The Ocean | Interview with Robin Staps

The collective known as The Ocean are about to release their sixth full-length album "Pelagial", a conceptual work that tries to recreate the ambient and sounds of a journey from the surface to the bottom of the sea. This new effort was initially conceived as an instrumental album but is now being released in two different versions, one instrumental and the other featuring the vocal performance of Loic Rossetti.
We caught up with guitarist and main songwriter Robin Staps to talk about the concept behind this new record and what continues to excite him about instrumental music.

I read that your upcoming effort “Pelagial” was originally conceptualized as an instrumental album, this was because singer Loic Rossetti was facing some health issues at the time and needed to take a break or you already had planned writing an instrumental record as the successor of “Anthropocentric”?

“Well the way it happened was that this record was basically written to be an instrumental record, because it was written from the beginning to the end in one piece and the idea behind the album was there even before I started writing it. And the idea behind the album kind of preconditioned it to be an instrumental record, because what will you sing about if you’re making an album that’s like a journey from the surface to the bottom of the ocean, what would the lyrics talk about? Well, I was thinking this was a concept that doesn’t really require vocals, doesn’t really require lyrics, and so why not make an instrumental record? Now that coincided with the fact that Loic’s health was indeed in very bad conditions in 2012, after relentless touring for about seven months and he needed to take a break. Some doctors told him that if he didn’t stopped screaming then maybe he would loose his voice forever and some doctors told him different things so nobody really knew what was actually the case, so we took that very seriously. 
Given the fact that we had in mind a concept that would work as an instrumental album anyway, we just decided that well maybe this is the right time for us to do that, to do an instrumental record. It’s not something new to us, we done that already with “Fogdiver” in 2003 and we all listen to quite a lot of instrumental music so we were like why not? Let’s do it. And then what happened was that after the Australian tour in May 2012 we took a break for quite a while, for like seven months, and in that time Loic’s health recovered and his voice got better, he also changed his lifestyle a little bit ah, ah. He got a little better and also he told us that he wants to continue singing for this band, and he wants to continue touring with this band and he made that very clear to us. So we were like what are we going to do now, the album was already written at that point. So we had the idea of adding vocals over the last two tracks, at that point everyone was thinking that it was going to be an instrumental album then thirty minutes later we decided to add some vocals and I really liked that idea, it was kind of surprising. So we started recording vocals for the last two tracks and that was quickly done, then we started fooling around trying other bits and pieces, here and there, and ended up getting into this big creative mood again and started some really cool sessions just sketching out vocals and by the end of the week we had recorded vocals for the entire album, that’s when we decided, alright let’s make it a double album you know, with the vocal and the instrumental version. So we continued working on vocals until late December just before we travelled to Sweden to mix the album. And at the same time we wanted to keep the instrumental record ‘cause we were very used to it, and I’m very much used to that instrumental record ‘cause I listened to it for nine months and your can discover a lot of things on that instrumental version that you cannot necessarily hear on the vocal version just because there are vocals and the obvious attention goes to the vocalist and that’s why instrumental records are great ‘cause they leave more space to the music and people pay more attention to the actual music.”

Well I still haven’t listened to the instrumental version yet, but I would say the vocals really enhance the whole atmosphere of the album. I guess I’ll have to wait a few more days to get the chance to listen to it and get that perspective of the album.

“Yeah the vocal version is great and we love it, and the whole vocals do add a new level to it, but as I said the instrumental version is different. We didn’t make the same mix, certain sounds are louder on the instrumental version and you’ll hear them more prominently than on the vocal version, I think it will be very worthwhile if people listen to it as well.”

So, you said that vocalist Rosseti recovered on time to partake in the recordings of the new album, and you decided to add the vocal parts at the last minute. That obviously changed a bit the sketches and ideas that you had initially designed for “Pelagial”. When you listen to the finished record, does it sound like what you thought were making or were you surprised by how different it turned out?

“Well I was very much surprised in the end by the vocal version of the record, I’m still getting used to it, I think it’s great, it really lifted it to another level, another dimension, but I’m still very attached to the instrumental version, which is very close to what I originally had in mind, the vocal version is kind of new territory to me. As far as the writing of the instrumental part of the album is concerned, it started with a very clear idea for the beginning and the end of it and everything in between kind of evolved around it. I always had the large structure in mind and when I wrote the riffs I always knew where they would find their place in the timeline of the record, whether it was a more like a deep sea part or a surface part. Yeah, I wasn’t that very surprised by the outcome as I had that idea in mind. It’s the first we ever done that, all our other albums were made of random songs that we have put together in a specific order. For instance all the songs in ‘Heliocentric’ and ‘Anthropocentric’ were written as isolated songs and this new record was written from the beginning to the end as one piece of music.”

You mentioned in a recent interview that this new effort was entirely written by you, whereas previous records were more of a collaborative effort. The fact that you have taken full control of the writing of the new album was because you had a very defined and personal idea of how this new record should sound like?

“That’s a reason and another reason I think is that this was the only approach possible for this particular record, because you cannot really write a fifty-minute piece of music by jamming in a room with different people or having everyone contributing with different ideas, that wouldn’t work out. You can write a five or ten-minute song like that but for a whole hour worth of music you need to have some kind of plan and idea, so I think it was the only approach possible for this project. Also the other guys, is not that I didn’t want them to be involved, it was kind of their choice ‘cause they were busy with their other band, they released an album this year and another one last year and they were pretty engaged with that while we were all taking a break with The Ocean. They wanted to do something different which was cool to me and I had a pretty straight idea for this record. But everyone still contributed to writing their individual parts based on my songwriting. Luc would write the drums patterns based on the pre-productions that I had done with programmed drums and he interprets them very clearly, adding very cool ideas that I didn’t come up with my shitty drum machine. Everyone, Jona, Louis, our new bass player Chris and of course Loic they all wrote their respective parts, but the whole structure of the album was entirely by myself.”

As you said, this new album has a very interesting concept revolving around oceans, which is quite distant from the religious and spiritual themes explored on the previous two albums. I understand that you decided upon this theme way before you have written any song right?

“Yeah the whole idea for this album has been in my head for a very long time. Probably since 2008, even before I started my label Pelagic Records, this concept is actually behind the name of the label. I had this idea of making an oceanic album that is basically a journey from the surface to the bottom of the sea, through five different depth zones and I wanted the music to reflect the ambient of these zones. I wanted the surface part and the marine life to be more cheerful in a way and then towards the end of the record the music gets really dark and really slow representing the bottom of the sea, where you have almost no life and there’s a big pressure and a complete darkness. I wanted to write this album to particularly sound around this theme, to gradually getting slower, gradually getting heavier, gradually getting darker and colder. From a very produced, smooth sound to a very rough, very distorted sound.” 

If I said this is the most accessible record you’ve written, how would you respond?

“Interesting! I’m not sure, it probably is in a way. It has very good flow from the beginning to the end that I think is better than our previous two albums, which are more like a collection of random songs. I think there are still some pretty heavy parts on the album especially towards the end. I think the quietest record we have done is probably “Fluxion”, which was a bit criticized for being way calmer than any other work we have done and for the way we structured the vocals.” 

The LP cover for “Pelagial” is rather striking and it seems like you put a lot of thought into the design and the whole visual presentation of your albums. How important is the visual aesthetic to you?

“It’s very important! First of all, I believe that if you want to sell records based on a physical product you have to give people something especial, nobody wants to buy a shitty jewel-case anymore, that’s why we have come up with this elaborative packaging, otherwise people will just downloaded it. This ten-fold digipack cannot be downloaded and you can’t get it unless you buy it. It’s important from that perspective and artistically of course, it’s even more important because I think we’re creating art that is like a whole. The music is the most important part of course, but everything around it, the album cover, the packaging, the merchandise is important to create an identity for the band. I’ve always been fascinated by this approach to music as art you know, that is just not reduced to a band playing good music on stage, but everything else like for example the lightening and the sound, the representation or whatever, should mean something, or at least that’s what interests me. Seeing Neurosis live for the first time for example, the way they connected the songs with the visuals and video projection and the whole atmosphere they created on stage was something that to me was rather striking.”

I hear there’s also a movie coming out along with a special edition of “Pelagial”. What can you tell us about that? I read that you’re going to project images from the movie on the upcoming tour.

“Yeah, that’s true. We going to show the movie live with video projections while we’re playing tracks from the new record and it’s also being released on DVD along with a special edition box-set of ‘Pelagial’ through Pelagic Records. And that DVD has the entire movie with the instrumental version of the record on Dolby Surround mix, so it really gives you an enhanced and different listening experience. The project started almost a year ago, and it’s basically a fifteen-minute music video that required a lot of hard work and an immense amount of hours to complete. The guy who made the film, Craig Murray is an amazing artist and was really dedicated to create something special there.”

Now that the record is done, you're starting to make preparations for touring and waiting for the record to come out, what's this period of time like? Are you nervous, are you anxious or are you confident about the future?

“I’m very excited about the things that are lined up for us, the tour with Cult of Luna, which is basically my favourite heavy band nowadays, it’s going to be great sharing the stage with those guys. I’m very looking forward to play the new songs live and see how the crowds react to them.” 

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