Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever: “Lennon, McCartney, Harrison were in competition with each other. We’re not”

The Melbourne band’s gruelling international tour for their first album ‘Hope Downs’ nearly broke them. But on sophomore release ‘Sideways To New Italy’, they find their way back home

On the morning of March 13, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever were getting ready to play with their teenage heroes Pixies on the steps of the Sydney Opera House the following day. By the afternoon, the dream was dashed.

The headliners had cancelled the show and left the country, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison had declared a ban on “non-essential” gatherings of over 500 people to stop the spread of coronavirus – enacted on the Monday, of course, so he could still go to the footy that weekend. The Melbourne jangle rock quintet held their own crisis talks on the Friday night, proposing a risky idea: should they do their own show?

“We were going to lose all this money, so we thought if there was some way we can still play, we would do it,” songwriter-guitarist Fran Keaney tells NME, months later.

And so the band scheduled a free show at Marrickville corner pub The Vic On The Park for Sunday, March 15, mere hours before Morrison’s restrictions would come into effect. It was a venue where Rolling Blackouts had once played to a crowd of zero – in 2020, however, the band had to advertise a strict 250-person capacity.

The day of the show, they cancelled their Brunswick Music Festival set planned for the following week. There was unspoken acknowledgement in the band that the intimate Sydney show would be their last for a very long time. The gig, which went ahead with a sense of bittersweet urgency, definitely exceeded capacity, they admit sheepishly.

“What felt right on Friday didn’t feel right by the time we played it on Sunday,” Keaney says. “It didn’t feel irresponsible. I didn’t feel bad when we were doing it, it just wasn’t a celebration of ‘Woohoo, this is the eve before we all bunker down’. It wasn’t the last hurrah – we were thinking maybe we should just be going home now.”

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Big Read
Credit: Kane Hibberd for NME

Fittingly, NME meets Rolling Blackouts C.F’s three guitarist-songwriters in one of their homes for their first in-person interview in a good while: Tom Russo’s new digs, which Keaney and Joe White are seeing for the first time. It’s a small unit in a nearly 200-year-old Yorkshire-inspired estate, which towers over the working class Melbourne suburb it sits in.

Fumed oak hangs in the air of the wood-adorned living room, centred around an angel-flanked fireplace. Fluorescent abstract and Indigenous art covers the walls without a piece of musical memorabilia in sight, shy of a few disco records on the shelf. The trio, draped in AFL scarves and drinking cans of Melbourne Bitter on the couch, almost look out of place. But Rolling Blackouts have always had an intellectual pedigree edging them past countless other dolewave Melbourne guitar bands; in our chat, they flit quickly between Homer’s Odyssey and the footy.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Big Read cover
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever on the cover of NME Australia #07

None of the songwriters is telling poignant tales of self-discovery achieved during the last three months of quarantine. Rolling Blackouts gave no homebound livestream performances either, mainly because of its incompatibility with a three-guitar band. Their lone quarantine contribution was a version of their 2013 single, ‘Angeline’, pieced together from separate home recordings – which was OK because the track was a bedroom recording to begin with.

“[Livestreams are] no substitute for us. I’m generally a very positive person and I like to see the positive in things, but this one I was like, ‘No! We’re in a shit situation, let’s not try to sugarcoat it and find something’,” Keaney says.

They have been promoting their second album, though, with a press tour conducted internationally through Zoom. It helps that the new record, ‘Sideways To New Italy’, is an excellent one. The sparkly jangle has ratcheted up to a more exhilarating BPM, underpinned by a motorik groove. The tone is still bright, but the band have leaned into summertime sadness, letting shades of melancholy cloud the rays – ‘Sunglasses At The Wedding’ is Keaney’s misty-eyed soundtrack to a marital objection, flecked with a bizarre childhood memory of convincing his sister to idolise a real estate agency (“You used to cut up all the pictures / In the pages of the Leader”).

Lyrically, Rolling Blackouts C.F have gone high-concept. ‘Sideways To New Italy’ is broadly about finding Arcadia in a broken world. The title’s namesake captures this search for utopia – New Italy is a town in the Northern Rivers district of New South Wales, founded in 1882 by a group of Venetian refugees. The beleaguered Italians had been sent on a doomed quest by a French aristocrat to colonise the Bismarck Archipelago. When they failed, the colonial secretary of NSW answered their desperate pleas for help and brought them to Sydney. The New Italy settlement was their hope for a new life in a strange land, but the town has since faded into a historical oddity off the highway.

“A lot of the songs are dealing with this ‘home’ that doesn’t look like home, like a dislocation”

“We’d driven through it often. It’s really a coffee stop, with a petrol station and a museum with Roman statues and a villa. But it was a name that was very odd and evocative,” Russo explains.

The failed Italian experiment is referenced in the photograph on the album’s cover, which features Roman-inspired balusters foregrounded by pale orange roses. Walking from a Brunswick tram stop to Russo’s house earlier that night, I’m almost certain I see the same veranda from the photo. Keaney tells me I might be right. The photo was shot somewhere in Brunswick.

“We’re often thinking of Brunswick as this ‘New Italy’ as well. It’s a diaspora thing – you’re carving out a place in someone else’s land. But we like the idea of the columns, because… it’s this pathetic, desperate attempt to put your stamp on something,” he says.

“Roman empires in the suburbs. It’s ridiculous but it’s also really grand,” Russo adds.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Big Read
Fran Keaney. Credit: Kane Hibberd for NME

‘New Italy’ was the working title for the record. But it changed after the Russo brothers’ fascination with the forgotten town broadened into one with their Italian heritage. Tom and bassist Joe Russo’s father hails from the Aeolian Islands, a beguiling archipelago surrounded by cobalt-blue waters off the northeast coast of Sicily. The islands also appear in the Odyssey when their namesake Aeolus, the Greek god of wind, offers Odysseus bags of the stuff to spur their return to Ithaca in Greece, with the caveat that they don’t open the last bag. It works – until a few crewmen, believing that bag to hold riches, open it and unwittingly let loose a gale that blows everyone back the way they came.

“[We] were fascinated by this idea of being blown against your will somewhere else,” Keaney says.

“I was feeling pretty blown sideways at the end of that year [2019].”

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Big Read
Tom Russo. Credit: Kane Hibberd for NME

Rolling Blackouts are somewhat self-conscious about releasing a new, relatively apolitical album in the middle of a global pandemic and at the height of a worldwide reckoning on race. We’re speaking a week after the album’s release, and days following Melbourne’s Black Lives Matter protests.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re pushing music. We try to figure out what we can do in our own small way in our own privilege, to be of some use,” Keaney says.

The band recently auctioned off a signed test pressing of ‘Sideways To New Italy’, donating the proceeds to the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service. In their songwriting, though, they feel a little inadequate.

“We are all very politically engaged and politically aware, and it’s something we talk about a lot,” Keaney says. “But I don’t feel like we feel entitled to talk about these things. We stand in support of a lot of bands and voices that are able to sort of push those things forward, but sometimes it’s a bit weird for five straight white dudes to be going, ‘We think this and we think that’.”

White believes fans understand that “anything that comes out today, yesterday or anytime around now was recorded six months ago or more”. Keaney, however, bristles at the suggestion the album is from a different world and time.

“I really think the songs feel more true now. It’s more applicable to other people, at least. A lot of the songs are dealing with this ‘home’ that doesn’t look like home, like a dislocation,” he says.

“I’m not saying it’s out of date. It’s just like a missive from somewhere else,” Russo replies.

“Sometimes it’s weird for five straight white dudes to be going, ‘We think this and we think that’”

The spoken word section on the record’s opener ‘The Second Of The First’ begins a manifesto for dislocation from home – “Nothing is the same, the street hasn’t changed” – and ‘The Only One’ completes it five songs later with a delicious contradiction: “Back into the new world, it looks exactly the same”. But when did the Melbourne band lose sight of home?

For 18 months across 2018 and 2019, Rolling Blackouts C.F ricocheted across European and American capital cities, often doing seven shows a week in support of their debut album ‘Hope Downs’. In a masochistic move, they further extended their tour last year by recording the double A-side single ‘In The Capital/Read My Mind’ during a sojourn in Berlin.

“It only hit home when… we finally ran out of summer. We had been doing Australian summer, European summer, four summers in a row,” Keaney says.

“It was getting cold and dark by 3pm. Our bones were just sore. We were so broken. I remember the idea of standing up for an hour to play a show was so foreign. Forty-five minutes before a show, I thought, ‘I can’t see how that’s going to happen’.”

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Big Read
Joe White. Credit: Kane Hibberd for NME

To make matters more difficult, the seating configuration in the band’s European touring van forced them to stare at one another for hours on end.

“When you’re all facing each other, there’s not much reading going on. There’s just constant conversation – you basically could be sitting at a booth at a bar. And that happens for five to seven hours at a time,” Keaney explains.

“And then you do go sit in a bar somewhere. And you’re like ‘Oh, it’s you again’,” White quips.

“We were so broken. Forty-five minutes before a show, I thought, ‘I can’t see how that’s going to happen’”

The band’s tour madness manifested in a crippling addiction to Monopoly Deal, the card version of the board game. Each round only lasted 10 to 15 minutes, but the game ratcheted up the tension in the back of the van.

“It’s essentially like the pokies, really. You get some sort of reward after a while and then you pull the lever again,” Russo laughs.

No matter how much fake real estate was lost, though, no real loathing was stoked.

“We all know each other very well – we all know when someone is feeling a bit flat, or when you need to shut up,” Keaney says.

“There’s none of that sibling rivalry or anything, it’s all pretty chill,” White adds.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Big Read
Joe Russo. Credit: Kane Hibberd for NME

Rolling Blackouts C.F are mostly a family band – composed of the Russo brothers, cousins Keaney and White, and the lone Marcel Tussie. Tom Russo met Keaney at a Catholic school in Melbourne back in Year 7, and Keaney eventually introduced him to Joe White. White recalls discomfort from his younger cousin joining his already established group of friends, particularly due to Keaney’s affection for dreadful home haircuts.

But Russo, White and Keaney hit it off musically and started to play in a series of high school bands. They began as Aurora, became Sports Club, and finished as World Of Sport – all monikers knowingly cribbed from other bands. Keaney played drums, while bass duties alternated between White and Mayada Hang, another friend. The results, they grimace, were middling to rubbish.

“We played a gig once every six months and were so terrible at any kind of organisation,” Russo laughs.

“It taught us some ideas of pop songwriting and collaborating together. I think that contributed to this band, because we all kinda knew how each other worked without having to say it.”

“The way we collectively think about lyrics is cinematic”

Once Hang left the group, in 2012, Rolling Blackouts formed. Russo pleaded with his brother Joe, a guitar player, to do them the favour of switching to bass. The trio of songwriters then knocked on the door of Keaney’s housemate Tussie, a virtuosic Afrobeat drummer who had never played in a rock band before.

“We just had to say ‘Alright, no fancy stuff – play this 4/4 beat’. We completely held him back, so he did the most simple stuff, but more recently we’ve let him off the leash a bit and allowed him to shine in,” Russo says.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Big Read
Marcel Tussie. Credit: Kane Hibberd for NME

Immediately, the new band received comparisons to Australia’s definitive jangle rockers The Go-Betweens. A quick scan of just about any Rolling Blackouts review from the band’s inception to today will turn up the ’80s band’s name.

“Initially it was pretty humbling. People say we sound like The Go-Betweens – oh cool! Then it happened more and more, and then forevermore,” White says.

The members all agree their greatest influence was actually the “driving rhythms” of obscure Swedish electropop group, The Embassy.

“What we aspired to in that was this mix of these really sweet melancholy melodies, to the contrast of happy and sad in the music. We transposed that into a garage band setting,” Russo explains.

The chemistry of the new quintet, led by the egalitarian relationship between the three songwriters, was a contrast to their casual bands of the past. When asked, the trio struggle to articulate what distinguishes their songwriting styles.

“Lennon, McCartney, Harrison – they were in competition with each other. And we’re not; we don’t see it that way. It’s very much just like, ‘That’s cool, let’s try and make it cooler!’” White finally says.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Big Read
Credit: Kane Hibberd for NME

Their lyrical differences, though subtle, are more apparent. White chooses his withering words the same way he crafts pithy pop lyricism; Keaney is the chattiest and the most verbose writer; Russo leans on old-fashioned expressions in conversation, showing his penchant for metaphor. All three are fascinated with the notion of place.

“We always try to imagine where [the song is] set, the characters within it… Using a place name helps the listener know what you’re talking about. It can really ground a song,” White explains. “There’s often talk of different sandwiches, foods that are related to the song. It’s a way of figuring out what the song is, using something other than musical talk. The way we collectively think about lyrics is cinematic.”

Keaney adds, “I don’t really know any other way to write, actually.”

Although coronavirus lockdown rules have largely eased in Australia, the band that once toured for 18 months straight remain homebound. They have locked in UK and Ireland tour dates for 2021, and have unconfirmed plans for a tour of regional Australia, but the idea of touring even nationally still feels like a fantasy.

Due to the lack of live music, they’ve been able to explore some more unusual revenue raisers. When we talk, the trio are still drunk on their first taste of stadium rock from the week prior: with Stella Donnelly, they performed a cover of Deadstar’s underground hit ‘Deeper Water’ in an empty Melbourne Cricket Ground for the online livestream series, The State Of Music.

“Every part of it was so last minute,” Keaney says. “We literally decided on a song to do in one night, we talked to Stella, practised it for two hours and it just happened to be the perfect song. Then two days later, we found ourselves playing on the G. It was so surreal.”

Rolling Blackouts also scored one of their first song syncs, with their 2018 single ‘Talking Straight’ appearing in the latest AFL video game – apparently a less thrilling experience. (“As you might imagine, the AFL video game doesn’t have a whole lot of cash to work with. So it’s not like getting on the FIFA soundtrack,” White drawls.)

The band are otherwise fixated on moving forward with new music as soon as possible.

“It’s such a gift to be like, nothing really matters for the next little while,” Keaney says.

“You get to keep things as they were, and you have this pause in time where you go back five years or so. I know that a lot of the stuff I’ve been writing at the moment, I just don’t think about what it’s for. Or without any worry of, ‘Is this a single? What’s this?’”

Russo interjects to temper Keaney’s positivity.

“The wider answer is, who knows? Who the fuck knows? At the very least, we’ll play some songs. It’s all up to the Fates.”

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s new album ‘Sideways To New Italy’ is out now via Ivy League Records. Catch the band on tour next year in the UK/Ireland in March and in Spain for the rescheduled Primavera Sound Festival in June.