The members of Bottled Up didn’t exactly know what their band name meant when they first considered it.
Instead of asking 29-year-old singer-songwriter Niko Rao why he suggested it, they instead floated out numerous explanations – emotions being held back only to be revealed in songs or music that starts off slow thus bottling up energy released in an explosive conclusion, among others. Rao simply nodded along as his band members each tossed worthy theories at him, all different than the real reason he suggested the phrase.
“It comes from a Devo song called ‘Bottled Up,’” Rao says, laughing. “I didn’t tell the band why I wanted to name it that and they came up with all these elaborate other meanings, which were interesting.”
Yes, the name – like so many others – started as an homage to his favorite band, but the California native has since ceded that the name has evolved past a simple reference, transforming into an apt description for what Bottled Up is as a unit.
“I’ve grown to like the name more than just as a reference,” Rao says. “I think it embodies our songwriting, and I definitely write things I keep bottled up.”
A DMV Collective
It didn’t take Rao long to find people to jam with after moving to the District in 2016. Like an elaborate domino effect, the musician went to a studio so he could bang on some drums to relieve frustration. Afterward, he badgered the guy at the front desk, Alex Dahms, to join him for a jam session. Alex (drums) brought eventual bassist Colin Kelly to the jam sesh, and during this meetup, lead guitarist Mikey Mastrangelo overheard the trio and asked to join in on the next one.
“I kind of pressured [Alex] into jamming with me, because I had a bunch of riffs I wanted to toy around with from [my time in] L.A.,” Rao says. “We really had great chemistry. I didn’t interact with other people very well. Actually, I mostly played all of the stuff myself. I was very controlling over my music. With this band, I’m just happy to play with others who bring things out of our songs.”
The group instantly formed a bond and has spent the past two years constantly jamming, writing music and evolving. Their self-titled record contains seven songs of new wave and garage-style surf rock delivered in speedy, two- or three-minute doses. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, that’s a lot of genres in one sentence describing seven songs,” it’s probably because these guys define their genre as “¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”
“Well, I would definitely….oh man,” Rao says as he begins to try and describe their sounds for people who may not have heard them yet. “We’re totally new wave. Talking Heads, Devo, B-52s – that stuff is woven into my muscles at this point. I have a very angular, new wave guitar-playing style.”
The Constant of Music
One thing about the LP is that Rao’s up-and-down history is the emotional through line present in every track. Growing up on the West Coast, he dipped his toe in music after hearing the score of “Final Fantasy VII.” This prompted him to pick up a violin and study classical music, which he kept up with until his grandmother purchased him an electric guitar.
“Until that point, I was going to study classical music and play tennis,” he says. “Once I got a guitar and skateboard, all I wanted to do was play rock music, skate and smoke weed. I was 14, and that was a big year for me because I got into all this rock, indie and punk music – all of the stuff you hear in the background of skate videos.”
From then on, music was Rao’s life. After high school, he went to college for sound design, where he would formulate music for TV and video games. He also developed numerous drug addictions there, eventually leading to rehab and various group meetings. He ultimately decided to move to the DC area so he could be closer to family, and all the while he continued penning music.
“I definitely channeled that in my songwriting. It’s weird when you move to a city because no one really knows your past, and you’re this new, fresh person. You can choose all the colors you want to present. It wasn’t tough for me in the beginning, even now, because I feel like it’s nice to get out. My music deals with the aftermath of that – the emotions in dealing with those overwhelming topics, the things I was locking out. I use music to process this stuff.”
A Repackaged Bottle
“We don’t play anything off the old LP anymore,” Rao says of the band’s current shows.
Since the release of Bottled Up last year, the group has morphed, changing up how they write songs and even the pacing of their tracks. Rao says while the first release featured fast, compact narratives, the follow-up allows for a little more breathing room and is a tad less aggressive, though still energetic.
“I was just conditioned to play and think that way,” Rao says. “I don’t like bands that go on too long, and there’s always a point where a song will go on for too long. I think I can sense and feel when a song loses meaning, and I want to stop there.”
Rao no longer formulates the chorus, bridge and structure before bringing it to his bandmates; sometimes, he even approaches them with just an inkling of an idea.
“I was so stuck in my head with controlling everything. Now working with these guys, I bring something small and they take it to a place I didn’t know was possible.”
Before their May 11 show at DC9, the group plans to release two new songs digitally. But even if you miss those or are weary you won’t be able to sing along, Rao made a tongue-in-cheek pun to get you pumped for the concert.
“We have a lot bottled up, and we’re ready to explode and show everyone what we’re about,” Rao says, laughing. “We’re going to be theatrical, and we always try to change it up.”
Rao and his bandmates are set to take the stage at DC9 on Friday, May 11, opening for Olden Yolk. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12 and available at www.dc9.club. Learn more about Bottled Up at www.bottledup.bandcamp.com.
DC9: 1940 9th St. NW, DC; 202-483-5000; www.dc9.club