The Ocean has created one of the most adventurous concept albums in recent time. Pelagial (Metal Blade) comes out on 30, April and is a progressive metal masterpiece. Ghost Cult caught up with Robin Staps to discuss the creative process of the making the album and plumb the depths of many facets of birthing this long-planned work.
Please tell us about the making of Pelagial?
It’s been a project that kept us busy for most of pretty much the entire the last year. We started recording drums in about a year ago, in January. We recorded the remaining instruments over the course of the year. We were touring so we had to take some time off, and then get back into it. That’s how I like to work and approach albums anyway. It took a year for us to work on it. The final stage was finished over in Sweden this past January. That was a couple of months back, now. And now we are in the middle of press days.
In a sense, every album the band has made has been a conceptual. This concept seems to have been living with you for a while. What made this one stand out and beg you to be made?
Well, it’s kind of an obvious thing if you play in a band called The Ocean, to make an album about the ocean at one points (laughs). I guess it’s something I have been wanting to do for a long time, since late 2008 or early 2009. I didn’t know how to approach it for a while. It’s a huge difference between writing one song that is eight or ten minutes long, to an entire album written for fifty or sixty minutes long. It was all written in one piece. I wanted it to be a continuous progression from beginning to end. That one point being the surface of the sea, with all of the qualities it has: an abundance of light and all of the marine life. The second point would be the deep sea where you have almost no life, complete darkness and a lot of pressure. I wanted to make the music transport that meaning. Not for it to be a detached conceptual idea. The pressure is increasing. That the tempo is decreasing. The heaviness is coming in toward the end of the second half of the album, while the first half would be light. That is what I wanted musically and for a long time I didn’t know how to do it. I have tried a few different things and I had to discard some things I came up with, some things that were pretty cool too. I have been fascinated by the ocean for my entire life, basically. That is why I play in a band with that name. That is why I have ocean creatures tattooed all over my body. That is why I have my diploma thesis on Coral Reef Monitoring. The ocean has always been a central point of my life. Maybe it’s a fascination not everybody shares, but I don’t really care (laughs) because I write about things that interest me, and not what people think I should write about.
Can you elaborate on the two distinct different versions of the album (with and without vocals) and what the genesis of that was?
When I first started thinking about this album, I was not really convinced it needed to have vocals. I didn’t know how I wanted to approach it from a lyrical point of view. I didn’t want to fight about sperm whales fighting with a giant squid in the middle of the ocean. That would be too cheesy for me. We always loved instrumental music. Our first EP, Fogdiver, was instrumental. What also added up to it was that Loic (Rossetti) our vocalist was very ill, after seven months of touring in 2011. After those months of touring his vocal chords had suffered. The doctor he was consulting with told him, that he had to stop screaming or he might risk losing his voice all together. He told us that and he said ‘I’m not sure I can go on tour with you guys’. And then we had this album that was coming together as an instrumental piece at the same time. But then we took a break from touring for the rest of 2012 and Loic recovered and his voice began getting a lot better. I had been thinking back and forth that we had added Loic to the band in the previous two albums and he contributed so much to them. Knowing that Loic can sing almost anything, I thought it would be a loss not to have him on the album. And I wanted to add him, even if only for a few tracks. After taking a break for six months, he was really keen on being on the album. He said his voice had fully recovered and he could come on tour with us again. We decided to give it a try and record some vocals. And we got into this amazing, creative session where by the end we had recorded vocal sketches for all the songs on the album. So we said ‘fair enough’, we will have vocals on the album. At the same time we didn’t want to abandon or give up on the instrumental version of the album. We were very much attached to that version of the album that we had been listening to pretty much for over a year. Not just stripped down, or a secondary version. They both stand equal for me really. They both have aspects to them that are really interesting I think, and that is why we have kept both versions and released them together.
The lyrics on the new album are very unique even compared to your past work. Did the time frame of Loic coming back in affect the concepts for the lyrics?
Actually the lyrics were the biggest trouble of the album. At first I didn’t know what to do with it. I did not want to write about ocean creatures. Eventually I felt the lyrics needed to be analogous to the journey of the record: from the surface to the bottom of the sea. Then I decided it would also be great to base the lyrics on the sub-titles of one of my favorite movies ever, ‘Stalker’ by Andrei Tarkovsky from 1979. Because that movie is also about a journey through zones. It’s basically about three guys traveling through a zone at the center of which is the point where one’s wishes are supposed to come true. The closer to the point of the zone that they get, the less they know what to even wish for once they get there. And once they get there, they realize their subconscious wishes come true, wishes they didn’t even know they were aware of or even had. Wishes that they don’t even know they carry inside of them all the time. In the end it’s just gets darker and darker and the pressure is increasing, and that is just what this music is doing. It’s just perfect. So I started writing lyrics directly from the English sub-titles and that was working out great. And then our publisher came along and said ‘guys, you can’t do that!’. And it was my own stupidity. We’ve done that before when we used some poems for the lyrics for Aeolian. That poet was dead a long time, while Tarkovsky hasn’t been dead for that long, and we would have had to get permission from the Russian movie studio. And they never wrote back. So I started paraphrasing the original Russian dialogue in sub-titles. All those lyrics were written under a bit of pressure. At first I was skeptical whether they were going to be any good. In the end it worked out because sometimes a bit of pressure is good. The lyrics turned out to be very personal and introspective which is cool.
The artwork by Seldon Hunt and the packaging for the deluxe version of the album and film work by Craig Murray all sounds amazing. How personally does the band take collaboration on the design of packaging?
In the case of Craig Murray, of course he heard the record first, before working on it. That was essential. He was basically making the movie to our music, not the other way around like a soundtrack. And then we discussed it, a lot. I start describing our own work, ideas and what we’d like to do with these people fist. We make a basic plan together and then it’s up to them where they want to take it. There is always a lot of back and forth with graphic designers, web designers, merch people who design merch and design shirts. I could put together a novel based on the amount of email correspondence stuff I have gone back and forth with Craig in just the last few months. Of course, they work with our ideas. Craig is a really amazing visual artist and I really trust that guy. He’s great and totally underrated, which is good for us, because we would never be able to afford him. There is a certain moment when you have to let go and let them have at it, since you’ve chosen these people for a reason; so they will come up with something great. We work together until they get the vibe. Essentially it was up to him starting to draft things and we sent stuff back and forth until it was done.
Do you think the taste of heavy music fans is leaning more progressive these days?
Definitely. A lot of stuff has been happening in that regard lately. It’s just a much more open atmosphere for appreciating styles of metal. That’s very cool. I am very happy about that development. Music continually changes shape. Over time the metal scene or the hardcore scene continually changes, which is cool. In Germany that is not really the case, yet. There are a lot of bands that draw big numbers in the US, that are unknown here. It is different from country to country. People are bored with hearing the same hair-metal type bands over and over. Even the more mainstream side of the scene is a lot more open now. Personally, I’m not even listening so much metal these days. I’m into a lot of completely different stuff. Lots of fusion stuff. A lot of dark Jazz stuff, much more than to any metal records. We never conceived our band to be limited to this genre, and its inherent limitations. It is good to see that we are being recognized outside of our genre. That is why a magazine like Spin is premiering our track and publications that are not entirely metal-focused are taking an interest in this band. That is why we have always kept it open, and always tried to work with influences from every side of the musical spectrum.