The German post rock/metal collective known as The Ocean is well known for releasing high quality music with often thought provoking lyrics and concepts. Last year the band released two albums, namely “Heliocentric” and “Anthropocentric”. Although both records are musically quite different from each other, they’re both linked by the same concept. I had the pleasure of conducting an interview with guitarist Robin Staps, the creative mastermind behind The Ocean and its concepts. He turned out to be a very intelligent and outspoken conversationalist and I believe this is one of the best interviews I’ve done so far.
This year is quite a busy one for The Ocean with the release of Heliocentric and Anthropocentric and a lot of touring. The feedback on both records is very favourable and The Ocean has been involved with two high profile tours with The Dillinger Escape Plan and Anathema. How are things going from your perspective?
Well yeah, pretty fucking well! Happy days… We’re looking forward to more exciting tours and festivals in 2011.
I was quite surprised you’re going to tour with Anathema, because they’re very much in the Prog Rock/Doom mould and despite the relative calmness of Heliocentric your music is still quite heavy. What are your own expectations and are you guys planning to play a different set compared to the one you played with the D.E.P?
Yeah, we were surprised too, and we didn’t really know what to expect from that tour, for the same reasons you mentioned. In the end it all worked out really well though. The bill was very diverse, Petter Carlssen started the night with an acoustic set, then it was us destroying the stage, and then Anathema with an epic 2.5 hour set… It was as diverse a bill as you could possibly imagine, but the crowds seemed to appreciate that. Anathema have very devoted fans but most of them are very open-minded. We went down really well, sold lots and lots of merchandise and won over many new fans. It was also good for us because we played to completely different crowds than during the DEP tour, so we reached out to a lot of different new people.
We didn’t really have time to rehearse, as there was only 1 day between the end of the DEP tour and the beginning of the anathema tour, so we couldn’t play a completely different set, although we would have liked to do that. But we still played songs that we thought were fitting the bill better, mainly the more epic songs off Precambrian and Heliocentric; while we played more of the short and heavy tunes of Precambrian and Aeolian during the DEP tour.
Let’s move on to Heliocentric/Anthropocentric and its concept in particular. I really admire the intellectual and scientific angle. It’s really refreshing compared to the usual Christ bashing in the vein of Hang The Pope by Nuclear Assault. What inspired you to write a critique on the dogmatic refusal of organised religion to accept new ideas and truths?
The fact that Christianity has not yet been overcome by cultures which in every other respect are grounded on trust in the rational mind is fascinating – Islamic cultures, for example, have not been transformed by the process of enlightenment as occidental Christian cultures. Our societies have witnessed the rise and the impact of modern natural science. The sets of values and ideologies brought forth by the process of enlightenment dominate our daily thinking and are the foundations of our societies, yet at the same time we still uphold the superstitions that in no way are conformable with the findings of modern science. Because of the prevailing historical influence and power of the church, our culture is based on the peaceful coexistence of preclusive sets of values. It’s time to break this cycle of incoherence, and ‘Heliocentric’ is our contribution: a reminder of Charles Darwin’s legacy.
On Heliocentric you use the writings by Richard Dawkins, Friedrich Nietsche, Galileo Galilei, Copernicus and Darwin as the basis of the overall concept. What do you find so appealing about their ideas and what is your vision on religion in general?
Darwin’s findings contradict the most fundamental Christian teachings. He basically proved that some of the very first words in Genesis are wrong: Man was not created by God, but is the result of a process of evolution that can be traced back to the most simple forms of life. The genes of man and pig are to 98% identical, and radically phrased, our ancestors were cockroaches… This is hard to understand for many believers who take the bible literal. I admire Darwin’s courage, passion and exploratory spirit. He was being ridiculed by his fellow scientist colleagues, and it takes courage to stand up for convictions that were completely at odds with the Zeitgeist… and while some of his theses were wrong, a lot of it still holds true and his ‘Origin of Species’ has basically been ‘The Shape of Science to Come’, so to speak…
I appreciate Dawkins for the same reasons I appreciate Darwin. He is the charismatic and passionate spearhead of modern atheism and natural science. We need people like Richard Dawkins!
Dawkins understands the hesitation of many people to accept the sometimes hard-to-understand teachings of the theory of evolution, and offers profound and patient explanations for many of them. He also understands the awe that most people feel in view of the beauty and complexity of life, and the seemingly natural human desire to explain all this by assumption of a creator.
However, one of his main arguments in all of his writings is that this very assumption does not get us any inch closer to understanding the origins of complexity, but instead makes things only much more complicated… this is the theme of the song “The Origin of God”:
“A prime mover
only shifts the problem
if every complex structure
needed an architect
then this prime mover
must be even more complex
then anything he created”
And yes, there’s lots of Nietzsche everywhere. I admire his rhetoric powers and his general take on life and his sarcasm in dealing with Christianity. The lyrics of “Sewers of the Soul” off Anthropocentric are quoting an aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche that is pretty self-explanatory: “The soul must have its chosen sewers to carry away its ordure. This function is performed by persons, professions, the fatherland, the world, or for the really arrogant: by the Good God himself. Christianity has been from the beginning life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in “another” or “better” life.
In what way do Heliocentric and Anthropocentric complement each other in a musical context according to you?
They both stand on their own, but of course there’s lots of common ground. Both albums were recorded in the same recording session, so the sound is similar, although Anthropocentric sounds a bit rougher and less polished than Heliocentric. Most people will say that “Anthropocentric” is heavier than “Heliocentric”. I wouldn’t necessarily agree, I do think that “Heliocentric” was a pretty heavy album, apart from the piano-based tracks – it’s just a different kind of heaviness. “Heliocentric” was a stylistically very diverse album, and a very orchestral one. “Anthropocentric” gets by without big orchestrations, it’s an album where the core-band shines: drums, bass, guitars, vocals. We wanted to make an album this time around that is easily playable in a live-environment. We have also played tracks like “Epiphany” off of “Heliocentric” live, but you need a contra bass, piano and 2 violas for that, so for tours it is not really an option.That’s why this time we wanted to simplify the instrumentation a bit.
I would like to play the Devil’s Advocate here. The concept of both records did get a lot of flack. The main complaint is that the idea and the music is way too pretentious and quite bloated. What is your response to such criticism? When you write music and lyrics do you actually care what potential listeners may think of it?
I think it’s ridiculous that the contents of the most basic high school natural science classes, is regarded as something “intellectual” or high-brow. Is it really such an incredibly philosophical thing to tell people that earth is more than 5.000 years old, that the dinosaurs actually did exist and that we have ancestors which were not human beings..?
Obviously, we address Christianity from many different angles, and yes we do quote some philosophers who had some cool things to say, excuse us for that – but this is what the content of both these albums boils down to.
With all the ideas behind our albums, we are trying to offer something more than just good music – if people care and want to follow us here then great, but if others just want to appreciate the music without thinking much about what we talk about that’s fine as well. We make an offer, people can take it, or not.
Heliocentric is pretty much written by yourself while Anthropocentric is more of a collective band effort. What are the benefits and drawbacks of writing a record on your own versus writing as a band? What gives you the most satisfaction and why?
Hard to say, it’s different, but both approaches can yield good results.
On one hand I’m a control freak and like to take care of everything that I can take care of myself, on the other hand it is indeed liberating if you have the right people around you. And I am more happy with this current lineup than ever before.
It is the most “integrated” album we have done so far: I have not written all the songs myself, Jona, our other guitarist wrote 4 tracks as well. When I first heard them, I was like: yes, this sounds like The Ocean”. I was happy to open up the writing-realm to the other people, as they wrote stuff in the vein of where I wanted to go musically with this band. Basically, everybody has been much more involved with everything than ever before. This album really represents this band as of where we stand right now and we are more satisfied with it than with any other album we’ve done.
There is thin line between pleasing yourself as a musician and the expectations of your fan base. What is your opinion on this and how important is it for you as person and a musician to be original and push the creative envelope?
We don’t let expectations have an impact on what we do artistically. We do what feels right to us at the time being, and if that means losing some fans every now and then, who think that what we do is not metal any more or whatever – fair enough. We never conceived of The Ocean as a mere metal band in the first place. The associations that our moniker brings with it are open in any possible direction; the ocean can stand for a cheesy sunset scenery with coconut palms swaying in the breeze as well as for a raging, man-eating, shark-infested stormy sea. And as a metaphor, that describes our music pretty well.
I think that the people who really like this band appreciate the fact that we are trying to do something different with every album, that we’re not trying to develop a formula for our sound like so many other bands, and then stick to that formula for the next 10 albums just because it works. We don’t wanna be Danko Jones, although I do like his music, it’s just a different approach…
Some time ago I saw an interview in which you spoke your mind about the abhorrent conditions and the bad treatment of support bands while touring in the UK. How do you cope with this? Are things different when you’re touring in main land Europe and the USA?
Yes, the UK is a shit place when it comes down to how bands are treated there. While in every other European country there’s in-house catering and accommodation arrangements for the whole touring package, catering is shit almost everywhere in the UK, there’s no accommodation arrangements usually and promoters are lazy and give you buy-outs, but sometimes not even that is the case. Support bands are given the feeling that they are just the flies on the pile of shit that is the headlining act basically, and a lot of times promoters don’t seem to want to understand that even members of support bands have come a long way and have basic human needs such as that they usually need to drink, eat and sleep. And then there are these retarded early curfews everywhere which sometimes brings you in a situation where you have to play right after doors, or even before. We supported Opeth in Bristol and had to start playing before doors opened. Great. This will not happen anywhere in the world, but in the UK.
Many musicians I spoke to over the years view the whole touring phenomenon as a necessary evil to get their music to the masses. Especially boredom, missing your family and friends and bad food were the main drawbacks. What do you think of the whole touring thing and how do you deal with things like boredom and missing your friends and family?
That seems so odd to me… given the fact that most bands who wanna get somewhere spend at least half the year on the road, or more – if I considered touring a necessary evil, I would be utterly depressed!
Believe it or not, I fucken LOVE touring. I love everything that comes with it. And that is lack of sleep, being sick, long drives, fights, rancid places, broken bones, snoring band members, sometimes crappy shows, bad technicians and the UK, but still – it also entails having a permanent party with some of your friends for MONTHS, good times with good people, the rush of adrenaline when you get up on stage every night, the magic of owning a crowd, drugs, fun, girls and good conversations… It is an intense way of living, and I understand how some people don’t like it, but I am a restless nature, I don’t feel home anywhere really and get anxious when I’m stuck in the same place for more than a few weeks. I love travelling, I love touring, I feel alive when I am on the road, more than I could ever do at home.
I would like to end this interview on the positive note. Despite the rigours of touring what are your most fond memories of the road and what is your signature Spinal Tap moment as guitarist of The Ocean?
There are so many… playing Ukrainian theatres, crossing Arizona laying on top of the RV looking out of the window completely stoned, crazy squat parties, Latvian open air festivals, swimming in the sea off the coast of Sicily on a day off this summer, kicking in doors of Slovakian venues at 6AM to get to our place to sleep, having barbecue on the beach in Santander, northern Spain at the same time of the morning 3 weeks later, sleeping with Spanish, Serbian or Peruvian women… That was a lot of Eastern Europe in there, I just realized. Yes, somehow touring in these countries is more exciting than in the boring, posh, spoilt, civilized Western part of Europe…