“I’m from a family of 56 cousins,” explains Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s Fran Keaney, “so I’m used to being told I’m a dickhead.” From the other side of the table, his fellow guitarist and songwriter Tom Russo turns my way and quips, “Yeah, he’s heard it so many times he’s actually started to internalise it”. It leaves Keaney able to offer little more than a mix of laughter. “It’s my own personal mantra!” he suggests.
The knock-about verbal sparring is all part of an evening in a beer garden in Melbourne’s north suburbs amid the long shadows and warm climes of an Australian February. With the duo joined by drummer Marcel Tussie and bassist (and Tom’s brother) Joe Russo, we’ll spend our time together looking at their two EPs to date: 2015’s well-received Talk Tight and the recently released The French Press.
Talk Tight seemed right at home amid the brigade of smart, evocative Australiana that’s been making waves internationally over the past couple of years, with the two lead singles of ‘Clean Slate’ and ‘Wither With You’ respectively showing a band capable of producing a stone-cold road trip classic or descending into purposeful reflection. It’s little surprise that soon the wider international community were taking note – or rather little surprise to anyone bar the band themselves.
“I had no expectations whatsoever so in a way it far surpassed anything I could have imagined,” Keaney claims. Tom Russo concurs, suggesting that the band approached the last record out of a sense of practicality rather than the romanticism of possibility: “It was almost a case of ‘we have some songs, we have some time, let’s bang it out over a weekend’ and it turned out really well.” Though they’ll acknowledge that things have changed for them in recent months (“With the new one we knew that at least a few people would be tuning in so it was a different mindset,” Tom Russo says) unsurprisingly for The French Press they’ve kept what appears to be a winning formula as intact as possible, with them using the same producer, recording space doubling as rehearsal space and approach.
“I think we went a bit harder, song-wise,” says Tom Russo, reflecting on how The French Press eventually turned out. “The first EP was maybe a bit poppier but there are moments on this one where we we consciously went a bit more rocking in places. There’s a ballad on there, so it’s probably more diverse. We tried a few things and I hope they came off.” The urgency that features throughout the new release suggests he might have a point on his first assertion – see lead tracks ‘Julie’s Place’ and the title track for proof – but the latter belies the way that on both of their EPs to date the band have treated them as blank canvasses to showcase as many ideas as possible rather than an exercise in communicating a particular aesthetic concisely. “As a band I think we’ve always tended to be a bit more diverse and eclectic,” agrees Keaney. “I think we’re starting to hone our sound over the first EP and into this one and we’re still a band in relative infancy. I think it’s more of a broad collection rather than one based on outright coherence. This EP was similar to the last one: we have these songs, let’s get them down…”
But if the process was the same, The French Press‘ release will be anything but, with it marking the band’s first release for Sub Pop. “I think we got really lucky there!” claims Tom Russo, humbly. “We were probably a bit right-time-right-place because there’s so much incredible stuff coming out of both Melbourne and Australia as a whole. There are a lot of other great bands out there at the moment getting international recognition so from our perspective it’s definitely been validating. We’re just trying to honour that fine tradition of that label and not fuck it up! We’re trying to remain conscious of the need to honour the opportunity by putting a good album out.” The experience has gone some way to changing the band’s mentality, with the outfit that’s long been an extra-curricular release for those involved now finding themselves with a wealth of opportunities and a certain responsibility to perform. It’s something that’s not been lost on them, with Keaney admitting that “we all still work – like most bands – so for us it was always that the band would always just bubble long in the background around work. We’ve all played together for years without it going anywhere, but we didn’t really try. We disbanded the group and came back to it a few years later as a fun, background thing. That’s how it’s been for us but it’s transforming. We want to try and maintain that fun energy and for it to maybe get a bit more professional but without losing that fun element.”
If fun is an element they want to retain in the creative process, then something they’ve managed to retain in their music to date is an innate sense of place. While contemporaries have made express use of their surroundings – think Courtney Barnett’s detailing of the Nicholas Building, High Street and Phillip Island, or Fraser A Gorman’s references to Johnston Street, or Dick Diver’s talk of IGA supermarkets and Fitness First gyms – Rolling Blackout C.F have shaped their world in the broad brush strokes of Twerps, where specific landmarks are thin on the ground yet it’s still hard to imagine the songs coming from anywhere else. For RBCF, some of that undoubtedly comes from their use of imagery (the video for ‘Clean Slate’ is made from a 1970s Screen Australia road movie, those for ‘Wither With You’ and ‘Julie’s Place’ contain inescapably suburban settings) but a large part also comes from their keen eye for redolent songwriting. “The way that we write and the subjects we write about have developed over time,” explains Keaney. “We’ve always been playing together – Tom, me and Joe have been playing in bands together since 2003 or 2004, and we’ve always just been sharing ideas between the three of us. I think that’s cultivated a bit of theme, lyrically speaking, to try and find something the extraordinary within the ordinary. So there’s an element of the kitchen sink drama but there’s also elements of a more expansive landscape and a sense of longing.” As far as Tom Russo is concerned, as far as the making of Talk Tight is concerned, “I don’t think we intentionally set out to make it suburban or beach-y or anything”. He also concedes: “I guess it was shaped in some form by a sense of place. We recorded it in a heatwave and I think an element of that might have crept in.”
That sense of place – and the suburban setting especially – has proved to be a rich seam for recent Australian artists, with a seemingly endless cast of songwriters able to turn the most minute series of daily details into something far bigger and more resonant than the sum of its parts. Do they feel there’s something especially evocative about Australian suburbia which makes it an especially fertile subject and setting for a songwriter? “I think writing about what you know and what’s around you is always going to be inspiring,” says Keaney. “I don’t think that’s particular to Australia but I do think that there’s a lot of good songwriters and observationists making good use of their surroundings – Courtney Barnett, Dick Diver – any number of them can synthesise what’s around them, and that’s art. I think it’s a universal thing and it’s a perpetually interesting subject. It just happens to be a bit of a thing over here at the moment.” It’s arguably something the band have had to work out how to best use, with Marcel Tussie adding that “I think there was a time when we didn’t really want to write about the mundane because we didn’t think it would translate. But in actual fact when you relate to something and listen to it over and over again there’s a bit of a snowball effect.” “We’ve tried to steer away from that overly real, suburban doldrums ordinary stuff,” admits Tom Russo “and try to make it a bit more dramatic which is maybe a bit different…”
Mulling on what his bandmate just said, Keaney concurs, by suggesting that “there’s probably some magic in there too – a mix of magic and realism, if you will. For a while I was only listening to English music, and with something like Paul Weller, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys…they’re all bands that have been able to write well about what’s around them, and that’s just good art and vital stuff that people love, and deep down people enjoy hearing about what’s around them.” “I think another thing which has inspired us away from the whole kitchen sink Australiana style,” jumps in Tom Russo, “has been that for ages now me, Joe and Fran have been listening to a lot of songwriters who are writing from a place of yearning, even something like being from a cold place and wanting to be somewhere warm. There’s a load of Swedish songwriters making this great tropical-sounding music, or even Balearic dance music and they’re imagining this alternative world for themselves. Even something like The Style Council…I’m not sure where they’re from, actually.” He looks towards the token Brit at the table for an answer and upon learning Paul Weller originally hailed from Surrey continues with a surprised “oh, is Surrey quite drab? Either way, they’re imagining this decadent, continental world. I like that sense of imagining a place which may or may not exist.”
“I like that sense of imagining a place which may or may not exist.”
But irrespective of whether they’re writing from a place immediately surrounding them or from one of an escapist fantasy, their recent Sub Pop signing and slew of shows Stateside including SXSW and an upcoming London date, see them join the current surge of Australian artists currently gaining traction in international markets. In that regards, do they see it as something of a golden age for Australian musicians? “It’s tough to know if it’s a golden age. There’s lots of good stuff, but it’s a bit grand to say we’re in a golden age when we’re playing a bit part in it!” laughs Tom Russo. “But you can’t deny it, it feels like there’s so much good stuff bubbling away. I think there’s always been great bands coming out of Australia but now with the ease of social platforms it’s become simpler for bands to get heard and it makes a huge difference, and I think it coincides with so many great acts making great music around us. You can go to somewhere like [legendary Melbourne venue] The Tote and basically not see a bad band. There’s just so much great-quality stuff out there right now.” For brother Joe, the country’s isolation and self-sufficient local scenes borne out of its vast, disparate geography also has a part to play, with him saying: “I think these places can act as nice little incubators for bands. There’s a nice level of population that can allow a band to grow in itself while also developing an audience.” Tom smiles ruefully as his brother’s comments cause him to recall the band’s gradual transformation into what it is now and how: “we had some teenage bands that were probably pretty questionable but we were allowed to incubate and do our own thing at a very leisurely pace so that we finally came up with something more worthwhile. You’re supported no matter what you do.”
If the ability to develop at your own pace has been an aspect of local life which has shaped Rolling Blackouts C.F’s worldview and development, then arguably so too has ‘tall poppy syndrome’. A colloquial term for the act of disparaging those successful in public life – for better or for worse – it has brought about a culture of quiet achievement and one where, according to Marcel Tussie, “you see a lot of bands work their arse off and do their own thing in their rehearsal space because they don’t want to be big-headed and they don’t want to be shit, so when they do venture into the wider world they do so with something that’s well-rehearsed and they’re not crowing about it and people will go ‘yeah, that’s great. That’s really good music.’ I like that.” “It’s about remembering where you came from” concurs Tom Russo, before adding to widespread laughter “and making sure you don’t act like a wanker, basically.”
After our interview, an offer surfaces to visit their rehearsal space – a back room of a law practice owned by the Russos’ father – and watch them hone new songs set to feature on their forthcoming album into shape ahead of their US tour commitments. Sitting there, watching them meticulously refining their songs, oblivious to their new interloper apart from periodically checking in to see if he wants another beer, their ethos seems to feed back into Tussie’s words with ideas getting tossed around as frequently as the phones that surface to record their latest work for review. With two high-quality EPs under their belt and a clear, industrious ambition at their core, this could well turn out to be their breakout year.
Live: The Lexington, 5th September