Robin Staps of The Ocean talks music vs. concepts, instrumental vs. vocal, and Russian art movie Stalker
When I first conceived of The Ocean Week, this special celebration of progressive post-metal band The Ocean, the centrepiece was always going to be getting to chat with guitarist, primary composer, and only original member Robin Staps. Originally carrying the suffix of “collective”, the group has seen dozens of members come and go over the years, and although the current lineup is as stable as it’s ever been – bassist Louis Jucker’s temporary hiatus notwithstanding – Robin is without a doubt the driving force behind pretty much everything they do. Now well into the second decade of existence, The Ocean are about to release Pelagial, their sixth full-length effort; a conceptual journey to the depths of the ocean.
When I spoke to Robin last Thursday (18th April), he had been going for eight hours talking to interviewers already, on his first “day off” since the previous Friday, when they played the Pelagial release show in Germany. All this on the back of a similar ordeal the week before that I had managed to miss, as well as the customary pre-show chats in person.
A well-deserved glass of wine nearing its end, we got straight into it.
How’s the tour going then?
Um, well it’s pretty rough to be honest. We had a van breakdown on day three of the tour, somewhere in the middle of France on a Sunday and missed our London headlining show because of that.
Yeah, I was gonna be there!
Fuck, yeah, that really sucked on many counts. I had to hitchhike to Germany to get a replacement van and then drive it back there to my guys. We actually tried making it for the ferry and missed it by about like twenty minutes – the last one that would have made sense at five o’clock or something – so unfortunately that wasn’t happening. Now we have a replacement van, we’re back on track and…um yeah. We have a day off today then tomorrow another show in Belgium and then the Cult Of Luna tour starts with Roadburn on Saturday and we’re very much looking forward to that.
Excellent! The replacement van hasn’t been giving you any trouble then?
No, no, it’s been reliable, and we’re gonna return it at Roadburn then get on the sleeper bus with Cult Of Luna so then it’s all sorted anyway.
So you’ve been around about thirteen years now as a band?
But obviously this is the first time you’ve released an album based around the ocean. Is there any reason for that?!
No, not really! It’s kind of strange that we haven’t done that earlier isn’t it? It’s kind of obvious to make an album about the ocean at one point when we were in a band called The Ocean [laughs]. Yeah, I don’t know why now. I’ve had the idea for a long time actually. I’ve had the idea since 2008 or 2009; I just didn’t really know how to approach it for a long time and that’s why I kind of like postponed it a couple of times and now after the ‘centrics [Heliocentric and Anthropocentric, in 2010] were released I was very keen on finally, you know, realising that album and making it happen.
Yeah. I guess if it’s your ‘core word’ – you know “The Ocean” – you’ve got to get it right haven’t you?
Yeah, absolutely, and it was like…I knew what I wanted to do, and I could always explain it in a few short sentences and everyone I talked to it about was like “this is gonna be awesome, you need to do this” but then I realised that it’s so difficult to do it right and to approach it from the right way and although it’s easily explained you know – I basically just wanted to make a record that’s a continuous journey from the surface to the depths of the sea and that would musically kind of…visualise or ‘audiolise’ all the different steps of the journey and that’s something that can be easily imagined; you know, starting with music that’s rather lightweight and major-dominated and then progressing towards something that’s really dark and getting slower in tempo and lower in tuning, and I knew all that before – but how to exactly go about doing that was not that easy and because it’s a huge challenge to write a piece of music that’s sixty minutes long..it doesn’t compare to writing a piece of music that’s like five or ten minutes long you know? I’ve never done anything like that before, and so it’s involved a bit of failure; a bit of falling down on my face and realising that certain things were just not working out – but that’s how you learn and grow basically and in the end, yeah, I was very happy I put myself up to that challenge.
So what actually comes first? Is it the musical ideas or the concept or does it come at the same time?
It’s always been the musical ideas first, and then the concept…up until this album. With this album it was the first time that I had a clear idea of the concept before I even started writing the music, and yeah, that way Pelagial is very different from all our previous records. With the ‘centrics, the music came first and I put forethought into how to combine them, you know, and which order to put them in and all that kind of stuff, but they were written as songs – song by song – and some of them from really different times too, and this album was really written with a bit of a master plan in mind, you know: from beginning to end as one continuous piece of music and yeah, that’s where it’s very different.
Do you feel that the ‘centrics were sort of a…breakthrough point for the band success-wise?
Um…hard to say. I guess they did get us a lot of new fans and a lot more exposure than previous albums, but we’re still not at the point where I think we have reached that mass-breakthrough point, you know, where you see that. Also, when we released Heliocentric quite a lot of our old fans seemed to have some trouble getting into the new vocals and this album was a lot quieter than any previous albums, so for a while it seemed like we were winning a lot of new fans but also losing some old fans and I think that with Anthropocentric everyone has realised that we’re not going to be a pop band from now on, and a lot of those people actually, you know, came back, and a lot of people actually ended up saying that they really like Heliocentric but that it took them a lot of time to get into and really appreciate that kind of like new direction that we took with this record. So yeah, I don’t know, hopefully Pelagial is going to be the one that gets us into the Olymp of Rock [laughs]
[laughs] we can only hope!
Do you think that the concept of the ‘centrics helped with the success of the records at all? We might be getting to a point now where challenging religious ideology is taken a lot more seriously than it would have been even twenty years ago? Or is there still resistance to that?
I don’t know man, I’m not sure. It’s very different in the U.S. compared to Europe because in the U.S. religion plays a much more still as compared to Europe, where the role of the church has been more or less relegated to the role of a social welfare institution, you know? In most countries it’s not really taken that seriously any more and that’s very different in the U.S. where it plays a much more important role in the everyday life of a lot of people. Here is seems like no so many people actually even cared so much about it but in the U.S. it has produced a very broad range of reactions, from people embracing it to people giving us shit about it and it’s a much more emotionally heated debate there in that country, so I think there’s a big difference between Europe and the U.S.
But in the end, you know, a band grows or a band explodes, because their music gets hyped and because lots of people discover them at once basically, and that is usually something that doesn’t happen because you write about Christianity, or because you make a concept album about something; you know, there’s other mechanisms involved that are very hard to control and to forsee – fortunately! – because everyone would just plan on fulfilling those criteria in order to become successful and that’s not what creates good music and art I think.
Absolutely! So moving back to the topic at hand: your output so far as a band – it’s come in pairs. We’ve have Fluxion and Aeolian;Hadean/Achean; the ‘centrics – does Pelagial have a twin in the works?
No it does not [laughs] we’re breaking the routine for once. I really wanted a clean start from scratch with this new album: not because I think that everything has been said regarding religion or Christianity within the constraints of Heliocentric and Anthropocentric – I could make like two more records about just that – but that would be boring. I really wanted to do something new and this albums stands on its own; there’s not going to be a sequel to it, there’s not going to be a Pelagial part two – this it basically it, for once! [laughs]
So obviously it’s quite well known now that the album was originally instrumental, and obviously with the vocals, Stalker, the film has become quite talked about. Did you always have the film in mind before the vocals were incorporated?
No, not before the vocals were incorporated. The vocals were actually incorporated at a very late stage; the album was written to be instrumental and for more than a year and a half that was always the way we perceived this album to be for a variety of different reasons. There was never the plan to add any vocals, and the decision to add vocals was made very late, in October/November last year actually, and then I was in the position that I had to write lyrics for the album and one of the reasons why I wanted this album to be instrumental at first was that I simply didn’t really know how to approach the lyrics in a way that makes sense; I didn’t want to write lyrics about, you know, like, ocean creatures fighting in the depths of the sea or something like that, and I felt that this album concept did not require vocals or lyrics in the first place, you know? That’s the main reason why we decided to keep it instrumental for a long time. Now, when we started recording the vocals I started recording vocal ideas with Loïc, who sings very intuitively and who usually does not sing with lyrics at all, so he writes his own vocal lines and ideas basically by just like singing with his eyes closed and not really using any existing lyrics, and then I am the one who writes lyrics to fit his vocal lines – even to a degree where I’m trying to pay attention to what vowels he’s using intuitively and trying to write lines that really work with…to try to get as close to his vocal ideas as possible.
So then I was in a position to have to write lyrics and since I didn’t want to write about ocean creatures I felt that this journey from the surface to the bottom of the sea has to be, in a metaphorical way, another kind of journey. And then what came to mind of course was to make it a journey from the surface to the abysses of the human mind, and that very quickly led to the movie Stalker, because that’s exactly what that movie is doing. It’s the story of three people who basically all travel through a zone, at the heart of which their wishes are supposed to come true, and the closer they get the less sure they become of what they should wish for because they realise that also all the subconscious wishes come true – even the ones they don’t know that they carry inside of themselves. Basically that was fitting our journey very well; you know, the journey from the surface to the depths of the sea and alike to that the journey from the surface to the depths of the human mind, and the central ideas that this movie is orbiting around is always the question of the wishes and…the origins of our wishes and desires basically. I felt that to be fitting very well and that’s why I decided to originally take all the lyrics from subtitles of that movie.
So, there’s three characters in the movie; is that mirrored in the viewpoint of the lyrics, or is there a singular point from which they’re taken?
Well I have to say the lyrics are no longer based on this movie – or at least, they are still making some reference to it, but they’re not taken from the subtitles any more. The story goes on that after those lyrics were written and we had already started recording the vocals with the real lyrics we realised that we couldn’t do that – our publisher basically told us we can’t take the subtitles from a movie and use them as lyrics to an album, and I was a bit naive there because we had done that before with a poem by Edgar Allen Poe – The City In The Sea – but that’s common domain, you know, because Poe has been dead for more than seventy years and Andrei Tarkovsky has not, and so we needed to get permission from the Russian movie studio. I actually wrote them but they never wrote back, and so I had to start from scratch all over again and write entirely new lyrics, and that’s what I’ve done, so the lyrics that you see on Pelagial now are no longer taken from the movie. There are still some references to it but it’s all new and original text basically, so yeah, it’s still related to that but it’s basically my own words and it’s going back to some personal experiences in the past couple of months of my life that of course are also represented by this movie in different ways.
“The City In The Sea” – Aeolian [Metal Blade Records, 2006]
“Write what you know”
I actually watched the film a few weeks ago. There was one quote that stood out – obviously that’s not been used – but it was “fear has made you come to your senses” -
- and obviously as you descend further into the ocean the darker it gets; has that been translated sonically?
Exactly, and actually this is a very good example because we have used something very similar in one of the lines in one of the songs. If you look into the lyrics you will find it! [laughs]
I’m looking forward to getting my hands on that lyric book [laughs]
You will find lots of things that will sound familiar when you’ve watched the movie, and there’s a line that’s very close to that as well but, you know, put into another context basically; it’s a bit of other wording but you’ll find it I’m sure.
So yeah, that line very much summarises the lower parts of the water column, you know, that we’re approaching while progressing towards the end of the record, and that’s the atmosphere we wanted the whole album to have: this atmosphere of claustrophobia and fears that’s lingering in the black that surrounds somehow, and I think you could feel that from the movie and also from the lyrics as they evolve throughout the album.
So what do you think you’d find in the room at the centre of the zone?
[laughs] That’s a tough one! Um…I don’t actually even ever want to get to that room. In this movie everyone is super keen to get in there in the first place because obviously it’s a very enticing idea to be at a point where your wishes come true, but then that’s the whole point of the movie; the more you think about that and the closer or more realistic that possibility becomes, the more you realise that it’s maybe not something that is not all that worth wishing for in the end. That means that all your subconscious wishes may come true, and all the stuff that you carry deep inside of yourself that you’re not even really aware of – that you’re not even very fond of – and you can’t really choose to only have the good wishes come true without having all the other stuff come true that’s also there and that you have no control over and that’s what this movie is orbiting around at a very subliminal level; it’s about the origins of our wishes and desires: where they come from and how much control we have in shaping and changing them. As a matter of fact we have very little control, you know; we can rationally control the means that we employ to make certain things happen in our lives, but the origins of our actual desires is something that’s kind of like outside of reason in a lot of ways and that’s what’s scary about it. It’s one of those more subliminal questions that is being addressed in this movie quite a lot and for me the conclusion can be that I don’t really want to be in that room.
“Bathyalpelagic II: The Wish In Dreams” – Pelagial [Metal Blade Records, 2013]
Unless there’s an invincible tour van in there perhaps?
Okay, I’ll wrap it up here then; what are your wishes for The Ocean in 2013?
Well, to play lots of good shows and good tours around the globe, which we are planning on doing and which is already being booked right now. We’re doing this tour with Cult Of Luna, a couple of shows with Mastodon, then Summer Slaughter in the U.S., then we’re going back to Asia for three weeks, and then to Russia for another two or three weeks, so we have lots of cool stuff coming up there. I’m very much looking forward to getting out on the road again and meeting different people every night and playing awesome shows; not just in Europe and the U.S. but . Apart from that, yeah, I’m hoping we’ll all continue to get along as great as we have in the past, and you know, touring is so intense; it’s always a strain and for something that’s really enjoyable, it’s always dangerous, because you’re living in a marriage with five people at the same time and you have to make all of those individual relationships work and everyone has to be motivated and healthy and you know, function, and there are so many odds involved that are impossible to control, so I hope that luck is going to be on our side; that we’re not going to have major drawbacks again with regards to being fucked by van companies or losing money and that we will just be able to enjoy our time on tour
Okay, well that’s pretty much it Robin. Thank you very much for your time, and good luck with the rest of the touring/album launch!
As Robin mentioned, The Ocean are currently on tour with Cult Of Luna in Europe with LO!, culminating at Pelagic Fest – named for Robin’s label Pelagic Records – on May 10th. Full dates of all their currently scheduled tours are available in The Monolith events calendar.
Pelagial is released this Friday 26th/Monday 29th in Europe, and Tuesday 30th April in North America, via Metal Blade Records.
The Ocean Week content so far: