Seven years ago, “on a magical day” involving a bonfire and three dragon eggs, Hey Ocean! commenced its indie-pop takeover of the local music scene. Or, that’s how bassist Dave Vertesi daydreams it when he’s got Game of Thrones on the brain. The real band formation story is slightly less dramatic but no less momentous for Vertesi, lead vocalist Ashleigh Ball, and guitarist-vocalist David Beckingham, who released their third album, IS, last month after two and a half years of exhaustive touring.
Childhood chums Ball and Beckingham—who, incidentally, have the perfect pair of names for an old-timey comedy duo—met Vertesi in 2005 following a show with Vancouver’s favourite folkster Dan Mangan at the Backstage Lounge. They hit it off, and after discovering that Ball and Beckingham needed a bassist for their band, Vertesi bought the instrument the very next day.
Since then, Hey Ocean! has stayed passionately true to its natural DIY work ethic, gigging consistently and releasing all of its music on the band’s own label, Pop Machine, founded with fellow indie locals Said the Whale, before signing to Universal Music Canada late last year. Luckily, the hard work has paid off in spades. After all, Straight readers dubbed Hey Ocean! the best local unsigned band in last year’s Best of Vancouver survey, but the trio has remained resolutely modest.
“We’re at the place now where people are coming to our shows to see us,” says Vertesi, interviewed with his bandmates at the Starbucks in Gastown, while the steam clock chimes behind him. “We’re not just getting slotted into random bar nights. Our last tour was just amazing. We were like, ‘Wow, you all actually remember us?’ ”
In keeping with Hey Ocean!’s uniquely humble and grassroots approach to pop music, the band has made a point to interact often and honestly with its growing fan community. Not only does the three-piece occasionally play fans’ houses and always encourages devotees to introduce themselves after shows, but it hosts a question-and-answer period every Friday on its Twitter account for curious followers.
“There’s really no barrier between us and the people who come to our shows,” says Beckingham. “You’re never too good to talk to them.”
Besides the support from its community, Hey Ocean! is constantly inspired by the natural beauty and energy of the West Coast, with colourful marine imagery seeping into many of its songs. On IS, this imagery is most obvious on the bubbly first single “Big Blue Wave” and album opener “If I Were A Ship”, which begins with a rippling flute overture before sweeping into a nautical love song that perfectly suits Ball’s jazzy warble.
“We draw a lot from our own lives,” Beckingham says of the band’s eclectic repertoire, influenced strongly by the “clear, classic songwriting” of the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and Simon & Garfunkel. “The best songs that we write are the ones that are inspired by a real personal experience.” Adds the pixieish Ball, “And we can’t help but be influenced by the beautiful place in which we live.”
With its refined, multi-layered production and catchy choruses, IS sounds more polished than Hey Ocean!’s previous two albums, Stop Looking Like Music and It’s Easier To Be Somebody Else. But alongside the sky-high melodies of the beat-driven, karaoke-ready “Jolene” and the rootsy, Arcade Fire–ish anthem “I Am a Heart” are more understated tunes like “Bicycle”, composed of only acoustic guitar, snapping fingers, and Ball’s bluesy, sugary voice—plus a cameo by Beckingham’s velvety croon.
“We wanted to make sure that the songs were really organic,” says Ball. “Like each song could stand alone with just guitar and vocals. But we also wanted to make a great pop album, and part of that is not being afraid to have those big moments in your songs.”
The tight-knit trio’s self-reliance has served it well since the band’s early days, when it shared songwriting circles with fellow Vancouverites and indie darlings Mother Mother. And with Hey Ocean!’s perpetually determined spirit, fans need not worry about the band’s sense of individuality, even though it’s signed to a major label.
“There’s always so many people telling you, ‘Do this, do that,’ and we’ve even had people like Gene Simmons try that,” says Vertesi, referring to the rock megastar’s attempts to sign Hey Ocean! to his label in 2009. “And we’ve had guys from the label in the States say, ‘You know what’s hot right now? Rapping. Ash should rap!’ And it would be a lie to say we didn’t consider it for at least a second. It seems so cheesy, but the hardest lesson with this record was that you have to believe in yourself. You have to be your own compass.”
Hey Ocean! headlines the Vogue Theatre on Saturday (June 16).