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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.
You put out two great EPs in 2016 and ’17, and it seemed like you were taking your time on making a full-length. Are you slow songwriters, or do you just have really stringent quality control?
A bit of both, I guess. We’ve all known each other for a long time. The three main songwriters in the band, we’ve virtually been playing together in various projects over the years for quite a long time, 10 years or more, in different bands and different variations. So we all know how each other write. We know if something’s good enough and if it fits for this band.
We’re our own hardest critics. Because we collaborate a lot, we’re really good at telling each other when an idea is bad or when an idea could be better. There’s no ego, really. Our favorite part is putting together songs and making them as good as they can be.
As you mentioned, there are three songwriters in the band. But the EPs and now Hope Downs all sound pretty seamless, like the songs could’ve all been written by the same person. Do you guys write separately, or does everyone end up contributing to each track?
Because we’re all pretty busy, juggling music with various other commitments, we don’t always get to be hanging around in a room writing together. But generally, someone will come up with the bones of an idea and bring that to the whole band. Then we’ll essentially flesh it out from there. Or sometimes a couple of us will write together, but everyone’s welcome to bring new ideas to that song. They’re generally not that fully formed. You’ll bring the idea and someone else will go, “How about these chords for a chorus?”
How long have you known each other?
My brother Joe plays bass, so I’ve known him for quite a long time, for as long as he’s been alive. He’s my little brother. And Fran and Joe are cousins, so they’ve known each other since they were born. It’s a pretty tight family. And I’ve been friends with Fran since Grade Seven, in high school. And I’ve known Joe for almost that long. I guess Marcel’s the other one — which we always joke about — but he’s a housemate. I think four of us have lived with him. No, three of us have lived with him. So it’s all pretty tight-knit. We were definitely friends first and a band second. It’s good for communication, we all know each other very well.
You guys basically started the band as a hobby, and it’s now become this professional proposition as you’ve become more popular. Did you start with even a modest ambition to “make it,” so to speak?
Honestly, no. Some of the guys have played fairly seriously in other acts. Fran used to play drums in a band called Graveyard Train, which was a kind of country band who were pretty popular in Australia. They did a little bit of the international touring circuit. That was never a career thing, that was definitely just a fun thing.
Joe still plays with another band called Cash Savage and the Last Drinks, and they’re doing really good things in Australia and in some parts of the world. I don’t know, in this day and age it’s hard to conceive of music as a career. It’s tough conditions. This one is more of an opportunity to do some special things, like we otherwise would have never had the opportunity to drive around the US, coast to coast.
You get compared with The Feelies and Go-Betweens in practically every review. Are you actually influenced by those bands?
I really like The Feelies, but to be honest, they probably weren’t a big influence on this band. I think it’s just a happy coincidence — we’ll definitely take that comparison. I love those guys, but I hadn’t even listened to [them] much. And then it kept coming up, The Feelies, and we’re like “Oh yeah, that makes sense.”
The Go-Betweens is one we’ve all been listening to for a long time. They’re definitely a big influence, but definitely not the only influence by any means. There’s a lot of Australian bands from the ’80s, kind of guitar pop, which we were listening to a lot when we originally started the band: The Triffids, the Church and a lot of the New Zealand Flying Nun bands which I think were pretty influential on a lot of Melbourne guitar bands at the time when we were starting out.
Another big one was this Swedish band called the Embassy, who were around in the 2000s. I don’t think they were ever very popular, but we stumbled across them and got a little obsessed. It’s guitar-pop songs with electronic drum beats, and it’s just really evocative. I don’t know what they’re doing now, or if they’re still doing stuff, but they were a big influence on the formation of this band.
Hope Downs is out on 6/15 on Sub Pop. Buy it here.