THE OCEAN – interview with Robin Staps
- by Andrea Chirulescu
- Posted on 19-10-2020
Interview with Robin Staps, main guitarist and founder of the German prog/post-rock/avantgarde metal act THE OCEAN
Having had received a mail a while ago a promo mail about the upcoming album by ‘The Ocean’ (formerly The Ocean Collective) I found myself quite nicely impressed by the grooves and atmosphere changes that my ears were being exposed to. I added them to the list of ‘nice new releases’. Then I happened to catch the band live at Øya festival here in Oslo in 2019, making for the perfect soundtrack of my workbreak. Then I started paying more attention to their album’s contents and brought up some nostalgic images form my Geography lessons back in school where we were learning about various Eras or Ages of the Earth and what kind of transformations have been discovered through various methods. So I found it very interesting that a band has made that a subject of their music, which even gained them recognition from palaeontologists Dr. Lea Numberger and Dr. Ben Thuy at the Natural History Museum of Luxembourg. They have named "Ophiacantha oceani", a newly discovered fossil, after the band The Ocean to celebrate their palaeontology-inspired music.
While I didn’t get to ask about this recognition during the chat that I had with guitarist Robin Staps, he was kind enough to walk me through various aspects of how the band makes music and works together and tell me a few stories of their tour from 2019 that took them to different kind of destinations like Georgia, Armenia or Kazakhstan. A transcription of the chat can be read below.
Me: I had to do a bit of research as I had find it difficult to keep track of the names of your albums
RS: Hehe, you’re not the only one saying that
Me: I guess not. But I found this on wikipedia "Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic was released on 2 November 2018 while Phanerozoic II was expected to be released in 2019, but was postponed to 2020. These albums will respectively be the band’s seventh and eighth studio albums, and are the conceptual successors to the album Precambrian." Precambrian was released in 2007. Why so long to come up with the successors or is Wikipedia wrong here?
RS: No, Wikipedia is not wrong actually. The two Phanerozoic albums are a direct continuation of Precambrian which was released in 2007. The thing is that after Precambrian was done I wanted to focus on different topics which led to the Centric records, both released in 2010 and they had more of a human focus, rather than this geological theme that we already explored with Precambrian.
When I was writing the material for the Phanerozoic albums, especially the songs that ended up on part I, they reminded me of Precambrian in a way. I mainly noticed that during preproduction, realizing that they have the same vibe.
And then it dawned on me that there is still this gap between Precambrian and Heliocentric. Both conceptually and musically. Conceptually the gap is this Phanerozoic eon that we have just done and musically, there was quite a large gap that needed to be bridge – Precambrian was the last record of that lineup, at that time. Heliocentric was the first album with new vocalist and predominantly clean vocals. A lot has happened between the two records and both played a big role in the history of the band, so I felt like it was necessary to bridge that gap between them. And well, that idea came thirteen years after Precambrian was done. It kinda made sense to go back there and continue. It wasn’t actually thirteen years, more like ten because I had already started working on Phanerozoic in 2016/2017. This is when most of the songs were written for that album and it just took a long time to finish them.
Me: I guess they were written along the way or are you the kind of person who sits down and writes it all at once in short time?
RS: They were written over the course of two summers. I usually write in the summer, I can’t write at home. In order to be creative, I always have to isolate myself, as ironic as that sounds in the context of this year. For most of the year, especially when we are touring, I am not in the writing mode.
I usually go to this house in Spain, a place that we’ve been going to for many years. It’s a nice house, surrounded by beautiful nature, very close to the ocean. And this is where pretty much every album since Heliocentric was written at, with very few exceptions. A few tracks have been written at home because sometimes you have an idea in the middle of the night, you sit up straight in bed and have to get up and work on it at that very moment. But this is not usually how I work. I tend to write in periods, and I write very quickly in the course of two or three weeks. This is what is usually takes me to get a records done.
This is the case for the new album as well, with one exception: the track Jurassic | Cretaceous, which was like one of those songs that would never get finished. That one I’ve been working on for what I think to be almost four years and it was always at a point where it had an interesting foundation, but it was never finalized and so I always had to go back to it. Eventually, in 2017 I felt like I have arrived at a point where it was finished and I was happy when it happened.
Me: How do you know what sounds suit which period of time?
RS: Some of them were quite obvious for different reasons. Like for example Pleistocene, the kind of black metallish part at the end of the song is not something we have done before, but it felt right here. It makes sense to apply that to a time that the Earth was dominated by Ice ages, as the song has a cold vibe to it. Lyrically it’s also a song about depression, so that makes sense from various angles.
Some other tracks were specifically written with a certain time in mind – considering that you want to have this record evolve both stylistically and dynamically from the beginning to the end – we are starting with the Mezozoic period, about 66 million years ago, with the opening song Triassic and it all flows towards the last track, Holocene, which is the time we are living in now, the modern age. We wanted that to have more modern sounds, dominated by a more electronic soundscape and things like that.
So there were certain paradigms before we started writing them and other tracks were finished and we were looking at them, thinking where do they fit, which times do they represent. This is, of course, always a compromise as very rarely things fall into place perfectly. You always have go through such decisions as you’d like to have a certain flow of the track order, and you can’t solely look at them at from the angle of how perfect they fit the conceptual frame. It’s kinda like writing lyrics, there’s so many different things that have to fall into place: the sound of the words, the meanings, creating strong visual images with words and of course, the conceptual frame – all these realms have to be reconciled and brought together. That very rarely works 100% and you always end up sacrificing one thing or another. That’s one part of the creative process and especially of making concept albums.
Me: How much of the process is just you and how much do the other band members get involved?
RS: On this album, very much, compared to the previous records, including the first part of Phanerozoic, which I basically wrote all by myself. On the second part, three of the songs have been written by Paul (Seidel). And when I say written, I mean the initial ideas of the songs were written by him and I had to rework certain parts and added some guitars or vocals, but it’s the first time since he joined the band that he contributes to the writing process. All the other members have also been involved a lot more that before. I used to make very detailed preproductions of everything. I programmed drums, I recorded pilot guitars, I recorded baselines and even played like vocal melodies and recorded synth tracks for them. But now everyone else has become so much more involved. Matthias wrote his own basslines, Paul wrote his own drum patterns. Sometimes still based on what I programmed in my initial ideas, but also straying from it intentionally other times. Loïc has, eve since he joined the band, been writing his own vocal lines. With him, it’s a weird process – sometimes I have an idea and he tries it and it might work out. Sometimes he tries and doesn’t like it and takes it into a different direction and eds up in a place where neither of us has imagined in the first place. And a lot of time that leads to really cool results. Sometimes even if I have a direction in my head, I wouldn’t tell it to him, I’d let him follow his own inspiration. And then he sings with his eyes closed and non existing lyrics, just gibberish, but that’s how great vocal lines usually come into play – these lines that he sings intuitively, and I just write lyrics over them.
Back back to the original question – yes, everyone else is involved way more than before. And this time we have also rehearsed the songs before starting to record them, which I think is also the first time in the history of the band. Until now we’d usually have me writing the album, we’d record it and then start learning how to play it and figure out how to do it live. This time, before we even tracked the drums for the two albums, we rehearsed in Berlin for a month, we fine tunes certain details and transitions. I think that really helped the record to be less of a constructed effort and be more of an organic and collaborative effort of all the members of the band.
Me: I guess it’s a natural evolution of working in a band. Sometimes one way feels right, but after a while you try and find out another way is more suitable for what stage you are at. Does this way of working give you more peace and space and time or does it make you more stressed than before?
RS: Now it’s at a place where I actually enjoy it. But for many years I didn’t actually want that. I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do and I just wanted people to execute that. But that was also due the lineup we had for a long time. Now I am surrounded by amazing musicians and great people that I trust very much, both as friends and as musicians. And I want them to be involved. I learned that in order for people to passionately contribute to what has essentially been my project, they have to make it their own. You have to give them space to do that. Otherwise they’re just going to be hired ‘gunmen’. They’d execute a track perfectly well but in the end it would be like working a job. As soon as the boss is looking away, they’d be on their phone or so. I don’t want that, because in the end, what people see on stage is a band, this is not a solo project. I think that whether you’re a musician or not, from the perspective of the audience that’s what really makes the difference. If you feel like everyone up there is in it for the same reason, they share the same passion. Or not. If you get the feeling that they’re just playing a rehearsed set and they are bored and waiting to get home. I think you can easily tell that and I think that really great bands are those who have this certain magic coming from everyone on stage wanting the same thing and presenting that live in the best possible way. In order for that to happen, you need to give everyone space to unfold their own identities, both on stage and off stage
Me: Sounds logical. I’ve seen you guys at Øya festival last year and I wondered that you don’t have the easiest of songs and knowing that for a concert, songs have to be rearranged compared to what was released on a disc. Being so many of you, is it helpful that they contribute to the album and does it make life easier when you go on tour?
RS: It’s just an entirely different challenge from making a recording in the studio and then performing it live. You can make an absolute killer record and then you realise that certain things you do on the record don’t really work the same way live, or they require different emphasis on certain aspects. The elements of lights and how to create the atmosphere in a visual way, it’s something you don’t have with a recording. You have the artwork but it’s not the same as live lighting and creating depth and atmosphere with colors and haze and fog and video projections. There’s a lot more to a live performance, and also a lot more that can go wrong. And has actually gone wrong many many times. We’ve been through a lot of embarrassing moments because what we wanted to do live has always been quite ambitious. Ever since the beginning we had partially triggered or sequenced live show which is in sync with the music, meaning that we all play to a click track and if somebody doesn’t hear it, we look like idiots. You have lights pointing to the wrong spot for example. The more you want to do, the more you risk making a fool out of yourself. That has happened on many occasions, but it hasn’t yet killed my desire of wanting to make it right. When it works we can offer something that few other bands can offer that way. The live production is a world in its own and that only begins when when the record is finished in the studio. You have to consider how you’d play certain parts, having the right intention, the right speed, sticking to the sequences in the right way but also to allow people to stray from it if needed, to allow for variation. These are all things you have to figure out just by trying them together when you are all five or six people in one room and work on that. The rehearsals for us it’s like that.
When we do summer festivals for example, a show every week or every second week. We know we’re not rehearsing for the sake of songs as we know them well, but if you don’t rehearse, something stupid is bound to happen. It’s usually not that you’re playing the wrong note. It’s something you forgot to set back after the last gig or you didn’t check if your instruments were in the proper shape. And when you end up playing in front of a lot of people, you’d easily feel stupid if you hadn’t rehearsed that one or two times prior to the show. This is something we have learned over the years. Rehearsing is not so much for learning to play the instruments, it’s to make sure that everything works out right. That’s why it is actually very important, even if you can play the songs in your sleep, you shouldn’t skip the rehearsals.
Now that you mentioned you have seen at Øya, I just have to add that I remember that show and it was a horrible show for our drummer. I enjoyed the show but I think he broke his kick drum pedal. He had to play the whole show with one foot instead of two. It is possible but he was really struggling and it’s funny to get off stage and everyone is cheering saying how great the show was and then one of us ‘this was the worst show ever!’ So even within the same band, the perception can differ so much.
Me: What’s your favorite track on this album? Or maybe on both of them?
RS: For the new record, the second part that has just come out. We haven’t played it live yet, we have only rehearsed it before going in the studio to record it. We’re gonna start doing it now and rehearse songs for live performances so I think I need to have played the album a few times. That’s when you get a different access or sense of your own music. So it’s a bit early to say that but since I wrote those tracks and I have a relationship to them, but for me the whole Mesozoic opening part – Triassic, Jurassic | Cretaceous. I feel very attached to them. I already mentioned that Jurassic | Cretaceous is the song that almost never got finished so I put so much work into it. I am very grateful that it’s finally done. The opener Triassic it’s because it’s a weird song for The Ocean, it has these oriental vibes, some flutes which we recorded when were on tour in Armenia last year. It has a very different vibe from all other of our songs. We also experimented with tempos and time signatures that we don’t do so much, and it worked out really well.
I would also mention Pleistocene a broad and bizarre track that starts in one place and concluded in a totally different place that you wouldn’t guess when you start listening to it. And you can’t imagine that when you hear the beginning of the song.
Me: I will wrap up with one question, since you mentioned the tour last year.. There is some info about a recently released video saying that the tour took you to Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Georgia and Japan. Now, I don’t know many bands who played such locations. Can you share some impressions quickly on Armenia, Georgia or Kazakhstan live scene and overall experiences?
RS: It was a mindblowing experience. All of these countries. Totally different. Armenia first, where we had a really cool promoter who took good care of us. He took care of our technical needs, which was very difficult in a country like that where you don’t really have many venues. But he really went out of his way to accommodate us, but he really made us feel like home. He had us stay at his apartment for a week and had an awesome time. The show was also great, small, maybe 150 or 200 people. They really knew the band, the lyrics and they did the research before coming there. I was really surprised.
Georgia, similar to that. But we only had two or three days there, right after Armenia. But the show was really cool and I was impressed by how interesting the city was and how many aspects of culture. A borderline place, somehow. I loved Georgian food and their music and what I experienced of their culture.
Kazakhstan was weird for us. There is nor real scene for this kind of experimental metal we are playing. There is a metal scene but it’s mostly people who listen to very old stuff. They would know their Iron Maiden, Sepultura and such but wouldn’t really know us. We had a good show in Almaty that was cool, but the place itself was really weird. We played on top of the bar, the bar was kind between the stage and the crowd and it was this strange place that looked taken from ‘From Dusk to Dawn’. The other two shows had poor attendance and nobody really knew us there. But having the chance to visit these countries and perform there was really special. It will surely take some more years until something starts to properly develop there. But it’s always exciting to visit such places where, like you said, not every band has a chance to go and play there. You get to see them not only from the point of view of the tourist, but also from the point of view of a touring band and with all the problems it might carry along.