For a band of their calibre, Rolling Blackouts Costal Fever are remarkably nonchalant about the state of things. After releasing a string of well-received EPs in their early years, 2018 saw the band share one of the year’s most hyped albums with Hope Downs. Formulaic but never derivative, Hope Downs was an exercise in finesse, displaying the group’s brilliant instrumental chemistry and a knack for writing catchy hooks with guitar licks to match.
Adored by the press abroad and lapped up by audiences at home, the reception to the record saw the five-piece jet around the globe on an exhausting promotional tour, traversing an international festival circuit that couldn’t have been any more far-removed from their origins in Melbourne’s inner-north. Then it was all over, and Rolling Blackouts CF found themselves back where they started - bashing out chords together in a rehearsal room and chopping up ideas to create what would become their new full-length release.
Sideways To New Italy, while retaining the essence of Fran Keaney, Joe White and Tom Russo’s tried-and-true songwriting, is certainly their least linear effort to date. Standout moments like ‘She’s There’ and ‘Cameo’ sound like a band invested in pushing the boundaries of their sound to the fullest, while ‘Cars In Space’ might be one of their finest tracks ever. Keaney attributes the strength of their new material to their new-founded democracy in the songwriting stages.
“This time we tried to bring the original idea into the band a lot earlier in the process than we had in the past,” he says, his bandmates voicing their approval in the background of the call. “In the past, some songs had been near-to-fully formed and we’d flesh it out as a group. With these songs, we tried to bring them in when they were little acorns of ideas, and then worked together to turn them into an oak tree.
“We realised we liked these songs a lot more, and we wanted to make an album full of these types of songs where everyone was involved from the start. As a result, it took ages to write… A lot of the songs had numerous iterations, but the result is something that we’re all really proud of.”
It’s a common trope for a band’s second record to be their ‘touring’ record - a compilation of ideas conceived during soundchecks and lyrics plucked from bleary-eyed iPhone notes penned on the road. While there’s several moments on the record that were inspired by touring, the band infer that the majority of Sideways To New Italy was written as organically as possible: just five dudes in a room, chipping away at their ideas until they’d found gold.
“I think we made a concerted effort to give every song a chance to be as weird and different as possible,” says White. “We spent a lot of time for each song just jamming and letting that dictate where they went. There was lot of improvisation and a lot of back and forth from time in the studio and at home.”
"We do have that chemistry with us in the room, and thats why it’s really hard right now when we want to go in and do demos and stuff,” Russo says. “We’ve all been mates for a long time and we all know how each other works, so we’ll just play on ideas for a while. We do jam a lot, just playing on an idea for ten minutes in a Krautrock kind-of way, and using that as a springboard to improvise off.”
Being conscious of their individual and collective strengths is something that’s only benefited Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s chemistry on Sideways To New Italy. Their famed triple guitar attack is as refined as it’s ever been, leaving each player more breathing room to deliver their intertwining licks atop of driving acoustic guitars and jangly rhythms.
“Guitar wise, we all have our different techniques and improvisational styles, and after a while it kind of becomes clear where everyone wants to sit,” says White. “It’s kind of unspoken, but a lot of these songs are built on our chemistry and just knowing where to play.”
“Tom has a particular style and sound which has never changed, which I guess is distinctive about the sound of the band,” Russo chimes in. “If he writes a guitar part, it’s often because it sounds good on his Gretsch and through his amp, and I often just experiment with guitar sounds and pedals to find something different. Sometimes we’ll double things up, sometimes I’ll take one thing Tom’s doing and turn it into something else.
Keaney agrees, seemingly affirming the strength of the band’s democratic workings for Sideways To New Italy. “We write our own bits, but then if we someone else doing something different we’ll be like ‘hey, do that again’ or ‘try it like this’. Five noggins are better than one, so we just try to chase down the best ideas. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing - every section leans on each other.”
Sideways To New Italy was tracked across a number of sessions at Melbourne’s Head Gap Studios, which has long been an institution for the inner-north’s burgeoning indie scene. The band attribute the record’s crispness towards their creative use of the studio with renowned producer Burke Reid - taking the time to work on their tones until everything sounded as tight as possible.
“Burke Reid had a lot to do with it,” White says. “He engineered it essentially as well as produced it. He was with us in pre-production, which was much more of an arrangement session a few days before we went in for recording. We sort of worked with him in the initial days to work on bass sounds and stuff, and he’d try something weird or cool through a compressor and bouncing it down.
“There’s some things that never change with our sound - there’s the acoustic guitar, which is always pretty percussive and driving and rhythmic, and then there’s Tom’s guitar sound which really never changes, but I had a lot of fun messing with pedals and amps and stuff. I spent a whole day basically plugging into each amp and guitar and trying out different settings, just nerding out. I even kept a book with different settings and stuff in it, which we probably ended up changing, so it might of been a waste of time, but it was definitely fun.”
“I’m really proud of the tones on this album,” Keaney reflects. “Far and away, it was the most we’d ever thought about sonics on any album - it was the most we thought about an album - I think you can hear it. There’s really tasty tones and nice gear all over the place, some nice vintage amps and guitars, and it was the result of a lot of experimentation and trying things out. I guess it all worked out!”
Sideways To New Italy is out now via Ivy League Records.