One of the greatest gifts that a space that you, the listener, can step into and that an artist can give their audience is a world to get lost in for a while. It can offer pure escapism or a different perspective, as long as that painting, that book, that movie, that song, whatever, takes you somewhere else to see the world or yourself.
The 21st century is always presented as a 360 degree assault on our attention, and isn’t that right. But, more importantly, what does it do to our imagination? When you come across a record like Endless piecesthe third album by Melbourne-based indie rock quintet Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, it’s like a spa day for brainpower.
Even the cover, a photo of the lakeside cottage where they demoed the album, the gleaming gold of the illuminated interiors framed by the obsidian nothingness of the night sky, invites daydreaming. There will be more to come.
The sound of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is built from a three-way guitar conversation between Frank Keaney, Joe White and Tom Russo. All also share voice tasks. You’ll find Keaney on a Maton cutaway acoustic dreadnought, nicknamed the G-Train after Australian football hero Fraser Gehrig.
“Particularly when we started out, we had a lot of open G songs, and it was just this chugger, the G-Train,” Frank laughs. “I love her. I have another one I call Madame Butterfly, named after an Australian Olympic swimmer from the 90s [Susie O’Neill] and is still very muscular but with a bit more class.”
Joe White prefers Fender electrics – Telecasters, Mustangs, Jags – with Tom Russo usually playing a late 50s Gretsch Black Falcon. The three guitarists have very different but complementary styles, and this dynamic of difference extends to give songs like tidal river, my echo and Dive deep a three-dimensional quality, a space that you, the listener, can enter and inhabit. This sound tells the band what the song needs, what they are going to sing today.
“I feel like most of our songs are driven by the music,” Frank says. “And then you’re just trying to diagnose what world it lives in. Sometimes you’re taken somewhere by a melody, or by the dynamic interplay between instrumentation, tones, and you place it somewhere in your head, and then you start concocting this scene or this world that he lives in.
Some of the influences brought to the sound of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever lie not far from the surface – the American indie-rock canon of the 90s, the Go-Betweens, the hypnotic clang of Echo And The Bunnymen – while others are buried deeper, sometimes referenced in the lyrics.
Frank recently cited New Order as inspiration for keeping agony and ecstasy in balance and a similar tension exists in much of RBCF’s writing, gracing tracks like the propulsive and dancing I saw you on the east beach with a bittersweet aftertaste. But he also mentioned the 1986 film by French New Wave director Eric Rohmer The green ray as a key influence.
After Marie Rivière’s Delphine in a formless summer (it was released in the United States under the title Summer) of unsatisfactory relationships, the film oscillates between boredom and promise. Through the smoke of Delphine’s boredom, it is as if the metaphysical phenomenon of the green ray – a flash observed at the last sigh of sunset – lurks, carrying the film forward. It’s a great mood, the kind that Frank Keaney loves.
“When I watch a movie, I really try to squeeze the juice out of this world that it lives in, and I try to make connections to other worlds and try to deal with that universe,” says- he.
“If I watch something, I don’t really care about the plots. I just try to find those worlds. I really like those Rohmer movies for that. I’m able to transport myself somewhere, and I do too with my songs.
RBCF’s songwriting is tricky. There’s cunning in their use of krautrock forward motion, chasing chord progressions that draw you in like quicksand. Occasionally, the melody is carried by Joe Russo’s bass guitar, with the guitar as the texture.
As much as part of the guitar noise commands attention – that heady contrast between White’s honeyed indie Americana and Russo’s skronk and chime is hard to ignore – the melodies are at the box office, planting hooks that last. days.
“That’s what really drives us,” Frank says, “because when we hit a progression point and a melody, and then we start to unpack melody and melody on the same structure, we find that thing like we’re looking for the impossible waterfall. I think it is actually a staircase, a [Maurits Cornelis] Escher thing.
“We’re trying to find that progression that you never want to leave, that continues to have that perpetual motion. Although we are in some ways a verse/chorus pop band, underneath the things we’re looking for are these kinds of perpetual motion machines.
Joe White adds: “Sometimes it’s the rhythm and the chords that do the trick. But inevitably, we are looking for the perfect melody to accompany it.
The pop sensibility gives RBCF all kinds of permission to go crazy and experiment with electric guitar sounds. on the song tidal riverthey build and build, pushed into the kind of triple fever you might have heard after hours in the TV workout space with Richard Lloyd and Tom Verlaine.
It’s a moment that makes their guitars almost un-Western in a musical sense and it tells us a lot about how these three guitarists and their individual styles pull the RBCF sound in different directions.
“It’s Tom who hits very hard on the guitar!” Joe laughs. “Yeah, that was something we wondered, if that kind of weirdness had to be there. But more and more we were building that song, and it just seemed to live in that Midnight Oil, crazy 1980s world where you could do what you want. So we leaned into that, increased the gain on its track, and added some extra skronk just to really dial it in.
“It helps to have the guitar on the other half of the song which does the softer melodies. But he goes really hard there. In fact, he goes hard on most of these songs. He always digs pretty hard. Tom and I are very different players, he works with a much rougher and spikier attack, he hits the guitar pretty hard and I tend to rely on a few extra effects like delay, reverb and things like that just to bring more spatial breadth to the sound. We definitely consciously tried to complement each other in that way.
This tactic is built in from the start. There was Russo, banging a refurbished vintage Gretsch hard. White was on the Fenders. And it serves RBCF well these days, with Russo preferring the chime and sparkle of an AC15, White running a wet/dry rig from a Fender Blues Junior and Sovtek head.
There have been some discoveries of delay and chorus pedals that have shaped the sounds on Endless pieces. There is an EarthQuaker Devices Disaster Transport modulated delay on blue eye lake and vanishing points. An MXR Carbon Copy analog delay did most of the heavy lifting.
“The tone on Dive deep is mostly because it’s an extremely short delay with the mix all the way up,” says Joe. “It turns it into this kind of weird neon sound. It was pretty straightforward in the end – a really quick delay – but it just sounded out of this world.
The house where they demoed the tracks with engineer Matt Duffy also helped find the sounds. With a fully glazed facade and a mezzanine, the acoustics were bright and lively. Marcel Tussie’s snare drum sounded epic. Joe used ceiling mics looking for a wider sound.
“Songs like vanishing points and blue eye lake and tidal riverthey have big, wide, expansive sounds that were definitely a result of the house we were recording in,” he says.
It was only a two-hour drive from Melbourne, but that moment of normalcy snatched between lockdowns was a tonic, impossible to hide in the music.
“It was just excitement, that explosive explosion!” says Frank. “We were jumping out of their skins to make music again. The album is basically a bottled up version of that time when we were finally able to reconnect.
RBCF leave Endless pieces open to interpretation. Even when the melodies put on a happy face, there’s the suggestion that something unsettling is on the horizon.
There was a pandemic at the time this was written, ecological disasters, bushfires – the Great Barrier Reef is dying. That existential subtext is there if you seek it, plunging into the ecstasy of the early demo sessions. What grabs the imagination first is up to you…