Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have a chemistry that's electric. Over a pair of EPs and their excellent 2018 debut Hope Downs, the Melbourne-based five piece has thrived on interlocking guitar riffs, mesmerizing jams, and summer-ready pop melodies. Their just-released sophomore LP Sideways To New Italy is bursting with life, color, and humanity. With songs that largely deal with the comforts of love, home, and accepting change, it's hopeful and adventurous. It's not only a welcome bright spot released in a difficult time, but it's a testament to their collaborative ethos: a quality so definite they feel like a relentless indie rock machine.
For all their breathless musical efficiency, guitarist trio Fran Keaney, Tom Russo, and Joe White, who trade singing and lyrical duties, as well as the rhythm section of Tom's brother, bassist Joe Russo, and drummer Marcel Tussie, were stretched thin after their 2019 summer tour.
"When you're on the road, your sense of time is shifting from waking up in a new town every day. When you come home, everything is not quite as you left it. That disconcerting feeling is a big inspiration for this album," says Tom Russo. But instead of wallowing in feeling unsettled, Russo and his bandmates decided to channel it into more comforting emotional territory.
"I'd always come back to writing about love and home. It immediately made more sense to me and I started to get more creative by focusing on what I knew and what I loved," says White. Just take highlight "The Only One," which finds White singing of feeling lost, "I’m back in the state / To find another way back / Into the new world / That looks exactly the same” over chiming guitars. But as it gets to the chorus, any sense of displacement gets grounded by love. White sings, “New season’s frost / Dead river rot / And I will run to you.” It's the band's most immediate and ecstatic chorus yet and just one instance of the many magical moments on Sideways To New Italy, in addition to the psychedelic "Cars In Space" or the subdued introspection of "Cameo."
To understand how Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever made this triumphant and accessible record, VICE called up songwriters Tom Russo and Joe White at their homes in Melbourne. Read on to see how the two talked about overcoming writer's block, how being under COVID-19 lockdown has made them reflect on the LP.
Most of the work on this record started immediately after you all were touring Hope Downs. When you returned home, how were you both feeling at that time both emotionally and about the band and writing music again?
Tom Russo: The most exciting part of being in a band is that time when you're creating and chasing down new ideas. We toured the hell out of Hope Downs and it was amazing and exhausting at times. We felt a bit impatient to get into the get into these new songs.
Joe White: Going into this writing process, we were excited because we knew we were going to try and do it quite collaboratively. We had some loose ideas but we were basically going in blind. We wanted to use our kind of chemistry and improvisation as much as we could to try and just come up with fun, exciting things. It was a little bit daunting because we didn't know what was going to happen. We just had a few kernels of ideas that we wanted to turn into something. There was a little bit of nerves too, probably maybe due to the whole second album thing as well as thinking we've got to create something as special as we can.
This sounds obvious, but the reason it took so long is that we just wanted to make every song sound like us—the five of us as a machine. We made a point to not overwrite and just lean on our chemistry.
Reading other interviews you've done about this album, you've mentioned this was a difficult process for the band. What challenges did you run into in the studio?
Joe White: That collaborative approach leads you on sometimes. You might spend a day on one song but because you're chasing down this unknown thing, you're always trying to make it better. You could think it's good and sounds great but you never really feel like it's finished so you come in the next day and try again. We got in a pattern of trying a lot of different things for a lot of different songs. We'd sometimes never lock down on anything. We took a long way around to be more adventurous and experimental with our styles and song structures.
Tom Russo: We tried to pull apart every whole idea, let the band write it, and then kind of put it back together again. It was so arduous and probably the slowest way you can do it with five people in the room. This sounds obvious, but the reason it took so long is that we just wanted to make every song sound like us—the five of us as a machine. We made a point to not overwrite and just lean on our chemistry.
Joe White: We were trying to find the thing that makes it a song. We would get too caught up in these adventurous jams and riffs instead of something that you could play on an acoustic guitar that stood on its own. In the end, it came together in the studio eventually reigning in all of our ideas into more of a classic pop song structure. If we hadn't taken all that time and gone through all those long, arduous processes of getting these songs together, we wouldn't have our record.
How did that translate into writing lyrics? With three different songwriters and lyricists in the band, how do you balance those differing perspectives?
Tom Russo: We don't say at the outset, "here's what the record is about" or "here's the concept of the concept album." We go and write about what we're feeling at the time and then come back. But as we were writing, these themes emerged. There was a common thread cause we went through this big journey together.
What were the common threads?
Tom Russo: One big thing on this record is time and how much changes and how much stays the same. Being on this lockdown, I feel like I've really reflected on that the only constant is change. And man, how much has changed in the past year? It feels like these songs are from a different era. It's like they're from the old world and now they're coming into the new world. And despite the negative things going on, I still think there's an optimism in these songs that rings true. Change comes through a lot in these songs.
Compared to your last album, Sideways To New Italy is brighter and more adventurous. How did that sense of optimism come through in the songwriting?
Tom Russo: In some ways, this was a reaction or reflection on what Hope Downs was, which to us sort of sounded like a tight package of pop songs I guess that were fairly well contained and not necessarily all that adventurous. Since we did that we wanted to make still quite poppy tunes and to try and make them just a bit off kilter and a bit twisted.
Joe White: A lot of these songs that we tried to turn into weird and wacky, probably got too wacky where they were hard to understand but our producer Burke Reid helped whip up everything into shape. He's such a great advocate for the listener and the outside ear, and he made us put up signposts in our songs along the way to make it make sense.
Tom Russo: We made an effort to expand out and make things more danceable. One thing about constant touring is that it really binds you together as a unit. We let our drummer Marcel off the leash a little bit. He has a funk, soul, and afrobeat musical background so he has a great idea of a groove. We let him and ourselves let loose more. There's some swing and complexity in the rhythms.
If by some way you heard Sideways To New Italy when the band was starting out, what would be the biggest surprise?
Joe White: That song "Cameo" is quite a surprising turn for us. When we were writing it, it sounded like a different band. It doesn't come from a place that we came from. It's a little alien to me. If time travel existed and I heard that, I'd be surprised but I'd also be pretty chuffed. The last song on the record has a chorus from a song that we wrote 10 years ago in a different band. It would've been a surprise to hear that chorus reborn with the new life that it has now.
Tom Russo: We came from a garage rock perspective so I'd be really surprised to see the confidence of the band in how we can be fruity and exuberant in how poppy we can get. We can't help but write pop songs but the colors and the lyrics are something I'm really proud of. I think it'd be something I'd want to listen to.