“We’ve played a bunch of gigs over the years, but I’ve only kept posters from the highlights,” smiles Ocean Grove singer Luke Holmes. “Once we played in a strip club, and another time we played this burned-down fish and chip shop.”
Playing shows in gentlemen’s establishments and charred fast-food outlets might seem like strange career highlights for a band who have been nominated for a Metal Hammer Golden God Award, and whose debut album, The Rhapsody Tapes, hit the Top Five in their native Australia in February. But as Luke reveals, Ocean Grove aren’t your average metal band. The Melbourne crew have spent the last seven years making a name for themselves by touring relentlessly and releasing a series of EPs while honing their frankly unique sound: a scattershot cocktail of hardcore, nu metal, grunge, alt-rock and electronic hip-hop.
During this attention-deficit journey through heavy genres, Ocean Grove have managed to retain a cohesive sonic identity, thanks to the complete creative control they have over their output. Wunderkind drummer Sam Bassal – at 19, the youngest member of the band – produced the whole thing in his bedroom. Luke goes on to explain that the quintet’s eclectic approach to gigging and songwriting is just an extension of their eclectic approach to… well, everything.
“I like Britpop and sample-based, trip-hop stuff. Some members of the band have DJ’d EDM music, and some have had grunge/hard-rock side-projects,” he explains. “Really, The Rhapsody Tapes is just a coming-together of all of those difference influences.”
Their sound is so unusual that they’ve coined a new term for it – ‘Odd World Music’ – and released a 600-word manifesto to clarify their aims. One of its tenets is, ‘Never turn down a show for the fuck of it’, and Luke’s poster collection is proof they’re staying true to their word.
Ocean Grove – completed by guitarists Jimmy Hall and Matt Henley, bassist Dale Tanner and a sixth, non-touring member known as Running Touch – came together in 2010 while they were still at school, as a reaction to finding themselves outcasts from their school’s sports-and-clubbing culture.
“Our high school was pretty much an AFL [Australian Football League] sports school,” explains Luke. “Everyone was either a DJ, a footie player or a surfer, and the idea of playing heavy music was really quite bizarre to people. We were the only people around that were into that music and I think, for a lot of people, it didn’t seem right.”
The DJ culture around their peer group didn’t entirely pass Ocean Grove by, though. The reason the aforementioned Running Touch is a studio-only member of the band is because the enigmatic musician is a successful dance music artist in his own right.
“He’s a founding member – so it was Ocean Grove with him first, and then Running Touch came secondary to that,” Luke explains. “But that took off, and we understood that he had to go and pursue it. And he’s definitely wired in a way where being around people and touring as a crew is not his thing.”
Preferring to “lock himself away in a room and pump out tunes”, according to his sometime-bandmate, Running Touch was nonetheless responsible for writing the majority of the band’s early material. But now signed to Universal, and with almost as many Facebook likes as Ocean Grove themselves, his solo career precludes him from touring with the band. He also appears in the band’s videos as a humanoid-alien character known as Donny, who bridges the gap between reality and Ocean Grove’s ‘Odd World’.
And if you weren’t already scratching your head, this is where things start to get really weird. Luke makes frequent references to hyper-reality, a philosophical concept in which the division separating the real and the imaginary disappears. His considered tone suggests this is more than the half-baked ramblings of a faux-intellectual stoner, but when pushed on what exactly Odd World is, he struggles to articulate the concept.
“Odd World is the genre we use to categorise our music, and Donny is the gateway between the Odd World and where we are – they’re working together, and Odd World is just describing a place that’s hyper-real.”
Their steampunk-influenced music videos are unlike anything being produced by heavy bands right now. In Intimate Alien, Running Touch’s Donny character is wandering around a city listening to Ocean Grove on a Walkman and dancing like a lunatic, dressed like an extra from Mad Max and apparently confused by society. Thunderdome takes this sense of alienation one step further, showing Running Touch alone in a white room, while the band appear on a cubic TV screen on his head. Again, what does it all mean?
“Our favourite artists have a mystique to them – a sense of mystery and awe,” explains Luke. “They’re bands whose concepts make you ask questions – and the more eyes we have on the band, and the bigger budgets we get, the more we want to create things that are next-level and challenging.”
Regardless of whether they know what the fuck they’re talking about, Ocean Grove have clearly invested a lot of time and thought in their music and videos. To them, there’s no point in doing things in a half-arsed way.
“It’s all about passion!” he exclaims. “It’s about getting lost in the music and trying not to stand onstage thinking, ‘Who am I trying to be? How am I trying to be perceived right now?’ It’s about going out and doing what comes naturally to you.”
Still with us? This is where The Rhapsody Manifesto comes in. It’s a statement of intent that mixes observations (“too many people fear the judgement of others”), progressive values (“an all-accepting culture…moshing and violence is officially done as far as we are concerned”) and non-sequitur lines of poetry, all presented online as if displayed on an 80s computer terminal. To add to the drama, Luke tells us that it was written in the dead of night during a thunderstorm, just before they announced their deal with UNFD.
“We knew that overnight, we’d have an audience of people with eyes on us,” Luke explains. “The first question when you see a new band being signed to a record label is, ‘Who are these guys – or girls – and why should we care?’ It’s a set of rules to define us, and keep us in check.”
We’re experiencing a renaissance of highly creative bands defining their own realities and exploring the boundaries of the artist-audience relationship. But while the likes of Creeper and Ghost are interested in creating performance art, and separating musicians as people from music as an artform, Ocean Grove’s Odd World seems to be more about… fucking with people’s expectations, basically.
“Yeah,” Luke laughs. “We don’t really dress like heavy music guys because, I guess, we really aren’t!”
Appearing onstage in outfits that fall somewhere between Immortan Joe’s War Boys from Mad Max and school P.E. kits, the band’s image is light years away from the image of a contemporary metal band. Ocean Grove’s approach of ignoring the status quo – what Luke refers to several times as “the done thing” – in favour of indulging their collective influences might just turn them into accidental megastars. He talks passionately about the mainstream mission they’ve found themselves on: they’re out to transform the way people think about metal. Whether that’s on recent dates supporting Architects, or elsewhere.
“When most people think of heavy music, they get an idea in their head,” Luke says. “That idea is not what we associate with heavy music. We’re trying to change the perception of your average person walking down the street. They can associate heavy music with what we’re doing instead. We’re at a point now where we put out a heavy album, but we were a featured album on Triple J, which is the biggest radio station in Australia for people aged 18-30. We’re playing a festival with In Hearts Wake and Stormzy in a couple of months.”
The thrill in Luke’s voice is tangible.
“It’s exciting to be one of the first heavy bands to be doing this. We don’t take it for granted. I’m a big believer in sitting back and going, ‘Remember when we were playing in the burned-down fish and chip shop? And now we’re here.’”
The world of Ocean Grove may be odd, but it’s odd in such an original and unique way that it’s hard not to find yourself won over by it. Few bands are putting this much thought into their craft and the way they deliver it, let alone doing so with such energy and verve. So immerse yourself in oddity, because you’re going to be hearing a lot more from Ocean Grove – and Donny – over the coming year.
The Rhapsody Tapes is out now via UNFD. Ocean Grove play London’s Black Heart on June 4
Getting to the bottom of Ocean Grove’s ‘Odd World’ music genre. Sort of…
What the fuck is Odd World?
Luke (vocals): “Odd World is how we describe the sum total of our tastes. We knew from the get-go that we all had our own beliefs and our own passions and our own interests on the side, and heavy music was just something that drew us all together. Our initial sense of appreciation of heaviness is there, but we’ve really been able to find ourselves and our own passions.”
Where did the idea come from?
“I think subconsciously, when you come to write music, you might gravitate towards the done thing of the day. But when you don’t have any idea what the done thing is, you don’t find yourself trying to copy anyone else. That’s where it comes from – we were definitely born in a situation where we felt like we didn’t really fit in.”
I’m still confused!
“We want to explore the Odd World more – we’ve got a lot of ideas that we have to explain one by one, and we also have to piece together the story of [music video character] Donny and how he fits into this whole thing. But basically, The Rhapsody Tapes is told from the perspective of someone sitting up high, on a precipice, and watching down over this Odd World. They’re trying to find things and find themselves in it. It’s a way for us to explore concepts and different meanings, and ways in which we find the world around us to be odd.”