Ocean Grove: “I just want to be able to write a riff, hit record and play – nothing fancy”

Ocean Grove. Credit: Michelle Grace Hunder
(Image credit: Michelle Grace Hunder)

Throughout history, there have been oodles of bands plagued by shit luck – and as far as Australia’s ever-burgeoning heavy music scene is concerned, Ocean Grove might very well just take out the top prize. They’ve navigated controversy, a revolving door of personnel, and all manner of behind-the-scenes clusterf***ery – to say the least, their tell-all book will be one hell of a read – but perhaps their most punishing blow was doled in the lead-up to their second album, Flip Phone Fantasy. 

It was just two days before its March 13th, 2020 release that the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, effectively axing the group’s plans – ambitious ones at that – to make their assault on the international stage. But never the ones to let a hiccup doom them, Ocean Grove wasted no time dusting off their thinking caps, and almost immediately started chipping away at LP3. 

Flip Phone Fantasy was interesting for the way it evolved Ocean Grove’s musicality; there was a heightened focus on their indie-rock, grunge and Britpop influences, stepping even farther away from the bold and barbarous nu-metal they’d cut their teeth on years before. It was a striking effort, and made a clear case for Dale Tanner’s viability as a frontman (he’d previously played bass in Ocean Grove, but stepped up to the mic when their old singer left). But comparing it to their new album, Up In The Air Forever – a very tongue-in-cheek title, given the band’s unlucky streak – Flip Phone Fantasy feels… Well, kinda safe.

The new disc is packed from start to end with Ocean Grove’s most striking, soulful and spellbinding material. It sees them push boundaries and toy with their binary of genre more fiercely than ever – which is really saying something, given that’s been their whole schtick since 2010. To learn more about how they did it, Australian Guitar caught up with the band’s musical mastermind, Sam Bassal.

Having made such a major leap in a new direction with Flip Phone Fantasy, did you all feel more confident heading into this new record? 
I think so. The one big thing we’re trying to do with this record in particular is break the stigma behind what a band should sound like. When people think of a band, they tend to think of a drummer, a guitarist, a singer and a bassist – and each of them play that exact role. But I want people to look at Ocean Grove as a bit more of a group of independent artists coming together and collaborating, rather than a traditional band.

I think a lot of our fans know this, but it might not be common knowledge: I’m the only person that’s ever played an instrument on an Ocean Grove album. I’ve written all of our music, and played every guitar part on all three albums. I’m the predominant songwriter, and I always have been – so even though we’re obviously just a three-piece now, it’s still the same people writing and playing the music. And with the dynamic – a song like ‘HMU’, for example, I sing on that, and then a lot of the other vocals on the record are split evenly between Dale and Twiggy.

Do you still have Running Touch involved behind the curtain? 
Definitely, yeah! He will always be part of like the Oddworld collective. I think with this record in particular, he was so busy with putting together his own album – which is awesome – that he took a bit of a backseat. This one was primarily Twiggy, Dale and I – but no matter what, Running Touch will always be a part of Ocean Grove. 

Some of the biggest songs on [debut album] The Rhapsody Tapes were heavily written by him, and quite a few of the best songs of Flip Phone as well. So he’ll always be a part of the team, no matter what the amount of input he puts in or how much influence he has. The Oddworld collective is fun because there’s no rules to who does what, or how much they do. [Running Touch] might not have been super involved in this record, but who knows, he could end up writing 80 percent of the next one!

[Guitarist] Matt Henley also left the band last year – did he have much input on the record before he left? 
Not too much. It was written pretty heavily over Zoom and things like that, and I this record came about pretty fast. It feels like so long ago now, but yeah, he decided to go and do his own thing before we started knuckling down on it. We’re all still good friends with Matt – there’s no bad bad blood between us at all, we all love him to bits – but [his departure] didn’t really affect us too much. It’s definitely been a change, though. This will be our third album with a different lineup [laughs].

How do you feel about the strength of the band in its current form? 
It’s a funny one, isn’t it? I think change is always going to be looked at with two different mindsets – you’ll have people that will forever attach this band to the members we’ve had in the past and things we’ve done, but then there’s people who will continue to look at [Ocean Grove] as a group of good friends putting out incredible music. I think depending on which way people look at change, or see where our band is now, they’ll come to their own conclusions. But we’re accepting of everyone. We just want people to enjoy our music, no matter which way they see [the band].

What kind of guitars were you swinging around in the studio for this record? 
I’ve never had much high-end gear, throughout my entire musical journey. I’ve recorded, mixed and mastered every Ocean Grove album on a very shit computer, with things that shouldn’t have been able to make that kind of sound come to life. I have one main guitar, which I’ve actually used on everything for the last three or four years – it’s a US Fender Tom DeLonge Strat. It’s the best guitar I’ve ever played.

Even when I’m producing for other bands, I’ll bring that guitar in just to make sure that it’s doing what it needs to be doing. It’s got the one Seymour Duncan Invader and one volume knob, and that’s it. We’re definitely not a nerdy guitar band at all [laughs]. I just want to be able to write a riff, hit record and play – nothing fancy. I think on the new record, there may have been a few moments where I used a really nice Custom Shop Gibson, but pretty much anything else has just been on that Strat, played straight into the computer.

But your tonal palette is just fucking insane! What are your secret weapons? 
I’ve got a few! Again, I’ve never really had that much top-shelf gear, so I’ve always relied on amp sims and digital equivalents of amps, rather than being able to have Kempers and all that sort of stuff. I don’t know if I’ve actually said this to anyone before, but the main guitar sound I use – and have used on every Ocean Grove record – is a digital amp sim by a company called TSE, and the amp is just called X50. 

I always have heavy, thick guitars with this sort of distorted palette, but I always blend them with surf-rock chorus-y type guitars. I think that started with ‘Sunny’, on the last record, where you heard a bit more of that Britpop-y guitar tone shining through. That’s a lot more prevalent on this record in particular – as I’m sure you can hear – and for that sort of sound, I’ve just been using the default amp plugin on my Universal Audio Apollo interface. It’s just like a Fender Twin – I run my guitar into a Fender Twin, then into a chorus pedal, and I compress the shit out of it.

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Ellie Robinson
Editor-at-Large, Australian Guitar Magazine

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Her bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (where she also serves as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Her go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, she only picked up after she'd joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped her see the light…

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