The Ocean Blue performs tonight, December 5, at Soiled Dove Underground. Hailing from Hershey, Pennsylvania, The Ocean Blue didn’t blow up into a household name when it first came to the attention of an international audience by the late 80s but like many bands of the era this has perhaps accounted for some of its enduring longevity. Its sound was a lushly melodic rock music that was fairly sophisticated by the time the fledgling band released its earliest singles in 1986, the year it formed. The members of the group had known each other since middle school and had learned to play together in that organic way a group of friends who more or less grew up together do with a natural chemistry that makes the songs most other people get to hear seem effortless and polished.
Looking back to the 80s from the perspective of today it can be a bit of a mystery to suss out where bands might have played and honed their craft outside of garages and bedrooms unless it was a punk band. The Ocean Blue didn’t play out much other than a birthday party and a school dance until the band got a manager who advised the group to play out and work on the live show. “At that point, we started playing small clubs and colleges in the mid-Atlantic area,” says guitarist and lead vocalist David Schelzel.
The young band also connected with older musicians who were coming to be known in the pre-alternative rock underground music world who enjoyed some degree of success on college radio, which was a far more important factor in the success of a band beyond the local scene up through the 2000s. Most significantly for The Ocean Blue in this regard was dream pop legends The Innocence Mission.
“We met the Innocence Mission when we did a radio station benefit record, and I became fast friends with Don and Karen,” says Schelzel. “They were a bit older and way ahead of us musically, but they were super kind and became great encouragers and friends as we both started to get a wider audience and later on, record deals. They are kindred spirits for sure. Music in the late 80s locally was dominated by hair metal and blues bands, along with peppy pop stuff. We stood out, and thus didn’t get lost in a big city or scene. We found a bit of a circuit at clubs and colleges that supported original, local music, in nearby cities, like Lancaster, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC.”
Undoubtedly The Innocence Mission helped to mentor The Ocean Blue in the ways of the music industry including dealing with labels and publishing. Fortunately the group had a team of people including a manager, a good lawyer and a music publisher by the time it signed, in 1988, a three record deal with respected independent label Sire for the release of its 1989 debut, self-titled full length. At the time of signing the band was still in high school but were savvy enough to know what label they might like to be a part of as Sire had released important records by Ramones, Talking Heads, Ministry, Pretenders, Wild Swans, The Cult and Echo & The Bunnymen. The latter is a group that the first The Ocean Blue album gets compared to the most.
“Sire was always where we wanted to be,” says Schelzel. “So many bands we loved were on that label. I realize now how extraordinary it was to get signed to Sire, let alone as teenagers and to a long term deal that allowed us to develop. As for how, we were lucky to have a good manager, that knew how to get our music to the right people, get people out to see our shows, and drum up a buzz. And of course the key to any signing is that there is music and something as a band that people are drawn to, and from a label’s perspective, that will do well.”
The band evolved rapidly and its subsequent albums for Sire, 1991’s Cerulean and 1993’s Beneath the Rhythm & Sound, broke from the obvious influences and aligned more with the kind of music that was on the ascent at the time and seemed to vibe well with some of the “Madchester” bands like The Charlatans UK, C86 groups like Felt and Sarah Records outfits like The Field Mice and The Sundays. That style of dream pop grounded in classic songwriting that has interestingly enough exerted a great deal of influence on contemporary bands trying to mine for ideas and sounds that haven’t been shoved down their throats by ubiquitous commercial popularity.
By the mid-90s, The Ocean Blue suffered from the usual corporate mergers of the day and the conservative trend of record labels after scrambling to capitalize on the alternative rock wave of the early part of the decade. But the band persevered and by 1999 self-released its then new album Davy Jones Locker. By the 2010s The Ocean Blue was back to being more active than it had been in many years (at least as far as anyone outside the band and its immediate associates might know) with its first new album in over a decade, Ultramarine, out in 2013 on Korda Records followed by Waterworks in 2014 and 2019’s strikingly gorgeous Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves. It’s bright tones and transporting melodies in high form, The Ocean Blue has never sounded better. Like certain bands from its original era the group has retained a good deal of its original artist as well as having an appeal to a younger audience for whom the group might have a bit of cult cachet, Schelzel also says the band didn’t know it had fans in South America until the past ten years.
“I think what has kept us together and doing what we do is our love for music and each other,” offers Schelzel regarding the band’s having stayed together. “I am always making music, and I love the guys I make music with. There were things that were much easier when we were on major labels and had a team of people handling management, promotion, production, touring, etc. But there has been something very refreshing about doing things as an independent artist. Things are way less complicated and the focus is almost entirely on making music. We try to maximize the aspects of what we do that are pleasant and rewarding, and minimize those things that are unpleasant and draining. It is the satisfaction of making music. Personally, I think it’s part of who I am and what I find meaningful and joyful in life. I don’t say that lightly. Life is hard and dark and full of a lot of pain. Music is a hugely important counterweight to all that.”
The title of the new album suggests political commentary but for The Ocean Blue the lyrics have always been more observations about human nature and personal reflection. “I see that line and that song, and maybe the whole record, as more of a musing on the human condition, particularly questions of existence, meaning, relationships with each other, the world, etc. and love,” says Schelzel. “I think the human problems of the modern world are pretty much the same as they were 100 years ago.”