Robin Staps of The Ocean talks Summer Slaughter, departing band members, Pelagic Records and plans for 2014
Back in November, when The Ocean’s world tour was in full swing, they careened through London, and I sat down to talk to guitarist and composer Robin Staps to find out how things were going, and to sort of book-end the interview he gave Chris earlier in the year before their latest album Pelagial was released.
We’ve been sitting on it for a little while, partly due to the monumental size of it and the challenges in transcribing something so long, but with the release of part one of their 2013 tour blog over the weekend (which we wrote about earlier today), we figured now was as appropriate a time as ever to publish.
With that in mind, please note that any time-related discrepancies are displaced by three months. We’re sorry, Robin!
So, I guess the place to start is with the announcements this week about the line-up changes. Whilst they seem out of the blue for us, they’ve been in the pipeline for some time. Do you have any thoughts on the changes you’d like to share?
As you correctly said, it has been clear for us for a while, but we haven’t publicly announced it until now. Luc and Jona told us back in June that they would quit the band at the end of the year, and it did not come as a surprise back then, I have to say. It’s been cooking over a long time. I’d say, over the last two years, we’ve grown apart as musicians and as people. We’re not in the same boat any more with regards to what we want to do musically and artistically, and also things like touring and production, all these things that become important when you are spending six months of the year on the road and make this your life. There were just a lot of disagreements and different approaches between myself and them, particularly. That’s why I think this is a relief for everybody that it is happening in order to keep our good contacts and friendship, hopefully. So this needed to happen.
At first, when Luc said he was going to be leaving for artistic reasons, I was really bummed out. He’s clearly the most amazing drummer I’ve played with so far, and he has shaped the sound of this band over the past three records. He has a really special and unique approach to drumming, he didn’t just replicate the drum patterns I had programmed, like the previous drummer did, but really produced his own parts. And he did so in a way I thought was perfectly suited to The Ocean. So it was a major bummer when it happened – however, I realised we are not in the same position as we were in in 2007, so we have an easier time finding quality musicians, and good people too. Now I’m very happy with the replacement, we have already recruited Paul Seidel, as we announced. He’s someone I have known for many years. I think he’s one of the most amazing drummers in Europe – he’s just a machine, a beast. I knew that, but what surprised me more is that he’s really into playing some of the more post-rock, quieter tunes. He really got the right feeling for those tunes as well, so he’s very versatile. He’s studied jazz drums, so he’s not just a blast beat guy. We seem to be really on the same page about what we want to do.
So, right now I’m very confident, happy and looking forward to this next era for the band. I can only wish the best to those two guys and their side project Coilguns, which is now probably going to turn into a full-time project.
Which is kind of cool in itself…
Of course – I released the record. They’re great musicians and they’re going to be happy doing that.
So, you’ve been playing Pelagial in it’s entirety on this tour, yes?
Yes. We’re playing the whole album, then two or three older tracks every night.
Excellent. I was wondering, though, because most bands record tracks for an album that they never play live, do you think playing the whole thing every night has changed your relationship to Pelagial in any way?
It intensifies it somehow. I mean, we haven’t really been doing that until this tour, and a couple of nights in Russia, but in the U.S. we always had to cut it short, simply because we didn’t have time to play the whole album. But now we’ve been playing it every night, and we’ve played most of the songs a lot over the last three months, so it’s getting to the point where it might be exciting to play something new again. But that’s always what happens when you enter a touring cycle. For me, personally, its still fresh enough. I enjoy playing the material more than older songs I’ve played a million times more. It’s cool to play it starting at the beginning and playing through to the end, although the audience knows what to expect at one point, but still, there’s a reason that those songs are in that order and there’s a progression that we’re doing musically, and that’s what I want to reproduce live as well. At least on this tour, obviously; I mean, we’re not going to continue doing this, but this is the album tour so we’re going to play it in its entirety.
So you’ve just come back from a second trip to China. Do you think much has changed since the first time you went?
Well, probably most of the cities we played for the second time, there’s been a trucktonne more concrete and higher skyscrapers, but nothing that you would immediately notice so much. Even the first time in China, I was surprised by how few of my notions about this country were in line with reality. I had this notion of this place being authoritative place, where you don’t really feel comfortable, where the police are always checking up on you, where nothing really works as it does in Europe or the US. This wasn’t the case at all, which became clear from the moment we entered the country.
If you go to the US, good luck, you’re going to get stuck in immigration for five hours, answering retarded questions. Entering China was a matter of queuing up for three minutes and having your passport checked. It was this huge modern airport with 200 counters, and people actually working, you know? Not just people on only three counters, like the US.
Just like these little everyday aspects of life. Public transportation, for example; these super-fancy high speed trains that go at 400kph and make no sound at all. Even people using electrobikes; when you’re in Rome, you have all this epic noise – but in China you have the same scene, but its all completely silent, because its all electric. Even the first time I was there, it was like a trip to the future, which was not really in line with what I had imagined the country to be like.
But between the first and second times I didn’t really notice many changes, because I sort of knew what to expect, really.
And has your fanbase grown out there in between your visits?
There were definitely a couple of shows where we could tell that there were more people, and more aware of the band. The first time we played, we still had fairly decent turnouts, but a lot of people seemed to come out of curiosity and not because they were fans of the band. This time more people were singing along, and in some key cities, like Beijing, there were twice as many people so it was really cool to see. And also places like Chongqing and Wuhan were really, really good. There were a couple of disappointments too, one city where we had a really good show first time was Guangzhou, in the south of China and this time was kind of weak, but it was in a different venue and, you know, sometimes these things are hard to predict.
When I was watching the segment of the DVD documentary you’ve released on China, I was really taken with the guys all linking arms and head-banging in a row. These different behaviours that develop in different environments. Is that something that you see as you travel around? That fans in different places react differently?
Yes, of course. That’s a good example. Obviously, between Europe and the US there’s not a lot of differences; it’s basically the same part of the world where people wear the same kind of band t-shirts and the same types of clothes. They more or less lead the same kind of lives, I guess. But it’s very different in China, and also Russia. In China you have these funny dance moves, and also this habit that when the show’s over, they’ll clap for three seconds and then silence, but they won’t leave the room. We had this awkward moment on the first tour – that I think is also in the documentary chapter – where Loic was coming back 15 minutes later to get his microphone. We were already drinking backstage, because we thought nobody gave a fuck about us or wanted to hear an encore. But then people were still in the room, so when he went out onstage to get his mic they all went “Woo-hoo!” so we were like, ‘fuck they’re still waiting, even ten, fifteen minutes after the end of the show’, it’s just really bizarre. That’s the kind of stuff you won’t encounter in Europe or the US.
And in Russia, people are really crazy. There’s a lot more dancing, and people are really fanboys – but like, extreme fanboys. They want you to sign everything, from body parts to money bills, whatever they can find. Everyone always wants to take pictures with you. That sometimes happens here too, but in Russia there was like a queue going around the block afterwards. People are just really passionate and crazy, and that’s what I like about touring there.
You went quite deep into Russia?
Yes. We flew from Beijing into Irkutsk, which is not far from Mongolia. Then we took the trans-Siberian railway all the way back to St Petersburg, which is like 6,500 kilometers, in two weeks and played shows along the way. So there were four shows in Siberia, then a couple of Ural shows, then Yekaterinburg, Moscow and St Petersburg.
Normally touring in the States or Europe means you’re in a bus or a van, which is your own little environment. But out in Russia or China, you have to use public transport. Does that make it a more organic experience? Do you think you see more of the country that way?
That’s definitely true, and it’s one of the cool things about it, really. You can’t tour China by van, because the distances between the cities where it makes sense to play are just too large. So we either fly or take trains. The trains are high-speed – like, 1,200km in four hours. It’s cool because you’re closer to the people that way, but it’s also very draining because you have to get all of the gear into and out of the train, into a taxi, out of a taxi into the venue, back into a taxi to the hotel and it’s a lot of carrying and moving shit around. It’s a lot easier here, because you just load into and out of a trailer once and that’s it. And load-out is right next to the door of the venue.
But when we arrive at a train station – on the first tour, we had these heavy amps with us, but we learned from that experience this time – but you arrive at the station and the platform is, like, a kilometre away from the exit, because they’re so fucking big. There’s no luggage trollies or anything, so we had to carry all this stuff for a kilometre to even get to a taxi. And those are the little things you don’t think of when you start touring these places. But this time, we were a bit smarter with stuff like that.
On the subject of the Collective Oblivion DVD, which came first – collecting the footage, or the idea for this particular product?
Collecting the footage was the first part. Actually, the initial idea was just to film the record release show for Heliocentric, back in 2010. We played a show at La Chaux-de-Fonds, where the Swiss guys are from, where we had the chance to rehearse for a week. So we thought we’d play the album, and let’s bring it on stage with some extra classical musicians that played on the record, to really make that full experience. Then someone was saying we should film it. The idea came up rather spontaneously, then I started talking to Metal Blade about it. They were into the idea, and gave us a little budget for it.
So that was done, and then the guy who filmed it, who is now a really good friend of mine, he ended up accompanying us around the globe for two years, but that wasn’t planned. At first, after the show we were doing some behind the scenes stuff, then we were doing this European tour for a week in 2010 and he tagged along with that. We really clicked with him and he collected some awesome footage. So we asked him to come to the US with us the following year, then on the Euro tour, then China, Russia, Australia and Thailand, always holding his camera up and captured some disturbing moments.
From what I’ve seen, there are some great shots in the film, that could be like scenes from movies…
He is very good. That’s something I noticed along the way, he really has a good eye for capturing those moments, and then how to put them together afterwards.
Yeah, it didn’t look like just guys with their phones.
Exactly, he’s very talented. The whole thing just then picked up momentum, so after the release show we wanted to do more stuff, he tagged along, filmed some amazing moments, so we decided to do all the film documentaries. Then we also filmed the Summer Breeze festival in 2011, which I didn’t even want to do, because I thought it was going to be – this sounds wrong – just one of those shitty festival shows. Because normally at a festival we play at three in the afternoon, with the sun in our faces. I was, like, what’s the point in doing that? I’d rather film a cool club show.
But it turned out that this was completely wrong, because it was a really awesome show. We played at 8pm on the tent stage and our competition on the main stage was Tarja Turunen, which not so many people wanted to see on that night – so the tent was packed with, like, 10,000 people and it was fairly dark. So it was a really intense show. In the end, I was really happy that we filmed that show.
So the project just grew and grew and grew and we just had to say cut and say ‘this is it now, and let’s fucking finish it.’
You’ve released a number of what could be called ‘premium’ products, with the Pelagial box-sets, and the –Centric boxset, packaging the albums with instrumentals. Do you think that’s how to make the band more commercially viable in the age of downloading?
Well, I can speak from my own experience and say yes, that does work and that is the way to sell music as a physical product. If that’s what you want to do, you have to give people a reason. Special packaging is the best reason for people to still buy a record. Whether that is going to become an industry standard, I have doubts – because I still see a lot of people working for bigger labels around me who are still very reluctant towards the idea of spending money on packaging. Although, I also have to say that people are getting there and even some major labels are now releasing limited edition, really fancily packaged CDs and vinyls. That’s cool, because in the end it’s the fan that’s going to benefit from that, by just getting offered better products. Hopefully, that’s going to happen.
And even with Metal Blade, who we’re still working with apart from all those ridiculously fancy packages(!), even they have realised that in our case it has worked. At first, when I wanted to do a slip-case for Aeolian, they were like “what? No way!” Then with Precambrian there were massive discussions about the limited edition digipack with die-cut holes and stuff like that. Now, for the new album, there were no more discussions. They have realised that it works, in our case. People really are keen on spending a bit more money to get something that looks nice, and is special.
I think it takes a while. So many things have been changing these last couple of years; a lot of those labels that have been around since the early eighties, it takes some time for them to adapt to new modes of consuming music. Like Spotify, for example, then downloads vs physical products. It always takes a while to adopt a strategy, and I think they’re generally doing a really good job with that.
And the success of your limited edition vinyl means that you’re doing a repress, yes? It was trading at ridiculous prices second-hand.
Yeah, that was one reason. It got sold for, like, 400 Euro on discogs, so people are making money off our work. We’d rather release it ourselves if there’s so much demand. Another thought was that there were some mistakes with the first pressing, minor things. For example, those acrylic layers were supposed to sit two acrylic rails, so they did not press down on the vinyl gatefolds, but the rails weren’t high enough because the dimensions I got from the pressing plant were for empty gatefolds. So now we’ve raised them, and the outer boxes are a thicker material because we had some broken boxes. All these things have been improved and I just really wanted to have that box set exactly how I originally envisioned it.
Are you a vinyl fan yourself?
I don’t really get on with vinyl myself.
It’s not very convenient; most of the music I listen to is from my iPod or a computer, but if the record is really nicely packaged I try to buy the vinyl – but, currently I don’t have a working record player, which is ridiculous working for a record label that mainly produces vinyl records! But that’s mainly because I haven’t been home in three months and I just need to have some time to get a good new player, then I’m really looking forward listening to my vinyl stuff again. I have a shit-ton of old 7″ records from the eighties and nineties – from when I grew up, in the hardcore scene – that I haven’t digitalised and I don’t really want to because they’re there, and I can just go and listen to them when I want to.
Moving on to Pelagic Records as a whole, something that has struck me as being a bit unusual is that the label has no Facebook or Bandcamp pages. I’ve been downloading the albums as they become available on the Pelagic website, but the last two or three haven’t been available as downloads…
The latest Kruger EP, The Old Wind and Shaking Sensations.
All those records are available via iTunes. The Kruger EP had download coupons with the record, but I think we discussed not selling it separately. But, yes, everything is available on iTunes. I’m the only person running the label, so I also have to do things like packing and answering emails and stuff. That’s also the reason why I haven’t been active in the last three months, because this year is The Ocean and I really have to prioritise that. I didn’t want to release records and do a shit job with them, so I decided to cut down the label activities to a minimum until I have more time again.
So it kind of alternates?
Yeah. That’s cool, because it leaves me the passion to do it, because when I get sick of one thing, I can focus on the other one.
I heard this thing the other day I found surprising – someone was saying that there is a problem in mainland Europe in that there aren’t really any exciting new bands coming through. What’s your perspective on the scene at the moment?
Well, there’s always new bands. It just becomes harder to find them because there are so many of them out there, it takes a while to weed through all the offal. But I haven’t really been coming across to many really exciting things lately. I did get a lot of submissions that I haven’t listened to yet, but that’s not generally how I find new bands It’s usually through recommendations. I do listen to the submissions when I can find the time, which can take half a year, but I do listen to them.
The only band I’ve signed because of listening to a demo was Lo! from Australia. They sent me a really nicely hand-packaged mini-CD, which I thought looked cool. That really raised my attention, and I thought the music was cool.
Yeah, I think Lo! are a lot of fun, too. It was cool that they made it over here to play not too long ago, although I was slightly sad to see that (vocalist) Jamie has now left.
Yes, they have a new guy. I’ve seen some videos of a show in Sydney and I think he’s really cool. He has a higher voice, but it fits the music really well and they seem to be really happy with him. Jamie leaving came as a shock to the rest of the guys. During the tour with us and Cult of Luna, he seemed really happy, but at the end of it he said he was leaving the band. It was really weird, but he will have his reasons and I haven’t spoken to him in detail since then. Sometimes people’s priorities change.
That tour culminated with Pelagic-fest. Was it nice to have all of those bands under one roof?
That was awesome. That was a really good night. I was really happy to make that happen. It’s been something that I’d wanted to do for a long time. The show was basically sold out on the night, and there was a really, really cool atmosphere, too. Berlin can be very spoiled and boring because every tour always hits Berlin. It’s a major city phenomenon; people are just, like, standing there and are more interested in talking to their friends than in the actual music. And that was really different, because a lot people came from all of Europe. We had people from Spain, from France and the UK who came over just for the show. It was really fans, there was like a mini-Roadburn feeling, people were really into it. All the bands’ performances were received really enthusiastically, which is rare in Berlin.
So you headlined on the Saturday of Euroblast, did you get to hang around there at all, or was it just in-and-out?
In and out, really – we just got back from a long, long tour and everyone was just like ‘let’s do this and leave’, so I didn’t get to see many of the other bands.
What are your plans for the future?
After this tour, we’re going to take a break to rehearse with the new players, in December and January. We still haven’t decided on the guitarist, but there’s a couple of options, but I’m going to look into that in detail. And, basically just kick back for a little while. This year was really intense touring-wise, so we’ve all got to the point where it would be good to be home for a while.
So we haven’t got anything in December or January. In February, we’re doing ten shows in Germany and playing in cities we haven’t done in a long time. And in March, we’re headlining in the US. It’s going to be the whole month, basically. And after that, we’re doing summer festivals. I’m not really keen on headlining Europe again, there’ a couple of territories we had to exclude on this tour I’d like to get to next year, like Scandinavia. And we’d like to get back to Australia at some point, but there’s no definite plan for that yet.
Then somewhere over the summer, I’m going to look at writing some new shit. I really want to start writing with Paul, the new drummer and Chris, the new bass player. So I’m looking forward to that.
Do you think there will be more conceptual albums? Is that just the way you work?
Right now, I don’t really know anything. It could be. It’s likely because that’s what we’ve been doing for the past few albums, but I can also see us doing a straight-up rock and roll album with no theme. That would be different for us to do that, so why not?
I don’t have the next album in the pipeline yet I haven’t written a single song or riff. I can’t write when I’m on tour. I have to go to a place where I’m far away from everything, and then I write a lot. I could write an album in two weeks, or something; I don’t write bits and pieces here and there. So, right now it’s all completely open, I have no idea where its going to lead us, musically.
On the creative process, it seems to me that you work at both ends of the spectrum. At one end you’re starting with a completely blank stave, and at the other you’re basically retro-fitting lyrics to melodies. That’s two completely different disciplines, so do you prefer one to the other?
No, I wouldn’t say that. It comes with the process. When you start writing a song, it’s like a blank page, it can go in any direction, but the more you work out the song, the more detailed it becomes. The less room it leaves for your imagination to stray. Especially when it comes to vocals, and that’s always been, for me, the last part of the process.
For Loic, too, who’s been writing most of the vocal melodic lines for Pelagial. He has a very intuitive approach to singing. He’s a native French speaker, his English is much better now than it was when he joined the band, but he’s still not entirely confident with it. So when he sings he usually doesn’t sing words or sentences, just sounds, you know That’s what leads, a lot of times, to the most interesting takes and melodies. That’s why we’ve approached writing vocals like that for some of Anthropocentric and especially on Pelagial. We just decided to lock ourselves in the studio, so he can try out parts. I’ve been kind of producing that, putting parts in their place and saying, you know, “that’s awesome, try to work on this” or “let’s try another direction”, and we work really well together that way.
Once we have the basic lines, then I start to write the lyrics and matching words to the music. That’s the toughest part for me, personally. Writing music is easy for me, and writing vocal lines is easy for Loic, because that’s what he knows how to do and that’s what comes out of him. But to be constrained to what is there, and having to match so many things – like content, rhythm, choice of words, rhyme, all that has to work.
And translate it as well….
Exactly! That as well. So it’s definitely the hardest part, and what usually takes the longest for me. But it’s also a good challenge. It’s not that don’t like doing it, it’s just a bit of a drain sometimes. I’ll be like “What am I going to do with this…..”
Have you ever thought about playing the songs acoustically?
The Pelagial ones?
Any of them, really.
We’ve had the idea for a while to do play of the Anthropocentric songs acoustically. I think Jona has even recorded some versions of them. Even some of the heavier songs, like “Roots & Locusts” – at least, like, fragments of it. But in the end we never really had the time to pursue it and release it. There are obviously a couple of songs that would be doable – especially the acoustic tracks from Anthropocentric and Heliocentric. That would be an interesting thing at some point, but so far every time we got through an album cycle with touring, I was so keen on writing new material that I didn’t want to exploit the old material any further. But that could still happen at some point, I think that would be really nice, really interesting to do acoustic versions of different songs of different albums.
Try and figure out how to do “The City In The Sea” acoustically…
[Laughs] Yeah, that would be tough.
Just to finish off, it’s clear to me that you’re pretty well-read, so are there any books that you would recommend that people read? Any that you can think of as being really pivotal, or really opened your mind?
Well, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was probably one of the first mind-changing books for me, like a long, long time ago. It really changed my whole perception of life and politics at that time and really pointed me in a certain direction, and [Aldous Huxley’s] Brave New World after that. But I think Nineteen Eighty-Four is the more intense, more meaningful. I really got into those dystopias back then, it was my first deep encounter with literature that I really liked outside of school literature.
As you probably know, I’m a big Dostoevsky fan – he’s probably my favourite writer. I think he’s a genius when it comes down to describing very complicated mechanisms of human behaviour with very simple words. It’s very difficult to do, he’s a genius with that. There’s hardly anyone else like him.
Sure – I like Kafka for sort of similar reasons
Yeah – he’s another good author in that context.
With contemporary authors, I’m a big fan of Philip Roth. His book The Human Stain is also a song title on Fluxion, too. There’s probably others… Yes, the South African author Coetzee, his book Disgrace is one of the more recent ones I’ve read and enjoyed.
The Monolith: That’s great, thanks very much!
The Ocean are on tour for much of the spring; find full dates here!