Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever; their name alone stops you in your tracks. But before we get to the band, let’s start with their record label. Sub Pop is a label that knows a thing or two about undiscovered talent. Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney; they brought them all into the world. Even in the post-grunge years they continued unearthing incredible bands like Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine and Flight of the Conchords.
Bottom line: they know a thing or two about talent.
It should be no surprise that Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is part of the Sub Pop family. This five-piece, guitar-pop, Australian based outfit fits in well with the rest of the Sub Pop galaxy in that all they do is make great music on their own terms. That’s it. Unapologetically breezy songs with piled on guitars, they make the music they like and then put it out for anyone and everyone to like it with them.
Their 2018 debut album Hope Downs was a huge success on every level. Critics raved about the album with outlets like Paste and NME each ranking it as one of their Best Albums of the Year (#8 and #18 respectively). Thanks to the album coupled with their two preceding EP’s Talk Tight and The French Press, fans latched on and the band was whisked away on a tidal wave that took them around the world and then some.
Now two years later RBCF is back with a new album, Sideways to New Italy, only this album came together under entirely different circumstances. Before now the band could step away and regroup. This time around, they had to go right from supporting Hope Downs into creating Sideways to New Italy. Not an easy feat even for the most seasoned of bands, not to mention regardless of who you are, second albums are an entirely different animal. From a creative perspective to having to deliver on a deadline, the second act tends to be either much easier or much more difficult for a band to create. In talking with vocalist / lead guitarist Joe White, we find out which category Sideways to New Italy fell into.
“Maybe the latter,” White surmises, “…but I hesitate to use the word difficult. It was long, and we worked really hard and tried heaps of different things. But we learned a lot and found songs that we would never have found if we hadn’t taken the long and sometimes arduous journey to get there.
“We didn’t create much in the year after Hope Downs was released. The few months leading up to recording was when we really got stuck into the writing Sideways to New Italy. We had some old ideas still kicking around that we breathed new life in to. So, it kind of felt like the songwriting process was still connected to the years before.”
That was important. Often times when band takes off the way they did, their methods of what got them there in the first place change. Pre-show rituals, gearing up for or winding down from shows, eating, sleeping and even songwriting. While to some extent things have to evolve, there’s a stark difference between evolving to fit the conditions and changing the way you create. For RBCF, they wanted to ensure that their songwriting process remained intact.
“It didn’t change much at all really. In fact, we deliberately tried to write songs like we used to. The songs that came from the five of us in a room all improvising are the ones that we enjoyed the most. So, we tried to keep the songs “unwritten” until we could all be in a room together and feel our way through. It didn’t always work but that’s ok. We had a good time.
“There was an overall plan to be more adventurous and weird. When we were writing we tried to steer away from a lot of the conventional song structures. We let ourselves experiment a lot more. All this was part of the reason the album seemed to take longer to make, but I wouldn’t change anything. We wouldn’t have the album we have now if we didn’t go down some crazy rabbit holes. We also ended up going back to some of the more tried and true song structures – there’s a reason they exist.”
The result of their conscious plan to stay loose and weird is an album that successfully walks that fine line of growing as a band and altering who they are.
“For this record we consciously wanted to make sure the songs were from a place of truth. Trying to write those ‘high concept songs about the state of the world’ were just not feeling real enough. It was a bit of that feeling of “who am I to say all this? Why does anyone care what I think?” And maybe the state of the world was all too much to handle at the time, too much to fit in to one song.
“I started listening to love songs and realized the beauty is in the sadness of so many love songs. The best ones come from a place of heartache or turmoil. Simplifying my approach really helped me focus in on a point and I was writing more truthfully.”
A quick look around and its clear the numbers show Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever is growing. At the same time, there are still millions of music fans the world over that have yet to experience them. Given the current state of the world, people are paying more attention and as data has shown, discovering more new music. For White and the rest of the band, for Sideways to New Italy to be unearthed at this particular moment in time is a blessing.
For those fans who have yet to experience the music of Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, Sideways to New Italy is a perfect first acquaintance. While word of mouth and suggestions are often the doorways samplers tend to try, White points to ‘Cars in Space’ as the best introduction to the band they could have.
“It was a big beast we spent a lot of time trying to wrangle. We set out to make something ambitious. It had plenty of potential as a ‘jam’ but we wanted to make it in to a song you could sing along to as well. Many hours and many phone recordings were spent on this song and I’m really proud of where we got it to.
“The Only One” had its genesis on the Garageband app on my phone. I like to make instrumental synth pop bangers while we’re flying. This one just happened to prick my ears up when I listened back a few months later. I extracted the chords and started singing a lonely cowboy kinda country song with those chords. That became the chorus. I thought I’d bring it to the band to see what might happen. Turned out to be one of my favourite songs on the record.”
While the band hopes Sideways to New Italy takes them to the next level, nobody even knows what that truly means, nor did they write it with that intention. For some artists, the creation of an album begins not with music but with a goal. It could be sales; it could be substance. Some bands want to make a statement while others want to change direction. For Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, they didn’t plot out any sort of grand plan of what they wanted this album to achieve. They just wanted to make great music.
“When we were making the album, we were just getting deep into the creative process for joy of it. The future doesn’t really come into your mind, it’s a very immediate kind of process whereby you get little rewards as you go – when a lead line is created or a lyric lands in your head. Then once the album is done there’s not much more to think about. It becomes a memory. So, I don’t worry about what the album might do, to my mind it’s done.
“Playing these songs live is a whole other adventure and I can’t wait to turn this album in to a great live show.