Rolling Blackouts C.F.: 'All five of us have Irish connections'

Singer-guitarist Tom Russo on family ties, keeping a day job and how they became one of rock's hottest tickets

Last winter, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever featured in several album of the year lists for their sun-kissed debut, but as any working musician will tell you, critical acclaim alone won’t pay the bills.

“We are in a comfortable place and still trying to process what’s been a very crazy year,” says Tom Russo, one of the band’s three guitarist and vocalists alongside his brother Joe. “We’re still at the point where we work other jobs part-time, which we find fulfilling and fun. We haven’t fully thrown ourselves into music, even though the band has gone far beyond what we ever thought or expected.”

Ironically, the band are sometimes cited as exponents of the so-called ‘dolewave’ scene in Australia, a snide in-joke about musicians on benefits. While the Melbourne band are keeping one foot in their careers in law, landscaping and marketing, their brilliant first album, Hope Downs, is one of the most memorable guitar outings of recent times.

“Our aim was not to have any filler tracks or duds,” Russo says. “We didn’t have a huge pool of 20 or 30 songs, but we did have 16 or 17. We wanted our first album to be really tight and succinct. Someone who springs to mind is Kendrick Lamar, and just how good his last three albums have been.


“Obviously, he makes totally different music to what we do, but we like to aspire to his level of quality control. One of my favourite artists of all time is Neil Young. On the road, we listen to After the Goldrush in the van, which is another benchmark.”

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever are getting back in the van for an extensive summer European tour, including an appearance at the gigantic Roskilde festival, and a date in Iveagh Gardens with IDLES, a Bristol hardcore band also making some of the best contemporary guitar music around.

“A little while ago we started listening to their stuff and sharing it on on social media,” Russo reveals. “They also seemed to be getting into us. We played at the same festival somewhere in rural France and they were extraordinary. Our tour manager thought it was probably the best gig he’d ever seen. They are a lot harder than us, and we’re a bit softer, but the Dublin show together seemed like such a great idea. We played at Whelan’s a while ago and we had an amazing first time in Ireland.

Whelan’s became a sort of homecoming for the band, as unsurprisingly, they have some Irish blood. “All five of us have Irish connections to some degree,” Russo says. “It was very hot and sweaty at that show. My brother Joe broke a bass string, which is very unusual, and we didn’t have a spare bass. Our driver had to go and source a string, so we were stuck in the middle of this gig with not much to do. It took a full 15 minutes to get the bass string, so luckily we could talk about which parts of the country our families came from.”

The five members of Rolling Blackouts CF share an intriguing mix of heritage. “Half of our family came from Co Clare,” Russo says. “There’s a mixture of Devlins, Keaneys and Whites in the band’s extended family. Our drummer is part-Syrian, part-Argentine and part-Irish. Suburbs like St Kilda Beach are very Irish and you’ve got an enormous Irish community in the beach suburbs in Sydney. A lot of the music scene is in the inner northern suburbs, which are grittier, inner city areas. Perth is full of Irish as well. You guys are everywhere.”

Speaking of St Kilda Beach, in January an anti-immigration rally made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. “It is highly embarrassing that this happened in Melbourne,” Russo says. “Melbourne is probably the most progressive city in Australia and a very successful multicultural city with a population of 5 million people and far less tension than most other big cities. It was an anomaly that it happened here. I think they deliberately chose to stage this thing on St Kilda beach. They talk about Sudanese immigrants and asylum seekers and a so-called crime wave, which the police say is absolutely nonsense. What happened is certainly not representative of Melbourne.”

What is representative of Melbourne is a vibrant and healthy music scene. “Melbourne has a strong music and arts scene and a tradition of being a very creative place through many decades,” Russo agrees. “The Internet enables a band to get exposure to an international audience. Also, there is a really strong music community and a great atmosphere of support and collaboration, whereas some big cities have a reputation for a much more competitive edge. The stakes aren’t that high. Everyone is doing it for the love of it rather than making a career of it.”

Melbourne bands also have a very supportive media and venue infrastructure. “Radio stations champion local bands and there are a lot of great venues that opened in the 2000s,” Russo notes, bucking the international trend for venue closure. “This came from a big push to save venues and fight very restrictive laws about noise reduction, which happens just about everywhere because councils want to turn venues into apartments. Now, local government are onside with artists in Melbourne. The closure of an iconic venue called the Toad became the straw that broke the camel’s back and a huge collective effort was made to foster a scene.”

It is tough financially to make music, but we're all very happy to be living in Melbourne rather than touring all the time

Russo is delighted to learn that Iveagh Gardens is a literal stone’s throw from Whelan’s, where they made their Irish debut. “Wow, that’s a great part of town,” he enthuses warmly. “We don’t know Dublin at all really, but we really loved that area and went to a few pubs. We can’t wait to get back.”

Rolling Blackouts have started working on their difficult second album, and recently released another two new songs, In The Capital and Read My Mind. “Essentially, we really enjoy this and we will follow it wherever it goes,” Russo concludes. “We never had any expectations and we had such good fortune to get signed to Sub Pop. It is tough financially to make music, but we’re all very happy to be living in Melbourne rather than touring all the time.”

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever play Iveagh Gardens with IDLES and The Claque on Thursday, July 11th. 

Wizards of Oz: four great acts

Nick Cave
A colossus of the Melbourne music scene, Nick Cave was once bestowed with the honour of Australian of the century. Last October, he personally paid tribute to the late John Reynolds following the Longford promoter's death. Cave worked with Reynolds for shows at Kilmainham, a fascinating Q&A at the Abbey, and the first multi-day Electric Picnic festival.

The Go-Betweens
While The Go-Betweens receive a fraction of the sales, profile and acclaim afforded to Nick Cave, The Go-Betweens are one of Australia's most influential cultural exports. Formed in 1977, Brisbane city council christened a traffic bridge 'Go Between bridge' following a public vote in their hometown.

Courtney Barnett
Alongside Rolling Blackouts, Courtney Barnett is another Australian artist who is heavily influenced by The Go-Betweens. Melbourne native Barnett is critically adored for her deadpan vocal delivery, razor sharp sense of humour, and brilliant lyrics.

The Dirty Three
Warren Ellis, Mick Turner and Jim White formed The Dirty Three in 1992. While Ellis is best known for his work in The Bad Seeds, The Dirty Three are a sensational instrumental band. They recently marked the 25th anniversary of the release of their self-titled debut album with a rapturously received concert in the Sydney Opera House.