Interview by Aaron Carnes for SF Weekly, October 30, 2020. Original posting here.

Botanist Proves the Dulcimer is a Metal Instrument

'Photosynthesis' is the latest album from San Francisco musician Otrebor.

It’s not often that a musician gets a science education while writing an album. Then again, not all musicians care as passionately about plant life as Otrebor — the drum- and dulcimer-shredding multi-instrumentalist behind San Francisco black metal project Botanist.

All of Botanist’s experimental metal music relates to botany in some way. Otrebor’s latest effort — the 9th Botanist album, Photosynthesis, out today — is literally about the process plants use to convert sunlight into energy. Figuratively, however, the record is a meditation on the interconnectedness of all life on this fragile, pale blue dot.

It’s a surprisingly emotional listen.

It was while writing lyrics for his new album that Otrebor learned the reason plants appear green to the human eye. Their emerald hue is due as much to all the colors they absorb as it is to the one color they don’t: green. Where some might have glossed over this bit of trivia, it spurred Otrebor to philosophical rumination. 

“It caused a chain reaction in my head of starting to consider what is it that we actually look at,” Otrebor muses. “If we could see things somehow, but not with our eyes, would they look different? Is there an objective way to look at them? Or is everything you see purely subjective?”

In the 10 years that Otrebor has been making music as Botanist, he’s always maintained an interest in the natural world. Initially, he viewed Botanist as a pet project — just a way he could express his ideas through an eclectic blend of metal subgenres. He was fascinated with 18th century botanical art — which, when you consider it, is pretty metal — and he enjoyed analyzing the relationship between mankind and nature.

The result was a droning, Druidic sound — a plaintive, prehistoric lamentation that seems to implore humanity to rethink its toxic relationship with Mother Earth. It’s not that he intended to make a political statement; that’s just the way the music came out. But, as Botanist built a fanbase and Otrebor saw how listeners interpreted the project, he embraced his role as champion of the environment.

“I started to see that my music was impacting people in a positive way, inspiring them to make positive changes in their lives,” Otrebor says. “It could be as simple as picking up gardening.”

Otrebor starts every track with a rhythmic roadmap before writing the music around the percussion. “Drum tracks are my storyboards. That’s how I even write my own stuff,” Otrebor says. “Most of the time, I storyboard everything out on the drums, and then write music to it.”  

It makes sense. Otrebor plays the drums, and he was even the live band’s drummer for a number of years. These days he’s graduated to the hammered dulcimer, a traditional folk stringed instrument that’s played with mallets striking the strings. The sight of the instrument will bring to mind minstrels from the Renaissance era — not necessarily a metal band. To turn the hammer dulcimer into an electric instrument, Otrebor found an obscure company in Texas that makes custom pickups for church pianos and they built a set of custom dulcimer pickups for him. 

He always makes a show of his instrument when they play live, taking it out, and letting people get a good look at it. Though it may seem foreign and novel to fans, as a drummer it’s the most intuitive melodic instrument for him to play. Since he hits the strings with mallets, he gets to continue thinking rhythmically. 

“It’s something to look at for sure. It’s like a huge washboard with all these strings on it,” Otrebor says. 

Before the pandemic, Otrebor planned to release Photosynthesis accompanied by a tour where he’d play the album front to back, so people could hear exactly what was on this record before buying it. With live music on hold, he decided to just get it out there. When touring is an option again, he’s going to create a mixed set that is partPhotosynthesis and part Ecosystem, since that tour was cut short too. 

In the 10 years he’s been writing and performing as Botanist, he’s managed to take what started as a weird idea and turn into a musical project with a strong point of view that might even help shift the narrative around environmentalism, or at least to challenge the notion that humans are the center of the universe. 

“While I’m not necessarily an activist, my heart does speak for the beauty and importance of the natural world. I do believe that there’s some sort of force that causes everything to be. And whatever that force is, the best way we can understand it is by looking at the natural world,” Otrebor says. What Botanist is about is appreciating all these things and then appreciating our place within that, urging people to have more of a humble attitude."

back to top