(NCS interviewer deluxe BadWolf turned in this revealing interview of Robin Staps from that mind-bending multinational collective The Ocean.)
The struggles that met The Ocean on their 2011 Spring tour supporting Between the Buried and Me and Job for a Cowboy have been well-discussed, but perhaps not well-documented. This interview I conducted on the Toledo date of that tour on May 28 supplies a missing piece of the puzzle.
Now that The Ocean are returning to the U.S. next month with Devin Townsend, it’s the perfect time to bring the mind of The Ocean’s mastermind, writer/guitarist Robin Staps, to light.
Do yourselves a favor and SEE THAT TOUR. The Ocean are a heady, proggy band, but they put on a visceral stage show with stage diving and, apparently, an intense light show which wasn’t present at Headliner’s in Toledo. Staps and his friends deserve your support!
BadWolf – This is the first time you’ve played this part of the country [Toledo].
Robin Staps – We played Chicago last time, I think. We were here three years ago with Kylesa, Lair of the Minotaur and Withered.
d00shc00gr [Badwolf’s compatriot] – Man we should have seen that one! (more after the jump . . .)
BW – That sounds like such a better show than this one. I didn’t even know about it. So how’s the tour been so far?
RS – It has been really good so far. I think we’re going over really well with their [Between the Buried and Me’s]crowd. They’re used to all kinds of proggy extravaganza, so they’re open-minded to our lengthy songs.
It’s been the most stressful tour I’ve done so far, just because the transportation situation is a nightmare. The bus company that rented us this piece of shit has screwed us from the very beginning. The bus arrived 32 hours late without a trailer, although we did rent a trailer. It has a completely busted outer mirror as you can still see. Our driver didn’t have a passport, so we had to drive ourselves through Canada. At the same time they’ve been threatening to just take the bus away from us, basically. We paid in advance so they’re in a position where they can basically do whatever the fuck they want with us.
That frustration has resulted in me not really getting into this tour—I just haven’t *arrived* yet. I have good shows every night but as soon as the show is over this shit just comes back, so hopefully we will be off to brighter territories on the horizon. We still don’t know, we are living from one day to the next right now and it just sucks.
We’re ten people. There’s bunks for everyone but the heating doesn’t work; in Canada everyone slept with two pairs of pants and four jackets on every night. It’s been a fucking nightmare in that regard. But still we’ve had these amazing shows. Tonight was probably the worst night of the tour for us.
BW – Why was tonight one of the worst? [Let it be known I had a blast]
RS – It felt weird. The venue is shit; the stage is small. It was still fun but nothing compared to the past two nights. We had these big venues; an opera house in Toronto.
BW – So, the Canadian venues?
RS – The best venues so far have been Canadian, I have to admit that. Those were the only two major cities, though [Toronto, Montreal]—every city in America has been these sketchy suburban places.
BW – Does that say something about the state of the artform’s acceptance in the two countries?
RS – Maybe. I’m not the one to judge that, but Toronto and Montreal are capital cities in Canada. Had we played New York rather than Farmingdale things might have been different.
BW – On tour now with Between the Buried and Me, how is the relationship? Are you fans?
Jona Nido (guitar) – We’ve been following them since their first EP on Lifeforce in Europe. Everything up through Colors was genius. I kind of lost it on the last two albums. It’s odd to play with them because they are these amazing musicians we will never be.
RS – They’re really good people, too. No attitude whatsoever. In terms of the communication between bands and the tour manager, this has been our most relaxing tour. I’m not so much a fan of the proggy sweep-picking orgies they pull off, although it’s amazing to watch it night after night. Probably one of the two best bands I’ve ever played with, so it’s an honor.
In terms of their records I really liked Colors. I’ve never liked the screaming vocals; I’m more of a fan of the clean vocals. Now, seeing it live I’m getting an appreciation for all of it. Their lighting is perfect. Everything is spot on.
BW – Your band also does both clean and harsh vocals, but I think there’s been cleaner singing directed at the listener per capita on Heliocentric and Anthropocentric. Was that a result of your intention or the new singer [Loïc Rossetti] bringing his style to the mix?
RS – It’s both. We did want more clean vocals, so when our old singer Mike quit, we decided to find someone who could do everything. Mike was doing clean vocals too, but his specialty was his diverse screams—he wasn’t the best *singer.*
Loïc is bringing in a lot of his own tone and color and ideas, which further reinforced that.
BW – In a telephone interview with Decibel magazine [March 2011], you were quoted as saying you don’t consider The Ocean to be a metal band. [To be more specific that he does not write metal music]
RS – Hm, I think I meant to say I don’t consider the Ocean to be a ‘mere’ metal band. Of course we are a metal band. We play electric guitars in that very metallic way, but there’s more to it. Just in the guitar playing there is weird parts that are more jazz or rock. We use classical instruments which is not very metal, or at least not used in a very metal way. The songwriting is very different. I don’t know—people like to think in categories and that’s definitely the best one. We’re more of a metal band than a reggae band. [laughs]
BW – What’s unique about your songwriting? Can you describe the process?
RS – It’s a very intimate thing for me. It’s something I do only when I have lots of time and a free mind. I do it somewhere else away from home. I just need peace and quiet and a little gear to catch my ideas.
Up until Heliocentric I was the only one who wrote any material. On Anthropocentric there are about five songs we wrote as a band. Even on Heliocentric the other members had greater input, but it’s still an intimate process where we write parts and then throw them together and rearrange a guitar line here or a beat there. It’s still something we do on our own.
All the recordings are things that took shape not in the rehearsal room but between two, three, five individuals in separate places trading ideas. We record our own things and then bring them together.
We only started rehearsing Anthropocentric songs right before this tour, but the record had been out for three months before we played “Anthropocentric” (the song) for the first time together. We take a very different approach in that way.
BW – That’s crazy to me because live you were remarkably tight. In America you have this reputation as sort of a one-man band. How is it playing those Anthropocentric songs?
RS –Still? That’s so funny.
Dc – That’s what I want to know, how you get so energetic live when it seems like you all live so far away from one another, yet the music has so much collaboration. Does anyone ever meet face to face?
RS – Oh yeah! We meet time to time. Although not necessarily to rehearse.
JN – Not necessarily for two years.
BW – Two years?
RS – We meet for about a week before a tour. Everybody knows the songs by then and we just go. That’s what we did before this tour.
To answer your earlier question I love playing Anthropocentric. It’s something you never know before when you haven’t played them. There are songs we played together that had been recorded, and they didn’t really kick you live so we discarded them. Like “Rhyacian”, for example. Everybody wants to hear “Rhyacian”.
BW – I wanted to hear “Rhyacian”!
RS – Maybe we discarded it prematurely, but we played it three or four times during the Opeth tour and it wasn’t getting us into it as much as it should have, so we took it off [the set list]. We rehearsed five Anthropocentric songs, but we usually only play one or two per night due to the limited set times. All five of those songs work really well. They’re fun and new, especially after we toured so much last year and got sick of playing some of those older songs.
It takes a lot of planning to get everyone together to rehearse, although of course we are together when we record. I am always there when we record drums. I did vocals with Loïc. As for string instruments Jona recorded his alone. I record mine alone. That all went by file transfer—I still spent half the year in Switzerland where the studio is located and the rest of the band lives. It involves a lot of travel and planning, but it is possible—there are cheap flights in Europe. There is the internet.
In a way, there’s new species of bands evolving, bands that function in a way that is essentially different from how it was just ten years ago. You don’t necessarily need to be five friends from the same town to start a band anymore. For example, we just toured with The Dillinger Escape Plan, and they all live in different cities and write records by mail and internet.
BW – But there’s a difference between you and Dillinger: their music functions on roboticism and the mathematic. You guys have a much more lush and organic sound than that band, and that’s the allure. Or do you disagree?
RS – As far as the sound is concerned I would agree to that, but as for the genesis of that sound I’m not sure it makes so much of a difference. Our songs are kind of mathematical constructions as well, although they may not sound as if they are, you know?
Our songs are written like composed music. They’re thought out—which isn’t to say it’s devoid of emotion. It’s just a different approach from the punk rock jam approach.
dc – Are you planning on any more tours with a less stripped-down setup? We’ve never had the chance to see you in Europe—in your element. Is the stage show bigger? Is there more to work with?
RS –It’s much bigger. Mainly it’s a sequenced light show that we couldn’t bring here because it’s just too much gear to put on a plane. It’s sequenced to support that effect of tightness—we all play to a click and it cuts to black at every break. There’s strobes flashing in time to the music. We’re very used to that. We even rehearse with it sometimes just to get into it more ourselves. It’s a lot of work to set up and bring along, but it’s worth it.
I miss that here. It’s something special that we haven’t gotten across yet.
We also have visuals which we ran in the US for the first time yesterday because the place was big enough. Tonight we didn’t have the space to set up a four-by-three meter screen.
We also have classical musicians that play with us but that only happens on special occasions. We played a museum show in Berlin a couple months ago—we played the museum for musical instruments with an extra piano player and a cello player. For those events we do that, but we don’t bring them on tour because it would be too many people and too expensive. These are professional musicians that need to be paid and you can’t do that playing support for The Dillinger Escape Plan. They won’t get paid shit!
BW – I need to know: are there still stage dives and massive lights onstage with the cello player up there?
RS – I’ve never seen Dalai stage dive; she would be too worried about her cello! [laughs] she’s a very heavy metal chick though. She totally rocks out on her instrument; she’s not just some player that doesn’t have anything to do with metal. When we recorded Precambrian all the extra musicians were unfamiliar with metal, they had never played in that context before. When they recorded I just muted the vocals because I thought they would just walk out of the room if they heard that.
That’s different now with two of our extra people who I would really like to integrate more fully into the band for, say, festival shows. They are both very metal people, or at least people who are used to playing to a rhythm which classical players are not. They can play to a click—they listen to rock or metal music.
BW – I want to talk about one concept specifically: Anthropocentric follows Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, yes. How does that function in terms of… you bringing it into the concept?
RS - Well you tell me! [laughs]
BW – I want someone else’s interpretation. I’ve thought about mine enough, it’s boring to me.
RS – I write about stuff that’s on my mind and that I care about. It’s not stuff that I dig out in a library or something. It’s things that I have been thinking about for a long time and that I have an interest in.
I read The Brothers Karamazov like eight or nine years ago. I love that book. I also had the idea of doing a concept album about the legacy of Christianity for a long time. When the concept came together—the two albums each focusing on a different model—I started writing lyrics for Heliocentric first and then Anthropocentric . The Karamazov Brothers was always in the back of my mind, especially that Grand Inquisitor chapter, so I read the book and that chapter specifically a second time and found it to be the perfect material for a three- or five-song cycle within the album and bring it together in that context.
All the things that inspired you before and are still there, so when you focus on a concept you can go back and integrate them.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Robin Staps posted an update on the band’s Facebook page in early August, which included these statements: “After 2 weeks of creative isolation at the new Oceanland on the Spanish coast, there are about 25 minutes of new material written and pre-produced which are basically one continuous piece of music. Apart from that, there are 4 more songs including a wicked cover track 🙂 . . . THE OCEAN will hit the studio some time in early 2012 to record the follow up(s?) to Heliocentric / Anthropocentric. More tours to be announced soon, stay tuned!”
Speaking of tour announcements, we now know that the band will be touring China in September and October, will be finishing October with a U.S. tour in support of The Devin Townsend Project, and will spend November playing in the UK with Textures and Aliases and then headlining shows in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. You can find all the dates at The Ocean’s online newsletter.
Finally, in addition to a new album (or albums?), a DVD is in the works featuring live performances from a number of different gigs, including The Ocean’s set at the 2011 edition of SUMMER BREEZE. Here’s a taste of that show: