Prior to their European tour, Melbourne’s ROLLING BLACKOUTS COSTAL FEVER return to the UK, stopping off in Liverpool for the first time when they play at Invisible Wind Factory. Their tour is currently in support of their new 7” double A-side single, In The Capital/Read My Mind, a continuation of their critically lauded 2018 album, Hope Downs.
To measure up to this acclaim, the group have been on the road fairly consistently, drawing ever-increasing crowds the further they play from home. Georgina Hull spoke to vocalist and guitarist Fran Keaney for his take on how the quintet have found the ups and downs of the past year.
So you’re currently in the midst of a worldwide tour. How is that treating you so far?
We’re just in the middle of a US run; we started over at the East Coast – New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Toronto, Chicago – and then flew over to the West Coast. We played Seattle last night, we’re just driving up to Vancouver today to play there, and then we’ll play Portland tomorrow night, finishing off the US run playing San Fran and L.A. It’s been really good. I think it’s our fourth time over here now, and I think we’re getting slightly better at doing the big American road trip scene.
Compared to the tour you had for your debut album, how have you been finding the run of shows?
In the States it’s been a bit bigger this time around. We put a double A-side out recently, but it seems like a lot of people who are coming to the show that haven’t seen us before and have sort of come onto the album a little bit more recently. The States is a little bit of a different beat to the UK or Australia. There are these little spot fires, ’cos all the towns have their own radio stations so they’re very separate entities; state to state, town to town. It’s different in the UK and Aus because we have national broadcasters that people listen to.
Photo by Pooneh Ghana
For me, the music on the new single sounds like you’ve paid a little more attention to the finer details – it’s not quite as stripped back and direct as the album. Do you think this is a sign of maturity, or advancement in your songwriting?
I hope so. We worked on In The Capital for a long time, actually. It was in the mix for the album, but we couldn’t quite capture the essence of what the song felt like. So we just worked on it and worked on it and changed the lyrics, eventually we got to the heart of it a lot better. I think the themes fit together a lot with the other single, Read My Mind; overall the lyrics are a bit more opaque than our earlier stuff. I think they service the feelings that the melodies use, that’s something that we tried to do – not to distract from the point that was being made by the music. I don’t know if we’ll do that all the time, but for these songs it seemed like the way to go. They’ve been nice additions to the set, ’cos they’re more introspective and subdued, or something. The crowds seem to react positively to them, so it’s been feeling good.
What changes and adjustments have you made in terms of style and production?
There hasn’t really been anything different that we’ve done this time around, our band has always been a basic sort of set up. We’ve always tried to make pop from what we have lying around. We don’t have any vocal effects, really; I think we just sound like what a band from 30 years ago would’ve sounded like. We don’t try and toy with the formula too much, we just try to work within the confines of the tools that we have. We stay true to ourselves and our original style; initially, the band was just a few acoustic guitars, sitting around in a bedroom and trying to find strong melodies and ideas. So we’ve just tried to make that the focus to make the songs strong enough. Then we don’t have to rely on smoke and mirrors to beef things up here and there. Making the ingredients work hard for you, like they do in some cuisines.
At the time of writing the new material, was there a particular sound palette you wanted to surround yourself in? Any artists you found yourself listing to a lot?
Musically speaking, not really. We just sort of noodle around until we find a melody that feels like something, feels like a feeling, and then we have to sort of diagnose what that feeling might be, and chase down the lyrics and jigsaw pieces to fit that. We just listen widely, and what comes out, comes out. Lyrically, for In The Capital – which I wrote the lyrics for – I had a breakthrough when I was reading this Australian author called Gerald Murnane, who’s got this really odd little book called Border Districts. It’s about this guy who’s just, sorta, tracing his memory through this ‘mind’s eye’ imagery. He goes on tangent upon tangent, recalling the tint of a stained-glass window that was at a house when he was five years old and had a piano lesson, and the song in the piano lesson that he was learning – retraces that through to some party somewhere, and it’s this long roundabout memoir. It’s all very hysteric and lyrical, so it’s hard to describe it. Just a long bit of poetry, basically.
In terms of the music you’re currently making, do you perceive yourselves as band firmly in the indie bracket? What’s your perception of this genre tag?
Certainly. I mean, it’s very broad. It’s so broad as to be un-useful, but I’d proudly say that we are in that category. There are a lot of subsections in that category that might be more useful with describing our sound. We say “tough-pop, soft-punk”. Soft-punk is a little tongue-in-cheek; not too many punks that would describe themselves as soft, but we’ve got no problem with that. We’ve got melodies, strong hooks, but we also like playing the songs with conviction. That’s what I really like about The Smiths, you know, they really played strong melodies and ambitious melodies with absolute venom – I think that’s a really cool thing.
I noticed that when you were discussing Hope Downs you mentioned “there was a general sense that things were coming apart at the seams and people around us were too” – is this a direct reference to the change in the political and social climate happening in many countries across the world?
Yeh. The album came out in 2018, it was recorded in 2017, the songs were written in 2016 and 2017, and obviously 2016 was where everything went to shit. I think everyone was just trying to make sense of it; it really rocked a lot of people. Particularly the people I know. A lot of those songs are just, sort of, trying to grapple with this shit thing in the sands. I don’t really have a definitive answer regarding my own take on it – one thing that we say is to just try and find the ones you love and hold on to them. That sounds pretty drastic, but… we had an election two or three weeks ago just before we came over here, and it was the same sort of feeling. It was quite deflating because it seemed like maybe our country was heading in a positive, progressive direction, and all of the polls suggested that was the way it was gonna go, but then there was this shock on election day like what happened in 2016 in the UK and the States, just watching everything turn blue rather than turn red. I don’t know if it’s the same in the US, but the shade of blue is a frightening one. It’s driven by selfishness, first and foremost. That seems to be the story of the day, and that was what was so deflating about it, to see that selfishness is still pretty much the basis in our country. It takes the wind out of your sails a bit.
Is it a feeling you want to explicitly want to highlight in your music, or a reality you’d like to escape from?
Yeh, but the escapist thing is a bit of a weird one. You don’t want to just close your eyes and pretend everything’s fine. I think we just want to make people have a good time and want to create an inclusive atmosphere and break down some barriers. I don’t have a clear answer yet. We try and carry ourselves through our music, we try and break down walls between people. A lot of our songs are about men who are closing themselves off from others, which is something that happens a lot in Australia, which we want to hold up to the light and poke at.
More specifically, are these issues more closely linked to the rise of social media and the decrease of actual human contact? Are people’s views becoming more isolationist?
I think the main thing with social media is that it creates these echo chambers; people just live in their own separate communities. If they wanna just read Premier League news or if they just wanna read about darts, they’ll do that, and they don’t have to watch the nightly news or read the daily paper. Previously there were, sort of, established mediums; people were on the same page, as it were, and they’d have different views but at least there was a common conversation that was happening, but now it’s just babble. People living on the same street live in all sorts of different communities, so they start talking about different realities, different facts, different takes on science. That seems to be the problem.
In an entertainment way, it’s great. You can just go down your own little rabbit warren, you can find all sorts of things, and as a band you can establish a worldwide community without any real physical infrastructure and you can see on Spotify that people are listening from Mexico City and Philadelphia. So, yeh, it’s really useful, you don’t have to rely on as much luck as you used to, because you’ve got a platform in your own bedroom.