Although mainly renowned for its electronic scene, if you dive deeper into Berlin’s music community you’ll find a thick bedrock of alternative metal and rock bands acting as an undercurrent to the city’s diverse sounds. Leading this wave of unhinged, merciless guitar music has been Robin Staps, guitar player and songwriter for The Ocean and chief whip at Pelagic Records.
For two decades now, The Ocean have been charting their own direction with a sound that merges together post-rock and melodic hardcore music. Thematically, the band integrates elements of geologic and philosophical evolution, which can be tracked through their LP titles and seen in the band’s aesthetic. With a new LP out, Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic, we caught up with Staps in the Pelagic Records headquarters in Kreuzberg to discuss the band’s history, their relationship with Berlin, and how Nietzsche and historical world-ending events all play a big part in his musical output.
Deep below an indiscriminate industrial warehouse complex in the centre of Berlin lies the headquarters for one of the world’s most influential post-rock labels, Pelagic Records. Like most modern label bases, space is fought over by masses of merchandise, record stocks, and stacks of a newly-released Pelagic branded coffee. It’s here that I meet Robin Staps to find out how a former philosophy student from a small town in Western Germany ended up owning a globally recognised label, and bespoke line of coffee.
I always try to imagine what this music should be embedded into, in terms of context of landscapes and environments.
On first appearance, Staps is your quintessential rock musician, clothed head-to-toe in various merch from bands that he’s signed over the years. Originally moving to Berlin in the late 90s, chasing the same idealistic dream that pulled in countless other artists at the time, Staps was hungry to assemble a band in his own image. During this period of cheap rent and relatively easy living, the music scene in Berlin was diverse, with plenty of spaces available to perform in and rehearse. Nowadays, it’s hard to find an artist who doesn’t champion the time in Berlin around the turn of the century. Giant rehearsal spaces, numerous venues, and even available apartment spaces in Mitte were all part of the norm.
It wasn’t long before Staps met the other members who would make up The Ocean. As it was difficult to tie any one person into the band full-time, Staps decided to have an open door policy when it came to those he played with. This is why they became known as The Ocean Collective. “At one point we would have four or five different people playing guitar in the band, but not at the same time, depending on who had time to do a gig or a short tour,” Staps explains. “That was fun because there was lots of different input, but the more people you have, the more you need to rehearse.” It wasn’t until around 2010 that the band cemented their permanent lineup, with Loïc Rossetti on vocals, Paul Seidel on drums, along with Peter Voigtmann, Mattias Hägerstrand, and David Ramis Åhlfeldt.
The first gig the band played was at a now legendary spot called Eimer on Rosenthaler Platz. “It was one of these illegal places that got closed down in the early 2000s,” Staps elaborates about the former spot. “It had this industrial vibe, a high boiler room with tall ceilings that fit around 50 people. The stage was situated on top of people, like a grid, and we played above the crowd.”
As the band’s sound developed, their reputation started to gather pace thanks to some extensive touring, along with support slots next to heavy-hitting prolific acts, such as ISIS, and The Dillinger Escape Plan. By 2005 they had been picked by the internationally regarded Metal Blade Records, and it was in 2009 that Staps would go on to establish his own label Pelagic Records, looking initially just to re-release the band’s 2004 LP Fluxion. Originally, Staps approached Metal Blade to see if they wanted to re-release the record. Although they passed up on the opportunity, they did put the idea into Staps’ mind to do it himself. “With this I got a taste of releasing records,” Staps explains. “I always found it interesting; not just playing guitar, but also the management side of things. At the beginning in 2009 we did three releases, and then at one point it got more and more.” Nowadays the label is home to the likes of Pg.Lost, God is an Astronaut, and cult-Japanese screamo band Envy. The act that really stands out, though, is the heavy instrumental band Mono, who joined the label in 2014. “They’ve broadened our scope and brought a lot of the post-rock crowd into our space,” Staps says. “They’re a great band that I have a lot of respect for. Super intense live, plus they have a new record coming out next year.”
Pelagic Records, which still lies under the radar for many in Berlin, has helped define a globally recognised sound of heavy, post-rock. “It grew into something people associate a certain sound with, which is really nice,” Staps says proudly. “There’s the really heavy side, as well as the fluffy, ambient sound that is all somehow linked to Pelagic, which is cool.”
One thing noticeably absent on the label, however, is music from Berlin. Aside from The Ocean and stoner-rock outfit Earthship, Pelagic’s representation of its home city is somewhat lacking. “It’s a shame because Berlin has such a vibrant scene. We go to a lot of shows here, and I think I know all the bands in the city, but it hasn’t really happened so far,” explains Staps. “It’s not just a Berlin thing, it’s a German thing. We have also no other German bands. We’re open to it, but it just hasn’t really happened – nothing came our way that was fitting.”
Staps puts the absence of a strong hardcore scene in Berlin down to the very thing that brought him here in the first place. Berlin’s thriving cultural and arts scene means that quite often there’s just too much to see and do. Staps references the northern Swedish town of Umeå for instance, which despite its meager size (only 90,000 in population) gave birth to some of the most important and era-defining metal bands of our time, including Cult of Luna, Meshuggah, and Refused. “The straight-edge scene of the 90s came out of that small town,” Staps continues about Umeå. “No other European city had that kind of density of bands, and that’s maybe because of the isolation. In a huge capital like Berlin there’s just so many distractions, so many other things you can do that it becomes difficult to write music here.” Isolation has been an important element to Staps’ writing process, so much so that he set up a little studio for himself deep in a secret Spanish location, miles away from anyone else. There, next to the sea, he relocates from time-to-time for songwriting and recording sessions along with the other band members.
Being situated in Berlin has been undeniably instrumental to The Ocean’s success, but it still begs the question as to whether or not the city can create a rock-music scene that is on par with its electronic one. Notorious Berlin institutions the band played in their formative years, such as Knaack Klub, and Magnet, are no longer around. Nor is their vaunted early practise and recording space in Kreuzberg where many of the early records were written. “A lot is changing,” Staps agrees, when talking about the city’s evolution. “At the same time, I don’t think that gentrification ends everything, it just moves things around in the city, and there’s always new hubs of interesting stuff happening.”
Even before COVID, many musical institutions were threatened with closure. For up-and-coming bands this will make getting gigs harder than ever. “All of the venues are in danger, but it’s been like that for a long time now,” Staps ellaborates. “I’m hopeful that these places can survive and that new places will pop up. In the electronic music scene you see this with new places opening up. Berlin always offers these nests for people to gather despite the pressure from big capital. Like with Holzmarkt, for instance. You have this village in the heart of the city despite all this capital pressure. Coming home from being on tour I’m always thankful to be back in the city.”
Even though the lineup has persistently changed and the band’s music has matured and mutated, one thing has remained resolute: the commitment to thematic tones and narratives surrounding geologic evolution and mankind’s physical and philosophical place in the universe. If this sounds super deep, then you’re on the right track, because it really is. The new album, Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic, is the next in the series of albums that are built around references to eons in the Earth’s geological evolution, following on from Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic and Precambrian. And its conceptual ideas succinctly inform the band’s artwork, with stylized designs of extinct creatures, fossilized shapes, plants and other long-gone aquatic beasts strewn across various record sleeves, t-shirts, and tour posters.
“I always try to imagine what this music should be embedded into, in terms of context of landscapes and environments,” Staps says, trying to explain his approach to themes. During the writing of the band’s 2007 breakout LP Precambrian, the images of active prehistoric landscapes with flowing streams of lava played heavily on Staps’ mind. “The music was just so archaic and heavy,” he describes. “I also studied geography and was also exposed to these ideas with my studies. It made sense to establish that connection.”
I like to write things that allow people to make up their own minds and interpret,
After Precambrian, the band released Heliocentric and Anthropocentric, albums that focussed more heavily on philosophical and religious themes. It wasn’t until 2018’s immensely well-received LP Phanerozoic I that the band looked again to integrate these geologic themes into their music. “The lyrics don’t just talk about these geologic periods — times about stones, rocks and single cell organisms — the lyrics are very meta and apply to themes on a human level,” Staps explains. “The topics for the Phanerozoic records are actually about eternal recurrence, which is the idea that things happen again, over-and-over in time and space. It’s a very old idea found in the old Indian and Egyptian cultures, and something which Nietzsche wrote a lot about also.”
“If you look at the Phanerozoic period, you see lots of examples of this, things that just happen over and over again like mass extinction events. ‘Permian: The Great Dying’, the last track on our previous album, talks about that for instance. And then in the Cretacious, the second part of the Phrenozoic, we had the impact event that eradicated the dinosaurs… these things kept happening all over again. We had coral reefs 360 millions years ago, then they went extinct and then they resurfaced again a couple of hundred millions years ago. We have a lot of examples of these déjà vu experiences on a very large scale, which inform the overall topic of the record.” The concept of eternal recurrence can also be visualised with the new album’s artwork, which shows concentric circles orbiting each other. It’s also supposed to be an artistic rendition of the extinction event of when the asteroid impacted with the Earth.
The entire scope of the band’s messing can seem a bit daunting, if sometimes bleak, but Staps reassures me that he’s not trying to be overly pontifical. “I like to write things that allow people to make up their own minds and interpret,” he explains. “You can also apply this theme to your own life, with things happening over and over again… that’s a really interesting thing to think about.” For an artist that has had a successful career in releasing records over and over again across two decades, Staps knows a thing or two about the ongoing and enduring nature of things. You don’t need Nietzche to tell you that the rock and roll lifestyle begets recording heavy music, and then touring the shit of said heavy music. With a tour scheduled for next year and a headlining show booked at Festsaal Kreuzberg, it may look as if this time the cyclical nature of being a musician might be put on hold. Although, having played over 90 shows in 2019 that took the band to Australia, across Russia, India, and even Kazakhstan, perhaps The Ocean deserve a brief repreve to let the currents calm for a moment.
You can get a copy of ‘Phanerozoic II: Mesozoic | Cenozoic’ on Bandcamp now.