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The Ocean

Na de release van het monsterlijk vette 'Aeolian' voorspelde velen The Ocean een mooie toekomst. Die mooie toekomst lijkt met de nieuwe dubbelaar 'Precambrian' dan eindelijk aangebroken. Het leger der metal journalisten lijkt zich als één man achter de plaat te scharen, en de shows worden goed bezocht. Genoeg reden om Robin Staps, het grote brein achter de oceaan, eens op te zoeken. Vanuit zijn woonplaats Berlijn een uitvoerig verslag over de ambities van The Ocean, en mogelijkheden die zich uitstrekken tot aan de horizon.

Door: Jasper | Archiveer onder different metal

band imageHi Robin, how are you doing at this moment?
Doing good man, recovering from a massive party night yesterday... saw my friend Yuky play with her band 'Chateau Laut', then our bass player Hannes played with some jazz ensemble after which I ended up at a party where my friend Mitch was putting terrible 80's trash pop songs on the turntables, and got home at 7 AM...

First of all, congratulations with the new record, it is once again one of the most incredible piece of audio I heard this year. This time it also seems that there aren't any journalists or fans that will disagree (like Rock Hard with 'Aeolian'). The band seem to be taking the big leap forward this time, what do you think?
I have to agree, press has been outstanding for this album. 'Precambrian' scored highest notes pretty much all over Europe and also in Germany this time, and we were album of the month in Metal Hammer in 4 major metal magazines... so no one seems to be disappointed. But if it is the big leap forward, we will still have to see, because good press doesn't necessarily mean good sales. I really hope that everyone who digs the album will actually go out and buy it, we really need the support of everyone since we have overstretched our recording budget big time to make this huge project happen. But what can I say, with the lavish packaging I think we have done everything in our might to make people actually buy the album, rather than download it.

You must be extremely proud: finally you have created the double CD album and released it as a whole (which perhaps 'Fluxion' and 'Aeolian' should have been?). Was it hard to convince the record label of the importance of releasing the two records at the same time?
Not really, we never really discussed it. I told them we wanted to do it and they were just like, uh.. let's see... I think they were really sceptical from the beginning regarding this new album, and it took a while until they all realized what we had delivered. But at the same time they were very supportive and never asked any questions about the album. They didn't even hear any of the music until the final master, so they had no idea what this was going to be. There were a lot of discussions about the packaging though, and I am extremely satisfied that in the end they made possible every single little detail and extra's we or Martin Kvamme, the designer, had in mind. I am very thankful for this, we have a great label.

The new album 'Precambrian' has all the features of a genuine “concept-album”, yet the lyrics and the song-titles sometimes have very little in common (…or do they?) Was 'Precambrian' written as a concept or is it more two albums with loose songs and an artwork concept to keep it all together?
It is a bit of both. We had the idea to make a concept 2xalbum from the beginning, with the songs to be split up to 2 CDs according to the difference in the musical approaches, and we were then looking for a conceptual idea to support this split, afterwards. This band always had these two sides, one being the orchestral, epic, lengthy tracks that build atmosphere, with dynamics going in waves through the song, and the other one being the really heavy, less atmospheric, shorter tunes that do without all the extra instruments. With this album we tried to take these two approaches as far apart from one another as possible, so it was logical to separate the songs completely and put them onto two different CD's. The concept emphasizes these differences. Hadean /Archean was a part where there was no life on earth at all, the face of the earth was reigned by fire, sulfur and lava. During the Proterozoic the atmosphere started to build, the earth cooled down and first simple forms of life sprang up. This evolutionary departure, this increase in complexity, is being reflected in the music, with the compositions going from really simple (in terms of instrumentation and arrangements), short, heavy tunes to lengthy, orchestral songs with a multitude of different layers.

What about the lyrics?
Of course, the lyrics don't deal with rocks and lava and volcanic eruptions all the way through the album. There is not much point in writing about how the first single cell organisms felt when they were swimming through the Precambrian oceans either... If music or art is to be emotional at all, it has to address human issues. There are still some metaphors referring to Precambrian themes, so it's not all arbitrary, but apart from that the lyrics deal with human subjects. I personally do not see this fact compromising the album concept at all.

The album is in more ways ambiguous, it's a huge bombastic piece of heavy music, yet at the same time I detect some very intimate personal lyrics as well! You even sing (clean) on the album! What made you more ready to “open up” this time?
Hmm, I don't feel we have opened up more than before, the album just has a much wider scale of expression. Aeolian was a very sincere and heartfelt album, but the all-dominating theme was aggression. Precambrian is more than that, it still has that aggression at times, but it also thrives on other emotions and broader reflections. This is nothing new to us, really - we've ventured into similar territories with our first official release 'Fogdiver' 4 years ago, and we have worked with large orchestrations and also some clean vocals on 'Fluxion' as well. 'Aeolian' just had a certain focus, and with 'Precambrian', the focus is different: we got to keep it interesting for ourselves!

Was it always the intention to release a two-disc album or did you just write too many songs again? ;) Some bands have difficulties filling twenty minutes these days, you seem to have a creativity overload! Do the ideas really come that easy?
Yeah, they do. I have never suffered from a shortage of musical ideas. I write music with no boundaries in mind, I'm not trying to match a certain style, it all happens naturally. I have the melodies and harmonies in my mind and just need to write them down and work out second voices and stuff. It is an easy-going process and one of my favourite parts in the song writing process. As my song writing skills have developed over the years and as I have learned how to use my machines, I do no longer feel any limitations in terms of instrumentation, structure or style, and I am much faster with working out my ideas than a few years ago.

Can you explain a little bit about the “stance against myspace-induced volatileness”? You have a Myspace site as well, and your touring buddies War From A Harlots Mouth got big through it, so what is the problem?
I do not generally object to Myspace. Yes, we have our own page there. 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.

So?
However, Myspace 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 dip their nose into their art then, when they enjoy it - it has become an end in 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. 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. And more than anything, it is the idea of the album. I am a huge fan of the idea of making an album, rather than a loose assembly of songs. All albums that mean something to me are albums have this cohesion, this inevitability, where you don't want to 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 a tie that binds, which hopefully offers more than just a few good songs, to the people who care.

One question about the list of contributing artists: I could not detect the name of Tomas Halbom in the booklet! It is mentioned where he recorded his vocals though, and I think I can hear him on several tracks, but his name is not in the list of vocalists. Is there a story behind that?
Shhhhhht! Don't tell anyone! Seriously, I am thoroughly embarrassed by this question. His name got lost somewhere in the process and I really don't know where, because in all my files his name appears, but in the printed version, it didn't. Tomas is singing on one sole track, the song 'Stenian / Mount Sorrow' on 'Proterozoic', together with another dude called Rene Nocon who is singing the clean parts there.

Can you tell me what inspired you to take certain singers for certain songs?
Just the idea of wanting to have the perfect voice(s) for every single part in every single song. As a matter of fact, about 70-80 percent of all the vocals on the album are still in the realm of -let's call it-aggressive vocals, and this brings about certain limitations that actually push a lot of people off. For us it was a great challenge to try to keep it as interesting as possible, by employing a large variety of different voices. Another thing is that we wanted to give some people the opportunity to partake in the collective - friends of ours, or supporters, who have been with us through the years. And finally, working with certain people is also a little present for ourselves. I have always loved the music of Converge, Old Man Gloom, Cave In, Breach and Textures, and to have people from these bands take over vocal duties on our album is just something that is very pleasing for all of us.

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Were there any singers you wanted to have that were unavailable for some reason?
Yeah. Jonas Renkse from Katatonia wanted to guest as well, but it didn't work out for timing reasons, which was our fault, because we approached him too late. But there will be another album at one point so it's good to save something up for later. Also, I really wanted to have Dav Verellen, the singer from Botch.. He seems to be so fed-up with heavy music though that he didn't even bother writing back. Too bad.

Where there any funny/special/cool reactions from the guest singers to the music? I can imagine that some of them like Dwid Hellion, or Caleb Scofield were pretty unfamiliar with your earlier work, they must have been blown away!
Well... there were some very unpleasant stories with Dwid that I don't really want to go into too much detail about, but which led to us taking almost all his vocal parts off the album. Dealing with him was just a pain in the ass and we did not feel that he was thankful in any way for being part of this project, like everyone else, but instead gave us attitudes and made us feel like he was the big-ass superstar doing us a big fucking favour. So we said no thanks and all that is left of his vocal contribution is a single scream in one song, kind of a tribute to the times when Integrity was still a really cool and inspiring band for us...With Caleb everything was awesome, he knew us through Nate I believe and he really loved the song and you can hear that in his vocal contribution I think, he made it his own..

While Meta still has quite a large role on the new album, he does not take part in the line-up of The Ocean anymore. What was the reason to “kick him out”? Is he in any other band/project at the moment?
We never kicked him out! Actually he never officially left the band, but he has a kid and recently moved to Hamburg for career reasons, so touring wasn't really a perspective for him anymore. This is why we started looking for a replacement for him quite a while ago. Meta will remain a part of the collective and do certain shows with us every now and then, like our record release show we just did on November 30th in Berlin, and his unique voice is still available to us for recordings. Meta currently has a death grind project called 'World of Shit' together with a guy from Chicago... fun stuff.

For 'Fluxion'and 'Aeolian' I had the feeling (I could be wrong) that The Ocean was still more a “real” band with a more stable line-up and more interaction in the writing process. With the new record it almost seems like The Ocean is “Robin Staps and his army of musicians”. Is this the case or was The Ocean always more your band than anybody else's?
It always was, and it will always be. I have looked for musicians to play my songs from the very start, and the only thing that is different now is that people don't think I'm crazy anymore, but there are a lot of people who want to be part of The Ocean, and that is one of the main reasons why there are so many people around. To me it goes without saying that when you make music that includes 26 musicians on album, you got to have someone who coordinates the whole thing and keeps it together. You can't make all these people jam in a room together and see what comes out, it would just end up a big fucking mess. I have another band where we all write the songs together and it's good fun, I love it, but something like 'Precambrian' would simply never have come together if it wasn't for the “Robin Staps and his army of musicians” kind of approach we have taken with The Ocean. Strangely enough, in certain circles of the rock or metal scene, there seems to be little respect for bands that are led by strong creative individuals, although there is an abundance of these bands: think Nine Inch Nails, Foo fighters, Converge, Today is the Day. I don't really know why that is and I don't really care.

There are quite a few Americans contributing on the album! Is there already an American tour in the making or is the focus mainly on Europe for now?
There is... in May / June we will be touring the US, but there are no confirmed details that I could speak about at this point...

Being the perfectionist you are I can imagine you want the live sound to be as good as the record-sound, yet with 26 artists contributing to the record this is pretty much impossible! The solution for the live-performance is often a laptop, but don't you feel that does off to the live experience? Not that I didn't enjoy the Den Bosch show last month, but I can imagine that having to pay attention to a computer all the time makes you lose some spontaneity. Is it a problem for you?
It's been an issue ever since, but never a problem. There is nothing spontaneous in our music, nothing at all. It is all composed music, and we play to a click track, to a sequencer, so there is no room for playing faster or slower when we feel like it, or to play a certain part longer. We can do that, but if we decide so, it has to be decided before the show, or the tour, so we can set up our sequencer accordingly. That kind of lack of spontaneity has never struck me as a big problem, because even with 99% of the bands that do not have to adhere to the technical limitations we have to stick to, it is still not very common to make use of that spontaneity - most bands simply play their songs the way they are on the album and the way they have rehearsed them, spontaneity only happens in solos, and we can have that as well, since it doesn't affect the length of a part or the tempo of the song. In Jazz improvisation and spontaneity plays a big role, but in rock music, only a marginal one.

On the other hand, The big advantage of our approach is that we can do things other bands could never do - we can have a light-show that is synchronized to the music, for example. We can, under ideal conditions, bring the sound of an entire orchestra on stage, with just 6 people. And since you were asking about the live sound: I do not see why it should be impossible to reproduce what we do on CD in a live environment. Of course not everything will be played live, but sound wise, what's coming from the sequencer is the studio tracks, the same that you hear on CD, so it should be optimal, sound wise. Having everything played live is an old dream of me, but it is simply impossible, both for logistic and financial reasons, to take an orchestra on tour with us.

I imagine coordinating this band, writing all the songs, and touring a lot does not leave you the time for anything else. Don't you ever feel the need to “escape” The Ocean? Do you do anything besides the band?
Oh yeah man, I do feel that need fro time to time. I usually pack up my backpack and disappear for a few weeks to some far-away corner of the world where no one can find me... but it is always surprising how few time it takes to make me miss The Ocean, or making music in general, again. Usually after four or five weeks I come back full of ideas and can't wait to get back into my murky studio to track them. But still, these escapes are very important. Apart from that, I am still struggling with finishing my studies in philosophy and, guess what; geography! (that's where all this Precambrian crap is coming from, yep!), and it's hard because The Ocean doesn't leave me much time for this...

At the Den Bosch show I saw you at the CD-stand still looking hungry at a couple of the records! A lot of musicians lose interest in other (heavy) artist, but you still remain a record-lover right? Do you have time to listen to a lot of new records on tour?
On tour, yes, because we have a lot of time to kill in the van. At home, it's true that I also don't listen to so many heavy bands anymore, just because when you're working in a studio 8-14 hours a day, the last thing you want when you come home is more music. But I try to follow up on what's happening, and of course, every now and then an album strikes me as a truly beautiful piece of music and art, and I never fail to be amazed and overwhelmed by that. Such as recently, the latest The End album, the latest Dillinger Escape Plan album, the latest Baroness album and the last Stars of the Lid...

I've heard you are coming back to The Netherlands in 2008 with some really heavy bands! Could you tell me a little bit about that?
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 apparently 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.

What is the next big thing on The Ocean's agenda?
After the Rotten Sound tour we'll play a week of headlining shows in France, and then go to Eastern Europe for an extended tour. We will also go to Greece for a few shows and to Russia for 3 shows in early May, and then it's the US...

Any last words?
Thank you so much for your support and interest in The Ocean. Thanks to everybody in the Netherlands that supported us over the years, we really appreciate it! Everybody check out 'Precambrian' and drop us a line to say what you think. Tell us we suck. We can take it.

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