It was a bright and breezy night in May. Sometimes, nights have this extra tingle in the air: an electric, breathless quality that send the hairs on the back of your neck standing up in anticipation. This was one of those nights: this is my first ever interview I’ve ever done, and it’s with none other than Robin Staps, the leader of The Ocean. I was a mortal, facing metal’s Poseidon. Here’s what happened.
CM: Hello Robin, how’re you feeling today?
Robin Staps: Pretty good. It’s been a nice, sunny day in Berlin finally, or Spring at least so yeah. It’s good to be home, I just got home from tour on Saturday actually so…
CM: How was the tour? It was with Cult of Luna, wasn’t it?
RS: Yeah yeah, exactly. It was awesome, a really good tour for us, I think: great shows, the last three or four shows were sold out, and a couple of others in between. It was just a really interesting musical package every night: starting with Lo!, [a band] that I’ve released on Pelagic Records – my label as well – then Cult of Luna headlining. It was just a great musical match, and just an honour to go out with those guys because they’re probably one of the bands I respect the most in modern heavy music. I think they have really always found their own idiosyncratic approaches to music that are really different and special with every single album they’ve released so it’s been awesome to play with them.
CM: I bet there were a lot of fun stories that happened on the tour.
RS: It was one of the very best tours: it was comfortable, lots of time for sitting in the lounge ‘til the early hours, talking and drinking, so it’s been great.
CM: So, to those that are unfamiliar with your live show, could you give a brief description of the experience?
RS: Well, right now we’re trying to play our new album pretty much in its entirety whenever we have a chance to, which is difficult of course when the support slot time’s limited. This album was written to be performed and listened to in one piece of music and that’s what we’re trying to do live. Basically, it’s like a show that starts at one point and then continues for the next hour or so and there are no breaks in between and no pauses, so it’s a bit like a movie that kinda sucks you in. That’s also being supported by the visual side, with the video projections which we have going on at the back of the stage… it’s definitely worth seeing it live as opposed to just listening to the CD, because you will see the video, and the film was basically made along with the album, so it all goes together and I think it’s important to get the whole picture.
CM: You’ve recently been added to the Summer Slaughter tour, and are supporting Mastodon. How excited are you about these gigs?
RS: We’re playing a couple of shows with Mastodon in June, about four or five shows, then Summer Slaughter is with the Dillinger Escape Plan headlining, Animals as Leaders and Periphery on that tour as well. I’m very much excited about that tour, specifically about Dillinger, more than the name ‘Summer Slaughter’ which was standing more for straight-up death metal tours in recent years, but I think this year’s lineup is very different: with Dillinger headlining, Animals as Leaders, Periphery and us, basically, so it’s lots of different bands, I think, and it’s very exciting to be part of that package. Specifically, to go out with Dillinger again – who we’ve already toured with in Europe in 2010 – they’re also one of my favourite bands in heavy music, another one of those bands that really have found their own twist with every new album and that’re definitely leaving people behind awed after every show: they’re just really really fucking intense live.
CM: Are you looking forward to Dillinger Escape Plan’s new album coming out?
RS: Fuck yeah! I’m very much looking forward to that: I’ve heard parts of it already and it’s gonna be awesome. Like, I love this band and, on the last tour we’ve done with them, I watched every single show that they did live, I mean I watched every single night and it was not getting boring for me at all, so it’s good to be on tour with a band like that. I love a band night where you see the first two shows and then you’re like: ‘yeah, I know what they do’ and it’s always great.
CM: What’s the music scene like in Germany? Is it easy to get gigs?
RS: Well, it’s a huge country with 90 million people so there’s a pretty big scene everywhere, especially in a couple of key cities, the whole western area, what we call the Woport area around Cologne and Dortmund; Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Stuttgart… there’s a lot of cities to play, and a lot of venues, and a lot of bands coming up, but it’s somehow like… mainly right now more like it’s a scene of spectators or punters rather than a scene of participators and people who actually start bands, so you will get good turnouts at the shows of whatever kind of genre of music you’re going to see, but you won’t really have so many bands around, it seems.
Or like, at least not bands that really get anywhere on the international level. So that’s a bit of a bummer, but I think that’s all related to the German media landscape which is very conservative: basically, most of the German heavy music media are copying whatever’s happening in the US or in the UK with a six months delay and I think that really is a shame. I think that’s why some bands – bands like Mastodon, for example – who are, I believe, pretty big in the UK, drawing serious numbers, will play a 500-cap venue in Berlin, in Germany’s capital! So a lot of the shows we’re doing with them in the next two weeks or so, the tour’s sold out but it’s still 500-cap, and not 2000-cap, you know? And it shows you [the US and the UK have a] more progressive approach to heavy music, and Germany’s still behind, and it sucks, and we’re trying to change that.
CM: Your brand new album ‘Pelagial’ has been universally hailed as a masterpiece. Have you been surprised at the great reaction you’ve been getting?
RS: A little bit, yeah. It was almost too good to be true, so that’s a bad sign- that means something has to happen, something terrible (laughs) so yeah, I don’t really know… I mean, people seem to love it and, of course, it makes me happy: I’m, personally, very happy with this album, I think it really represents the sound of this band right now and I think it’s the best-sounding The Ocean album we’ve ever done. I’m glad when people like it, and I’m glad we get more recognition than with our previous albums. It feels weird to enter the German charts: to find an album like ‘Pelagial’ among Justin Timberlake and the new Daft Punk record. It’s strange, but yeah…
CM: It gives you a lot of hope for the future.
RS: Yeah, yeah (laughs) it’s been received very well and, of course, it makes me happy. I don’t follow everything that’s being written and said but I do get the general consensus and that has been very positive.
CM: When you were writing ‘Pelagial’, did you go into it with a definitive goal or did it just evolve naturally?
RS: No, there was a definite goal, and that’s what makes it different from all of our previous albums really. All of our previous albums, the concept or conceptual outlines were always applied after the music had been written, and that was different with ‘Pelagial’: I really knew what I wanted to do here conceptually and musically, and that’s what I had in mind when I started writing. I wanted it to be – this album – from the journey to the depths of the ocean, basically, and I wanted the music to visualise or audiolise that, in a way. So, when you imagine that: when you imagine you’re travelling from the surface to the abysses of the deep seas, you’re thinking that it’s gonna get darker, it’s gonna get colder, there’s gonna be less things you will encounter on the way, so, musically, that means it will get more minimalist, it gets slower, it gets darker, it would get colder as well. And that’s what I wanted to do:
I wanted to write an album that’s a progression from one point to another point, and that seriously has had an impact on the whole writing process, because I basically wrote the whole album to be one piece of music: in order to be able to make that progression happen, and it’s definitely a completely different challenge from writing songs for an album, where you write a song that’s, like, 5 or 10 minutes long, then you write another song and, in the end, you think about how to put them all together. That was different here. Every riff I wrote for this album, I knew where it would need to be happening on the timeline of the record: whether it was more like a surface riff or more like a deep sea riff, or whatever, I specifically wrote the music with those kind of paradigms in mind, and that’s what made it mix really different to our previous albums.
CM: Would you say that this is the album that has stretched you the most creatively?
RS: Probably, probably yeah. But it’s not really so much of a ‘stretch’: that’s a bit of a negative term; it’s more about getting in the right mode and then seeing what happens. That has been the case in the past and also with this album; although I really knew what I wanted to do, once I got into writing mode it just happened fairly naturally and I didn’t have to force anything. It’s not really that I have to suck ideas out of my own fingers (laughs), it comes to me when I start writing: like, I was getting fairly excited when I started writing this record, and it all happened fairly quickly. Most of the basic musical ideas and the basic structure of the record was [made] in about two or three weeks, max.
CM: The Ocean has had almost a revolving door of musicians coming into and going out of the band. How happy are you feeling with the current lineup? Are you getting along well?
RS: Yeah, yeah: we definitely have grown together quite a lot as a band, we do get along well – although there’s always issues you do fight about in bands, or you disagree about – that’s natural and almost necessary in order to find a healthy climate of discussing things in a rational way that makes sense, and I think we’ve gotten pretty far there. I’m very happy with this lineup: I think all the musicians fit this band perfectly, and really made possible for it to take us where we are now musically, and I think you can really hear that on the album too, especially with regards to vocals and drums.
The individual players really get to shine, and they really get to do their own thing, as opposed to just playing sheet music, and I think that’s something that definitely places this album in another league, as compared to… well, it started happening with ‘Heliocentric’ and ‘Anthropocentric’, but then the guys were still new and trying to find their place in the band. Now they have found their place, and everything’s much more confident, you know, and I think you can hear that. So I’m very happy with that; at the same time, I am aware – because I’ve been running this band for 13 years – there have been many, many people in and out of the band, and I am aware that any symbiosis of people playing together in a musical outfit is always a symbiosis that works for a certain, limited amount of time and that it’s not going to work forever, because people will start wanting to have families and careers – and career jobs – and, apparently, at some point people will set other priorities in their lives.
And that may happen to us again, no one knows that: right now, it feels like we really want to take this further, we really want to tour, we really want to be taking it to the next level and, hopefully, that will be possible. But, I’m just saying that I’m aware how difficult it is to motivate people to contribute so much time and energy to this band and to touring the way we do, and as intensely as we do. It’s almost a miracle that this was possible with the same people for the last four years, you know, and I’m very thankful for that.
CM: With that, how far do you want to see The Ocean ending up? Do you want to sell out stadia, or remain an underground phenomenom?
RS: Well, that’s something I don’t really think about so much: I definitely don’t want to limit this band in any way, we’re here to take it to the next level – that’s what I just said – so if people appreciate our approach to music and people want to come to our shows, then I’m not gonna be the one to say ‘oh, but we only want to play, like, 100-capacity clubs’. That’s not gonna happen. At the same time, what we do is extreme, and there is more tolerance for extreme music today, and some fairly extreme bands get really far so, you know, kind of like the roof has opened, you know? But it’s not my main motivation to just make this band as big as I possibly can:
I do enjoy playing packed, sweaty club shows and it feels great to do that, and as long as we see that there’s an interest in our music we’re gonna keep doing this. Obviously, if you realise there’s a decline in people coming to the shows or whatever, then you have to reconsider whether it still makes sense to do that. But I don’t see that happening: it’s been growing very, very slowly with us over the last couple of years, but it has been growing, and definitely now in the recent tour I’ve realised that there’s a lot of interest in this band, and we’ve sold a lot of merch on this tour, more than ever before, and so I think it’s going in a cool direction.
If that enables us to tour a bit more comfortably, then that makes the band more stable too: because what breaks it up and is dangerous is always when you sleep on floors for three months and go home with no money at all in your pocket to pay your rent, then that’s when people start getting unmotivated. So to have a little bit more turnouts, a little bit more fees, and a little bit more comfortable touring conditions is something that definitely just helps bands stay together longer, so I’m definitely not opposed to that.
CM: What do you feel are the best and worst things about being in a band?
RS: The best things, to start with, are being able to have Saturday night for pretty much every single day of your life, which is very enjoyable (laughs), and still having the option to withdraw when you need, especially when you’re on a bus, you know? But it’s like you’re hanging out with your friends, playing shows, the moment of adrenaline when you go on stage and have a good show is just unbeatable: I need that to thrive, to survive, really.
Although it’s like only an hour, an hour and a half, per day, it’s just something I can’t really imagine doing without. And everything that comes with it is something you’d accept then: I mean, touring is tiring and it’s not always comfortable, and you do have to constantly arrange yourself with other people around you, which can be difficult. But all that is worth paying the price for the moment when you go on stage and the moments of partying and having good conversations with friends and with other bands that you meet along the way, and that you can exchange yourself with. So that’s just priceless. And getting to travel: get to play in places like China or Hong Kong or Taiwan, is an incredible privilege.
To be able to do that, to see those countries, not from the perspective of a tourist, but from a completely different perspective, that’s something that really interests me. I’ve been travelling a lot, all over the world, but touring these countries is so different to just travelling there as a backpacker, so that’s awesome. And all that makes all the pain worth it for me, personally. The worst parts are having to realise that, when you’re in a band with three or four other people, you’re basically leading a marriage, a marriage of three or four people, and you have to constantly make this marriage work. And that is hard. I mean, I’m not married in my private life, but it’s very hard to commit to one person and to arrange yourself, but to commit to four people and to arrange yourself with every single one of them is a fucking challenge. Especially when they have strong egos, strong characters, that’s what makes it interesting, but that’s what also makes it very draining and very difficult at times.
CM: I suppose that’s why Axl Rose has had so many problems over the years (laughs)
RS: Yes, exactly (laughs).
CM: How important do you feel social media has been to advancing the band?
RS: I think it’s gotten incredibly important, and I see it now that I have kind of like co-ordinated partially the way this album has been promoted and everything, and social media does play a big role in that. When I work with Pelagic with most of my bands, I think it’s much more wise to invest in social media marketing these days than to print-magazine marketing, for example, and that is just as important to see what’s happening, to, like, compare the results you get between different medias.
For us, as a band, it’s not only about promotion, or selling records, or getting the word out there, it’s also about organising logistic things on tour. For example, we toured the US in 2011, and we were actually supposed to do another tour which fell through, and then as a replacement – since our flights were already booked – we jumped in with the Devin Townsend tour in the US. But that finished on the other coast, it finished in Vancouver, and our flights were booked out of Boston, so we had to get back from Vancouver to Boston, and we booked a kind of do-it-yourself headline tour with only two weeks notice back from Vancouver to Boston, and only [booked] via Facebook. And basically we just put the word out there that we were driving back from Vancouver to Boston, whoever has a place for us to crash on the way to just let us know, and if you wanted us to play a show at your place, we’ll do it, basically. As a result, it ended up being sixteen shows in sixteen days, some of them were house shows, which was awesome, because I’m a hardcore kid, I love playing on the floor and having that sweaty kind of basement shows from time to time.
I don’t wanna do it for the rest of my life (laughs) but it was great to do that on that tour. Some of them were good club shows, and we played this bar in New York City which was sold out, I think, with just two weeks notice, that was great. And that was something that really shows you the power of social media: we did nothing but post on Facebook, and we got a whole tour, we got a place to crash every night, we met incredibly helpful people that really went out of their way to accommodate us. It’s just been an awesome experience, and all of this would not have been possible without social media, so I’d say it’s a great, very strong, very positive tool.
CM: How important do you feel blogging sites are to raising a band’s profile?
RS: To be honest, I don’t really know, because I haven’t really had the time to investigate that. I am doing quite a few interviews for blogging sites, but I don’t have any statistics for that. You tell me: how many readers do you have?
CM: There’s a readership of thousands, and it’s seen by a fair few labels and bands. It’s always good to have blogging sites as an additional tool in a band’s arsenal.
RS: Yeah, totally.
CM: What bands or artists have influenced you, both as you were growing up and more recently?
RS: Well, generally my musical socialisation started with Guns N Roses in the late eighties, early nineties. That was my first exposure to heavy music, and that was the first band I got really excited about, to the degree where I was knowing all the lyrics. I first saw them live in 1991, and that was my first real rock show, basically. And then I kind of, like, got into the hardcore scene, and started getting into the whole Straight Edge-hardcore thing for many years, and got very involved with that, and that’s where my desire to actually play in bands myself kind of emerged. Since then, since my early twenties my musical taste has broadened and diversified a lot, and has gone in completely different directions. Nowadays, I listen to all different kinds of stuff; not only heavy music, as a matter of fact, but like dark jazz stuff, like the Todd Gustafsen Trio, which is stuff I find really intriguing these days. I listen to salsa, I’m a big fan of Puerto Rican and Columbian salsa. I listen to really a very broad range of music, I listen to heavy music of course, but there’s a lot of different things I listen to, as a matter of fact.
CM: This is a personal thing for me: what was the first guitar that you owned?
RS: It was a very shitty guitar, it was a company called Vester, and it was like one of those shitty first guitars that you just buy… but it was a guitar! (Laughs) I actually found it, a while ago, still in shitty condition, but it’s still there, and I didn’t really have the guts to throw it away. I don’t think anyone would want to buy such a piece of shit! (Laughs).
CM: What words of wisdom do you have for any up-and-coming bands that are out there?
RS: I’m not that old yet! (Laughs) well, I am old, but not that old… it’s always important to question what you want to do. A lot of bands try to copy what’s going on around them, rather than have their own approaches to music, but also with regard to promoting and managing and marketing. There are definitely examples that are unconventional: for example, the Dillinger Escape Plan still are managing themselves and releasing records on their own label, which is very unconventional but still successful. I think it’s a great example: it’s not that you have to go to places that you’re uncomfortable with, you can have your own approaches which make your band work for you.
CM: Do you have any final comments you’d like to make?
RS: Not really, just that there was a London show which we unfortunately had to cancel because our car broke down in the middle of France on a Sunday morning, which was a really unsuitable situation, so we missed out and couldn’t make it to that show, so I’m sorry about that. But we will be doing more UK shows, showing the album in its entirety, and that may well be happening in November. We don’t know exactly when it’ll be happening, but it will be happening, so we hope to see you there!
Interview by Chris Markwell.
Thanks to Robin Staps for his time for doing this great interview.