It’s just a bit ironic that the super-infectious, high-energy pop rock single that marks the emergence of Hobart Ocean (www.hobartocean.com) is called “Another Heartbreak.”
Because as Top 40 listeners across the country groove to the single this fall – it is shipping to the format nationwide in September – they’ll be caught up in the beautiful romance these four fun, super interesting, L.A. transplants have been sharing with thousands of fans at Universal CityWalk this past year. No doubt they’ll also run to download the cool new Hobart Ocean app that the band has developed and made available on iTunes.
And when fans hear the whimsical story of how three small town Illinois musicians hooked up with a Swedish drummer in L.A., scored a plum residency at the famed outdoor entertainment venue and were serendipitously discovered and signed by upstart indie label Swift Endeavor, they’ll realize that any notion of disappointment and heartache have been put on permanent hold.
“Another Heartbreak,” along with other tracks the band has done, was written and recorded with a basic living room studio setup when frontman Travis Leonard, bassist Jaron Lancaster and lead guitarist Steven Hopkins were living together in a condo in Tarzana. They later brought the fully produced demo they created to producer Jimmy Deer for mixing at a studio in Hollywood that once hosted sessions for Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
The truth is cooler than fairy tale story starts with the three all living in the vicinity of Champaign-Urbana, finding local and regional success as the DIY pop-punk outfit Vanattica for six years starting in 2006, when Travis transferred from UC Santa Barbara to the University of Illinois to compete on their track team.
Vanattica toured on their own several times and even did a Warped Tour, but break-even had never been their goal – so they packed their proverbial dreams and moved to L.A., where Travis worked as an actor and model (even appearing on CMT’s “Sweet Home Alabama” show) and Jaron and Steven got day jobs while gigging at hotspots like The Viper Room and Amplify. They also did an acoustic DIY tour up the coast.
Enter Mattias Hagstrom, who had moved to SoCal from a small town in Sweden to study drumming at Musicians Institute in Hollywood.
“We were doing okay acoustically, but we knew we need a bigger live show in L.A.,” says Travis. “It would be pretty insane to keep doing the same thing. So we called up MI and asked if we could make a flyer advertising for a drummer for an upcoming show. Six great players auditioned for us via YouTube. Mattias was one of the first. He put up a couple videos and learned the song we gave him in 24 hours. We brought him to a rehearsal space in North Hollywood, and we knew immediately that he was a heavy hitter. We gave him the gig we were doing at Busby’s, and it went so well we kept him on. We love having him in the band. He said, ‘You don’t have to pay me,” but we do anyway!”
As Vanattica gigged here and there, behind the scenes Travis was secretly writing in a more alt-pop kind of style that he thought might work for a side project. Having traveled Down Under, and earning a Bachelor’s in Geography and an MS in Medical Geography, he came up with a quirky name for what it might be called. Hobart Ocean is named for the capital of Australia’s island state of Tasmania, which was founded over 200 years ago as a penal colony. “It’s literally the end of the earth – sort of like a small town in Illinois,” he says.
Turns out, Travis’ bandmates were cool with the new material that was naturally flowing out of him and were hip to the idea of changing the vibe and concept of the band. One night he was on a date at Universal CityWalk and saw a crowd gathered around a female singer performing an acoustic set. He asked her how she scored the gig and later went online to apply, sending a demo CD, bio and website link.
Two weeks later, he received an email from NBC Universal inviting Hobart Ocean to come in for an audition. He credits two executives from the company, Kevin Lindsey and Stuart Irel, for getting the ball rolling which has now led to their deal with Swift Endeavor.
“They asked us to come in with three songs to play outside on a Wednesday afternoon, and we ended up playing ten songs because they enjoyed it so much!” says Travis. “We did well at our test show in December and started 2014 doing six to eight shows a month, playing for five to 10,000 people a night over four hours, selling CDs and T-shirts, having a blast. Kevin and Stuart told us we beat out 150 other acts to get the regular slot, and that we were the only full band they ever chose. Our set list mixed original tunes and cover tunes of bands like Jimmy Eat World andOneRepublic. We’ve also opened on Citywalk’s prestigious Five Towers Stage for the bandHeffron Drive.”
Jay Hu, a onetime marketing manager at Jive Records who is now Managing Director of Swift Endeavor, was hanging out with some colleagues at CityWalk when one of them walked over to hear Hobart Ocean as the band dug into Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle.” They listened to a few tunes and before the set was over, Hu walked over to Jaron – who was not onstage at the time but was running the merchandise table and signing autographs – and asked if they were signed or repped. Hu dropped his card on the table and told Jaron (whom he didn’t realize was a band member) to tell the band to give him a call.
Hu says, “There were many factors that excited me about the band and eventually led us to sign them. First, they were very unique in the sense that when I look at two very tall guys and two shorter guys they don’t look like they physically fit together yet musically they had it all together and were very organized. Travis was a nice looking, charismatic lead singer and they were able to wow a crowd playing acoustically. Their songs and presentation were captivating. Travis was capable of making me believe that he was already someone famous – and since he wasn’t yet, he and his band definitely deserved to be. We also loved the passion and drive they bring to everything. They’re the perfect combination of talent and spark.”
Travis and the other members of Hobart Ocean were excited about the details of the deal they were offered, which will allow them to do much more than simply survive solely as musicians. They love the business model of Swift Endeavor, a small boutique label with strong capital behind it that allows its artists full artistic integrity and control of its music and a good royalty rate. Looking ahead, the members of the band are also broadening their horizons and getting involved in making music for TV, film and commercials. When they get to a certain financial level, they also plan some philanthropic activities and investing in restaurant franchises.
“In many ways, we’re a label’s dream come true,” says Travis, the son of a doctor and teacher who, always a man with a practical backup plan, is licensed to practice nursing in California. “We work so hard to get things done and we are very efficient and show up on time. We have been DIY for so long and it’s great to have the opportunity now to take this to the next level. We’re inspired that we got more fans the first week we were on Facebook than all our previous bands combined. We love staying after the shows as long as it takes to talk to every one of our fans. As a small town kid making good, I also really love making my parents smile and know that they’re excited for us and believe in all we are doing.”