David Schelzel of the Ocean Blue: The Popdose Interview
Hershey, PA’s the Ocean Blue rose out of the 80’s and soundtracked much of my greater 1990’s. Over the course of five albums and some terrific EP’s, they bridged the gap between new wave and the next Brit Pop invasion (Blur, Pulp, Oasis) while providing a soothing antidote to Nevermind Ear (the medical condition resulting from playing Nirvana, Soundgarden, NIN and Smashing Pumpkins on heavy rotation). As the century turned, the band became less prolific, but their legacy just just grew stronger.
On March 19th, 2013, the Ocean Blue returns with a new album, Ultramarine (four and 1/2 stars out of five). It is a true return to form for fans of their two biggest albums while providing a perfect entry point for fans of heartbreakingly gorgeous, shimmering guitar pop.
Last Thursday, on the eve of their concert in Seattle (see below), POPDOSE caught up with frontman David Schelzel to discuss the new album, the upcoming tour and everything that’s changed since the band last released a full-length album in 1999.
POPDOSE: On the Ultramarine track, “Latin Blues,” you sing “Drift and fall again, it’s going to be different this time.” Is that a reference to the Ocean Blue coming back after a decade away from the spotlight?
David Schelzel: The song isn’t so much about the new record, it is about the transpiring of time in your life; that lyric is also a reference to a song on our first record called “Drifting/Falling.”
I did an acoustic version of it on KEXP this morning so you will have to check it out to see if it’s any good. I wrote “Drifting/Falling” while I was in high school. It was my perspective on how I felt at the time as a young man about to graduate and go into the world and how fast life was changing. “Latin Blues” is from the perspective of a much older man thinking about those same questions and how the answers have changed.
If I was talking to any other band on Earth who was coming back after a long hiatus, I’d mention the radically different cultural landscape they’d be entering — technology, social media, etc. — but it seems like you’ve been at the forefront of these changes as an IP attorney representing musicians and authors among other clients. Did your professional work prepare you for — or even inspire you — to get the band back together?
That’s a great question. As an IP attorney, I’ve certainly helped clients and thought a lot about the changes in the music business, but I really experienced those things personally in the late 90’s being on a major label that was falling apart. Today, there’s business model changes and technological changes about the way you make records. We used to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making records, (laughs) I don’t think we spent more than a couple of thousand dollars making this record. We all have the gear and the technology to make things in our home studios, occasionally ducking into a good studio when we need to.
The third thing that has changed is the way you can connect with people and share things that you love. I discovered all of my music growing up on MTV or the radio and that stuff is all on the Web now. The way I discover music is still the same, I find out what my friends are listening to and that gets me excited. The speed at which that happens and the social network involved is really exciting and cool. We’re just starting to take advantage of that as a band and it’s been pretty awesome.
It’s a strange thing. We have this base of fans from when we did the major label records in the 90’s, but we also have these fans who are 20 years old and just like the music we make. I met a bunch of them at the radio station this morning; they were much younger than me but we like the same bands. We want to reconnect with our old fans, but I don’t want this to be a nostalgia trip — I’m not interested in that. We get asked to play shows all the time where they want us to come back and play the hits and that’s not interesting to me. I’d rather be doing something that’s relevant now.
When I hear beautiful, melodic guitar bands like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses, I feel they owe a lot to your sound seeing that you came 20 years before them. That sound is now Top 10 material.
(laughs) I love the Fleet Foxes and I don’t know if they would agree with that statement — but Beach House is a band that I love that sounds a little more like the Ocean Blue — the the xx too. I think they have a lot of the same influences we did. I heard an interview with the xx where they talk about New Order, one of my favorite bands. It’s kinda funny, here’s a band essentially of kids who are influenced by the same bands that influenced me more than 20 years ago.
OMD is another great band of that era. They covered the xx song “VCR.”
Yeah — and OMD is releasing a record this year and New Order’s on tour — and the Stone Roses are out there too. I think it’s all pretty great. Now sometimes this sounds like a nostalgia trip and I think that can be fun — and I want to reconnect with old fans, but I want it to be a contemporary thing too.
Since 2010, OMD, Devo and Duran Duran released their best albums in 20 years — those discs don’t feel nostalgic at all — they retain elements of what put them on the map in the first place, yet the songs feel urgent and new. I feel the same way about Ultramarine — it perfectly fits in with what’s on the radio these days.
Ultramarine is being released on Korda, is that your label?
I live in Minneapolis and started Korda with some friends of mine who I’ve known a long time. We love to make music and many of us have been on major labels before. We were finishing up our albums at the same time in 2012. Allison, one of the founders and I, were talking about starting our own label and came up with a few different models — including a co/op model where each of the artists has a lot of independence and flexibility on how they want to promote and distribute their music. We would share and pool our resources where it makes sense — we can cross promote and establish a presence.
Does Korda have independent distribution? Will you be able to get your albums into independent record stores?
We have a distributor in Portland so you will be able to find it in record stores, to the extent you can still find record stores — Amazon, iTunes, Spotify — all the usual places — but you can also buy direct from the Korda site as well.
Streaming wasn’t around when you released Davy Jones Locker. As an attorney, have you been able to negotiate or at least appreciate how streaming figures into the Ocean Blue’s business model?
I think it’s just unavoidable. You can say that you don’t want your music to stream anywhere, but so many people listen to music that way. I do. I use Spotify heavily. The royalty rates are ridiculously low. I get a lot of plays on Spotify but very little money from it. I’m somewhat ambivalent about it, but it’s a legitimate service. I think the Streaming models — particularly Spotify, are more revolutionary and more disruptive than the change that took place with iTunes or even Napster. As a musician you have to think, “how do I do what I want to do if this is the main way people are going to consume music now.” It’s a challenge. And I don’t pretend to have figured it out — it’s a reality and you just have to deal with it. I still really believe in the album as an art form and I like to have 10 to 12 songs on a record — I still think there’s a place for that. If that’s how a lot of people are going to get our music, I’m OK with that. Streaming doesn’t do a lot to support the artist but it does get the word out.
Before streaming, when you mentioned a new band to someone, you used to have that awkward talk where you either suggested they buy it for themselves, find it on torrent, borrow your CD — or rip your CD. Now they can just pull it up on their phones and are listening by the time you end your sentence.
Yeah — when you think about it, that’s just extraordinary. Along with iTunes and Napster there was nothing like that that was legal, and legitimate and that everybody used.
Hopefully streaming will make theft, illegal downloading and piracy obsolete.
I think it does — but when you look at it from a business standpoint, there is a lot to figure out in terms of how you make it work as a recording artist and getting compensation for what you do. There’s other ways to make money, such as licensing, live performances and that sort of thing — but you can be a very popular artist and still not make a lot of money.
It seems like if you get one good national TV commercial, that can do more than getting on the radio.
How do you strike the balance between your professional law career and your professional music career? Are you going to be touring with the band and still taking care of clients?
I’m doing both. I’ll be very busy this year — that’s about all I can say.
Are you going to be doing more dates after Seattle?
We’re going to be playing SXSW on March 16th. We have a bunch of dates in May and June: New York, Philadelphia, LA, San Francisco, Phoenix, Washington DC and Chicago.
Are you going to be flying to those or loading up the van and hitting the road again?
(Laughs) I think most of those will be fly-ins.
Will any Korda artists like Jim Ruiz Set be on the road with you?
Probably not Jim, but maybe the Starfolk. I think we’ll have another Korda show in June when the Starfolk release their record. We might do that show with them.
Was the Minneapolis Korda Showcase your first official show back on stage in a while?
Yes it was.
What was it like being back on stage during the first few songs?
It was kinda surreal. It also kinda came back quickly. When you’ve done something so many times, even when a lot of years go by, it comes back quickly — for me at least. It was lot of fun to play those shows; I look forward to doing more.
I’m bummed I missed the Schubas show, that’s one of my favorite rooms in the nation.
Mine too — we had a lot of fun playing that show. We had a great crowd. It’s a great place to play.
What was the rest of the band doing during the hiatus? Did they go back to day jobs or where they involved in music in one way or another?
Everyone does different things. It’s interesting, just the way you phrased that… music is always happening for me. I’m always writing songs and putting things down in the studio. I know from your perspective it feels like we’ve taken a hiatus, but we’ve been doing things, and I think it’s that way for all of us; it just happens a lot slower. By the time we have a record ready for release, a lot of time has gone by.
Walk me through the new album, Ultramarine. Have the songs been around for a while or did you sit down and say, now we’re going to write a whole new record.
Two of the songs I wrote many years ago, just before I went back to school.
“A Rose is a Rose” and “Touchdown on Earth.” The rest are pretty recent. I set a lot of songs aside as I was approaching this record because I was thinking a lot about what the band meant to people, including me, our DNA and the core fundamentals of what the group is about.
That’s interesting that “Rose” is older. I was listening to that one for some time now since it is on the Korda Kompilation. The newer track, “Blow My Mind,” feels like classic Ocean Blue and “Rose” is more of a progression of your sound.
I wrote “A Rose is a Rose” at a time when I was more interested in British rock and roll, rock/pop stuff. Depending on your reference for our band that may or may not fit into it. I think “Blow My Mind” could have easily fit onto one of our first two records. Most of this record fits into the sound of our first two records.
I’ve been following you guys since the very beginning, starting with the Sire Records’ “Just Say” series of label compilations. What was it like as a young band from Hershey, PA to be in London and recording on Sire — that was THE label of the 70s and 80’s. You were on there with Danielle Dax, Ministry, kd Lang, the Wild Swans. Was it crazy being immersed in all that?
It was mind blowing. The two bands on Sire that were really influential for me were the Smiths and Echo and the Bunnymen. We worked with one of the Smiths’ producers on our first record; that was our first session when were in London. He had recorded “This Charming Man” and “How Soon is Now?” all these songs that blew my mind when I first heard them as a teenager so it was pretty incredible. I mean, I was telling John at KEXP this morning. We were so young and so green going into that recording session, I kinda wish I could relive that as a more experienced musician and singer. John Porter was great, he was a fantastic producer — he helped bring those songs to life, particularly “Drifting/Falling,” and it was pretty much perfect the way that record came out. We had two or three big hits on Modern Rock and College Rock charts — I don’t even know if those charts are around anymore. We had MTV airplay and wonderful touring opportunities. A lot of people have these horror stories about being on major labels but we had a really good experience with Sire. They gave us a lot of artistic freedom — perhaps more freedom than we should have had — but it was a great place to be for those first two records.
I’ve always been intrigued by that. Sales wise they’re really close today, last time I got a statement. I think Cerulean really works as an album. The first record is my greatest hits of songs I wrote in high school whereas Cerulean was written in a short amount of time; there’s a cohesion to the songs that’s kinda nice. We hear from a lot of fans that it’s their favorite. I was thinking about it as I was writing this record. The title, Ultramarine, is a play on our band name and the Cerulean record — two shades of blue — I kinda like the idea of a record that has a mood to it, hopefully this record does too.
If you don’t mind, I would love to resolve something once and for all. Urban legends dog just about every band. Certain members come and go and come back again. There were rumors swirling around as to why original keyboardist/saxophonist Steve Lau left the Ocean Blue. According to Wikipedia, it appears you’ve all made up. Do you still talk to him?
Yeah I do. Steve and I were best friends in high school. I started the band with Steve. We never could have done what we did without him. I was the guy interested in writing and recording — he had a great business mind. He was not afraid to put us out there and promote us. He connected us with our manager, who ran with the ball and got the attention of the labels. Steve and I were a great team.
We also had some artistic differences. I think his taste skewed more electronic than mine did at the time. He was also more ambitious than I was. I was quite happy to have a college radio hit. I think he would have loved to see us break through. He started a label while he was in the band and moved to New York.
A few years after he left, we ran into each other at an event. Not that we had a lot of ill will, but we reconnected. I see Steve almost every time I am in New York and we communicate by e-mail. I asked him if he wanted to be part of this record and come play with us. He’s entertaining the idea but he hasn’t picked up the saxophone or played the keyboards in some time.
One thing I will tell you, there have been things written about why Steve left the band and those things are patently false. What I told you right now is the truth.
The urban legend is he left the band because he was gay. News of which was sadly a bigger deal back then.
That’s just simply false and painful to hear — it doesn’t square with reality.
There’s a big difference between two unrelated facts: “he left the band” and “he is gay” and the assumption “he left the band because he’s gay.”
Steve and I are friends. Many significant partners that we’ve worked with in the business have been gay – not to mention our fan base — so the whole rumor is just silly.
What made you select Seattle as one of your shortlist of cities for this tour?
That’s easy. KEXP. I listen to two to three radio stations online and KEXP is my favorite. They’ve continued to support our band. Plus, I like the city. I’ve got some friends here. The booking agent we’ve worked with for years is here. Oed lives in Portland now and we needed a place to rehearse for a few days so it all worked out.
What made you choose Minneapolis of all places to live?
I went to school there and like the city a lot.
Final question. Will the rarity, “City Traffic,” ever be released?
Probably not. Warner Brothers owns the masters to the song. We recorded it; they decided not to use it. I don’t know how it snuck out there. That’s a very old song, one of the first we played live — we didn’t put it on the first record but recorded it many years later.
Bringing our conversation full circle to the subject of revenue, has Warner Brothers contacted you about reissuing 25th Anniversary Editions of your albums?
They haven’t, but some independents want to reissue our albums on vinyl, so I need to follow-up with Warner Brothers about that to see if they would be willing to license it.
I’m sure the fanbase would love it. Have a great weekend, enjoy our city, we’ll see you on Sunday!
Thanks Keith, it was a pleasure to talk with you!
OK friends, now for some buried treasure. For a limited time, here is a free download of the Ocean Blue’s new single:
Completists like me will be happy to know, the Sad Night CD single features an exquisite exclusive B-side called “Bleary Eyed.” Pick it up for a song at the merch table when the band plays SXSW in March and Los Angeles in May.
A few nights later, David’s wish came true when The Ocean Blue played the Tractor Tavern in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. The crowd was a mix of 20-somethings who were glimmers in their parents’ eyes when The Ocean Blue first hit college radio, people like me who were actually in college at the time and one girl who was dancing to a completely different concert in her head. While the Ocean Blue’s setlist evoked fond memories, a nostalgia trip it wasn’t.
While it was awesome to hear the hits again, the new tracks generated the biggest cheers. When the first notes of “Blow My Mind” washed over the crowd, the band sounded invigorated and the collective audience gasp acted like a reverse sonic boom. The 20-year old hot girl with glasses next to us shrieked to her friends how much she LOVED. THIS. SONG. My wife told me “I’ve got to own this!” If the Ocean Blue played nothing but the new songs next week at SXSW, they would be heralded as “the next big thing.”
Perhaps that’s what really sets the band apart. Unlike many 80’s cohorts whose big hair, fashion choices, hooks and dated lyrical references preserved them in that moment of time, the Ocean Blue’s look and sound were rather timeless — just as fresh to the eyes and ears in 1989 as they are today. They were also never burdened by celebrity; most fans knew their songs by heart but couldn’t place their faces in a crowded elevator. While that might change in this new era of social media, here’s hoping their success on this voyage is as limitless as the the body of water that bears their name.The Ocean Blue Tractor Tavern • Seattle February 23, 2013 Mercury — Cerulean Marigold — Cerulean Blow My Mind – Ultramarine Ways & Means — See The Ocean Blue Drifting, Falling — The Ocean Blue When Life Was Easy — Cerulean Sad Night, Where is Morning? – Ultramarine Crash — Beneath The Rhythm and Sound Whatever You Say, It Breaks My Heart - Ultramarine Sunset — Moon Rise -- Ultramarine Slide — See The Ocean Blue Give it a Try – Ultramarine Vanity Fair — The Ocean Blue A Rose is a Rose – Ultramarine If You Don’t Know Why – Ultramarine Ballerina Out of Control — Cerulean Between Something and Nothing — The Ocean Blue I’ve Sung One Too Many Songs for a Crowd That Didn’t Want to Hear — Cerulean Sublime — Beneath The Rhythm and Sound
One final treat since you made it down here to the bottom of the Ocean… To cement the band’s triumphant return to modern pop culture, here is the Instragram-laden video for “Blow My Mind”