Hammering Out the Hits!
For Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Writing Songs Is a Breeze – But Not Naming Bands
I’ve yet to meet a music fan who hasn’t fallen for Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. The problem is, my sample size is relatively small. Despite two spectacular mini-LPs to their rather convoluted name, the Melbourne, Australia five-piece remains a treasure known to a select few. And what’s not to like? Ringing guitars, irrepressible energy, and an almost impossible knack for melody are the quintet’s stock in trade.
Maybe it’s the name that’s holding them back. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. “We sort of just bit the bullet early on,” explains Joe White, one of the band’s three guitarists, songwriters and vocalists. In their low-stakes early days, the boys began playing out as the Rolling Blackouts. When momentum began to build, however, they quickly realized there was no shortage of bands called the Blackouts or Rolling Blackouts. “It wasn’t like anyone told us to change our name, but we figured we would before anything happened. Instead of changing it entirely we decided to just add two words. It’s a ridiculous name, I know.”
Fans tend to shorten it anyway, and in an apparent gambit to preserve character count even their album covers credit them as Rolling Blackouts C.F. – which probably leads to further marketing headaches.
“To me band names are silly anyway,” White adds. “Sometimes you can hate a name but once you hear the music you forget about it.” Hey, it never held back Dinosaur Jr.
The most common reference point trotted out for RBCF – a both fair and flattering one – is to their fellow countrymen The Go-Betweens. “We all love them,” White acknowledges. “They’re national treasures, although they were anchored in Brisbane,” which is further from Melbourne than Atlanta is from Boston – a nuance lost on many Americans.
The two bands share the shimmering, wistful tone mainly associated with Grant McLennan’s half of The Go-Betweens’ catalog. “It’s almost a coincidence that we’re structured similarly. None of us are fantastic singers, it took us awhile to figure us how to use our voices and make it sound all right. When we finally did I guess it kind of came out like them. There are other bands we think of as more direct influences though.”
The first of those that springs to mind for me is The Feelies, given both groups’ manic strum and RBCF drummer Marcel Tussie’s gloriously basic yet rock-solid backbeat. “We’ll take it,” White laughs. “Tom and Fran especially are big Feelies fans.” Check out the urgent “Julie’s Place” from 2017’s near-perfect The French Press for ample evidence.
Fran Keaney (White’s cousin) and Tom Russo (whose brother Joe plays bass) are RBCF’s other two frontmen. Despite the multiple family ties, White assures me they’re not prone to knock-down drag-outs a la the Gallagher or Davies clans. “We’re all pretty chill and good friends, whether we’re family or not.”
It’s the three-guitar lineup – two electric, one acoustic – that drives RBCF’s signature sound. That, and an additional punch that differentiates them from The Go-Betweens and lends credence to the band’s own “tough pop” descriptor. For more contemporary comparisons, I’m reminded of Kevin Morby’s louder stuff, or a less flashy Luna.
Given the three-songwriter model, a closer to home influence is the excellent Dick Diver, RBCF’s Melbourne scenemates. “I think you can safely say we’re fans of that band. I like that you can always find the common thread running through their songs.” This goes double for the Blackouts, where aside from clues embedded in the vocals you’d be hard pressed to determine who contributes what. “They all wind up as joint compositions, but they vary in the way they come into the room,” White explains. “I tend to sit at home in front of the computer and lay things out, jamming with myself.” It’s splitting hairs, but White’s tend more toward actual singing – often with an echoey effect – as on the spikier “Sick Bug” and the lovely “Dig Up.” Keaney and Russo favor a talk-singing style – and they trade verses across the five-plus minutes of hypnotic grooves on The French Press’ title track
“We’ve written songs together for years – Tom, Fran and myself. It’s kind of a songwriting project,” White says of the band, over audible hammering in the background. He’s been hired for a project by his brother, a carpenter, to assist with a home renovation – the ideal musician’s day job given its inherent scheduling flexibility. “It’s a good antidote to the world of rock ‘n’ roll, getting up early,” he offers, mentioning that his mates’ other gigs range from barista to law clerk.
One professed influence you’d be hard-pressed to identify solely from their records is The Clash. “Maybe not so much the music but the attitude that goes with it,” he allows, “The punishing live show and the united front they present.” “Punishing” is not an adjective I would have thought to apply to RBCF, which has been known to cover “Train in Vain” as an encore (while touring the UK they also did Orange Juice’s “Blue Boy,” a more simpatico selection). White acknowledges that the band is a good bit more raucous live. “We definitely lean in,” he adds with a laugh. “We started out writing songs in the bedroom just for fun but once we brought them out into the world, we realize people want to move but retain the melody.” I’ve yet to see them live, but could imagine them coming across like Chronic Town-era R.E.M. in a small club.
Daylight venues like Shaky Knees (where they’ll play in Atlanta May 4th) are nothing new for Rolling Blackouts, who have done their share of afternoon festivals both in the UK and at home in Australia. Although their striped sunlight sound would seem to fit nicely, White freely admits, “We definitely prefer the nighttime. Everything looks better in the darkness, and I think it sounds better too.” This helps explain why they were game for an Atlanta post-Shaky late show at Terminal West that night, where they’ll appear alongside Parquet Courts.
On both stages, however, RCBF is likely to still be featuring material from their pair of winning mini-LPs. A full-length album recorded last summer, titled Hope Downs, will not yet be out; Sub Pop has scheduled a June 15th release date. “The lyrical content you could argue is more solemn or pensive,” he says – a point many also made about the progression from 2016’s Talk Tight to 2017’s The French Press, “but musically it’s definitely a pop record.” And based on “Mainland,” the first single from Hope Downs, that pop continues to get tougher too. “There are a few more moments of difference, though.”
The mini-LPs were recorded in RBCF’s rehearsal space, a sign of no-frills economy far more than lo-fi aesthetic – the clear guitar interplay is one of the band’s calling cards. With more resources to work with, they still held the production values in check. “A friend of our drummer Marcel has a beautiful house not far from the ocean in northern New South Wales. We had our friend from Sydney, Liam Judson, bring in his portable studio and we spent two weeks there, then did a week of overdubs back at our rehearsal space.” The songs had been percolating for some time, so it was mainly a matter of hunkering down and capturing the desired renditions.
As on the mini-LPs, the songs on Hope Downs are fairly evenly split across writers, “though not out of any democratic fairness or anything. We’re not precious about who does what.” The crew has played in bands together before “that went from the garage to the pub but that’s about it. With this project I guess we found a more concise point to make.”
Similar models of multi-songwriter egalitarianism are fairly few and far between. Two that come to mind – Sloan and Teenage Fanclub – have maintained impressive quality control over lengthy careers without ever succumbing to the easier marketing path of highlighting a single frontman for the world. RBCF seems similarly equipped to hold egos in check and come to think of it, Teenage Fanclub isn’t a bad reference point for their shiny, hooky tunes tinged with just a hint of melancholy.
Melbourne seems like a pretty idyllic place to be a musician these days. It’s stylistically diverse – Courtney Barnett, the scene’s current standard bearer for much of the world, sounds little like Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. Even a seemingly similar band like Dick Diver (and don’t get me started on that troupe’s fractured family tree with the likes of Total Control and Camp Cope) has plenty of space to distinguish itself. “If your ambition is to write heaps of songs and play every weekend, you can do that in Melbourne. It’s pretty common – you can play drums in one band and trumpet in another if you want.” For instance, White has toured the EU multiple times with Cash Savage and the Last Drinks, a six-piece blues country band that’s “a very different thing.”
Although they’re from Sydney, I eventually find myself bringing up the Bed Wettin’ Bad Boys as my latest example of White’s “great band/awful name” point. “Really? I like that one…” he responds quizzically. What’s in a name anyway?
Photo by Robin Utama.