Even after years of us knowing them, there is still something weird about Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. On the surface, they are a straightforward, classicist indie band — a group that seems easy enough to get on first listen, a sound that could approach comfort food. But there is something alchemical in their songwriting that, even after you listen to one of their songs for the hundredth time, leaves you still hearing melodies and hooks anew. Maybe it’s the three guitars curling around each other, maybe it’s the wistful melodies over insistent, emphatic rhythms — there’s something that is both immediate and mysterious about RBCF’s music.
While Rolling Blackouts began to refine their approach across a couple EPs, it was with their great 2018 debut Hope Downs where they finally perfected this early formula. If this band’s sound is the kind that works on you, then you probably already know that Hope Downs is one of the most addicting guitar albums in recent memory. The whole thing is full of songs that quickly become impossible to get out of your head. It garnered the band a simmering bit of acclaim, and then they toured behind it — a lot.
From upbringings in Australia, the band — singer/guitarist trio Fran Keaney, Tom Russo, and Joe White, alongside bassist Joe Russo and drummer Marcel Tussie — has ben flung across the world a couple times over. When they found themselves returning home, it was with gratitude but also a fair bit of disorientation as they began to settle back into whatever constitutes a “normal” life between tours and album cycles. It was this phase, and the soul-searching that occurred both at home and when very far away from home, that birthed RBCF’s highly anticipated sophomore effort, Sideways To New Italy.
The album evades the stereotypical sophomore album traps — it neither relies too heavily on the aesthetic previously so well-established by Hope Downs, nor does it entirely abandon the core essence that made RBCF work in the first place. There are hints of the band sprawling out more — “The Second Of The First” barrels right out the gate at the album’s opening but drives right into a foggy spoken word interlude, “Cars In Space” is one of the tracks where the band allows themselves to loosen up and ride a groove or lay into some solos. One highlight, “The Only One,” adopts a funky summertime rhythm and blooms into an outro flecked by harmonica and sun-drenched guitar lines.
Overall, brightness defines Sideways To New Italy. Though partially informed by listless feelings, the band was determined that the album was an optimistic, comforting work, something that always called back to their origins and something that could provide a constant, reliable companion for listeners. Just like on Hope Downs, there are a bunch of songs here that, on first listen, sound like recognizably RBCF-esque tracks — you think you get it. Then, sure enough, the melodies worm their way deeper into your head, you notice little nuances, and the songs prove themselves to be more enduring and bulletproof that you could’ve previously imagined.
It’s somehow both very odd and very fitting that this album is arriving now, in a radically different context than once intended. There’s something about Rolling Blackouts’ music that always seemed born from travel — it was written into the structure and themes of the songs themselves. They are songs of cities blurring by through the window, and beaches in foreign countries, and impressionistic memories of home. Sideways To New Italy is an album inextricably tied to RBCF’s time on the road, but they won’t be returning there to play these songs for quite a while. In the meantime, though, it’s an album that could provide a reflective backdrop for the languid, solitary summer days ahead — RBCF’s vibrant depictions of their own surroundings and pasts serving as a pathway to revisit your own.
Travel was, once upon a time, also going to be a big part of my interactions with the band. We first got together for an interview quite some time ago — meeting up for a dinner in Lisbon when the album was still germinating. In a different timeline, we would’ve reconvened elsewhere, but well, you know. Instead, the band’s three singer/guitarists joined me on a Zoom call from Australia, giving us the first look at Sideways To New Italy and how it all came together.
STEREOGUM: After Hope Downs, you guys toured constantly, and went all over the world. But there’s sort of a twist to traveling that way, you get to see all these new places but, sometimes, just pass through them and not really experience anything. The album came from these kind of blurry, fragmented experiences, but it’s not a road album. It eventually led you guys to writing more about home right?
JOE WHITE: It’s not the sort of situation where we’re whinging about being on the road and missing our families, it’s more of going away and understanding what home means — what normal is, almost. Everyone’s got their normal lives and you go out and witness them all, and you think that looks normal. It also looks entirely alien sometimes. Then you come home and try to figure out what you’re doing is normal or alien.
TOM RUSSO: That dislocation, when you come home from such big slabs of time — you know, you’re always looking out a window and then you get back to your original home and everything’s changed slightly and you feel out of place there, too.
FRAN KEANEY: I had gotten home and moved in with some friends of mine, and they have a baby. I thought, “Oh, that’s cool, I’ll glom onto someone else’s family and that’ll make me feel normal.” [Laughs] I know for myself, the lyrics and prism through which I was thinking of the songs on the album was trying to put something that we know together, really bring together what has been the spirit of our band all along and pour ourselves into it. In a way, getting something firm and known.
With the album, we had friends of many years doing spoken word parts, we revived an old song we played in a previous band — that’s the chorus of “The Cool Change.” The way that we wrote the songs, we basically made a rule that we wouldn’t be writing any clear, full ideas until we all pulled the songs apart. That’s what we wanted to do for the whole album, lean on the chemistry we have.
RUSSO: It was a real full-band album. That sounds funny, but with this one we made a real conscious effort to — it’s the sound of us. We worked through all the songs together, we tried not to overwrite the original ideas. Just bring in the idea and put it through the band machine. I feel like it’s the most complete document of us in a room.
STEREOGUM: This is sort of tricky, because obviously it’s a great thing to be in a band and tour the world. But was there a sense of regret, the tradeoff and the lives you were missing by being on the road? Or was it more like you were going back and reconnecting with these older aspects of your lives to recenter yourselves?
WHITE: There’s a privilege to being able to go out on the road, see the world. It’s a strange way to see the world sometimes, but I’ll take any way — especially now. It wasn’t hard to come home, it was just interesting and different to witness the changes or to witness how things stayed the same.
RUSSO: I hadn’t thought about that time we met you in Portugal, but just now considering how precious something like that is, that we had an outdoor seafood dinner and wandered around cobblestone streets. You get those points of magic, where you’re just deposited at different places in the world, and you kind of have no real reason to be there, but there you are.
KEANEY: We might be somewhere, let’s just say Minneapolis. We’re stopped and we’ve got 45 minutes before soundcheck and I’m on the hunt for a nine volt battery for my acoustic and I’m walking down the street with the aim to get a battery. I often think of that game Lemmings, where you just drop a character and they start walking straight away with no questioning where they are. I often feel like I’m a character in Lemmings, dropped down the street in Minneapolis looking for batteries. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: In terms of coming back home, the title of the album sort of has multiple meanings of home baked into it.
KEANEY: Yeah, and a lot of it is not home in the physical sense, but like the word you used before — “centered.”
RUSSO: That New Italy thing, it’s not an overarching concept or anything, but it seemed like a nice, simple — again, this thing about ambition and reaching to create this utopia. Create this sense of home. That’s what [Italian immigrants in Australia] were doing. It’s also really odd visually. It’s this odd little Italian outpost, there’s this Italian villa and all these Roman statues dotted in the middle of the Australian bush. It’s a very incongruous sight. And just the words “New Italy,” there’s something so evocative.
STEREOGUM: The one time I went to Australia, I was only in Sydney, but I wound up near the beach and found all these Italian restaurants. I didn’t really know anything about it, and I was like… “Why are there all these Italian restaurants in Australia?” It was a pretty foreign concept to me. Tom, I know you and your brother have Italian roots. But just the concept of this incongruous Italian town in Australia kind of feels like this balance of spiritual home and alien surroundings that mirrors the balance of alienation and finding home again that you guys were talking about.
RUSSO: There was an element of that. It wasn’t a big thing, but finding home… and I think a lot of the songs, when we were outwardly in the world we turned more inwards. Thinking about places and people that shaped you. You think more about that the further you go. If you never leave home, you never reflect on it that much.
In the places we’re from, there were people who brought their culture from the other side of the world. In the “Falling Thunder” video there was a little nod to the islands where Joe and my ancestors are from. Also, everyone in this band had spent some time there along the way. It’s themes of where you come from and how you come to find yourself where you are. And you know, the blue — I feel like a lot of these songs lived in that sky-blue world. Something about that landscape — this deep blue sea, blue sky, mountains — soaked into the sound somehow.
KEANEY: Actually I started writing “Cars In Space” in Sicily. It’s sort of hard to wrap the album in a complete package, but certainly there’s a lot under the New Italy thing.
RUSSO: The spirit of the place just permeated. We write about places a lot, and the feeling of those places. Hope Downs — where we recorded it was near New Italy, actually, where Marcel is from. This house in the forest, it permeated the sound of that album.
KEANEY: Just after we got back from overseas last year, and while we were writing the album, we went up to Darwin for the Darwin Festival. And there was a time when we were driving down to Litchfield Park just blasting some of the new songs as iPhone recordings in the car. For me, for a lot of the lyrics I was writing and the sound of the songs as well — there’s a real sense of mysticism up there [in that part of Australia], a thick haze burning off in the dry season. A big smell of eucalyptus, gum trees. This magical feeling that I feel lives in the album in “The Second Of The First,” “The Only One,” “Cameo,” “Falling Thunder.” I feel like that and the southern Italy thing somehow cast a shadow on the album.
STEREOGUM: I had thought about how there had already been a sense of place with Hope Downs. If the first came just from being in Australia and your immediate surroundings, before your lives changed, did you specifically think about depicting place differently on the new album?
RUSSO: This might sound obvious — we went to a lot of places in between the two. [Laughs] Places always wind their way into the songs. It wasn’t a single sense of place. It was maybe a mix: that southern Italy, that tropical northern Australia, as well as the suburbs where we’re from in Melbourne, which is more of a concrete and red brick landscape. I think before writing this, there were loose ideas that we were going to write a bit of a love letter to our little suburbs. While it didn’t really work out like that — that was just one idea of many — I think that got put into the album as well. I think this sense of various places in this, in some ways it’s probably a global melting pot album.
KEANEY: I think in our songs there’s often that — again without sound too academic — that duality. We come from Australia, we come from Melbourne which is not the most tropical city. For six months or more of the year, it’s pretty grey, it’s pretty cold. We’re not from Sydney, we’re not from Brisbane. That’s always been a fascination for us, even just writing initially for the band — just going to the country to write. The idea of touring has always been really exciting. Reaching for sunshine or reaching for that warmth or adventure has always been an intrinsic part of our band. Writing about somewhere else, basically.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned there had been some other concepts along the way. And one of the earlier aims was more “State Of The World”-type stuff. Had you been writing more explicitly political things?
KEANEY: There was a song called “Big Fence,” that we’re still playing around with, but we couldn’t quite get that one right. It was a bit more allegorical. It was more of a political or social point, more than anything that was coming from the heart. I think that’s why we started to move away from that sort of thing.
WHITE: The lyrics I was writing, early ideas, were attempting at that state of the world big concept thing where you’re commenting on big ideas. I just kept hitting stumbling blocks, I guess. Some of those were the fact that I didn’t feel like I deserved the voice to be saying that kind of thing, but also maybe I didn’t feel like there was enough truth in it. I couldn’t really back myself in saying those things.
That’s where this idea of writing more truthfully came in and we started writing about love and family and home. The lyrics to “The Only One” are essentially the opposite to this big world idea. It’s very much a small person in a small world walking up to one front door. I almost had to kind of block out the whole big world for this record. We always try to bring in the macro and the micro into our lyrics, I think it’s a really interesting way to go. We still do that a bit here, but this one seemed to look inwards.
STEREOGUM: On the first album, it felt like all your songs were so carefully put together — not that they sounded restrained, but just in how all the melodies and guitars interlocked. When we spoke last year, you guys talked about how with the second album you were trying to spread out more, push the boundaries of your own writing a bit. What was the dynamic along the way? Did things get wilder, and then you sort of corralled them back into Rolling Blackouts songs?
KEANEY: That was sort of the ethos of what Tom was saying before about not overwriting anything, give it to the band and tear it apart and that’s how we allowed for things to take a left turn. We did that a hell of a lot, but then it’s a case of letting them take a left turn and then still trying to make it a song someone would listen to. That was a balance, allowing for a bit more intuition, I suppose, letting the song write itself, and then making it make a bit more sense.
WHITE: There are some ambitious songs on this record. Some of the songs in their infancy were a lot more ambitious than they are now, I guess. “Cars In Space,” for a while there it was a two-part, almost prog song. We definitely tried to be more adventurous, and I think we let ourselves go too far in some ways, which I think is only a good thing. Because it meant once we came back to trying to fit these ideas into songs that make sense to people, they needed to go through that long, sometimes arduous, sometimes wacky journey to get to where they are now.
KEANEY: Songs like “The Second Of The First,” “Cars In Space,” and “Cameo” all went through various phases until they eventually found their home. Had we not gone down all those paths, they wouldn’t sound anything like they do now. Like in “Cameo,” when the drums come in proper, that was all an accident when we were recording on an iPhone one day. And we listened back and the whole rest of the song changed around it. We had to explore and find the rest of the song.
STEREOGUM: “Cameo” is one of my favorites. I mean, the first time I heard it — you guys are really going for it on that chorus. It’s like Rolling Blackouts on steroids. So it’s surprising to me that you say it was one of the weirder ones. To me it became one of the biggest pop songs in your arsenal.
KEANEY: We were so surprised about that. We were always thinking of that as an album track. We always thought of it as a weird song, but maybe we just corralled it enough.
STEREOGUM: What is it about “Cars In Space” that made it feel like a lead single introduction the album?
KEANEY: It’s just a bit weirder — well, it sounds like us. But it was one people immediately responded to. We played it live, and people were already cheering during the song. We had some good feedback on it from friends. As a band, we weren’t initially thinking of it as the lead one, but the idea was suggested and we came around to it. It’s a big, sort of bold song.
WHITE: I initially heard that song as… I think management and such were saying it’s good to start off with a big, ambitious statement. Which I really didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to just put out a song because it’s a statement, but I came around to the idea that it wasn’t all about that. It pricks people’s ears up straight away, and the energy in it is really engaging. Initially, it was a strange choice to me.
STEREOGUM: Now that you’ve made this album that was sort of wrangling with this whirlwind passage of time, and getting back home, and you were all primed to take this on the road again but now can’t… are you able to feel like it gave you any kind of personal resolution?
KEANEY: To be honest I just feel so relieved having written and finished it. It was just this ungraspable pursuit for so long. I was obsessed with it for — it was about a year, from when we got home in 2018 to when we finished the recording in 2019. It’s this document of what I want to sing about, what I want to reflect me and us. So much of it was capturing the earlier spirit of the band, just acknowledging we’ve always had this pursuit. Just a positive, hopeful thing, to put it very broadly. I didn’t want to write angsty songs. There was a little bit that seeped in, but it’s a positive record.
WHITE: When I look back on the process of recording, it was just how intense it was. I would go to sleep and dream about these songs. Compared to what I’m doing now, I feel at about 20 percent, just mooching about. I look back with a bit of pride, I’m pretty chuffed with what we were able to do. I know how much work and effort and thought went into it, and hopefully it comes through.
RUSSO: I think I’m more proud of it than ever. There was talk of, “Oh, with everything happening do we just postpone the release of the album?,” which I’ve heard a lot of artists are doing. I think with us that was never an option. We were just like, “No, this is definitely the time to put it out.” It’s a statement we want to put out now, it’s a hopeful statement. Joyful. I feel like it almost has more significance, at least for me. It’s like a statement from a different world now — that was recorded in the old world and now we’re in the new world.
“Falling Thunder,” that’s a song about how change is nearly constant and how you find yourself in the next season a year on, coming into winter thinking about where you were sitting the winter before. It’s almost exactly a year since I was writing those lyrics heading into the last Australian winter, and now we’re back there and I’m like, “Holy shit, so much has changed since we started writing those songs.” I think it’s a document of a time and place for us.
Sideways To New Italy is out 6/5 via Sub Pop. Pre-order it here.