Indie Pop Band Oceanic Gets More Introspective as They Grow
In their ethereal video for “Angel,” Oceanic’s surging yet subtly icy ballad, the band plays in an empty hall on a raised stage, lit from below.
As Jacob Johnson’s plaintive plucked guitar entwines with Sam Goodwin’s nearly subliminal pulsing bass, singer and chief lyricist Nathan Wyatt’s swooning, fine-grained croon warps around this conflicted couplet:
“I can’t live between these simple lines / I can’t see past my own jealous eyes.”
Imperceptibly at first, Wyatt rises, seeming to grow. Then, he takes off, floating above the small stage as he sings, “Is it a miracle, heavenly lie, that you want me by your side?”
This minor miracle of stagecraft and song encapsulates the worldview of a band that combines the unflinching self-examination of emo with the swirling sophistication of multi-layered pop.
The everyday becomes magical as Wyatt’s private thoughts and obsessions mirror the listeners’ own preoccupations. In Oceanic’s embrace of communal emotions and values, the personal becomes universal.
“We’re a band who tries to bring people together with music,” Wyatt says. Then he shares a story about the shoot for the “Angel” video that may be the perfect illustration that no matter how lofty the band’s goals are, they’re still three friends making music, and firmly grounded in reality.
“The first time I was up in the harness for the flight thing, the wire snapped and I fell 6 feet down onto the stage,” Wyatt says.
Goodwin remembers being off the set with Johnson as director Daniel Carrai hoisted Wyatt on the wire for a practice run.
“We didn’t know what was happening, we heard a loud crash from the other room,” Goodwin says.
“It was a perfect slapstick comedy moment,” Wyatt says. The band chalked up the tumble to just another setback to be navigated, like the full album they finally had ready for release after a year of crowd-sourced fundraising just as COVID swept through the world with the force of a tsunami.
There was no way Oceanic could put out an album and not be able to support it by playing shows, not when the band’s main source of income is generated through those shows. So they took some songs already recorded for the aborted album and combined them with new tunes to craft their six-song debut EP, also named Angel, which dropped in July 2021.
“It was not super-planned,” Wyatt says. “It was more like us adapting.”
The band still has upwards of 20 songs they haven’t released yet, a situation that will partly be rectified by plans to release what Johnson calls “a slew of singles” in 2022, building up to the release of Oceanic’s debut album.
Kicking off that flood of new music will be the February release of Oceanic’s new single, the cantering yet yearning dance pop creation “Care More.” That will be followed by a string of subsequent singles, released every few months, Wyatt says.
The band is also celebrating a new addition. In fall 2021, drummer Joseph Stevenson stepped in to fill a position that has recently been covered by a handful of guest percussionists.
“Joseph is such a good fit,” Johnson says. “He contributes so much, not only to the music, but also personality-wise.”
As a foursome, Oceanic rolls into the new year with a slate of shows in Charlotte and elsewhere. The itinerary includes a gig at Snug Harbor on Feb. 5 as well as a small East Coast tour with Orlando-based band Take Lead.
It’s an impressive outreach for a self-styled introspective band that hopes to inspire listeners to look inward.
“We all think that by giving an honest look at yourself and who you are inside — that’s the first step towards becoming the best version of yourself and finding fulfillment,” Goodwin says.
Rendezvous at Liberty University
Music has been a part of Johnson’s, Goodwin’s and Wyatt’s lives for as long as they can remember. Growing up in the unincorporated community of West End, a piedmont town about an hour west of Fayetteville, Johnson started playing piano at age 6. After six years of lessons, he took up the guitar.
“I decided [guitar] was way more rock ‘n’ roll, so I passed on piano,” Johnson says. His high school years included a stint in the choir.
“There were other options for me as far as a college degree but it became clear early on … that it was music or nothing,” he says.
Wyatt moved around because his father was in the Air Force. After being born in Oklahoma, Wyatt lived in Germany for a while, then landed back in Oklahoma. He started piano lessons at age 5.
While Wyatt enjoyed playing classical pieces, he decided on a musical vocation after he learned about improvisation from a high school choir teacher named Mr. Piper at a homeschool co-op.
“He taught me … that you don’t have to play exactly what’s on that piece of paper,” Wyatt says. Wyatt began writing songs and dabbled in theatre.
Denver, Colorado native Goodwin cannot remember a flip-of-the-switch moment when he realized music was his life’s path. His mother was a piano teacher so he started playing the instrument when he was 4, he picked up trumpet in middle school and guitar at age 12. During his senior year in high school, he started playing bass in the school’s jazz band.
“Bass players are few and far between, so I was definitely a hot commodity pretty much everywhere,” he says.
Goodwin, Johnson and Wyatt all went off to college at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, an institution that prompts conflicted emotions in all of them.
In fall 2021, more than 20 women who had been students at the Evangelical university filed a lawsuit that claims college leadership enabled on-campus rapes while suppressing reports of sexual assault.
A year prior, Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the institution’s founder, stepped down as president of the university after he posted an Instagram photo of himself beside a woman while his pants were unzipped.
That came after Florida pool attendant Giancarlo Granda claimed he had a relationship with Fallwell’s wife that involved Fallwell watching the couple as they had sex.
Less salacious but equally damning, university administration earned a reputation for fostering a culture of fear in which students and teachers who rejected Fallwell’s pro-Trump stance were silenced or expelled and fired.
“There were plenty of divisive and polarizing attitudes and events sanctioned by the leadership of Liberty University that we disagreed with,” writes Wyatt, speaking on behalf of the band. “We believe propaganda engineered to indoctrinate is wrong. We disagree with the way the administration pushed their political beliefs on students instead of teaching students to think for themselves and build their [worldview] based on what they believe is right.”
“We personally weren’t … swayed by the narrow political agenda they pushed. If anything, it made us more open to diverse beliefs and more actively accepting of different people. However, we think the overall political culture at Liberty is harmful and divisive.”
Wyatt further writes that the band is accepting of all people.
“We believe real community is very important, especially in a cultural climate of extreme individualism, loneliness, and lack of relationships. We’ve seen that political polarization is rampant and believe it’s incredibly harmful. Community based on dislike or hate of another group of people is hollow and insubstantial.”
That said, Johnson, Goodwin and Wyatt all agree that their professors at Liberty were exemplary.
“Politically speaking, none of them would bring anything up in the classroom that would make people feel like they were less-than if [they] had different ideals,” Wyatt continues. “We had a ton of awesome professors who loved teaching and loved their students.”
If the climate at Liberty inadvertently sparked the band’s open and accepting views, the university can also be credited for germinating some quality music by bringing Johnson and Wyatt together in 2016 at an awkward orientation meeting on the first day of the semester.
“It was one of the group get-togethers at the hall, where you played dumb games and got to know each other,” Johnson offers.
“We kind of hated each other at first,” says Wyatt, “for approximately 30 seconds.”
The pair soon bonded over their shared love of music. Johnson started playing a song hook he’d written. Wyatt came up with some chords, and together the pair wrote the rollicking rock tune “You,” which became the second song Oceanic released, and perhaps its most popular tune.
“That sparked the rest of our friendship and the beginning of Oceanic,” Johnson says.
A few months later, the nascent Oceanic, comprised just of Johnson and Wyatt at the time, played an open mic at Liberty. Goodwin was in the audience.
A couple months later, one of Goodwin’s best friends, a bassist named Naoto Barrett, joined Oceanic. After Goodwin filled in on bass for a show Barrett couldn’t make, Wyatt and Johnson wondered how they could make a switch without hurting Barrett’s feelings.
“We felt that Naoto wasn’t really as in it as we were,” Johnson says. “Nate and I were trying to figure out how in the world to tell him we wanted Sam to be our bass player.”
Fortunately, Barrett had similar feelings and wanted to step away from the band, so Goodwin stepped in while Barrett stepped out.
“Naoto and I are still best friends today,” Goodwin says. “He was in my wedding party and I was his best man.”
As their college years progressed, both Johnson and Wyatt changed their majors to Interdisciplinary Studies, which Johnson calls “making your own degree.”
He adds that the change was inspired in part by his losing a letter grade in one class for going to play an Oceanic show instead of attending a required choir concert. In the end, Johnson’s studies centered on music, religion and philosophy.
After briefly majoring in film, Wyatt shifted his focus to fine arts and music. His self-designed degree encompassed graphic design, photography and all the music production classes he could possibly take.
“It was all the stuff I was doing [already],” he says. “So it made the most sense.”
Goodwin earned a commercial music degree, a program comprised of performance, business and audio engineering.
“It’s a mixed stack of music goodness,” he says.
In the meantime, Oceanic began to craft its distinctive sound. With all band members writing and arranging together, influences for the band’s audio profile run rampant.
“We’re all products of the Spotify age,” Wyatt says. “We have access to a ton of different kinds of music.”
That said, Wyatt admits to one primary influence: “I just want to be Coldplay,” he says with a laugh.
“[We’re] introspective indie pop rock,” Johnson says. Goodwin similarly characterizes Oceanic’s output as layered and intricate pop music with indie influences.
“I can visualize a lot of dynamics and scene changes,” he says.
A lot of people only know the song “You” from Oceanic’s expanding oeuvre, Wyatt offers, adding that the tune is not entirely representative of the group’s sound.
A lot of the unreleased material is a bit colder with warm undertones, he says, and more pop than rock. In contrast, the band’s music that’s out right now is warm with colder undertones, Wyatt says.
Lyrics fall primarily in Wyatt’s wheelhouse, and they can be both autobiographical and impressionist, he says. Some stem from emotions that he doesn’t feel comfortable saying outright.
“[They] then become lyrics about trees, or whatever,” he elaborates. “It just makes it safer for me, but I still get to say it and there’s a release.”
Other times, Wyatt enters a flow state where he writes about feelings he never realized he had.
“Those are the best [lyrics],” says Goodwin, who occasionally helps out with lyrics.
The band’s style came together fairly quickly. Wyatt believes the quick turnaround is due to a lot of guesswork.
“It’s a bunch of flying blind and cranking knobs and seeing what happens,” Wyatt says. “We have to trust our instincts.”
“We’re all students of music,” adds Johnson. “The one thing that’s prevailed throughout the years is the phrase, ‘serving the song.’ How can we emphasize the musical or emotional impact they’re trying to achieve?”
“It’s where the song is the biggest ego in the room,” Wyatt says. “I like when music has more than what you can catch on the first listen. It’s just a little bit bigger.”
As graduation approached, the band members had to decide how serious they were about making music. Johnson recalls long conversations with Wyatt in the stairwell of their dorm discussing the future of Oceanic.
“Part of it was, ‘Is it cheesy to just go to college and start a band? It’s fun, but is there meaning behind it, or purpose?’” Johnson says.
Eventually, the friends decided it would be foolish not to pursue a career with the band.
Wyatt feels that whatever qualms he and the band have with Liberty, college somehow worked out for them.
“I met my best friends who are in a band with me now,” he says. “There were some cool opportunities in a college town that wouldn’t be there otherwise.”
He feels Lynchburg was a great place to start playing shows. The band was able to experiment and not be afraid of falling on their faces. “It was a great sandbox. There were enough people invested [in us] that we could do that and not seem like total dicks.”
Oceanic makes a home in Charlotte
Oceanic had started playing gigs in Charlotte in 2018. They have particularly fond memories of an Evening Muse show with Foxfire Run and Trent Thompson, the latter of whom will join them on the Feb. 5 show at Snug.
While Johnson, Goodwin and Wyatt were still at college, their band was managed by their friend, Charlotte native and fellow student Alyssa Swedick, whom they credit for prompting their move to Charlotte. Swedick had taken a course at Gat3, Charlotte’s Grammy-winning music production and recording studio owned and operated by Glenn and Susan Tabor.
At the end of each class term, a student brings in a band for the other students to record a demo with in the studio. Swedick suggested Oceanic for the end-of-class project, so Johnson, Goodwin and Wyatt headed down to Charlotte and cut a demo. They became fast friends with Glenn Tabor. Subsequently, Oceanic became the student demo band for three different classes.
“[We’ve essentially recorded] a full album there,” Johnson says. Eventually, Gat3 hired Wyatt to do some programming for them. He’s currently a contractor for the studio, doing production and programming while jumping in to play synthesizers, drums and more when needed. On his own time, Wyatt has also lent his talents as a songwriter to indie artists like Joshua Sosin, Laity, Natalie Naomic, The Consolation and more.
In 2018, Oceanic went from guest band at Gat3 to paying client when they cut their first two singles at the studio. Wyatt credits Swedick for the band’s forward momentum at that time.
“We were just a local band doing whatever we could, and she was the organizational force that made [things] happen,” he says. Once the funds were raised via Kickstarter, Oceanic went to Gat3 with the intention of recording five songs in one day, a goal they now realize was impossible to do well.
“It would have been trash,” Wyatt says. Wiser heads prevailed and Glenn Tabor convinced the band to record one quality song in one day, as opposed to five substandard tracks. Oceanic cut their first single, “Party Song,” in that session. They still had enough funds left to come back to cut “You.” The band is grateful Tabor suggested a course correction and a change of plans.
“That defines the story of Oceanic,” Johnson says. “We’ve been so blessed with so many people who cared enough about us to invest a little time and energy [to] set us on the right path. Glenn and Alyssa did that.”
With their favorite studio and good friends in Charlotte, Oceanic needed one more nudge to move to the Queen City. That came with the sound of wedding bells. In short order, each of the band members got married, Wyatt in May 2019, then Johnson the following month. Goodwin eventually tied the knot in May 2021. Job prospects for the bandmate’s respective spouses looked more promising in Charlotte than in Lynchburg.
“We moved to Charlotte right smack dab in the beginning of COVID,” Wyatt says. Still the band weathered the pandemic, recording their Angel EP at Gat3 and adding a new member to their team, video director Daniel Carrai.
Carrai and Wyatt met at college in a directing class, and hit it off right away. Carrai, who plays drums, wanted to drum for Oceanic. At the time, the band already had a drummer, so Wyatt asked Carrai to shoot video of the band and take photos. Carrai has gone on to do so much more.
When the band plays out, they incorporate old cathode-ray tube TVs and other stage and design elements, all of which come from Carrai’s inventive imagination.
“[Dan] does our music videos, photos and pretty much every single Instagram post we have,” Wyatt says.
“He brings a whole menu to the table,” Johnson adds.
The bandmates praise Carrai’s scrappy ability to create grandeur on a budget. He scored the main shooting location for the “Angel” video, a former church in a strip mall, for free. To create the stage that the band stands on — and Wyatt floats above — Carrai bought panes of plexiglass that he and the band frosted. Then he welded the structure together and placed lights underneath.
“All of those things are fabricated and very DIY. But … it doesn’t really look like it,” Wyatt says.
In the video for “Change Your Mind,” the band performs in a half-built structure suffused with a red haze that suggests a David Lynch film shot during a brush fire. Those sequences were shot at Sur Studios on South Boulevard, but not in the facility’s high-end production studios.
Instead, Carrai and Oceanic shot in Sur’s front room while it was being stripped down and remodeled. Those scenes were augmented with footage shot at Swedick’s Charlotte home during remodeling.
“If there were extra shots that we needed to get, Dan would figure out a way to do it in his garage with some cool lights and projections,” Wyatt says. “He will make anything work and make it seem incredible.”
The final piece of the puzzle in Oceanic’s creative team is a permanent occupant of the drum stool — Joseph Stevenson. On their first two singles the band worked with their first drummer.
Recently they’ve worked with studio session drummer Aaron Sterling, one of Glenn Tabor’s connections, who has played on records with artists ranging from Harry Styles to John Mayer.
Stevenson is also a friend from college, who played in a rival Lynchburg band called Rhineland. When Oceanic parted ways with their old drummer, Stevenson would frequently fill in on drums. By 2021, Stevenson, who still lives in Lynchburg, was coming down to Charlotte to play shows for Oceanic.
“This past fall, we said, ‘What are we doing? We like Joseph so much. He’s such a good dude,’” Goodwin says.
The band has offered the drumming stool to Stevenson and he will be moving to Charlotte within the next few months.
At this point, Oceanic is still a young band; Goodwin and Wyatt are 23, and Johnson is 24. This means the band has plenty of time to build and dream, particularly about the effect its music can have on listeners.
“I want our music to be introspective, to encourage people to think about their lives,” Goodwin says. “I also [want] people to know that they are cared for and thought about.”
“When Nate and I were deciding whether it was cheesy to be a band or not, we found meaning in the community aspect of it,” Johnson says. “Music is a powerful tool. It’s a great way to meet people and do our best to influence culture for the good.”
“Over time, I’ve become a less and less opinionated person, because most of the time, really strong opinions drive people apart,” Wyatt says. “My strongest opinion now is that we could all stand to be more introspective. That has always been a big goal of the band, just to try to get people to ask questions about themselves, each other or life in general.”
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.