We spoke to Rolling Blackouts Costal Fever about their breakout 2018, maintaining an energetic quality in their recordings, the changing political landscape of their homeland and how their songs reflect wider forces that we can’t control.
Anyone still carrying the misguided belief that the life of touring musicians remains in any way glamourous would quickly have the notion dispelled were they to witness the vigour and enthusiasm that Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever are approaching the meal they’re about to enjoy at a curry house in Leeds ahead of their show that evening at the city’s students’ union. With a mix of the Antipodean bonhomie and hospitality that typified our last encounter (where after talking at length about the process of creating their French Press EP – their first for Sub Pop – they extended an invite to sink a few cans and watch a rehearsal at their Melbourne base) they’ll happily converse about a range of topics from the more comical aspects of their hometown’s seedier side, including the legendary 24-hour flower shop front business that still has them wryly questioning just who’d be out buying begonias at 4am.
Their relentless touring schedule sees them tick off 107 shows in 19 countries by year’s end, which is even more impressive given some of the sacrifices they’ve had to make along the way. Tightly packing in a series of dates at the start of their UK tour has meant that some sacrifices had to be made, with songwriter and guitarist Tom Russo (one of a trio – on both counts – along with fellow axemen Joe White and Fran Keany) disclosing that at one point their pre-show “dinner” consisted of some Ryvita snack packs out of a vending machine, which explains the fevered excitement with which the quintet dive into their curries.
“an impressively purposeful spectacle committing a smash-and-grab run on their back-catalogue with blinding and ruthless efficiency.”
Maybe it’s their refuelling session that’s largely responsible for them transforming into a taught tour de force on stage shortly afterwards, an impressively purposeful spectacle committing a smash-and-grab run on their back-catalogue with blinding and ruthless efficiency. Then again, in their debut full-length Hope Downs they’ve a remarkable resource to draw from. Speaking not long after coming off stage (a mix of getting lost in both natural conversation and hot food sees Russo, White and Keany end up having our planned catch-up post-show) the band’s songwriting powerhouse openly speak of their thought processes when it came to deciding on their own readiness to make a first album proper, and the way it’s contributed to the record’s direction. Keany admits that a lot of the decision came from a place of practicality and pragmatism, explaining how “I just don’t think we were ready to put a full album out before we released Hope Downs – certainly the first EP was just made up of songs that we had lying around, and the second one we had songs but not to the extent that we could build them into an album.”
Watching them operate with a forceful precision brings about a flashback to our last meeting, where in their practice room they relentlessly battered ‘Sister’s Jeans’ and ‘Bellarine – two tracks which sit on |Hope Downs side-by-side – into a form they were happy with ahead of their breakout SXSW performance later that year. Joe White laughs at the level of recall being offered to him by his interrogator, admitting that “Honestly, that night I can’t remember what we were doing!” before going on to detail how for them “and putting songs together certainly is one of the most enjoyable parts of being in a band. We’ll listen back and evaluate what we’ve done. We’ll often do that for several weeks in a row, picking out the best parts from each variation. It’s emblematic of how we create songs, because we do spend a lot of time thrashing them out and getting them where we want them.”
From across the room, Tom Russo gives a knowing laugh as he counters White’s views by describing how they try and toe the line between perfectionists and realists in order to arrive at finished recorded versions that are fully formed but haven’t had their soul beaten out of them along the way. “For us the song has to have some life, he says, adding that “ and in terms of recording takes probably somewhere around the tens to early teens is about our limit, much more than that and you start to lose perspective. Recording is kind of like the live show, I guess, and we wanted it to have that same energetic quality – if we’re able to commit that to tape then we’re happy.”
Hope Downs is the band’s first record recorded outside of their rehearsal space in Melbourne’s Northern suburbs, with the band relocating across states to New South Wales to lay down their debut. While the band are quick to point out that that relocation didn’t influence the record’s direction – they had everything pat down long prior from a writing and structure perspective – they do admit that it enhanced the recording experience. “It was really warm,” reminisces Fran Keaney “and it was great to wake up in the morning and having all the sun and the space around you – it’s conducive to writing, but we didn’t actually do any writing while we were there. We already had everything pat down and focused on the recording process, but it seemed that having that beautiful environment was conducive to nailing down some really good takes of the songs.”
“Recording is kind of like the live show, I guess, and we wanted it to have that same energetic quality – if we’re able to commit that to tape then we’re happy.”
Spend any time with the lyrics to Hope Downs and a reflective air, rich with nostalgia, longing and regret, becomes apparent that’s not been present (at least not to the same degree) on their previous works. On opener ‘An Air Conditioned Man’, the main protagonist wistfully looks back at stolen kisses with a flame from his past as he passes the wall where they’d had his moment. Throughout the album, once you peel away the typical veneer of propulsiveness, you find streaks of transcendental ennui of individuals straddling their late 20s and early 30s. The chorus to ‘Sister’s Jeans’ starts with the bittersweet couplet of “When you heart aches/and your morning breaks” while ‘Exclusive Grave’ talks of days where “long lunches go down slowly/with no-one to massage your neck” and ‘How Long’ addresses a central character with a direct “I know you’re not here for good fun”.
Speaking of his lyrical contribution to the album, Fran Keany admits that their own personal stages in their lives played a central role (even if perhaps on a subconscious level), describing how “we try not to write or talk about ourselves, but these songs – the ones I wrote lyrics to, at least – were creeping back towards a more biographical style and focused on cataloguing that minor existential crisis that me and my friends seemed to have around our late 20s/early 30s, and those moments of ‘oh shit, what’s happened here!’ that you get around that sort of time. It’s a time where you’re desperately trying to find some certainty to cling onto and it’s a theme which certainly characterises my lyrics on the album.”
But, even amid the reflective lyrical content, the band’s trademark driving sound remains firmly at the forefront. For Joe White, it’s a constant that stems from the band’s early days and a catalytic moment of realisation where they hit upon the notion that “if we wanted to play live then we needed songs that were loud and energetic rather than something written in a bedroom”, with Russo concurring and adding that it’s a by-product of their processes where “the songs always seem to get a bit more driving and urgent and I feel like we never aim to do big, dumb, anthemic themes or anything but often the musical element can be quite in-your-face and blasting.”
The two exceptions on Hope Downs lie with ‘Sister’s Jeans’ (a song that, while punchy, brings in a particularly bittersweet edge to its soaring chorus) and ‘Cappuccino City’, which diverts from the band’s usual road trip anthems to offer a brief respite via an a typically breezy shuffle. “ ‘Cappuccino City’ is probably the oldest song on the record,” explains Russo, adding that “it’s about five years old and predates the band in its current form. It started off as a little electric organ ditty that I put down years ago in its early form and then forgot about for a few years. It never quite found its form, and it was always this funny little piece that hung around but never seemed to quite fit. When we were writing the album it came back because we finally felt like there was a place for it in the wider scheme of what we were trying to do. I feel as though it’s closer to a lot of the earlier songs that we wrote, when a lot of our material was a lot poppier. Rather than being departures, maybe it’s truer to say that those two songs are closer to being originals.”
“The songs are really personal and sometimes they contain elements of fiction and other times contain elements of truth, but a lot a lot of the time they’re these personal stories with the wider world and the characters are responding to wider forces they can’t control.”
Aside from musical directions, Hope Downs also features a topical outlier in the form of ‘Mainland’, the first track off the record to surface ahead of its release and the group’s first attempt at commentary on the wide world via an especially descriptive musing on the plight of those caught up in the refugee crisis. “We weren’t trying to make some sweeping political or social statement,” explains Russo when asked about its themes and its ultimate inclusion “but it was a time where it was harder to avoid the wider world encroaching on personal worlds and I think that that’s something that runs throughout the album. The songs are really personal and sometimes they contain elements of fiction and other times contain elements of truth, but a lot a lot of the time they’re these personal stories with the wider world and the characters are responding to wider forces they can’t control. It’s that sense of these greater forces battering people back and forth. It’s most explicit in ‘Mainland’ but I feel it’s prevalent through most of the songs on the album to some degree or other.”
Both at the time of our conversation and since, Australia has seen a change in its political climate (if not completely; at the time of writing a far-right race rally caused controversy – and altercations with anti-fascist counter protesters – in the beachside Melbourne suburb of St Kilda). There has been growing condemnation of the country’s offshore detention centres in recent months that makes ‘Mainland’ seem like an especially timely piece of commentary. Russo is more guarded, though, and talks about how “Australia has a long history of putting our heads in the sand about our responsibilities in the world. It’s easy to be cynical but we’re trying to almost transcend that cynicism and look for a ray of hope in an uncertain time.”
Speaking at the tail end of a gruelling world tour, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the novelty of seeing their latest record resonate with global audiences would have worn off. But broach the subject and Russo, Keany and White light up as if experiencing it for the first time. “I had a moment tonight, and I get it all the time, where I was watching the support band and saw all of these people here,” admits White, with a tone that borders on the awestruck “and they’ve all got their own different lives and they all decided to come here tonight. The idea that people are talking about you and listening to you or have driven a long way to see you…there’s a whole world that we don’t know about for these souls that come and watch the show. It’s strange and humbling, but also encouraging. It brings a smile to my face.”
Quite what the future holds for Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever remains unclear, as does the extent to which a breakout 2018 will influence their work going forward “it’s only six months down the track, when you’ve had a bit of perspective, that you realise ‘oh yeah, of course I was writing about that’” describes Keany in the midst of our chat, talking about the crossover between their lives and their songwriting “you can kid yourself for ages that you’ve written about a fictional guy that’s having a crap time but later on realise that you’ve probably been writing about yourself”, but as far as releasing their debut album, and the year that has followed as a result, it’s been a case of mission accomplished, and then some.