2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the self-titled debut album by The Ocean Blue, the Hershey, PA dream pop quartet snapped up by Sire Records while they were still in their teens. While their sound was immediately embraced by fans of labelmates Echo & The Bunnymen and The Smiths, The Ocean Blue arrived too late to be considered an Eighties band. Their beautiful songs – filled with shimmering guitars, crisp percussion, earworm bass lines, and daydream lyrical and melodic hooks – swam against the tide of the grunge, rap, and New Jack Swing hits that came to define the Nineties. Topping it all off, the band delivered one of the era’s best sax solos on ‘Drifting/Falling’, courtesy of former member Steve Lau.
Instead of looking back or cashing in on the nostalgia circuit, the band is blazing forward with the June 21 release of one of their best albums yet, Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves (Korda Records). After the release of 2013’s Ultramarine, lead singer and primary songwriter David Schelzel joined Butch Vig’s supergroup, 5 Billion in Diamonds, while also quietly releasing annual holiday tunes with Don Peris of The Innocence Mission. In advance of the first leg of their 2019 tour, David updated us on new music from all three projects.
Last month, Billboard premiered the video for the new album’s title track, an Allison LaBonne-directed clip featuring a seaside chess game between the Knight (Schelzel) and Death (played by Brian Tighe of Korda labelmates the Starfolk; he’s also in The Owls with LaBonne). In the second verse, Schelzel ominously sings, “Suddenly, I feel like the world could end in a flash.” Cue the sudden montage of news images in my head, Trump’s move to authoritarianism, Brexit, nuclear tensions with a half dozen countries, global warming, the resurgence of Measles… leading me to ask…
POPDOSE: Is ‘Kings and Queens’ The Ocean Blue’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’?
DAVID SCHELZEL: I’m gonna answer like Bono, it’s not a rebel song. I’ve never been one to put politics in my songs. Now that said, there’s obviously a lot of stuff going on in our world right now that has it kind of turned upside down.
I brought it up, because here we are, 50 years out from 1969, which was a very tumultuous time; then there’s 1989, when your first record came out, we were going into a recession, Tiananmen Square was in chaos, and the Berlin wall was coming down. Now, as we end another decade, it seems like we’re back in times of revolution.
Sidebar: Text from the CD booklet to the new album includes a quote found on the cover painting, L’Épée (The Sword) by Alfred Agache. “PRO IUSTITIA TANTUM” translates to “On behalf of justice only”.
DS: Throughout the history of humanity, there have been far more tumultuous times than what we’re facing now, at least for human beings. Now for the planet, there’s maybe nothing quite like where we’re at right now. So, yeah, I think the times we live in certainly inform this record more than maybe any other record I’ve ever done.
POPDOSE: Perhaps the song’s final line is most telling then, where we all are “sharing the same fate”.
DS: I feel like we need to realize that we’re all in this together. Distinctions between the kings and queens of the world, and the knaves and thieves, pale in comparison to the larger reality. The other element is, I don’t think any of us are innocent. We tend to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, you know, people on the wrong side of an issue and we’re on the right side. I think life is far more complex than that, and so I always push back against that idea, too.
In a way, your music has always been an escape – from the problems in the world and what else was going on in pop music. Your debut arrived at the apex of hair metal, Cerulean landed the same year as Nirvana’s Nevermind…
DS: Oh wow, that’s cool. I like that. Existence is an interesting thing because you can be so dialed in and plugged into everything that’s going on in the larger world — it’s kind of inescapable now with how interconnected everyone is with the web and social media. There’s constant barrage of things, and yet life doesn’t copy for me or for you on those meta levels, we have this existence that’s very particular. And to me that’s the great thing about music, and books, and art is there’s these rich experiences of living that take place outside of that, and it can take place in spite of the other terrible things going on in the world. I’m not saying we need to ignore those by any stretch, I’m just saying that we can’t live completely on one or the other.
Another sidebar: After the interview, it hit me that the Kings and Queens album is in many ways, 2019’s version of “Calgon, take me away.”
In recent interviews with Paste and Billboard, you’ve said how you’ve written a lot of this new album based on what you’ve gone through in the previous years, but you’re hesitant to give any details. Your new track, ‘It Takes So Long’, hit me like a ton of bricks as I reflected on my own past five years while listening to it. It’s amazing how a song could completely soundtrack your life, even though someone else wrote it speaking to events in their own life. And still, the next listener over will interpret it even differently.
DS: Absolutely. That’s one of the things I love about music, and one of the things I love about the music I love. So, it’s so cool to hear you say that and it’s one of the reasons that I get so scared about talking about where I’m coming from on its own. I want to leave enough room in what the song is for people to own it and to experience it in their own way. I’m sure if I asked Michael Stipe, Morrissey, or Bono what they were trying to convey in a certain song that means a lot to me, it might have nothing to do with the way I experience that song or what it said to me or taught me. So, yeah, I like what you just said, that’s good. It makes me want to be very careful about what I say about the songs.
“But you push it to the limit / and then way past the limit…”
— ‘The Limit’ (Track 4 on Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves)
The Ocean Blue’s new album hits the streets the same week as the CD and vinyl for Originals, a compilation of tracks from Prince’s vault (Schelzel relocated to Minneapolis years ago). Combined with last week’s New York Times expose about invaluable recordings lost in a 2008 vault fire on the Universal Studios lot and Radiohead’s surprise release of 18 hours of material that hackers were trying to hold for ransom, I’ve even more appreciative of just how special a band’s entire recorded output is, no matter where the tapes are locked up.
Are there plans now that you’re at the 30th of the first album to do a deluxe reissue? Are there gems still sitting in the vault?
DS: Well, we did the first three Sire records a few years ago on vinyl, and at that time we were wrestling with if that was something we save until the 30th anniversary. And the feeling was no, we should just do those records on vinyl because people want them now. I’m not yet sure exactly how we’re gonna mark this year for the self titled record. I’d like to do another pressing of it because they sold out a few years ago. Whether we try to pull out more stuff or not, I’m ambivalent about that because I think people know the first record as the 12 songs that you’re familiar with. And if there were more songs, I would almost want them to be on an expanded CD or something like that.
That’s what I was thinking; double disc deluxe editions are all the rage these days.
DS: Yeah. I’m still thinking about all that stuff, so it’s good to hear you remind me to think more about it.
The first album’s the only one that I’ve ever heard bootlegs from the era surface. There were three songs that came out on the WJTL radio cassette, and then a demos EP. So, it seems like there’s some good stuff out there, especially listening to the exquisite saxophone on ‘Wings of a Friend’ or how lovely tracks like ‘On Growing Up’ and ‘Renaissance Man’ are. Those are beautiful songs; it’d be nice to hear them cleaned up.
DS: Oh wow. Well, thanks. I mean, the trick is a lot of those things you mentioned are demos, so we pretty much need to present them as is. I don’t even know if I could find the multi-tracks. Yeah, I’m glad you’ve heard them.
It’s nice that they somehow got out, because I think of Prince from your adopted hometown, they’re going through the vaults trying to figure out what’s in there and how it was even maintained in terms of did the tapes survive all these years. I can only imagine where your stuff is, sitting in Sire’s vaults, or whoever owns Sire these days, or sitting in broom closets.
DS: Yeah, well a little of both. With the Sire reissues we did on vinyl, it took some time to track down the masters and get them in shape for that vinyl reissue. That was kind of fun to discover where things where. I know I’ve got a ton of stuff from over the years, too. Actually, the cool thing that we would wanna do, now that I’m thinking about it, with the first record would be alternative mixes. There were tons of alternative mixes. John Porter did some mixes of a piece that Mark (Opitz) ended up doing and vice versa. That would be kind of fun to present alternative mixes of some of those.
That would be fascinating. And I’ve always wondered, when you record an album, do you just have the funds to make the cuts presented or do you record many more and then start trimming it down?
DS: A little of both for us. Certainly in the major label years, we mostly cut the album tracks, because it was so expensive. We did a lot of demoing on our own and went into the studio with pretty much the collection of songs that ended up on the record. There might be one or two additional tracks that we would have had but for the most part, we recorded the records you’re familiar with.
“Jet plane / thinking about it, thinking about a way / on a motor bike or train / leaving it all here, leaving it all behind / for Paraguay, My Love”
I’ve looked at your new tour schedule and did a double take when I saw two dates in Peru. A highlight of the new album is ‘Paraguay, My Love’, so what is The Ocean Blue’s relationship with South America?
One of the most delightful surprises in our lives the last decade or so is discovering that we have a lot of fans in South America. It started when some folks in Peru reached out to us about coming down and playing some concerts there. We get those invitations from time to time from all around the world. It generally never makes sense because it’s just such a time consuming and costly proposition to go play somewhere far away like that.
With this particular offer, these folks were very persistent and also offered to kind of show us the country. A couple of us have always wanted to see Machu Picchu, Cusco, and the Andes Mountains. We thought let’s give it a shot. We’ll play the show and get to see some really cool things. We did it. It was like one of the biggest concerts we’ve ever done in the modern era. We discovered that, my gosh, we’re like the Beatles down here. This is crazy!
We went back a few years later and played some other countries including Paraguay and did a more significant South American tour. Along the way, we discovered that down there we’ve got this rich fan base of folks that really like the band. It’s a different sort of situation in some areas where I think the music was discovered mostly through radio or friends passing around tapes. I can’t really explain it. I don’t really understand, but it’s a beautiful thing.
The other thing that is kind of interesting down there is that people know all your music but they don’t necessarily know or connect it with you. If they heard ‘Ballerina Out of Control’ or ‘Sublime’, they would be like “I know that song, that’s a great song”, but they wouldn’t necessarily connect it with The Ocean Blue, which I thought was an interesting thing.
Do you still have sizable audiences in Europe or Australia?
I know a lot more about our fan base than I did last time I talked with you because one of the interesting things about streaming audio with Spotify and Apple music is you get a chance to really see where people are listening to your music around the world. That data kind of informs where we try to play. We’re looking at a couple of opportunities in 2020, including more US dates. If the stars align, we’ll definitely be to more places around the world and the United States.
“Therein lies the problem with my life…”
You actually bring up a good point, streaming was just starting to happen last time we talked and now it’s kind of the main way people consume music; so it seems with the data you are able to get, are you able to kind of harness it a bit since the money is probably still not there the way it would be with CD sales and all that.
DS: That’s absolutely right. Streaming is great for a lot of things. Reasons you just mentioned and it’s not great for some of the reasons you just mentioned. One of the things I was really curious about when we announced the new record and put on pre sales was ‘Does anyone even buy records anymore? Should we even press CDs? Should we just do vinyl?’ We had a lot of strategic decisions to think about and make. In talking with the folks at Warner Brothers and Rhino and some indie labels that we know too, and then knowing a little bit about our fan base, I think we just decided to do everything and see what happened.
Right now, it’s been kind of cool because people are pre-ordering our CD; they are pre-ordering our vinyl. It’s probably more vinyl than CD last time I checked. Waterworks (the 2004 EP reissued as a full-length album in 2014) was the other way around. Certainly, a lot of people listening are to the new songs as they got released on Spotify and Apple Music. That’s kind of cool. There’s no money in the streaming stuff right now and when we get the royalties for it, it won’t be a lot, but the pre-orders of CDs and vinyl really help fund what we do. Playing shows will be the way that we make things happen.
What listening format(s) do you prefer? I’m still a CD guy. I’m going down with that ship, I think it’s the superior way to listen to music.
DS: Yeah, I agree with you. I think CDs are great. I never had a vinyl record collection growing up. I was actually probably a little young for that and I didn’t have an older sibling who was into vinyl or parents who were. I got into vinyl in the 90s when it was so cheap and I got a record player for free. I like vinyl for some things. I love it for jazz. I like it for some older rock n roll. Yeah, I’d rather listen to my record on a CD to be quite honest with you.
I also use Spotify and Apple Music a lot. It’s an easy way to quickly get to music I wanna hear. It’s portable.
I’ve been streaming a lot to preview new records and then commit to which ones I wanna buy on CD. A lot of new albums these days are like Juicy Fruit gum, they taste really good on the first spin and then I stop listening soon after.
DS: I always try and get records from artists when I go see them live because people always ask me “What’s the best way to support a band?” The answer is buy stuff directly from them at a show or online from their website. That really does support them. Even buying something on Amazon, the band is not gonna see a lot of that. There’s a distributor involved and there’s Amazon involved. The best way to support an artist you like is to get something directly from them.
I think for some artists with a different sort of profile than us, following them on Spotify and streaming them a lot, it’s not like they don’t see anything from that; it’s a helpful thing if you’re spreading the word through your listening. That’s the cool thing about Spotify and Apple Music, when someone you follow listens to something, you can know it and you can easily share it, and that can create a larger network of people that like the music.
There’s those advantages; but from a financial perspective, it’s not great. To your point, I like having a physical copy of something that I really cherish. A favorite Bill Evans record or Roxy Music music record is a nice thing to pull out and put on the turntable.
“Step into the sky / watch your body floating / everything’s all right, if you don’t look down…”
– ‘Step into the Night’ on The Ocean Blue’s new album, lyrics which remind us of the cover art for…
Speaking of CDs that I love, last time we talked you had mentioned the possibility of a super group and then paid it off big time when 5 Billion in Diamonds came out.
For those not yet in the know, this was the co-brainchild of Garbage-drummer and all around uber-producer Butch Vig (Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish and a few other bands you may have heard of). In the press run for the 2017 self-titled debut, Vig called the otherworldly psych folk album an imaginary soundtrack to a “cult Michael Caine B-movie thriller from 1967 or something.”
I heard rumors there may be a second one on the horizon.
Yeah. We are working on a second record and it’s awesome. I can say that because I’m a small part of it and I just cannot believe the people I’m working with on that project. It’s just incredible and I think the music is even better on this new record. Butch just sent me a mix today of a song I was singing on this spring. I was blown away. When we get it done and what we do with it is another story. Who knows? It’s just incredible stuff. It’s been super fun to be a part of it.
I think you guys played at least one gig. Did you end up touring at all?
Not very much. We did play one gig in England. When the record came out in England, it got a ton of great press there. It was on the BBC and covered in The Guardian and New York Times. Part of the complication with a super group, we discovered, is that everybody in the group has other super things they’re doing. For me it was The Ocean Blue, for Butch it was Garbage and producing huge records; Ebbot’s (Lundberg, singer for The Soundtrack of Our Lives) got a band in Sweden and doing stuff throughout Europe. A lot the guys in the Bristol Wrecking Crew that kind of play on the record, one guy is music director for Florence and the Machine, I think.
A couple of guys play with Spiritualized and they are out with Massive Attack now. Finding a space for us all to get together and play shows is a challenge. We almost did one last year in LA when The Ocean Blue played there. We’ll see. I’m hoping we can do more in 2020.
Did your contributions to the last one just kind of happen with jams in the studio or did you come in with a demo and present it to the band?
No, with 5 Billions the musical ideas generally all start with Butch, James, and Andy. James (Grillo) and Andy (Jenks) are the duo in England that are kind of producers, DJs, studio guys. Butch Vig is Butch Vig. A drummer, a producer. They come up with kernels of ideas, musically, and they share those things; sometimes they are full blown songs where everything is written and they just need singer to sing it. Sometimes it’s more nebulous. On the first 5 Billions record, the ideas that they presented me with were just kernels that I kind of ran with and wrote melodies and lyrics and did some guitar parts on.
On the new record, there’s more writing going on from Butch, James and Andy, which makes my job a little bit easier and it’s kind of fun, frankly, to sing on a song that Butch Vig wrote for you.
And you’re not the only member of The Ocean Blue with a side hustle; guitarist Oed Ronne performed a solo track on one of the Korda compilations.
DS: Yeah. That’s right. I’ve been encouraging him to do a solo record for years. Of course, he contributes to The Ocean Blue but I think he has his own distinct voice and he’s written a ton of great songs. I’m hoping he does that.
DS: Every other year or so, we try to release a song together around Christmas time. I’m hoping we can pull that into a full album one of these years. Maybe this year.
Where do people find these songs? I’ve been looking on Amazon and iTunes. Are they just available for a limited time only on your website? I seem to have missed all the previous holiday songs.
DS: Yeah, they mostly are just kind of come and go with the season and I kind of like it that way. At one point, when we have enough of them, I’d like to pull them all together and make sure that they’re all polished up and sound good as a Christmas record because to me, that seasonal holiday music is something you wanna listen to at a certain point in the calendar and then you wanna put away, but you come back to it year after year throughout your life if you do that sort of thing like I do. It’s more meaningful that way. I like the idea of it coming and going with wintertime and the holiday.
I can’t imagine how you keep all of these musical plates in the air!
I definitely have more than enough going on. I love 5 Billions, I love these other things that I do, but to do The Ocean Blue takes so much to do it well. I don’t want to see us take another five to ten years to do another record. If this one feels good for everybody, I’d like to keep it up. I like the guys that I make music with a lot and I feel like we do something that’s worthwhile and I wanna be a good caretaker of that.
Popdose Album Review
Kings and Kings / Knaves and Thieves arrives June 21 on Korda Records. Melodically, it’s on par with the band’s best work (the three Sire records and 2013’s return to form, Ultramarine). Lyrically, Kings is perhaps the most powerful and emotionally resonant collection in the band’s canon. While Schelzel’s words certainly reflect the passage of time, The Ocean Blue’s music doesn’t age and seemingly floats untethered from the pull of gravity.
Kings continues the band’s beautifully produced winning streak. David’s voice and all of the rich instrumentation have plenty of room to breathe — a wine inviting you to taste and smell all its delicate notes. This is testament to the power of the band. Oed Ronne sings, harmonizes, plays guitar, sitar, and keyboards; founding member Bobby Mittan’s bass provides a rhythmic and emotional undercurrent; Peter Anderson’s crisp drumming anchors the live show and is perfectly captured on tape. My frequent beef with modern rock music is how loud and dense the mixes are; drums should be crisp, not mixed down to thuds. Still to this day, The Ocean Blue’s records, along with Prince’s The Gold Experience, are the albums I use to test the range of a car or home audio system.
For longtime fans, The Ocean Blue has buried lyrical and stylistic Easter eggs throughout the new album that reference earlier work, along with the band’s signature use of water, snow, and ice metaphors to illustrate the complexities of human relationships. Korda Records kinfolk Allison LaBonne (The Owls) and Charlotte Crabtree (The Jim Ruiz Set) make a lovely guest appearance on the heartbreaking ‘Love Doesn’t Make It Easy on Us’. For new fans wandering into their world online, perhaps through algorhythmic connections to the Smiths, Echo, New Order, the Wild Swans, the Lightning Seeds, the xx, Beach House, or whatever emerging bands are painting dreamy and melodic soundscapes, this collection serves the perfect vessel to set sail into one of indie rock’s loveliest sonic seas.