Robin Staps On The Extinction And Resurgence Of Life In The Ocean's 'Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic'

Berlin-based Progressive Metal music collective, The Ocean, recently released their eighth studio album via Metalblade, specifically a follow up to their previous album, with Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic. 

If you've never encountered the music created by The Ocean before, you're in for a powerful sonic experience, but there's also the wider, and very interesting context of their unorthodox subject matter, taking in vast swaths of space and time on planet Earth. You don't have to understand the history of their previous albums to enjoy this one, but if you'd like a solid overview, check out their website here.

For Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic, though, it is useful to know that one of the themes of the album, starting with lead track "Jurassic Cretaceous ", is the destruction of the dinosaurs and the eventual slow process of life recovering from that destruction. Actually the band couldn't have picked a better year for releasing this one, it seems!

The Ocean's Robin Staps previously appeared on our Tower Instagram Live show, and you can still check that video out here, but he also spoke with Tower's PULSE! below about this more than epic album and what such big-picture thinking in music entails. He agrees that The Ocean are no minimalists, but if you've been with them for the long haul, you might be surprised by the second half of this new album where they make a great effort to strip back their trademark overloading of gorgeous sound.

Hannah Means-Shannon: When I look at your new release, it seems really big, including the concepts and the layering of sound that the band uses. How did you start building such big machines when it comes to music? Was there a time when you used to be more minimalist?

Robin Staps: I think if that point ever existed, it must be very far back in time. I’m not sure I’ve ever released anything where it would be appropriate to call it a minimalist work of art. I think I’ve always had a tendency to overload my compositions with information, and it’s a challenge to restrict that and to focus on the essentials. I think it’s been going a bit more in this direction lately in comparison to our earlier works. We have actually removed layers on these recordings, and I think that’s part of growing up as a musician, to confidently make choices. You always have multiple choices, and a lot of times there are a lot of right choices, but you still have to choose.

We were in that situation with the mix of this record where there were lots of part with great instruments recorded, and they all worked on their own, but there were too many to take part. We had to make choices, like “Okay, this is going to be the cello part, and there are not going to be any vocals even though we have a vocal line that works.” We had already thinned out the tracks a little on Phanerozoic I. So it the most minimalist ever, but obviously minimalism is not what The Ocean is all about.

The first single we released from this album, “Jurassic Cretaceous”,  is a good example because it is the most complicated track I ever wrote, I think. It was one that was never really finished but I always wanted to go back to the track and try again. I worked on it over the course of four summers. Eventually, two years ago, I managed to finish it in a way that I was satisfied with, and I’m glad I did. I think it’s an all-encompassing The Ocean track. It sums up what this band is about and what this record is about in the best possible way.

HMS: Is knowing when a song is finished a gut instinct, or something you can track in a particular way?

RS: It depends on the material, really. There are some songs where it’s completely clear. That can happen after 3 minutes. We don’t always have to write 13 ½ minute tracks, though we do. Most tracks are in the 4 to 6 minute realm. It really depends on the song. In the case of this track, it didn’t reach that point. There were also endless possibilities of arrangement that all worked. We had to listen to it over and over again to see if it was really that good, or if anything was redundant. Those are the things that take a little more time, because once you’re done that’s final. And that’s a terrible feeling, to have regrets about things that you have been debating with your bandmates, and to feel that you made the wrong choice. That’s fucking horrible.

HMS: Do you change things in live performance that annoy you in the recorded version?

RS: We have done that. We have sometimes taken the opportunity to play live versions that are slightly different from the record, but more with really old material. With the last three records, we didn’t put ourselves in that situation again, and were able to pull it all off live. But with older material, there are some songs that are really great, but one moment that was bugging me, so yes, we would get rid of it entirely or change these things. Why not? It’s also more interesting from the crowd’s perspective if there’s an improvisational moment.

HMS: Are there conditions of live performance that you like to create that you feel are important to experiencing the music, or is the whole world of the music just in the sound aspect? Do you use a lot of audio visual?

RS: There are definitely a lot of conditions that are extremely important to experiencing the music. You can put the best band in the worst timeslot or most wrong timeslot at a festival, and you can feel that. It just feels wrong. We’ve had that experience a couple of times, playing daytime sets. We played a festival in Finland last year in early afternoon with the sun in our faces. It was just so wrong. We require darkness for our music to work.

HMS: [Laughs] I think that’s a good headline for this article. Very goth.

RS: Yes, it’s a requirement. I think our management is now conveying this to festivals. Give us a smaller stage if it’s at night. If it’s an open-air festival, that’s totally fine, but there are multiple stages. I don’t want to play the main stage at noon. The darkness is essential because we have a lot of moody lighting. We need a black backdrop where you see silhouettes in the dark. We have fog and columns of smoke moving across the stage, and lots of backlighting. I’ve always admired bands who put a lot of thought into that and don’t leave anything up to chance with their live show.

Even in the very early days of the band, we gave attention to that, and even at squat shows in Berlin, we were that band that brought out all the shitty floorlights, that had been stepped on, and looked really bad but really helped with the show. In these small venues, there are often terrible lighting set ups. You don’t really need a lot of gear, just a couple of lights in the right places to create this ambience. A lot of the Punk bands we played with back then would laugh at us about it, but when we started playing, they got it.

HMS: That’s a great discussion, thank you. It seems like if you’re going to handle more abstract ideas in your music, it seems like the more concrete things need to be there in live performance, like visuals.

RS: Visuals are a tricky thing. We had a film that came out with Pelagial in 2013 that we always played the entire film when live touring. It was cool. I loved playing that record live, but that also limits you because you have no chance of removing anything or changing the setlist.

HMS: It’s like being in the film.

RS: Exactly, you’re part of that film. Also, there’s more attention on the film than the band, which is fine, but it’s just a different thing. When you have an epic screen, people are not looking at you, they are looking over you. It’s like being in an orchestra pit, hidden.

HMS: The more sophisticated the screen technology is getting at large venues, the more that’s happening for bands. The bands look tiny compared to the visuals being put up. Have any of your songs ever been used in TV or films?

RS: We are actually collaborating with a filmmaker in Latvia who is making a movie, and one of our tracks will be the soundtrack to that movie. We will also use parts of the film to make a video for the song once it’s out. But the film is only being shot in November. It’s a bleak, psycho-horror film, and they want to wait until the trees have no leaves on them to start shooting. Unfortunately, that didn’t coincide well with our release schedule, but I’m looking forward to it.


HMS: I think you worked on all the tracks on this album in one space of time, but can you tell us a little bit about writing and recording a specific track, like “Jurassic Cretaceous”?

RS: It’s kind of the core track of the Mezozoic half of the record, which is the first half of the record. There is this layer of paleontology that runs through the previous record, and after the “Permian”, which was the last track of Phanerozoic I, life was almost completely wiped out on Earth. It was a massive extinction event called “The Great Dying”. During the following first era of the Mezozoic, life slowly recovered.

A lot of evolution was happening then, and it was also known as the age of the dinosaurs. And, as we all know, at the end of the Mezozoic, a massive asteroid hit Earth, 10 kilometers in diameter, and caused a massive super-sonic shockwave and forest fires that lasted for months, eclipsing the light of the sun. That caused the temperatures on Earth to plummet and again, most of life was wiped out on Earth. It was the third or the fourth time this had happened in Earth’s history.

The lyrics for that track are approaching the same kind of scenario from the human level. When you do that, what comes to mind instantly is Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia movie, an impending planetary collision theme. That’s something that we’ve taken up with this record as a whole, not only on this track. How do we deal, as individuals, with the certainty that the end is night? That’s what the movie is talking about. The lyrics are not as much about dinosaurs, though I would have loved that. There’s the paleontology level, then there’s the meta level, always from the human perspective. We are imagining things that have happened in Earth’s history, but always in the present tense, on both these records.

HMS: It’s more like a human spectator interpreting the events and the music? I think that’s preferable to presenting an omniscient perspective, a god-like one.

RS: It’s more like being in the middle of it, which requires a degree of abstraction. There are also personal experiences woven into the fabric of the record and these bigger themes. That’s why I don’t like to talk about lyrics too directly because it’s very important for people to be able to come up with their own interpretations and conclusions for them to have relevance for their own lives. I like lyrics that get you wondering and thinking about things. That’s what we’re doing with a lot of the lyrics.

If you look at only the respective era in Earth’s history, you will sometimes find yourself wondering what the relationship is to the lyrics on that track. Sometimes it’s very obvious and very clear and sometimes it’s a lot less clear, but I kind of like to keep it like that.

HMS: So, sometimes the lyrics don’t illustrate the music, but stand alongside them and create a different interpretation when you look at them together?

RS: Yes, in a way. Or you can look at it as two separate but connected threads, or a double-helix. I only noticed this recently, but it was similar with Pelagial, which was a journey from the surface to the depths of the sea. And we wanted to illustrate that by the music getting progressively heavier, and darker, and lower in tuning, approaching the deep sea areas. That’s one thread of the double-helix. Then, on the lyric level, it was a psychological journey into the depths of the human mind.

HMS: That’s a great idea.

RS: It was based on the Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker movie, with three people traveling to the center of a zone where their wishes come true. Only to realize that they don’t even really know what to wish for. The movie is the basis for the psychological aspect of the song. So there are two threads that are related, but each is separate on its own also. 

 HMS: You’ve partly answered something that I was going to ask, which is: Do you think that it’s important to use these ideas of geology and paleontology as an allegory for human experience, or do you prefer that people encounter and experience these elemental things in a more direct or intellectual way?

For instance, with the comet hitting Earth and destroying all life. Someone might easily feel that a breakup that happened to them felt like that. They could have seen it coming, but they didn’t want to. Similar things had happened to them in the past and been devastating, but they put themselves in that situation again and now they don’t know if there’s going to be anything to life after that. Is that the sort of emotional connection that you’d like audiences to have? Or would you like them to encounter the idea of the vastness of space and time? Because that could also be valuable.

RS: I don’t think you have to make that choice. I think both are legit and beautiful. I think the example you mentioned makes a lot of sense and that is actually woven into the lyrics a fair bit. And the next track, “Paleocene”, after “Cretaceous”, is a track that starts with the lyrics, “Broken bones onwards”, so it’s about getting back up on your feet after the big blow up. Of course, from the human perspective, the dinos that died didn’t get back up on their feet.

HMS: But life did, I suppose. Not immediately or triumphantly, but it did.

RS: Eventually, after millions of years. The second half of the record thins out and gets more sparse, a bit more minimalist, actually, in comparison to the first half, which is very full. There is this element of open space coming in, on the musical end, as well. That’s something we wanted to do with the Cenezoic half, and it gets colder, somehow, also alluding to the Pleistocene and Holocene Ice Ages. You can hear that in the music, somehow, with a colder vibe. It’s less saturated, and less warm, and that was all intentional.

We try to pick up in the lyrics what we are doing in the music, but in the music, too, we try to pick up on the concepts that are outlined. It’s a mutual process of adaptation throughout the writing process.

HMS: [Laughs] That sounds very appropriate for this subject matter.

How many people did you need performing to get this music recorded, and how many do you need to perform it live?

RS: We have six members in the band, and those are the members we need to create everything we do live. There are only a few instruments on this album that would be sampled live, because we can’t bring the players with us. But we’ve also done that in the past. We’ve had a cello player on past tours. But we can easily pull that off in a performance by having that as a backing-track. Of course, it’s nice to have everything played live, but that has to be feasible and you have to fit on stage. With six people, that’s already a lot of stuff on stage.

On some previous records, there were more orchestral elements. Here there are string instruments, which are usually solo instruments. We don’t need a full orchestra to perform them. I think I’ve moved away from that. There was a time where I saw the challenge in writing super-epic tracks with big orchestrations, but I find it a bigger challenge, now, to create that same sonic impression with a limited number of players. I think we manage to do that pretty well.

What’s important there is our synth guy, Peter, who only joined the tour with Phanerozoic I. He really brought a new level to things. The sounds aren’t just add-ons, but they color the tone of the guitars. He’s playing the whole time, along with us. That has brought a richness to our live sound and also to our albums that wasn’t really there before. It also makes a lot of stuff that we needed before obsolete, like extra string players or three, four, or five guitar players.

As I said, during the mix, we were more in the position of getting rid of things, which I think is good.

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