allowed them to like whatever they wanted, and sometimes I would cringe a bit, but eventually they'd get back on the right track."
"Dee liked Yellowcard for a while," Isaiah says.
"That one I didn't let him buy," Matt Radke says with a laugh. "I decided if he could find a way to get his hands on it, then OK, he could listen to it. But I wasn't going to be a party to the purchase of that."
He also kept a couple of guitars and a drum set in the house. Dee picked up the guitar around age 9, and over time the brothers followed suit. Two years ago, they started playing as a band and writing songs, inspired by such bands as Nirvana, the Misfits and Weezer. Matt Radke began managing the group and trying to book shows for it. In March 2011, Radkey caught a break: a spot opening for revered ska-funk act Fishbone at the Aftershock in Merriam.
"That was a Hail Mary, don't-get-your-hopes-up type of show," Matt says. "I got the call, and I was like, 'Holy crap, I've been listening to that band since I was 13.' It was pretty surreal."
"We kind of lucked out with that, and I think it changed things for us a little bit," Isaiah says. "After that show, people started to take us a little more seriously. Like, 'Well at least they're not some super-crappy kid band.' "
After Radkey's first time playing RecordBar, owner Steve Tulipana immediately booked the act for another show. Since then, the band hasn't had much trouble finding places to perform around town, even venturing out as far as Wichita and Des Moines. In April, the brothers opened for New York-based Japanese anime punks Peelander-Z at RecordBar. "It was insane," Isaiah says. "At one point, my dad's head got kicked into my face. I didn't expect it to be that awesome."
Because the teens are home-schooled, they can schedule their studies around the occasional late nights that come with being a rock band. Home schooling also seems to explain why, say, Skrillex or LMFAO isn't a component of their musical diet.
"We usually end up hanging out with adults — I don't really like a lot of people my age," Isaiah says. "We just met some friends in Maryville that are our age and into the same stuff as us, which is cool. But it's hard for me to hang out with people who don't like the Misfits or Led Zeppelin or the Who. Or the Beatles. Most kids our age aren't into that stuff. They're into crap. So we just don't have a lot in common with them."
In August, Radkey travels to New York to play its biggest show yet: the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn, with a lineup including Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae and Das Racist. (They were scheduled to play the fest last year, but it was canceled due to a fake hurricane.) While in Brooklyn, they also plan to record a song and make a video for Wreckroom Records, a label run by Adrian Grenier, the guy who played Vince on Entourage. "That should be really cool," Matt says. "We got that through a band called the Giraffes that I've been seeing since 2005 or something. Their guitar player is an engineer at the studio, and he hooked us up."
Also in August, Radkey hikes up to Minneapolis to cut its first proper EP, at Flowers Studio, where the Stray Cats, Soul Asylum and the Descendents have all recorded. At a certain point, this starts to sound like a pretty busy schedule for three ... kids. What else do they do? "We mostly just practice, play shows, write songs, play video games, watch anime," Isaiah says, with a shrug. "Sometimes we hardly even know when the gigs are. Our dad just kind of takes care of that stuff. It's cool not to have to worry about that end of things."
"I basically just tell them to worry about writing songs and playing, and I'll take care of everything else," Matt says. "A lot of days, it's just, 'Come on, let's go, get in the van, we got a show.' "