Few modern metal or progressive acts approach writing an album with the foresight or ferocious devotion to conceptualizing music than Germany’s The Ocean Collective. Led by visionary, lyricist and guitarist Robin Staps, The Ocean’s latest effort, Pelagial [released April 30 via Metal Blade], an aural journey from the surface to the depths of Earth’s oceans, is as dynamic as it is visceral.
The record unfolds as one continuous piece of music, beginning with the airy, spacious, brisk tracks which represent the upper pelagial zones and gradually descending into the suffocating, cold, blackness of the ocean floor.
Pelagial is brilliantly composed with utmost consideration given to the listener. In spite of escalating heaviness and dragging tempos, there are key moments of reprieve—moments of perspective and breath within the composition—that reenergize and reinvigorate the listener to venture forth.
And the choruses! There aren’t many of them, but with each such rolling crescendo, like on “Mesopelagic: Into The Uncanny” and “Abyssopelagic: Signals Of Anxiety,” The Ocean ensures the vitality of its latest opus with enduring melodies and magnificent releases of tension.
Staps took a break from preparing for The Ocean’s latest sojourn to the U.S. to talk to The Aquarian about planning the new record, his inspiration and the band’s integration of lights and visuals into their famously entrancing live performances.
The Ocean always seems to have a fully realized concept by the time it announces a new album. What comes first, the concept or the music?
Usually it is the music that comes first. That was the case with all our previous albums. With Pelagial, that was the first time where I had the concept before I started writing the music. That’s why it’s a lot more integrated than previous albums.
Most of the time, I start writing music and see where it takes me. Then I think about lyrics and conceptual background.
Pelagial was a special case. I really wanted the music to sound like this journey from the surface to the bottom of the sea that it is. I wanted to write with that idea in mind. I wanted the music to get darker and slower and heavier as you go through the album, as you progress down to the deep sea. That’s why it required writing music specifically with that idea in mind. Otherwise it would be just another random collection of songs.
Was the Pelagial idea one you’ve had for a while?
I have had that idea since about 2008. For a long time I just simply didn’t know how to approach it. It’s a very simple to understand concept. And after I had the idea, I thought it was something I really wanted to do with this band. But it was hard to approach it as writing one piece of music, which is entirely different and poses different challenges to me as a writer, compared to writing a bunch of songs and then compiling them together.
That was a big challenge and that’s why I was chickening out for a while and focusing on other things first. I didn’t really know how to do this, and lyrically I didn’t know how to approach it for a long time. The idea isn’t new. But 2011 really was when I started digging deeper into it and making it happen.
How did you approach the lyrics? What’s the story behind the words?
Well, when I started writing the lyrics for the record, I did not want to sing about deep sea creatures and their lives because that would be a bit boring. I knew from the beginning that it had to be approached from a metaphorical angle. Still, I wanted the lyrics to also be a journey from the surface to the depths of something.
What came to mind was to make it a journey from the surface to the depths of the human psyche. All the lyrics from the album are orbiting around psychological questions, mainly about the origins of our wishes and desires. How much control do we have over them? How much can we shape and change their direction?
The lyrics are more than loosely based on the movie The Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky , where three protagonists are traveling towards the center of a zone, at the heart of which their wishes are supposed to come true. The closer they get, the more they start wondering what they should actually wish for when they get there. They start realizing how hard it is to be in that position.
That movie is really the backbone of the lyrics to this album; there are lots of references to it. Originally I started using the English subtitles to that movie as lyrics for the album. But we couldn’t really do it that way because of copyright laws, so I rewrote them from there.
Pelagial unfolds as one continuous piece of music; is that how you wrote it, from beginning to end?
It was a bit of both. I started writing at the beginning and I finished at the end. In between, it was not entirely linear. Sometimes I wrote a part and knew it would be on, like, the second half of the album, but I wouldn’t know exactly where. Whenever I was jamming on a riff, I knew if it would be a surface riff or a deep sea riff. It was kind of obvious from the beginning that I would move some stuff around and try out some different things with the song order—well, it’s not really song order, but the order of certain sections. But it was written in a pretty linear way from beginning to end. I always knew where a part would belong on the timeline of the album.
When are you most productive as a writer?
I don’t write on tour at all. I cannot write on tour. I just don’t have the mind to do that because I spend a lot of time sitting in the van working. I run a record label and I have a lot of day-to-day office work that I have to do on tour. I’m in the lucky position where I don’t have a schedule that limits the time I’m able to be on tour. I don’t have to take vacations. I’m a freelancer, so I can do everything from where I am, but I still need to work during the day, and I can’t take time to write when I’m on tour.
I really write when I’m back home from tour. But then I also can’t really write at home, which makes it difficult. I kind of have to be in a place with a lot of space where I’m not distracted by a lot of emails or phones. I really have to go into isolation when I write.
There’s this house on the coast of Spain where all the previous albums have been written since Heliocentric . So the last three have been written there. It’s a house by the sea with large horizons and a great view in the distance. Whenever I’m there I get into writing mode very easily.
What led you to make The Ocean a collective of players rather than a traditional band situation?
In the beginning, it was lack of choice really. I knew a lot of people but very few who were good on their instruments and dedicated to playing in a band. It was really difficult to find the right people that wanted to do the same thing that I wanted to do. For a long time it was just a matter of trying to play with certain people and then realizing it’s not working out. Or maybe even doing a tour with them and then they realize that that’s not the life they want to live; they want to have careers and families and stuff. That’s why we are in the situation where we have a collective of members.
At one point I decided to make it a principal, where I have a revolving door policy. I can have three or four guitar players in the band but only play with one or two at a time. Whoever has the time and resources to do a tour will do the tour. I started discovering that it’s not necessarily a curse but a gift as well. I have always a band that can tour. I have always people I can learn from as a musician.
I then moved away from it because I found some people who I wanted to play with continuously. Of course when you have many people involved, it means a lot more rehearsals. Everyone needs to know the songs.
Did you look up to any other bands with a similar dynamic, like King Crimson for instance?
Yeah, of course. Crimson has always been an influence for me since I started this band at the turn of the millennium. In parts, they have been organized in a similar way. That has been inspiring and reaffirming, but at the same time, it was something that developed for us; it wasn’t a plan that I had. It’s something that grew over a time. It’s where fate led us.
Also, I have to say that, as much as we called it a collective, and as much as it was for a long time, the creative part has always been in my own hands. I’ve always written the music myself. It’s composed music with a very classical approach to writing, not the Godspeed You! Black Emperor approach, where they all meet in a room and see where it goes.
I wrote the songs alone at home and then worked with them in rehearsal. It’s always been composed, thought out music, as opposed to jamming. Jamming is something we’ve never done as The Ocean.
When did you begin integrating your lights into the live performance?
That’s been there from the beginning pretty much. I wanted to have a live performance that goes beyond just replicating the albums live musically. Creating an atmosphere live was always very important. I’ve been inspired by bands that take care of the visual side of things.
When we first started in 2001 or 2002, I had a friend that wanted to be in the band but didn’t really play an instrument. I wanted him to be in the band too, so I asked him to look into the lighting side of things. He did, but then we ended up playing to a sequencer live because of all the samples, so he came up with the idea of operating the lights through the sequencer and having a fully integrated light show which no human lighting technician could do. We started out with analog lighting and have moved towards all different setups and fixtures.
Now I’m in a position where I want to strip down a little bit. We’ve been traveling with so many fixtures, so I’m trying to come up with a show that focuses more on the band performance and the visuals.
The Ocean Collective will be performing at The Trocadero in Philly on Aug. 4 and the Best Buy Theater in NYC on Aug. 7 as part of the Summer Slaughter Tour. For more information, go to theoceancollective.com.