Gone Fishin’ With Robin Staps
Guitarist Robin Staps is best known as the primary songwriter and creative engine behind The Ocean, a Berlin-based band with a penchant for mixing brainy hardcore with even brainier post-metal. Staps is also part of the team behind Pelagic Records, a label that specializes in forward-thinking, well-produced heavy music including Invisible Oranges favorites like Cult of Luna, Lo! and Coilguns.
In 2017, Pelagic Records released In the Twilight These Rocks Have a Teeth, a double-disc compilation that highlights the stylistic variety and depth of their roster. It also featured "Turritopsis Dohrnii," a song that The Ocean left off of their last full-length album Pelagial. Staps spoke to us about the label's influence on his band, The Ocean's upcoming material, and his fondness for the double album format.
How do you feel about doing press? You seem to be good with the press, but I wonder if you enjoy this part of the process.
I haven't done it in a while. Usually, I do it for The Ocean, and the last record is now four years old. I mean, we released the split with Mono two years ago, and I was doing a lot of press for that. On the label side, we don't really talk about what we do, so this is the first time the label gets to have some exposure. I actually enjoy it, of course it depends on who we're talking to and what the questions are. But I'm always honored that people are interested in what we do, whether it's me as a musician or releasing other people's music. I always appreciate the interest.
Do you feel like there's a similarity behind organizing the big concept albums that you're known for and the organizing a catalog of other people's music?
I guess so. Both are chances to pursue the things I'm interested in. There's a lot of similarities between what I do with my band and what I dig for with other people's music. For example, attention to detail and artists that are really taking a holistic approach to art, where everything makes sense; the artwork, the packaging, the merch designs. And of course the approach that I have to my own music is reflected in the bands we release. Does that mean that we just sign bands that sound like The Ocean? No, but I'm attracted to certain types of music, certain approaches and values that artists have for themselves. So yes. I've been looking back through our catalog and I think even on our very early releases there is a thread that goes through all of them, even as diverse as the catalog is. But it is difficult for me to judge or evaluate that, I'm not on the outside looking in, I'm in too deep.
Your music in The Ocean is pretty diverse, it can cover a lot of ground going from very slow to very fast, very heavy to very light. Listening to the new compilation and also the body of work on the label there is that same diversity, but also an essential character to the music that you've put out.
I hope that stays the case. I mean, that's what you find charming in the arts, right? That something is recognizable. This is not something that we put conscious attention on, it's just the outcome of what we do and the bands we work with. I think all of them have this element of uniqueness or something that makes them different from other things you know. This is always what I've been interested in. To find a sound that sticks out. That is what intrigues me. Bands that are not categorizable. You have to put the pieces of the puzzle together yourself as a listener. Hopefully that shows in the artists that I've released with this label.
Have you noticed having done the label for a while, has that process influenced the way you make music with The Ocean?
Yes, of course. Everything that I listen to, and everything that I listen to intently, which is the case for all of the bands on the label, inspires me. Probably more so that doing label work has given me experience on the other side of the music industry. I always knew it from the band side. When I started out with The Ocean the people running the label were always the bad guys, now I have, through my last years of experience with Pelagic, been sitting on both sides of the table all the time. I think this is something that has made the label work out, that I do understand the band's perspective. All of course the label's perspective. A lot of people aren't aware of the processes and the costs of releasing music, especially in this digital age. I think having both perspectives has helped both the band and the label. It has definitely affected the way I do things with The Ocean. Being able to release my own records, and to have my own standards of comparison when it comes to promotion or strategies of marketing. That has definitely influenced how I want to do things with The Ocean as well. So, I've been influenced not just in an artistic way but a lot of other ways as well. It's been very rewarding.
You have a new old song on the compilation. Because your band is so concept driven, I was surprised that you had a one off like that lying around. How did this song not make it on the last record, and why release it now?
It was a left over that didn't really fit on the record, and when I say it didn't really fit I don't necessarily mean musically, I think it could have worked out within the paradigms of Pelagial toward the second half of the record, but it wasn't really part of the writing process. What I was doing with that record was I was writing consecutively, from the beginning to the end, because I wanted the music to be a journey from the surface to the depths of the ocean, and get progressively heavier and slower and lower in tuning. In order to accomplish that, I couldn't just write random songs as I had in the past and swap them around to see which transitions work and which ones don't. That wasn't really the deal here. So this track wasn't part of that consecutive writing process. It was written around the same time, but it wasn't a part of the big song, since I think of Pelagial as a single song. So I don't want to forcefully squeeze it in there, since it had never been a part of it in the first place. That's why it was left out. It was lying around for a few years, and we hadn't really been in the studio except to record for the Transcendental EP. Apart from that we had just been on tour. When the idea for the compilation, this was one of the three tracks left over from the Pelagial session that I was looking at, so I decided to finish it off.
There's two more, I don't know if they'll ever be released. Maybe, maybe not.
So the other two songs were also written during that same period but didn't fit into the narrative of the album?
Yeah, pretty much the exact same story. They were shorter tracks. You see the thing is, I would like to release them, but on the other hand they were written in 2012. That's five years ago, and I have a whole bunch of new material ready to go that I'm a lot more excited about then going back to some tracks that were written half a decade ago. This is what sometimes happens when you have what we call "song corpses" that were never finished. You get to the point where it's too late. But this track still felt like it was on the good side, that it was ready to be released as is and it has that Pelagial vibe to it. I felt that a lot of people would dig it. With the other two, I'm not quite sure, but maybe they'll get thrown in as easter eggs on another record. We'll see.
Do you have a similar problem going back to the older music that you have released, or do you even listen to your old music?
Hell no! Never ever, no [laughs].
Of course that's not true, sometimes the very old stuff is hilarious to listen to, just to confront our evolution as a band. It's funny to listen to something you thought was the shit ten or 15 years ago and hear how fucking horrible it sounds these days. That's always very interesting, so I occasionally have a night with friends where we listen to old stuff while drinking beer, but I don't do that too often.
When it comes to playing old songs live, it kind of depends on whether you're playing them because you want to or only because people want to hear them. I think it's really annoying when bands become tied to their songs and have to play them over and over again just because fans are expecting that from them. We've come off a touring cycle where we played a single album from beginning to end for over a hundred shows. That was really getting difficult at the end I would have to say. We were all getting to the point where it was really fucking time for something new. Then, when you don't touch it for a couple months it can all become exciting again. If you don't play something for a few years, it can regain its life. It is all a matter of not tiring yourself out by playing the same tracks all the time. I try to draw songs from the different records as much as possible. I mean, we've released seven records, and if we always end up playing the same two or three songs from each record it gets boring for us and for the audience as well. Playing old material can be great if you've never played it before or if you haven't played it years. It can be like learning a brand new track, although it may not be what the band is like contemporarily.
I think you've done a good job of cultivating a fanbase that will expect you to keep pushing for something new. I mean, you've changed the way you've operated, going from a band that featured collaborators to one with a more stable lineup. I think that anyone who's going to see you shouldn't just come expecting you to play the same songs from Precambrian but instead what inspires you in the moment.
You wouldn't believe it, but people still want to hear a lot of old stuff. There's still people that say "that singer on that old record was much better than this new kid." I try not to pay much attention to that. I completely agree that people should come expecting to see The Ocean of 2017. Of course we do play older stuff, but we interpret them in our way. In fact, we just did a new version of the opening track of Precambrian with Loïc [Rossetti] singing, Paul [Seidel] drumming, and Mattias [Hägerstrand] on bass. It still keeps the vibe of the original, but everyone interpreted the parts differently, and it's a completely different drummer than Torge [Ließmann, who played drums on the original]. You can hear that, while the essence of the song is preserved. I like when bands can do that. To me, seeing a band play songs that they wrote ten or 15 years ago, I'm not expecting them to play it as shit as they recorded it. I appreciate it when they try out new things even when it's the same band. If that works out, it's intriguing and I would always encourage bands to do that instead of playing the same thing over and over.
Right, because the recordings still exist, if people don't like the new version they can go back to the old ones. So why not take the risk and try something new?
Exactly! The fact that the old versions do exist can become a cross that people nail you to. They really want it exactly like that old version. Fans should embrace the changes throughout a band's history, that they've had different players in and out with different abilities and different taste. Change is something that people should embrace instead of saying, "this old record is the only way I want it and everything else is shit." That's conservative, reactionary bullshit.
Are there any other bands that you look to as role models for how to be constantly changing or improving? Not necessarily ones that inspire your sound, but more of a career model if that makes sense.
That's not easy to answer. There are a few bands, but I'm not sure I want to confess to them [laughs]. Well, why not? One band that I really look up to in that way is Ulver, for example. They've done their own thing 100%. They started out with weird black metal stuff and have tried all different kinds of music that ventured from jazz to soundtracks. This new record I really, really like, it's again totally different, involving dance beats, but maintaining their own integrity and an original sound. That's something I highly admire, when a band is in a position where they can do what they want and die hard fans still follow them because they know it's good, because it's the musicians that they are interested in. Whether they make a jazz record, or a metal record, or whatever, you can see their personality and capabilities of the musicians making it under the umbrella of that band. Whatever form it takes doesn't matter.
I admire that, and I do view that as a career model. I want to be able to surprise people, or for people to not really know what they are going to get with the next record. Anything is possible, and I'm always keen to try and see how far we can go.
Is there anything that you can reveal about the new record that you're working on?
It's about 80% written, we're planning to record over the winter months and release it sometime in 2018. It's mostly going to be two discs that are related, as is usually the case with The Ocean. And at the moment, we're super excited to go back into the studio because the material is shaping up great. It's good that we gave ourselves a bit of off time after the last record, we all went our different ways and focused on different things. Now the vibe is coming back together. It just feels really, really good at the moment. We're super keen to go into the studio and get back on the road.
Why do you think you're attracted to the two disc format? Most of The Ocean's records and even this compilation are divided into two discs.
I really have to think about it. I've never really looked at it this way, but we've always done this dichotomy starting from Fluxion and Aeolian all the way up to the compilation, where we split the instrumental, post-rock side and the heavier side onto two different discs. So yes, absolutely I'm attracted to this format. Why is that the case? I'm not really sure. I guess I have a very diverse taste in music, and I was always struggling to fit everything that I wanted to do into the constraints of the form of an album without it becoming random, or not working. I always felt it was a better idea to find a focus, or a topic that exploits this diversity rather than letting it all puddle into pool of random sounds. Whether it always to be two parts or if it can be three or four parts, I'm not sure. Of course you know about Thrice's The Alchemy Index which is four parts and worked very well. It doesn't necessarily has to be two, but I do like division and setting an agenda for a body of art. Why, psychologically? I don't know what to tell you [laughs].