(Our man BadWolf had a long chat with The Ocean’s main man Robin Staps just prior to the release of Pelagial this year, and we have it for you here.)
Robin Staps comes across nothing like his music. Soft-spoken, and eloquent as he is lithe, Staps appears as some sort of scholarly outdoorsman. Which is true.
However, he’s also the composer/lyricist/lead guitarist and all-around mastermind behind cerebral genre interlocutors The Ocean, and in that capacity he is anything but soft. His early records, the instrumental Fluxion through the sprawling Precambrian, compose some of the strongest post-whatever music put to disc, mixing sludge, hardcore, and progressive metal with orchestral music and jazz. His subject matter—the food chain, the literature of Dostoevsky and the gradual cooling of the prehistoric earth’s crust—is arch as all get out. You could say he innovated the high-concept album. And what albums they are. The last two, conjoined twins, Heliocentric and Anthropocentric, form a literate, scientific, and absolutely burning indictment of Christianity.
“There is no alternative to the theory of evolution.” Staps insists through frontman-as-avatar Loïc Rosetti.
Those albums may present a larger existential threat to organized religion than the entirety of black metal put together. Witchcraft destroys minds, but The Ocean changes them.
Earlier this year, Staps released his followup to the -centric albums, Pelagial, and it’s another doozy—a one-hour trip from the surface of the ocean to its floor. It begins delicate and ends crushing, and along the way dabbles in new territory. Hell, parts of “Mesopelagic: Into the Uncanny” sound almost like a down-tuned Queen, but still work in the album’s greater context.
From his music’s time signature to its instrumentation, conceptualization, packaging, and presentation, Staps pushes every aspect of his art to the extreme. He Skyped me just prior to the release of Pelagial to talk about what drives him, the way Pelagial was made, and the source of his inspiration—the ocean. Yeah, the interview took a while to get up. Sorry, Robin.
So where are you calling from? It looks gorgeous.
Sweet. Never been to Berlin. I don’t know much about the city, geographically, so tell me: where was the wall?
Oh! Right over there. [Robin points out the window] In that building.
Yes we’re quite close. It went more or less north-to-south but not entirely linear, so when you’re in the center of the city it’s difficult to know if you’re in former East or West Germany, but right now we’re East. Just east of the wall.
Like that band.
Yes! Great band.
They remind me of The Ocean in some ways. I bet someone in the band likes you.
We played one show with them, in Brooklyn I think, and they were very impressive live. I would like to see them again.
Now you’re speaking to me from Germany, but as I recall you have a studio in Spain?
It’s not really a studio. The band is from Berlin—I am from Berlin. Well, nobody is from Berlin. There are no Berliners. Everyone in Berlin moves here from somewhere else, but I have been living here for thirteen years so I tend to say that I am from Berlin. Most of the band members are from Switzerland, actually, which is about a thousand kilometers away right now. So logistically it’s not easy to make rehearsals happen. The studio where we’ve been recording… well we have been recording many places. I have a small studio here in Berlin that I share with a friend. Then in Switzerland, where we recorded most of our albums, there is a good recording studio. The place in Spain is just where we track vocals, and it’s also where I wrote the new album and both previous albums. It’s a very inspirational place for me, because it is a house by the sea and you have these open horizons where you can let your thoughts roam in any direction. It’s a great place for writing music and it’s where we recorded vocals for the -centric albums, but it’s not a proper studio. It’s more of our own DIY space, where we made a sound-proof dead-room, and brought in a mic, a pre-amp and a laptop—which is all you really need to record vocals these days.
Having a whole house to yourself in Spain sounds expensive!
It’s not mine. I don’t own it. It’s family property that I can use for a few weeks during the summer. It’s being shared by, like, five parties.
Ah, I see how it is. You’re sneaky. You are on facebook with your photo posts: ‘here I am in my mansion on the Spanish Riviera.’
I wish! One day…
So lets talk about the ocean. You write by the ocean, about the ocean, in a band called The Ocean. And this is your second concept album about a large body of water [the first would be Precambrian—BW]. What significance does the ocean hold for you?
I’ve always had an intense relationship with the ocean in a positive and negative way—I nearly drowned twice as a kid, so I have known the fearful side of the sea, but I’ve also spent some of the most beautiful moments of my life in the ocean, and I have it tattoo’d all over my arms, so… It’s been playing a significant role in my life. It’s been that place where I can really get away from everything and all the distractions of everyday life. I am a diver, too, and I wrote my diploma thesis on coral reef monitoring in southern Belize. So the ocean is a huge part of my life in various regards.
You have a PhD?
No I have a—more or less—masters diploma in the subject of physical geography. There’s a reason why this band is called The Ocean. I wanted to have a band name that would allow us to do anything musically, and the ocean can be that beautiful sunset with the gentle waves and coconut palm trees, and it can also be that shark-infested, stormy sea that kills you. That’s why I thought it was appropriate for the music.
The lyrics on Pelagial do seem a bit more emotive than those on the -centric albums.
Yeah they are, that’s right, and that was a conscious choice. I did not want to write another album that was very intellectually highbrow or sophisticated. The -centrics were a critique of Christianity, and of course there were personal subjects involved as well, but it’s a very philosophical album. I didn’t want to repeat that. I wanted to make an album that is closer to myself and closer to the experiences I have been going through lately. I just really wanted a more emotional record, which is why the lyrics ended up being the way they are.
But it still has a concept—the album is about descending into the ocean, like in a bathysphere—so now the lyrics are disconnected.
Yes. When I first started writing the album it was intended to be instrumental, and that idea was for the record to be a journey from the surface to the bottom of the sea. What were we going to sing about? Not sperm whales fighting with giant squid in the depths. That would be silly—though fun. I didn’t want that approach, which was why for a long time I didn’t think the album really needed any vocals. The concept was self-explanatory. The music is meant to reinforce that descent and we don’t need a singer to sing about that. Thats why it’s being released as an instrumental record as well with every version of the album, even on iTunes—this is not a bonus, it is a completely valid album.
But, at one point I felt like I really wanted to have vocals. We were going through some tough times with Loïc. His voice was suffering from the immense amount of touring we had been doing. He had polyps and needed them removed. Some of the doctors told him that he needed to stop screaming immediately. We weren’t sure if he could tour with us. And since the album was conceptualized already, we decided to just make it instrumental. We all listen to a lot of instrumental music anyway and of course Fogdiver was instrumental as well. So it wasn’t something new for us. But what happened then was we took a break after our Australian tour for six months, and in that time Loïc’s voice improved, and he expressed to us very clearly that he wanted to keep touring with us and being in the band. At the same time I really felt that I wanted him to be on the album, because we had spent so much time establishing him as the lead singer of the band and because he has such an instrumental role in channeling the energy that we unleash into the crowd, and something would be missing if that were not the case.
So we decided to just record vocals for the last two tracks. So people would think it was an instrumental record and then after thirty minutes all of a sudden there would be vocals. We recorded vocals for those two tracks and it went really well. After that we just started fooling around and trying different things. By the end of that week we had vocal sketches for the entire album. So thats how the whole thing came together. The whole thing happened really quickly. We started mixing the album in January and hadn’t even decided to start vocals until early December, so all this happened one month before mixing. I was worried that things would be really, really rushed but sometimes that helps you focus on things, so in the end I was happy with how the vocals turned out more than any previous album. I think the time constraints helped us accomplish something we hadn’t before
I feel like when you introduced Loïc, right before the -centric albums, there was a real shock. People were so used to you being a collective band with a wide vocal palate. And then you had the singular voice—Loïc has a real character, whether he’s screaming or singing you know that it’s him. Why the decision to have the singular person as frontman.
Well, for a while we had two vocalists, but we could obviously never get all the vocalists we used on Precambrian onstage at once. So we were used to playing live that way. The last vocalist before Loïc was Mike Pilat, who did most of the vocals on Precambrian and all the vocals on the re-issued Fluxion from 2009. He toured together with Nico Webers from War From a Harlot’s Mouth for four or five years. We then got to the point where we thought we could have all those vocal styles together with a single vocalist. So we let Nico go. Then Mike quit in 2009. After that point I really wanted a vocalist that would enable us to do anything musically. Both Nico and Mike were very powerful screamers and decent live performers, but we wanted clean vocals. And not the cheesy gay metalcore vocals, but really soulful singing on the choruses. That was something neither of them really could do. So when Mike quit I took that chance to find one man who could do all that and the end of that search process was Loïc.
We listened to over 100 demo tracks submitted to us by potential vocalists and we narrowed it down to three. When we heard Loïc, I remember it was during the recording of Heliocentric, we were at the studio and we heard his vocal takes for “Firmament.” Those are the actual takes we used on the record. We all thought it was fucking awesome. And then the second song he recorded was “The City in the Sea” from Aeolian, so we realized he could scream as well. After talking to him, we found him to be the exact fit for our vacancy in every regard, in terms of his styles and his, as you said, character. His personality. He doesn’t have the average clean metal voice. It was love at first sight. He was exactly who I was looking for. There was no hesitation.
I understand that this came as a shock to a lot of people. Mainly not because we suddenly had one vocalist as opposed to ten, but more because there were a lot more clean vocals on Heliocentric, and that album—it’s very different from what we did before. We had a lot of metalheads saying it wasn’t metal anymore. I was following the discussion on last.FM for quite a bit of time, and found it hilarious. We never conceived of The Ocean as a mere metal band. Of course we have heavy parts, but we have different influences and use instruments that are not typical in a metal context. So fair enough, if those fans who only want to listen to straight death metal turn away from us then that needs to happen. That’s what happens when you change as a band. We never want to repeat ourselves or do anything the same way twice because we need to keep things interesting for us, to keep us motivated to tour and play music. If people enjoy that and follow us then I am extremely happy and grateful, but I also understand if some people just lose it at one point and say “I’d rather listen to the new Cannibal Corpse record.” …Which I also enjoy.
I was totally one of those people on Last.FM fighting back, you know “are you deaf? This is good music.”
Why would anyone ever want to listen to just one kind of music? I have my friends here in Berlin who like progressive metal, but I can also go to an Ethiopian jazz fusion concert with them. People who are genuinely interested in music will not limit themselves to just one style of music or one style of metal. It just gets too boring.
You’ve got to be the most ambitious metal musician I’ve ever encountered, considering all the different things you do with your albums, and the various ways you’re promoting this one. Where does that ambition come from?
I don’t know man. I’ve always been looking for challenges, and I’ve always enjoyed pushing boundaries and seeing how far you can take something, and that involves failure, falling on your face all the time, over and over again. But it also involves those tiny moment of success when you know you’re accomplishing something incredible for yourself or others. You see that things are not impossible, that you thought they would be impossible. That’s one of the greatest challenges in art, that as Lyxzén from Refused said, “in order to achieve greatness we must demand the impossible.” There’s a lot of truth in that.
If we don’t push for things that are out of reach, or too big for us then we will settle for mediocrity. It involves a lot of failure, and trying things, things that are a little too big for me. I think that’s been a desire since the early days with this band. And if the price you pay is to come off as overly ambitious or pretentious then that’s the price you’ve gotta pay. It’s still not an argument for not-doing. Because in order to challenge the conservatism in metal culture, in all music, it is important to exaggerate, to take things to the extreme. That’s what i’ve been trying to do with the band, the packages. Taking things to the extreme and seeing how far with that you can go.
Which ties into your concepts—they are the running thread of your career, I think.
Well, in regards to the concepts I’ve always been fascinated by bands that offer a little more than a loose array of tracks, I’ve always been intrigued by bands that do things that fit together in the album context, even more so if it involved visuals and live performances that suck you in. When I first saw Neurosis, they blew me away with this holistic approach to art. It was not just playing one track and then the next track; the songs were collected by interludes and the visual projections. They create this inescapable thing live, and that really impressed me as a sixteen-year old. It really influenced my music creation process, to make things where everything has its place in the larger whole somehow. And the lyrics and music and order of songs, and the merch designs, everything has meaning and conveys that theme or feeling.
You know Neurosis doesn’t do the video thing anymore.
I know! I think that’s really interesting, that they’ve settled for this kind of back-to-roots thing. I find it understandable albeit I think it’s a shame, because I really liked the visual side of things too. But they’re one of those bands that changed a lot with every single album, that’s something that I appreciate. They’ve also been trying to reinvent themselves with everything they’ve done, so now if they’re feeling keen on presenting themselves as just a band without anything around them, fair enough. I’m still going to go watch them.
I’m excited to see your video! I keep trying to pin down Craig [Murray, music video director].
Yeah, he’s got no time he’s so dedicated. He’s basically been sleeping on the floor of his studio for two months editing and cutting things together almost nonstop. But the film is done.
Wow. How did you decide on Craig? He has an interesting body of work.
Yes he does. I heard of him from a Canadian acquaintance. I spoke to this guy at a Toronto show in 2008, and he recommended that I watch Craig’s work. So I did and I was blown away. It was great stuff, very diverse but it has an aesthetic to it that I very much like. So I approached him about doing some videos for some for the Anthropocentric songs we were playing live. He did five live visual clips. It took us quite some time to adapt our vision to the other person’s, so to speak. I wanted the videos to be really tight and cut on the music, which is something that most filmmakers won’t do immediately. I wanted it very tight on the bar changes of the music in order for it to work in our sequenced light show, which is also really tight and run by computer. The strobes fire exactly on the snare roll, et cetera, and no human guy could ever do it—except that guy from Meshuggah. I wanted the visuals to support that tightness.
In the end I sent Craig kick and snare tracks for the whole album so he could cut the video based on the wave shapes of the drum patterns, which speed the process up. Also, in regards to colors, we have a show that functions primarily in hues of blue and green, very oceanic colors, so red and yellow tend to be problems that needed to be discussed. All that was done after the Anthropocentric videos, so we had a good starting point established for this film. In that regard it was very smooth. He surprised me with incredible stuff. In the end it’s a 54-minute music video, so just like recording the album it’s a massive difference between writing a five- and a 50-minute song. The album is one song, the track marks are set almost arbitrarily. It was written as a single piece. The same is true for the video.
I’ve never seen Craig do anything remotely that long.
After this I don’t think he ever will again.
Was there any particular piece of his work that drew you to him?
It was a number of things: the Converge clip he did.
The music video for “Axe to Fall” I believe.
I think so. Very stark and fast and very violent without too many actual depictions of violence. The way it was cut was brutal. And also he did that Nine Inch Nails clip that was completely different but had a strange aesthetic that really spoke to me. I also saw his 2D art. He’s done a lot of paintings. And all of that impressed me, he’s very versatile, and everything he’s doing I found impressive. So that convinced me to hit him up.
I was reading an article the other day, and the writer was talking to this artist who said, more-or-less, that there’s two ways of thinking about art: people who create an experience and people who create… progressions of smaller, detailed pieces. Tarkovsky vs. Hitchcock. Concept album vs. pop album, maybe. I think of The Ocean as an experiential band, but do you, maybe see yourself another way?
To be honest, although we do have this larger frame, this experience approach to our music, I think that there is still that meticulous attention to detail, still those little bits, it’s just that we connect them in a way that puts them into context and lets them take their place in the larger whole, but that doesn’t mean… It almost seems wrong to say that on the one hand you have one experience and on the other hand you have little pieces with meticulous attention to detail. I think you can still have that attention to detail on the large piece, is what I am trying to say.
I was never so interested in doing an album where every song stands basically on its own and there is nothing that ties them together. I’ve always been more intrigued by creating this thing that sucks you in, an album that begins at one point and ends at one point. It’s the same thing with watching bands live. It’s just two different approaches. Some bands play one song and then they clap and then they talk and then play another. I think that when bands do that a lot of feeling gets lost and you’re continuously going down, and then you need to get back in, and then you’re going down again at the end of the song. I’m into things that are more like a movie. You get into it and you stay with it until the end. The start-stopping undermines the intensity of my experience. I want something to suck me in and not let go for two hours, be it a show a movie or an album. I’m definitely more keen on that approach, but both should exist.