The Ocean Blue's David Schelzel on Bergman Movies, Musical DNA, and the UMG Fire

click to enlarge
Formed in 1986, The Ocean Blue's tide has been rising ever since.
Darin Back

Being an Anglophile in the '80s had very specific connotations for music fans. It meant that you were the kind of stateside music hipster who lived vicariously through imported issues of NME magazine, who breathlessly flipped through record bins in search of the latest Smiths or Echo and the Bunnymen release. Never mind all those noisy hardcore bands or SST concept albums the other zinesters were drooling over: For the Anglophile, pale English boys who couldn’t make eye contact with anything but their own shoes while singing was where coolness truly resided.

Some Anglophiles took their love of United Kingdom rock to the next level: They went from just appreciating Cocteau Twins records to trying to re-create them as a band. Perhaps no band better encapsulates this tendency than The Ocean Blue, a sublime quartet of musicians from Hershey, Pennsylvania. Formed in junior high, they were signed to Sire Records before they finished high school. One minute, the original lineup of David Schelzel (vox/guitars), Bobby Mittan (bass), Rob Minning (drums), and Steve Lau (keyboards/saxophone) were listening to records by The Smiths; the next, they were being flown to London to record with John Porter, their idols’ producer.

While The Ocean Blue’s dream pop influences are plainly apparent, they found a way to synthesize their love of all things New Order, Housemartins, and Echo and The Bunnymen into their own distinct sound. The music of The Ocean Blue is soft and gentle – even their most experimental and frantic releases (like 2004’s Waterworks EP) feel like a sonic balm. And they’ve managed to maintain a pretty consistent output: While their first two records (1989’s self-titled record and 1991’s stone-cold classic Cerulean) are their high points as a band, later efforts like 2013’s Ultramarine and 2019’s Kings and Queens/Knaves and Thieves are strong albums in their own right. Kings and Queens in particular finds Schelzel exploring darker, more pessimistic themes than on his past work with the band, which adds an extra disquieting dimension to their tranquil songs.

And for a band started by a group of fans, it’s only fitting that they’ve amassed quite a loyal following over the years. While the band never had a huge breakout hit, many of their songs (like “Sublime,” “Ballerina out of Control,” and “Between Something and Nothing”) charted during their early years. They built a devoted enough fanbase that 2015 reissues of their older albums quickly sold out — turns out that Ocean Blue fans are true blue.

Now on tour with the lineup of Schelzelm, Mittan, Oed Ronne (keyboards), and Peter Anderson (drums), the band are playing a few dates a month to promote Kings and Queens. We got a chance to talk with Schelzel over the phone about Ingmar Bergman, reissues, the UMG fire, and what drew him to English rock in the first place.

The music video for Kings and Queens has a few B&W sequences in them that riff on Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. I was wondering: Whose idea was that? Was that something that the band came up with, or did the director bring that into the mix?

David Schelzel: I think it was Allison’s idea – Allison’s the director. She knows I’m a pretty big Ingmar Bergman fan, so we talked about doing a chess game like The Seventh Seal. I suggested we film out on this shore up north because the landscape there looks so much like the south of Sweden, where a lot of that movie was shot.

What’s your favorite Bergman?

Probably The Seventh Seal. I go back to it again and again because the themes are so universal — themes that I explore as a songwriter on the new record. And I have some other favorites of Bergman’s: I love Fanny and Alexander, Persona, Winter Light, The Passion of Anna. Those are probably at the top of my list.

You had mentioned in previous interviews that y’all are adopting a short touring schedule for this album: a few dates a month, spread over several months. Did you pick this schedule to accommodate the family and career obligations y’all have, or was it a deliberate choice to spend less time on the road?

We all have busy lives, but music is a really important part of our lives. Doing long tours can be very draining, so spreading it out this way serves a lot of purposes for us. It also makes the shows, at least for us, feel a little bit more fresh and special.

One thing that really struck me about The Ocean Blue’s body of work is how consistent it is. You compare the first few records to later albums like Ultramarine and Kings and Queens, and they all sound of one piece — part of a continuum. When you’re working on a new record, do you refer back to your old work and draw inspiration from them? Or do you tend to ignore what you’ve done in the past when you’re writing new songs?

I think we’re very aware of what we’ve done in the past. Particularly with Ultramarine – the record we did in 2013 – because it had been such a long time since we had put something out. We really took stock of who we are as a band and why people pay attention to us – why we have fans. So for Ultramarine, we did want to make a record that was very much a quintessential Ocean Blue record. With Kings and Queens, it was a little different. And it’s interesting to me that a lot of people feel like that record sounds like our classic sound, because I feel like it’s very different on a lot of levels. But it just shows that you can never stray far from who you are. Your musical DNA is always going to be with you.

You’ve also mentioned in past interviews that y’all discovered you have a huge following in South America. Now with the advent of streaming and being able to see where your music is being streamed from, have you discovered any other surprising areas where The Ocean Blue has a big following?

Yeah, it’s really interesting now with all the data you can get from Spotify and Apple Music. Turns out, Southeast Asia is another really big region in the world where we have a lot of fans. Mexico? Mexico City might be the second-biggest city in the world for us.

Working as an IP lawyer, have you worked with clients who came up in a similar situation as you did? Getting signed to a label as a teenager and launching into a creative profession at such a young age –does that give you an insight you try to apply to your clients?

I don’t do a lot of work with music clients, but I have worked with some significant ones, and a few of them were younger. I could relate to the struggles they were having at that stage of their career. Part of what I liked about working with them was being able to share with the experiences I had as a teenager, when we first started in music and doing a record deal and the touring and all the stuff that comes with it.

Now that The Ocean Blue operates as an indie band, do you miss the fast pace of working with a label? Or do you prefer the more methodical, slow process of home recording?

Practically speaking, working from home is kind of a necessity. But there are some really wonderful things about getting to do records at a slower pace in your own studio. You don’t have the pressure of having to get something done real quick. You can spend a lot of time trying to get it right. I think the single most important thing in the recording process is that you feel comfortable enough to do good performances. It’s not how slick the console is or how expensive the microphone is.

But then you don’t have a label doing stuff for you. You know, overseeing the whole process, putting the record out, promoting it. We have some partners that help us with that now, but it’s not anything like when we were on Warner. That kind of treatment for bands is probably gone now.

Are there any plans to reissue the band’s earlier records?

We did put some out in 2015, but they’re all sold out now. I’m actually trying to work on a new pressing for the 30th anniversary of our first record. I thought it’d be cool to get those back in print.

In light of the UMG fire that destroyed so many master recordings, do you have any concerns about your early masters being held by Warner Brothers? Do they still have your masters?

Yeah. Warner has the masters for our early records. Polygram, who are part of UMG, had our fourth record [See The Ocean Blue] where the fire was. As far as I know, though, those masters were not affected by the fire. We had to unearth the Warner masters about four years or so ago, and they were still in good shape. They sounded really good.

As a listener: What drew you to dream-pop? What was it about the music of groups like The Smiths and New Order that resonated so strongly with you when you first started making music?

There’s a couple of things. I think the music of your youth and your growing up always sticks with you in a special way, because you’re going through such drastic changes in life at that time. You know, moving from childhood to adulthood so that music always has a deep emotional connection. Those bands from that era spoke to me. What they were singing about – there was a certain authenticity there, a mystery. And the music was beautiful – the way they used guitars and keyboards. There was a real sense of otherworldliness in the recordings I fell in love with.

The Ocean Blue are playing at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 27, at Valley Bar in Phoenix. The event is sold out.