Interview with The Ocean guitarist Robin Staps

- Jan 28, 2008 at 10:59PM
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Following up their critically acclaimed 2005 release Aeolian, The Ocean have released an unprecedented dual disc set on Metal Blade Records entitled Precambrian. This is not your typical Metal release though; it is an epic both musically and thematically. On the music side of things Precambrian encompasses orchestras, electronic and instrumentation as well as grinding guitars and thundering drums. Thematically Precambrian covers a great span of time in our earth’s history. The album not only sounds great, but it is also packaged with a booklet of loads of themed artwork making this disc well worth the purchase. Guitarist Robin Staps took a few moments out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for us.

The name of the band, The Ocean is intriguing. What is the story behind the name? What is the significance?
Robin: The Ocean is the place where everything begins and ends. The ocean can stand for peaceful sunset scenery as much as for a stirred-up, man-eating storm-sea, swallowing everything in its path. This is true just as much for our music: there are plenty of peaceful, playful, instrumental passages that eventually lead into the category-4 hurricane....

The Ocean has shared the stage with a lot of big name artists such as Black Dahlia Murder, Nasum, and Cult of Luna. What was the reaction of the fans? Were they receptive?
Robin: Oh yeah, totally. Each of these tours was different though. The BDM fans, for example, are much younger than the average COL fan. These kids have money for the show and a shirt of the headliner and then sometimes they even leave before the headliner finishes playing cuz they have to go back to their mommies... it was weird, but we got really good reactions from these kinds of audiences as well. We usually adapt the set we play to the kind of crowd we expect, so when we play with COL we play more of the epic, atmospheric songs and when we play with Nasum we play the real heavy tunes... that works out great.

Give us some insight into the meaning behind the title Precambrian. What is the significance of the two disc set?
Robin: The Precambrian was the first chapter in the evolution of planet earth; its beginning is set to about 4.5 billion years before now. Geologists subdivide the Precambrian into 2 or 3 eras, Hadean / Archaean and Proterozoic, and in the case of our album, the 2 discs carry these names. These eras are further subdivided into geological periods, which function as song-titles here. So the whole concept evolves around the early days of mother earth, which was then a terrifying place devoid of life and reigned by sulphur and red-glowing streams of lava.... During the Proterozoic, the earth started to cool down a little bit and the atmosphere started to build, and first simple forms of life sprang up. All this is reflected in the music: The Hadean / Archaean part of the disc is raw and brutal, continuing where Aeolian left off, with a basic instrumentation of drums, bass, guitars and vocals. The Proterozoic part of the disc is much more multi-layered and complex, more mellow and vast, still crushing and heavy for the most part, but with plenty of atmospheric moments that give the listener space to breathe in between the eruptions. We've always had these 2 different sides to our approach to music, on one hand the really heavy tunes with a basic line-up of just drums, bass and guitars, on the other hand all those multi-layered, orchestral compositions with a lot of extra instruments and samples, and with this new album, rather than trying to unite the 2, we wanted to set them apart and make the division obvious. That's how we came up with the idea of doing a double album with 2 very distinct and different parts.

The songs on your new disc Precambrian are not exactly what one would necessarily find on your typical hard rock album. You offer up a range of musical sounds and abilities including an appearance by the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. Is this a result of your varied influences and or a desire to explore new realms of music?
Robin: It is both, but then again we're not a typical hard rock band I would say. I write music with no boundaries in mind, I'm not trying to match a certain style and I'm not even thinking about whether something is metal or not. Every song and every musical idea demands a certain instrumentation and if that incorporates strings, or piano, or trombones, or a fucking harp, then so be it! I am very seduced to write an album for piano and strings only, with The Ocean, without any guitars or drums. As my songwriting skills have developed over the years and as I have learned how to use my machines, I no longer feel any limitations in terms of instrumentation, structure or style.

How has the new CD Precambrian been received by fans?
Robin: It's been awesome, there's quite a buzz around the album right now pretty much everywhere it seems. Precambrian has been getting rave reviews, it scored 'album of the month' in more than 5 key magazines in Europe and from the mail and comments we get I think everyone shares our own excitement about the album.

According to your bio, a lot of energy has been put into making this record a complete package combining the music, artwork, and lyrics. Guitarist Robin Staps is even quoted as saying that “this record is a record for people who still believe in the idea that an album could be more, should be more, than the sum of its tracks.” Can you explain that further?
Robin: The main negative effect that the rise of Myspace has had on music is that it has shifted the focus away from entire albums and onto songs. Bands focus on writing the perfect song these days more than on anything else, and when you go out and buy the album, you're disappointed because there are maybe 3 or 4 good songs on it and the rest is filler material. What's being compromised here is the idea of the album. I am a huge fan of the idea of the album, rather than a loose assembly of songs. All albums that mean something to me are albums that have this cohesion, this inevitability, where you don't wanna skip a single track, where you want to listen to the whole album all the way through. This whole realm is being lost these days, with everyone's attention span being reduced to 4 songs and a few clicks, with bands spending too much time trying to write the one perfect song and neglecting everything else. And this is what we stand up against, by releasing a concept double-album in a slick packaging with immense artwork and tie-that-binds that hopefully offers more than just a few good songs, to the people who care. Will we be able to turn things around with this? Probably not, but if we don't even give it a try we're fucked anyway....

Your bio also states that Precambrian is a stance against; “Myspace induced volatileness and transience against the postmodern notion of music as unsuitable data.” Can you explain that further? What are your feelings about file sharing sites or the internet in general as a tool to marketing and promotions?
Robin: The thing that scares me is that the internet no longer works as a medium to share music and attract people to a band in order to make them pick up their records and dive into their art then, when they enjoy it - it has become an end in of itself. With an unlimited amount of songs only a mouse-click away, the user simply doesn't do that next step anymore, but instead, clicks on to the next site. There is so much out there to discover, although 90% sounds the same, and it is that vague fear of missing out on something that keeps everyone in the loop. Adorno speaks about exactly this subject matter when he talks about culture industry in the 'dialectic of enlightenment', only that it's regarding radio there, and with Myspace it is so much more obvious. I do not generally object to Myspace, we have our own page there, and neither to the internet as a platform for music. The general idea is great, since it is essentially the users who keep the whole thing running and working and who make a band popular, in complete disregard of promotional budgets, so it's kind of a grassroots promotional tool, and I think that's great. However, the very structure of the site itself, allowing no more than 4 songs, in terrible sound quality, essentially means that something is being compromised in the end. Why do you spend 20.000 Euros on making a really good-sounding record, when 80 percent of the people are only gonna listen to it in terrible Myspace streaming quality in the end?

Many of your songs are so hard and intense that I am sure they translate well into a live environment. How does it make you feel when the emotion and or power that you envisioned comes to life in front of a crowd?
Robin: I love every second of it, that's why I'm doing this whole thing. Studio work is fun but playing those songs live to a crowd who responds to everything you do is just so much more awesome. I tend to get locked up in my own sick little world for the duration of the show, it's kind of cathartic in a way and sometimes I don't even realize what happened during the show and ask my band mates, "did I break your finger?" or "where there actually people out there?" We love being on the road, and I guess the only way to absorb the Ocean-experience as a whole is to witness a live-show. I'm really content with our new record, but there are simply some aspects that are impossible to convey by the limited means of recorded music. The whole visual aspect of our performance, that is something impossible to include on a record. It is a strikingly important aspect of our show though; I believe that people are much more receptive on a visual basis, than on an aural basis. It’s easier to convey emotions, to create a specific atmosphere, by using lights and images, than by using sounds alone. So that is something we try to pull off when we hit the stage, and it is something mutually rewarding for us and the audience, hopefully.

The public perception of life on the road differs greatly from the reality of it. Can you tell me a little bit about how you travel? (Bus, Van etc...) What accessories do you equip your ride with to make the time go by?
Robin: We're usually traveling in a 9-seater van, but we're getting to the point where there's not enough space for our light gear anymore (we have our own light system traveling with us). There's not a lot of space in the passenger compartment either, we're usually a travel party of 8 or 9 people... we have a TV in the van and a DVD player / Playstation so that keeps us busy. But touring like this can be really hard sometimes. On the last tour, we had 3 night drives, where we had to leave right after the show to drive all the night through to get to the next venue in time. With a bus that's no big deal, but with 8 people in a van where no one can lay down and sleep it's fucked up. In March we're doing our first ever bus tour, I'm really looking forward to that.

What are the living arrangements like while on the road?
Robin: The good thing in Europe is that you always get a hotel, that’s part of the deal the agency has with the promoters. Also, you'll always get decent food, cold snacks upon arrival, hot food before the show and breakfast the next morning. So you basically have no expenses while you're on tour.

When you are out on the road anything can happen and often does. Can you think of any disastrous events that happened while out on tour? How did you solve the problem?
Robin: We just had a lot of issues with rented vans... blown tires when you need them least, flaming engines and all different kinds of shit... once the side-door wouldn’t shut anymore, so we had to actually hold it shut on the highway... we tried fixing it with duct tape but it wouldn't work... so one of us had to sit near the door for a 6 hour drive all the time and push against the door to hold it shut... it was ridiculous.

When you are on the road for a while I am sure you see and experience many different things you might not even have known existed. Are there any stories that stand out in your mind as being exceptionally strange or odd?
Robin: Get this... So we were looking for our hotel after a show in Stoke-on-Trent in the UK last year... couldn't find it, it was supposed to be in this large industrial district, which was kinda sketchy... then all of a sudden there was an empty car blocking the road, all doors wide open, no one there... it seemed like some drive-by shooting had just occurred or something. So I stopped the van, reversed it and bang, hit something. This something turned out to be a police car, unfortunately, that had pulled up right behind us in the few seconds that we were all staring at the empty car. Adding to the misery, a cop who had just been in the process of getting out of the car when I hit it, got his arm smashed by the door falling shut. They were not amused. I wasn't either, being aware of the fact that I had been drinking absinthe after the show... and still I was the least drunk of us all, so I was like, OK, I'm gonna drive. The inevitable happened and those 2 police ladies made me have a seat in the back of their car to do an alcohol breath-test. You know the treat, you're blowing into a hose and then it indicates whether you're fucked or not. I was blowing very softly apparently, but the ladies wouldn't let me get away with it... so I did it again, blowing a lot of air out of my nose... they knew the trick and one of em said "yo, if you're not gonna blow you're fucking lungs out now, we'll take you to the station and make you do a blood test." So, what could I do? I blew. With all my might. And then, the miracle occured: the device still indicated 0 alcohol. God had just been born, and he had compassion for me. The ladies' faces suddenly all lit up then and they took us to the hotel that we had been initially looking for... Wanted to make a copy of my passport at the reception, and when that wasn't possible they offered to drive back to the police station, do it there, and bring it back to the hotel. They were like "you can go to bed now, we'll just drop it off at the reception." Unreal! Cops are not always ugly, arrogant, fucks on a power-trip, they can be human. British cops, that is!

What is next for The Ocean?
Robin: After this tour we will take a 2 months break and just lean back and see how the album kicks in... there's a lot of promotion that has just started now so that'll keep me busy. I also have to take the chance to finish my studies, now or never... we will be on tour again pretty much all of March and April 2008. We're doing our first nightliner tour with Rotten Sound, Victims and Trap Them. A really strange package, but yet another challenge for us, since we're way different from the rest of the bands here... and we will even emphasize that difference by playing more of the calmer tracks off Proterozoic on that tour... let's see how that goes down with the Rotten Sound fans. After this we will do an extended tour of eastern Europe, including Greece, Romania, Turkey and so on, and play a 1 week headlining tour in France in April. In May/June we're going to the US for the first time it seems... then it's summer festivals in Europe.  [ END ]
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