One of the most notable progressive metal bands on the international scene hail from the urban depths of Berlin. Known for their devastating and electrifying live shows, as well as for their collective dynamic, which combines the best elements of post and prog metal, along with some electronic touch, The Ocean Collective create art, that will blow your mind completely. 

We spoke at length with the mastermind and guitarist Robin Staps regarding their new release Holocene, where The Ocean has been, his own label, Pelagic Records, and where this new album will take the band artistically in the future. Let’s dive into it.

 

Hello everyone, it is Dimitris from depart.gr, and we are here with the founder/main guitarist of the The Ocean Collective and also head of Pelagic Records, Mr. Robin Staps. It is great having you here Robin.

My pleasure. Thank you for the invite.

Last time I saw you guys, was in September 2022 in Athens along with LLNN & our own Playgrounded. It was a great show, you killed it as always and it’s an excellent opportunity to be able to talk with you now with your new album Holocene. So, before we talk through this, I know you have been on the road for almost 6 months, or so. Recently you did a massive European tour supporting Karnivool. How was it?

It’s been amazing. At the time when the tour started, we had already been out for a long time, because we started with the tour you mentioned initially with LLNN and Playgrounded back in August 2022, and right after that we did the States with Katatonia, and then South America.

It’s been the end of a long run, and it was the perfect way to end it. It was some of the biggest indoor club shows I think we’ve ever played, and at the same time it was a comfortable tour, because it was only two bands, only us and Karnivool. We could play a long set, we could leave our gear on stage after soundchecking, and we really clicked with the guys.

O Robin Staps των The Ocean μιλάει για την μπάντα αλλά και για τη δισκογραφική του
Robin Staps of The Ocean Collective talks to DEPART

They are not only amazing musicians, but also very nice people, and we had a really good time with them. So it’s been a very good tour. And like I said, some of the biggest shows we’ve ever played, a lot of them sold out, and they are really one of a kind band, and they haven’t been touring much.

I think everyone was looking forward to this very much. The tour had also been postponed two or three times, so the fact that it was finally happening was also sort of a triumph over the whole pandemic bullshit, that has actually kept us… not busy for a long time. It was great to finally watch that happen for everyone involved.

What taste does 2022 leave overall to you?

It was a very busy year for us. We went from nothing back to full-on touring. I mean, we started in March with US tour, at a time when in Europe everything was still mostly shut down, and then we’ve been just touring throughout the whole year.

It was a good year for us, definitely a good year. We were happy to finally play Phanerozoic II live, which we couldn’t do when the record was released, because it was released September 2020, mid pandemic basically, so it was a weird album for us to release without touring, and then to start touring two years later. But, in a way, it worked out really well, because I feel like it was an album that probably needed a bit of time to be digested properly.

And by the time we eventually started touring in 2022, people really knew that record, and we didn’t really expect that. But during the first headline tour we did in May and June with pg.lost and Psychonaut, everyone knew the record, everyone was singing the lyrics, and it was very intense, because we really didn’t know what to expect.

We played these songs for the first time live, and it felt like we were playing material that’s already like 10 years old somehow, you know, that people already know and cherish. That was odd but very cool actually. I really enjoyed that.

As a graphic designer, I really dig creative artwork & packaging stuff. Besides your music, your covers & box sets are always top-notch. Paying close attention to details seems fundamental to the band, is it right? How important is this for you?

Yeah, the artwork is very important for our overall artistic vision. I consider all that to be one basically, you know. Obviously, it starts with the music, and that’s the most important point. But, the whole presentation of it in terms of packaging and artwork is also very important for conveying our point and getting across what we are trying to do. It’s always been like that. Naturally, it comes with great attention to detail, like on the Holocene artwork.

Me, Martin and Stefan, the three people that were involved in creating that, have been working for more than a year, and it’s been like literally hundreds of mails back and forth over it. So it’s a process that is as complex and time consuming as writing music. It doesn’t come second to that really.

Touring with Karnivool made us play some of the biggest shows we’ve ever played, a lot of them sold out

It starts pretty much always at the same time, and it’s equally involving detours, trying out certain things, ending up in dead end roads, starting from scratch, and eventually getting to where we were hoping to get. In a way it’s very comparable to the whole writing music process. It’s also a creative process we put a great deal of attention into that, and always have.

I think it’s very important also for the identity of a band, and I’ve always been into bands that don’t just leave things up to chance, you know, that do invest time and creative effort, and also take risks with packaging, to try things that haven’t really been done before. For me that’s always been very rewarding and very important with this band, and also with Pelagic Records in general.

What struck me most was the fossils in the Phanerozoic II box set. I bet you have been asked many times whether they are real or not.

Of course, they were real! I mean, I think that would be hard to fake. It would be probably more expensive to fake it, too, than to just gather them. No, they were real trilobites from the Ordovician age, and Cleoniceras, which is a nautilus type of creature from the Mesozoic, and then we had some petrified fish from the Cenozoic.

The green box set, the most limited one, came with three fossils each, one from the Palaeozoic, one from the Mesozoic and one from the Cenozoic era, and then the brown box set came with one fossil of choice basically.

Δώσαμε στον κόσμο τη δυνατότητα επιλογής απολιθώματος, όχι επειδή πιστεύαμε πως ήταν cool, αλλά επειδή απλά δεν ήταν δυνατό να έχουμε πρόσβαση σε τέτοια μεγάλη ποσότητα απολιθωμάτων παρόμοιου τύπου και παρόμοιου μεγέθους και βάρους. 

Holocene is sort of an appendix to Phanerozoic in a way, but at the same time, also a bit of a departure

We did give people a choice of fossil, not because we thought that was cool, but also because we simply couldn’t have access to that number of fossils of a similar type, in a similar size and weight in that quantity.

Because obviously they are petrified, real, living things, or used to be living things that you don’t just buy in a grocery store. It was already very challenging to find a couple of hundreds of trilobites, and some of them were just too big or too heavy and didn’t fit into the box set.

We had to deal with what we could get our hands on really. I met this lady that was working for a geological institute in Munich, and she was very helpful. She helped us source these fossils from trade fares, and she could get us fairly large quantities, but we still had to improvise, and that meant like “ok, we have a hundred of these, so we’re going to offer that as a box variant basically, and then another two hundred of that…”. And so that’s why we offered so many different variants, because we simply couldn’t get the same thing.

Yeah, it makes sense. So, let’s carry on our talk about your new album Holocene. Listening to the 3 new tracks that you have dropped so far, i’ve got a feeling that the new album signifies a new era and a fresh sound for The Ocean with more synth-based compositions, if i may say. Is it like that or is it somehow related to the Phanerozoic series?

It is very much related to Phanerozoic. It’s sort of an appendix to Phanerozoic in a way, but at the same time, it is also a bit of a departure, I agree. I think it’s just a bit of a different focus we set with this record, and that was not something intentional, it was something that kind of just happened.

I wasn’t planning to write another record surfing on that topic wave, but our synth guy, Peter Voigtmann, started sending me ideas in 2020 that were all synth- based, and I felt very inspired by them and I wanted to do things with them. But initially it wasn’t even planned to become the next Ocean record. I just started playing guitar over it and programming drums, and doing things with it, and we started sending things back and forth, and by the end of it, it did very much feel like an Ocean record.

It starts with the music, but, the whole presentation of it in terms of packaging and artwork is also very important for conveying our point and getting across what we are trying to do.

And so that’s why we decided that this is what it’s going to be, but it wasn’t really planned to be that. But yeah, it made sense in the end because it’s kind of continuing where Phanerozoic II left off.

The second half of that record was already going a bit into this more electronic direction, and it is something that we felt resonates really well within all of us in the band and what we personally listen to these days, and what triggers our fancy basically. So it felt natural to explore more into that direction.

That said, it’s not necessarily painting the picture of things to come for us. I do believe this is a bit of an exceptional record in many ways, and it’s one that we really wanted, and I think needed to make, but it doesn’t mean that this is necessarily where we are headed with the band.

There is actually a second record that’s written already, which is a lot more rock, and a bit less electronic, which we are also going to work on or start working on. So, yeah, with that in mind, it’s not a direction, it’s also not a detour, it’s just the next logical record for us that felt right to us. We didn’t really think about this before we started writing it.

It happened kind of out of the blue, and I think this is the case for pretty much all of our records that we are happy with at the end. We were just in a certain place, started writing, and then things started happening, and only after we were done, we really fully understood what this was. That’s kind of part of the mystery of being creative.

You continue to make concept albums. Does this come naturally to you or do you sort of have a plan?

No, most of the time the music happens first, and the music happens very intuitively. It’s not being constructed along a backbone of ideas or a conceptual backbone. The only album that was an exception in that regard was Pelagial. That record was really written with a strict idea in mind of what I wanted to do conceptually, and then the album was written with that in mind. All other records were always the music first, and then after that was done, I started writing lyrics and thinking about vocals, and then I just tend to like to have a sort of red thread that goes through the whole thing.

For me to write lyrics it’s helpful to have that, and it’s also usually just based on personal life experiences and interests that I want to really immerse myself in a certain topic rather than deal with something different for every song. This has just always ended up in these weird concept records.

Ο Robin Staps εξηγεί πώς συνδυάζει τη ζωή του κιθαρίστα των The Ocean αλλά και αυτή του ιθύνων νου της Pelagic Records
Robin Staps of The Ocean Collective talks to DEPART

Although I do still allow myself to roam quite freely within the constraints of that concept, and you see that also on Holocene. It’s only marginally really about what happened during the Holocene epoch. It’s a lot more just a matter for the modern age, addressing certain topics that kept occupying my mind throughout the pandemic basically. So, it’s not just constrained to the geological era and what happened. That was true already for the Phanerozoic records in their entirety as well.

In most of the albums you have composed the whole music by yourself, but in some other occasions was more like a collaborative process. Like in Holocene you mentioned before that Peter also made his mark, giving a more synthy touch.

Holocene is a track that Paul Seidel wrote actually.

Oh, Paul ok.

Yes… 

Peter also had a significant part on this album overall, right?

Oh yeah, of course, yes. Peter became very much involved in the creative process of The Ocean starting with Phanerozoic I. Pretty much before that he was our lighting guy for many years. Then, he kind of joined the band on stage with Phanerozoic I and playing the synths, and on the new record even more. So, a lot of the songs are initially based on his ideas that I then took and “oceanized”, if you want so, and you know, added guitars and layers and my stuff, and lots of brass on this new record.

Actually, we didn’t work with any string instruments other than guitars and bass this time, but lots of brass, lots of trombones, trumpets and tubas even. I added all this stuff, but the initial ideas were Peter’s synth ideas basically, so he became very much involved with the creative space of this band yes.

Where do you draw inspiration from, when composing new music or writing down lyrics?

Writing music for me is something that happens actually very sporadically. It’s not a regular thing in my life. I don’t write when I ‘m on tour, like not at all. I often don’t really touch my guitar when I ‘m not playing shows or touring for long periods of time, because I like to really do things in a project way. When I come home from tour, I really like to focus on the label, and not on writing music or creating music, or playing shows as a musician.

I do love that, and I enjoy going on tour, but when I come home, I want to have a bit of a different focus. We don’t really rehearse much with The Ocean when we are not touring, and at home, of course, sometimes I play guitar, but it’s not that I am sitting down writing music all the time. So, it happens like volcanic eruptions for me.

When I get into the writing zone, then there is a lot that I don’t do anything else for weeks, and then by the end of it there is usually quite a lot of material written. But then for another two years or something like that I may not do anything. So, the Holocene record basically was written in 2020, and now it’s 2023.

We didn’t work with any string instruments other than guitars and bass this time, but lots of brass, lots of trombones, trumpets and tubas even.

It’s already been three years, and since then I haven’t really written much, but like I said there are two records. So, within this period of like six to eight weeks in 2020 I wrote two records. Writing is always very quick for me, but then the process of recording it, getting it mixed and mastered, and album artwork creating… that takes forever.

The writing for me is the quickest and usually the most intuitive thing. I find inspiration in everything that keeps me going during that time. That can be anything from philosophy to just personal life experiences, and emotional states to things I experience in my everyday life, or my friends’ lives around me.

It’s usually very personal things that I then embed into a larger context, and make a bit abstract. I think it’s very important for people to be able to apply meaning to it and find relevance for their own lives. So, you don’t say in a very linear and direct way what something is about, but you embed it into a larger context and leave a lot of room and space for interpretation to the listener and to the viewer.

I’ve always been intrigued by those types of lyrics where you are wondering “what could this actually be about”, and you have your own theory, but you also don’t really know for sure. I think as soon as someone tells you that this is what it’s about…. I don’t even wanna know that a lot of times as a listener, because I feel it might ruin my own approach to things, and that’s why intentionally I try to keep things quite abstract a lot of times.

I see what you mean. Holocene is coming out on May 19th via Pelagic records of course which is arguably a very successful and well-respected label with a solid roster. I know that the team has grown over the years. Obviously, there is you and Paul, and how many others at this time?

There is Paul and me, there is James who is taking care of distribution and logistics. He is the guy being in the warehouse when Paul and I are on tour, making sure everything still works. There is Chris operating our PR. There is Anna who is doing customer support, and a lot of website work and things like that. And then we have two permanent packers, Jack and Laura. So, we are a team of… I believe eight right now. It still blows my mind. Before the pandemic, it was just me and Paul basically, and then we always had one guy in the warehouse.

Now we are a team of eight, and at peak times, like now with The Ocean pre-orders and getting so much to pack, we’re going to have some extra hands, and so we’re going to be up to ten people in the warehouse.

I’ve always liked the double reality of the touring life, waking up in a different city every day and playing shows, and then coming home and just focusing on the label work, going to the warehouse or the office.

So, a lot have happened in the last three years and while it was a shitty time for bands and musicians in general, but it was a good time for record labels, because people were sitting at home, they couldn’t go to festivals and concerts, and a lot of them started collecting vinyl or just had this extra time on their hands to invest in music, and find out about new music.

So, with the label we’ve been very busy throughout the pandemic, and the fact that I also couldn’t tour with The Ocean of course also allowed me to focus on things I otherwise would have never had the time to do. That again was good for the label. So, for us it hasn’t been an idle time at all. It’s been a very busy time.

Is it safe to say that Pelagic Records is a full-time job for you guys right now?

Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s more than that. Together with the band, it’s definitely more than that. Like I said, when I ‘m not on tour, I basically just work on Pelagic stuff. When I am touring it’s challenging, because then the hours of the day are a lot more limited. I mean there is still a lot of time you spend on the bus, which I usually spend working for Pelagic. But, with soundcheck and the touring everyday routine, it’s sometimes challenging to find enough time to put aside.

So, I am starting to learn to delegate a lot of tasks to others, and initially I found it difficult, but now I am really enjoying the environment of having a reliable team at home, and letting go of things that I used to do, and realizing that I don’t need to do everything myself anymore, and that there are other people who are very good at what they do, and who have my back, so that I can actually enjoy playing music and being a touring musician, and don’t just have to think about label stuff.

But I’ve always liked the double reality of the touring life, waking up in a different city every day and playing shows, and then coming home and just focusing on the label work, going to the warehouse or the office.

Exploring the limits of what’s possible in that realm is immensely satisfying for me

I think I really need both to stay interested and involved. I was never the guy that says “I just wanna play guitar in the band”. I’ve always really enjoyed management and organizing things, and like I said, working on artwork and packaging. Exploring the limits of what’s possible in that realm is immensely satisfying for me. I really love the label work as much as I love the band work. Both are very important to me.

So, before we go, I want to thank you again so much for your time and this amazing talk. Is there anything else that you would like to share with us regarding the release of Holocene? I know that you just revealed a new video for Sea of Reeds, a new tour in the making maybe, I don’t know. What else could we be expecting from The Ocean?

There certainly is a new tour in the making for the fall. We are going to take a couple of months off now. We are going to play a couple of festivals over the summer, but we are not going to be touring until the fall again. We really need that break. Like I said, the last six months have been very intense. And we’re going to work on the new record, obviously, playing that live. For us creating a record in the studio and then performing it live are always two very separate processes.

We first make a record, and then we wonder how we’re going to do that live. And this whole process is only slowly starting now. We are starting to work on the show, rehearsing the tracks and all of that. We are all looking forward to that, because we’ve not really played the Phanerozoic I & II tracks to death, and it’s still fun to do that, but with 155 shows I think that we played last year, it got to the point where it’s really time for something new, so we are excited about that.

So that’s it. Thank you once again Robin on behalf of depart.gr. It was a great pleasure having you here. I wish you all the best with your new album.

Thanks man, appreciate it. Hopefully we will be back in Greece as part of this tour in the fall as well, and in the meantime check out our new single which just dropped!

Artist: Morrissey

Album: I Am Not a Dog on a Chain

Label: BMG

Release Date: 20/03/2020

Genre: Indie Rock