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Interview: David Schelzel of The Ocean Blue

The Ocean Blue
27 February 2020

Photo by Darin Back

David Schelzel, frontman for indie dream pop band The Ocean Blue, is in a genial mood as he calls from Minneapolis. He has made that city his home for more than 20 years, and it is the setting for a stunning new video the band just released on February 13 for the wistful song “Love Doesn’t Make It Easy On Us,” off their latest album, Kings and Queens / Knaves and Thieves, which was released last year. There was a time, though, when Schelzel was closely associated with Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he formed The Ocean Blue with his junior high school friends. They were still teenagers when they landed a major label record deal. Their first two albums, The Ocean Blue (1989) and Cerulean (1991), put them in heavy rotation on MTV and at college radio stations thanks to effervescent, intelligent singles like “Ballerina Out of Control,” “Between Something and Nothing,” and “Drifting, Falling.” But as Schelzel admits, by the time he reached his 30s, he was certain he would leave his music career behind – only to find that it drew him back in, so that the band has now released eight studio albums in all. They also occasionally play shows around the U.S., as they are about to do this spring (dates listed below). As the band’s leader and songwriter, Schelzel explains how he has come to understand what The Ocean Blue really means to him, and to fans.

Your new video for “Love Doesn’t Make It Easy On Us” is very beautiful.

DAVID SCHELZEL: Thank you – I think it’s a very beautiful video, too. I had very little to do with it. My friend Allison [LaBonne] is a director and an artist, so she is responsible for how that video looks. That’s also a track that she sang on, on the record. It’s been one of my favorite songs and I think it’s a favorite song for a lot of people. It’s kind of a deep song, and romantic. I really wanted to do a video of it. We decided to wait for the right time and idea, and we had a beautiful snowstorm and Allison was like, “Let’s do some filming in the snow with some flowers.” It ended up really being a beautiful juxtaposition. I was freezing when we did that video out in the cold, holding these beautiful roses in the snowstorm. I just thought it came out really well. Most of it, at least the shots I was in, were filmed in Minneapolis where I live, at Lake Harriet. We’re known as the “City of Lakes” – we’ve got a chain of lakes in the city that are just great. They’re like big public parks with a lake in the middle.

You’re so associated with coming from Hershey, Pennsylvania, so it’s interesting that you live in Minneapolis now. What brought you there?

DAVID SCHELZEL: When I turned 30, one of the things that I always thought was, “Well, I’ll go back to school.” And so I was really looking at grad schools for a while. And then I really became interested in intellectual property and copyright and trademark, being in the band and working with the lawyer on our [record] deals. I found the concept of copywriting particularly interesting. So I ended up going to law school. I got a really nice opportunity to go to the University of Minnesota. So that’s one of the things that I do – obviously, a very important thing. And I discovered, [there’s] a wonderful musical community. Most of my good friends here are musicians.

You started The Ocean Blue when you were so young. Where did you get the determination and self-confidence to do it at that age?

DAVID SCHELZEL: Oh, it’s not self-confidence. I wouldn’t even say it’s determination. I would say that some people, particularly artists, do what we do because we were made that way. We like it. When I went back to school, I thought I might not do music anymore. But then when I was in school and was missing music, I realized it’s just part of who I am and I’m going to do it, whatever else I do in life. So it’s not a matter of, “Let’s get out there and conquer the world” and “We’re really determined and disciplined” or anything like that. I mean, you have to have some of that if you’re going to put out records and play shows, but that’s not what drives me to create. It’s more just a natural part of who I am.

What was the recording process like for your latest album compared to the album’s you’ve done previously?

DAVID SCHELZEL: We make records a lot differently than we used to, when The Ocean Blue were doing records for major labels. I mean, there was a pretty big dividing line between the time we were on major labels in the late ‘80s and ‘90s to the time where we’ve been independent in the 2000s. Now we make records on our own, mostly in our home studios. [With] major labels, you would take a month or two or three out of your life and you would go somewhere and just sequester yourself in a studio in California or something and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making a record. And we don’t do that anymore because it basically costs us nothing to make a record, in terms of recording. And because we’re not on a major label, we don’t have these huge deadlines. So I take my time writing and working on the songs with the guys. I can do it at a very casual pace. It allows the creative process to unfold whenever the time is right. So I think the records sound different. I think they still sound really good and high-quality, but I think there’s a spirit in them that is hard to capture if you’re going into a big studio with a producer and engineer and you’ve got a deadline.

But doing it on your own, isn’t it hard to make yourself finish it, when there’s no deadline?

DAVID SCHELZEL: Absolutely. That’s one of the biggest challenges when you have that kind of freedom and you don’t have deadlines. It’s hard to get things done. It’s really easy to have ideas. They come to me every day. But to take those things and work them out and finish them… So we had to create these self-imposed deadlines now. I’m committed to getting a little better with that. I mean, our last record, there was a gap of nearly a decade. This one was six years since the last one. So hopefully the next one, we’ll keep narrowing it down! [laughs] From my perspective, the band never really goes away. We go away from the public eye, but we still exist. We still work on music together even when there isn’t that publicly visible aspect of what we’re doing.

Your sound is so distinctive. How did you come up with it?

DAVID SCHELZEL: Every band has their own distinctive sound based on the person that’s writing the music and the people that are making it. So every band, on one level, is as unique as the people in it. And some people who are musicians have a very eclectic personality and so the music is eclectic. Some people get very bored with things quickly, so the music is constantly evolving. For us, because I’ve always been the songwriter in the band, our sound hasn’t changed very much. Or if it has, it only has changed as much as I have. I think our band has a pretty distinctive DNA that just has to do with the music I fell in love with as a young person. I listened to a lot of different kinds of music. I probably spend more time listening to classical music and jazz than I do music that sounds like The Ocean Blue. Whenever we get together and make music, or whenever songs come to me when I’m writing, I think it sounds pretty much the same way it did when I was a teenager.

What is your songwriting process like?

DAVID SCHELZEL: I hate to use a cliché, but I think it’s an apt one: there’s inspiration, and then there’s perspiration – and most of a creative endeavor is perspiration. It’s work. I think songwriting is a bit of a mystery; how and where inspiration comes from is a very mysterious and beautiful thing for me. I have ideas that come to me when I go on a walk or when I’m fiddling around on my guitar or when I’m lying in bed falling asleep. And then I try to capture those things and then I have to act on them. Oftentimes, I just get pieces of songs and inspiration and then I’ve got to arrange this in a song format. That’s a lot of work and it’s tricky to figure out. But it’s also a lot of fun. It’s kind of like being on an expedition, where you’re trying to get to the North Pole: you’ve got a plan, you’ve got some gear, you’ve got a map, but you still need to get there. Sometimes the weather is beautiful and you get right there. More often than not, there’s twists and turns.

Are there any particular themes you’ve always tried to get across in your songs?

DAVID SCHELZEL: When a record is done, I can usually then look at it and say, “Oh wow, there’s the theme that’s running through the record.” Like, I looked at this latest record and said, “This record is basically a record of love and death songs” – that’s what I’m singing about, because that’s what I was going through, wrestling with those thoughts of love and death. So when I look back at my first record, I basically wrote that when I was in junior high and high school, and so I sound like an angsty teenager coming to terms with growing up. The second record was more of an atmospheric quest for beauty. But as far as going into the process? I don’t think about that at all. I can look back and observe and say, “Oh yeah, this is what I was going through, so naturally all those songs have that kind of spin on it.”

And now, all your fans have gone through all these phases with you.

DAVID SCHELZEL: I hope that’s true. One of the interesting things about shows now is that we meet fans who have been with us since the beginning and will tell us their story of how they connect with our music. It’s interesting. Some of them, you can tell we really affected them as a young person. But some of them are like, “ I discovered you when I was later in life,” or they’ll say, “I liked you in the early days, but now I really like you because what you’re writing now speaks to me now as a middle-aged dude.” It is fascinating to me how music hits people in different ways. For those of us that love music, music can connect in very, very deep ways. And I feel the weight of that as a middle-aged guy, certainly more than I did when I was a teenager. Like, what we’re doing is kind of a profound thing, and I shouldn’t take it lightly. When I look back, I think a lot of times, I didn’t appreciate that aspect of music. I certainly was passionate about it, I loved music, but I understood as a fan, not as an artist.

Now you have several shows coming up…

DAVID SCHELZEL: Yes, we do the Bell House in Brooklyn on Friday [February 28]. We are in Phoenix next month, and then we are in Southern cities. We will have some more shows in the fall that aren’t announced yet. And then I suspect that might be it for a little while.

After that, another album, hopefully soon?

DAVID SCHELZEL: Yeah, hopefully. Trying to do that self-imposed deadline thing!

Upcoming tour dates:
2/28: Brooklyn, NY at The Bell House
3/28: Phoenix, AZ at Crescent Ballroom
5/22: Atlanta, GA at The Masquerade
5/23: West Palm Beach, FL at Respectable Street
5/24: Nashville, TN at The High Watt


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