First Grade Rock’n’Roll
After dabbling with proto-punk and post-grunge, Sam Agostino has gone back to rock’n’roll basics with his sporadic trio Russian Roulettes. He talks to PATRICK EMERY about cassette releases, European expansionism and the band’s formation, which was sparked by an unusual coincidence of names. Photography by RICHARD SHARMAN.
Sam Agostino can pinpoint the moment in time when the Russian Roulettes were conceived. In 2006, he was juggling his commitments with Digger and the Pussycats and Kamikaze Trio when he spotted Legends of Motorsport drummer Agostino Soldati across a crowded room. With his irsute appearance – exemplified by his jungle thick afro hairstyle – Soldati was used to tedious inquiries. Sam Agostino, however, was only interested in their coincidence of names.
“I walked over to him and said, ‘I have to ask you a question.’ He thought I was going to ask him if his hair was real,” Agostino recalls. “Everyone called him ‘Ago’, and I said, ‘Is your name Agostino, because my last name is Agostino?’ So we just became mates after that. We played with Legends [of Motorsport] quite a lot, and we had this idea to have a band and call it Agostino and Agostino,” he jokes.
The unique fraternal aesthetic – with its associated images of a spaghetti version of Simon and Simon – was enhanced when bass player Tim Wold, then playing with The Specimens, came on board. “We couldn’t really call it Agostino, Agostino and Wold,” Agostino jokes. Wold suggested the name Russian Roulettes, and the band was born.
“Tim had the name for ages … I think he wanted to call The Specimens the Russian Roulettes”, Agostino says. “It’s the only name he’s ever thought of, and he’s been sticking to it, because he reckons it’s gold.”
With each member already committed to other bands, finding time to play gigs as the Russian Roulettes wasn’t easy. “It’s been a pretty sporadic thing for the past three years. We’d had a couple of failed attempts at recording an album, and then finally in February last year we sat down with John Watson, and Robbie Adams mixed it. Everything we do seems to be a really long process,” Agostino says.
“A lot of the music has come together from just playing together, rather than structured ideas. It’s very much the most democratic band that I’ve played in, to the point that it’s all Indians and no chiefs”.
Those initial attempts to record the band’s debut R&R failed because, as Agostino explains, they sounded like “everyone else’s 4-track recordings at the time”.
“It didn’t feel it really suited our songs. A big thing for me was to get a really good drum song from Ago – he’s such an explosive drummer. As much as it might sound like Toto, we had to get the drum sound right.”
With Digger and the Pussycats fulfilling the role of proto-garage band and the now-defunct Kamikaze Trio posthumously celebrating the late ’80s grunge aesthetic, from what source material does Russian Roulettes spring?
“For me it goes back to the music I was listening to in high school like Zeppelin, Hendrix – jamming guitar bands. It’s the most straight ahead rock’n’roll band I’ve ever played in – The Stooges, Reigning Sound. A lot of your Grade 1 rock’n’roll,” he jokes. “A lot of the music has come together from just playing together, rather than structured ideas. It’s very much the most democratic band that I’ve played in, to the point that it’s all Indians and no chiefs”.
Having previously released records on two iconic Melbourne labels – Loki Lockwood’s Spooky and Bruce Milne’s Infidelity – Agostino is happy to have found a spot on Mick Baty’s Off the Hip Records. “I guess one thing is that you have your own spot in the Melbourne music scene. It’s a bit like being in a secret gang. There are all these other bands and you have something in common with them. But also working with Mickster, he’s someone whose passion is selling music, and he’s got a highly developed underground network across the world that are interested in selling his records. And he’s pretty well become the main rock’n’roll label in Melbourne. And he’s got a shop, which is a really good hang-out place.”
The blend – or contradiction – between Off the Hip’s retail and online presence is an added attraction. “In some ways Mickster has got one foot in the past – he’s got a retail shop, when everyone will tell you that retail is dead – and on the other hand, he’s doing all these trades with people on the internet. A lot of people in Europe know the label,” Agostino says.
The Off the Hip association has laid the foundation for a European release and possible tour, with German label P-Trash (which has previously released Digger and the Pussycats records) agreeing to release R&R on vinyl in Europe.
A vinyl release is one thing, but what about the recently heralded cassette? Any chance of a Russian Roulettes metallic tape? “Hell yeah,” says Agostino, emphatically. “I’d like to do it as a double tape, like New Order put out years ago. People talk about the resurgence of vinyl, but I never stopped buying vinyl. Tapes are a bit more of a collectors thing though, a bit more elitist.”
There is, however, one proviso. “It better have bloody good artwork,” Agostino says.
R&R will be launched on May 23 at Yah Yahs in Melbourne.