The Ocean – Flowing Through Geological TimeThursday, 17th September 2020
The Ocean has been connecting their brand of sludgy, post-metal to Earth’s history for much of their career. Whether it was through the geological time scale, such as Precambrian and the band’s upcoming conclusion to Phanerozoic double album in Mesozoic/Cenozoic, or a journey to the depth of the ocean, there’s some Earthly knowledge that listeners can brush up on when listening to the music. Grand, sweeping tracks are the norm – the type that allow you to imagine the changing surroundings and landscape as you listen. With Phanerozoic II approaching release, we spoke with guitarist/founder Robin Staps about the band’s latest release, the importance of flow, connection to the Earth and its history, and more!
Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been covering geological timeline for a few albums now – how’s it feel to finally wrap these up?
Robin Staps: It feels great! I’m happy to finally conclude the thing that we started with Precambrian and arrive at the present time. It’s something that I really wanted to do. It didn’t become clear to me until after Precambrian was release, as a matter of fact. It feels great. There was this gap between Precambrian and the –centric records that were released in 2010. We really wanted to bridge that gap with a record that connects our past with the present, and I think this new record is doing exactly that.
Dead Rhetoric: When it comes to each particular time period, what do you tend to think about when writing?
Staps: It doesn’t really happen that way. It’s the other way around. We write the music first and then we start thinking about the conceptual side of things. It’s odd to do it that way, but it’s how I’ve been writing music for forever. It starts making a lot of sense when you already have material to work with, and then you start looking for certain things related to the conceptual aspect. When you find those things, then it all starts falling into place.
The only record that I ever wrote that was different, where the concept was there from the beginning was Pelagial. That record was a journey from the surface to the bottom of the sea, and I really wanted the music to be written with that in mind. The music needed to get progressively darker and heavier, and slower and claustrophobic as you advanced towards the depths of the deep sea. So that record was made with those paradigms in mind. It was really a challenge, but all of the other records we wrote the music first and then thought about what we were going to do with it and matching it with the conceptual aspects.
Dead Rhetoric: This second release of Phanerozoic covers the Mesozoic and Cenozoic, how do you feel it connects back to your last album [Part 1] as well?
Staps: The material for both records was more or less written over the same time – over the course of two or three summers. It must have been 2015-2017 I think. The first part of the record was pretty clear to me from the beginning. All of those songs are quite streamlined. They have a consistent vibe and similar tempos. They feel like they were all created with the same paradigms in mind. The second part of the record was more of a mystery to me. It was kind of like the left over songs at first, but also the more experimental, more daring, and more forward pushing tracks. That’s why I didn’t want them to be on Part 1, since I had a very clear idea of where I wanted it to head in. When we started working on Part 2, I was looking at it and wondering how it would come together.
What happened is that I made the choice to stray away from having too much of a narrow idea of the final product. I decided to go with the flow and see what happened. It was a great choice because everything fell into place with a lot less of being attached to certain things that were there from the beginning, which always end up constraining things at the end. The narrower the idea is of what you have, the more you are tied to it. Here I tried to keep myself free until the very end and was open to any direction it could take. I’m very happy with the outcome. It has a more spontaneous feel to it than any of our previous records. It’s a journey. It’s not a random collection of songs. It starts in one place and ends in another in a way that you can’t really anticipate when you listen to it at the beginning. I was hoping that would happen but I wasn’t sure at the start. I’m happy that it did.
Dead Rhetoric: Do you feel that instrumental versions of the tracks give them a different sort of mood/vibe?
Staps: Totally. I think it’s always very interesting when you take the vocals away. Your focus is on totally different things. We are conditioned to pay attention to the vocalist. Not just musicians, but everyone. As soon as you take them away, you start hearing things that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. That’s great – it offers you a different perspective on what is essentially the same thing. Although we took different decisions with the mixes. There are some instruments that we recorded in Romania while we were out on tour last year, flutes and woodwinds really, and it was a really cool session. This guy came to our show and we started setting up microphones and recording his takes. It sounded perfect. It was what we wanted the song to have, but it didn’t always work out together with Loïc [Rossetti]’s vocals, so we had to make a choice. We could bring those parts in on the instrumental versions. We could have a different mix.
It’s not just that the vocals are muted, but there are different instruments on some tracks. There’s a different emphasis on the mix too, like some strings or instruments are louder in the instrumental mix than the vocal versions. It’s more than just an instrumental version that just mutes the vocals. There was a different approach taken and you will hear things on the instrumental version that you won’t hear on the vocal record because they are not there.
Dead Rhetoric: How important is the overall flow and feeling within a track?
Staps: It’s very important to have a continuous thread that goes not only through a song, but also the whole album. The way I write music isn’t really intuitive. It’s composed at home by myself, but what happens next is based on what happened previously. It’s not written on paper – I try them out and they either work or they don’t. Every song needs to have that flow, it needs to have that evolution towards a certain direction. Not just an arbitrary connection of parts that go together in theory, so it’s not just composed music but there’s also a lot of soul in it. There’s a lot of feeling and a lot of choices that I can’t tell you why I made but they just felt right.
Dead Rhetoric: Looking back, how has The Ocean evolved over time?
Staps: We’ve been around for 20 years, and a lot has happened in that time. People that are in the band now aren’t the same, even from 10 years ago, apart from Loïc. He’s the only one that has been in the band for 10 years. A lot has happened, and musically we have made a lot of progress in unforeseen directions. I think it’s always going to be like that. New people bring in a different impetus and new directions. What I can say now is that I’m very happy with where we are with the current line-up and group of people, both as musicians as well as being good people to spend time with.
We are also now old enough to appreciate that. Up until about 5-6 years ago, there was a lot of tension between Loïc and I, between the other band members – and we have now come to appreciate that we all have the privilege of being in this band together and touring, getting to go to places we wouldn’t be able to go if we weren’t in this band. I think everyone in this band knows that and appreciates it. That’s why we genuinely have a good time when we play and we can’t go out there and do that again.
Dead Rhetoric: What draws you towards these Earth-centric albums and songs?
Staps: I have a personal interest in geography, paleontology, and Earth’s history. I also studied that, so I’ve always been a nerd and that’s what I was interested in. At one point, it made sense to connect it to my music. In Precambrian times, when I was writing I closed my eyes and saw images of prehistoric landscapes and streams of lava as I listened to the music. It just made sense, and an appropriate visualization of the music. The music is epic and has this archaic quality to it, so it makes sense to refer to archaic times with it as well.
Dead Rhetoric: What concerns you about the planet, outside of the current COVID crisis?
Staps: Obviously there are a lot of concerns about the future of the planet and our place in it. It’s looking grim and it’s difficult to speak about it without sounding too pathetic. But the prognosis of how climate change is going to affect our lives or the lives of our children is not very good. I’m not the type of person who is hopeless. I think we still have a chance to act and change certain things.
I think maybe this current pandemic/crisis is a good starting point. Things that were completely unfathomable are now reality. Things have come to a halt, and it seems like someone has pushed this pause button that we thought was completely impossible and against the laws of capitalism, which it is, but it happened. Though not by intentional decisions, but it shows that it’s possible. It gives me some hope that we can adjust some of the parameters that would very likely lead to our decline and learn from our past mistakes so we can do things differently in the future.
Dead Rhetoric: How important is artwork in association to the band? You guys always come up with some really nice merch designs too.
Staps: It’s very important, and it has been from the beginning. I think as a musician you are blessed with having so many different forums of artistic expressions at your disposal. The music is obviously an important one but it’s not the only one. There’s the album artwork, there’s merch designs which ideally have some sort of aesthetic involved, and there’s also the live show and visualization. We’ve always put a lot of attention on all of these aspects, and I’ve had a holistic approach to art. I consider art to be the sum of different components and genres, and I want to do the best in these genres. It’s not just the music, but how you present it in a visual way.
We were that band, that even when we played small shows around the turn of the millennium, that would bring out floor lights to create a bit of atmosphere. All of the other punk bands would be laughing at us, but it made such a difference! Everyone else dealt with yellow and green Christmas lights flashing at them all the time, and we were playing heavy, atmospheric music – that just doesn’t work. So we brought out our own lights and everyone was blown away. So I think all of it is important. The visual side very much so, because a lot of the feelings and emotions we express through the music are expressed in a visual way that is almost equally important to the musical ideas.
Dead Rhetoric: What plans do you have in the future for The Ocean?
Staps: Right now we are focusing on the album launch, the pre-order logistics, and we also want to do a live stream where we play the record in its entirety when it comes out. We are preparing for that. We have a European tour scheduled for January 2021. Fingers crossed it will go ahead as planned, but it looks like it will hopefully be possible. Next year it will be lots of touring and bringing the record everywhere. I am really looking forward to returning to North America. We were supposed to do that this summer. We had a full tour booked in August, but that was cancelled.
We aren’t inactive. There’s lots of work with Pelagic Records as well, and The Ocean in prepping for the release. There’s no downtime for us, it’s that we can actually work on some projects that we wouldn’t have been able to find the time for otherwise. For example, we are releasing a 130 page photobook with the vinyl edition of the new album. It’s basically all pictures from the Phanerozoic I touring cycle in 2019. It was a time consuming project that would not have been able to do without COVID. Slowing down on the live end has allowed us to focus on some other cool projects, so I’m kind of thankful for that too.