It feels like only yesterday that Melbourne’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever released their stunning debut album, Hope Downs, allowing their masterful talents to be appreciated by not just the local music community, but the world at large.
Though the Victorian outfit had been on the scene for a few years, it was their 2017 The French Press EP that put them on the map globally, with iconic indie label Sub Pop picking up the release. By 2018, their debut album had gained massive popularity the world over, with critics lavishing praise upon it (including Rolling Stone’s Simon Vozick-Levinson, who labelled the record an “indie-rock marvel”).
Since then, things have been, to put it simply, rather hectic for the quintet. Between an almost relentless schedule of local and international touring, and widespread acclaim at every turn, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever managed to find time last year to return with new music.
Though plans to tour (and support alt-rock icons the Pixies) were disrupted thanks to a global pandemic, the group have now finally found themselves some time to rest, coinciding with the release of their new record.
With Sideways to New Italy officially released on June 5th, vocalist and guitarist Joe White spoke to Rolling Stone about their new record, inspirations, and the time spent sidelined by COVID-19.
You guys are gearing up to release the new record on June 5th, how is it all feeling at the moment?
We’re feeling good about it all. There was a brief thought of not releasing it due to all of this [going on], but we quickly came around, because, I don’t know, it’s done and it feels good to release music, and we wouldn’t know what else to do with it.
Does it feel a bit weird having a new album coming out in the midst of a global pandemic?
I mean, yeah, but everything feels a bit weird at the moment. It does mean that, of course, we’re not going to be able to tour it straight away, but I think that’s just one of those weird things that’s happening right now. It’s something you get used to, but when we eventually do get to play, I think my excitement levels will be rising up, and it’ll be a good time.
On the positive side of things though, it does sort of give people a bit of content and excitement during this period.
Yeah, I mean it’s something. It’d be a weird summer over on the other side of the world, y’know, that idea of locking down during summer. But for us in Australia, it gets dark at five o’clock, so you just go home, make dinner, and listen to music or something. It seems like it’s a good time to just listen, and listen well.
You guys did manage to play a free show in Sydney though in March. How did it feel to get that show in before restrictions really ramped up?
Yeah we did sneak that in. It might have been the last live show on earth [laughs].
I’m assuming the entire vibe of the show would’ve been totally different to any normal show you’ve played?
Yeah, it was really odd. Especially back then, it really felt like there was a big darkness coming, and that show was, at the same time, it really felt like the last show we’d play for months and months. We really kind of wanted, y’know, we gave it everything. But the vibe in the room was really interesting.
It was kind of a reckless, ‘Who cares, let’s cram as many people in here as we can” vibe. Y’know, “Let’s all get close and sweaty because it’s probably the last time we’ll ever do it.” It was the most unique feeling I’ve ever felt at a gig; it felt like something was coming down on us. We just had to have as much fun before it came [laughs].
That show came about since you guys were in town for the cancelled Pixies tour, right?
We were already going up there, and had flights and accomodation already booked, so we just thought we’d try and play a show just because we could. It was going to be a lot smaller than the Pixies shows, which is why it was allowed to happen.
So we just decided to go up and have a bit of a weekend up in Sydney, play a show, and yeah, it was a great shame not to be able to support the Pixies though, that was going to be a real life-affirming gig.
Have you been worried about keeping fans engaged during this time? Obviously you’d had singles coming out, but I assume it would be a little difficult to deal with without the presence of live shows?
It is, I find it kind of baffling the whole sort of ‘living on the internet’ thing, where everything you do is – with Instagram or YouTube in mind – never feels real, or as good as the real thing. It’s like the quality isn’t quite there.
We’re trying to do a few things, but ultimately we don’t want to put things out or release things if they’re not going to be as good as they can be. Just trying to keep engaging fans throughout this time is hard because you don’t want to do anything sub par.
The band also released a couple of singles in the lead-up to the record. What was the response to those songs like?
Pretty positive I think, I don’t take a whole lot of notice, they just sort of come out – at the moment it’s all just digitally – onto the internet, and yeah, I don’t know. I like the days that they’re released, you wake up in the morning and just check on Spotify to see that they actually exist, and then that’s sort of all I can do.
I have a listen to it, and it takes me back to the recording time and what we put into it, and now I can listen to it in a different context knowing everyone else can now listen to it too. It feels great, and that’s probably the first and last time I’ll listen to it, once it’s out.
I guess you’re probably not the sort of person to pay too much attention to what’s going on in the old comment section on YouTube, then?
Nah, I have done that before, but it’s just a bit weird. The comments section of anything is probably the worst part of the universe [laughs].
These songs and the new album follow on from a pretty hectic couple of years for you guys. Have you felt that your audience has changed much when it came to releasing these new songs?
I don’t really know who the audience is at the moment, we haven’t really had a chance to go out and see the people since we started recording, really. I don’t really know who’s listening, but I’m looking forward to finding out, and it might be a while before we do.
“For this record we experimented a lot more, and we spent a lot more time writing these songs.”
When did the band actually start the recording process for this one? Did you have much time to decompress after touring so relentlessly?
We came back from touring around August and we went straight into writing, so were kind of in the studio writing together for two months, just a few days a week. Then, maybe it was late October that we started recording, so it didn’t really give us any time at all really. We went straight off the plane into writing, to trying to put it all together.
Having all that time, that allotted three days a week or whatever it was, meant that we kind of spent every waking hour thinking about the record and thinking about songs and trying to make them as good as possible. There were a few songs we put a lot of time into that didn’t make it onto the record. But yeah, we didn’t really give ourselves any time to stop; the next big thing was to try and make a record.
So it probably would’ve been a sense of relief to finally get the record done and have some time off?
It was odd, we sort of were just able to stop and breathe, and have a normal-ish summer holiday.
Hope Downs had been so critically-acclaimed upon its release, so did you feel any pressure about recording a strong follow-up when you hit the studio?
Yeah I think [the pressure] was definitely evident when we were making these songs, and making this record. Whether or not it was that ‘second album thing’ that people talk about, or whether we just wanted to push ourselves to just make the best record we could, we just wanted to expand musically, and be a bit more adventurous.
So we pushed ourselves really hard, and we put a microscope on everything. We’d never really done that before; it was always a bit of a blasé approach, I guess, to the process. We were also trying to be perfectionists, I guess, in some ways. Our [previous] method was just thrashing it out and if it feels good, that’s good, but for this record we experimented a lot more, and we spent a lot more time writing these songs.
We took a slightly different approach because we tried to make the writing of these songs a lot more collaborative with all five of us, rather than just one or two of us at a time. So it was very much getting the first kernel of an idea and then taking it to the band room to try and explode that idea into something that sounds fun and interesting.
It was a long process, doing that, because it’s hard to lock in at the beginning and say “That’s done”, because you think, “Next time, we’ll come back and try again, and maybe it’ll be better”. This process was a lot different, probably because we had that process we were putting on ourselves in the back of our minds.
Sonically, Sideways to New Italy feels a little bit brighter than Hope Downs. It almost felt as though it had something of a more positive, maybe even power-pop sound to it. Was there a conscious decision to make it sound a bit brighter and positive, or was it all just natural?
I think that was something that happened naturally. There is a bit more positivity in this record, just generally. I think it’s less of a kind of world-view ‘doom and gloom’ approach to these songs, and it was more of a record of love and hope, and I guess a longing for home and what we hold dear after so much time away. We realised what we loved and what we wanted to keep close.
A lot of those kind of things come through lyrically, and I guess we’ve used bright guitars and bright melodies all the way through. But it might have been that our producer, Burke Reid – he was there from start to finish, with pre-production, engineering, mixing – his sound is all through it, with the way he records, the way he mixes, and his influence is all through it. But I agree, it’s quite bright.
From a lyrical point of view, where did you draw inspiration from? There was talk of how Fran [Keaney, vocals/guitar] was looking at writing “pure romantic fiction” while Tom [Russo, vocals/guitar] was looking to manufacture “a sense of home”, which feels most thematically prevalent throughout the record.
Yeah, I guess [those topics] kind of revealed themselves through the process – or afterwards even – that that’s what we were clinging onto thematically. During the process, we didn’t really want to have an overarching theme or concept to the album, we certainly didn’t consciously do that.
In the end, there is a lot of songs that bring in, I guess, what our new sense of what ‘home’ is. After so much time, I guess you travel and you move every day for so long, that you to a different city and you’re watching the world go by, and everyone else’s normality is just a bit more interesting than you think. So then you start to think, ‘well maybe my home is interesting’ or ‘maybe my home is just as boring’. It’s just a confusing realisation to come home to, and everything sort of looks the same, but it’s all different because you’ve been away and everyone else has changed.
So those kind of things certainly came into the record. Then there’s other songs, like “The Cool Change”, “Beautiful Steven”, or “Sunglasses At the Wedding” that are quite thematically different, because we din’t really have that overarching theme, and we just wanted to write the best songs that we could.
Specific locations also seem to play an important role in the lyrics as well, whether it’s Los Angeles in “The Cool Change”, or even the titular New Italy. A lot of artists look at different locations as a form of escape, or a sense of home, but how does that topic play a role in your own music?
We use location a lot, or sense of place, in our songwriting, often talking about two worlds like the world of home, and the world of away. “The Cool Change” certainly has that idea of a young man who has gotten too big for his town and is going to make it in LA, but then has to come home every now and then.
It’s an interesting story; it’s a bit of a take-down, I guess, it’s got that Bob Dylan “Positively 4th Street” kind of bitter take-down of someone. But there’s a little bit of hope in there as well. But yeah, a lot of these songs have that ‘place’ or ‘other place throughout them, for sure.
The album’s title was also taken from the New South Wales village of the same name where Marcel [Tussie, drummer] is from. What parallels did you all see between the record and the town that inspired you to name the record after it?
It was just a story that we were really enamoured with early on in the process. We started calling the record New Italy, or something to do with that, sort of as just a working title before it was even really a record at all. Just because of, it’s a pretty dark story, but this story of these Italian immigrants who were scammed by this charlatan who promised them utopia and then dumped them on a deserted island.
A lot of awful things happened, but they ended up being accepted into Australia and created this small town in northern New South Wales. It’s just a very beautiful story, and it has this very sort of poetic nature about it, and we wanted to capture that sort of feeling in some of the songs and in the theme of the record.
Then the Russo family – Tom and Joe Russo, in the band – have an Italian connection, and where we made this record and where we grew up was around the Brunswick area of Melbourne which has got a big community. We were literally writing this record and dreaming up the idea of it being a love letter to Brunswick, since it’s such an interesting place. That kind of diaspora or creating a home away from home was sort of theme we were working around when we were making the record.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s Sideways to New Italy is officially out on June 5th, with pre-orders available now. The group are also performing for The State of Music’s sixth episode on Friday night, featuring a live set filmed at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last week.