David Schelzel weathered the Ocean Blue’s early success remarkably well—so well that it never really dawned on him that 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of his band’s self-titled Sire Records debut. “I guess that’s a pretty significant anniversary,” says Schelzel matter-of-factly.
Hailing from the choco-tourism hub of Hershey, Pa., Schelzel and the rest of the Ocean Blue were essentially clueless teenagers when they signed a three-album deal with Sire. Now, the band has officially been around long enough to earn the “dream pop” tag, a misnomer that didn’t even exist when they first hit the road to prove that they weren’t, in fact, British.
“We always had a pretty realistic view of who we were and who we weren’t,” says Schelzel. “We’re all really fortunate to come from loving, caring families with great support systems. For me, being in a band is not the sum total of who I am. In the late ‘90s, when having a career in music wasn’t really a viable option anymore, it wasn’t like my whole world fell apart.”
Schelzel turned his focus to academics, eventually heading to law school in Minneapolis, where he’s now a successful attorney. These days, only founding bassist Bobby Mittan lives in Hershey, though the band’s operations are still based there. “We’re fortunate that we had a history on two major labels, which promoted us extensively all those years,” Shelzel says. “We still have a fan base that cares.”
The Ocean Blue’s seventh album. Kings And Queens / Knaves And Thieves, is out on Korda Records, a Minneapolis-based cooperative imprint the band helped launch. Leading things off is “Kings And Queens,” an early-’90s throwback that efficiently co-opts the lush and airy artiness of Britpop’s more lavish leanings without sounding dated or redundant. (You can download the song below.) Like much of the rest of the album, “Kings And Queens” demonstrates the Ocean Blue’s continued proficiency as expert assimilators of all things strummy, Anglophilic and slightly world-weary. “It’s a classic existential song,” says Schelzel. “The big thing is that we’re all basically the same.”
King And Queens is the band’s second full-length release since its 2013 return after a 10-year break. Outside his law practice, Schelzel has kept himself busy on side projects like 5 Billion In Diamonds, led by drummer/producer Butch Vig and featuring members of Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Spiritualized and Echo & The Bunnymen. Fatherhood has also been a priority, and whatever’s left is reserved for music. “The Ocean Blue is still a huge part of my life, but I don’t have to look to it for a way to make a living,” he says. “And that’s tremendously freeing.”
Time is strange. The punks told us to burn the past, that anything new beats anything old through sheer youth. At least, Bill Bored of the Cardboards preached that credo in Stephanie Beroes’ Debt Begins At 20, a little cult documentary from 1980 that invited viewers to hang out in Pittsburgh’s nascent DIY scene. Almost 40 years later, and the future promises more dread than freedom—urban planners buffer cities with luxuries that a growing lower-middle class can’t afford, policies threaten to rob women of agency, and conniving capitalists tag even the tiniest courtesy with a price. So when Eli Kasan says “I can’t explain why the world has to burn”on a blazing rant on the Gotobeds’ third album, Debt Begins At 30 (Sub Pop), he doesn’t have to elaborate—frustrated youths everywhere know the feeling.
Still, like the pioneers from his hometown, Kasan doesn’t savor the past. He must be sitting on a patio in his house, as over the phone, I can hear the birds chirp louder than passing planes. (We’ve had to carve out a rendezvous between our opposite job shifts, but Kasan worked out an alibi: “I was able to ‘work from home’,” he says, “which means I’m just being a bum.”) The story goes that he and his fellow Gotobeds starting writing Debt Begins not long after their breakout on Sub Pop back in 2016, Blood // Sugar // Secs / Traffic. And this time, instead of another perfectly imperfect scrap in a friend’s basement, the band would head to Chicago to record in a proper studio with another pal, Tim Midyett (Silkworm, Mint Mile). Kasan would try to actually plan some lyrics instead of devising everything ad lib.
But now, let’s rewind a bit. The first time I saw the Gotobeds, Kasan was stumbling around the stage with a lampshade on his head. He, of course, also stood on several amps; later, he joined one of his guitarists on the same guitar and wished Chunklet’s Henry Owings a happy birthday. Kasan also chuckles to recall his earliest writing, like the commercial updo for “Wimpy Garcia (Brotherfucker)” from album number one, 2014’s Poor People Are Revolting. “TFP (Tom Payne), our guitar player, was just so impressed by the song itself, that he was just like, ‘Wow, this is so great, it’s such a hit, we could sell this for a car. You’ve got to sing this for a car commercial, man,’” he says. “So I completely took the lyrics I had, and mashed in a bunch of junk. And so looking back, I’m like, ‘What the hell did I do?’ Like, it doesn’t make any sense.”
You see, the Gotobeds thrive on spontaneous combustion. You could talk about the “themes” of Debt Begins—a wariness toward the unwary, loans of all kinds, age abstracted as clocks—if you wanted to pigeonhole the perpetual frustration of living into some sort of artistic “intention.” But Kasan won’t take the credit for masterminding any grand scheme; more than once in our conversation, he admits that some of his best ideas were born from sheer happenstance. The foundation for “Bleached Midnight,” for example, came from a poem in a notebook that Kasan’s old roommate, Scott MacIntyre, left behind. “I was trying to write something about different facets of war, (such as) internally, and versus someone else, and actually being at war,” he says. “His poem was about being addicted to heroin.” So naturally, Kasan reached out, and MacIntyre lent some extra words.
In fact, every song on Debt Begins features at least one other pal or fellow musician—and that, too, was something of a coincidence. The dudes were hanging out at their home base in Chicago, where Midyett lived with another friend—and they contemplated the odds that Midyett would come over and collab on a song with them. “So at one point, our drummer Cary (Belback), since we’re all rap fans, he’s like, ‘Dude, this is going to be just like a mixtape, we’re going to have a feature on every track,’” says Kasan. “He said it as a joke. And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’” So Kasan lined up invites to some old friends, from Bob Nastonovich (Pavement, Silver Jews) to Bob Weston (Shellac, Mission Of Burma) to Tracy Wilson Dahlia Seed, Positive No). “I remember the point when we were wrapping up, and I told the dudes, ‘Hey, I need $200 for someone to record their vocals,’” says Kasan. “And so they asked, ‘Well, so who’s all on the record?’ So I told them, and then they asked, ‘Wait, so is there a guest on every song?’ And I was like, ‘We talked about this!’”
The ‘Beds have no trouble communicating with each other. Granted, faintly gothic barnburner “Slang Words”— which, ironically, concerns this generation’s loose lips and insensitive slander—was almost abandoned forever because of a misunderstanding between Kasan and Payne from nearly six years ago. “TFP didn’t have a guitar part for it, it wasn’t finished, I didn’t have all the lyrics, so we just scrapped it, and completely forgot about it,” says Kasan. When he did remember “Slang Words,” though, he was under the impression that his guitarist wasn’t into the tune. Clearly, he was wrong. “I could have just asked him at the time, but instead I just assumed,” he says. “it’s funny, the way that things stick out in your mind, when you’re a dude, and you’re talking to your fellow friends.”
That’s another running theme in Debt Begins. We all know these days that our landscape could use a few less douchebags, and Kasan constantly draws a firm line between those blokes (like the one “jamming Sublime” on “Calquer The Hound”) and the ‘Beds. “I wake in fright/I don’t have the right/To be so parallel,” he says on “Parallel,” a sober reminder that other folks face greater fears. But Kasan admits that even “enlightened” dudes like themselves still bump against barriers. “We’ve definitely all cried in front of each other,” he says. “I’ve held all of them, spooned them [even]. But it’s still like, I’m not sure how to check on this person, even though it’s kinda easy, almost, on the face of it.”
Still, Kasan and the gang still buck the patriarchy when they can. Both versions of “Debt Begins At 30” challenge the systems that be—particularly the latter, where the ‘Beds called in Victoria Ruiz from Downtown Boys to vent her own narrative into the maelstrom. “She was the only person who essentially had a blank check,” says Kasan. “(I told her), here’s the inspiration, here’s what I was trying to say. It’d be cool to have a non-white guy sing this similar song. You can interpret it however you like.” As of our conversation, neither of us yet knew exactly how close Ruiz hewed to the original. But even with my rusty Spanish, I can still hear some parallels. A “fuego” still burns around the same point as Kasan’s fire; Ruiz cries “palabras en débito” where Kasan shouts “These aren’t even my words/They’re out on loan.” And her refrain of “Debit comienza/Pero nunca termina” remains the same as the English: “Debt begins/Never ends.”
As for Kasan’s version—to some extent, that ties back to the stance against nostalgia, and growing up. Astute readers may recognize the opening verse (“Late last night, I sat Atlas on my lap”) from poet Warsan Shire’s “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” another serendipitous influence that our protagonist bumped into on Facebook. But when Kasan says the line, he’s not referring to a book. When his new girlfriend moved in with her daughter Atlas, he decided he’d become her father. “I never thought that I was going to have children, or that I would want to have children,” says Kasan. “But it’s like, well, I love my lady, so I love this kiddo. So I just try not to let her get hit by a car, make sure she’s eating food, don’t be an asshole. All those things you usually do.”
Of course, anyone who listens to Debt Begins will swiftly find that Kasan and the gang aren’t assholes. The future might look grim, but time has to march on – and while we can’t burn the past, we can at least make some noise with our fellows right now. And that’s all Kasan really wants with the Gotobeds. “You meet one person at a time, and that leads to something else,” he says. “To me, irrelevant of how many records we sell, or we don’t sell—the guests that I respect like it, the friends I really like are getting it. So I feel like I’m doing something right. Even if it’s not Car Seat Headrest level.”
If prospective employers were to review Lukas Nelson’s work history, they’d likely be struck by its diversity. Aside for his job as frontman for Promise Of The Real, he has ongoing experience as Neil Young’s bandleader and guitarist. That dream gig began in 2014, when Young jammed with Promise of the Real at Farm Aid 2014, which led to the 2015 album The Monsanto Years and an open-ended designation as his post-Crazy Horse backup unit.
Last year, there was Nelson’s ridiculously fruitful collaboration with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga on A Star Is Born. He co-wrote and co-produced a large chunk of the film’s Oscar-winning soundtrack. Oh, and that’s him and Promise Of The Real on stage with Cooper’s Jackson Maine, a character Nelson helped cultivate. “I’m big on learning—that’s for sure,” says Nelson of his varied experiences. “If it fits with my vibe, I’ll go for it.”
And then there’s the family legacy angle. The 30-year-old Hawaii native is the son of ageless country icon Willie Nelson. The two continue to be close, professionally and otherwise. Dad plays guitar on “Mystery” and makes an appearance on the final verse of “Civilized Hell,” both standout tracks on his son’s fifth full-length release, Turn Off The News (Build A Garden), out now on Fantasy Records. “It’s perfect,” says Nelson of his relationship with his father, offering nothing more.
Willie isn’t that only one on the album’s impressive guest list, which also includes Neil Young, Margo Price, Sheryl Crow, Kesha, Shooter Jennings, Lucius, Randy Houser, brother Micah Nelson and others. But never once does Turn Off The News sound like someone else’s album, partly because Nelson has come up with his most focused batch of songs yet. The other reason is Promise Of The Real, who’ve grown into a versatile and enthusiastic sounding board for their leader’s thoroughly engrained inclination to blur the multigenerational lines between rock, country, pop and R&B.
It’s hard to find a more compelling argument for Nelson’s growth as a songwriter than “Bad Case.” Available here as a free download, the album’s leadoff track is an inspired bit of Tom Petty-inspired déjà vu that deserves to be a hit—for whatever that’s worth these days. “I wrote it three years ago in Ireland, and it’s been through a lot of iterations since then,” says Nelson. “It’s about that whole concept of wanting what you don’t have.”
Turn Off The News’ overall polish and focus belies the fact that it was recorded in fits and spurts during brief breaks between tours. Working out of two studios in Nelson’s adopted hometown of Los Angeles, the group managed to record 30 songs, 11 of which made the album. As for a unifying theme, that’s fairly apparent. “There’s this sort of sinister matrix we’re being assimilated into with our phones and our news and everything,” says Nelson. “I think people are waking up to the fact they need to balance technology with reality. ‘Turn Off The News (Build A Garden)’—I was talking to myself when I wrote that.”
For Ian Noe, getting the right road-kill shot became an obsession. “I couldn’t get it out of my head,” says the 19-year-old native of Eastern Kentucky. “I was trying to get that thing for three years. Melissa Stilwell is the one who took it.”
Stilwell’s striking sepia-toned image of an unfortunate deer—which hints at the stark artistry of Mathew Brady’s battlefield photographs of Civil War dead—wound up on the cover of Noe’s full-length debut for a reason. It perfectly captures the ominous sense of place he was after for Between The Country (National Treasury Recordings/Thirty Tigers), not to mention the dislocated desperation and resigned sadness that pervades the beaten-down corner of Appalachia where he grew up.
“We’d all go to my grandfather’s house on Friday and Saturday nights and just play all night long—that’s how I learned,” says Noe, who was coaxed into writing his first song at age 15 by his great aunt. “She just kept asking me every time she saw me until finally it just stayed in my head.”
Recorded in Nashville with characteristic restraint by Dave Cobb, Between The Country has to be one of the most stunning debuts of the year. Delivered with an intensity that’ll make your jaw ache, Noe’s vocals are a spare revelation, their emotive efficiency owing an equal debt to John Prine and Bob Dylan. “The first Dylan album I ever got was Bringing It All Back Home,” says Noe. “I threw it my grandparents’ cart at Walmart when they weren’t looking.”
Like it or not, the sorry humans that inhabit Between The Country’s 10 songs will take up residence in your soul—whether it’s the spurned alcoholic of “Irene (Ravin’ Bomb),” the menacing addict of “Meth Head” or any of the other hard cases who come to life in cinematic detail on tracks like “Junk Town,” “Letter To Madeline” and “That Kind Of Life.” In Noe’s sympathetic hands, each of them is more than an unredeemable product of skewed genetics and bad decisions. “I’ve known people like that,” says Noe, who’s at a loss to explain how he creates characters of such depth.
Available here as a free download, “Dead On The River (Rolling Down)” is Noe’s vaguely journalistic take on a murder ballad. “It’s based on some stuff I’ve heard about around where I’m from, and also the first season of True Detective,” he says. “You’re trying to create a feeling—if that makes any sense.”
Jesse Dayton long ago gave up on mainstream success, choosing instead to lend his voice, guitar skills and can-do attitude to a renegade-country subgenre that’s found some popularity with hipsters half his age. “I’ve been very fortunate,” says Dayton from an Austin, Texas, rehearsal space, where he and his band are prepping for the first show of a tour that kicks off in London on Saturday. “I haven’t paid my mortgage or rent doing anything else since I was 22.”
Though he may not be a household name, Dayton has done quite well for himself outside his home state—mainly through a series of happy accidents. He’s played guitar with Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, X and Ryan Bingham, and he’s written soundtracks for three Rob Zombie films. “It was a total fluke,” says the Beaumont native of his fortuitous affiliation with Zombie. “I knew one of the guys who acted in his movies, and Rob called me up and said, ‘Hey, you wanna make a fake country record?’ It was for this movie called The Devil’s Rejects. Rob gave me 75 percent of the publishing, and it helped me buy a house and put my kid through the University of Texas.”
A major draw overseas, Dayton averages about 250 days a year on the road. He’s also directed his own horror flick (2013’s Zombex), licensed more than 50 songs to film and television and (somewhat) quietly put out 11 studio albums and one EP since 1995. Most recently, Dayton signed a deal with Da Capo Press to write his memoir, and he’s hosting a new radio show on @GimmeCountry. On Mixtape Volume 1 (Blue Élan), out August 9, Dayton offers his inimitable spin on a covers album, paying tribute to the music and the artists who inspired him—everyone from Neil Young (“Harvest”) to Elton John (“Country Comfort”) to AC/DC (“Whole Lotta Rosie”) to the Cars (“Just What I Needed”). “The idea was to do cool renditions of songs that I thought the original writers would dig,” says Dayton.
He also does a number on the Clash’s “Bankrobber,” available here as an exclusive download. “I saw the Clash in San Antonio when I was 14, and it changed my life” says Dayton. “The next day, I cut my hair like in a duck tail like Joe Strummer’s, got a black leather jacket and quit all sports. It’s not easy to do what’s cool, man—it’s hard. The Ramones were riding around in a van.”
These days, nothing about the music industry is glamorous. “You got to really want it—unless you’re some 16-year-old pop diva,” says Dayton. “I do everything out of my house. I bought a 45-foot RV with bus bunks in it; I got a crew. I don’t have a famous father. I don’t have big boobs. I built all this shit myself.”