The uneasy dynamic between hope and melancholy: a chat with Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

With two EP’s already under their collective belt, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have seemingly carried with them a near fully-formed sound since their debut in 2015.

Though now, with the release of their debut full-length album Hope Downs, the band have sharpened their sound further to deliver a collection of songs that ruminate over weighty concepts and communicate them with an incredibly charming intimacy.

Less than a week after the album’s release, we sat down with the band’s three vocalists and guitarists, Fran Keaney, Tom Russo, and Joe White, to discuss the differences between making an album and an EP, keeping things straightforward, and the interesting friction between juxtaposing ideas.

rolling blackouts coastal fever
Rolling Blackouts Coast Fever by Susy Cirina

Fresh off the release of their debut album Hope Downs, we sat down with Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever to chat everything from the making of the record to Instagram models at Coachella.

HAPPY: Congrats on getting out the record… we’ve all been really loving it. How does it feel to have it out there in the world?

JOE: It’s good to know that people are able to hear it now. It’s been sitting there for a while, completely finished since January, maybe February. Now it kind of legitimises the whole thing, having people hear it

HAPPY: How’s the reception to it been so far?

JOE: Yeah it’s been really great, Fran’s mum likes it…

FRAN: That’s the main thing.

HAPPY: Do you really get a chance to hear what people think about the album? Or is a Pitchfork review all you really have to go off?

FRAN: It is funny that… we certainly don’t hang our hat on reviews from publications. It is great when they come through, but you don’t hang it on that. You get a better sense when people say “I love this song, and I love this about this song,” and you get the sense that a certain song really resonating with someone. That’s what’s really cool about it because you work on these songs for a while, and they’re sitting there, but they don’t really exist until people can listen to them.

HAPPY: You’ve already put out a few EPs – The French Press and Talk Tight – how different was it constructing a full-length album?

JOE: It was certainly different in that we knew we wanted to construct a coherent piece of work from start to finish. We got the idea of how we wanted these songs to sit together, so we made sure it was a front-to-back concise piece of work… which was entirely different to the EPs in that they were just a collection of songs that we’d written and threw ’em on a disc. Essentially, that’s all the EP’s were.

HAPPY: Do you feel there’s generally a lot more expected from a full-length album?

JOE: Yeah, there is. It’s gotta flow and keep people interested from front to back.

FRAN: It doesn’t need to have a definitive point, but it does need to have a definitive feel to it, whereas the EPs could be a grab-bag of songs… they can have a bit of a thread to them, but there’s something deliberate in an album. So we thought a fair bit about that.

HAPPY: The French Press EP came out just a little over a year ago… was Hope Downs put together entirely in that time? Because it doesn’t seem like very long between releases…

JOE: There’s a few songs on the record that are a few years old, like maybe five years. But the rest of it we started writing pretty much as soon as that French Press EP came out, and it was in August last year that we recorded it. When there’s three songwriters it helps speed the process up a little bit. If we can collaborate on all the songs together, it’s quick enough.

TOM: We got it together quite quickly in terms of putting it down, but we’re quite particular about how it sounds and making sure about the track listing. We’re all pretty pedantic from that point of view, but I feel like we write pretty quickly… then we put overdubs on and stuff. We tweaked it a lot.

HAPPY: Did a lot of material get cut?

JOE: Four got cut…

FRAN: We might return to them, but the way we were seeing the album coming together, we saw it as a fun album. It was punchy and hopeful, and some of the songs that didn’t make the cut weren’t so punchy and hopeful, so we killed them.

JOE: They were actually really good songs. Like Fran said, we might return to a few of them. We put a lot of work into them before we killed them.

HAPPY: Is it difficult to see a song you’ve put a lot of work into not quite fit?

FRAN: Yeah it is hard. But when your writing, you’ve got to know when to kill your darlings. You need to be able to part with things you’ve built an attachment to. You need to be brutal and say “that shouldn’t be there.”

HAPPY: How does it feel looking back on those EPs now that you’ve gone through the process of putting together a full-length? Do you still look back fondly?

TOM: I look really fondly on those EP’s, yeah.

JOE: They’ve all got their own feel…

TOM: And charm…

JOE: They got us to where we are.

FRAN: And I think they encapsulate what we are. We put forward a lot of ideas and they sort of come together in this odd off-beat symphony – well I don’t know if you’d call it a symphony, but you know… there’s a sort of positivity to it and an adventurousness to those EPs, and sometimes they’re rough around the edges, but that’s what the band is.

TOM: Every now and then I’ve gone back and had a listen, and we were definitely less disciplined. Not too much less, but we threw a lot of ideas at the wall, and most of the time it came off. We didn’t know if something was correct or not, we’d sort of just give it a crack. Those EPs worked really hard for us, and we got to do a lot of stuff off the back of those without even having a proper album out.

HAPPY: Do you feel like you’ve focused your sound since then?

JOE: I think so. This album seems to be a lot of short sharp songs… there’s not so many sprawling ideas that are being thrown everywhere. I guess on The French Press EP, you go from French Press the song and Fountain Of Good Fortune, and they’re quite different. This record is probably a little bit more streamlined in its styles. But I think that’s probably down to the fact that it is a full-length album and we were trying to do that.

FRAN: I think we’ll probably change the feel of our next album slightly as well. I don’t think we’ve arrived at a refined sound, it’s just that this album has its own sort of coherent feel to it, and the next one will probably be slightly different.

HAPPY: It’s more about developing a sound for each release, as opposed to developing one singular sound that the band has to stick by…

FRAN: Yeah definitely.

TOM: The next one might be able to stretch out a little bit.

HAPPY: As you’ve mentioned, you’ve got three different songwriters. Does it ever get difficult finding common ground between opposing ideas?

FRAN: Generally, we sort of think in the same way. As the band’s gone on, it’s become less of a songwriting project between three different songwriters and more of one band with three singers in it. We’re conscious of the band writing the song, rather than three singer-songwriters. We’ve got more of an innate sense of what we sound like now. Which makes it easier for us, because it’s something we all understand intuitively.

HAPPY: Is that something you’ve always had, or is it something you’ve had to work towards?

JOE: It’s a little bit of both, really. I think we’ve always had an idea of giving it the Blackouts treatment, and we know what that is – we might not be able to articulate what that is, but it feels like we know what that is. But then also we’ve honed it further, or we’ve created that mould. It’s now even more like us than what we were. When something doesn’t sound right, we often say: “that doesn’t sound like us“.

HAPPY: Listening to the album, you can pick up a lot of juxtaposing ideas. It all sounds quite bright and jangly, but when you read into it, it’s often pretty heavy. Do you think these contrasting ideas come from different songwriters, or is that again just the general theme of the band?

FRAN: I think we’ve always had that underlying morbidness. None of the songs that any of us have written are just “party time, excellent”. Even in the more positive songs, there’s something lurking in the undertow that’s just a bit sombre… I think that’s just the way we naturally write.

JOE: That’s the interesting thing about that style of songwriting, you kind of get thrown off the sent for a little while, but what’s going on underneath is actually a bit more interesting than you might think.

TOM: It’s so much more interesting… that friction between happy and sad. You know, a happy sounding song with melancholy lyrics, or vice versa, I think we’ve always played with that. A lot of our favourite music plays with that. It comes from a lot of classic pop songwriting, having that uneasy dynamic between being melancholy and hopeful.

HAPPY: In terms of how the audience interacts with that kind of music, I can imagine playing live it’s a lot easier to have people accessing it at that bright, jangly level.

FRAN: I think we are still a fun-time party band.

JOE: We don’t want anyone to be bummed out.

FRAN: And we don’t really have an over-arching message. People shouldn’t be coming away with anything, other than enjoying it. And that happens at shows – people are into it, they’re not just weeping in the corner.

JOE: There’s still hope in a lot of the songs. As dark as some of the themes might be, the idea is that there’s still always hope at the end of it. So hopefully they can tap their foot and nod their head, and still get something out of it.

FRAN: But also, some bands that I really like… there’s a band I like called Air France. They sound nothing like us at all, I stumbled across them a number of years ago. They’ve got this outwardly, like Swedish electro-pop music that sounds like it’s from the Spanish Islands, but it’s got this melancholic undertone to it that just sort of takes hold of you. But I think songs like that can grab you a lot more when there is something lurking underneath. You’re probably more likely to dance to something that has that darkness to it.

HAPPY: The new album was recorded in a house up in Northern NSW. Could you paint us a picture of the environment you were working in?

JOE: It was pretty idyllic. It was a friend of our drummer Marcel’s house. It was a beautiful house… it was up on stilts and there were walkways between all the rooms. It was kind of like a tree house situation. The room that we recorded in looked out over the creek and into the canopy. There were birds everywhere and a dead possum underneath us.

TOM: The dead possum was kind of like our spirit animal – we’d pray to the dead possum for a good take.

JOE: It was a great time. The reason we went up there was to make sure we were in a good headspace… a relaxed headspace. We had the time and the relaxed atmosphere and the lack of distraction. I think it worked, we certainly enjoyed ourselves.

HAPPY: How long did you spend up there?

JOE: Two weeks. We did another week back in Melbourne at The Office, where we recorded the other two EPs.

HAPPY: Did you prefer the house to a regular studio environment?

JOE: Well The Office isn’t quite a studio either… it’s just where we rehearse, so it’s just a room.

TOM: Well the idea to do it came after our experience recording The French Press EP… we kind of recorded after work, whenever we had a free moment, in the middle of Melbourne winter… it was really draughty and you could see your breath inside. We were sitting there kind of exhausted, doing bit by bit. We said, that’s it, for the next one we’re blocking out some time and going up north, and I think that was a wise decision.

HAPPY: Do you think that environment influenced the sound?

JOE: I think it influenced the way we approached the takes, or at least the good headspace we were in. The relaxed environment was a good way to focus on playing the music as best we could.

FRAN: And maybe some of the solos and stuff. We might have treated the songs a bit differently if we were in a different atmosphere. All those little flourishes you do to bring the song out of itself after you’ve done the bed-track, they may have been different if we were just huddled up wearing jackets on a cold Melbourne winter night.

HAPPY: The album, to me, has a really distinct Australian sound. Has there ever been any issues translating that sound to an international audience?

FRAN: Well we’re never really worried too much about how it’ll resonate. It’s funny that Australian bands do resonate…

TOM: But we never particularly went for a super Australian sound either, it’s like a mixture of some of the bands we were listening to at the time we started the band, which we did listen to a lot of those classic Australian bands, among a lot of other things. But like I was saying before, it’s also just a bit of an accident. The way we sound is down to a number of accidents… we’re not really gearheads, or don’t know much about pedals, so we just play pretty clean.

JOE: We just make melodies on guitars, which is a thing that Australian bands do. It’s all we had anyway, so we were always going to do that.

TOM: It’s just kind of worked out that way, but we’ll take it for sure. A lot of people overseas are really fascinated by it, like “how do you sound so Australian,” but we didn’t really do anything.

JOE: We just use the instruments we have lying around. We just make do with what we’ve got. It’s a natural thing.

HAPPY: Maybe that’s a uniquely Australian thing… just making music with whatever you’ve got.

FRAN: Yeah, well I suppose there were a lot of Australian bands in the late 70s and early 80s using similar equipment, with a similar approach.

HAPPY: How much of your sound is deliberate? Do you really aim for a certain thing, or is it – like you mentioned – a series of accidents?

JOE: I think the drum beats and bass lines are fairly deliberate. We’ve kind of honed that discipline around those kinds of things. We certainly don’t stray too far away with different drum patterns, and we definitely try and bring some groove in with the bass… and then it’s about layering melodies. Some of it’s deliberate, but a lot of it’s – like you say – sitting around with guitars and finding what we like. We’ve been playing together for a long time, and I think we’ve found our limit, and we try to work within our limitations… and that informs the way we deliver our vocals these days.

TOM: It’s about working with what you got. We’d be less disciplined if we had amazing voices where you could do all these great vocal tricks…

FRAN: It is good when bands have rules in them, I think. Like the White Stripes, who I hear in the background, there are so many rules in that band.

TOM: It’s rules of threes for them… it’s guitar, drums, voice. Black, white, red. Apparently he thought of everything in triangles… like the Seven Nation Army video. I dunno, I read that somewhere… that Jack White was obsessed with rules of threes. It’s a great example of having rules.

FRAN: And once you have parameters to work within, it becomes easier to create, and to create things that are more direct and coherent. Talking Heads did that… they said there’ll be no drum solos in this band, no guitar solos in this band.

JOE: No drum solos is a good rule.

TOM: Everyone should abide by that…

HAPPY: Do you have any concrete rules like that?

JOE: We’ve actually always imposed a pretty hard-line regime when it comes to drums. Our drummer Marcel is a really great drummer… he used to play in an Afrobeat band, he was a housemate of ours who joined in.

FRAN: We told him at the beginning, we love what you’re doing, but can you please just straighten it up, which is a bit insulting for someone who has all the talent in the world, but for us, we need just a bedrock drum beat to hold it all down.

JOE: When we were first starting out, we were influenced a lot by that Air France thing… using drum machines as a drummer. We were like, let’s make a band but the drummer is a drum machine.

TOM: Another one of the big influences was a Swedish band called The Embassy… awesome band. We were so influenced by them at the time we were putting this last album together. They had these really melancholic pop songs, like self-produced with a really tinny drum machine. I think we took a fair bit from that… those great melodies and great chord progressions.

FRAN: Even on French Press, the first demo of that was done on a drum machine.

JOE: Same for a bunch of them. When I’m making demos at home I’ll lay down a simple drum beat on a drum machine and then layer over that, and see what happens. It’s a good way of developing that repetitive groove. But unfortunately for Marcel he has to recreate that.

TOM: We’re starting to let him off the leash a little bit…

HAPPY: Next thing you know he’s gonna be Tommy Lee playing on a rollercoaster…

FRAN: Stuck upside down on a rollercoaster…

HAPPY: With all your touring, you recently played Coachella… we always get so many mixed reports on Coachella. What’s your take on this festival?

FRAN: It’s a pop festival. It was really enjoyable, and for many people it would be a great thing… I’m not ragging on it, but it wasn’t the rock festival we’re used to. It was set up for the Cardi Bs and the Beyoncés.

TOM: It’s bizarre. It’s like a different world. It was our first show of the tour in the states, and Joe who plays bass, said he was in culture shock. Because we just came off this plane, we had flown into the middle of the desert, but it’s this green oasis in the middle of the desert that shouldn’t be there. You’re surrounded by these dried desert mountains… but here there are golf courses everywhere, they’re pumping in water from the Colorado river two states over, ranch houses everywhere, palm trees everywhere, waterfalls, fountains. It shouldn’t be there.

FRAN: It’s the Californian dream slash nightmare. It’s the Californian ideal taken too far.

JOE: I’ve never seen so many selfies man. That was a shock to me. No one was taking a step without taking a photo of themselves. It was really quite odd.

TOM: I felt like we were the outsiders there. We were there to play, but we were the weirdos.

FRAN: There were a lot of artists who were weirdos like us, but we were walking around like absolute freaks. Particularly the first weekend’s got its own scene, as opposed to the second weekend. The first weekend you go to just to be seen being there. So there’s all these Instagram models and basketball players, these huge units getting around. It’s not about the artists… we’re like the court jesters, entertaining these regal entities.

TOM: True royalty.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever will be taking Hope Downs on the road later this year. Catch them live at any of the following dates (and find out more here):

Thursday, 27th September – Spiegeltent, Brisbane (Brisbane Festival)
Friday, 28th September – Factory Theatre, Sydney
Friday, 5th October – Rosemount, Perth
Saturday, 6th October – Jive Bar, Adelaide
Friday, 12th October – Workers Club, Geelong
Saturday, 13th October – Corner Hotel, Melbourne