It’s rather difficult to get hold of Out of the Blue these days. Ever since they took a cappella to the masses and wowed audiences and judges alike in last year’s season of Britain’s Got Talent, they have barely had time to stop and breathe, as their already impressive fanbase trebled and gig requests flew in from all corners of the globe. I was delighted, then, when I was approached by their Business Manager and staunch if reluctant bass Dominic Stockbridge, who allowed me to delve a little deeper into the UK’s biggest collegiate a cappella group.
“I would give so much to be a minor third higher,” Dom opens, perhaps lamenting the fact that a cappella solos are rarely suited for similarly-voiced males like him, but allowing his passion and enthusiasm to shine through his words nevertheless. Dominic has been a member of the group since 2010, and as such has been able to enjoy the group’s significant rise in popularity in the past couple of years. But it wasn’t always that way. The group was formed in 2000 by an American called Derek Smith. “He had been a member of a cappella groups in the Ivy League, and wanted to help the culture proliferate over here,” Dominic explains to me. “Out of the Blue wasn’t the first group in the UK by any means, but it arrived on the scene just as a cappella began to gain some sort of recognition and started to excel in a niche market.”
So how exactly did they get to this point? “It’s a mixture of extremely hard work and, in all honesty, luck. We all feel a responsibility to the group and give a lot of time and effort into making everything worthwhile, not just for ourselves but for future members who will benefit from the groundwork we have helped to lay.” Indeed, the effort that the boys put in within the first ten years of the group’s existence has been quite astonishing. Tours of the UK and the US have been conducted successfully and regularly; TV and Radio invitations have been graciously accepted several times; and performances in front of famous guests, including David Cameron, have not been rare. And let’s not forget, they are still the most successful British group with regard to competitions, having finished as runners-up in the ICCAs twice, in 2006 and 2009. Hardly experiences to be sniffed at.
It’s a wonder how a group with such an inconsistent membership can remain at such a consistently high level of performance. “The group has a large turnover due to its busy schedule and the all-consuming nature of the Oxford academic life – when I joined the group, I was one of eleven new members, with only four remaining from the previous year. But I think it helps us to stay fresh, because the group is always working with new voices, new ideas, and a new dynamic.” Clearly, the boys in blue know how to deal with the ever-revolving door of arrivals and departures in collegiate a cappella – four Voice Festival finals in four years is testament to their ability to create fresh, high quality a cappella year upon year. There is some level of consistency though: “Our president, a sixth-year architecture post-grad is currently in his fifth year in the group.” Kudos for that. “I’m leaving at the end of this year, because it’s struck me that finals are going to hit like a train,” Dominic explains with a heavy heart.
And then came perhaps the real breakthrough, not just for the group, but for a cappella as a genre too: Britain’s Got Talent. “It was very much a ‘why not?’ moment for us. Our President at the time, Dave Brennan, put it to us, and we discussed it as a group. Obviously we had our reservations, but in the end we decided to give it a go and see what came about.” I wondered if I was successfully hiding the veiled jealousy that was bubbling over as he spoke about the audition process for the prime-time TV show. “We got in touch with the program, got an audition slot in December, and it sort of went from there. Within a few weeks we were asked back to the Hammersmith Apollo to perform in front of the judges, and while we were in America, we found out that we’d made the semi-finals.”
It was with a sense of looming inevitably that I asked the next question: were they disappointed not to have made it to the final? “Yes, obviously. As with any competitive environment, it’s a shame not to go all the way, but most of us had exams in the following week so in a sense we were extremely relieved!” Contained within that vague disappointment was a lingering sense of pride, though: “We were quite proud of having just been ‘Out of the Blue’. Looking at a lot of the acts we were up against, they all had some gimmick or another: a massive backing choir; crazy, colourful outfits; or insane dance routines. Apart from the show giving us brand new jackets, all the creative input was our own, so even though we went out, we went out on our own terms, which is something.” An admirable sentiment, and something which I myself aspire to.
Of course, the lasting impression the boys have from the show was simply that they had a great deal of fun. “It was surreal experience after surreal experience, but we’re all glad to have done it. It’s the kind of one-off thing that you’ll tell your kids about, that’s for sure!” When asked about his own personal favourite moment, Dominic recounts a tale which had allowed him to get behind the camera for once: “As part of the montage clip played on the show before our semi-final performance, there is a shot of the whole group cycling down a very stereotypically Oxford street in our suits. Needless to say, this never happens in real life! As I don’t have a bike, I was allowed to direct the shot in the most embarrassingly cliched possible way. There’s something quite rewarding knowing that I contributed towards mildly humiliating all of my colleagues in front of ten million people.” His final thoughts on the whole process almost made me want to apply myself: “It was all just hilariously good fun, and we’d never have changed it for the world.”
The repercussions of the boys’ national exposure on live television are still reverberating around the rest of the UK. “We hope Britain’s Got Talent helped put the British A Cappella scene even more firmly on the map at a time when it’s becoming increasingly exciting.” Indeed, with a record number of participants in an ever-expanding Voice Festival UK this year, it’s clear to see the boys had some sort of impact on the popularity of the genre throughout the UK. Either that, or this blog is a lot more popular than I thought.
The post-BGT era was a pretty manic one for Out of the Blue. “In July, we ended up doing performing at the Santander University Festival in Spain, which was a real honour. We got to perform alongside some really amazing musicians from around the world in a beautiful corner of northern Spain. Needless to say, much sangria was consumed.” Then, in August, the boys took to Edinburgh for the eighth time, where their 336-seater show ended up being the biggest selling student show ever at the Fringe Festival. “Then, in September, we went to the South of France for a private engagement – as you do.” Such exotic gigs have become so close to second nature for group members that I understood Dominic’s nonchalance when talking about their second visit to the mainland in as many months.
“Then we had our annual UK tour at Christmas time – our American members were thrilled at the ‘Englishness’ of the Peak District.” Add to this the annual Voice Festival participation and numerous Oxford-based gigs which make up the bulk of the group’s yearly calendar, and it’s not surprising that it has easily been the “most ridiculous” year of Dominic’s life. “We were in California over Easter, too,” he continues, barely stopping to catch his breath – much like the group themselves, I’m inclined to suggest. “We had a great time: singing at Google; doing some draft recording at Dreamworks; recording some CD tracks with the legendary Bill Hare; and singing with some extraordinarily good American collegiate groups.” The West Coast is renowned for its a cappella – and given that it is the home of three-time ICCA Champions the SoCal VoCals, along with many other nationally recognised groups, it’s not hard to understand why. “It was really great to sing with legendary groups such as UC Berkeley Men’s Octet.”
But no matter how far across the globe they travel, or to how many people they perform, one constant remains fixed in the Out of the Blue calendar each and every year – their end-of-year concert at Oxford’s New Theatre. And this year, it’s bigger than ever. “It’s a 1800-seater venue, and as such the night is always such good fun, and there’s a real buzz around the place each time we perform there. But for the past few years we’ve sold out, and so we made the decision this year to do two nights instead of one. It’s ambitious, but the fact we sold out at the Fringe last year makes us feel confident.” Ambitious indeed – in fact, no other student act of any type has ever attempted anything of this size, and so to pull it off would really be an achievement. But Dominic remained adamant that it wasn’t just about the reputation of Out of the Blue themselves: “Yes, we’re obviously keen to make the most of the Britain’s Got Talent publicity, but it’s more about showing that there is more to student a cappella than what people may have seen in those two brief performances on live television. It’s about showing that British A Cappella is a thing, and that it’s here to stay.” It’s obvious that promoting a cappella as a genre genuinely matters to the group. Indeed, the international success of All the King’s Men at this year’s ICCAs and the strong positive reaction to The Other Guys’ latest YouTube video have both contributed to the increasing wave of popularity that is sweeping the country. Not only that, but the boys themselves have been offering free a cappella workshops in state schools all across the country for a few years now. “During our show on the 12th, a load of Oxford schoolkids, who will have had a workshop with us in the afternoon, will be getting up on stage with us and attempting a cappella themselves!” Clearly the boys have the interests of a cappella close at heart.
Of course, the boys won’t be stopping there. With a live CD release just around the corner, and some of the aforementioned recordings with Bill Hare set to feature on a new studio album at the beginning of August (just in time for the ninth visit to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I might add), there really is no rest for the wicked. “We’re hoping to top last year’s Edinburgh run!” Dominic tells me with enthusiasm, while keeping the important details tightly guarded under lock and key. And after that? “We’re going to Japan for 11 days.” Casual. Clearly the Out of the Blue juggernaut shows no signs of stopping any time soon.
“Then, in December, we might – the key word here being ‘might’ – be going to Singapore, but that’s very much a plan still in the works right now. Sadly I will be buried in books by that point,” he concludes with an air of resignation.
Despite all this, it will be Dominic’s final words that will stick with me for the longest. In amongst the tales of embarrassing group members on national television, recording tracks with a cappella legends and jetting off to areas of the world blessed with finer weather than we in the UK could ever dream of, an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the group comes through his departing statement, which I will not tarnish with my comparatively clumsy editing:
“In general, I just feel very lucky. I went for Out of the Blue simply because I like singing, but have never had the conventional ‘Oxford choral’ background. It still baffles me that I got in, and I’m constantly surprised by how much we’ve done, and how much the past two years have been shaped by it. I don’t think I’ll actually know how important it was to me until I no longer have it. It’s just been awesome. I’ve met some amazing people, and I feel so privileged. I just hope that the same sense of genuine enthusiasm and enjoyment reaches our audiences. They deserve it.”
Out of the Blue are performing at Oxford’s New Theatre at 7.30pm on June 11/12. Tickets are £16/£10 and can be purchased here. There will also be a preview and drinks reception on 29 May at 7pm at the Grove Auditorium, Magdalen College, Oxford. To RSVP, contact Patrick Lee at 07530 857411 or email@example.com.