Romero: Melbourne rockers ready to ‘Turn It On!’ with their ebullient debut
Each week in Next Noise, we go deep on the rising talent ready to become your new favourite artist. Sarah Smith talks to Romero, the Melbourne five-piece making peppy yet personal power-pop. Photo by Izzie Austin
As far as origin stories go, Romero’s seems ripped straight from the rock ’n’ roll playbook. “I just woke up one morning and thought, ‘I want to start a rock band!’” says singer Alanna Oliver, with a laugh. And so she did.
This epiphany was a long time coming for Oliver, whose journey from belting out Carole King songs in the car with her mum as a toddler, to fronting the ascendant Melbourne five-piece has been, perhaps, less linear than most. Long before she was shimmering on jams like ‘Turn It On!’, the title track of their debut album out this week, the effervescent singer was keeping match fit in a Blues Brothers tribute act, she reveals somewhat sheepishly: “It was a huge show [with] a few hours with acting in between songs – that bit I couldn’t stand – but I did it for the experience.”
In some ways, the show – which included covers of Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin – was the perfect training ground for what would come next. Only a few weeks after her early morning revelation, Oliver met her future bandmates: Adam Johnstone, Fergus Sinclair, Justin Tawil and Dave Johnstone.
“It was just fate,” she muses.
Romero’s music connected instantly. Their debut 7-inch ‘Honey/Neapolitan’ sold out in a blink, its bold, dizzy power-pop a welcome reminder of just how much fun rock music can be. Theirs is a sound that straddles both the angular guitar and swagger of early Strokes and the disco-bop of new wave classics – the edges teased out with the same kind of dancefloor bounce that defined so much of the early ’00s garage rock revival. It’s a sound that landed them on NME’s radar – and Romero on the NME 100 2021.
“I just woke up one morning and thought, ‘I want to start a rock band!’”
Just a month after their debut release, as Romero were finding their groove, the plug was pulled. In March 2020 their hometown of Melbourne was plunged into what would become the world’s longest pandemic lockdown. But like so many in their position, Romero found a way. Used to jamming out ideas together, they adapted to phone recordings and writing solo. It was slower and less immediate, but it worked. When a snap lockdown saw them kicked out of the studio mid-way through tracking their album, the band just mined the setback for motivation to nail the parts when they returned.
After forging against the odds, Romero have emerged with their debut album, ‘Turn It On!’, an ebullient record of giddy, disco-lite, rock‘n’roll abandon. It’s fun with a capital F but also full of songs that tug at your heartstrings like those great ’80s power ballads.
“I guess a lot of people are finding our music to be very nostalgic,” Oliver muses of the band’s growing popularity. “I think our music has a happy vibe to it, which is funny, because lyrically it’s quite melancholic at times. We had written the majority of these songs before COVID, so I guess there was none of that hardship being expressed. And now people are quite possibly being reminded of a more positive time in their life.”
Nostalgia aside, there is also an appealing tension in Romero’s music: big squally guitar riffs jostle with sweet pop melodies and tales of broken romance. It’s a sound, Oliver explains, that was born out of the band’s melting pot of influences.
Justin (bass), Dave (drums), and Adam (guitar) first wrote music together in Summer Blood, a band that took its cues largely from the alt-rock greats like Dinosaur Jr. On the other hand, Ferg’s (guitar) other side-hustles include the more classic indie-rock group Eyesores and bristly synth-punk duo Laughing Gear.
“We never set out to play power-pop,” Oliver clarifies. “We just wrote plenty of songs, threw out some and re-wrote some until we really started to find a common ground with what we all enjoyed, and then tried to be cohesive with that sound.”
“I think our music has a happy vibe to it, which is funny, because lyrically it’s quite melancholic at times”
Oliver lists Thin Lizzy, Big Star and The Strokes as artists that have helped inform Romero’s sound, but makes the point that as individuals the band’s eclectic listening tastes range from Kelly Rowland to Prince and, of course, Carole King.
“I don’t listen to her as much anymore,” Oliver says of the legendary singer-songwriter. “But every now and then I’ll pop on ‘I Feel The Earth Move’, because that song’s an absolute banger.”
“[That said] I went and saw the Tapestry musical in Melbourne [with my mum and aunt] just last year, and cried the whole time … we got in trouble by everyone around us.”
While she cackles at the memory of being told off by rows of uptight theatre-types, the memory is also a raw one for Oliver. That moment would be one of the last truly outrageous times she’d spend with her aunt Jane, who only recently passed away.
It was Jane who was responsible for Oliver’s love of the greats, introducing her to a whole world of music from a young age: Etta James, Stevie Wonder, you name it. Such was her relationship with Jane that her aunt even played a part in writing one of the singer’s favourite songs on ‘Turn It On!’ – early single ‘Neapolitan’.
Its lyrics, which grapple with a kind of emotional unraveling, were inspired by a phone call between the pair, and fast became a favourite for them both. “She came to see us perform it once or twice. She would just either carry on and dance like crazy or just cry,” Oliver smiles. “That song holds a really special place in my heart. It was our song.”
It was Carole King’s vulnerability and storytelling that stuck most with Oliver, and has informed her knack for writing from the heart and making it feel universal. Although, as she tells it, many of the album’s songs are thoroughly personal.
“I wonder if he’ll ever read this?” she laughs, recalling the ex that inspired the smouldering slow-burner ‘White Dress’. “That song is about a guy I used to date… He rang me a few years after we had broken up – I was in Japan at the time – and he said: ‘Don’t you ever think about what we could have been?’ And I said: ‘Of course, but you have a girlfriend and I’m currently interested in someone else’. And after that he was like ‘OK!’ and then he got engaged. And I went home and wrote a fucking song about it,” she laughs.
In Melbourne it seems as though life is returning, ever so gradually, to normal. Venues are opening. Gigs are being booked – and actually played. Dancefloors are filling up, and Oliver is taking full advantage.
“I was at [Melbourne club] Porn and Co until close a few weeks ago,” she lets slip with a grin. “And the week before that was my brother’s wedding, and I didn’t know if it was a wedding or a workout. I was on the dance floor absolutely going nuts and then my cousin and I ended up at KFC at Chapel Street at 6am. I’ve had some big nights,” she laughs.
Clearly, neither Oliver nor her bandmates are taking one second of this freedom for granted. After playing just 20 shows in under four years of existence, the band are touring regional Victoria in April and have their sights set firmly on the rest of Australia (from Vivid Sydney in July to Gang Of Youths‘ festival A More Perfect Union in August). Romero finally have a chance to do what they do best: be a shithot rock band.
Romero’s ‘Turn It On!’ is out April 8 via Cool Death Records / Feel It Records
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