The Ocean

Since forming back in 2000, Robin Staps’ The Ocean has been creating an unrivaled blend of progressive heavy metal through the course of five monumental full-length releases. While in the past, the band has seen somewhat of a revolving door in terms of members and musicians, the addition of vocalist Loïc Rossetti in 2009 has solidified the band’s strongest lineup to date.

2010 has been a huge year for the band, with two highly acclaimed efforts released over the course of just six months. And while the year is quickly coming to an end, The Ocean shows no signs of slowing down.

I had the opportunity to speak with Staps following the bands short run with death-doom pioneers, Anathema. We discussed the concepts behind Heliocentric and Anthropocentric, the evolution of the band’s creative process, and what’s in store for 2011.

This has been an insanely busy year for the band. You released two incredible albums, both inspired by philosophies somewhat challenging Creationism. So how did the idea to base both works on this concept originally come about?

That’s been a very long time, actually. I was first exposed to diehard Creationists when I was about 16 years old and living in the US for about a year doing a high school student exchange. My hostess was one of these guys. She tried to convince me that the dinosaurs never existed and earth was 5,000 years-old and all these things, and I was just struck at that time how someone so young and otherwise really smart was so obsessed with ideas that were obviously not her own. We’d have discussions on a daily basis, and it was the first time that I was really exposed to the subject matter. It was like more than ten years ago.

I got back to Europe and studied philosophy for a very long time, and I’ve always been thinking about these questions. The idea to make an album about that was something I’ve had in the back of my head for a very long time. And after we finished Precambrian in 2007, I had already kind of decided that this was going to be the next project for me.

When we started writing material for Heliocentric and Anthropocentric in 2008, I basically started with a pretty clear idea in mind of what I wanted to do from a lyrical point of view.

When the songwriting process first began, was it your intention to put out so much material, or did you just come up with more than you had expected as the process progressed?

It wasn’t the intention from the very beginning, but it became pretty clear very soon that we needed to do two albums again. I wrote most of the Heliocentric material in one rather short writing session in the summer of 2008. At the same time, Jona, our other guitarist, also wrote some songs that didn’t really go together so well with what I had written, but still were The Ocean and I really liked the songs too. So I thought we could just make two albums and make them different again.

Now looking back at it, the difference really isn’t so audible, I think. Lots of people say that they can’t even tell which are the songs that I wrote and which are the songs that he wrote, so that turned out to be not so important in the end. But we also had so much material accumulated that it would have been too much to push into one album. We asked ourselves whether we should release them simultaneously or with some time in between the albums, and we decided to go for the latter. We had already done the first option with Precambrian; that was a double-album, and we released both halves together.

I feel that in this day and age, people’s attention spans are actually very short, and you’re not doing your own material justice when you unleash too much at once because people can only absorb so much. We had the experience with Precambrian that people only listened to the first five or six tracks, and we didn’t want that to happen again. We decided to make two albums, but to release them with some time in between to make it possible for people to digest the first album first, and then go to the second one with a fresh energy, so to speak.

And also, of course, the whole thematic realm is so large that it would have been impossible to tackle everything within even two albums, I have to say. We essentially had to make a selection and choose which topics we wanted to address and what we wanted the lyrics to focus on. Making this selection also meant choosing not to talk about things that were also important, but we could only do so much within the constraints of twenty songs and would not have wanted to do it within the constraints of ten songs, so all this together made it clear very early that it was going to be two albums again.

And was it all recorded during one big session?

Pretty much; we recorded all the instrumental tracks in one big session. We started in June 2009, and we were done around August or September or something like that. We then recorded the vocals for Heliocentric with Loïc, our new vocalist, who had just joined the band basically, and then finished Heliocentric towards the end of 2009. This year, we went back to the already recorded tracks of Anthropocentric and just recorded the vocals for this album and mixed and mastered it.

So the instruments were all recorded at once, and the vocals were recorded in two separate sessions which was good because, like I said, Loïc had just joined the band when we recorded Heliocentric, and I think you can hear the difference. I really like his vocal job on Heliocentric too, but he doesn’t sound as confident as he does now. And this year, it was just really awesome. He and I went to a remote house on the coast of Spain and spent two weeks there just recording vocals and working on it all day, and we’re really good friends now. He was much more confident and had much more creative input into the whole writing process too, so I think there’s an audible difference on the two recordings, but everything else was recorded in one session.

Anthropocentric seems to be the heavier of the two releases, but from a songwriting standpoint, what are some of the differences and similarities between both albums?

I think there’s a certain thread that’s going through all of our albums, not just Heliocentric and Anthropocentric, but also starting with our first album, Fogdiver, and then Fluxion, Aeolian, and Precambrian, and it’s hard to pin down what it is exactly. It’s a certain atmosphere, I guess, that is created by certain chord progressions, a certain way to deal with dynamics, and just an overall mood that is going through all of our albums. I think that’s something that you can hear on all of them and that our fans appreciate, but of course, stylistically, there are large differences between each single release and between Heliocentric and Anthropocentric.

Most people say that Anthropocentric is the heavier album, but I’m not even sure I would agree. There are also some really calm songs, some acoustic songs, on it like “For He That Wavereth…,” or “Wille Zum Untergang,” for example, or “The Almightiness Contradiction,” the last track. So there are like three or four calm songs on it, and that’s the same with Heliocentric. There were three or four calm songs on it that were mainly based on piano and strings and vocals, and that’s probably the main difference that I see between the two albums.

Heliocentric was like this big orchestral album with lots of extra instruments—lots of piano, some strings—and on Anthropocentric, it really is just the rock band that we are playing. All the songs just have drums, bass, guitars, and vocals; there are almost no samples and no strings, and there’s no piano except for the very last song, which has a few strings.

That to me is the most striking difference. We really wanted to do an album where the core of the band shines, and where all these embellishments that we had on Heliocentric wouldn’t come into action. But this doesn’t mean that this is the general direction we are heading into. All this orchestral stuff, it’s always going to be part of The Ocean. We’ve had it since Fogdiver basically. So that was the choice at this time. We just wanted to make a rock band album, and that’s what was done with this one.

I think Heliocentric is a heavy album, apart from those three songs. But then again, we have those calm songs on Anthropocentric too, so that’s not really so much a difference. It’s just a different kind of heaviness. Heliocentric is like long, epic compositions, and Anthropocentric is more short, in-your-face tracks, I guess. It’s just a different style of heaviness, but again, I do think that Heliocentric was a pretty heavy album too.

In the past, you’ve been the sole creative force behind the band, but these albums saw some songwriting help from Jona. Was it a conscious decision for you to branch out in terms of how you approach writing or was it more so just a progression stemming from the band’s more stable lineup?

It was something that first came up during our first US tour in 2008. Jona and Luc had pretty much joined around the same time towards the end of 2007. They had both been in the band for only a half a year that we’d been touring really intensely, and Jona was coming up to me one night and said, “I really love this band, I really love your songs, but I’m not going to play them for the rest of my life.” (LAUGHS) And that’s when it became clear to me that if you have found the right people, you have to give them some chance to have some input; otherwise they won’t identify themselves with the band.

That was something I had been thinking about the following month, because its been second nature to me up to that point to do always everything myself. But I was all of a sudden in this situation where I had a new drummer who could play better than anything that I could program, and who came up with really cool ideas, so that I didn’t feel the need to tell him exactly how to play every single part anymore. What he was coming up with himself was sometimes much better than would I could come up with, and that, of course, made me gain a lot of trust as well as put a lot of trust in him.

It was the same with Jona. He had some really cool ideas that he had played for me, and I realized that it was ok to let go of the control wheel a little bit to give people some room and see where it takes us. So I basically told them, “All right, let’s try and see what happens,” and Jona wrote these songs which were similar to my own in the way that he really wrote them all by himself and worked out all the parts by himself rather than jamming with some other people. He played them to me and I was just like, “Yeah, this is awesome, this sounds like The Ocean although I haven’t written it myself.” That was the starting point for when we started recording Heliocentric and Anthropocentric. Heliocentric was all still my songs, and on Anthropocentric, there are three songs that Jona wrote entirely, and one that we kind of wrote together.

It was clear when we started the recording session that both guys were going to have some input after I had heard the tracks and kind of approved of them, because I wasn’t so sure in the beginning if it was a good decision. Now, looking back at it and looking at the album, I think it was, and it feels really good to play with these people. I’m a big fan of their ideas, and they like my ideas, so we’re all working together in a really cool and productive way.

And how has the addition of Loïc impacted the band?

Loïc found us at a point when we were so desperate that we were almost about to give up and settle for being an instrumental band from now on, but I really wanted to avoid that because I think most instrumental bands these days are just instrumental bands because they can’t find a good vocalist. I didn’t want to admit that this was the case for us too.

So when we were really, really desperate, all of a sudden Loïc came around after we had rehearsed—well, not really rehearsed, but we had like 120 people send us contributions. Basically, they sent us vocal recordings of themselves recording our songs, and nothing of it was really blowing us away. There were a couple of good guys, but nothing too spectacular.

And then all of a sudden there was Loïc. We heard his tracks at a studio, and I remember the day, we were all looking at each other like, “Yeah!” We all had these big smiles on our faces. We hadn’t heard what we wanted to hear for nine months, and now finally we did. So it was really cool. He had actually submitted some new vocal lines over a new track that I had sent him that was still instrumental, and also he recorded some vocals for our old song, “The City in the Sea”, the opener of Aeolian. Both songs were very different.

In the new song, he put in a lot of clean, melodic vocals, and “The City in the Sea,” the song just showed an even more striking voice. Both [songs] worked out perfectly, and we realized that he was a guy that could really do everything. He could cover the whole range, from the technical death metal vocals, so to speak, to soulful, clean singing that is actually done in a really good way. We were blown away when we heard it, and since then, we’ve been working a lot with him.

When we were recording Heliocentric, he had just joined the band, as I already mentioned, so we were under time pressure and we really couldn’t work on it as much as we would have loved to. I had written most of the vocal lines of that album myself, and Anthropocentric, he was much more confident after having been on the road with us for months. He knew the material with much more time ahead, and also, his English had improved quite a bit. He’s a native French speaker, and when he joined the band, he barely spoke any English, but now he’s actually really good at it. And all these issues made the recording process for Anthropocentric much more comfortable for him and also for us in the studio than the Heliocentric session.

I think in the future, he’s going to have a lot of input. He played me some ideas of himself, as he’s also writing songs, and I just really, really like it. I like his approach to vocals in general, and his approach to writing music, and I think there’s going to be a lot more of that in the future.

The band’s tour lineup currently consists of just 5 members, but obviously, there is a lot more in terms of instruments that are involved within the actual albums. Do you ever plan to perform the work in more of a full-scale approach?

We did that this year in March, we played the entire Heliocentric album just after its release in Switzerland, in the town where all these guys are from. We were on stage with 13 musicians. There was a string section that consisted of a violin, an upright bass, and a cello. There was a piano player with us, and a small brass section consisting of three people as well. We pretty much played the album from beginning to end. We recorded all that, and we’re hopefully going to release it as a DVD sometime, maybe next year or maybe the year afterward. We’re still collecting more material.

So it happened, and it hopefully is going to happen again, but we can’t do it on a regular basis, simply for logistical reasons. It’s so difficult and expensive to rehearse with so many people, and to take them out on tour would be literally impossible. You have to work with professional musicians who also want to get paid somehow, so it’s not just friends of friends anymore helping out. Some of them are, but we really only had like five days to rehearse, and we needed to make sure that everything worked. That’s why we had to hire professionals for that, and that’s why it’s always going to be a special occasion.

We’re actually offering that for festivals, and we’re booked for I believe two festivals next year where I believe that’s going to happen too. So when people have a budget for that to make it happen, we’re very glad to make it happen. But within the constraints of a regular club show, it’s not possible.

Tell me about your other project, Earthship, and if we can expect a US release anytime soon.

Oh, that’s probably going to be awhile. We just played our first show ever two weeks ago here in Berlin supporting Torche. That was a really fun show.

Earthship is a band that came to light this year. It’s my roommate, who I’ve been playing in bands with for ten or twelve years. I’ve always liked the stuff he writes himself, and he has a studio here in Berlin where we also recorded lots of The Ocean stuff. He just asked me if I wanted to join his band sometime this summer, and I was like, “Fuck yeah, I really like your songs.” So I decided to join, and we just had the first show. I actually rehearsed the songs with him for about four days before the show because I was still on tour with The Ocean supporting Anathema just before, and we only had about four days to rehearse. So it was a bit of a rush, but it was a cool show.

I would say it’s completely different than The Ocean, but lots of people say they hear a bit of The Ocean in that band as well, which cannot be true because I didn’t write any of the songs, it’s all my roommate—I’m just playing guitar in the band. It’s heavy stoner sludge stuff in the vein of Zozobra, or maybe a heavier version of Baroness, with lots of Crowbar thrown in. And it’s really a rock band with no sampler, no sequencer, no drummer playing to a click—all these things that we do with The Ocean. It’s a band that you can just get drunk and roll on stage and still play. (LAUGHS)

In terms of touring, how is 2011 beginning to shape up?

We’re going to take a short break now. We were just out for almost three months with The Dillinger Escape Plan here in Europe and then with Anathema—very, very different tours that were both equally great and just because they were different, they were really interesting for us. But now we just got home like a week ago, and we’re going to take a short break now just until February or March and then we’ll do a couple of fly-ins. And then I think that the first tour next year is going to take us to the US. I’m not allowed to officially announce it, but it’s confirmed. We’re going to be in the US between mid-April and mid-May for a month supporting another excellent band that I’m really looking forward to. I’m very much looking forward to seeing them live.

After that, we’re going to be touring the UK with a band called Earthtone 9 that I’ve also been a fan of for many years, which is going to be very cool. And then we’re going to do a short headlining tour at the beginning of June, and then it’s festival season. So we’ll be out a lot, there will be a lot of tours, and yeah, we’re coming back to the US for sure in April and May!

For more information on The Ocean, check out:

www.theoceancollective.com