Photo by Maclyn Bean
Robin Staps is one of the best songwriters in metal, and is the guitarist of one of the most interesting metal bands with THE OCEAN. After three full-lengths, a double album and two interwoven concept albums, the band, as well as its founder Robin, were ready to finally take on the dream: to write an album about the ocean. Two months after its release, in which it has received universal acclaim, the band is preparing to come back stateside to play on The Summer Slaughter Tour. However, back in April, I gave Robin a call to pick his brain a bit. After giving me a tour of their practice/performance space, where a bunch of lucky people got to witness the album played live in its entirety for the first time ever on release day, I got the chance to talk to Robin about his favorite new music, scuba diving, and how the record almost ended up as an instrumental.
First off, let me just take a moment and tip my hat to you. The reviews of the album have been nothing short of general acclaim; you got perfect scores on our site, Metalsucks, and super high scores from various other sites and publications. How have you been responding to people’s reactions to the new material?
Well reactions have been very good, so I’m very happy about that. I never really know what to expect from press reactions when I write music and I don’t really care that much [about what they’re going to think] either when it comes to writing new music, but it is always good to hear that people dig it.
When you guys streamed the record in its entirety, it was only the instrumental version. Any particular reason for this decision?
Well, it definitely was a tough choice for us to make, but in the end I think it’s pretty cool to have people listen to the instrumental album first and then be surprised by the vocal version. That was kind of the idea behind it. I think it works better that way rather than the other way around. But yeah, the reaction even to that were good so far in every regard, and it seems that everyone is really excited about this album. But we’ll see how it goes when we hit the road. We’re actually rehearsing the album now for the first time ever; we’ve never actually played these songs together live so far, and that’s still a long way to go, not so much in regards to playing, but with the whole production surrounding it. We’ve been programming lights day and night now, and been working out the little details, tweaking sounds and stuff like that, but it’s been coming along nicely. We’re all really excited to finally play those songs live.
One thing worth mentioning is how intense your live shows have always been, especially with the last two records. Your live shows usually have well-sequenced lighting with a video show in the background, which is always fun to watch. Have you been exploring different concepts in regards to what you’re going to do to utilize the album’s theme into your live shows?
Of course. That’s exactly what we’re working on right now. We want to visualize the musical journey that this album is, from the surface to the depths of the ocean, with regards to lighting and videos as well. With the videos, we’re gonna show the movie that comes with the limited edition box set versions of the album that has been specifically written to go along with the music, really. It’s kind of like visualizing the audio content of the record, so we’re going to have projections live onto the screen behind the drum kit with the movie, which has lots of oceanic stuff in it, a lot of things that I filmed myself in Australia last year, actually. I’m a scuba diver myself, so I filmed tons of footage there.
But it’s not only ocean creatures; there’s a protagonist, a female protagonist, that is going through different stages of joy and pain and fear and terror throughout the album, or the journey, making references to the lyrical journey, which is more like the psychological journey from the surface to the depths of the human mind, basically. So that’s what’s going to be on the screen behind the band. And with the lighting we have to sidedrops now; they’re illuminated in changing shades of turquoise and blue and stuff like that. We’re also working with some light bulbs which is really cool, creating that “old school” feel somehow, creating a deep sea atmosphere where we have just things glowing in the dark, basically. So we’re trying to get that put into action as well. What I see right now is our guy, Jean Michael, is just up there programming day and night, since the beginning of the week; he doesn’t really have a life apart from that. [laughs] And it’s been progressing really well so far. It’s gonna be really cool.
That sounds like it’s going to be really cool to watch! Now, let’s talk about the new album for a bit. Originally, the album was designed to be an instrumental, or as an album with very sparse vocals, until you heard what Loïc (Rossetti) came up with. Why did you feel like you wanted to make an instrumental album, and not have it as a dual-disc album with one purely instrumental and one with the vocals on it as we have now?
There were a couple of things that contributed to that decision. First of all, when I wrote the music, or when I started thinking about the album, I thought that there was not really much room for vocals because…I mean, what are you gonna do? It’s a journey from the surface to the bottom of the ocean; what are you going to sing about? I didn’t want to have Loïc be singing about fights between oceanic creatures at different depth levels. That would sound a bit silly. So I was like ‘this concept doesn’t really call for vocals’. It could work great as an instrumental record, and that was not an abstract idea to us. We had done that before. Fogdiver, our first album, was an instrumental, and we all listen to a lot of instrumental music, so we were like ‘yeah, fair enough. Let’s do that’.
But what also contributed to it was that Loïc was really sick, and after the massive touring we did throughout 2011, his voice had suffered a lot. Some of the doctors he was seeing told him he had to stop screaming all together if he didn’t want to lose his voice, and we took that very seriously, and he did too. He actually said to us “I don’t know if I can still tour with you guys that much’, and were like ‘Fair enough. Maybe it’s just the right moment in time for us to do an instrumental record’, and that’s what we all agreed on. But then in 2012, we took about half a year off, which we hadn’t done since about 2009. We didn’t do any shows for those few months. And during that time off, through his recovery, his voice got better, and he started seeing some different doctors, and they didn’t tell him anymore that he had to have an operation on his vocal cords. They said it could get fine if he just rests his cords and his voice for a bit more. And since he was getting better, he was a bit more keen to be on the album. During the same time, I came to the same conclusion, that I really want him to be on the album because we’ve established him as our vocalist and he plays a really important role when it comes down to just making this energy spill over from the stage into the crowd.
Yeah, he’s definitely an energetic guy on stage.
Exactly. So I felt like something would, essentially, be missing if he wasn’t to play with us anymore, so we both arrived at the same conclusion. We both said to one another ‘alright, let’s record some vocals’. We had just recorded the last two tracks on the record, so what the idea was, actually, was kind of having the entire record be instrumental, and have the fans think it was all instrumental, then all of a sudden have his vocals come in. So we did that and recorded it fairly quickly. Then we started fooling around and recorded some ideas, or some sketches of other parts for the album. We had a pretty good session, Loïc and me, and then by the end of the week we had vocals for the entire album. Then we were like ‘Ok, let’s just make a vocal and instrumental version and release them both’.
So it was more circumstantial than anything else?
Yeah, had Loïc’s voice been too damaged it would have stayed as an instrumental album.
The lyrics themselves are inspired by the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker right?
So did you guys get inspired by seeing it, or is it something you kind of planned out because it worked well with the concept of the record?
Well I’m a huge fan of Tarkovsky and I’ve watched that movie probably more than 20 times. Even on Fogdiver, we used some audio quotes that were taken from the film, and I’ve always wanted to kind of weave it into one of our albums in a more important, significant way. It’s been sitting in the back of my head for a while. With this album, it just seemed right. Because like I said, at first I didn’t know what to do with this concept lyric-wise. I was thinking about how to approach it, and then I had an epiphany of sorts. I though, it’s a journey through zones, and that’s what this movie is doing too; it’s a journey through zone, or a zone, at the heart of which one’s wishes are supposed to come true.
There’s these three guys who are traveling through this deserted, industrial zone, approaching that room at the center of the zone, but the closer they come, the less they really know what they should wish for, and in the end SPOILER ALERT they get really scared and also find out that the subconscious wishes come true; all the ones that they had deep inside of them, some of which they didn’t even know they had deep inside of them, yet nobody ever comes to the point where they want to make that wish. And that’s kind of what the album is orbiting around. It’s all about the origins of our desires and wishes and how much control we have over shaping and changing them, which alliterates to the song ‘Bathyalpelagic II – The Wish In Dreams’. That’s kind of like reappearing at different stages and from different perspectives throughout the album. It’s a very introspective journey into your own psyche, into the very abysses of that psyche, and also a very personal album, completely different from the Centrics [Heliocentric / Anthropocentric], where we’re dealing with religion and organized religion, the legend of Christianity. They were a lot more philosophical, more precise. This album is very abstract and personal, in a lot of ways.
Going back to the Centrics, was there any added pressure whilst writing the new album, given the massive success that those two albums brought the band?
Not really. I tend to not think about that so much when I write music, because when I write music I write things that are coming from some strange area inside of myself that I don’t really know. I don’t have conscious access to it. I either like the stuff that’s coming out of me or not, and I guess that’s a representation of myself; I usually know when something is good and when something is not. Just because I compare it to something before and to something I want to do and where I fail and where it all works out. I just wanted to do something different; I didn’t want to do another album in the vein of the Centrics, neither lyrically and conceptually, or musically. I don’t think everything has to be set on the subject matter that those two albums dealt with; I could make two or three more albums about it, but I basically wanted to start from scratch again. Just to keep things interesting. Both for myself and the people who listen to us. Lyrically and musically I wanted to just start fresh and try to approach writing music from a completely different angle again, and that’s what makes it exciting in the end.
You know I was listening to the album, and I noticed that as the music moved further into the deepest depths of the ocean, you had piano pieces to segue between different songs, getting heavier each time. Was that something that was intentional?
Yeah, it was very intentional. When I started thinking about this album, before I even started writing, I wanted it to start light and become darker. Similar to what you occur when you travel from the surface to the bottom of the sea. I wanted you to feel pressure. Increasing pressure, like in the sea. I wanted it to go lower in tuning, slower in tempo. The music was consciously written with those paradigms in mind. It was quite difficult to approach it like that. There’s a massive difference between writing a song that’s five or even ten minutes long and writing a song that’s 50 minutes long, like this album is. It’s been going through different stages of trying and failing. At first I wanted it to be a very linear progression; I wanted the tempo to gradually go down. Then I realized it wasn’t working out because it got too boring that way, and what makes music exciting is unforeseeable changes and stuff. You won’t have to know much about pelagial depth zones or the creatures that live there to understand what happens there. I want it to feel like a journey to the bottom of the sea without knowing it. I’ll have to play it for my mom and ask her. [laughs]
I’m sure she’ll enjoy it! Going back to the music for a moment. On each of your records you always manage to retain some post-metal and/or post-rock elements. On Anthropocentric you had ‘Wille Zum Untergang’ and there was tons of it on the first three records and most of the second disc of Precambrian. Are you guys as influenced by post- bands as you are by metal bands?
I try to not think in those genre parameters. There’s heavy metal bands that I love and hate; same thing goes for post-rock and post-metal. It’s really from case to case whether or not I enjoy the band. Generally I listen to a wide range of music, not just metal. I love to listen to jazz and fusion stuff, and especially love this dark jazz stuff that’s been getting increasingly popular lately. Stuff like THE KILIMANJARO DARKJAZZ ENSEMBLE and others that have influenced me a lot more recently than before. I listen to all different kinds of music and try to not really worry too much about what genre it fits in. If it’s good, I like it, you know?
Speaking of bands you do enjoy, if you could have a dream tour with you and three other bands on a tour, which bands would they be?
Oh man. This is tough. Well, I want to play with TOOL at some point in my life. I have so much respect for them and their music. They have been absolutely outstanding with everything they have ever done. It would be a huge honor. I’d love to go out with NEUROSIS again. We played three shows with them, and they are a huge influence for me personally when I was growing up. And, fortunately, I am going to play with three members of BREACH on a new record with a new band called THE OLD WIND, which I’m releasing on my label. They were probably the number one most influential band for me growing up, so to play with three of the members in a band is a huge honor for me. There’s a zillion other bands I’d love to tour with. I’m a huge fan of Omar’s [Rodriguez-Lopez, ex-Mars Volta, ex-At The Drive In] new project BOSNIAN RAINBOWS. I’m not really a fan of endless guitar wanking, but that’s not what he’s about anymore; he can do that and is very capable of doing that, but with this new band that I saw live he played with I was absolutely blown away.
I could get behind that tour. [laughs]
Believe me, so could I! [laughs]
So what kind of music can we expect from your new side project?
It’s very heavy stuff. It’s continuing where BREACH left off, in a way. Actually, no. I lied. It’s going back to the origins of the band. It’s slow, heavy, cold music. Sounds like it’s coming from the Northern-most part of Sweden, which it actually is since that’s where the guys are from, but it’s very raw, very vile, very cold sounding. Fairly simple with the music arrangements; nowhere near as complicated as what I do with The Ocean, which is great, because who wants to play in two bands that play the exact same type of thing? It’s very repetitive, and meditative, especially with the vocals. I think people are going to like it a lot.
Can’t wait to hear it! So, this summer you guys will be on the bill for the Summer Slaughter tour, and going all over North America, something you guys haven’t done in a while. How stoked are you guys to be on the bill this year?
We’re all super stoked. Especially because Dillinger are headlining. I love watching them live. We toured with them in Europe, and they’re always killing it every single night. Amazing people, amazing performances. To play with them is a great experience, as well as an honor. We were skeptical of doing the tour at first because we associated it with a plain, straight-up death metal tour, and didn’t really think we’d fit in with those other death metal bands. But then I saw the lineup, and I thought, I don’t care how you label it, but each band fits in perfectly with the rest of them.
Are you guys planning on doing any headlining tours after Slaughter, whether they be in Europe or, hopefully, in the states?
Yeah for sure! Right after Summer Slaughter we’re going back to Taiwan, China, and Indonesia. And then we’re doing Russia again. After Russia we’ll be at the end of September and we’re gonna headline Europe again. But after that…we’ll see. We’ve not really advanced past November of this year yet, as far as our schedule goes, but we are planning to come back to headline North America at some point. Although if we get some good support gigs, we’d probably do that because it’d make more sense. Like, we did the Between The Buried And Me tour and that was really good for us. It was the right band to tour with, the right audience to play to, and we sold a shit-ton of merch and won over a lot of new people, so doing another tour like that is something we’d heavily consider before we even headline.
That would be killer!
As long as we get to tour the states again. It’s always a blast!
This may seem like a silly question because it’s so soon, but you’ve explored the concept album with nearly every single Ocean release. Are there any concepts you’re already thinking of doing in the future, or have been thinking about for a long time?
I mean, yes and no. There’s a couple things I would like to do, but there’s nothing that has developed to a stage where I can confidently talk about it and know where I’m going with it. I generally don’t plan too much, and right now all of my energy is going to this record, and preparing for all of the touring in the next few months. I’m doing press, working on the visual displays with the background film and lighting, rehearsing all of the material, and even the material that isn’t off of this record that we’re still going to play live. That’s all that’s on my mind right now. I like to live in the present and not worry about the future or the past.
As is custom, and sort of a rite of passage for all interviewees on the blog, I must ask. How do you like your eggs?
Fried, usually. They’re damn good. [laughs]
That about wraps it up! Appreciate you doing this man!
Hey, no problem. Thank you guys for taking such interest, and for such an awesome review!
Any final thoughts before I let you get back to the daily musician grind?
Not really, I mean we pretty much covered it all! Like I said, we’re very excited to get back to the US, despite all of the shit we’ve been through in the past with buses and such, we really enjoy touring there. It’s always a great experience. There’s so much hospitality there too. Very thankful for that. Like, last year when we toured with Devin Townsend, our tour ended in Vancouver, but our flights were out of Boston, because we were originally going to do another tour. So within two weeks we had booked a DIY headlining tour from Vancouver to Boston entirely through Facebook. And we stayed with people each night. We had a show each night, a place to stay each night, food each night. We managed to make our expenses for gas and such. That’s something that’d be really hard to do in Europe, because tour booking is so far ahead in Europe, and you wouldn’t be able to stay with as many people due to time constraints. Hospitality in the US are just genuinely open and friendly. Can’t wait to get back there and see all of the old faces, as well as some new ones!
As are we!
The Ocean’s latest album Pelagial is out now on Metal Blade Records. Catch The Ocean on tour in North America on this year’s Summer Slaughter tour. Full list of dates below:
7/19 San Francisco, CA @ The Regency
7/20 Los Angeles, CA @ House of Blues
7/21 Santa Ana, CA @ The Observatory
7/24 Oklahoma City, OK @ Diamond Ballroom
7/26 Dallas, TX @ House of Blues
7/27 Houston, TX @ House of Blues
7/29 Orlando, FL @ House of Blues
7/30 Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade
7/31 Knoxville, TN @ Old City Courtyard
8/1 Myrtle Beach, SC @ House of Blues
8/2 Silver Spring, MD @ The Fillmore
8/3 Worcester, MA @ The Palladium
8/4 Philadelphia, PA @ The Trocadero
8/7 New York, NY @ Best Buy Theater
8/8 Toronto, ON @ The Sound Academy
8/9 Montreal, QC @ Heavy MTL
8/10 Albany, NY @ Upstate Concert Hall
8/11 Detroit, MI @ Majestic Theatre
8/12 Chicago, IL @ House of Blues
8/13 Milwaukee, WI @ The Rave
8/14 Minneapolis, MN @ Station 4
8/16 Denver, CO @ Ogden Theatre