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Briskly strummed guitars, ping-ponging baselines, relentless motorik drum beats that usually linger between 160 and 170 bpm — Australian quintet Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever definitely have a formula when it comes to writing songs. But the wonder of the band’s small but dazzling output — which includes two EPs released since 2016 and the forthcoming debut full-length, Hope Downs, out Friday — is how they find new ways to package those elements into insistently tuneful guitar-pop gems. Even more amazing is that the group didn’t set out to heard by anyone but the members themselves, most of whom are life-long pals and family members in their late-20s and early-30s who started making music as a diversion from their day jobs.
“We’ve got a lawyer, we’ve got a barista, a landscaper, a researcher,” explains 31-year-old Tom Russo, checking in by phone several hours before a gig in mid-May at venerable Philadelphia club Johnny Brenda’s. As for Russo, he works in marketing back in Melbourne, the band’s home base with an international reputation for producing smart indie rock outfits, thanks to Courtney Barnett and King Gizzard And The Lizard Wizard. When he’s not playing guitar in one of the best emerging rock bands of the past few years, he’s “planning media campaigns for big corporations,” he says. “Not very rock and roll.”
The band’s first EP, 2016’s Talk Tight, was a self-released lark, packaging the group’s earliest songs without even a modest plan to get it heard. Rolling Blackouts C.F. was essentially “a songwriting project,” Russo says. “There were honestly no real ambitions for this, apart from making some guitar-pop songs for our own amusement. We didn’t play live much in the first couple of years.”
To the guys’ surprise, Talk Tight became a critical hit, and Rolling Blackouts C.F. were signed in 2017 by Sub Pop, who put out the excellent followup EP, The French Press, which just missed my year-end top 10 last year.
Now, Rolling Blackouts C.F. are bracing of the release of Hope Downs, which delivers on the promise of the addictively catchy EPs, not so much reinventing those records’ bouncy effervescence as refining and reinforcing it, showing that the relatively slow trickle of material in the past three years didn’t reflect a surfeit of inspiration. On the contrary, the band’s trio of songwriters — Russo and fellow singer-guitarists Fran Keaney and Joe White — are pensive perfectionists, working with bassist Joe Russo, Tom’s little brother, and drummer Marcel Tussie on this engagingly propulsive set of songs, highlighted by immediate stunners like “An Air Conditioned Man” and “Talking Straight,” until they were just right. The result is a refreshingly breezy pop-rock masterwork that’s arrived just in time for summer barbecue season.
On Hope Downs, Rolling Blackouts C.F.’s main objective is to demonstrate that it can sustain the fast-paced bliss-outs of the EPs over the course of an album. By that metric, the album is a smashing success — “like The French Press, but longer” is both an apt description and worthy compliment for Hope Downs. But as good as his band is, Russo isn’t yet counting on making it his main gig.
“It’s unclear what’s going to happen,” he tells me as his bandmates load their gear in at Johnny Brenda’s. “For the rest of this year we’re touring pretty hard with the first album coming out, but I don’t think music’s our full-time job just yet.”
What are your impressions of America?
It’s a very big and very diverse place, obviously. We started at Coachella, which was a trip in itself, very interesting. It was kind of like California taken to its logical conclusion. It was very decadent and it was very surreal to be there, backstage with all the celebs and everything. It was an interesting experience, but probably I could say my favorite parts have been [doing] the club shows and just driving across the country in a van.
Were any preconceptions that you had about America dispelled after coming here?
Coming from Australia you’re very familiar with American culture, through movies and everything pop culture. I guess we had some ideas, but America’s even more American than you can imagine when you go through. We’ve driven past pick-up trucks with Confederate flags flying up the back and all this shit. It is intense. We’ve been through some areas which probably are very supportive of the current president. As you can imagine, we’re like fishes out of water, but everyone’s treated us really well and been really courteous.