The Ocean is definitely a much discussed band as about metal music during the last years. After their work “Precambrian” that took really good critiques by the media, Germans are back with another interesting release that is called “Heliocentric”. The founder and main songwriter of the band Robin Staps together with Jonathan Nido talks about the new “child” of the band and other interesting sections around The Ocean and not only.
What happened to The Ocean between the release of “Precambrian” and “Heliocentric”?
Jona: When we released Precambrian we were actually on tour, it was in November 2007. Since then and until March 2009 we have played a ridiculous amount of more than 200 hundred shows between Kiev and Los Angeles. After that we took a break and started recording Heliocentric and Anthropocentric in June 2009. Oh yeah, I have to add that Heliocentric and Anthropocentric were actually written in the summer of 2008, after 4 months of non-stop touring…
Can we still refer to The Ocean as a collective?
Jona: The collective has been relegated to the background a bit recently. What we still call the “collective” is all the classical musicians, graphic designer and guests of all kinds contributing to the albums or the artwork or the visuals…But we have been transforming into a « real » band recently and that affected the work process quite a bit.. Up until recently, Robin was really doing everything and acting probably more like a « chef d’orchestre », but for Heliocentric, although he wrote the whole album on his own, we could interpret his songs the way we felt it and we were totally free to discuss any points or to change certain parts. That’s a first big step compared to the way he was working for the last ten years ! Also, for the first time some other people than him wrote material for The Ocean. On « Anthropocentric » Louis and me wrote some entire songs. Of course, we adapted our songwriting to the aprroach of The Ocean. That’s probably why Robin liked our songs and thought that they fit the band.
Tell us about your new singer. Which are his credentials?
Jona: Loïc is an amazing singer and a really hard-working man. He’s never satisfied with himself and that makes working with him really smooth, because he’s not the typical “this is my vocal line, take it or leave it” kind of singer. He’s never giving up and always wants to give his best. Robin recorded vocals with him in Berlin and I remember him telling me that he had never worked with such a singer before. Loic’s physical condition is amazing, he is able to do 50 takes in a row, at times they were recording for 6-7 hours a day and finished the day with screamed vocals… His ability to cover a really large spectrum of different vocals has opened new doors for us. He is also really creative and gave a lot of input during the recording process. He auditioned with the song “Firmament”, and his vocal lines there are actually what you can hear on the final version now…
Two albums in two years time (after the 2CD “Precambrian” album). Isn’t it too much for one man to compose?
Robin: I have never suffered from a shortage of musical ideas. I have more ideas than I can properly record and turn into songs. The really time-consuming thing is the recording process… after Precambrian I was fed up with making albums for quite a while. But after all the touring we’ve done in 2008, I found lots of motivation again to start anew. That’s one of the exciting things about playing in a band like The Ocean and the permanent oscillation between studio and stage: you bring yourself to your limits, physically and spiritually, you get fed up with what you do for a while, but then you can actually do something completely different for a while… so it’s possible to refill your energy tanks and it never gets boring.
Which is the concept of “Heliocentric”? Talk to us about it.
Robin: The theme of the album is a broad-angled critique of religion and we use the heliocentric turn merely as the frame of the whole concept. The discovery that the earth was not at the center of the universe, as proclaimed by the bible, had tremendous effects on people’s faith and the role and power of the church. The Lyrics of the album start with original text from the bible: the creation of the firmament, according to Genesis (Firmament) and ancient explanations of the movement of celestial bodies in 1 Enoch 72:2-5 (The 1st Commandment of the Luminaries), continues with Copernicus and Galilei, the first propagators of heliocentrism who were not yet in conflict with the church (Ptolemy Was Wrong) and Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake of the Catholic inquisition for being a Heretic (Catharis of a Heretic). Arthur Rimbaud’s criticism of moral law in his essay „Reasons not to believe in God“ and Nietzsche’s rejection of fundamental Christian values has inspired the lyrics to Metaphysics of the Hangman. The album concludes with the greatest achievement in the history of modern science, Darwin’s theory of evolution (The Origin of Species) and ideas inspired by evolution biologist and passionate atheist Richard Dawkins (The Origin of God, Epiphany). I believe that Christianity is probably the last great evil of mankind which eventually will be overcome by man’s ‘egress from its self-inflicted immaturity’, as Kant called it. This process still lingers on, and my point is that in contrary to common thinking, we are still in the historical period of enlightenment until the day that Christianity will be defeated. The fact that Christianity has not yet been overcome by cultures which in every other respect are grounded on trust in the rational mind is fascinating – Islamic cultures, for example, have not been transformed by the process of enlightenment as occidental Christian cultures. Our societies have witnessed the rise and the impact of modern natural science. The sets of values and ideologies brought forth by the process of enlightenment dominate our daily thinking and are the foundations of our societies, yet at the same time we still uphold the superstitions that in no way are conformable with the findings of modern science. Because of the prevailing historical influence and power of the church, our culture is based on the peaceful coexistence of preclusive sets of values. It’s time to break this cycle of incoherence, and ‘Heliocentric’ is our contribution: a reminder of Charles Darwin’s legacy. Darwin’s findings are contradicting the most fundamental Christian teachings. He basically proved that some of the very first words in Genesis are wrong: Man was not created by God, but is the result of a process of evolution that can be traced back to the most simple forms of life. The genes of man and pig are to 98% identical, and radically phrased, our ancestors were cockroaches… This is hard to understand for many believers who take the bible literal. I admire Darwin’s courage, passion and exploratory spirit. He was being ridiculed by his fellow scientist colleagues, and it takes courage to stand up for convictions that were completely at odds with the Zeitgeist… and while some of his theses were wrong, a lot of it still holds true and his ‘Origin of Species’ has basically been ‘The Shape of Science to Come’, so to speak…
Pre-human era’s, the universe, you like talking about huge cosmic phenomena. How does this reflect to your music?
Robin: I think there’s a certain primordial, archaic quality to our music. When I was listening to the songs that ended up on Precambrian, I always had to think of erupting volcanoes and streams of red lava… that’s how I originally got to the album concept, by visualizing the music. The new album is not so much about “cosmic phenomena” as you say. It is a critique of religion in the face of the heliocentric turn. So yes, there is an astronomic aspect to it, which apparently is also reflected in the album artwork, but it’s definitely more of a philosophical theme.
More acoustic, piano, clean vocal sessions. It seems you have softened your music. Was it a conscious decision or it just happened?
Jona: It just happened, but we were conscious of what we wanted and where we wanted to go… There was this unanimous will of having more clean vocals. I wrote some really acoustic songs for “Anthropocentric”, the album that is coming out in the fall. The “ballads” you can find on “Heliocentric”, like “Epiphany”, Catharsis of a Heretic” or the most controversial song of any Ocean song, “Ptolemy was wrong”, are not actually acoustics, they ususally have didn’t come from out of nowhere. “Cryogenian”, the last song on “Proterozoic”, the second half of “Precambrian”, was already a track that consisted only piano and strings… Those tracks show how large our musical spectrum really is, and I know that for Robin it is crucially important to explore these kind of new territories.
How does “Heliocentric” prepare us for “Anthropocentric”? Should they be considered as twin albums or as completely separate? It was yours or the company’s decision to be released separately?
Jona: Conceptually they are directly related, but “Anthropocentric” is particularly challenging the views of creationists and other modern fundamentalists who still believe that the earth is at the center of the universe and no more than 5.000 years old. “Heliocentric” was written in a rather short time frame by Robin and he really had the whole record in mind. I had a few songs written too, but we didn’t want to add them to “Heliocentric”, as that album appeared ready and compact and good as it was, we didn’t want to add anything there. So, apparently we just had too much material that we were happy with and decided to make it 2 albums.
Robin: We decided to release them separately because we didn’t want to overstrain people. “Precambrian” was almost 90 minutes of complex song material, it was a bit too much at once and I had the feeling that some people were giving up too early, not giving the album enough time to really dig it and get it. So this time I wanted to offer something that is still complex, musically and conceptually, but not too much at once. It seemed like a wiser idea to release the 2 albums separately.
Should we expect another gorgeous artwork, as its predecessor album’s? How does the artwork add or complete the whole concept? Tell us about its creative procedure.
Robin: Of course. The album artwork and packaging are reflecting the Heliocentric-theme, the idea that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the center of our planetary system (if not the universe). The European version comes with 3 revolving PVC-dials in different sizes that are attached to the digipak cover with a screw: the inner dial shows the sun. The second dial shows the orbits of the planet, the outer dial shows the zodiacs. For the ‘Anthropocentric’ album, the artwork is basically the same – only that the center dial shows an image of earth and man, instead of the sun, reflecting the contradictory idea which creationists still support… The dials are transparent, so you can see the background through, a starry night sky, on which a star-chart is printed in UV gloss varnish… the US version comes without these dials. There is a vinyl box version available through my own label Pelagic Records, with the same artwork and the dials and a silver-foiled box that can hold both the “Heliocentric” and the “Anthropocentric” gatefolds… also, there is a limited CD box version with additional artwork and an extra instrumental version of the album. Check www.pelagic-records.com/shop
What are your influences for creating these albums, musically and in a non-music level?
Robin: The one album I have listened to while writing “Heliocentric” was Trent Reznor’s “Ghosts” 2x album at that time. It took a while until the subtle beauty of this album unfolded in front of my ears, but looking back at it now it was the most dominant influence at the time of writing. If you can’t hear that when you listen to Heliocentric, well that’s good. Inspiration is a mysterious process and if influences are too obviously audible in your sound, then it is not a matter of influence anymore but a matter of copying or stealing. It works like a black box, even you as the artist don’t know what’s really going on inside. You have a number of influences, past and present, that manipulate your songwriting, although you may not even be conscious of that. What comes out of the black box is hopefully something new and rather far away from the original influences, athough certain details may allow to draw conclusions…
Jona: I was together with Robin in a nice big house by the sea when he wrote “Heliocentric” and I was writing some tunes for “Anthropocentric” at the same time… at that period I was personally totally into The Mars Volta… but same here, you’ll barely realize that while listening to “Anthropocentric”.
You toured with At the Gates. How did that happen and what was the experience you earned by touring with such a legendary band?
Jona: We never toured with them. We supported them on their last ever show in Athens. It was a great honour, first of all because it’s a legendary band and secondly because it was the last At the Gates show ever. It was the first time I met those guys, and sharing the stage and talking to Thomas after the show really impressed me. When I was younger, I was totally into that Swedish death melodic scene, and I was so sad because at that time, the band was already split up and I would never have thought that I would ever play support show for them, especially such an important one…
What are your future plans for the promotion of the new album? A tour, festivals?
Jona: We’re gonna tour from May 23rd until June 18th in the Baltic states, in Finland with Callisto, then Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Serbia… In the summer we’ll do a short Spanish tour and then we’ll play A festival in Portugal, Sicilly, Latvia and Belarus. In November, we’ll be going over to the US.
You are a German band using two Greek names for your albums. A German magazine “Focus” used a Greek cultural symbol, Aphrodite of Melos, to give Greece the finger. How do you comment this, as a citizen and as an artist? Are you into politics?
Robin: I didn’t actually see that magazine cover but that’s kinda funny I think… A lot of people here don’t understand why German tax payers should pay to save Greek asses, simple as that – and especially, why Germany is paying more economic aid than any other European country. A lot of people think that the bankruptcy of the Greek state is not really “our” problem. This kind of thinking already implicates an idea of national identit or unity, which I think is a misconception, because the true division between people lies not in belonging to one capitalist state or another, but in economic differences and access to means of production. Also, apparently, most of those people don’t see that the Euro-zone is a complex entity of its own and that changes or crashes in one region essentially effect other regions via a complicated network of relations.
Has life in Germany changed because of the economical crisis? Has it affected your life as a person, an artist, a professional?
Robin: Everything is getting more difficult, yes, but I can’t say that my personal life has been affected so much. I think the real effects will be felt years later, because now there is no money for things that would be easy and cheap to fix now, but will become more expensive and complicated later. You see, it’s like repairing streets in tropic developing countries: if you only do repairs every 2 years, you are facing HUGE damages, thus repairs will be expensive. If you do repaits every 2 months, you are facing minor expenses, as the work that needs to be done is rather small. But once even the money for those little repairs is not at hand, everything will fall apart…
What’s your opinion about today’s metal scene? Are there any bands/albums in particular that you think they can pave the way?
Jona: I think the metal scene is kind of boring today… Most bands stick to one formula or one genre and there’s no real challenges aside from who’s gonna be the fastest, the most technical or the ones who have the ugliest merch to sell… Every single metal sub-genre has its own rules, dress code and community and that really sucks I think. There are only few bands to me who have this capacity to gather people with a genuine interest in music rather than fashion or trends… Bands that I think are trying to do something different would be Tool, Meshuggah, Behemoth, Mastodon, Converge, for example…
Will we see you soon in our country? The last words are yours.
Robin: Hopefully so! Nothing definite is planned as of now but I really hope we will be back in Greece before the end of the year. Thanks for the interview!
Interview by: Aris Deligiannidis.