If you're a musician hoping to get people to talk about your music, there are a few ways to help shape how people will discuss your output. The easiest way is to invent and stick to a genre of your own, which is something Ghost Beach have accomplished. Although the New York City duo of Josh Ocean and Eric "Doc" Mendelsohn are both a young band and haven't indicated any real distaste for genres in the first place, the pair have identified as "tropical grit-pop" on their Facebook page and in interviews. Along with helping them promote a distinct idea of sound, the tag is largely apropos.
On Blonde, their debut record released in March, the pair craft a 1980s-leaning, synth-driven sound along the lines of MGMT, Passion Pit and the Naked and Famous that's definitely upbeat enough to sell it as "tropical" and hook-oriented enough to click with "pop." Gritty? The production is too clean to really go with that, but when the other two components of the genre work so well, we'll let that part slide. "I grew up basically with the beach as my backyard, so I've always been into beach culture. I grew up surfing when I came back from school," says Ocean, the group's 28-year-old lead vocalist, referencing his upbringing on Fire Island, a New York island outside of Long Island.
To go along with that, Ocean has also lived in Hawaii, and both Ocean and Mendelsohn have been out to Venice Beach a lot, so it's not coincidence that Ghost Beach's music so often channels the brightness associated with such terrain. "For us, the whole beach and summertime thing is sort of escapism," Ocean says. "Music, for us, is like therapy, and we're trying to find that positive thing."
Landforms by shorelines aside, Ocean has also spent his life growing up with music. At around age 3, he got a drum set; at 6, his first guitar. His parents always listened to music, exposing him to the likes of Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen, and even as a little kid, Ocean remembers digging Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nirvana. His single favorite singer and band are Sting and the Police–the gist of whom you can catch in Ghost Beach's placid moments and Ocean's high notes. "When I was a little kid, I saw Sting play the bass on Saturday Night Live and that's what made me really want to play the bass," Ocean says. By middle school, sure enough, he made it to that instrument.
As he grew older, he had a major infatuation with Epitaph Records/Vagrant Records/Fat Wreck Chords-style punk bands like NOFX, Face to Face and Millencolin. But it was getting a hold of the music-making program Pro Tools–a product he bought using gift money he received for graduating high school–and catching a performance by downbeat electronica duo Frou Frou that would really shape the path Ghost Beach would head down. During the concert, Frou Frou ran a pair of desktop Macs from the stage. "It made me realize, 'Wow, they're doing all this stuff with computers. I really want to get into that,'" Ocean remembers.
Eventually after that, he would end up in Hawaii, buying a guitar and a ukulele and really crack down on writing songs. He also began absorbing the work of more electronic-music-oriented artists like Amon Tobin and Thievery Corporation. Ghost Beach would eventually come to life some four years ago, with Ocean and Mendelsohn having originally met as members of alt-rock band TVTV. While the pair set up a studio in a friend's attic and began putting songs together in 2010, Ocean says that they didn't officially start creating music as Ghost Beach until 2011. Later that year, they would debut a self-titled EP. Originally, Ocean envisioned the band as one consisting of four combined parts–two computers used by two people, perhaps inspired by that Frou Frou show–but today, Ocean handles vocals, bass and synths, while Mendelsohn oversees guitars, synths and a sampler.
As a record so reminiscent of happy-go-lucky summertime listening, Blonde is an album steeped in hopeful, positive vibes, but Ghost Beach never particularly intended to evoke those ideas. Its songs were penned in what Ocean describes as "a really super tiny, dingy rehearsal space" in a Brooklyn basement. "By the end of the [music-making] process, we usually feel really good about the process, and I think that's why our songs probably come off sounding really positive," he says.
As it stands today, Blonde is a record about self-realization and using small sparks of good energy to turn bad situations around, with Ocean bringing up "Miracle" and "Empty Streets" as notable examples of this idea in action. Their live shows, too, are about fostering good crowd energy. No matter how Ghost Beach's sound changes from here on out, Ocean plans for the "tropical" part of tropical grit-pop to always stick around so as to provide a sense of escapism for the listener. "The overall message [of our band] is really finding that thing that makes you happy and doing it," he says. "For us, music is that, and this is the music that we make, so that brings it all full circle."
Ghost Beach perform tonight with RAC and Joywave at the Observatory, 3503. S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. 8 p.m. $25. All ages.