Alanna Oliver remembers exactly where she was when inspiration struck. Romero’s lead singer was on the phone with her mother while driving to meet up for a jam session with the band – a bit agitated as she shared a story about a girl who she thought fancied her boyfriend. “That’s when my mum said ‘she sounds like a real troublemaker.’ And as soon as the words came out, I knew. I hung up, pulled off to the side of the road and wrote out lyrics. Very serendipitous.” Romero’s new single ‘Troublemaker’ was born.
Call it what you want – serendipity, good fortune – the red-hot Melbourne quintet has enjoyed a magical run from its very inception. Romero got its start in 2018 when Oliver off-handedly mentioned to a friend that she was looking to form a band. Within days, her friend had introduced her to Adam and Dave Johnstone, brothers and veterans of the Melbourne punk circuit, who quickly put the rest of the pieces together, recruiting Fergus Sinclair (ex-Eyesores) and Justin “Murry” Tawil (ex-Summer Blood) to round out the lineup.
While they’ve played fewer gigs than you can count on two hands and their output has been limited to one double A-side single and now ‘Troublemaker’, word-of-mouth has traveled rapidly beyond the local scene. The double A-side 7” for ‘Honey’/’Neapolitan’ sold out almost instantaneously upon its release this past Valentine’s day, and the band had even been added as openers for Twin Peaks and Sheer Mag before COVID shut everything down. “The world was opening up – and then it wasn’t,” sighs Oliver.
But as luck would have it, the pause button turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the fledgling band, an opportunity to slow down and learn how to operate as a unit. As the younger Johnstone brother, Dave, explains: “at the beginning [of Romero] it was us just showing each other ideas we had. But now we’ll work these things out together.” Johnstone admits this was no easy task as it required bridging “divergent tastes.”
Romero bill themselves as a power pop band, which makes sense up to a point. Though the truth is it’s a bit of an over-simplification. Gleaming new wave is an undeniable influence – Blondie is a personal favourite of Oliver’s – but a decidedly dyspeptic undercurrent lurks just beneath the surface, vestiges perhaps of the many short-lived punk bands from their teen years. With ‘Troublemaker’, they have delivered their most essential distillation of Romero yet: a tale of insecurity and loathing set to raucous riffs and a deceptively ebullient chorus. Most devastating is Oliver’s needling, insouciant vocal, like the snarl of a wounded animal determined not to give itself away.
Like the singles before it, ‘Troublemaker’ was recorded north of the city at Soundpark studios, which has played host to Australian A-listers like Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Courtney Barnett. Romero, true to form, slipped in through the back with a little bit of help. Turns out Dave Johnstone was working at the studio, and bartered his way into some recording time for Romero. They now find themselves sitting on a full album’s worth of songs – 11 to be precise – all for the most part ready to go.
“This year was supposed to be the victory lap where all the work was supposed to pay off,” says Johnstone, sounding equally anxious and frustrated. “It feels a bit suffocating having only three songs out because the album is full of different angles and tonal shifts.” Though he’s quick to catch himself: “When you’re in the same situation as everyone else, it’s not nearly as depressing.”
Unlike many other parts of the world, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for bands in Australia. The entire country was in “hard lockdown” the past three months according to Johnstone, but gigs are now starting to pop up on the calendar. Romero has one on the books for January, though Oliver and Johnstone don’t sound like they quite believe it, or maybe they’ve learned that being flexible is always a good idea in the era of COVID.
Either way, there is at least one non-negotiable for Romero come 2021: the release of their long-gestating debut album. Both Oliver and Johnstone find themselves in violent agreement on this point, showing no inclination to wait around even if it might be the more prudent option. As their time in Romero has taught them, sometimes you simply press ahead and try your luck.
Romero’s new single Troublemaker is out now