“CHAMPAGNE days,” says Tom Russo, holding a coupe of Moët & Chandon aloft in Manchester’s empty Gorilla venue. He pauses. “This has never happened before…”
Exclusive treatment is probably something Russo’s group, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, need to get used to, though. The Melbourne band have just packed out this 450-capacity venue, their biggest headline gig to date, with the champagne a gift from the promoters. The record won’t stand for long, though: the following night, they’ll sell out London’s Electric Ballroom, which holds almost 1,500 people.
“Before we came over to Europe, we played two 400-capacity rooms,” says singer and acoustic guitarist Fran Keaney. “We booked the first one, that sold out, so we did the next one. But tomorrow’s gonna be our biggest show.”
“By far,” adds drummer Marcel Tussie. Last year the band were playing small rooms such as London’s Moth Club, but their excellent second EP, 2017’s “The French Press”, has gradually sparked a swell of interest. Without much industry hype or social media buzz, the five-piece have organically netted a steadily growing and passionate fanbase.
It’s an impressive feat. Their music is traditional in many ways – guitar-based, song-focused, evoking the literate likes of The Smiths, REM and The Go-Betweens – but intensely modern in others – they write about our world and its problems today from a microcosmic, local viewpoint, and temper their intricate music with a backbeat that suggests The Strokes or even the Ramones.
“It’s not just cerebral music,” adds Tom Russo, who picks Neil Young and Kendrick Lamar as two of his biggest songwriting heroes. “It’s all in the bass and drums… it’s got a pulse there so I think anyone can get into that.”
In Manchester, the crowd cheers every song – even new, unreleased ones like “Bellarine”. “When there’s enthusiasm on the crowd’s side, it’s hard not to have fun,” says bassist Joe Russo. “If they’re into it, it’s a reciprocal thing and we’re more than happy to hold up our end of the bargain.”
From the band’s HQ, a room above a solicitors’ run by the Russos’ father, now comes a full album, easily the most developed, evocative music Rolling Blackouts CF have made. Titled Hope Downs after a giant, abyss-like mine in the centre of Australia, it was recorded 14 hours’ drive away from Melbourne, in the sub-tropical north of New South Wales, and finds the band’s three singer-songwriters – Tom Russo, Fran Keaney and Joe White – gelling their styles into one rich, unique sound. “We put ideas through our filter now,” says Russo, “and we’re experienced enough that it comes out sounding like a song of ours, no matter who wrote the shell of it.”
“Generally our music has got this hope to it, this genuine human side of hope,” says Joe White, explaining the thread that ties Hope Downs together. “But it all comes from these little bits of anguish – from being such a small character in a big shifting world that’s hard to comprehend.”
EARLIER on the day of their Manchester gig, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and their steadfast tour manager/roadie/ soundman Grant rolled into the city with Oasis’ Definitely Maybe on the van stereo. Drummer Marcel Tussie’s father is originally from Manchester, and the five-piece grew up with a love for local heroes from the Stone Roses to Oasis.
“Tom and I were best buddies at school,” recalls Fran Keaney. “I remember one day on the tram a mate of mine played me ‘Elephant Stone’ by the Stone Roses. It was like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ Those drums, these huge soaring melodies and the acoustic guitar…”
Keaney’s description could in fact apply to much of Rolling Blackouts CF’s music: over a bed of Tussie’s metronomic drums and Joe Russo’s bass, further propulsion is provided by Keaney’s strummed acoustic, tough and rhythmic rather than pretty. Over the top, the dual lead guitars of White and Tom Russo circle, exchanging lines and arpeggios like two separate Johnny Marrs.
This sound was at the forefront of their minds when Keaney, White, Tussie and the Russos formed the band in 2011. Tom, Fran and Joe White had been in a group together at school, Aurora (“Back then you needed a name that looked good on a pencil case, or at the back of your exercise book,” says Keaney), with White on bass, Keaney on drums and Russo on guitar and vocals. A later band, World Of Sport, laid the groundwork for RBCF. “There were some good ideas and the rudiments of this band were in that band,” says Keaney, “but we didn’t carry it through properly. When we formed this band, we came at it with a more disciplined approach to songwriting – we just wanted to make hooks, interesting stories and good melodies, with a nice pulse to the songs.”
With Tom Russo’s brother Joe on bass, the guitarists jammed quietly in Keaney’s room, until one night Tussie, who lived below, asked if they needed a drummer. “For ages it was just acoustic guitars,” says the drummer, “and me on a snare drum, in a bedroom. And all of our Italian neighbours coming out and listening to what we were doing. I remember one lady saying, ‘It’s really good, keep going!’”
“It started as a kind of songwriting project really, to amuse ourselves,” says Tom Russo. “We didn’t go out there going, ‘OK, we’re gonna form a band and we’re gonna gig hard.’ We just put all these little parameters around it and tried to make some pop songs with guitars. The focus was always on the songs, there was never any ambition beyond that.”
“We’d help out with other people’s songs,” says Keaney. “‘Maybe I’ll sing a verse on yours, this lead could work there, and then, ‘Marcel, could you play a beat but keep it really simple?’ Marcel’s background is in Afrobeat, so it was sort of rude of us to say ‘Don’t do that, don’t be good!’”
The band soon graduated from the bedroom to the space above the Russos’ family solicitors. They still practise there, surrounded by Peter Russo’s collection of books on Dylan, The Beatles and world religions, and stacks of old Uncuts. “He was a folkie from back in the day,” says Tom. “So he’s really supportive, and a big reader of all things music as well.”
Russo & Russo is in Brunswick, a hip suburb of Melbourne next to Moonee Ponds, a more middle-class district that spawned, the band gleefully explain, Dame Edna Everage and the late Steve Irwin. The group grew up in these areas, aside from Tussie, and all still live there now, soaking in the coffee shops, gig venues and bars.
At the beginning of 2014, Rolling Blackouts CF played their first ever gig, for a few friends above a pub in Brunswick – “there were periods of two and a half minutes between songs,” remembers Joe White. “An uncool amount of dead air…” Their first release followed – the format was a frisbee complete with download code – before they recorded their debut EP, “Talk Tight”, in their practice room.
“The French Press” EP followed last year, and comprised six upbeat, guitar-heavy songs, two from each songwriter; highlights included the long, jammy title track, like Robert Forster playing krautrock, “Colours Run”, like early Pixies crossed with Orange Juice, and “Sick Bug”, a slice of side-winding garage-pop. It was punchy and uniformly strong, but Rolling Blackouts were determined to do something more interconnected for their debut album proper.
“We went in knowing that we were gonna make one single body of work, which wasn’t really the case with the first two EPs,” explains Tom Russo. “We didn’t go in thinking that we were gonna make this concept album. But it became apparent once we’d written most of the songs that a lot of them have this common thread – a lot are following these small characters with elements of ourselves in them, not wholly fictional but not wholly documentary. They’re not explicitly political songs, they’re more the personal side of it, but these characters are coming to terms with these big shifts. Obviously a lot of them were written in 2017, a time when the old certainties are dying.” Though each song originates with one of the three songwriters, the group have embraced more collaborative songwriting on Hope Downs; a skeleton will be brought in, which the whole band then develop through jams. With such a productive process, they had too many songs to release, and a few gems have – for now – fallen by the wayside. “It’s like The Simpsons,” says Keaney. “One of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon’s favourite hobbies is building furniture and then working out where in the room to put it. A lot of the time a song is like that – you’ll build it, you’ll take it to its logical conclusion and you’ll say, ‘I don’t know if I like that, I might get rid of it.’” One such shelved song, “In The Capital”, is becoming a little mythical. “I think we mixed 13 songs, and in the end they’re putting 10 out – ‘What happened?’” says Doug Boehm, who has mixed much of the band’s work. “‘In The Capital’ is a beautiful song. What’s it like?
Rolling Blackouts! It’s another good song that you put on and it gives you the same feeling as the others. They’re like a comfortable warm blanket.”
“We like to put a magnifying glass up to a story that hasn’t been told” FRAN KEANEY
ROLLING Blackouts Coastal Fever’s music is heavily imbued with a sense of place – of Australia, but more specifically Brunswick. “Dirt in the wind/The bugs are singing out of tune,” sings Keaney on the mournful “Sister’s Jeans”, a highlight of Hope Downs. “I heard the warning/I saw you falling/Down along Sydney Road…” “Sydney Road is where I work,” explains Keaney, settling down with a bottle of Kona Big Wave in Gorilla’s upstairs bar, “and where we rehearse. It’s the road out of town, this long stretch of kebab shops, white goods stores, pubs, venues… It’s being gentrified a bit, but it was traditionally the Greek/ Italian mile. That’s the sort of lyrics I like to write, something that evokes a feeling. I like the idea of dragging that elusive feeling of excitement about the day, like when you’re having a coffee first-thing and you feel the coolness in the morning air that’s fading and the sun’s coming and there’s something elusive and exciting about it. I like vagueness – vagueness is underrated! It’s exciting, endless possibilities.”
All the band have dayjobs, from landscaping to barrista work, as any musician at their level has to in the 21st century. But their employment also inspires some of their finest songwriting, as on “An Air Conditioned Man”, the mighty opening track on their LP. “Caught in a neck tie/A lifestyle in single file,” sings Keaney, sketching out a Brunswick businessman in the midst of an existential crisis. “A river of brakelights… Had the game lost its spark?/Evening star, right on cue.”
“Carrie Brownstein was saying that nothing good comes if you’re not struggling against something,” says Keaney. “If you did have the whole day just to create, you might be able to hone the ideas that you have, but you might not have the greatest ideas. Maybe the point of our band is this special thing of the five of us staying loyal to each other, with the band as the window to something else? Maybe you can’t go through that window, maybe you need to be on the other side.”
Another highlight of Hope Downs is “Cappuccino City”, Tom Russo’s portrayal of a young couple meeting in a crummy, fictional café. The whole scenario is mapped out in impeccable detail in under three minutes, even down to the name of the establishment and the music playing, diagetically, inside.
“It’s very much a café culture in Melbourne,” Russo explains, “and I guess the cappuccino is considered quite passé. So the idea is that Cappuccino City is this greasy spoon, not a trendy upmarket, single-origin type café. It has a buzzing sign and dirty cups.
“And this guy’s hearing the songs on the radio, it’s tuned to the golden oldies station, and he’s hearing this Midnight Oil song, ‘Short Memory’, in the background, so that line ‘Belgians in the Congo’ is a line from that – it’s an homage.”
“We like putting a magnifying glass up to a relationship or a story that hasn’t been told before,” says Keaney, “and making it this big grand melodrama, just trying to make it interesting, to make things fizz.”
“We all like to create a story in someone else’s head” JOE WHITE
MAKING “The French Press” EP in wintry Melbourne had been tough, so to record the 10 songs that comprise Hope Downs, the group left Victoria and headed to Bellingen in New South Wales. Tussie’s hometown, it’s halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, only 15 minutes from the beach and at the foot of a lush, forested plateau. There the group rented a house, set up a portable studio with engineer and co-producer Liam Judson, and recorded, mostly live, for a few weeks. “One of the walls opens up completely,” says Tussie, “so we were doing that for the first few days, but when the wind’s in a certain direction it was just carrying the music straight into the next neighbour’s yard.”
“I remember we were playing in the arvo one day,” adds Keaney, “the house was raised so we weren’t far from the canopy of the trees, and a kookaburra flew right past while we were doing a take. ‘This is nice! So much nicer than eating chow mein in Brunswick in a freezing cold studio…’”
Tussie’s father even popped in to hear some takes, and ended up playing an important part in the recording of the LP’s first song. “He actually chose the take of ‘An Air Conditioned Man’,” says Joe Russo. “He was like, ‘That one made me wanna dance!’ We tried some others, but eventually he was like, ‘Go back to that old one, that’s the one.’”
“It was good to have him for that,” says Tom Russo. “That take has the vibe, that invisible energy. We don’t really sound good as a band with a hi-fi, super-produced production. This is more of a naturalistic representation of what we sound like live in a room.”
The Triffids famously recorded In The Pines in a woolshed in the outback, and while Bellingen is hardly the ‘red centre’, Rolling Blackouts share a similar taste for escapism. For a start, they often retreat to the Russos’ uncle’s place in the wilds of Victoria to demo new songs.
“I think this band has got a lot of escapism in it,” says Keaney. “A lot of the idea of this band comes from high school, like the sentiment in Oasis’ ‘Live Forever’: ‘We’re gonna get out of here, this is not for us, this is a crap time now, but things are gonna get better…’ That was always the idea of this band, that thing that you have to lean on, where you might be so precisely single, but the band’s your little beacon of hope that you chip away at. So the idea of escaping to record it feels right.”
One place the band won’t be escaping to is Hope Downs itself. A huge iron-ore mine half-owned by Australian billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart, it opened in Western Australia in 2007, and is scheduled to mine for over 30 years. “It’s kind of a ridiculous situation,” says Joe White. “Pretty much the whole country relies on iron ore as an export, but once China stops buying it because they want to go into more sustainable ways of doing things, we’re stuck with all this iron ore, and stuck in the past, basically.”
“Hope Downs speaks to the shortsightedness of a lot of influential people in power. They open it for 30 years or something, extract however many billion tons of minerals and however many billion dollars, which goes to only a very few people, and then it shuts and it’s a big hole in the ground, and the town around it just dies. It’s quite a short-sighted way to do things from the people leading us – a pretty universal problem.”
The cover of Hope Downs is similarly bittersweet, a shot of an autumnal and quintessentially Australian hill with a mostly empty swimming pool in the foreground, taken by Warwick Baker, a friend of Tom’s. “We all like to create some kind of story in someone else’s head,” says Joe White. “It’s easy to come up with a concept inside your head when you see an image like that.”
“In my mind it’s quite a bleak picture, an empty pool, quite cold,” says Tom Russo. “I think it speaks for itself. It’s a beautiful shot.”
THE next day, Rolling Blackouts CF are in London, and overawed to be playing their biggest ever headline gig by some distance. “It’s weird for us,” says Fran Keaney, “We’re certainly not over it, or jaded or anything. We’re doing it, hey!”
In the Electric Ballroom’s dressing room after soundcheck, they drink beers, chat about British comedy – Joe Russo urges Fran Keaney to watch Peep Show, while Keaney raves about People Just Do Nothing – and discuss the recent crop of Australian bands making it internationally. “It feels like people are giving Australia that chance,” says Marcel Tussie. “Those bands have always been there, and there have been great bands that deserve to tour the world and play in front of much bigger crowds than they do, but now it seems like more and more bands are being given the opportunity.”
“It’s like someone’s picked up a rock and had a look at the little critters underneath,” says Keaney. “Courtney Barnett, Tame Impala and King Gizzard have been such trailblazers – without them we probably wouldn’t have had a look-in, we’d probably just be playing in Melbourne.”
Rolling Blackouts’ London show is as electrifying as their Manchester gig the night before but, perhaps inspired by the larger crowd and the bigger stage, the five-piece play even harder and heavier. “An Air Conditioned Man” is denser and noisier tonight than on record, with “Fountain Of Good Fortune” dreamy and psychedelic and the opening “Clean Slate”, one of the band’s earliest songs, impossibly tight. “This song’s about me,” says Tom Russo, introducing their “Talk Tight” track “Career”, recently revived; “French Press” and a vigorous “Colours Run” end their short set. The band’s new songs, such as “Talking Straight” and “Mainland”, go down even better than the tracks from their first two EPs; and excitingly, their fans now seem to range from teenagers to pensioners.
Backstage in their cramped dressing room, the band are blown away by the response. “That was about the most fun I’ve had at a show!” says Keaney. “It was up there, one of the best gigs we’ve ever played, for sure,” says Joe Russo, while his brother reckons the strange thing was how normal it all felt: “It was really great, it felt kinda natural, which was weird. We didn’t feel overawed at all.”
For the second time in 24 hours, the band are presented with a bottle of champagne, and then, in a supremely Spinal Tap moment, a finished pressing of Hope Downs.
“Tom and I and Joe have been playing since the mid-2000s in bands,” Keaney, holding the LP, tells Uncut, “always with the hope that one day we’d get to put an album out, but sort of secretly knowing that we never would. But now the EPs have gone well, and we’re doing an album. It feels nice to have that as a bedrock. When you have EPs out, it’s like, ‘Ah yeah, they’re a promising band,’ even though those EPs could have been albums. But now we have an album…”
“They’re a career band,” says Doug Boehm. “It seems you can go the pop route, or you can go the Wilco route where you just keep making great record after great record. That seems the way to go – be a band that makes 10 records but can still go to the grocery store.”
Time for Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever to leave behind the “promising band” tag, then, and demonstrate just what they can do with Hope Downs. Encouragingly, they’ve reached this point without attaching themselves to any trends, or falling back on any gimmicks – they’re not trying to change the world, just looking to write the best songs they can. Luckily, the results are bloody impressive.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Joe White, just before the champagne is opened. “Just trying to make a really nice one.”
Hope Downs is out now on Sub Pop
JORDAN NAYLOR/GETTY IMAGES FOR SXSW; TOM PINNOCK. TOM PINNOCK; BRIAN RASIC/GETTY IMAGES; ANDRE CSILLAG/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK ■