Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever on Melbourne, touring and Australian politics

Following the release of Hope Downs last year, we speak to Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever's Joe White about the Melbourne band's success, privilege and his perception of home

Feature by Tony Inglis | 10 Jul 2019
  • Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

When Joe White answers the phone in Seattle, he's over 8000 miles from home. There, national broadcasters are being raided by federal police over a series of reports detailing volatile national security information. It’s a chilling move that threatens press freedom and the safety of government whistleblowers. No, White doesn’t hail from a dictatorial banana republic – this is happening in Australia.

"What’s been going on there…" White tails off, sounding more than a little weary, dejected even. "It was a big surprise to me when our government got re-elected. It was a shocking realisation of what Australia is and how we see ourselves now and in the future. It seems short-sighted and selfish. I got pretty worked up on election night. I went on a big walk and had to sort of process it all. And then in the end you realise: 'Okay, I was wrong about what I thought Australia was'. The reality of it is you’ve got to press on and be who you can be – be as good as you can be – and realise the truth of where you’re from."

That White, as a modern musician, should take the right-leaning fervour of the Australian voting majority as an affront to his values is perhaps unsurprising. A little more unusual is that he should be as outspoken as he is. White plays guitar in a band of white guys and, while in the UK we have groups like IDLES flying the flag of rock-led subversion, purveyors of politically-charged punk Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever most certainly are not.

But neither are they your average guitar band. From the four-worded, multisyllabic mouthful they named themselves, Rolling Blackouts are decidedly non-traditional. Along with Joe Russo and Marcel Tussie on bass and drums respectively, White, Fran Keaney and Tom Russo are a triplet of songwriting collaboration, vocal chops and interlocking riffs and rhythms. There is no leader, no frontman, no face. Their guitars don’t so much duel as weave and meander and tie themselves together in beautiful melodic bows. Often that manifests as dizzyingly euphoric. Take The French Press and its one-two knockout blow of a title track followed by Julie’s Place: acoustic guitar that acts more as percussive propulsion glues the dovetailing, spiralling melodies of the outro to pure and unflinching grooves that pleasantly gulp you up.

"We’ve definitely always had that dynamic," says White. "It was a songwriting project in a bedroom between the three of us. We were just trying to write sweet melodies with energetic beats, and that evolved into the bigger, louder, more insistent sound that we were going for as we added more. Having three singers on the stage is refreshing; it’s different enough. We don’t really think about that idea of like whether we are just a bunch of white guys playing guitars – there’s not much we can do about that."

After what seemed like a deliberately patient rise – their full-length debut Hope Downs was released just last year after two scene-setting mini-albums of quite blissful and rapidly evolving, melancholy-stroked jams – they are being branded the most exciting guitar act to see at this summer’s festivals. "That’s one person’s opinion. They’ve just got a bigger loudspeaker that they can project it through," White pings back, nonchalantly modest.

The five-piece set themselves apart thanks to the care, craft and thought they inject into their songs. They may just be white dudes with guitars, but they are acutely aware of their position and the demographic factors that have been at least part of getting them there. On Fountain of Good Fortune, there is a self-awareness and privilege checking that is, at the very least, welcome, if not something necessary to applaud.

"That came out of a lot of political stuff that was happening in Australia – some fairly right-wing politicians doing stupid things that I didn’t agree with," says White. "It’s about understanding who you are and where you are in the world and where you sit in terms of privilege and opportunity."

And he is keenly aware that their social standing means Rolling Blackouts’ rock music can’t simply be nonsense backed by hook candy. "We’re definitely conscious of that notion of 'what do we have to offer'. We think deeply about our lyrics. Of course, it’s about touching on social ideas and political messages, but also if you find yourself singing a song that you might not believe in, or get behind entirely, you’ll be over it really quickly and lose interest."

Despite expressing disillusionment with the Australian political scene, White and his bandmates seem indebted to their home, a place of community and support. "There’s a culture of just going out. Instead of going to clubs, you go to a pub and watch a band. And half your mates are probably in a band. It’s a healthy scene in that way. There are two community radio stations that are good to listen to, supportive and champion local Australian music as well. It means when you’re starting out, you have these little achievements that you can tick off: getting played on the radio, selling out a small venue. You can keep chipping away and stepping up. It’s really encouraging, and it makes everyone want to play more and play better."

That doesn’t mean they’re not prone to cheekily ribbing their hometown, as they do when skewering Melbourne cafe culture on Cappuccino City. "We use the concept of home and away – not the TV show," he laughs, "a lot in our songwriting. We definitely feel that separation – when you’re away, you long for home and when you’re there you can see its faults. But Melbourne is home to me. I’ve lived there all my life, and it’s been good to me."

Calling from a stop along the US west coast, where there are a "few less hotel rooms that smell like someone’s been smoking cigarettes in there for two weeks straight" compared to last time, the band will soon be on UK shores again and playing Glasgow, a city that, White says, they have an affinity for. "We’re well aware of Glasgow’s strong musical history. We definitely get excited about getting up there to feel that history. You can tell when you play in a place that it suits you."

Considering Rolling Blackouts have about an hour-and-a-half of music to their name – not including the 7" of In the Capital and Read My Mind they released in April, the latter of which was recorded in Berlin, some of the first music they put together outside the confines of antipodean familiarity – the deceptively slow-build nature of their success is even more remarkable. They may not be rock stars of old, but with heads as considerate as White’s behind them, Rolling Blackouts are all the better for it – guitar music is in good hands.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever play Saint Luke's, Glasgow, 15 Jul