Metal Heroes: The Ocean
Five Indian metal artists tell us about their biggest heroes, who shaped their music. We track down these iconic artists for their stories
Abhishek Michael, bassist of Bengaluru thrash/death metal band Inner Sanctum, on how The Ocean’s approach to songwriting drew him to their music.
Who would you consider your major influences or heroes in metal?
Robin Staps [frontman and guitarist of experimental metal band The Ocean] and Laura [Pleasants, vocalist/guitarist of sludge band Kylesa], I guess.
What makes them your heroes?
Robin has single handedly made The Ocean what it is today and it’s really great to see what they’ve been able to do and I think Robin is the main reason for that.
Which albums and songs in particular of the Ocean Are your favorite?
Precambrian and Heliocentric. Both albums are really awesome in their own way.
Precambrian is the first album I heard, it’s also an album that shaped my current music taste. It’s heavy, it’s melodic and it’s a nice mix of sludge, hardcore and post metal. Also, it’s just one massively produced album; it’s got over 20 musicians guesting on it I think. I would have to go with “Hadean” and “Neoarchaen” from the first disc and ”Rhyacian” and ”Calymmian” on the Proterozoic disc. The Hadean/Archaean disc is a lot more aggressive and with a lot more hardcore influence whereas Proterozoic is more post metal with some very cool eerie, atmospheric passages.
Heliocentric is quite different from their older albums, but what stands out are the vocals. I think the whole album revolves around the vocal parts, and there isn’t anything wrong with this because this works perfectly on the album. I think this is probably an album that a lot of people can get into and maybe a lot easier to digest than their older stuff. Some of my favorites tracks off this one are, “Firmament” and ”Swallowed by the Earth,” but the last 3 tracks, “Epiphany,” ”The Origin of Species” and “The Origin of God,” close the album perfectly.
Have you ever had the chance to meet or jam or hang out with Staps? If that chance is yet to come, what would be among the first things you’d tell him?
I haven’t met Robin, but we have spoken online before. I’ve never really thought about what I would say to the bands I meet. I’m not much of a fan boy, but it’s always interesting talking to members from bands I like. So maybe just grab some beers, talk music and other random shit I guess, on the rare occasion, maybe get them to cook for me [laughs].
German progressive metal band The Ocean’s Frontman Robin Staps Takes on fan questions and discusses their new album, Pelegial.
While most bands slug it out just to release 10 tracks for a full-length album, Robin Staps, founding member and guitarist of experimental metal band The Ocean, has been writing enough material to release one double album after another since 2004. “We do have an obsession with double albums. I don’t know where that’s stems from. We did Fluxion and Aeolian in 2004 and 2005,” says Staps referring to the earliest double albums that the band released. The Ocean is currently touring Europe, supporting Pelegial, which released in April in two discs – one featuring vocalist Loïc Rossetti, and one completely instrumental. The deep-sea theme on the album gave the band scope to find parallel themes in the human mind. “It’s a very psychological, introspective record. It starts on the surface of your psyche and goes deep down to the abysses of your mind,” says Staps.
What has the response to Pelegial been?
It’s been great. I’ve been getting new messages every day. The record has hit the indie charts at 16 in the US. We’re Number 2 in actual sales so everyone’s going crazy about it. We’ll play the album in its entirety on pretty much this entire tour, but it’s always difficult when you play new material because people want to hear old songs. They usually complain but it hasn’t happened on this tour. Everyone seems to like it [the new songs]. It’s almost frightening [laughs].
This is a question from Indian thrash metal band Inner Sanctum’s bassist Abhishek Michael. The Ocean has always treated shows seriously. If you could organize your own show completely, no without any restrictions, what would your ideal live show be like?
That’s a good question. I’d probably go overboard with the production [laughs]. The venue size would need to be in dimensions that are comfy and cool and that fit our audience. It doesn’t make sense for us to play in a stadium, because we don’t draw that many people. There are still good rooms that hold a thousand capacity crowd that’s just amazing for us.
I’d also be very keen on lighting. Our lighting show is actually triggered by a sequencer, so it’s custom cut to the music and synchronized to our music. But the more that can be attached to it, the better, obviously. Our shows usually rely on video projections.
The new album is coming out in a special limited edition box set DVD with a film, which we’ll be screening on the wall behind where we are [performing]. So a big video screen is always great. We played Roadburn festival and that kind of venue is just perfect – the 2,000 capacity space is pretty massive and they have a huge video screen at the back.
And an orchestra, yes, of course! The thing with orchestras is that we have played with classical musicians before, not only in the studio but also on stage. For Heliocentric, for example, we played with 15 musicians on stage, including a classical string trio, a piano player and a contrabass player, two saxophone players and it was a great experience but it’s very difficult to make that happen within the environment of a rock show. I mean, if you’re Metallica, you have an orchestra pit and the right kind of acoustics. When our drummer hits his snare drum, that’s 100 decibels of noise and when you put a cellist or a viola player next to that, she’ll have a very hard time hearing herself, unless you use pickups or isolate the instruments well. It’s difficult with a rock band, and that’s why we’ve stepped away from playing with a larger lineup except for certain festivals and special occasions. We cannot do that on tour because we can’t realize it in a way that makes sense musically. We played a special show in 2011 in the Museum for Musical Instruments in Berlin and for that show we had a piano player who played on a 16th Century cembalo. We played inside a museum, among the collection of all these old instruments, so it was very interesting.
What is your writing process like?
I started the band, so I’m the one writing all the music, so that’s Heliocentric included. Anthropocentric was the first album where the other guys contributed something. Jona [Nido, guitarist] wrote four songs on Anthropocentric and Louis [Jucker, bassist] wrote songs as well. Songwriting has always been a very intimate process for us. It’s not that when we jam we all add riffs and parts. It’s one person writing a song and playing it to the other guys. It doesn’t essentially have to be me. It can be Jona or anyone else. The basic ideas are usually very well-thought out and composed. It’s pre-production that we do with those [guitars, drums, bass] instruments and then we start recording on that.
I wrote Pelegial all by myself, but that was for different reasons. It was written in one piece, from beginning to end. If you write an album like that, then it’s really a continuous progression of music of six and five-minute songs. Then you need a master plan. All our previous albums were written as new songs and when those songs were written, we put them in a certain order. But it was different with Pelegial. It was just one piece of music. Everyone was fine with that. I took over writing it all by myself, again. That said, our bass player wrote all the bass parts himself. Luc [Hess, drummer] wrote his own drum patterns, which was really different from all the programmed drums I was doing five or six years ago for pre-production. All the songwriting and song structures are done by me, but the actual parts are written by the players.
Your vocalist, Loïc Rossetti was almost unable to record vocals.
That’s right. This album was written to be instrumental at first. When I first had the idea about this album, I didn’t really want to sing about… the lives of deep sea creatures. So I thought maybe this album is working out as an instrumental record. But then at the same time, Loïc started losing his voice. After two years of constant touring, he saw some doctors and they told him ‘You have to stop screaming’ and really take care of his voice. So he wasn’t sure if he could play with us in the future. By that time, we already had the idea of this album, so we thought this was the right time to make an instrumental record. So we progressed with the album but after the six-month break we took in 2012, after our Australian tour, Loïc recovered and his voice got better. Both of us decided that we want to add vocals to the album, because it would have just been a big loss not to have him. He plays a really important role in a live environment, carrying the spark that lights five to the crowd on stage. If we didn’t have that, then something would be missing. So we just recorded vocals for the last two songs of Pelegial. That was quickly done and they sounded great, so we said, ‘All right, let’s try some more.’ We got into a really creative session and it took only a week or 10 days to add vocals to the whole album.
Another consistent part of The Ocean for the last decade has been double albums. Or at least two-part concept albums. How do you write something on that scale?
The reason we first did Fluxion and Aeolian in 2004 and 2005 was that we had so much material and we finally had a record deal that we didn’t want to limit to just one record. Everything was already written, so we said, ‘Okay, let’s make it a double album.’
That was the first time. Then Precambrian in 2007 was very different. There were long, orchestral songs and there were short, heavy, metal-oriented songs. They didn’t really fit together on the same album. So we made two diverse albums. With Heliocentric and Anthropocentric it was just more on the conceptual side. There was much I wanted to write about and the lyrical approach to those albums is slightly different, orbiting around the theme of critiquing Christianity, basically.
What inspired Pelegial?
This album is a journey from the surface to the bottom of the sea, which stretches from the epipelagic to the mesopelagic all the way to the last one which is the hadopelagic, which is 6,000 meters down from the earth. That’s how the music is written. When you think about that, traveling from the surface to the depth of the sea, well, it’s getting darker, it’s getting colder, the pressure is increasing and we want these things to be really heard and felt by the music. So it starts with very lightweight music to reflect swirly surface areas and then it’s getting progressively darker and lower tuning. That’s how I approached the music.
Whenever I was writing riffs, I always knew whether this was going to be a ‘surface’ riff or more like a ‘deep sea’ riff. The lyrical side had to be approached in the same journey, in a bit of a metaphorical way. It’s about a journey from the surface to the depths of something. It’s a very psychological, introspective record. It starts on the surface of your psyche and goes deep down to the abysses of your mind. And it’s all related to the movie Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. This movie is also a journey through zones. It’s the story of three protagonists who travel to the heart of the zone, where their wishes are supposed to come true.
Seems like a heavy subject, though. Don’t you think these subjects get more appreciation when fans are sitting down and attentively listening, rather than experiencing it live?
We always have people coming up to us after the show and talk about the subject [of our music]. I’ve had people come up to me after shows and tell me they discovered Nietzsche through us, which is awesome. Of course there are people that only want to come out to the shows and rock out and bang their heads, and that’s totally fine with us. We kinda do have that nerdy, intellectual offer that we make. It’s just an offer, though, so you can rock and not give a shit about the lyrics or the philosophers involved and the ideas we’re referring to. But if you want to go a little deeper, then hopefully you’ll find something meaningful. For me, that’s always been important. Everyone’s invited to find something meaningful. Or they can rock out, because that’s what I also do sometimes.
Who would you consider your metal heroes and why?
Well, I’m not too fond of the concept of the hero, which means a certain hierarchy, which means you’re looking up to some higher being. That’s a general concern I have. I’ve always avoided thinking of musicians, bands or philosophers as heroes.
I have idols, though, who were my heroes growing up. Everyone has heroes growing up. It’s just that at one point you reach that stage of emancipation, where you realize they’re made out of flesh and bone as well.
When I was growing up and getting interested in music, my first heroes were Guns ‘n Roses [laughs]. That was when I was 12 years old, I think. I was getting really obsessed with them – I knew all the lyrics by heart. After that, I got into the whole hardcore punk/metal scene. Some of the most important bands for me were early Nineties hardcore bands like Unbroken, Groundwork and later, bands like Breach and The Refused when they released The Shape of Punk To Come. Then came Botch and Converge, the more noisy, abrasive side of hardcore.
Two of the most important bands for me were definitely Breach and Neurosis. When I saw Neurosis live, I think in 1996, I was so impressed by their performance, because it was not just the music, which was already really frightening and dark and something I’d never heard myself before, but also their performance, including projections and interludes between songs. Everything was flowing. Their set was like a movie from the beginning to the end. They sucked me into their cosmos, somehow. They shaped my own way of perceiving and writing music and my own aspirations to want to pursue music seriously.
Which albums and songs from those artists are your favorites?
The whole Venom album from Breach, from beginning to end. And when it comes to songs like “Gheea” or “Hell Is My Witness,” they are much more simple in a way that they have a vibe that’s just incredible. With Neurosis, it’s just everything, including the first track, “Lost,” off Enemy Of the Sun that’s really fucking awesome. Then there’s “The Doorway” from Times Of Grace, whenever I hear that first riff, I feel like losing myself. The first time I saw it, people were just completely going mental and hitting each other on the top of their heads and I’d never seen anything like that. It’s hard to reduce the importance of those bands to one or two songs.
Have you ever met any of your heroes, jammed with them, or collaborated?
Yes I have. I am close friends with Tomas Hallbom, the singer in Breach. He actually guested on Pelegial. He contributed guest vocals on two songs and he had already guested on Precambrian. We’ve known each other for years and played four shows together where he was singing for The Ocean in 2006.
That was a really great experience for me. He is really one of my heroes. Back then, I just wrote to him, ‘Dude you were singing in my favorite band. Here’s my project. You may like it.’ He wrote back, ‘Oh this is awesome,’ and I asked if he wanted to record some vocals and then he ended up flying to Berlin and we recorded those vocals in our studio back then. We also played Breach cover songs with The Ocean and that was incredible for me. The original vocalist of that band just singing those lyrics was really fucking awesome.
Now, I’ve just started a new band called The Old Wind. That’s three members of Breach and I play guitars in that band as well. That’s pretty fucking incredible for me too.
This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Rolling Stone India.