All Five Members Of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever On ‘Hope Downs’

THE five members of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have effectively just stepped off a plane.

The band were on the road for over two months, sprinting through the festival circuits of America and Europe: Primavera Sound, the Great Escape, Coachella.

Now, they’re sitting bleary-eyed in a beer hall in Collingwood in their hometown of Melbourne. I’m speaking to each member one by one, which feels rather like speed-dating or maybe an inter-school sports round-robin. Vinyl copies of the band’s new album, Hope Downs, are delivered halfway through our interview — it’s the first time the band has seen it in the flesh.

The record sleeve shows a near-empty public swimming pool in the town of Gundagai: against an arid background, a slick of water is holding out against the heat. It’s a fitting image for an album that, after chewing through some hefty thoughts about a turbulent world, chooses to reach for optimism.

The band recorded Hope Downs a year ago, while holed up in a beautiful house near drummer Marcel Tussie’s hometown of Bellingen in northern NSW. As with Rolling Blackouts’ previous EP releases, the songs on Hope Downs have a wiry energy, propelled by the band’s three guitars and vocal melodies that are at once sweet and pinching.

Fran Keany (Vocals/guitar)

Fran Keany, one of the bands vocalists and guitarists, was a drummer before he picked up guitar a few years ago. In Rolling Blackouts, he plays his acoustic with a percussive bent, adding to the drive of the songs. He says Hope Downs tells small stories about large, daunting themes.

A lot of the songs are about characters dealing with uncertainties. We only became conscious of it after we had finished writing. A lot of our songs involve characters, they’re fictionalised. Although on this album I think we’re far more personal than in our other songs — these ones are a bit closer to reality and ourselves.

The song ‘The Hammer’ is about fate. The “hammer” represents that — when the bell tolls, the death knell, y’know, when you die. The song is thinking about: “What have you done with the life that you’ve had?” It’s morbid in a way, but there is some optimism to it. A lot of the album is about that: being faced with the sheer enormity and uncertainties of the big, vast abyss, and trying to find some kind of certainty within that. But that only became apparent to us afterwards. It’s what we were all thinking about.

The album pushes forth Rolling Blackouts’ bright and sheeny guitar sound — the kind that is sometimes thought of as an Antipodean trademark and means that the band often gets pegged with Go-Betweens comparisons. Fran says the comparisons have weight: classic Australian guitar bands — as well as ideas about Australia as a place — loom large in their songwriting.

I think we all have wanted to make some something that’s particular to our place and time. There are a lot of bands from the UK and America that have a consciousness of where they’re from and when you listen to [their music] you’re sort of immediately transported to those places. It’s got this really galvanising feel to it — particularly UK bands.

So we’ve always wanted to do something like that with Australia. There have been a lot of great Australian bands that have done that, so we want to carry that tradition forward — sing about what’s around you, rather than sing about being in New York, or something. We don’t want to be too hammy or cliche about it, y’know, no green and gold type of Australia stuff, but we’ve wanted to have a particular Australian feel about it.

While it may not be immediately apparent amid the album’s musical buoyancy, many songs have a sharp political undertow, sparked by recent global shifts.

Up until recently there’s been no real desire to change things and break things much. It’s been a mediocre time. And now there’s been this jag against it — more pronounced in the US and UK, but a little bit here. A restlessness that has shown itself in some weird political developments.

In a way it’s cool that things have been shaken up. Nothing should be set in stone. Nothing should be certain. Politicians need to get better at talking to the people that are not being looked after properly. The Weinsteins and the Cosbys … are getting their comeuppance and the corporate world is changing a lot. Everybody is thinking about all that stuff at the moment.

Tom Russo (Guitarist/vocalist)

Tom Russo, another of the band’s guitarists and vocalists, was churning through similar thoughts when writing for this album — particularly when he was on a holiday with his girlfriend, now wife, in Italy.

We went on tour and then had a trip to the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily, where my dad’s from. I’d never been there before, but they’re these beautiful islands in the middle of the Mediterranean — surrounded by blue.

The song ‘Mainland’ came about because we were over there staying in a shack on the top of a hill and it was this kind of magical, enchanting time. We were away from everything — civilisation. I was going in to town every day and reading the newspaper and having wine and good food, but at the same time looking at the paper and reading that the refugee crisis was happening literally 20 kilometres away. There was really horrible stuff happening.

That song was me coming to terms with being in such a privileged position: being in love and on this island and having this amazing time, and then reflecting on the vagaries of fate meaning that other people, born in a different place and time, were having this life and death struggle. I guess it was me trying to make some sort of sense of it all.

He borrowed the song’s chord progression from the band’s bassist, his younger brother Joe. Throughout Hope Downs, the band’s three guitarists maintain their complementary but distinct styles. Tom says he favours a minimalistic approach.

I think of a melodic idea and I just try to hammer it in to the ground. Same with chords; I try to be as minimal as possible. I guess our styles kind of complement each other. Fran uses the guitar almost as a percussive instrument. He’s got really good rhythm. It’s used in conjunction with hi-hats and cymbals to tick through the beat.

I have this big heavy Gretsch. I’m not much of a technical player; I have a pretty heavy hand. I play leads and stuff, but I tend to do really simple kind of leads. I just keep banging on and on, kind of like Neil Young — really heavy one-note solos and stuff.

I tend to like things that are clean and strong, whereas Joe White, the other lead guitarist, he’s probably technically a lot better than me and he can make things up off the top of his head and is probably a bit more wild and out there — a bit more nimble.

Rolling Blackouts maintain a steadfastly democratic songwriting process, perhaps aided by their long-time friendships and family ties.

We’ve all known each other for a long time. Fran and I went to school together and we’ve been best friends since year seven. Joe White is his cousin. And I’ve known Joe for a long time as well. We’ve written music together for ten years in various little, other bands — all kinds of different versions of the same band in a way.

We all know what we like and we’re not precious about any of the songs. If someone comes up with an idea, we bring it to the group and we trust each other enough to develop it and everyone’s welcome to do something to it. I think that’s what makes our songs what they are — there’s all these different perspectives.

Marcel Tussie (Drums)

When it came time to record, the band were keen to escape the Melbourne winter. Drummer Marcel Tussie put the word out and found a spare house outside of his hometown of Bellingen. They temporarily relocated north, along with producer and engineer Liam Judson. Marcel says it was slightly challenging, but worth it.

It was a bit of a logistical — not a nightmare, but there was a lot more involved than just heading down to a studio in Brunswick for two weeks. We packed up the van with all of our equipment, drove for two days to get up there, organised for Liam who is from Sydney to be up there.

We had two weeks up there. We did probably 85 to 90 percent of it there and then did a couple of tracks in our studio back here and did some overdubs and vocal takes and bits and pieces.

The house is an interesting design — it’s sort of built up into the trees. This particular room [where we recorded] is sort of separated from the main living space of the house in that it’s got a big long walkway that goes out in to one room. There were a lot books in there and a bed — we cleared it out and made it into our studio space. One of the walls of the house opens up completely, with a kind of pulley system, so we basically opened up the wall and looked out onto the rainforest and a creek.

I think at different points in the recording we all had our own individual moments of, “Holy fuck, where are we?” And I hadn’t been back there in 10 years, so it was really nice for me to go back there and be in that space, personally.

I remember Fran telling me about one moment when we were halfway through a take and he was feeling really good about it and then this kookaburra just came down and went flying right past in front — he could have reached out and touched it — and he had this freak-out moment of “What’s going on?” So, I’m glad we did it there.

Marcel’s drumming is key to the propulsion of the songs on Hope Downs, but he says joining the band presented a stylistic learning curve.

I’d never really played in a rock band before this. I’d always sort of played in funk bands and Afro-beat bands and soul bands and more groove-based stuff, so it was a weird transition for me to be in a rock band. I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on — it was a weird adjustment.

I’d always listened to a lot of Midnight Oil growing up, so Rob Hirst is a huge influence. I started listening a lot more to him and his approach to getting the songs to drive when I started playing with these guys.

He describes the band’s writing process for the album as a typically “no-bullshit” affair.

It’s never tense. The focus has always been on what’s best for the song and really it’s quite remarkable how egos don’t even come close to getting involved in the way of writing the song or recording the song. Everyone’s really open and honest with each other — there’s no bullshit. If something needs to be changed, someone will say something and there’s never any arguments.

Joe White (Guitar/vocals)

Joe White, the band’s other lead guitarist and vocalist, plays a “pawn shop Mustang”.

I used to have a Telecaster but it was stolen, from my car — which I guess was my own fault. I had that for 10 years, and it was my favourite thing. I’m slowly working my to getting another one — emotionally bringing myself back to playing a different Telecaster.

He agrees that throughout the band’s writing process, egos are set aside.

We have a collective consciousness when it comes to coming up with parts. I don’t really see myself as bringing my own personal style to it — we just try to make it a Rolling Blackouts song.

Joe’s guitar lines are the most intricate of each of the band’s guitarists. On many Hope Downs songs, his solos unfurl gleefully, such as on the album’s lead ‘Talking Straight’. As well as focusing on melody, Joe says he’s also interested in an “ugly” kind of playing.

I mean we all try and pick out melodies. I’ve also played a lot of music with Cash Savage, which has got a bit more of a bluesy, loose style. I’ve been enjoying bending notes and less pretty type of things. I’ve been trying to bring that in. Trying to make it a bit ugly for a little while and then bringing back the prettiness.

He says Rolling Blackouts have influences that may not be immediately apparent — based on the functionality of two lead guitars.

The Sleepy Jackson comes in a fair bit. It’s kind of easy to bring in those eighties Australiana bands, but it comes from everywhere. Televsion, the way they bring guitars together. And even Thin Lizzy or something — no that we try to sound like Thin Lizzy at all — but they’re just really good at using two guitars at once. We do that. We try not to let them get in the way of each other. You could go so far to say disco is an influence, in that we just use a straight beat a lot of the time and let the guitars work around that, rather than let the drums do too much.

Joe Russo (Bassist)

The band’s bassist, Joe Russo, has fond memories of the album’s recording process. However, he says playing across a valley presented some unique challenges.

It’s an amazing part of the world; a good space to spend two weeks with everybody. The first couple of days we had this door of the room open. We were one storey up and playing to palm fronds that were waving in the breeze. Then, ’cause we were making so much noise in the valley, there was a ring around. It eventually got to the person who lived there, who was in Europe at the time, and they got in touch with Marcel and said, “Can you please keep it down?”

A famous neighbour made a subtle cameo throughout their stay.

You know the movie Shine, with Geoffery Rush? The one based on [pianist] David Helfgott. He lives next door and you could hear him at night playing Rachmaninoff and stuff while we were sitting by the fire. So it was a pretty beautiful place. We were super lucky to get up there.

After spending the past couple of years consistently touring, Rolling Blackouts have gained a reputation as a taut live act. Joe says the band wanted to capture as much of their on-stage energy as they could, so they tracked bass, drums and some guitar live. This comes through in the takes that made it to Hope Downs, which crack along at a manic pace.

We’re probably at the height of our game musically after doing a couple of EPs and just playing constantly. We seem to just be one organism at times. I think [the album] captures that energy. We did shitloads of takes of each thing and we picked the best one mostly because of the feel of it. So I think if we managed to capture that — I guess it’s a very diffuse and hard thing to capture — it’d be great.

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