One of the most prominent post metal/post rock acts on the international scene hail from the eerie depths of Berlin. Known for their soul-crushing and electrifying live performances, there is no doubt of the band’s genre-defying style and dynamic, combining the best of post rock and post metal, to create art – not only music – that will consume you mind completely.
When The Ocean (sometimes referred to as The Ocean Collective) brought their grace-giving gloom to Logo in Hamburg, Messed!Up’s Mr. Schmitz met up with founder, songwriter and guitarist Robin Staps and drummer Paul Seidel and talked about how the band have evolved, their creativity and art, and running their own label, Pelagic Records.
The interview starts off in a walk down the historical path of the band and “The Swiss Era“ of The Ocean.
From The Swiss Era to The Ocean
I’d like to start talking about the beginning of the band. You started off as a collective but since 2009 there’s a permanent lineup.
Robin: Yes, but that’s not really true for the current lineup actually, except for our frontman and me.
But about that time in 2009 you decided to have steady members?
Robin: We were at a crossroad. In the beginning it was very loosely organised. We made a virtue out of necessity because it was very hard to find musicians who were willing to spend time and energy in a band that didn’t offer much; we didn’t have a record deal or any tour going on. It was difficult to get committed musicians to the band because the good ones already played in other bands or left the band kind of short after they started, so we decided to have something like a “revolving doors policy“.
During the first years a lot of people were involved, sometimes three or four guitarists who played with us once in a while, but only two at the same time, and for gigs we always had others. At some point I just felt exhausted. The more people involved the more you have to rehearse, and the less you can be on tour and do things that you really want to do with the band.
In 2006 I wanted to have a permanent lineup, but it didn’t happen until 2009. Ironically it was three Swiss lads; the first was Jona and we found him at MySpace – yes it still existed at that time. He brought a drummer, Luc, to the band, and somewhere at that time our singer Loïc also joined the band. That lineup remained until 2013, the end of the Swiss era (laughs). We just grew apart. They also had another band they wanted to put much focus on and we weren’t really sure about the direction of the band as well.
Paul: That’s where I came in (laughs).
Robin: Exactly, Paul joined the band in 2014.
Paul: Right after I had left my former band. That was great for me since I was used to intense touring. Robin heard about the end of my band and it was just at the moment Luc left The Ocean.
Robin: I knew Paul since a tour we did together in 2007, with his old band War From A Harlots Mouth. I thought he was a good drummer and naturally he would be the first person I’d contact to replace our Swiss drummer.
In 2015 Mattias, our bassist, joined the band. I knew him from his old project The Old Wind. By now we have a steady lineup. Our latest member is Peter who plays synthesizer. He used to be our light guy for four years.
Robin: We just found out that he had his first show with us here at Logo in 2013.
Paul: When I joined the band he still was a roadie. Our former light guy didn’t want to go to the US with us because he didn’t get a visa in time and the situation was a bit tricky for him, and Peter said “Well, then I just have to start learning how to do the lights“ (laughs).
Robin: He had wired the lights on the tour before and he said “I’ll do it!“.
Paul: He’s a drummer as well. That’s an amazing feature for a light guy since he‘s great with rhythm, and he just grew into the band.
Robin: Light has always been very important to us. Right from the beginning we put a lot of attention to the visual appearance of the band. Art work is one thing, but light at gigs also is a component of that. Even in the early days we went to the venues with our own PAR-cans to create an atmosphere that is necessary for dark and heavy sounds.
Paul: With red, yellow and green lamps (laughs).
Robin: Usually it’s like that. You have flickering reggae colours on stage and that never worked out. Today everything is triggered, meaning computer controlled light shots from a sequencer. That is why it‘s super tight and follows the music perfectly.
That’s the story of Peter and how he got involved with the lights and now is playing keys on stage. I just sent him our latest album for fun and told him “Do something with it“. He did an amazing job and in the end he played keys on every track of the new album and all of us wanted that sound live as well. That’s our success story: from backliner to rock star (laughs).
Robin: Drum and dream (laughs).
The art and aesthetics of music
You’ve likely heard the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover“ with repetitive frequency over the years. However, don’t mistake the artwork as not being important for a release. In actual fact, it plays an even bigger part when it comes to selling and promoting your music.
Now more than ever, album artwork carries heightened importance. In an age during which an infinite expanse of music is only a phone lock screen away, we find ourselves dwarfed. Scrolling through Spotify for something new becomes an exhaustive task, such are the many sonic possibilities, and we regret that time is not more plentiful. If we stray outside of recommended artists, it’s not the sound that dictates what we listen to, but the visual component.
The American 1950s singer Tony Bennett once said, when you bought a record, “You felt like you were taking home your very own work of art”. For the modern artist seeking exposure, the artwork is the first insight into music. The visual stimulant precedes the auditory stimulant, and for a band or artist emerging onto the scene, the artwork has a bearing on their level of exposure and subsequent success.
For The Ocean, the visual component is the most important part of their music, both live and how the music is boxed. Artwork should be exciting, should be encouraging, should serve a purpose above just packaging. And that also spills over to the process of signing bands to their own label, Pelagic Records.
Robin, you already mentioned that you care a lot about art work. Martin Kvamme is the designer of your album covers and he exclusively works for you and Mike Patton. How did you make contact?
Robin: Actually, I don’t exactly remember but it was in 2006, around “Aeolian“, when we started working together.
From the beginning I had a very good feeling about this. It was just like how you imagine creative collaboration; one has an idea, the other one picks it up and sends it back. It’s amazing! You give feedback and it’s getting better and better every time. We pushed each other right from the start. I explained him my stupid concepts and he turned it into something visual immediately and I thought “Awesome! I wouldn’t have come up with something like this!“
Paul: It’s a symbiotic relationship.
The limited editions of your latest album are amazing! They are almost sold out, aren’t they?
Robin: There are some brown ones left of those 1 000 limited copies, I guess. We‘re quite happy about it, but we already knew it was going to work out. For the previous album “Pelagial“ we had an acrylic box. By the time I wasn’t sure if it would work out. It was very expensive to produce it and if it failed we would have been in a critical situation, but since we had good experiences there was some kind of reassurance that there will be enough people willing to buy an expensive box.
Kvamme is the best man possible for the job. His day job is about designing the interior of airplanes. He has lots of fun experimenting with things for us.
Paul: It’s also a very long process, almost the same amount of time that you need for mixing or mastering an album.You usually get ten sketches from Martin, and you have to decide for one when you really love seven of those sketches. Sometimes you come up with another idea and he creates something new.
Robin: At some point it is more about technical feasibility. For the new album we had stampings over three panels of a trifold, but we wanted to have blind embossings too. It was just impossible. The blind embossing had to be done first for technical reasons, and then you would have had to put the sheet a second time into the printing press for the stampings, but then the blind embossings would have vanished then. I asked four printing companies if they could do it, but nobody wanted to.
In the end we took sand laminate. It’s a structure laminate that feels like abrasive paper, which perfectly matches with the geologic haptic of stone and also with the metallic phantom colours that we wanted to have.
It’s a lot of trial and error at the edge of feasibility both technically and financially. In the end it always comes out in an amazing way, but it takes a lot of time. The boxes were very delayed and I’m still surprised we didn’t get any shit for that.
Paul: Because you didn’t get it! (laughs) I‘m the one answering all the emails for the label. At times I had 500 incoming emails saying “Where’s the box?“, then you just go copy paste “It’s coming soon“ (laughs).
Your label is also something I wanted to talk about with you. I read you have a strict signing policy. You attach a lot of importance to aesthetics and usually you don’t put out that many albums a year due to high quality standards.
Paul: Most bands we recently signed are recommendations from friends or friends of our label who know what we expect from a band. You usually have a rough idea what a band brings with them, and usually it’s more than just making a record.
The band have to love touring and should have a plan about what they are trying to say or in which direction they want to go. The whole package includes more than writing songs in the rehearsal room, it’s also about investing time and non existing money to take further steps with the band.
Robin: We usually don’t interfere in bands‘ art work because, as you already said, we‘re completely fine with what our bands do and we don’t have the feeling we need to change things. We have had this one case with a great recording but awful art work, but in the jovial sense of artistic creativity I let one or two things pass. But we don’t do that anymore. If we don’t like something we won’t put it out on Pelagic. That’s important to us.
Paul: You also realize in retrospect that you were right from the beginning. For example when you find the art work bad you also find that it didn’t work properly, because the people have a certain sense for aesthetics and are as such interested in music that has that kind of aesthetic conformity.
You don’t sign any bands at the moment, do you?
Paul: Officially we don’t. At times it happens that we receive fifty demos from bands per week.
Robin: We just don’t have the time to go through all the demos. That‘s why we say “Don’t send us any!“. We‘ve only signed two bands, band I didn’t know about before, that ended up on the label because of their demos. It’s just too many emails. We also have to go on tour and play in other bands, and just have to cut down on it, we simply don’t have time to listen to unknown stuff.
Concept albums: Bringing geology into music
The entire notion of the concept album, albums featuring a cycle of songs expressing a particular theme or idea, is often a slippery grab for most music fans. Pink Floyd’s “The Wall“ is probably the most famous concept record of them all where you follow the troubled central character Pink as he battles with his place in society. The last two decades being conceptual became a real happening thing, and many bands started to do series of conceptual albums.
The Ocean takes a new turn on concept albums and explore geologic periods on their two latest albums “Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic“ and “Pelagical“. And they also point out the influence Katatonia had on how their sound evolved – and being huge fans of Tool.
Tell us a little bit about the development of your sound. If I understand it right Katatonia had a huge influence on you. Are you satisfied how things are or do you still want to experiment with sounds?
Robin: It’s a process with every album. Talking about our latest album is as close as it could get to the idea of a sound that I had when I founded the band, but at the time I didn’t know how to get there.
I’m feeling really happy that it has come full circle now, but it keeps moving. You’re not only influenced by what you grow up with but also the contemporary. Sometimes it leads to unexpected directions and for me unpredictability is the really exciting thing about being creative.
Katatonia’s “The Great Cold Distance“ is a record where super heavy dropped guitars combined with clean vocals don’t sound pathetic or kitschy, but cool and touching. That was in 2007 when we made our “Precambrian“ album and it would be our first featuring more clean vocals. I even contacted Jonas [“Lord Seth“ Renkse, Katatonia] because I wanted to have him as a guest singer on the record, but it didn’t work out because we couldn’t get our schedules to work out. And we completely forgot about it, until now when he‘s on our latest record. That happened because we supported Katatonia in Romania last year, and then I remembered that we wanted to do something together.
Paul: “I got his email address somewhere“.
Robin: Yeah, eventually I found it since I have every single email saved on my laptop.
Paul: I know (laughs).
Robin: It was still there so I wrote him and this time it worked out. Pretty funny ten years later.
Although you have evolved your sound on every record you always work together with the same people for mixing and mastering.
Robin: Yes we do. It’s not determined to be eternal, but we were very happy about the outcome of the last album and even happier about this one. When you consider the whole recording process, we have found our way now.
Paul: Also, the people we work with evolve on an individual level. It’s not that when we go to Jens Bogren and do the mix, he mixes the same way he did five years ago, he also made new experiences, has new techniques and new gear. The same goes for art work. We‘re on the same level with everyone involved and that‘s why we find these people, or they are being found because they have the same artistic expectations.
Robin: And because they independently develop in a way you always can identify with. That’s the cool thing about those partnerships.
Paul: If it hadn’t worked out this time, we may have had said “If it doesn’t fit at all, we need to find someone else“. It’s like having a musician who is heading somewhere else, he will eventually leave the band.
Robin: It’s slightly different because the one who mixes the album is more a service provider than an artist, although he brings in creativity and some sort of sound approach.
Paul: Still he is free to say if he doesn’t want to do something the way you want him to do it.
Robin: Of course! I want to have someone that I can have a bit of a fight with. We had that a few times during the production of the latest album. It’s so important that someone from outside the whole process can tell you when something is going wrong, because it’s normal that you get blind when you‘re so deep into it. First you go “No!“ but on second thought it’s like “Alright, it seems like that asshole is right“ (laughs).
Paul: There was a moment when I went furious over something. You guys were at Jens Bogren’s and he simply said “I don’t give a fuck. We do it all the same!“ (laughs). I was annoyed but in the end it didn’t matter at all because it sounds awesome.
Robin: It’s also cool to arrive at some point. You have a certain setup and you know “I don’t need someone new for mixing or someone else for art work“. I got a team and everything they do is amazing. You meet as equals with respect for the creativity of the other. The search doesn’t have to go on. It’s like arriving in a good relationship.
Robin, you are responsible for the lyrics and you write about topics like psychology and philosophy. You are also the geologist in the band which explains that your albums are entitled after geologic eons. What are the lyrics in “Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic“ about?
Robin: The last albums we made are concept albums. There is a certain topic I deal with on every album, lyrically, but also concerning art work.
The last two records, which had very different topics, had a dual stranded concept. On our latest album geological epochs play an important role; the songs are entitled after periods of this epoch and the whole album is structured in eras. The whole package is called “Phanerozoic“, which is the current eon we live in, which came after the last Cambrian, which is also the title of our album that came out in 2007.
That‘s one side of it, on the other there are the lyrics. They don’t necessarily always deal with the eras, and it wouldn’t make any sense if they did. If the lyrics will have an impact on human beings they must be about human issues. Writing about stones flying through the air would be rather awkward.
There’s a meta-plane. The topic of the album is the idea of “Eternal recurrence in a self-similar form“ as Nietzsche called it. There are moments in our life that can be resembled to eras, and that perpetually repeat.
In the age of Phanerozoic there were continents drifting apart and colliding with each other. We had coral reefs that became extinct but regenerated somewhere else. This kind of cycle can be observed in the life of a single person, but also when we look at eras. We do know this feeling very well, that things frequently repeat and also that we don’t learn from our mistakes.
I weaved into the lyrics one of the very latest discussion, climate change. There are references of what is going on today and what is predicted; a temperature rise of 2-5° Celsius within the next hundred years. That has already happened before, even before mankind existed, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care if the temperature keeps on increasing.
We have to look carefully, just take a glance at what had happened by the end of Permian. There was an event called The Great Dying, which is also the subtitle of the last song of the album. Back then 95% of all lifeforms on earth simply vanished. So you don’t have to speculate what will happen if the climate change caused by mankind proceeds as it does at the moment.
There’s another metal band that strictly sticks to their concepts and also care a lot of their art work, I’m talking about Tool. They wrote a song that was entirely based on Fibonacci numbers. Is there also a song hidden in your repertoire that is constructed strictly mathematically?
Robin: (laughs) We haven’t done that yet.
Talking about topics, we covered nearly everything. Every album is about something new, we just talked about it. I like it when all things are coherent and also happens under a big umbrella. Our last album “Pelagial“ was a journey from the surface of the sea to its depth, passing all pelagic zones. We tried to transform this journey into music, starting off with some shallow surface music that is getting deeper by every zone, the tuning becomes constantly heavier and slower the more it leads to the deep ocean.
I get excited when you limit yourself and you try to look how far you can go with it. That was a huge challenge because you’re not free to do as you normally would from an artistic point of view. You always have to ask yourself “Is the context still there?“. It‘s a limitation but on the other side simply amazing if it works out because it has another dimension in it. Such albums have always fascinated me.
Paul: I’m not really though. It never touched me in a way. But Loïc is a big Maynard fan. I’m also fascinated, but it can be difficult not to overdo things. You tend to want too much, especially when you start analysing the harmonic frequencies and how they fit together perfectly. That‘s something where spontaneity and the emotional component become insignificant.
Robin: Then it gets ridiculous easily.
Paul: Yeah! The ninth root from 40 Hz matches perfectly to the thousandth of 80 Hz, got it? Can you listen to it? This is something so specifically designed by one person that it makes sense for that very person, but for most people it doesn‘t. It can be cool, on the other hand it is nice to share your idea with many people.
Robin: I like music and art in general because it‘s both abstract and extremely suggestive. You‘re led in a certain direction but there’s still room for you to interpret it in a way, to make it relevant to yourself. It’s a balancing act because if it’s too abstract it is arbitrary or insignificant, but if it’s too suggestive you easily get the feeling that you show too much and you cannot put your own thoughts into it.
Paul: The same goes for paintings; if you narrow it down to one colour, most people will be like “That’s simply red. Easy to do“. If it’s too complex people will say “I cannot make anything out of it“. Finding the right way is art.
Robin: In this context we can talk about the light again. On stage you can mainly see silhouettes of us or creatures covered in fog and light, no clear faces at all. You can sense something but it is not visible directly, and that’s when your imagination is stimulated and it gets exciting.
Art in general works for me that way. I don’t like obvious objects. It’s by far more interesting when I ask myself “Is it the artists intention or not?“, then I start thinking.
The Ocean pages