A dive to the depths of The Ocean with Robin Staps

MaF chats with the guitarist of inimitable German post-metal collective, The Ocean

The Ocean is one of those bands that manages to consistently meet and defy expectations. Their brand of sludgey post-metal has earned them critical acclaim and they have been labelled as the spiritual successors to both Mastodon and Neurosis. Their last album, 2013’s Pelagial, was a conceptual journey from the surface to the depths of the sea. Now, the band is coming to Australia in early April to play the album in it’s entirety. Metal as Fuck caught up with guitarist Robin Staps in between some New Zealand shows to talk about the monumental journey into the depths that the unsuspecting Australian public is about to experience.

You’re currently on the phone from New Zealand, playing a short run of dates before the Australian tour. How have those shows been going? "It's been great. We got here on Wednesday and basically arrived right on time to set up for the Mastodon support show in Auckland. We didn't even really get a soundcheck, it was rushed and conditions weren't perfect. But it was a big crowd in the room and our first time in New Zealand, so it was great. And yesterday we played Wellington, which was the total opposite, a tiny packed bar with 150 to 200 people in it. It had really, really good energy and it was an awesome night. Those are the kinds of shows we like best, where you have the crowd right in front of you and no barriers and everything gets really intense. We're at the Wellington airport right now, about to fly out to Christchurch for the show on Saturday night.”

You’ve got your Australian tour coming up in a couple of weeks. What can Australian fans that haven’t seen you before expect from a live show by The Ocean? “They can expect something entirely different from what we did on our last Australian tour. On this tour, we're going to be playing out last album Pelagial in it's entirety. It's a concept record that was basically written and recorded as one song and it was meant to be performed in that way. The show itself is hard to describe, it's a bit of an audio visual performance actually. We're playing an hour of music that starts out fairly mellow and friendly so to speak and then gets progressively darker and heavier as we're reaching the end of the record. The whole album is basically a journey from the surface to the depths of the sea and that's what we wanted to convey musically as well. It's all being enhanced by a video projection, which you obviously don't get to see if you're just listening to the record. I think seeing it live adds a whole other element to the concept.”

The audio/video element you mentioned before sounds a lot like what Neurosis used to do, did they inspire that?  “Absolutely. They're one of the most inspirational bands for me personally, and when I got to see them for the first time, I think in 1998, I was blown away by their holistic approach to music and art. It's not just the music itself, which is already quite striking and intense, but it's being enhanced by those videos that go in line with it and the fact that they have interludes between tracks and they don't talk in between songs. That really made an impression on me as a musician, when I had basically just started the band. I remember that Berlin performance where I saw them with Voivod and Today is the Day and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen and I left the venue thinking that I want to do something just like this.”

When you play Pelagial live, do you run through it all in one go without stopping, or do you divide it into tracks like it is on the record. “No, we don't. The divisions on the record are arbitrary in a way. It was written and recorded as one piece of music and we only set the track markings afterwards because it's inconvenient to have one 60 minute piece of music. We wanted to give people the chance to access certain parts of the record, or certain depths if you like, directly, that's why we set the track marks. But live, we play the whole song from beginning to the end. It's always the same order of songs, it's very predictable that way. But things have to be like that, it wouldn't make sense to change songs around, it would destroy that feeling of descending towards the deep. We're at the end of the album cycle right now, we've pretty much toured everywhere and we're looking forward to doing something new and being able to play some older tracks again. Pelagial works really well, but it will also be good to do something that's not as confining as that record and a little bit more free.”

When you released Pelagial, it came in two different editions. One with vocals and one that was entirely instrumental. I actually saw quite a bit of praise for the instrumental version, so I was wondering if you had ever considered the instrumental version live? “We have, actually. We have a number of times, perhaps 5 to 10 shows and it works great. It's a different experience for us and also the crowd, because Loic [Rossetti] is a very confrontational vocalist, so when he's there it has more of the vibe of a hardcore show somehow. There's like a high energy and a lot of interaction with the crowd. When we play the instrumental version, there's more of a post-rock feel and people usually pay more attention to the visuals. It's very interesting to watch, I like both and enjoy playing the instrumental version a lot and we'll probably play it again. We actually recorded two shows, one where played the vocal version and one with the instrumental version. So we're considering doing a Pelagial dvd with both versions so that people can get the idea of how both compare.”

You’ve set yourself quite a conceptual benchmark to top with Pelagial. Do you see yourself trying to outdo it or moving in a completely different direction? “Probably a completely different direction, but it's not entirely decided yet. Like I said, I'm a bit tired now of the approach we've taken with Pelagial, it works great but it is constricting and confining in a way because we're stuck to that album. I am looking forward to approaching the next album in a bit of a more loose way. Pelagial was the most conceptual album we've done, where the concept existed even before the music. That was never the case before. It was a really interesting experience to do an album that way, but I don't think we can push that any further.”

You wrote the last album on your own, whereas the –centric albums were more collaborative. What approach do you see yourself taking for the next album? “Probably not. We have a new guitar player [Damian Murdoch], he's actually Australian, and he's already written some tracks that I think are quite exciting, and I can see them sitting really well into the context of The Ocean. So I think he will definitely contribute to the songwriting process of the next record and Paul [Seidel] our new drummer will definitely add his own signature style to the drums on this record too. I think this next record will be a much more collaborative effort.”

Anything else you’d like to say to the Australian readers? “We're very much looking to come back to Australia. We've only been there once, in 2012, and it was a bit of a difficult experience for us because we got fucked by the promoter (no prizes for guessing who that was - Ed). But this time things are going great and we're excited to return to this beautiful continent and it looks like we'll be able to enjoy it a bit more this time.”