'It felt like the last show on Earth': the bittersweet rise of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

The Australian indie-rockers have a new album inspired by life on tour to follow their breakout debut triumph – but coronavirus has put them in limbo

‘It was like the tightening of a vice,” says Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s Fran Keaney, of the encroaching lockdown measures that have put his band’s touring adventures on ice. When the Australian government’s ban on gatherings of more than 500 people meant RBCF’s show with Pixies at the Sydney Opera House in March was abruptly cancelled, they played a tiny show of their own in Sydney. “But somehow 700 people turned up,” the singer and guitarist says. “It had a strange ‘last show on Earth’ vibe – it felt really wrong. And then everything stopped. I went from worrying that Covid-19 might complicate our UK tour to wondering if I’m allowed to visit my girlfriend down the road.”

It’s perhaps an inopportune moment, then, for the Australian five-piece – one of the biggest breakthrough indie bands of recent years – to be releasing their second album, Sideways to New Italy. “But we’re doing it anyway, even though it’s against conventional wisdom to put it out when we can’t tour,” says a defiant Keaney, via a video call with bandmate Joe White from their Melbourne homes. “Music feels really good to us all right now, trapped in our homes. And some of the songs are determinedly hopeful, so it’s something positive to put out there.”

Still, frustrations linger. Their latest video was shot while they were touring Italy last year. “Just the idea of being outside Australia now is so grand,” Keaney sighs. “The world seems so much bigger right now.”

The world doubtless seemed similarly vast when a 12-year-old Keaney began playing acoustic guitar with his schoolfriend Tom Russo, trying to master Oasis, Libertines and Pink Floyd songs. Over the years, Keaney’s singer/guitarist cousin White, Russo’s bass-playing brother Joe and drumming housemate Marcel Tussie joined the fold, and the nascent group rehearsed weekly in an empty room above the Russo brothers’ dad’s law firm.

“Tuesday rehearsals were always the most exciting night of the week,” says White of the sessions on Sydney Road, a bustling strip at the heart of Melbourne’s music scene. “It meant so much to have our own space, where we could just come in, strap our gear on and get started. You could look out the windows and watch the world go by as you played.”

It was in these rehearsals that their sound evolved away from classic rock and Britpop to an amiable tangle of indie-rock influences, evoking the savvy glide of Television, the scuffed tunefulness of late-era Pavement and, clearest of all, the bittersweet guitar-pop of the Go-Betweens. This last reference point is a slight bone of contention. “On this album we tried to sound a little less like the Go-Betweens,” says White, “because we’ve been compared to them in every bit of press we get. Maybe it’s the Australian drawl. They had this real honesty to their music that drew you in, that made you feel like they were talking to just you.”

“They’re my favourite band,” adds Keaney. “It’s humbling to be compared to them. But I don’t really know what we can do. If you look like someone, you look like someone! I remember, the first time I heard the Go-Betweens, I thought, ‘Wow, that Robert Forster guy really sounds like Tom …’”

Two early EPs helped spread their lilting, literate pop across the internet, where they were discovered by the legendary Seattle-based label, Sub Pop. Their debut full-length, Hope Downs, drew widespread acclaim but few critics noticed the darkness underpinning its heady, insightful tunefulness, reflecting the traumatic year it was written, 2016, with the deaths of David Bowie and Prince, and the election of Trump. “People think our songs as really sunny, driving-to-the-coast-with-your-elbows-in-the-breeze music,” says Keaney. “But Hope Downs is all about claustrophobia and bewilderment.”

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, from left, Fran Keaney, Joe White, Joe Russo, Marcel Tussie and Tom Russo
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, from left, Fran Keaney, Joe White, Joe Russo, Marcel Tussie and Tom Russo Photograph: PR

“The album’s named after this huge mine in Western Australia, this massive hole in the ground,” says White. “And 2016 was this year where you felt like you were standing on the edge of this great abyss wondering, ‘What next? Where are we going?’”

The loose thread running through Sideways to New Italy, meanwhile, is “home” – an elusive concept for young men who spent much of the last two years touring the world. “All our stuff was in boxes, our relationships back home fell apart,” says Keaney. “I found myself trying to write myself out of a weird spot.”

“We were trying to write about what we loved, and how it’s a bit weird when you’re away so much,” says White of an effervescent, romantic and bittersweet album. “We weren’t writing a ‘Woe is us, we have to go on tour’ type of record. We know that sort of record. We hate that sort of record.”

Now, of course, the group couldn’t go on tour if they wanted to – and they do. But they’re trying to remain characteristically positive. “Holding off from playing shows – it’s like pulling back the bow, stretching the rubber band,” says White. “When we finally get to play it’ll be really exciting.”


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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