It’s rare that a band in the realm of heavy music has much to say outside of the random burst of anger; it’s even rarer for a heavy band to be motivated by philosophy and literature. Enter German post-metal band The Ocean (or The Ocean Collective), a six-man organization that is helping to bring intelligence back to heavy and experimental music. In 2010 the band reached another level of artistic vision by releasing two albums centered on the dissemination of Christianity. Heliocentric, followed by Anthropocentric, were two of the most aggressive, atmospheric and impressive albums of the previous year.
With those records behind them, and a grueling tour that featured a devastating robbery, The Ocean is resting up to bring their religious argument to the states. I managed to get a hold of songwriter/guitarist Robin Staps for an honest and revealing interview about the band, the new records, religion and how some time in Florida during his teens led to both albums.
CRAVEONLINE: What’s going in the world of The Ocean?
ROBIN STAPS: Right now in the world of The Ocean there’s not so much going on except working on parcels and fighting our way through the pre-order mayhem. We released the vinyl version of the new album and when we got back from tour we had to pack parcels up for eight or nine hours a day and then take them to the post office.
CRAVEONLINE: You’re packing them yourselves?
ROBIN STAPS: I’m releasing it on my own label so we only have ourselves and two people helping us.
CRAVEONLINE: Isn’t that what Metal Blade is for?
ROBIN STAPS: We’re only doing the vinyl ourselves on my label Pelagic records. We’re releasing all Ocean records on vinyl and some limited edition box sets with instrumental CDs. I also play in another band called Earthship and I’m putting out our debut album as well. Outside of that we’re just relaxing and recuperating from months on tour sleeping on people’s floors. (Laughs)
CRAVEONLINE: This last tour was the one where you were robbed. Has that soured the band on touring altogether?
ROBIN STAPS: Not really. Touring wasn’t at fault; our own stupidity was at fault with that situation. I guess shit happens sometimes. We love touring and we’re going to continue to tour. When the robbery first happened we had to take a moment to see if we could afford to continue to tour because they basically stole all the fees that we got for the entire run of the tour, which was thirty three shows.
It left us in a place where when we got back from the tour we would have almost no pay out. That’s hard because we all have rent to pay and bills but we decided to forget about it and continue the tour. Then we started the donation program and that really helped a lot. People ordered our album directly from us and donated five bucks, allowing us to generate an income that wasn’t as high as what we lost, but everything helps at this point.
CRAVEONLINE: My old band was never robbed on tour, but sometimes just touring would drive us to ask what we were even out here for.
ROBIN STAPS: You do have those moments, when it’s really uncomfortable just to tour. Normally when you tour in Europe you get hotel rooms but we couldn’t afford that so we toured in a van and slept on people’s floors. If you do that for two or three weeks it’s cool but after two and a half months you get to the point where you’re like “why the fuck are we doing this.” The reward is the show, the hour or so you’re on stage. Its twenty-three hours of bullshit for that one hour.
CRAVEONLINE: So after the relaxing, what’s next? Is The Ocean coming to the states?
ROBIN STAPS: We are definitely coming in the spring, with a big band, but I can’t say who it is right now. It’ll be April 15th through May 15th.
CRAVEONLINE: With the release of Anthropocentric you’ve completed your two album thematic tour de force. How did the idea for this undertaking start?
ROBIN STAPS: Musically it just happened. We came back from a long tour in 2008 and I went to a house in Spain where I usually go to get away from everything. After five days I got bored and asked my girlfriend to bring me my guitars and my Pro-tools. I started writing and wrote the Heliocentric album in three weeks. It wasn’t really planned, it just kind of happened. At the same time our guitarist Jonas, who was at the same house, wrote some music that didn’t really go along with my material, so we decided very early to make it a double album.
CRAVEONLINE: It’s funny; they’re very different records but not complete opposites.
ROBIN STAPS: Looking back on it now, the music isn’t really so different and it’s nice to see that it all fits together into one thing. We didn’t know that at the time and we had also done it before with Precambrian, where we released a double record at one time and we didn’t want to overload people with too much material. We thought we wouldn’t be doing the songs justice by putting them all on one album.
CRAVEONLINE: What about lyrically?
ROBINS STAPS: Lyrically I’d been wanting to an album that is a critique of religion, and particularly Christianity, for a long time. I was exposed to the idea the first time when I was a teenager and living in the United States with a hardcore Baptist, creationist host family. Since then I’d been thinking of these issues quite a lot and studying philosophy it made me think I had to write an album about this. I finally got to with these albums, we had plenty of material and these ideas are very large so you need a lot of space musically and these albums are perfect for that.
CRAVEONLINE: What was it like living with that family? Parts of my family are born again Christians so I know how heavy handed it can get.
ROBIN STAPS: It was a strange time for me. I was sixteen years old and had these very high ideals and expectations about America. I thought it was just going to be awesome and the first couple of months were very difficult for me. I was living in Jacksonville Florida, which is a big city, not like rural America where religion plays a much bigger part and I still couldn’t find things I liked. I was hoping to find a big hardcore scene because I was crazy into hardcore and there was nothing in that town.
CRAVEONLINE: Was the family awful to you?
ROBIN STAPS: Actually it was only my host sister that was such a die-hard creationist. My host dad was really mellow, he was smoking weed and watching soccer games. There was a lot of tension between him and my host sister to and then between my host sister and me. We had these daily discussions that always ended at the same point, this dead-end where argument no longer holds any value. I was so surprised because she wasn’t stupid but rather so obsessed with these ideas that were obviously not her own.
We had these discussions about the dinosaurs never existing and her notion that these mad scientists laid out all these bones to convince people dinosaurs existed. She was so convinced that the Earth was 5,000 years old and created by God in seven days. It was weird because she was a rather sympathetic person. On one hand she was a cool person but on the other hand there was a side of her that I didn’t want to understand at that point.
CRAVEONLINE: So what are your views on Christianity?
ROBIN STAPS: It’s a difficult question to answer in a few sentences. I think the music and the lyrics to these two records can give you a clearer view than anything in an interview but generally I’m not a big fan of religion at all and especially Christianity. I’m not a big fan of the eternal soul because I think it tricks people into believing that life in the present tense isn’t worthwhile. It teaches you have to sacrifice the present tense in order to be rewarded after your death, and nobody really knows what happens. It seems like an approach to life that’s harmful to me because it prevents people from taking life into their own hands and trying to get happy in the present tense.
That’s just one aspect but it’s a very central aspect to Christianity and the Christian religion. Obviously religion has had very disastrous effects on human culture and history. I think after the age of enlightenment, and all the discoveries through science that we’ve made in the last two hundred years, it’s time for humanity to discard the burden of religion on our shoulders. We have explanations now for things we didn’t have explanations of for many thousands of years and that was what made religion relevant. It’s easy to say God did these things when you don’t know why they exist but now we know. It may not be for all of them, but we have explanations for enough that it’s become obvious to me that the explanation of God is really an excuse.
CRAVEONLINE: In the new album there’s a thematic element about The Grand Inquisitor. Who or what is that?
ROBIN STAPS: The Grand Inquisitor is a chapter in the book The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. It’s a long monologue that the character Ivan is holding to his brother Ilyusha, Ivan is an atheist and Ilyushaa is a monk. He’s telling the story of the second coming of Christ in the 16th century. Jesus is coming back to Earth and doing all kinds of funky stuff. Christ is arrested by the catholic inquisition and questioned by the Inquisitor who is essentially telling him that he failed in his mission and that he deprived humanity of salvation by offering them freedom. It’s a complex, 150-page chapter in the novel that has so many truths and tells so many different aspects of approaching religion that I felt it had to be a central part of the new album. There are parts in the songs that make specific reference to that chapter, lots of quotes taken from the chapter as well.
CRAVEONLINE: How do you tackle something so epic and narrow it down to write songs? Musically or lyrically?
ROBIN STAPS: Musically it’s a very vague process that leads to a song. I don’t know if it always has the same starting point, it’s more of an idea that comes from someplace. Lyrically is second to us, I always write the music first. I don’t envision a crucifixion scene and then try to write about it. I write a song and the lyrics are coming second. With lyrics you have to get a scope of the whole subject, and then make a selection of what needs to be addressed. That’s difficult with something this big; you could write twenty-five records on Christianity. There are lots of influences from literature on the album and I decided to let those who have already spoken, and said many crucial and important things on the matter, rather than wrapping it up in my own words. It may be a form of plagiarism but Picasso said bad artists imitate and great artists steal. (Laughs)
If you take something wise and cool out of context, and give it a new meaning by putting into something else like music, and exposing people to it, that’s awesome. When kids come up to me and say they’d never heard of Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky and they got exposed to it through our music, that’s great. That’s why we decided to use so many quotes on Anthropocentric; on Heliocentric those are all lyrics I wrote myself.
CRAVEONLINE: With something this forward thinking, fan reaction can be mixed. How has that been for the band?
ROBIN STAPS: There are people who love us just for that reason, people who hate us and think it’s pretentious and people who just don’t care. It’s great when people really dig into it and I’ve had conversations with kids after the shows that have really read the lyrics and discussed them with me. Then there’s kids that don’t care and that’s fine with me to. If people want to rock out and bang their heads and enjoy the music without worrying about the concepts behind it, that’s fine. When I get into a band I make the effort to really read the lyrics, which is sometimes great or it can ruin the whole thing when you realize the music is great but the band is dumb as fuck. If somebody just wants to rock out then awesome, we’re a rock band at the end of the day. We just offer a little more for those who are interested.