Sailing the Ocean Blue: An Interview With David Schelzel
The Ocean Blue
When you form a band while in high school, it’s not likely that you’re expecting to still be in the band when you enter your forties. For David Schelzel and the Ocean Blue, this is a reality.
Hailing from Hershey Pennsylvania, The Ocean Blue was formed by four teenagers at the end of the 1980s. A decade of bright colors and excess, their music would soon be a contrast to the drab and harsh music of the '90s. Their debut record, on the renowned Sire Records, in 1989, served as a synopsis to the music of the decade of excess: colorful, jangly, full of light, but also with a twinge of darkness and angst. It didn’t take long for the band to achieve widespread acclaim—including radio and MTV airplay (back when MTV played music, of course), with top Ten Modern Rock/College Radio hits like “Between Something and Nothing” and “Drifting, Falling.”
The Ocean Blue followed their debut release with the understated and moody Cerulean, which contains perhaps their most adored song, “Ballerina Out of Control,” and followed that with their highest charting pop album Beneath the Rhythm and Sound and the single “Sublime.”
After the third release, The Ocean Blue signed with Mercury/Polygram and released their fourth album, See The Ocean Blue, which was a departure away from the heavy '80s influence to the more guitar-oriented rock sounds of classic '60s and '70s bands like The Byrds—but with the band's '80s DNA peeking through.
They spent most of the '90s touring and recording before leaving the major label scene. Numerous independent releases and related touring followed in the 2000s, including 2000's Davy Jones Locker, and an EP in 2004, Waterworks.
In 2013, after much anticipation, the band released Ultramarine on Korda Records (a Minneapolis-based cooperative label the band helped launch that same year), their first full-length release in more than a decade. The record was a welcome return for fans of the band and a great introduction to them for a younger generation who were hearing them for the first time. In fact, it is widely regarded as one of their best releases.
In 2015, the band worked with Sire and Rhino Records to reissue their first three Sire albums on vinyl. The band marked this event by performing the first two albums in their entirety at limited concerts throughout the U.S. before embarking on a South American tour.
Now, the band has returned with their signature atmospheric sound on the stunningly powerful Kings and Queens/Knaves and Thieves, also on Korda Records.
David Schelzel, the primary songwriter and guitarist, offers up his thoughts on the new record, on nostalgia, and on what he would consume for his final meal on death row.
[It's their] yearning nostalgic pop that makes them so instantaneously beatific.— Paste Magazine (describing the band The Ocean Blue)
Justin W. Price: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Can you give my readers a little background on The Ocean Blue?
DS: Our first record came out in 1989, as the eighties were drawing to a close. As a band, we’d been together for a few years. And, as friends, since middle school in the early '80s. So, the DNA of our band is really made up of the music we liked growing up in the mid-80s. The underground/MTV/college radio/British pop of the times. We were fortunate right out of high school to get a record deal with Sire Records, the label that had so many of our favorite bands, like The Smiths and Echo & the Bunnymen. Over the next decade, we put out four records on major labels and then in the late '90s started releasing on independent labels. We have continued to make music over the years, though not at the same pace as the early days.
JP: How do you think being signed to a record deal at such a young age affected you—especially with many bands toil for years and years without getting signed?
DS: Personally, we probably benefited from being young and naive, and being from a small town and continuing to live there throughout the early years. Our friends and family were supportive and excited for us, but also kept us well-grounded. And while we were aware that many bands toiled for years, the bands we loved didn’t for the most part. And we looked up to them. Musically, we probably would have made better sounding records if we’d had a few more years of toil. But there is also a youthful charm and optimism that undoubtedly would have been lost.
JP: Your music is very rooted in '80s jangle pop yet still sounds fresh and modern. How do you keep that feeling of nostalgia while also looking forward?
DS: Thanks, that’s great you hear it that way. From this side, it isn’t something we program or think too much about. It’s just what flows out. I suppose it makes sense given where we come from, and the fact we still make music now. All of us in the band embrace what the band has always been musically, but also live in the present and enjoy music that is being made today. We are also fortunate that a lot of that music sounds like the music we’ve loved since the '80s.
JP: I hear a lot of Echo and the Bunnymen and the Smiths in your music. Who would you say influenced—or influences you—the most musically?
DS: Between the two? Both were huge influences. Echo and the Bunnymen was one of the first real concerts I ever saw as a teenager. And, I remember the day, the moment, I heard first “This Charming Man.” As a young guitar player, I learned so much about how to play from Johnny and Will (and Ian) and, as a reluctant singer, how to sing from Morrissey and Ian. There was such haunting beauty in the music that both bands made.
I think being from a small town ironically opened us up to music from far away places. There was no local scene or radio station or clubs that influenced our sound. There were no other bands locally that we had to measure ourselves by. We didn’t have any of that, so it was easy to be exactly what we wanted to be.— David Schelzel
JP: What are some of your musical and lyrical inspirations? Does The Ocean Blue have a specific message or underlying theme to their lyrics?
DS: We have this baseline musical DNA that shapes the way we make music. The kinds of sounds and arrangements and musical elements we are drawn to. Lyrics come from life, what I am experiencing or thinking about. I like lyrics that paint a picture or create a mood. I like impressionistic lyrics. The sounds and poetry of words. I’m not much of a storyteller or a folk singer or politics through music guy. I like big, existential themes that people from a century ago could have related to.
JP: Does being from Hershey, PA affect your sound or lyrical themes?
DS: I think being from a small town, ironically, opened us up to music from far away places. There was no local scene or radio station or clubs that influenced our sound. There were no other bands locally that we had to measure ourselves by. We didn’t have any of that, so it was easy to be exactly what we wanted to be.
JP: Where do you see The Ocean Blue over the next decade?
DS: I used to think there would be a day where we would just stop. But I now tend to think that we will keep making music as long as it comes to us and we enjoy making it.
JP: What is the songwriting process like for The Ocean Blue? Is there a primary songwriter or is it a collaborative effort?
DS: I’m the primary songwriter, but Oed has written songs that are on See The Ocean Blue, Davy Jones Locker, and Waterworks. Recording is very much a collaborative effort, though, working on parts and arrangements, etc...
JP: Now, for some fun questions before we wrap things up: Which dance move are you the most skilled at?
DS: Any move that involves holding a guitar.
JP: Does pineapple belong on pizza?
Everyone who makes music from the heart and soul is going to give you a different and unique take on music and the human experience. That’s a great thing about music. And sometimes that music is really good and reaches you in ways nothing else can.— David Schelzel
JP: What would your final meal be if you were on death row?
DS: The local IPA.
JP: What are your hobbies, outside of music?
DS: Reading, biking, XC skiing
JP: If you could have any superpower, which would it be and why?
JP: Why should people devote their time to listening to your music and going to your shows? What makes you guys different and special?
DS: There are, and there are many far greater than my band, so if you discover or love one of them, spend your time with them! But, we are happy if you like us too.
Everyone who makes music from the heart and soul is going to give you a different and unique take on music and the human experience. That’s a great thing about music. And sometimes that music is really good and reaches you in ways nothing else can. I have had those connections with music all my life, and it’s amazing when our music is that for someone else.
JP: Do you have any advice to young musicians out there about how to handle yourself in the industry?
DS: Be yourself. Do your best work. Get some good help from people who understand the industry and who understand you.
JP: Where can folks purchase your music and keep up to date on upcoming shows and events?
DS: The band’s website is theoceanblue.com and there are links there to buy music and get tickets to shows.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Justin W Price