“It wasn’t about coming up with a super smart ass intellectual concept.” – Robin Staps, on the art of writing a concept album.
Robin Staps is in fine fettle. Tonight’s show in Leeds may have not been a sell-out but the devoted few who attended the white hot show at The Cockpit were certainly appreciative of his efforts. A devoted outdoorsman known for his love of Dostoevsky and various highbrow pursuits the Berlin based musician is jubilant upon hearing the news that Germany have dismantled hosts Brazil 7-1 in a dramatic world cup semi-final.
Listening to his music you could be forgiven for thinking Staps a driven intellectual yet while that is unmistakably the case, he is also an affable character keen to converse on many topics not least his band’s ever changing line up and dynamic new album ‘Pelagial’.
“I postponed writing this album for about four or five years because I wasn’t sure how to do this.” Robin confesses when quizzed as to why he choose to write a record comprised of a single track split into sections. “I wanted to write a single piece of music as it is such a great challenge. There is a certain curve of tension that has to run through it. It is a journey from the surface of the ocean to the deep sea. It was a matter of trial and error. It was a very spontaneous record but it took a lot of time to work some ideas out.”
Indeed the concept of the new release, if not the musical direction, has drawn comparisons to the ‘Precambrian’ record in that the nautical themes are being revisited. Robin however sees them as very different entities. “The concept was quite different. The lyrics on ‘Precambrian’ only had a loose theme which metaphorically made reference to the ocean. ‘Pelagial’ almost all the lyrics were written with a very clear concept behind them. The fact this record has an oceanic theme makes it more similar to that than the ‘Centric records but this is definitely an evolution for us. The lyrics, the artwork and the music all had to adhere to this concept.”
Clearly a fan of the concept album Staps surprisingly doesn’t necessarily feel he has to continue producing music in this way. “I have not conceived any ideas of for the next record but I can imagine writing more punk rock record in the sense that it doesn’t all adhere to one theme. It certainly won’t be about space or anything lame like that.” He laughed. “I have a couple of new tracks written but I want to let ‘Pelagial’sink in first”.
‘Pelagial’ is a companion film of the record produced by noted Craig Murray famed for his work on videos for Converge and Nine Inch Nails. Robin explained to Ghost Cult how this collaboration came about. “We were put in contact by a friend of mine in Canada. The diversity of his work is amazing. His work for Converge, Nine Inch Nails and P.G. Lost is all so different, he has an outstanding portfolio. I took him through the concept of ‘Pelagial’ and he loved it. We spent hours Skyping, talking about the concept of the record. I’d tell him my ideas and he would translate my words into images. Language is such a difficult medium to translate into art but Craig really gets the point. It’s hard to say what I liked most about his work. He is working with a lot of subliminal sexual themes in a way that is not geared at being sexually exploitative but purely the aesthetics. I love the work he has done for a couple of songs on the ‘Centric records which we use when we play live. His work has a lot of symmetry, he brings my ideas to the next level.”
A true multimedia savvy artist Staps’ records have been unafraid to discuss weighty subjects like the cooling of the earth’s crust and a scientific indictment of Christianity. Craig Murray may have been instrumental in giving Robin’s work an image but Staps has taken inspiration from many leading thinkers. “Dostoyevsky inspires a lot on the ‘Centrics and there are some quotes from Nietzsche as well as subliminal references to their work. He was the most severe critic of Christianity in the 17th century. On the song ‘The City Of The Sea’ we use a poem by Edgar Alan Poe, so I like to draw from a lot of great thinkers to express my vision. Inspiration is a black box. 6 or 7 years ago I was influenced by several different things than I am now.”
Always pushing into new territories The Ocean remains uncompromising in their approach to art. Looking at the tall tattooed musician you notice Robin’s arms are inked with the image of the sea. Considering Staps had not one but two brushes with death nearly drowning twice when on holiday as a youngster it’s somewhat remarkable to find he is a keen scuba diver. “I took up scuba after that but the fact that I had some traumatic experiences as a child does not colour my perceptions of the sea. I was never afraid to go into the water. I have always been drawn to its magic. I have been scuba diving since I was 14. All the near death experiences gave me was more respect for the sea and be aware of the dangers that lurk there.”
Robin’s love of a challenge is maybe just as well considering the line-up of The Ocean has been more or less in constant flux. The ‘Centrics seemed to signal a period of growth and stability for the group until the departure of guitarist Jonathan Nido and drummer Luc Hess saw to it that the group who had remained a unit for the last four years would again require a shift in personnel. Luckily Australian guitarist Damian Murdoch and War From A Harlots Mouth sticksman Paul Seidel would step into the breach. “The combination of any group of people is unique. You are basically starting from scratch again, having to do things you have done many times before but with new people. It brings new challenges, new characters to adapt to. It can be very rewarding with a new person bringing a breath of fresh air. Human beings that play music are usually very strong characters but when it works it is great. In the final phase of the old line up a couple of the guys (Nic and Hess) didn’t want to tour anymore. The change had to happen for us both. If people don’t want to tour anymore they should not be in this band. The old line up got to a stage when it was not rewarding to either party. The old guys fulfilled their commitments to the end of the tour and the way they announced their departure was very respectful and good for this band.”
Robin talks about togetherness and working as a group but make no mistake this is his project of which he is the creative head, something which he sees almost as a calling. “I couldn’t imagine not being creative and working with this band. I have fought to keep this going and am proud to have done so. We have some great people in the band now and the chemistry is great. I didn’t want to change the line-up but the change had to happen for this band to survive and thrive.”
A student of marine biology and dedicated non believer (in respect of organised religion) Staps remains the affable and friendly gent seen drinking beer and partying on the ‘Collective Oblivion’ DVD, even when explaining passionate the ideas which shaped his world view. There is no tirade against the religious right forthcoming form him, just a careful well considered set of ideas by which he holds dear. “I accept I must have a very existential approach to life. As I have chosen to accept that there is nothing after I die. I believe we must make the most of the limited time on earth we have together rather than put stock in any esoteric after life. Knowing that it is limited for me makes it much more precious. Christians believe that they will be rewarded for good behaviour after they die but if you look at life as being limited it makes it more vital. It’s like the sample on Neurosis ‘Enemy Of The Sun’ record; “How many times will you watch the full moon rise. It is an important step towards self-realisation”
Strongly self-reliant and independent Staps remains gear towards doing things his way. Refusing to relocate from Berlin despite the majority of his bandmates residing a thousand miles away in Switzerland, he has never been one for taking the easy way out.
“I’m not afraid of challenges and confrontation but it is not like I look for stress because I enjoy that. All the challenges I overcome in my personal life flow back into the music. I think the next record will be even more personal than ‘Pelagial’ was. The reason I wrote the ‘Centrics was not because I just wanted to attack religion so went to the library to do some research but because at sixteen I was living with a Baptist creationist host family when I was studying in the U.S. who I had conversations with on a daily basis. It wasn’t about coming up with a super smart ass intellectual concept.”