Botanist interview (05/2020)
|Conducted by:||Apothecary (e-mail)|
If I had to point to one artist that changed my perspectives a lot on where black metal would ultimately go stylistically this past decade (besides Oranssi Pazuzu), it would have to be Botanist. From the first time I heard this bizarre one manner, with its environmentalist and ecological focuses and inclusion of hammered dulcimer, of all things, I knew it was something special. I latched on around 2012 or so with the release of III: Doom In Bloom, and haven't let the project off my radar since. Last year I was considerably impressed when Botanist dropped Ecosystem, which went in a noticeably different direction sound wise and came off as more expansive than ever. Eventually I got ahold of Otrebor, the mastermind behind Botanist a little farther down the line, who warmly accepted an interview request. A few months and one very long afternoon later, we entered into a pleasant discussion on Botanist's history, influences, the difficulties of translating the project to the live setting, and more.
Cheers to Otrebor for his time and for putting up with my procrastination with drafting questions.
Che: Greetings and thanks for the interview! First things first: how did you really get started with Botanist? Did it have roots in any earlier bands or projects of yours?
Otrebor: Botanist got started because I wanted to make a metal band with botanical terminology as its lexicon. The original thought was to have it be a 2 man grind band — which is why the first couple albums' songs are short. No one really took me seriously, so I did it all myself.
Che: Did you make it a point at the outstart to sort of distance yourself considerably from prevailing black metal sounds and conventions, or was that something that just happened naturally with time?
Otrebor: I've always been the outsider, and even though I'm a lifelong metal fanatic, it seems that even the result of applying myself to that has yielded being, as ever, the outsider. It wasn't the intention — I did what seemed like I absolutely had to do, and went about it maniacally.
Che: What bands, if any, influenced the development of the Botanist sound? If you could pinpoint any album, without whose existence Botanist wouldn't have ever sounded as it did, what would it be?
Otrebor: There might not be necessarily a big difference between what influenced Botanist and what influenced me to do Botanist, though it's tougher to draw clear lines as to what other bands' sounds make Botanist sound as it does.
For sure the drumming of Neil Peart of Rush, Doc from Vader, and Andy Whale from Bolt Thrower inspired me to make starting to play drums a matter of life and death. I grew up with Iron Maiden, and Somewhere In Time influenced my brain as much as any other album in terms of instrumental compositions that conveyed lyricism — that told a story. Prog / power metal bands like Pagan's Mind or Angra opened my mind to atypical song arrangements. When I heard the early stages of "new" Immortal, black metal finally clicked with me, and the noise / dronescapes that were so damaged and blurry they became like ambient meditation, toeing the line of ugly and beautiful music, or music that was beautiful if one could look past its horrid thorns... that inspired me a lot. Then ambient drone projects like Stars Of The Lid appealed to how I tend to like music that sounds like it's coming from a cathedral, also re-invigorating my love for classical Baroque.
But you want ONE album that influenced Botanist's sound? That would probably have to be Dave Neiman's Early Works. I bought it from the man as he was busking in Tokyo with his hammered dulcimer. It was my introduction to the instrument.
Che: More on the subject of the hammered dulcimer, how exactly did the decision to add it into the songwriting, of all things, come into the picture?
Otrebor: My skills in being able to hit things in time, which transposed exceedingly well to other percussive-based instruments. Since, I've come to realize other assets of mine are a solid innate sense of melody and harmony, and, most of all, the ability to put together compositions into songs, and to do this systematically.
Che: Have you ever considered adding guitars to Botanist? Contrarily, have you ever thought of applying your hammered dulcimer approach to other genres?
Otrebor: Adding guitars would go against the laws of Botanist's nature, which dictate all songs must in some way be about plants, and be based instrumentally on dulcimer and drums. Even using bass guitar, though it sounds good, can kind of bug me sometimes. Bass is allowable. Botanist has published one (two, in fact) albums that are just dulcimer, drums, and voice (I/II: The Suicide Tree / A Rose From The Dead), is about to complete another, and is working on a third that is shooting to also not include bass guitar, though I'm recording bass as a backup in case my scheme doesn't work so well.
To be honest, I've never thought of applying me playing dulcimer to other things. Every blue moon someone will ask me to contribute to a project (I contributed very minimal dulcimer to the outro track on the 2nd Howling Sycamore album, and don't forget my first dulcimer experiment was for another project I'm in that predates Botanist: Ophidian Forest), but as far as my volition goes, my playing dulcimer is for Botanist only. I'm way more interested currently in playing drums in different styles of music, like playing simple drums in a coldwave band.
Che: While Botanist certainly isn't the only guitar-less metal band, the music still feels distinctly heavy and channels the metal ethos. If it isn't just a matter of the inclusion of guitar and related riffs, what do you think really makes a piece of music "metal"?
Otrebor: Most simply, I believe it's intention.
To expand, it's the drums, the distortion, and the vocals. It's the energy that those things convey.
Less mystically, it could also be that Botanist has been sold as a black metal band since its inception — that was the idea ingrained in people's perceptions.
Che: What drove the whole plant/environmentalist theme with Botanist? Do you have any past experience in horticulture or any similar field?
Otrebor: In addition to the answer from your first question, I'm moved by classical botanical art and Romantic poetry and prose.
Che: Black metal seems to have had a long history of taking thematic inspiration from the environment. Do you see Botanist fitting into this larger motif, or deviating from it in a way?
Otrebor: Botanist seems to have taken that subsection of black metal and pushed it to a whole new level, hasn't it? The bit about this is I wasn't trying to do that: be #1, like. I just wanted to make a band with botanical terminology as its lexicon, because I thought those words were amazing and evocative and seemed like they belonged in a metal band. Carcass did it with pathology, I would do it with botany (which spoke to my particular aesthetic sensibilities far, far more). But what happened is it went way beyond what other bands had done as far as nature worship: bands that were gods to me, like early Ulver or Vhernen, or more fantasy-angled bands like Immortal. So many bands would catch my imagination, like Carpathian Forest, but most of these bands would just reference forests, just tangentially talk about Nature. I wanted to go deeper, to have the songs to be about the actual plants, to give them voices, to expand upon a concept and a world that would bring together the scientific, the Romantic, the fantastic, in a way that I could pay tribute to all the bands that inspired me while also fitting into my sense of the aesthetic.
Che: Do you feel any sort of kinship or maintain regular communication with any other black metal bands who take a strong, environmental leaning with their work? Wolves In The Throne Room, perhaps?
Otrebor: Do I feel kinship? For sure.
Am I in contact with any? Not really. It's not by choice, it just is. The only actual contact I've had with any band that has any sort of Nature angle was a short period five years or so ago when I was talking to Roman from Drudkh, who contacted me because I think he discovered VI: Flora and wanted to say thanks. It just so happened I was already a big fan of Drudkh's music, so we connected for a bit. He may also have contacted me to try to get me to sign with Season Of Mist. Coincidentally, my random album shuffle robot has put on Autumn Aurora while I type this. I'm unsure how much that album is about nature, but in the 15-or-whatever years it's been that I've been listening to it, it always makes me imagine it's maybe the best metal soundtrack to Autumn.
Che: Do you feel you've had a significant impact in any way upon black metal's increasing shift toward more experimental, unorthodox territory?
Otrebor: It would be an honor to know that I have, but I can't in fact be that presumptuous. "Unorthodox" black metal started way before I started even playing music, with bands like Ved Buens Ende or In The Woods...
What I do more strongly believe is that all these bands would exist and continue to grow regardless of Botanist's existence. I think all advocacy, be it artistic or political, is as the result of people channeling the Earth's natural immune system. More people are deeply, urgently feeling the need to act out in defense of the natural world, which in fact is most important to the survival of the race speaking out in defense of it.
Che: Have you seen the reception you had hoped for with Botanist? Do you think black metal fans are sort of warming up to more out of the box approaches such as yours, or do you still see a lot of elitism and purism within the community?
Otrebor: Two weeks in from the 2011 release of Botanist's debut, and I felt my hopes for the band had already been eclipsed. I just wanted to make these records and for some label to release it/them, so it could be on a shelf so it could have the chance to be found by some person, somewhere, who could become a fan, so I could have, like, one fan. I wanted the albums to be released also so I could have a copy for myself. I'd release the album(s) myself if I had to. But what happened was unbelievable and for sure had not crossed my previous realm of possibility.
Are black metal fans warming up? I can't say if they were ever warm or not warm. I do know that Botanist has a dedicated fanbase, and that includes people who love black metal, and also people who connect with it because they love not black metal.
Che: The earlier Botanist releases almost seemed to have an air of misanthropy about them, sort of glorifying nature while simultaneously portraying humanity as a blight upon the planet. This seems to have eased up considerably with your later releases. Would you say anything in particular prompted that shift?
Otrebor: I'd say yes and no to your perception. Kinda. The part I'd disagree with makes me point to the lyrical content of The Shape Of He To Come, which is in my mind very misanthropic.
The part that I'd agree with doesn't have a clear cut reason. Partly it's probably because I've already done whatever and want to do something different within the Botanist laws of nature. If Ecosystem's concept inspired this question, that has to do with wanting to make an album with a very basic concept whose depth could go in any direction, as the original intention was to have our then live vocalist Cynoxylon write the lyrics and perform the vocals on the album.
What resonates more, though, is the sense I started getting a few years after Botanist was released to the world. I started seeing that the music was positively impacting people, and that people started to genuinely look to Botanist as a source of emotional support and uplift. Since, I've increasingly seen my role in that "Earth's natural immune system channeling" concept addressed above, even in the modest way that I can offer, but I take it seriously. It, in turn, provides me with emotional support and uplift.
Che: Early on with Botanist you employed the dulcimer in its traditional usage, but I think around IV: Mandragora or so you actually started to electrify it. Sometimes it even sounds like some sort of airy, heavily distorted guitar. Could you elaborate on what brought you to that decision, and how you really went about it?
Otrebor: You're correct in that things developed, but here are some nuances that might change your perception.
By "traditional use", I presume you mean acoustically recorded? Botanist I/II was re-amped through a 50-watt Top Hat amplifier and Marshall cabinet and recorded with a microphone. Now, the distortion is not so great, as at the time I didn't like how cranking up the gain started to detract from the melodies I had grown accustomed to while recording the album. There is only one actual, acoustic bit on that double album, the closing, 40th track, ".....", where the acoustic sound of the dulcimer was left undistorted in order to give contrast to the rest of the album. But then again, that was also distorted to some degree by Jack Shirley adding some dirt to it via analog tape distortion, which he used a LOT of for Botanist III: Doom In Bloom. The only bit on III that isn't distorted is the outro to the first track.
But yes, you are largely correct, stuff started getting practically way distorted with IV: Mandragora. What you're hearing as "electrified" is the signal going direct into a fuzz pedal at max settings. It's been done countless times with guitar, but with a dulcimer, anything was a maiden voyage. It still is to this day, albeit to lessening degrees. It came about because I wanted to do something different. More on the development of amplification in later questions.
Che: Would you ever go back to utilizing the dulcimer acoustically?
Otrebor: It gets used acoustically all the time. Ecosystem has 3 layers of dulcimer per dulcimer performance (there are 4 tracks of individual performances on that album): the DI from the magnetic pickups on the instrument used + that track distorted through my Orange or Blackstar amps that then got whatever more distortion at the hands of mix engineer Fredrik Nordström + each and every performance recorded with a condenser microphone. All three tracks are layered together to varying degrees throughout the album. Mix engineers love the acoustic track because it provides high end that the magnetic pickups chop off. I hate the acoustic track because of all the attack on the hits, so I have the engineers reduce it as much as is practical. The bits where you're hearing the pure acoustic miked tracks, soloed, are the 3-4 song intros on the album, which are not doubled.
I'm also including the dulcimer's contact pickup as being "acoustic". The instruments Botanist has used over its career have had some combination of magnetic and acoustic pickups, and so the albums have featured the same combination. Actually, the only Botanist album that features no acoustic recording at a time is The Shape, whose distorted songs are magnetic pickup, then distorted. However, the interludes are all miked acoustic dulcimer. It's difficult for the non-insider to tell any of this because even the acoustic tracks may get distortion of some kind. You can do anything you want with any track of anything!
Che: While you didn't do it right at the project's beginning, eventually Botanist started performing live. Was it challenging translating what had up to that point been a one man, studio project to the stage?
Otrebor: Oh, this is a can of worms. It was super crazy challenging. And it gets more so in retrospect.
The main, overwhelming thing was to get anything resembling what the records sound like to be represented on stage — to get these instruments that were absolutely designed not to do what Botanist tries to make them do... to do that on stage.
The initial, greatest issue was the acoustic pickups talked about earlier. These are 100% not made for a heavy metal live context, as they become unwitting microphones amplifiers for everything onstage and get run through the amps at whatever distortion those are set at. That realization was a nightmare. Those pickups are fine for a tiny amp with no distortion for like, a cafe where you're playing "Greensleeves" and need a little extra volume, but as soon as you get some dude pounding away on the drums and want to sound badass, you can't get the dulcimers loud enough and the more you turn up the amp, the louder the drums get as they get amplified, too, but worse because now they're distorted, and everything is feeding back on everything else in a hairy fiasco. It was a "Should I quit?" moment for sure.
We basically had to re-invent the wheel. The only way forward was magnetic pickups, but the ones made for guitars were just not an option, as those are made for instruments for 6 consecutive strings, and the dulcimer has up to 38 consecutive strings (108 in total). Exorbitant cost aside, the logistical nightmare of having to wire like dozens of sets of guitar pickups together nixed this idea. Luckily, the guy who designs the dulcimers that Botanist uses, James Jones, was up to the challenge, and for the first time in his very long career, he figured out a way to get magnetic pickups on the instrument. There's a company in Texas that specializes in pickups for pianos, instruments that also have long runs of strings. We got some cut to size, and after a series of much lesser trials, Botanist has been able to properly play live. Still, we can't play any size show, as very small venues with no PA can be a challenge, as the amps still can't get loud enough to properly cover the drums (the amps start feeding back past a certain, pretty modest point. If the drums could be "turned down," it could be ok, but if you have a drummer that plays hard and fast, it doesn't work to ask him to play not so hard but fast, and for sure we are not going onstage with e-drums), so we need to have the amps miked. It all works out fine and we have setup down to about 15-20 minutes for all instruments from lots of trial and error.
And as for the harmonium, we try to tell live engineers to just give up and if it's almost never heard except for on quiet parts, that's fine. That one is a total live lost cause. I keep trying to retire the harmonium from live performances, but bandmates keep convincing me otherwise.
Another bit that is irrevocably a pain in the ass: the goddamned weight of the dulcimer, and its size, and how that's even more so when put in the requisite road/flight case that is necessary when touring. Oh, and also how the thing will go out of tune when there are big temperature changes, which is more likely to happen in small clubs. This isn't weird with stringed instruments, of course, but unlike a 4-6 string instrument that one can tune up in 15 seconds between songs, good luck doing the same with an instrument that has 108.
Che: How did you go about finding the people to perform live with? Were they musicians you had at all worked with previously?
Otrebor: It started with an interview with The Quietus in 2012, where I stated I'd welcome Botanist being a live act if I could find the personnel to play dulcimer. Dylan Neal read it and contacted me. He played dulcimer *and* liked black metal and wanted to be in the band. He told Robert Chiang, the drummer in his old band about it. It happened that Robert was already a fan and wanted to play dulcimer in Botanist really badly. So he bought his own. That was quite a humbling honor. In those days, I was playing drums on stage and the two "OC kids" were on dulcimer. Our first practice was in December, 2012. Since those early live days, Neal and Chiang have long since departed. They left after the 2015 European tour. Since, they have formed the electronica / darkwave band THIEF (it's spelled in all caps because reasons) that had their 2nd album released by Prophecy Productions. They're sincerely a cool band, particularly live, and I'm not saying that because of friend rock.
Since then, Botanist has had many lineup changes and people that have come and gone, and at least one that has come back again and then gone again. The full, exhaustive details would be too long, and at this time Botanist is not a rehearsing band with a full line up. Our live drummer is Daturus, who plays on Setlist 2017 and Ecosystem, and will be on at least one more studio album in the future. That album will feature the debut of Tony Thomas on bass, who we believe we can count on for touring opportunities. Tony and Daturus are both in the band Dawn Of Ouroboros, as well as Sentient Ignition.
Che: Last year, Botanist released Ecosystem. I want to touch upon that album a bit because it seems as though it was the first Botanist one with a full lineup, and the sound thus feels a lot more… expansive in a way. What fueled the transition to a full band?
Otrebor: Botanist started making "Collective" records in 2017, which diverged from the project being a one-man recording situation. There have been three "Collective" albums, the first being The Shape Of He To Come, which featured all members of Botanist from 2013-2016. The second collective is Setlist 2017, which is the live band at the time of the 2017 European tour playing the full set we prepared. Ecosystem is the third "collective". I dropped the "Collective" tag from the title, as I felt it was inelegant. Going forward albums featuring more than just me will simply be named, without any numbering or qualifiers. Originally, I wanted "Ecosystem" to be written and recorded by the exact lineup from the 2017 European tour, but fate dealt another hand, and it ended up being Daturus on drums, and our then live singer and harmonium player, Cynoxylon, doing supplemental vocals only. I performed all the dulcimer and harmonium on the album, as well as doing the bulk of the vocals. How this came about is too boring to go into. The juicier bit is that there's an alternate version of the album with Cynoxylon on vocals. I intend to release this digitally and probably in very small physical quantities this year, inspired by Bandcamp's "no fees" days. Check the Botanist Facebook for upcoming details.
Che: Did the full lineup transition affect the songwriting process in any way? Was it more of a group endeavor, or is the composition process still primarily under your command?
Otrebor: Botanist will always be under my direction, but that direction is often "do what you want, but here are the parameters to work under". For the Ecosystem sessions, I asked Daturus to give me drum tracks. The tracks needed to be 3-5 minutes-ish each. I was inspired by how At The Gates did this on Slaughter Of The Soul, and I imagined that a full-length album on the short side, with 8-12 songs that could all feasibly be performed live in one set by the recording band, was a good idea. Daturus made drums to no music, and I opened up his sessions and started writing to them. After I was done with dulcimers and harmonium, I passed the recordings to Davide Tiso, who performed the bass on Ecosystem. At first what he did was way too funky for the album, and needed wholesale revision. He then made tracks that were much more in the larger realm of what fits to my sense of the project. A few things needed spot revision, but it was excellent. Lyrics and vocals always come last. I recorded Cynoxylon and his version, and I also did mine. On future Botanist albums, both collective and solo, this is largely how things will go.
Che: Do you see this current lineup being maintained in the future, or do you think Botanist will go back to being your sole creation?
Otrebor: Half the lineup on Ecosystem has left, so there's the answer to that question. With a small, boutique band in particular, you're going to have a fair amount of a revolving door with personnel. We have at least one new member, and another in the wings. I view Botanist not so much as a lineup but more as a family. Most of the people who have gone have done so not with drama or friction, but as the result of conflicts with real-life choices and responsibilities. I consider then all as part of the extended family, and some are likely to return in some capacity in the future. Fundamentally, Botanist is me, Otrebor, and can exist with only me. I love working with other people for how their contributions flavor the music, but the bulk of what Botanist produces will largely be solo work, because I compose and record a lot. In the time it takes our full band to make an album, I can make 3 on my own.
Che: Ecosystem continued a trend of Botanist releases without a Roman numerals affixed to their titles. Is there any significance behind this?
Otrebor: The "Collective" records don't have them, nor do the three EPs released, which all use Arabic numerals. All solo full-lengths will bear Roman numerals. Solo EPs will bear Arabic numerals, and joint efforts will be simply titled with no numerals.
Che: What's next on the Botanist menu from here? Touring, new material, whatever else.
Otrebor: There are many irons in the fire. A comprehensive list would be too lengthy. An insider look is given monthly on the Botanist Patreon. There are no pay walls past the minimum $1/month ask, and everyone gets the same thing: a monthly newsletter with very behind-the-scenes information on current work, as well as an unpublished demo or live track. So far there are about two years of content on there to discover.
The iron I can pull a bit out of the fire for you concerns the next album. It will either be another "Collective" or a solo album. Both are practically ready to be pressed, but it's much more likely it will be the "Collective" one (which will be simply titled, and it's too soon to reveal the name yet). What I can tell you is that it's largely from the Ecosystem recording sessions. I asked Daturus to make us twice as much drums as we needed. Half went toEcosystem, and the other half went to this other record, which features Tony Thomas' bass playing, which in itself gives the record way more of a prog feel. Just as significantly, I hired Dan Swanö at Unisound to do the mixing and mastering. As well as Studio Fredman's work on Ecosystem is, Unisound's is better. With time, all will be revealed.
There's also a solo record nearing completion I recorded in 2016 using a tape 8-track. That's all I'll divulge for now.
Che: Are you involved in any bands or projects other than Botanist at the moment? I know you played drums in Lotus Thief for a while?
Otrebor: Bezaelith and I founded Lotus Thief around 2012-2013. I provided initial arrangement for the songs on the first two albums for drums, which Bezaelith applied her compositions and themes to. I quit the band in 2016, right around the time the group was signed to Prophecy Productions.
The only other active project I'm currently in is playing drums for Ophidian Forest, which requires qualification of the term "active". I've been "active" in OF since 2007, but I don't really do anything for it for stretches of years at a time, and I daresay neither does Ophidian Forest. The band has come to be led by the keyboardist/vocalist Amalgamoth, who for sure is the most active member. OF is purely a recording project. The original members didn't even meet until well after 2+ albums were recorded. The project put out its fourth full length, VotIVe, on Code666 in 2018, featuring DCRF from Book Of Sand on guitar, banjo and violin. A fifth full-length is being worked on (again, my parts have been done for years), this time with Tony Thomas on guitar. Like with the shift to VotIVe, Tony's work is going to mark a very definite new chapter in the Ophidian Forest discography.
In all, I've made or been a part of something close to 50 albums and demos to date. If you'd like you can look up Utter Bastard or Ordo Obsidium (which also features Botanist family member Balan, most notably of Palace Of Worms).
Che: Do you have any artistic outlets other than music? Painting, film making, anything else?
Otrebor: Music is my jam.
Che: Considering your environmentalist leanings, I'm inclined to ask and have you weigh in: what do you make of this whole Coronavirus situation? Is nature taking revenge on humanity?
Otrebor: Someone made a 10 list of "things we've learned from quarantine". One of them was "The planet regenerates quickly without human interference."
The Botanist would say, yes, absolutely, mankind reaps as it has sown and revenge is at hand. For years I've been saying in interviews that if mankind doesn't protect the environment, if mankind annoys the planet enough, the planet will rise up and wipe humans away... and then regenerate without them, and even faster thanks to their absence. I think more that in this case humans are paying the price for their stupidity rather than the planet manifesting events to make human existence increasingly difficult. In Coronavirus' case, it seems that it has existed benignly in animals for a long time. We people first recorded the virus' existence in the 1950s, it seems. But mankind and its meddling and poor decisions found a way to transfer that to itself, and we're in a state of acute fear and anxiety because of it.
Isolation can be tough. It feels like the rope to the boat I use to get off my island has snapped, and the boat is at large somewhere. Making Botanist has a lot to do with channeling solitude, but I can't channel The Botanist at all times.
Che: A friend insisted I ask: what is your favorite Grass type Pokémon?
Otrebor: I don't care for Pokémon. I gave it an honest try a couple times in the past decades with handheld video games on the DS and 3DS, and I got bored within a couple hours. Listening to kids talk about what they like about the games confirms that I wasn't missing the point. It just isn't my thing.
Che: Unless you have any questions for me or Metal Storm, that concludes my questions. Thanks again for the interview, and if there's anything you'd like to say to your fans over at MS, go right ahead.
Otrebor: Bandcamp has been doing these days when the site waives the fees that it charges the artists whose product you buy. I was skeptical at first, but it seems that the days are successful. Bandcamp has announced three more days this year, 2020, at the time of this writing. May 1, June 5, and July, and Botanist intends to take appropriate advantage of those days. It may be too short notice to promote through this interview that we will post two unreleased B-sides from the EP1: The Hanging Gardens Of Hell recordings on May 1, but we can promote that we are on target to release a B-sides album of sorts for the July date. We'll sell the recordings digitally on those days, and depending on the reception, produce physical media of it accordingly. News of developments will be posted to the Botanist Facebook and Instagram.
Thanks for the interview. I've been seeing your handle on Metal Storm for years, and I've always been impressed with how the site is put together and its longevity.
Cheers toOtrebor again for a pleasant, enlightening interview and anticipation of future Botanist material to come.
||Posted on 07.05.2020 by Comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable since 2013.|
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