Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever are from Melbourne, and comprise three singer-songwriter-guitarists, Tom Russo, Joe White and Fran Keaney, along with Joe Russo on bass and Marcel Tussie on drums.
I’m talking with Fran Keaney on the cusp of the release of their sophomore album, Sideways to New Italy.
The five piece have been a unit now for nearly eight years, but things have really taken off for them in the past two years since, their debut album Hope Downs, was released.
Eight years, hard yards, yet still reluctant rock stars as they keep their day jobs open even while touring. Commendable caution. Smart as well as lucky.
Image By: Peter Rely
So, what’s in a name?
It used to be just Rolling Blackouts, referring to an early song about one of the guys coming down with a strange virus in Cambodia and having these….well….rolling blackouts for want of a better term; but then they found that there were other bands called the same, (must have been a pandemic), and so they added more things to add to the confusion. And there are other connections to this strange time we are in. The opening track The Second of the First, is about that odd feeling between Christmas and New Year, when everything stops, just as it has done these past two months. And when you start looking at something very familiar, but differently, it doesn’t look the same. From Rolling Blackouts to Covid 19? Accidentally prescient, is Fran’s humble summation.
Tell us about the band and how it all started:
Joe (White), Tom (Russo) and Fran were in a band together for a few years, and it developed into a song writing project , in Fran’s bedroom, the three singer/guitarists, augmented by Tom’s brother Joe Russo, and Fran’s flatmate Marcel Tussie. And that’s where the chemistry started, back in 2012, and the commitment to write songs together, as a team rather than individuals. The individuals were encouraged to bring ideas rather than songs to the table, or rather room, and the collaborative style then became band culture, especially on this album. The first eps came out in 2015 and 16, and then things really got busy for the guys when the first album came out in 2018.
I get the distinct impression, in talking with Fran, that these guys are both humble and mature about their music. No pretences. No pre-ordained right to be where they are. They all go to work when they are not touring. Rent has to be paid. Less magic and more grind, deliberately so in the case of songwriting. Work and work and work at it, then lock it in. Seems to me to be a solid foundation.
The three guitars thing is refreshingly unusual, how does that work?
Well, it’s not three thrashers competing for sound and thread. It’s Fran on acoustic, and Tom and Joe on alternate lead, with Tom’s Gretsch growling and Joe adding soundscape with a few more extras and pedals and things. Complementing, not competing. Two guitars playing the same thing, differently, gives thrust, somewhat like a pitchfork, says Fran, getting his metaphors a bit mixed up but the sound engineers can sort that out. Thin Lizzy-ish, Eagle-ish, maybe even Wishbone Ash-y.
What about your influences?
Once more we get humility. Influences are not conscious, and nor would Fran be comfortable with any comparisons. Too shy. And even when he tries to bring an influence in, like into Cars in Space, they seem to get filtered out. Must be that band culture. Democratic if not socialist. But people talk about them sounding like 80s bands from both Australia and New Zealand, and even REM get a mention, but the band don’t listen to REM. I’ve read somewhere that they have a Dunedin sound, which Fran is flattered to hear, but neither of us really agree with it. To me they are too happy, jangly, and lead guitar-ish for the more dirgy Dunedin sound. Definitely more Aussie Rock than Flying Nun. Fran is way too modest. Early Paul Kelly and pub rock is as far as he goes.
The promo blurb suggests that the band found touring tough, but Fran disagrees. He prefers discombobulating, which must be the biggest word I’ve ever heard from a guitarist, but the distinction is valid. Traveling and touring is fun, but at times unsettling, confusing. But that’s ok, that feeds the songs, particularly on the new album.
Sophomore albums are tough?
Absolutely, but in this case the band is very proud of the progression, even though it was hard work. And we are back into talking about the process outlined above, let the song write itself, no matter how long it takes.
I change tack and bring the conversation to the implications of the album title, Sideways to New Italy, and ask if the band in general are into nostalgia, influenced by family history and heritage. It’s more obvious from the Russos, who come partly from the Aeolian Islands just off Sicily, and hence the reference to Little Italy, which is a tiny village in Northern New South Wales which has turned into a shrine of sorts to the immigrants from Italy. But then Fran catches himself out by reminiscing about the feelings he had singing songs in Dublin and feeling at home. Genetic memory. Distances from love.
Finally, we talk a little bit about Ned Kelly, because I have this instinct that there’s a song or two for the Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever in the Ned Kelly story. Time will tell.
Before then, however, we have the new album, out today, June 5th, and it’s a wee beauty. Jangly, guitar driven rock with lots of pop hooks and sing along melodies, power chords and subtle rhythms cascading all around; key shifts to vary the perspective, and anticipation of much much more in a live context.
It’s called Sideways to New Italy and its out on Ivy League. 10 tracks which reflect the band’s seasonal experiences in completing almost a year of constant touring during 2019 and a sophomore effort which sounds pretty bloody good to me even though I have to admit to not having heard the debut.
Kicks off with Seconds From the First, a typically guitar driven rock song with the vocals set back, power chords, harmonies and a narrative in the background which sounds like the sort of buzz which occurs between Christmas and New Year. Song ends like the start of another. Falling Thunder has a much more prominent and powerful pop hook. It’s a song about discombobulation: “is it any wonder we’re on the outside”
Next up is She’s There, which is better than she not being there. There’s a lot of Paul Kelly in here ( thanks Fran) as well as a maybe inadvertent nod to Midnight Oil. Beautiful Steven is apparently based in Melbourne, and The Only One carries on with the same jaunty 80s Aussie rock beat.
Cars in Space is apparently two songs in one and based on drive in movies. Nice bridge, and twin guitar rock at its finest. Is there a West Coast (USA) influence here as well? Not by design. Influences are subliminal, Fran Keaney tells me, in modesty, not disdain. Cameo is a little bit like that, starts with a dirge like chant which then breaks out into the soaring melodies which typify the sound (yes there may be a little bit of Dunedin here, but rockier). No Ned Kelly yet, Not tonight, but there is an acoustic ballad called Sunglasses at the Wedding which is all Paul Kelly, so yeah, I really get that now. Cool Change isn’t the Little River Band cover, but hey, maybe there’s another subliminal influence?
Sideways to New Italy. It’s a keeper. It’s fresh, it’s bouncy, it’s reminiscent of golden days past. Nostalgia. Distances from love. You’ll love it. Buy it.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. Say it ten times faster. Can’t wait to see them live.