It doesn’t happen often. But sometimes a band creates musical art of such originality that it redefines sonic, political, and philosophical possibilities. That expresses an idea so powerfully, and so beautifully, it stops you dead in your tracks.
Everyone cherishes those moments of discovery. The cold thrill that makes your hair stand on end. The flower of recognition that opens in your mind. These are the moments that add richness to life, and make it worth living when you feel we’re all drowning in cynicism. Like any event that heralds change, you remember where you were when it happened, who you were with, what you were doing.
San Francisco “green metal” act Botanist’s mix of Burzum-esque drums, guttural whispers and growls, and resonant dulcimer awoke something in me. As I absorbed IV: Mandragora—the fourth in a series of concept albums—I searched online to find out more about the band. At the time of that album’s release, there wasn’t that much detailed information available. A project of a guy named Otrebor, a multi-instrumentalist writing, performing, and recording in a home studio. I obtained and listened to all four of his albums, each subsequent record offering a clearer and better-focused window on an imagined “Verdant Realm”—a post-apocalyptic world where nature has taken its revenge on mankind, consuming it entirely; a world populated by spirits good and evil and a lone, half-crazed scientist.
With interest in Botanist steadily building, Otrebor released the next chapter of the Verdant Realm story—VI: Flora—late last year, and added supporting musicians to perform his music live, a lineup that is now permanently a part of the writing, recording, and performance of Botanist’s music.
An entrancing blend of influences ranging from classical music to post-rock and folk through to black and black ambient, VI: Flora met with effusive critical acclaim from not only the gatekeepers and tastemakers of metal, but in a variety of mainstream media and music outlets.
Clips of Botanist performing as a group began appearing on YouTube. The music itself was changing—evolving, like all living things do—into something else, with themes more clearly and successfully articulated.
I was fortunate enough to talk with Otrebor about his journey so far and what lies ahead in the Botanist story.
BNU: First off, congratulations on the new album. You’ve had steady stream of praise since it was released with many critics calling it a “breakthrough” and “album of the year”. What has changed for you and for Botanist since the album came out? Do you find that recognition adds pressure or a weight of expectation when it comes to writing new material?
Otrebor: Maybe. Or maybe it’s that there’s only so much focus and attention that one can muster, and some of that gets diverted from the self-centered luxury of having a one-man band to the logistics and organization needed to manage a full, performing band.
Anyway, the timing works out well. The one-man, recording at home in the “Verdant Realm” days have been done, and probably to as much as needs to have been done. There’s still some back material that exists from that era of Botanist (a bunch of EPs and of course album V). The stuff we’ve pitched Flenser for next release would, if accepted, be something of a stop-gap between VI and VII, and would be some of the old (one of the better EPs from the one-man period), and an EP featuring the first-ever recordings of Botanist as a band.
Demos will still be done at home and in the practice studio, but from now on we intend to turn a corner into a new era for the band and record in recording studios under the care of professionals. My intention is to demo album VII entirely at home, have the boys learn it, and then re-record the lot as a band with fuller production.
VII may be the last album for a while I intend to write by myself, partly because the concept of VII is very important to me, something that’s been in my mind and heart for years, and partly because if Botanist is going to be a band, it needs to be allowed to be a band. However, the basic framework, concepts, and approaches to full-length Botanist albums through album X have been in place for years—it will be more a question of how the details of the compositions within those over-arching concepts will be created, and who will contribute to each one.
Incidentally, I’d like to point out that the first two to three songs on VI were recorded before even I/II was released. I’m thankful for the accolades and attention the album has received, but it’s amusing (although understandable) that some people think there’s any kind of bandwagon-jumping going on. Simply, the arc of Botanist releases has been planned out, and that plan is for each to do something remarkably different. VI is the “dreamy” record.
BNU: In the early days—I think this is correct—it was just you recording instruments and arranging them by yourself. With subsequent albums you’ve added musicians for recordings and live performances. Has your approach to writing changed now that Botanist is more of a collective of musicians? How much input do they have in the creative process?
Otrebor: There are a few things to correct here, mainly that all Botanist output released through 2014 and partially into the future was written and recorded entirely as a one-man effort. The one exception where I didn’t record myself was for the drums for album III, which were recorded by Jack Shirley in the Atomic Garden in 2008. Technically, one could also say Jack also recorded the dulcimers on I/IIand VI, as a lot of re-amping was done for those records—but the original raw performances had been tracked on my own.
Like we were saying in the previous question, Botanist is experimenting with writing as a band. Artistically, this is most interesting in terms of progressing the project’s work and adhering to the missive of not doing the same thing over and over again, while still adhering to very stringent basic tenets.
However, Botanist is my project. While working as a team is something that interests me, and my bandmates’ opinions are important, I retain creative control of the content and the power of veto over anyone else in the band. While others may contribute musical compositions, the concepts from album to album and all lyrics will be my sole creation.
How the compositions progress as having been created by a team will need to be witnessed over the course of 3-4 years.
BNU: I’ve managed to turn a lot of my friends onto your music just by playing them one or two tracks and explaining a bit of what Botanist is about. This includes people who don’t listen to metal. It seems to have crossed over. Would you say most of your fans are metalheads or are they a mix of people? How do you feel about being described as a “black metal” artist? Do you find it restrictive or you don’t care?
Otrebor: The black metal tag is largely my own intention/doing/fault. From the outset, one of the artistic goals was to channel my great passion for metal music in general, and black metal music in particular, into a new voice and statement. I wanted to pay tribute to the music that had been moving me since childhood while at the same time inverting it in some way. So presenting Botanist to the world as black metal was sincere.
However, I think that the world at large could have rolled with some other suggestion and embraced the project as being part of a remarkably different genre… but for sure the channeling of black metal is a major part of where the music comes from in my heart.
Then again, there have been some powerful statements by press and listeners, like “it doesn’t sound like black metal, but what else could it be?” or “it’s not metal, but it is black metal.” I love reading stuff like that because it goes beyond what was intentional, what is the unique way I see Botanist, and crosses over into other people’s subjective views and reactions, whether they be positive or negative—that’s one of the main points of making art and presenting it for public consumption.
When highly respected metal outlets like Decibel or MetalSucks openly talk about Botanist as being competitive to inarguably metal bands’ outputs for a given year, that’s a sign that there’s a strong contingent of people who has a solid grasp on the metal genre who recognize Botanist’s sincerity.
However, as humbling as that is, when a site that covers not only metal deems us relevant to write about, or when publications that cover a wide spectrum of musical genres puts us on their album of the year list, it’s a special kind of triumph.
Look, I know that metal survives on being an insular style that is passionately embraced by a niche market. Like Vader said, metal’s color is black to the blind. And metal doesn’t really engender a lot of middle of the road opinions in the general populace. But when an event like Donaufest in Austria, which features almost entirely very non-metal acts, invites us two years in a row to play, that inspires me.
Maybe Botanist is a lot more metal than people think, but maybe it’s more true that it’s a lot less metal than it was intended to be, and that’s the part that I don’t care about at all. Botanist will get a lot less metal in the future, and it will get a lot more metal in the future. But it will always be Botanist.
BNU: It’s been incredible to watch how the sound and songwriting has evolved with each record. It’s kind of like watching a flower opening in super-slow-motion and VI: Flora is Botanist in full bloom. Do you think you’ve done everything you can creatively now with the current instrumentation and concept or is there more ground you want to explore?
Thank you. I can promise there is much variation and experimentation left to come.
BNU: Do you prefer writing and recording or playing live shows? What is different about them?
Otrebor: While playing live as a band is its own special kind of success and experience—working as a team and building camaraderie—making records feels like the strongest means towards artistic expression to me. A record is “forever.” Its voice is more concise and explicit. The overall coming together of the visual and sonic media feels like something that’s more controllable and thoughtful—less at the whim of whatever venue we may be at on that particular day or how good of a show any one of us is or isn’t having.
And frankly, as the stress of managing logistics around playing live and touring (schedules, finances, transport, schlepping) is partly or entirely absent from the process of writing and recording music, instead being replaced with a more introspective, relaxed, purely expressive experience, makes deciding which I enjoy more a no-brainer.
However, moving Botanist from a one-man project to a full band was in itself a calculated decision. I felt that what Botanist stands for is more important than staying at home alone and writing music—that for Botanist to attain the biggest success that it can and reach the most people, it had to go live. Botanist has had the good fortune of finding some outstanding individuals that each brings something very important to the whole and work well as a team, appropriately moving Botanist live to a five-person embodiment of the vengeful spirit of Nature.
BNU: You have been in many different metal bands before Botanist and I was wondering what inspired you to think of mixing hammered dulcimer and black metal? Were you bored of the usual guitar/bass/drums sound?
Otrebor: Not at all. The bands prior to Botanist either never reached their potential or never had any potential to reach in the first place. I was sick of and frustrated by having to rely on other people to complete an artistic vision, and there was something that immensely compelled me to start Botanist, something that was somewhat clear at first and became clearer as the years have gone on.
Many others have their own crusades for creating a better world, and many of those are basically similar to Botanist’s intent, namely speaking out for the importance of the Natural World and its basic lessons, and how those are important to all living things, and humanity in particular. What I find the most affirming and uplifting about doing Botanist is it truly feels like I am involved in something bigger than I am; that I am doing something akin to God’s work. This is eminently important, as I believe that one of the greatest lessons of Nature is humility. If we can all be more humble and work towards a greater good, one that might sometimes usurp our potential individual gain, we would all gain in the long run. Sure, this can get muddled in day-to-day demands of logistics and real life stress and worry, but it’s re-energizing when the raison d’être is re-affirmed.
Choosing hammered dulcimer had to do with my years-long love of the instrument. It also had to do with the instrument being the most easily translated to the skill set that is my strongest: being able to hit things in time. That the hammered dulcimer is a percussion-based, stringed melodic instrument of great beauty made it an obvious technical choice. That the instrument resonates with a classical, traditional effect made it an obvious spiritual choice.
BNU: What kind of music inspires you, and what do you listen to regularly? Do you seek and consume a lot of new music or do you just like listening to stuff you already know and enjoy?
Otrebor: My interest in discovering new music and acts has definitely waned in the past years. It’s partially that I ravenously sought out music I wanted to hear for a long period of my life, and found what that was, and have consciously decided that to keep looking for more of the same may detract from the opportunity to really enjoy what has moved me, but also that I feel that much of what is being made in the same style is increasingly stale and plastic. Suddenly everyone has a water-tight band with flawless performances… to the point where the humanity of a band of people performing music is largely negated in the interest of not showing any possible technical flaws, which is specifically one of the intrinsic appeals of listening to a band of people perform in the first place…
Nowadays, especially with metal, it’s like you can hear the computer on the record. Sure, the dudes in the band are good in real life, but any press commenting on the worth of a record because of how tight the music is seems to be a foregone factor. Everyone’s tight and perfect nowadays. What’s it like live in comparison?
With that said, I’ve enjoyed acquiring maybe 15-20 new albums a year the past few years. I check out more, but much is either more of the general same, but not as good, or not of any interest, so I don’t buy it. What I like, I buy. I keep the radar on, but it’s far more lax. As a result, I believe I enjoy music more. There’s no point in trying to keep up with all of it, and I question the amount of enjoyment I could have if I tried to.
I very much enjoy what I call melodic drone (maybe everyone else calls it that, too) — classically based drone music that is made by bands like Stars of the Lid (and related projects). Although a bunch of black metal bands can be rattled off in Botanist’s influences, it’s this melodic drone that has as much a hand in what inspires the records as anything else, and we’re talking about VI: Flora very much in particular, here.
I very much prefer music that has classical scales as its base. What this often has in common is there’s a sacred feel that I get from the music… as if one were experiencing heavy music in a church, or in a religious context. The weight, the classical harmonies and melodic progressions within a musical context that evokes the reverence, pageantry, and culture of an ancient world (and particularly the world from which my roots derive), and the romance that those instill make music like this resonate the strongest with me.
Heavy music will always be my favorite, with metal being the prime player: black metal (Immortal, early Ulver, The Ruins of Beverast, Emperor, Thy Primordial), power metal (Angra, Helloween, Lost Horizon), progressive metal (Pagan’s Mind, Edenbridge), what’s now being called post-metal (Alcest, Cold Body Radiation), some old-school death metal bands will always be my favorite acts of all time (old Bolt Thrower, old Vader, early Entombed)… classical music (Bach, Vivaldi, Debussy, Grieg, Part…), the dark, relaxed music of Bohren and the Club of Gore… the sci-fi evoking electronica of Majeure, music not always in this classical-oriented style, not always with a sense of grandeur and melancholy and dark intensity, but those traits run the most common in my personal tastes.
BNU: I’ve noticed that a lot of successful bands seem to spring up out of loose collectives of people playing music and helping each other out, people sort of being in five or six bands at a time, and just writing and practicing a lot together. Some bands survive, others morph into something different. Did Botanist arise out of a similar kind of scene or was it just your own private project?
Otrebor: In my and Botanist’s case, it was more in reverse: the would-be collectives that were at my disposal were sorely lacking, so I made it happen on my own. Since then, those collectives have been growing and becoming more healthy.
It’s exciting to feel like an important part, an essential link in a musical movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lotus Thief and Palace of Worms both have connections to Botanist, and to each other, too, and those projects have increasing connections to others. It’s fulfilling to think in my own small way, I’m contributing a chapter to a greater artistic movement and scene, and helping others with that as well.
BNU: One of the things I most enjoy about Botanist is that the theme or narrative is so refreshing. It’s nice to have your imagination fired up by a story like the scientist—is he a scientist?—surviving in some kind of post-apocalyptic nature world instead of hearing the same old black metal songs about the existence of pain and the pain of existence. Did you have the concept fully mapped out before you started the band, or did it evolve over time? Is purely an exercise in fantasy or do you think mankind is actually headed for self-annihilation?
The basic narrative of the songs being told from the perspective of a botanist who goes mad from witnessing the callous destruction of the natural world at the hand of humanity, as well as core figures like the demon Azalea, the Verdant Messiah, core concepts like the Budding Dawn and the utopia of the Verdant Realm were all in place when the recordings for albums I/II started.
What those all meant as an overall picture only became clearer as the years went by and albums were written, that the narrative of Botanist is one that comes from within me, but also from without and is channeled through me, and that it offers allegory regarding humanity’s place in the world, its means of survival, and the choice it must make.
Is humanity headed towards self-annihilation? I believe it is. While the consciousness to adopt reformed ideals of mankind’s place in the world and the impact of its choices not only on the planet, but on its very own existence as a race are being embraced by more people as time goes on, I don’t believe that as a whole, humanity can overcome the ever present and growing focus on its individual self-gain, advancement at the expense of others, and unhealthy propensity to trivial over-consumption. I believe that this is ever accelerating the extinction of life on the planet, and ironically, the life of mankind in particular. However, I believe that fighting the good fight in standing up against such madness is preferable to being the best possible cog in that very machine. It’s better to go down swinging than go down complacently.
BNU: You obviously are very passionate about nature. What is your favorite plant, animal, flower, or tree?
Otrebor: If I had to pick one, I’d go with redwood trees. They radiate strength and benevolence. They grow straight and strong and are beautiful.
BNU: When you’re writing, do you think of the drum part, the vocal part, or the hammered dulcimer melody first? Or do you hear the completed version all in your head?
Yes to all your questions.
BNU: What is coming up for Botanist? Are you planning an international tour? I guess even if you’re successful, affording it is tough. Where would you like to play?
As of this writing, Botanist is tuning up for a three-and-a-half-week tour of Europe with Flenser label-mates Kayo Dot. Most of our dates in Europe are filled but we’re still looking to fill a bit more.
On the tour, we will be playing the prestigious Roadburn Festival as well as a couple other festivals, including Donaufest in Krems, Austria. We will have some remarkable tour-only items that we won’t reveal until we get closer to the start of the tour. Botanist is available to play anywhere in the world. It is merely a matter of popular and financial support.