Before coming together in 2019, the five members of the Melbourne power-pop band Romero – vocalist Alanna Oliver, guitarists Adam Johnstone and Fergus Sinclair, drummer Dave Johnstone, and bassist Justin “Murry” Tawil – were feeling uncertain about the future. Tawil and the Johnstone brothers had been musical partners for a decade by that point, and Sinclair had played in a band with Adam for a couple of years, but from their earliest rehearsals as Romero, those feelings of anxiety mingled with a new sense of excitement. They channel that energy in thrilling ways throughout their debut full-length, Turn It On!, which is out this Friday. Produced by Andrew “Idge” Hehir, the album serves as an electrifying showcase for Oliver’s powerful, emotive vocals, Adam Johnstone and Sinclair’s fiery, playful interplay, and Dave Johnstone and Tawil’s infectious, intricate grooves. While the writing has a melancholic edge to it and the fusion of classic rock and indie influences may conjure a sense of nostalgia, it’s all about what happens when the songs come alive – when the big hooks jump out and stick into your mind, the emotions twist, and the confidence bursts through.
We caught up with Romero’s Alanna Oliver and Fergus Sinclair for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about the early days of the band, what makes them laugh, their debut album, and more.
You formed Romero in 2019, but the rest of the members had been playing together for some years before that. Can you talk about what the dynamic was when you first started out?
Fergus Sinclair: Adam and Dave and Murry, they’d all been playing together in another band for years and years and years before Alanna and I came in. But Dave and I also had a band together for two or so years before we started Romero. I think it was intimidating from my perspective going into a well-oiled machine of those three together. But also, it was exciting having already had much admiration for all of their individual playing abilities from seeing their other band live. I was just really keen and excited to jam with them when Dave pitched the idea. And when he did pitch the idea, I was super keen to meet and hear Lana’s voice being played over these other riffs that I had lying around. Yeah, it was intimidating at first, but I think after the first maybe two or three jam sessions when things started to gel and we started to unpack more and more about ourselves, it just all seemed pretty nice and natural. What do you think, Lana?
Alanna Oliver: For me, I had known Adam for maybe two weeks or something, I met him through a friend at a bar one night. We hit it off and were speaking about music, and I went over to Adam’s house and tried singing with him for a bit. Then Dave came along and jammed, and not too long after Murry and Ferg were there, and it was really cool. I was all of a sudden playing with four dudes who I didn’t know a month ago, and I could tell it was something really special. It was a super exciting time for me, especially because music for me in the year leading up to meeting everyone was feeling super stagnant. I was just so grateful that I had sort of fallen into this new band doing new stuff that I’d never done before. And here we are – so happy that I went to the bar that night.
FS: [laughs] I think the first time Lana and I met was at the very first Romero rehearsal. It was just like: “Hey!” “Hey!” “One, two, three, four…” [all laugh] And the proper getting to know each other happened after that.
Do you mind sharing your first impressions of each other?
AO: I guess we were sitting around a table at Dave and Adams’ house having a beer with them and then you just strolled in being all Cool Ferg. I was like, “This must be Ferg, the guy that we’ve all been waiting for.” All the guys had spoken so highly of Ferg and his songwriting ability and his playing ability, so I was just like, “Oh my gosh, the rock star is here. This is him. Hello!”
FS: [laughs] Yeah, it was pretty much exactly the same thing. Where it was like, we’ve been talking about having this jam with this new friend of Adam and Dave’s, and I think that Dave was just saying that Alana is this incredible, outrageously talented singer [Alana laughs] and awesome person. Going in, I had many different ideas of how the first jam, the first meeting would go. I think everyone was sort of maybe a bit nervous at first to try and break the barrier because we were focused on just starting this exciting new project. There’s just such a rush, the first few practices, and then sitting out the backyard of Adam and Dave’s place is when we all properly got to know each other. We found out we all have the capability to make each other laugh hysterically quite frequently.
AO: We’re very, very silly people. [laughs]
FS: Incredibly silly. Nothing’s really taken too seriously. Except for this interview, of course.
You can be silly, don’t worry about that.
[Alana makes silly sound, all laugh]
What kind of things do you all find funny?
AO: I know Ferg is really good at quoting movies and, like, being an actor. [laughs] Every movie ever, Ferg will know the scene and suddenly perform it for you randomly amidst conversation. You’re really good at that.
FS: I’m a failed thespian, but my audience is Romero and thankfully they happily oblige.
AO: Free entertainment.
FS: Yeah. [laughs] I’m glad it’s not annoying.
AO: If we had to pay for it, nah. [laughs]
FS: There’s a lot of funny accents that we can all do, which is really good. That’s one that I think we all collectively really enjoy from a comedic perspective.
AO: When Dave gets drunk.
FS: When Dave gets drunk, it’s quite funny as well. When we’re all getting silly and struggling to breathe is…
AO: When we feel most alive. [laughs]
I just wondered because of the name of the band – do you find horror films funny? Some people laugh at horror films.
AO: Not me personally. I don’t really watch many horror films.
FS: Dave is a big horror movie fan, and I guess that’s sort of where the name idea came up, it sort of initially came from Georgia A. But then it ended up being a lot of things that were attached to the Romero name. I mean, sometimes they can be hilarious, definitely. I watched Old a couple of nights ago, it’s kind of more of a thriller I guess, but there are some horror elements definitely. And I found that quite funny.
How early did you realize that Romero was something special?
AO: I think it was fairly quickly. ‘Halfway’ was pretty much one of our first songs, and I think once we started rolling with this tune, we had recognized the potential of our writing together. I think it was pretty early on that we recognized what Romero could be.
FS: Yeah, absolutely. As Lana was saying just before, I think we were all relatively stunted musically just before we all started jamming together. And I think we were all seeking something new in general from a creative standpoint, and I think also in our lives as well. And it all landed kind of perfectly for all of us at the same time. After those first couple of jams, then we started to, yeah, really get the ball rolling with multiple rehearsals a week for a really long time. It certainly gave us a pretty strong work ethic when it came to songwriting pretty early on, and I think we’re all just really excited and buzzed to be working on something together and wanting to make sure that what we were doing together was something that we were all collectively proud of.
AO: When Ferg says that we’re all sort of stagnant, I remember when I met Adam, he swore that he would never play live music again on stage. And I was like, “What the fuck? Okay. Cool, I’m gonna totally change that.” [Fergus laughs] It was like my goal was to get this guy out there. It was just so funny. We were all really in just stagnant places. And it’s so great to think, what comes out of just like taking a punt, saying, “Yeah, alright, I’ll give it a go.” And through doing that, who would have thought we’d be here a few years later? It’s pretty cool.
FS: I had no idea that’s what Adam said the first time you guys met. That’s crazy.
So, when did that change?
AO: I reckon it was when we had our first jam with Dave. Because I did go over to Adam and Dave’s house to meet up with Adam specifically to do harmonies on one of his tracks that he was writing, because he writes really lovely country music. So I went over and did that, and it was definitely when Dave joined and put a beat to it and we started to hype things up a little bit that Adam would have felt the energy, for sure. And that it would be silly not to go for it.
Lana, I read that the lyrics for ‘Crossing Lines’ were cut out from magazines?
AO: Yeah, the chorus was definitely. More predominantly ‘Happy Hour’ was that, but ‘Crossing Lines’ too a little bit.
What usually inspires you to start writing?
AO: Lyrically, it’s usually things that have happened in my life or when I’m thinking about something, maybe past or present, that I can make into a good story or I want to tell, I’ll do it. That is mainly how I write in general, and then for ‘Happy Hour’ and ‘Crossing Lines’, I just thought I’d try something new. I think also, we’re writing so much music at one point and I was like, “What else do I write about? I don’t know.” So I just got creative with it. ‘Happy Hour’ is pretty much a made-up story, which was the first time that I’ve ever written like that.
A couple of the songs, like ‘Talk About It’ and the title track, started out as ballads and then became more upbeat. How did you decide that ‘White Dress’ would stay a slower song?
AO: It was your incredible lead line.
FS: It was written not necessarily thinking about there being a need for a ballad or something. I don’t even think I had that idea. It was just the three chords that make up the intro and where that lead line happens, but I think I just really liked those three chords together.
AO: There was no reason to make it anything other than what it was.
FS: Yeah, I didn’t think it needed really much of a vibe change. I always feel like it’s got some sort of spooky element to it. I think maybe some of the earlier mixes, [Andrew] “Idge” [Hehir], who engineered the record, was playing around with some pretty weird extra reverb settings. The tambourine kind of made it very haunted house-y or something. I don’t think it was originally intended to be the ballad, but it just naturally progressed that way.
AO: I don’t think we ever sit down as a group and go, “We need a ballad,” or, “We need another two-minute song.” I think it’s literally just like, I’ve got this riff, this is what it is, and if everyone likes it, we’ll just give it everything that we’ve got. Rather than think about the product, the outcome of the album as a whole, it was just like, “How do we make this song the best that we can make it?”
Why did you decide to end the album with ‘Things They Don’t Tell You’ as opposed to ending it with that ballad?
AO: That’s a good question.
FS: I feel like maybe the original plan – actually, no, it was never discussed that we wanted to end the record with ‘White Dress’. I think for some reason – I don’t know if it was the influence of another record that was playing that made us go, we need it to be that sort of pace to finish the record. But it’s something about the feel, to me personally and maybe to the rest of the group, that just felt it needed a bit of that to finish rather than just a sombre feel.
AO: I think maybe partly another reason why we chose it was because of the four stabs at the end, with the guitars and the drums, it’s just done. I think that it was really powerful way to just be like: And that’s it.
FS: It’s as quick and has a very similar energy to ‘Talk About It’, so I think rather than having the two together, separating them ended up feeling right.
AO: And the instrumental at the end, with Adam playing over you, it really does feel like things are coming to a close. We’re having a long instrumental, and then the curtains are going down.
FS: Yeah, definitely. I get exactly the same thing.
Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to share?
AO: I mean, I’ll just share it because we’ve got time, but what I think is really funny about you mentioning that ‘Petals’ is your favourite song [earlier in the interview], I for quite some time was adamant that ‘Petals’ will not be on the record. And I was like, “Nah, I’m over it.” And recently, even last night, Dave was upstairs and I was in his room, and he was like, “What song do you want to listen to?” because we were listening to the test pressings. And I was like, ‘Petals’. And it’s so funny how I’ve done a complete 180 on that song. I’m so glad we put it into the record, like, what was I thinking?
FS: I’m thrilled that you’ve come around to it. [laughs]
AO: I was like, “No, never.”
FS: I’d seen Dave earlier yesterday, so it would have been just before you guys were listening to the record. He told me specifically, “It’s kind of funny that we still let ‘Petals’ on there.” For me, it’s always been my favourite chorus, I’ve always had an affinity with it. I guess it always happens as far as your feelings about songs, it always changes with demos and things like that.
AO: It’s like going out of love with them.
FS: Totally. Because you spend so much time with it.
AO: Thinking about it.
FS: Yeah. And then you walk around town for months and months, sometimes even years, listening to the same demo or the same song that might have taken a long time to release or something. And then you doubt yourself… But yeah, sometimes, that one listen, you separate from it for a few months or a few weeks and then come back and you’re like, “I can still do this. This is still okay.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.