Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever | photo by Warwick Baker | courtesy of the artist
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s Fran Keaney talks collaborative songwriting, knowing your place in the universe, and Melbourne’s best new music
There’s an undeniable momentum to Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, a kind of stampede of movement. Though their songs each have their own distinct feel, they retain a thundering energy, coming at you like a gust of cool wind or a lurching wave. The beauty of it isn’t in a single guitar solo, a specific bassline, or the consistently thumping beat of the drums; it isn’t the clever turn of phrase or the catchy hook. The real mastery is in the full, the whole thing hurtling forward, picking up speed and catching more and more as it rolls down hill.
This holds true for the band itself, a five-piece that started as a three-piece, slowly building and growing without a single ego to get in the way. They share songwriting duties and credits and have, up to this point, released two EPs of jangly, late summer-afternoon guitar rock. Singer-guitarist Fran Keaney, one of the founding members of the band, was kind enough to talk with me about, among other things, the band’s growth, harnessing that specific moment in time, Dumb and Dumber, and their highly-anticipated new record Hope Downs.
The Key: Before I get to the new album, which I am really excited for, I’d like to go back to how the band started. For people looking from the outside, I feel like your rise as a band has seemed fast and seamless, like a type of overnight success. I imagine that it probably feels a little different from the inside, am I right in that?
Fran Keaney: Yeah, for sure. Tom (Russo), Joe (White) and I used to play in a three-piece band together for years and years, which we started while we were in school just for the fun of it. That band never really died we just sort of changed names and slightly changed things here and there over the years. We were a three-piece initially then we became a four-piece and changed our name to The World of Sport. Then that went quiet for a little while until we gave our songs another go in this new format where it was a five-piece. We had a new drummer in Marcel (Tussie) and new bassist in Joe Russo – Tom Russo’s brother. All three of us who previously constituted the band would all play guitar and sing rather than one of us play bass and one of us play drums. It was a gradual thing that we found this line up and this sound. We had been chipping away at it for a number of years.
TK: How did things differ with this new configuration?
FK: Nobody ever really came to our shows before except loyal friends. We never really did anything serious with the earlier bands. We never really thought that we could do anything serious, we just liked to make songs together. It was no different, really, when we started this project, but then it all just seemed to click together really well. Our drummer Marcel is a really technically strong drummer who can actually play funk and soul and afrobeat, he is a lot better of a drummer than I ever was when I was playing in the three-piece. Same with Joe Russo. He’s got a real disco influence. With that new rhythm section we all clicked and found this chemistry really quickly that we never had before. To our surprise people, started to like our songs and come to our shows cause they actually liked it, not just cause they were being nice friends.
TK: I’m sure a big part of you moving from the smaller circles of the local Melbourne scene to the states had something to do with signing on with Sub Pop, can you tell me a little about how that all came together?
FK: We had some coverage on one or two websites – Stereogum, Pitchfork, Paste – which eventually found its way across someone’s desk at Sub Pop. They reached out and got in contact and we just sort of saw eye to eye. We were so surprised, so stoked, to have gotten an offer from them to put our stuff out and since then it’s been really nice to have that support from them, especially because they seem to really believe in the band. We are really thankful to be a part of it.
TK: You mentioned how the band grew from the original three-piece, how have the songwriting responsibilities evolved as you’ve grown in both size and popularity?
FK: In this project it’s definitely been a collaboration. Previously, it was Tom who played guitar and sang but we always helped write those songs together anyway, pulling out the dynamics, the hooks and such. That’s become even more so with this project. We are all chipping in the ideas for songs, we all refine the songs. It is a central part of our band. It is a democracy, we split all of our songwriting credits five ways, everybody’s got an equal vote and everybody’s involved in the writing of all the songs.
I think it is only going to be more so as we go. We have been writing a new batch of songs at the moment and the focus so far has been to not overwrite the songs until we get into the rehearsal rooms together. Previously, we’ve come in with almost fully formed structure of songs and then we work on the dynamics and maybe slightly tweak here and there. I think we’ve realized that a lot of our favorite songs are the ones where we leave the magic to the rehearsal room, where we just come in with a few fragments of an idea and then explore that idea. That’s where we come up with the stuff we are most proud of.
TK: That reminds me of something I read about the new album, Hope Downs, and how you guys took a little different approach to recording than you had on previous outputs. What was that like?
FK: We recorded it up north, or more central Australia. In the southern hemisphere, you head north it’s warmer, as opposed to in the northern hemisphere you head north it’s colder. So we headed up north where it was nice and warm to the drummer’s hometown in Bellinger, New South Wales. We set up in a house up in this big mountain next to a creek. One of the walls opened out like a garage so we were out amongst these trees and just played the songs throughout the day, It was nice and sunny and we were really trying to let the atmosphere of where we were bleed into our mindsets and maybe into the recordings.
I was thinking about it before, I was trying to work out whether that sort of things does actually bleed into the recording or whether it is just the perception in my mind that it does because I remember where we were when we recorded it. Like if we recorded the same songs in Melbourne in the middle of winter in a studio, for example, the songs would have probably come out different because you are guided by different thoughts and feelings. If it’s a rainy day outside you are going to gravitate toward certain tones rather than if it is a sunny day and the doors are open and birds are singing, you are probably going to gravitate toward some different melodies and tones.
If money and time were no object, it would be nice to get away for a few months and be in that space for the whole writing process but the reality is you probably only get a little bit of time to record something, a week or maybe two weeks, so we will probably want to have the songs in pretty good order before we go in. We haven’t put in any certain plans about when we will record our next thing or how long it will take but we should definitely go to a nice place when we are demoing.
TK: I understand you recorded with Liam Judson, who I know has worked with other Australian bands like Cloud Control, who I love. What brought you guys together?
FK: A person at our label is a good friend of Liam’s and actually used to play in a band with him. We got to listen to his stuff and we really like how he was able to capture the sounds on the Cloud Control stuff so it was just a good fit. He’s got this portable set-up, so he doesn’t work in studios. He just works wherever bands want him to work. He drives all his arsenal of extensive mics and gear to wherever they are. So we found this place in Marcel’s hometown and he met us there with all of his mics and we were there for two weeks having a nice time and really enjoying the process. It can be an arduous process recording so we felt, well, let’s go somewhere where it is nice so we can make it an enjoyable experience and we can hopefully get that energy and optimism in the songs. Cause they were live takes, so we wanted to make sure we were all working as one unit and feeling good when we’re doing it.
TK: I’m sure a lot has changed for you guys, both as a band and in your individual personal lives, since the first couple EPs, what kind of influences went into the songwriting on Hope Downs that might not have been present before?
FK: We sort of started to realize we kind of have this thread throughout our songs that has only become apparent recently. When we were doing the bio for this album we realized a lot of our songs are about these little melodramas, a little character within some bigger concepts. One of the songs on the album is called “Time In Common.” I wrote that song after a holiday with my girlfriend. We were in Athens next to the acropolis and we were having a glass wine trying to process the extent of time, you know, 1900 BC. It’s hard to wrap your head around. Then at the table next to us there is a group of Australians talking about an Australian football team from the year 2000 when they won the premiership.
It was funny to me because here they were intently talking about the players within that team and the opposition and whether or not the opposition might have been on a steroid regimen and really honing in on this football team from 2000. I thought that was funny in the scheme of things. When you occislate between that in one ear and looking up at the Acropolis and trying to process the enormity of time, then looking at my girlfriend as well and thinking how nice it is to be here with her but also noticing in the scheme of things we are all just flashes in the pan.
What seems to matter in the moment is not really going to matter to the universe in a little while. It’s sort of morbid but also sort of nice. So that song, “Time In Common” is a love song about two people who happen to be in the same place at the same time in the universe. The idea is these tiny characters in a big place and a lot of our songs deal with that same thing. Looking at the nice things even in the face of these big, crippling things on the outside.
We try to find stories that are not just particular to us but something wider that everyone can connect to, not just about what we do or who we are. We try to make it a little fictionalized. Of course, there is always our personal stuff that seeps in. I guess it is somewhere between personal and fictional.
TK: This is being the tour leading up to the album release in May, how has it been playing the new batch of songs on the road?
FK: We just started playing a few of the new ones, including the first track off the album called, “An Airconditioned Man” which has been really fun to play and people are responding to it really well. It is nice to have the variety and options, with the EPs and new songs, to craft a big set with the brand new ones in there as well. All the new ones were kind of designed with the live show in mind, all meant to work well live. I think it’s true of all our songs, but these ones in particular have a real pulse to them.
You work on these songs for a long time. You chip away at the lyrics for awhile, work on the song structures, practice them, you record it, go through the whole mixing process, and then you practice them again to take them on the road, so by this stage hours and hours of work have gone in but you really have no idea what you are dealing with, whether it is one of your best songs or whether people are going to love it or not. So it is nice when you do actually get to play them and people get to respond. It makes it really worthwhile, all the hours of pain and personal anguish, that’s a quote from Dumb and Dumber. [laughs] You know, it’s on the mind at the moment as we do the road trip thing.
TK: It looks like you guys have been bouncing back and forth between venues and some of the bigger festivals over the last couple months, how do those two experience vary?
FK: I suppose, at the moment, we are more used to playing club shows. Playing those big festivals is relatively new to us. We never played a festival like Coachella before. It was certainly an experience playing a massive stage like that. We’ve played a few festivals before, obviously nothing as big at that, but we tried to do what we do best. We try to huddle in a keep it pretty tight even on the big stages. We even like to stand the same distance from each other as we would at a local club show so as to keep it feeling intimate rather than try to play it like a big stadium show or something. It’s funny, even an extra meter or two can make a big difference in regards to whether you feel connected, whether you feel like you are inside or outside of the song. Sometimes on a big stage you don’t feel connected to everybody else. You don’t really feel like you are a part of the song your just kind of playing your part. We try to avoid all that by keeping it hemmed in and close.
TK: We are very much a local music blog here at The Key, with the exception of when an awesome touring band is coming through town. How do you the think the recent rise to international popularity of many Melbourne based bands such as yourself will help more of your local bands get a wider audience? Here’s where I’ll give you the opportunity to hype some of your local favorites.
FK: It is nice to be able to export and bottle the tradition of Australian and New Zealand guitar bands and try to carry that tradition forward and have other people from overseas hear that. It is definitely a nice thing to be able to do.
There is a really good friends band of our called Loose Tooth who are on Courtney Barnett and Jen Cloher’s label Milk Records! There’s a band called Creeps as well. [after mentioning a few more, Fran just sent us a playlist of Melbourne music that you can hear below]
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever plays Johnny Brenda’s on Thursday, May 10th; tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar. Their album Hope Downs comes out on Sub Pop Records on June 15th, preorders are available here.