Rolling Blackouts C.F.'s Tom Russo talks about "the tension between hope and disillusionment" that went into making 'Hope Downs'
The Aussie guitarist/vocalist discusses Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever's distinctive sound, their songwriting process, their first time at Coachella and more.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have cemented themselves as the next big thing to watch out for in the indie scene. Earlier this June, the Melbourne-based indie pop quintet rolled out their debut album 'Hope Downs'. Named after a giant iron mine in Western Australia, the debut effort secures a niche for the band that has been carefully carved through their two previous EP's - 2016's 'Talk Tight' and the highly acclaimed 'French Press' from 2017.
Rolling Blackouts C.F. was officially formed in 2013 by the triple-guitar attack of Fran Keaney, Tom Russo, and Joe White, who have been in bands together since they were in high school and spent years hammering out ideas and working on a sound. The lineup was rounded out by Tom's brother Joe on bass and drummer Marcel Tussie, and together they started playing low-key gigs around Melbourne. Inspired by classic guitar pop bands like the Feelies and the Go-Betweens, the band's triple-guitar attack - with one rhythm guitar almost adding a second layer of percussive effects, leaving the other two to pick away and leads and intricacies - along with their subversive, witty delivery gained them instant popularity on the internet.
In November 2016, riding on the wave of Australian radio airplay for their EP 'Talk Tight', the band was picked up by Sub Pop and they immediately released a new single, 'Julie's Place,' while a six-song EP, The French Press, followed in March 2017. The reception to the record was very positive and the band spent much of the year touring the world before heading back for more recording. They decided to work in Tussie's hometown, located in a remote area in New South Wales. Producer Liam Judson brought his portable studio rig and the band used the relaxed setting to its fullest, recording a focused and tight album. The resulting product was 'Hope Downs', which in MEAWW's review of the album, we described it as an album "that's set to be a keystone of contemporary indie rock music." Featuring instant hits like 'An Air Conditioned Man' and 'Talking Straight', 'Hope Downs' has been lauded by fans and critics alike and is definitely a sign of bigger things to come for Rolling Blackouts C.F.
I spoke to guitarist/vocalist Tom Russo from the band for a brief chat via email where we discussed the new album, how they arrived at their distinctive sound, their songwriting process, their first time at Coachella this year and the band's journey so far. Read the full interview below.
Congratulations on your debut album ‘Hope Downs’. I’ve been streaming it on repeat! Why did you name it after a giant iron ore mine in Western Australia?
Thank you! First of all, it's a really evocative name for a big hole in the ground. Second, it seemed to sum up a lot of what we were writing about in the album, the tension between hope and disillusionment that we felt and a lot of people were feeling both personally and in a wider sense when we were writing it last year. We were trying to capture a feeling of standing on the edge of a void, not knowing what was coming next, and tell these stories about small characters caught up in a big world.
Twin guitar powered bands are fairly common but a trio of guitars is rare. How did you arrive at this unique sound of yours? Who would you list as your obvious inspirations?
Joe and I (Tom) have both played electric guitars for a while, and we used to play in a previous band where Fran was on drums. For this band he came out onto the acoustic, using it as a kind of rhythm instrument, while we were free to pick out leads and rhythm parts. Some of our initial inspirations were Australian/NZ guitar pop bands like The Go Betweens and The Triffids, as well as a Swedish band from the 2000s called the Embassy.
You also have three songwriters in the band. But when I listen to 'Hope Downs', I get this continuous rolling stream-of-consciousness feel from the entire songwriting process. Could you tell us how you come together to write your tunes?
It varies but usually one of us will bring the initial bones of the idea to the band and we will all explore it together, we throw a bunch of ideas at the wall and see what sticks. No one is precious about their ideas, we use whatever works best for the songs. So if someone chimes in with a cool verse or a guitar part, it's in.
Two songs that particularly stuck with me from the new album were ‘Mainland’ and ‘Cappuccino City’. Both are driven by a happy melody but seem to tackle some heavy concepts politically. Tell us a little more about both songs.
Mainland came about after I went on vacation with my then girlfriend (now wife) on the islands off the coast of Sicily where my grandparents came from. It was an idyllic time, but [I] realized that not far away a refugee crisis was going on. The song explored ideas of privilege, random chance, and holding onto love. Cappuccino City is more a story about two lovers moving through a city from different directions to meet in the middle in a crappy cafe. Think more a buzzing neon sign type of cafe, rather than a place serving single origin macchiatos.
How long have you guys known each other? How did the band come to be?
We've known each other a long time. Joe Russo and I are brothers, Fran Keaney and Joe White are cousins, I became friends with Fran in the seventh grade and Joe soon after, and Marcel was Fran's housemate, then my housemate. Joe White, Fran, and I had played in a few garage bands of questionable taste since we were teens, then about 5 years ago we wanted to form a new band. We roped in my brother and Marcel, and everything just clicked.
Compared to your previous two EPs ‘Talk Tight’ and ‘French Press’, how was working on your first full-length album different?
'Talk Tight' was essentially a demo, we just recorded some songs with a friend in our practice space and didn't have any expectations for it. Then with 'French Press', we followed the same blueprint, recording in our room. With Hope Downs, we were conscious for the first time that it would be a single body of work, and it was going out through Sub Pop so at least some people would be listening. We were really excited to stretch out with it, so we gave it a lot of thought and planning, and recorded over two weeks in this kind of treehouse in this beautiful forest in our drummer's hometown. It was a real experience.
In this digital age, do you think the distinction between EPs and LPs still matters?
Not so much. I definitely love the EP as a format, it's a different beast and can be just as good and valid as a full length. I still love the old school idea of the LP as a statement though, I like the idea that it can distill everything a band is trying to say during a certain slice of their lives over half an hour or 40 minutes.
You’ve admitted previously that the band never had the intention to ‘make it’ big. Everybody in the band also has a day job on the side. Would you say that the attitude is still the same, even after the big success of Hope Downs?
Our attitude has always been to make the music as good as it can be and have fun with it, and everything else is a bonus. We're touring really hard after releasing the album, so we've had to put our jobs on hold for now. We don't really know what's going to happen next, but we're riding the wave and seeing where it goes, and it's still fun right now!
You performed at Coachella this year. What was that like? Did you get to hang out with any interesting artists?
Coachella was like a different universe for us, coming from Australia. It was fun but the celebrity aspects of it were very foreign to us. Playing was cool, I'm not sure how many people knew who we were. We were hanging with some of the guys from Alvvays. Unfortunately, Queen Bey didn't stop by to say hi as we had hoped! Mostly we were watching music or chilling under palm trees, that desert sun can really get you.
'Hope Downs' is out now on all major streaming services. Stream the full album here.