After a slight schedule miscalculation, a call to a helpful PR woman (Thank you Liz!!!) and a transfer from Wisconsin to California then all the way over to somewhere in Switzerland (!) I was able to catch up with Robin Staps, creator of The Ocean and owner of Pelagic Records, one of the artists I've grown to respect on an immense level over the years. He was just getting off stage when we started our conversation about music, art, his label, where he finds inspiration and The Oceans new album “Pelagial”. Have a seat, relax, and enjoy what someone I consider to be a true artist has to say.
(((o))): Hi. How’s it going? I’m Ryan from Ech(((o)))es & Dust.
Robin: Hey man, nice to meet you!
(((o))): So, I had a few quick questions I wanted to ask you right away…
Robin: Sure man, no problem.
(((o))): Ok: If you had to be a biscuit, what kind would you be?
Robin: I’m not really a big fan of biscuits I have to say. I guess it’s probably the food I've eaten the least of in my entire life. So, it’s hard to answer that one.
(((o))): Really? Ok, my other question is: What’s your favorite body of water?
Robin: Hmmm. Well…I’d say the Mediterranean for sure. After all these travels I've done, I love to get back there. It’s a place with a lot of good memories attached to it.
(((o))): Cool. I’ll ask the real questions now. (Both laugh) Could you give me a little background on how you started The Ocean? I know you started the band, correct?
Robin: That’s right, yeah. Well, I started the band in 2001, around 12 years ago already, which tells you I’m getting old. (Both laugh) At that time I lived in a small German town, so I moved to Berlin specifically to start a band and play music, which was really difficult in the small town I was from. I started looking for people basically, you know, handing out fliers at shows and just getting to know people and friend of a friend, stuff like that. First we were called a “collective”, there were lots of people in and out of the band for awhile, simply because a lot of people didn't want to do music as serious as myself and some of my band mates wanted to. So we had lots of different members, like changing guitar players a lot in the first two or three years. We only really reached a stable lineup around 2004/2005. And even then, we still had lots of changes until 2009. Around then, everything just got “consolidated”.
So yeah, a lot of things have changed over the years. It would take a lot of time to really tell that story. We’re releasing a DVD this year that has a band history part on it, which tells the entire story of the band from the early days until now. While working on that, I realized how difficult it is to really tell the story of this band. There are so many people that have been in and out of it, and now we have so many weird consolidations… We have a few members in Switzerland, and before that we had a vocalist from the UK, and we've always just been a band that’s spanning countries. Not just cities, but countries so… It’s a long and very complicated story but everyone who’s really interested in it should check out the DVD that we’re releasing.
(((o))): Do you have any idea when that’s coming out?
Robin: Probably in the fall. At first it was supposed to be released this spring, but then we decided to do the album ("Pelagial") first, and then the DVD got postponed. It’s pretty much ready, so I’m assuming it will come out before our headlining tour in Europe around October or something like that. But I do believe it will come out this year, yes.
(((o))): I found you guys [The Ocean] around “Precambrian” [2005 double album of awesome] and I really like what you guys did with the packaging, with the regular CD and the mini CD. I really like the attention to detail that you put into your art. Your music is obviously great, but to me you are more of an artist than a musician.
Robin: Thanks. Yeah, we do pay great attention to that. I just think that it is very important when you want to motivate people to still buy music as a physical product. You release albums in special packaging and it gets people to still buy it, rather than download it over the internet. So that’s one of the reasons we've always paid attention to that. But I've also always been fascinated and intrigued by bands that left nothing up to chance; the shirt design, the live show, the light and the music of course, the way songs are connected onstage, that kind of stuff. That’s why bands like Neurosis have always been very inspirational and important for me. The first time I saw them I was like “Wow!” it was just fucking overwhelming. It’s not just a band playing random songs; everything just kind of fits together and creates this vibe. It’s something I've always wanted to do with my own music as well. So that’s part of the reason we've paid attention to the packaging.
It's fun, you know it's fun to develop it and to work on it, especially when you’re working on it with great graphic designers and artists. Like Martin Kvamme, who’s done “Precambrian” and also both 'Centric albums [2010’s “Heliocentric” and “Anthropocentric”, both equally amazing] and he’s also done the box-set version of “Pelagial”. He’s an amazing guy to work with; we really feed of each other when it comes to packaging ideas and trying out different approaches of how to do packaging. The new album comes with acrylic boxes you know, and it was a very, very complicated and difficult project but Martin is really into experimenting with design and materials. So that’s something I really appreciate about him. It’s great to have people like that around us.
(((o))): The physical format is something I myself love, and when you guys released the new album for pre-order, everybody that saw the physical packaging and said “Ahhh well, I’m broke now!!” because everybody wanted to buy it. It’s gorgeous.
Robin: Yeah, it’s expensive and I was very skeptical at first, whether this was going to work out. It’s a lot of money for one record, 80 Euros, and when you add postage its almost $130 or $140 with shipping to the US. So, surprisingly all the [special edition] vinyl was sold out in 12 days, and that was very reassuring for us. You can see that people follow us there [US]. They appreciate that we put so much effort into that, and they’re willing to pay a price for it. These kinds of products just really come with a high price, the parts and the material. We had to get them manufactured in China, not because it’s cheaper there, but because it’s impossible to find five different colors of acrylic layers in Europe. It was a massively crazy and experimental art project, basically, that comes at a price unfortunately. I understand how people can’t afford it or don’t want to afford it; and that’s ok, there’re still enough people that buy it, and I’m happy about that.
(((o))): There were even different versions, or “levels”, of the album you could still buy that were at lower prices.
Robin: Yeah we had the box-set that was CD and/or vinyl, the CD version is cheaper. Then we have the regular vinyl version, which is just going up for pre-order now. It comes with four [4!] 10” records in a double gatefold. Those are of course cheaper without the box-set and there’s a DVD that comes with it. [The package mentioned here is the album with vocals, and an instrumental version. The DVD that comes with is a 54 minute movie by Craig Murray and a 5:1 Dolby surround mix of the album.]
Then we have the digipack version which really isn't that standard either. (Laughs) It’s got a neat booklet and stuff like that, so even the standard edition is fairly elaborate. There’s no cheap jewel case version or anything like that. We were really fighting this time, not actually fighting, but I think that Metal Blade [The label The Ocean are currently signed to] actually understood, that at least in our case, it works to have more expensive product manufacturing, because people are will to pay a higher price for that. So fortunately we got to do without the cheap, crap packaging for the standard version.
(((o))): I think that when you have a regular, plain jewel case, not that people wont buy it, but I think people that are actually buying music, they buy it because they want the experience. With all the artwork and the music, it all relates.
Robin: Exactly! And for people that will get the record on iTunes, they don’t care about having the physical product, and that’s fine. But the people that do care, they want to get rewarded, they want to feel special.
(((o))): So, the record label you run, Palegic Records. I see a lot of the bands that you have on there, not all, seem like a network of friends and artists that are all somewhat connected to The Ocean or to other bands that know you. Is that kind of like an “in-house” project you like to keep?
Robin: Not necessarily. I guess that’s just how it always happens when you’re talking to other bands or how you discover music; you talk to a band or someone that even plays with you. So, yeah, there are a lot of bands that are connected to The Ocean, like Earthship, I used to play guitar in with a good old friend of mine. Then there’s The Old Wind, a band I started with three ex-members of a band called Breach.
(((o))): That was actually going to be my next question, about The Old Winds.
Robin: (Laughs) Sorry about that!
(((o))): No that absolutely ok. (Both laugh)
Robin: Yeah, so there are lots of bands I have my fingers in actually. And then there are some bands I didn't really know before, like this band called Lo!from Australia. They’re out with us and Cult of Luna here in Europe right now. They were a band that just basically sent me a very nicely packaged demo, with a mini-CD and silkscreen packaging which caught my eye, again to relate to our previous topic. I just listened to it and thought it was awesome and I started talking to the guys. I got to know them through that basically, I didn't know them before. Now we’re all good friends and I got them on this tour, and they hooked us up when we toured with them in Australia last year. Now we’re all good friends, but not all the bands I release are friends in that way. Some are coming from the outside.
(((o))): It is nice to have people that you work with, on a label that can help you out just as you help them out. Like when you mentioned the tour with Lo!
Robin: Exactly, exactly. We took them out in Australia and they hooked us up with places to crash and stuff like that. It’s always give and take. That’s how the hardcore scene was, and what the hardcore scene was thriving from, and I’m a hardcore kid. I grew up in that environment. I still hold a lot of those ideals very dear and we’re running the label with those as well.
See now, with The Ocean, our guitar player is doing promotion for me for Pelagic Records and I’m releasing his band with two members of The Ocean, called Coilguns, and they’re on Pelagic as well. So it’s all like very refined. Everyone is doing what they’re good at to make it all work. It’s a greater community and it’s cool to have it like that.
(((o))): I agree. It’s nice to be able to work with friends basically to help each other out. You mentioned Coilguns, and my editor (The Master of All Things Heavy: Sander van BoomBoom, PhD.) is a big fan of you guys and a lot of the bands you put out. He actually saw Coilguns, I want to say last week maybe. Jona [Nido, guitars] fronts that band?
Robin: Yeah they actually went out and did UK shows, yeah.
(((o))): He said that he talked to Jona, and it was mentioned that Jona didn't have a lot to do with the writing and recording of this album. So how did the writing and recording process of this album go?
Robin: With The Ocean you mean?
Robin: Actually Jona was not involved at all this time. That’s partially because of Coilguns. (Laughs) He’s in Coilguns with our [The Ocean] drummer and they wrote their debut album [reviewed here] which I released in February. So he didn't really participate in the process of the album [Pelagial] at all. Neither writing nor recording. I recorded all the guitars, and wrote all the music for this album. Luc [Hess, drummer] wrote the drum parts, and Louis [Jucker, bass] wrote their parts, but Jona didn't contribute on this album. He did on “Anthropocentric” though, he wrote four songs for that album.
(((o))): Is he still touring with you guys?
Robin: Yeah, he’s in the band and he’s doing the upcoming tour. So he’s a full band member, he just didn't participate in this album because he wanted to focus on his own stuff. That was fine for me because it is an album that required a bit of a “master plan”, with regards to writing, because I wanted to write it as one piece of music, actually. So it really wouldn't have made sense to have too many people in the writing process. It was fine for me that he kind of, like, excluded himself from the writing process. I thought this album needed to be written by one person in order for it to get the coherence that I wanted it to have. It was difficult enough to work with myself basically. (Laughs) And it wouldn't have worked if we had too many people involved in the writing.
(((o))): What still inspires you to write the music you do? The albums you write generally have a running theme. Are there any bands you hear or anything like that? Or is it something that comes from inside you?
Robin: I do listen to other bands, of course, although not so much recently as I've been working on this album for the past four months. When I’m writing or recording my own stuff and coming home after a long studio day, I generally don’t want to put in more music. I really actually enjoy silence. (Laughs) So I haven’t listened to too much stuff recently. But I do go out to a lot of shows and check out bands and listen to all different kinds of music, not just rock or hardcore, anything really. Of course if it’s something that I’m very interested in, it can leave it’s footmark as well.
Generally, it’s hard to say. I can’t write when I’m on tour. And I can’t write at home either. I have to be in a place with a wide open horizon. I usually retreat to a house in Spain that’s close to the coast where I really have that, it’s a cliché, but I really have that need to be by the sea or the ocean. And I really need that to get my creative flow, by the ocean. That’s where I wrote both ’Centric albums. That’s where I wrote “Pelagial” too. I just go up there and the sea air and the wide horizon just make me get into the writing mode. And it all happens naturally really. The creation is really like this strange process that even I don’t truly understand. Inspiration to me is a weird thing. It’s this black box; you put in a lot of things. You consciously put things in that are there from whatever you experience in your life, the music you listen to, all these things. It’s an abstract way of taking those experiences, and in the end there’s this black box and your music comes out, or your art. And what happens in this black box I don’t really know and I don’t really understand it myself. It’s kind of fascinating. It’s something that is really hard to analyze and I think it’s good that way. I don’t think you should really try to analyze it, what you've made, it would ruin it.
(((o))): You try not to over think it too much. What comes out of you is what comes out, is what you’re saying.
Robin: Exactly, yeah.
(((o))): I had one more question I was going to ask you since I know we’re running out of time. You had mentioned that you saw Neurosis; I was going to ask you what album of theirs is your favorite?
Robin: It’s probably not “Souls at Zero” but “Enemy of the Sun”. But it’s hard to say, I love “Souls…” but I saw them live first with “Enemy…” and that blew my mind. The first track off that album [‘Lost’] live is just intense. So that was probably my favorite album. But then I must say I love “Times of Grace”. I saw them again in 1998 when they toured with Today is the Day and the Times of Grace tour in which they pretty much played the whole album. That was intense; it was the best show I've ever seen. After that, I listened to that album a lot. So, looking back at it now, I probably even prefer “Times of Grace”, but they’re all really good albums.
(((o))): Yeah, it’s pretty hard to pick a favorite one. Did you get a chance to hear the new one [“Honor Found in Decay”]?
Robin: To be honest, I haven’t really listened to it enough to be able to say how I feel about it. Its one of those things; I haven’t listened to the latest Neurosis album, I haven’t listened to the new Meshuggah, or even the Converge album. They all got released during a time when I was busy with my own music and I didn't really have the time to check them out. But we’re out on tour the next four weeks, so I’ll sit in my bunk at night and listen to music. All these albums are on my iPod already, just waiting for me. So I’m looking forward to just digesting those albums. I don’t really want to speak much about the new [Neurosis] record because I haven’t heard it.
(((o))): You’re in for a treat with all those new ones you just mentioned. But, it looks like my time is out. So I want to say thank you for all your time, and for your art and music. And from all of us at Ech(((o)))es & Dust, we love your music and appreciate all the bands you put out and I’d like to say thank you.
Robin: Alright! Thank you to you guys for your exposure and your time.
(((o))): You enjoy the rest of the tour and those albums.
Robin: I will man, thank you. Take care.
I would like to thank Robin for his time and great conversation. The Ocean’s new, and amazing, album comes out on April 26th/29th in Europe, and April 30th in the US, through Pelagic Records and Metal Blade Records, respectively. I encourage you all to go out and buy it in any of the many physical formats available.
I would also like to thank the awesome people at EarSplit PR for their hard work, and a special thank you to Liz for helping me with the timing confusion.
- Ryan Stephenson & Ech(((o)))es & Dust.