“I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time.” —Dr. John
Boy, if that doesn’t sum up the self-titled debut/swan song of Bounce the Ocean, I don’t know what does. Picture it: Washington, 1991. Hawk Bjorn and John Utter are surrounded by the burgeoning world of grunge, but choosing to follow their muse rather than the trends of the day, they produce an album of glossy, harmony-laden pop music that would’ve sounded more at home on the radio in 1981. They still managed to score a decent-sized radio hit, though, thanks to the album’s opening track, “Throw It All Away,” and another song — “Wasting My Time” — earned them at least a little bit of airplay, though it admittedly did so without ever actually charting.
You’d like to think that it was a testament to the quality of their work (because, wow, those harmonies are fucking incredible), but really, when was the last time quality had anything to do with a song becoming a hit?
In truth, the band had been working their way up through the ranks for a while, first getting some exposure by getting their music placed in the Patrick Dempsey flick Some Girls (1988), then by getting signed to Private Music, a label that had previously been known solely for its new-age artists (Yanni, Suzanne Ciani) but in ’91 was getting ink in the music trades for securing Ringo Starr for their roster. It was probably the Private Music connection that did the most for their profile, but a high profile can only do so much when the music you’re making isn’t anything remotely like what “the kids” are listening to. In fact, looking back, it’s somewhat ironic that the band’s big-nosed labelmate was actually playing more to current musical trends than the members of Bounce the Ocean were, since Starr’s album featured a cover of the Posies’ “Golden Blunders” and had Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning from Jellyfish providing harmonies.
But, really, who’s complaining?
Bjorn lives up to his Swedish heritage by providing plenty of catchy hooks, and despite being American, Utter holds his own quite capably. This is not a dig at Utter but rather simply a reference to my oft-spouted theory that something in the water in Sweden inspires great pop music. Seriously, just dig the opening to “Crooked Heart” and see if your toe doesn’t start tapping immediately. Several songs sound like they could’ve been outtakes from the Bee Gees’ One, including “So We Collide” and “Scientists,” and, as with all good pop groups, they’re required by law to offer up at least one song title consisting solely of a girl’s name (“Gloria”). There’s a very enjoyable blog called Thnairg’s World of Music which posits that the band’s sound is a more acoustic precursor to Savage Garden, and although I’m not a huge fan of that group, I’ve heard enough of their music to buy into the validity of this theory. It’s smooth, radio-friendly pop and — may Jason Hare correct me if I’m wrong — some of it even harks back to the days of Mellow Gold.
Although I’d already been considering Bounce the Ocean for inclusion in this column, it jumped to the front of the queue when Mr. Giles included one of their songs in one of his Mix Tapes. I praised him on his selection, and to my surprise, Hawk Bjorn himself responded to my comment:
“Cool to know that some music lovers still enjoy our music. If you liked our stuff, you might like some of the subsequent BTO music that never got released, plus my own solo tunes. Have a listen and thanks for brightening my Sunday!“
In turn, I dropped Mr. Bjorn an e-mail and asked if he’d be willing to offer up a few reminiscences about the old days. Not only did he gladly agree, but so too did his bandmate, Mr. Utter.
How did you two first come to team up?
Hawk Bjorn: We met at the Fine Arts House at Whitman College (Walla Walla, Washington) because, well, he played electric guitar and had a very cool “echo box,” and I impressed him simply because I had a keyboard (Korg Poly-800). We were way vain back then!
John Utter: I thought Hawk was cool because he was from Sweden, wore artistic torn-up pants, and was really tall.
Between having your music used in the Patrick Dempsey movie Some Girls and being signed to Private Music, was there any point in there when you guys thought, “Okay, this is our big break,” or were you just making the music and letting the chips fall where they may?
HB: From my perspective (and I think John agrees with this), we simply believed the entire thing was just supposed to happen this way. No real question about if we would make it, not even when. We just thought we would “make it.” It certainly dawned on us every once in a while that we were pretty lucky to “get the break.” But we were equally impressed with turning on all the equipment in our home-based basement studio at John’s house, shutting the main lights off, and marveling at all the little red LED lights everywhere. Our feeling was that the more little red lights, the more we had “arrived.” Did I mention we were pretty vain?
JU: Okay, I’m laughing at the whole “little red lights” thing. We would seriously do this. Then I remember being in Westlake Audio, which was so high end because Michael Jackson had recorded Bad there not too long before that, and we were both like, “Just look at all the lights! We are so cool now!”
Do you have any specific anecdotes from the recording sessions for the album? How was Steve Berlin when it came to producing your sound?
JU: It was really Michael Omartian who created more of the finished sound that you hear on the CD. Steve put in a hell of a lot of work on it and disagreed with the way that the finished product turned out. His original mixes with Michael Frondelli were more muscular in my mind and less poppy, which may have been cool.
HB: I recall very clearly one moment of true astonishment after perhaps three to four months of preproduction and recording, pretty much filling up the 24 tracks that we had available to us. With all parts, vocals, instruments recorded, and a feeling of completion, I remember Steve marching into the control room, rolling up his sleeves and saying, “Okay, now let’s get started!” I had no idea what the hell he was talking about but realized quickly that, in his mind, this was only beginning.
What are your favorite tracks from the record?
HB: “Throw It All Away,” because it almost didn’t make it. John had recorded the idea on our eight-track Tascam and had abandoned it, when I accidentally stumbled on it, almost erasing it! As I listened to it, all these harmonies sprung into my head, I added them, and, well, it really is history now, isn’t it?
JU: “Letting Go.” I loved the slide guitar that Greg Leisz added. We were completely blessed to work with all the talent that showed up. Also “Wasting My Time.” Hawk had a vocal line that was on tape. I think it was just the “my life is not my own” part, and we took it from there. His vocals always sounded so soulful to me on that one.
Speaking from a chart climate standpoint, 1991 was probably not the best possible time for a band that was producing clean, smooth, harmony-laden pop. Did you ever feel like men out of time?
HB: Oh God yes. Nirvana and Soundgarden were all just emerging. Flannel shirts and chaotic walls of noise were all the rage, while we were stacking pretty harmonies that our grandmothers could enjoy. Yes, I would say we were most definitely in the wrong place at the very wrong time. And then to add insult to stupidity, our record company, thinking they could capitalize on the Seattle-focused phenomena, printed and gave out free T-shirts that read “Bounce the Ocean — Seattle’s own.” Except we weren’t. Nirvana was.
What happened to Bounce the Ocean after the album came and went?
HB: John and I kept writing and demo-ing songs, getting ready for a second album which unfortunately never happened. So we have a whole bunch of, in my humble opinion, great songs that never made it to our (five to ten, you included) adoring fans! Seriously, though, I was very much looking forward to possibly working with some pretty cool guys — Jeff Lynne (because he produced some of Ringo’s album that was also on Private at the time), maybe Mitchell Froom. Then Private Music began concerning themselves and invested heavily into the House of Blues thing and eventually got bought up by BMG and we never got to make our second album.
JU: I was very, very depressed, mainly because, at some point in the process, I realized that making it in the music business wasn’t going to actually make me happy. I still had to deal with myself, you know, all the unhealthy stuff inside that I somehow figured making it big would gloss over. I kept reading all these tragic stories about Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and lots of other rock stars that met with tragic ends. I asked Michael Omartian once if anyone he had worked with was actually sane since he had worked with everyone. He said that Amy Grant was sane and the rest of them not so much. So there it was — I had worked my ass off to make it to Hollywood and get a big record deal and it was all just a Grand Illusion. Styx was right. Money and fame did not equal happiness, so why tour or do anything?
What have you been doing since, and what are you doing these days?
JU: I’ve become a kind of spiritual and holistic health adventurer in the last several years. I’ve learned to meditate and have had absolutely fantastic experiences traveling the inner realm. The world is starting to feel like this incredible array of opportunity again and I’m diving into things that seem just plain wild and following my intuition. Hawk just e-mailed me, inviting me to play with him. Like Hawk, I’m feeling my power again, and a lot of gratitude for my life.
HB: I eventually left the U.S. and lived in Asia and Europe for a while until early 2000, when I came back to North America and decided to settle here in beautiful Vancouver. I’ve just emerged from the studio with fresh material, the first in quite a while, which you can hear on my MySpace page. I’m excited to write again, hook up with some talented musicians, and see what the future holds. I’m excited! About life. About music. And, especially, the miracle of wings.