Interview by Kyle McGinn for Dead Rhetoric, originally posted on Spetember 12, 2014, here.
When you think of heavy metal, you tend to think of the most traditional of themes and forms. Electric guitar wizardry, themes of death and decay, and visceral intensity. But not all bands are willing to play by the book. One such band that has emerged over the past few years is Botanist. Utilizing a hammered dulcimer as his main tool, Otrebor has designed Botanist to be unique among the metal scene. Displaying different influences and not willing to settle on specific subgenres to present the sound of Botanist, the hammered dulcimer does bring it all together with each album. Botanist is also conceptually heavy, providing a story of The Botanist, who is awaiting the self-destruction of man and the takeover of plant life to renew the Earth.
Since the band’s one-man conception, the live aspect of Botanist has caused the necessary expansion to a full-blown band. As you can see from the photos that accompany this interview, Botanist is a band that shifts focus away from the members themselves in reverence to their mission at hand. With this summer’s release of VI: Flora, we thought it due time that we checked in with Botanist’s main man, Otrebor, to catch us up to speed on this unique band. Read on to delve into the philosophy and lore of Botanist, the challenge of bringing the unique sound of the band to the live setting, and whether or not humanity can save ourselves at this point.
Dead Rhetoric: I’m sure you get this question all the time, but out of all the instruments, why the hammered dulcimer?
Otrebor: The hammered dulcimer is a beautiful instrument. It’s got an amazing choral effect; it’s sort of like playing a small piano with the dampers off. Every note resonates until its final decay. All of this contributes to a great harmonic sense, which is something that Botanist is very interested in musically. It was really an ideal choice in that regard. It’s also an under-appreciated instrument. There’s not a whole lot of variety in application of hammered dulcimers. Mostly folk music, a bit of classical music, and probably some fusion things if you dig, but no one has done it in the context of Botanist.
It’s really an ideal instrument for someone like me, who’s primarily percussive/bass [sic "based"]. Especially when I started doing the first record, it was a way to transcribe the music that was flowing around in my head, and transcribe it into actual music. It seemed like the best means to make the record that needed to be made immediately. It was a burning, burning thing that needed to be done and it could not wait.
Dead Rhetoric: Along with that, when you are writing with the hammered dulcimer in mind, are there any challenges when you are trying to figure out, for lack of better word, a “riff” you are going for?
Otrebor: Actually it’s not. It’s almost a stumping question, the notion of what is challenging. It’s not really a question of challenge; all of this stuff is just channeled through me. I just sit down and start writing/recording/composing and the notion of ‘this is really hard, or this is particularly challenging’ has never really crossed my mind. I had to search to figure out what is most challenging or not.
The answer to what is most challenging just gets really mundane. At first, I didn’t know how to record myself and I had to figure that out. Luckily I had Jack Shirley to help me out, my mixing engineer. It’s really more of a question of this innate music that exists within me that comes partially from me and partially from someplace that I’m not really sure, that just gets let out. A lot of it is feeling, and I’m anticipating your next question about how challenging is it on stage, and that’s definitely where the challenge lies, it’s not the writing and recording aspect.
Dead Rhetoric: That was down the line somewhere; what’s the hardest challenge of bringing Botanist to life on stage?
Otrebor: The hardest challenge of bringing this to a live setting, since Botanist is in its own right, re-writing the book of this kind of music and the application of this new instrument, and instruments because I’d include the harmonium in there as well. These instruments are not made to be used in the way Botanist uses them. It’s okay, you can get by in the studio setting because of various aspects that allow you to take an instrument that’s essentially acoustic and distort it. When you go on stage, that’s really not so forgiving. So we basically had to, in a tangible sense, re-invent the wheel and get these already very specific dulcimers to be amplifiable to the level of a respectable metal/rock band. That was a process that took about 6 to 8 months of trial and error. I’m cutting the story down, but eventually what we did was a man who makes these particular instruments figured out that you could take these magnetic pick ups that are made for pianos and adapt them to a dulcimer.
Now we can go on stage and blast amps and there’s no problem. But it was definitely a pain in the ass at first. Trying to figure out what we were going to do; are we going to run them through the P.A. and the problems that causes, and then the dulcimers were picking up everything; the dulcimers were big open mics, and the drums were being distorted by the dulcimer and it was a huge mess. Originally we had contact mics on there, which worked to amplify a little bit, but doesn’t work when you have really loud everything else around, and the contact mic would act as an open mic and pick up everything else around it and that’s no good.
Dead Rhetoric: In terms of Bandcamp, if that wasn’t around, how does a band like yours get your name out there?
Otrebor: Bandcamp is a very important tool for Botanist, and I’m sure many other bands. It has such a great renown about it that people respect it; it’s like a common word amongst people that are music enthusiasts that like to listen to things online. I really appreciate that because it’s a great source of income for Botanist and so many other bands. But it’s certainly not the only thing that gets things out; blogs like yours and word of mouth is always the most important thing. A good label and distribution is very important. And the most classic way is having a band that plays shows and people go. For Botanist, it kind of went ass-backwards. The shows happened because of everything else. Now the shows are happening, and that will lead to bigger and better success presuming that we play excellent shows that I’m pretty sure we will, and we do.
Dead Rhetoric: You skipped over album V, from what I read, it seemed like you thought it was a better philosophically and a better progression from IV to VI. Are you going to come back to V?
Otrebor: You are correct, we did skip over V, and I realize that is at least confusing and at most irritating. It wasn’t really a philosophical comparison. Botanist made all of these records; we started recording in 2009 and are still recording. Not as much, as the live aspect of the band has really taken a lot of focus away from the recordings. This isn’t something that I’m complaining about because there is a ton of material that has been put out, and a ton of material to come that is conceptually in place but has not been recorded.
We had all this stuff and notably a number of EPs locked. Of course, V was the next chronological, but then everyone in the band, myself included, thought that VI was clearly the best record. So if you have two records, it’s not a book. It’s not like there is a chapter missing in the story. Even with bands that have a story, like Rhapsody of Fire. There’s something of a story there and people that are really into that will follow it. There’s nothing like that going on in Botanist, if you skip something, it’s not that big a deal, other than the obvious Roman numeral incongruity.
VI was the best record that Botanist had at that time. That’s the one that we kind of hit the home run with. To answer your question, V will be released. I’m not sure when; probably years down the line. Maybe after VIII or IX. The progression in records to come is too important to at this point conceptually to take a pause and go back to V. But V is important and it will be released.
Dead Rhetoric: That leads to what I was going to ask actually. VI isn’t as conceptual as some of your previous records. What was the basic premise of Flora?
Otrebor: It was the endeavor of making a dream-like record. It was something that was important to attempt because dream-like sound and bands that invoke that have a big impact personally upon my enjoyment. And one of the things that Botanist does, in terms of being a metal band, are little tributes, maybe subtle tributes to metal. And also a tribute to non-metal bands such as Stars of the Lid, who are (and all the related projects to that band) a major influence upon me. The second thing is that Botanist had gone down a very clear and not accidental path of misanthropy path, in that black metal way of thinking.
But at a certain point, it was so far down that rabbit hole, it distorted what the main point of the band was. The point of the band is the reverence of nature as God. Seeing plants and flowers, and by extension, animals and fauna, as the clearest interpretation of the divine that we can perceive. That is the most important thing about Botanist. Even in the records like Mandragora or Doom in Bloom, its still going on but it’s wrapped up in this black metal misanthropy. Flora has this dream-like atmosphere, and goes back to the roots of what Botanist is really about. So it’s less conceptual as an album, but it’s nonetheless as conceptual as the band’s mission statement.
Dead Rhetoric: So when you go to VII, VIII, IX, what direction do you feel that it’s going to be going in?
Otrebor: I can tell you that it’s very clear in terms of concept, and in terms of sound approach; with Botanist it is just as much about the approach to recording and the approach to sound as it is about the particular topic. It’s all very clear through album X, and perhaps an extra EP or two. Although the EPs allow us to make music as we want to make music. It doesn’t necessarily have to be heavily conceptual or different than anything else that came before in the discography. But I’m not going to disclose any details about that at this time; you have to leave some things to the imagination.
Dead Rhetoric: I don’t want to make you seem arrogant so I’m going to mention it first, but when you think about what you have done with botany, do you feel it goes along the same lines as what Carcass did for medical terminology?
Otrebor: Remember how I was saying that Botanist has a good deal or subtle/overt homages to metal, and certainly that aspect of Carcass, making one of its unique marks on upon the scene was doing what it did with lyrics about medical terminology was definitely not wasted. I was not oblivious to that when Botanist started, and in a way, as far that is concerned, Botanist is a bit of tribute a to Carcass’ legacy.
Dead Rhetoric: Within the Botanist philosophy, you have a lexicon on the website with a list of characters that have played out through the albums. Are you going to be expanding this in albums to come, or just provide more depth?
Otrebor: There’s a couple different aspects to expanding upon this. The short answer is that yes, it will be expanded upon. The long answer is not at the same pace, and I don’t mean to be picking on poor Rhapsody of Fire, but it’s not the kind of thing where we have to come up with a new story or character because it’s like a book, because it’s not. The biggest endeavor is to tell a simple story that is intended to impact every living thing. It’s told through allegory, and in that allegory there is mythology. Mythology is a very important tool to culture and world history. Trying to take that tool and apply it to this band concept is an attractive thing to me.
Things will come up around album VIII. There’s some material that will be coming out next year. We will have a bunch of material ready for next year and we are not going to release all of it. We are basically going to have a number of EPs to put out. The next full length may come out in 2016. It depends on the recording/writing schedule. It will be a heavily conceptual record, probably the most conceptual of the discography to that point. And it’s not going to be rushed, and in the meantime we have so much stuff that we can release some EPs.
One of the EPs has this new character, Arctopoides, that has been on the website for some time. Arctopoides is based upon an actual plant called Arctopoides, which is also known as the Footsteps of Spring. The Footsteps of Spring is a plant that is native to California that basically looks like little patches of yellowish green things that grow on the ground. It kind of looks like something walked there, which is why it’s called that. In Botanist mythology, Arctopoides is an invisible entity that walks along the land, and as he walks, he heals the land where it has been damaged. It works as kind of the yin to the yang of Azalea. Azalea has the evil, aggressive nature that wants to take over as much of the world as possible and push out the oppressor; Arctopoides is the benevolent character and I rather appreciate that aspect. That’s what is going to be expanded upon, probably with Botanist VIII.
Dead Rhetoric: With that idea in mind and the introduction of that character, it seems the philosophy for Botanist is that humanity is the one that is screwing it up for ourselves. We aren’t going to destroy nature but we will end up left behind and nature will carry on without us. Do you think that we are capable of repairing our relationship with nature?
Otrebor: I think in order for that to happen a major worldview is going to have to change. The worldview of creating personal wealth and consuming beyond what is necessary or reasonable has to change. One thing that has spoken to me so much about doing this project is that I’ve been in bands before that were very important to me and I wanted them to succeed and play Wacken and all that, and it meant a lot. But what’s different about this is that Botanist is more important because it’s a selfless thing. This is a very important mission, and an important message that is so much bigger than myself or any other person. You look at people throughout history who have done major work for the good of others, be it for people or animals or plants. Those people end up have the most fulfilled lives and have the biggest impact because they are not working for themselves, they are working for something else. This is really what I believe is my way of doing that. Speaking out for something that needs speaking out for and working for that because it’s so much bigger than I am, and so much bigger than any other individual. That’s what is different about this band compared to any band I have been in or will be in.
The more people can get away from “what’s good for me” and go towards “how can I help everyone” or better improve the lives of any living thing. I think things will right themselves a lot more easily. In it’s own way, be it small, but Botanist is willing to play that message through its concept and story.
Dead Rhetoric: With so many metal bands that always sing about destroying everything, it’s refreshing to hear a band that is into their philosophy and back it 100%. Understanding that we are going down this path, but it’s up to us to determine how it ends.
Otrebor: Botanist understands the world doesn’t need saving. The world will save itself. If we annoy it enough, it will destroy us and move on. It’s very much heading towards that, and everything must come to an end and that includes humanity. But it’s definitely being accelerated at this point.
Dead Rhetoric: Much of black metal is shifting away from “Satan this, Satan that” and moving in a more natural view, especially in the US. Why do you feel that more and more of these bands are moving in this direction?
Otrebor: The natural/ecological bend to black metal is definitely not a new thing. It’s been going on since bands like Ulver and for the most part, the Norwegian explosion. That really opened the door to showing all the other themes that have come up since then. To really go “hey this is something that black metal does” and it has a very specific flavor to it.
The best thing that I can guess about why it is, is that this movement of saying “hey wait a minute, the natural world is really important, it’s been discounted by a good amount of people for a long time and we have to do something to undo what we are doing to it” is kind of a way of the Earth acting up and instilling consciousness into people. It’s almost as if the Earth is saying that this has to change and people are picking up on that and saying, “yes it does.”
As I was saying, I don’t necessarily know where this came from, for me, doing this project. It came from somewhere, and the fact that it is not entirely tangible means that there is something kind of mystical or divine that is speaking through me to do this. I can’t speak for other people, but look beyond the miracle theme and look at how much more people are moving to speak out about protecting the environment or to value it. Yes, part of it is a trend and much of it is economically-oriented, but I think that is an important and practical way to get it to work. It has to make sense economically. In terms of the actual philosophy and heart-felt movement towards this, maybe some bands are bandwagon-jumping but a ton of them aren’t. Whether they are or not, I think it’s a strong message and a good fight to fight.
Dead Rhetoric: It’s a lot easier to get enjoyment out of something when it means something, more than just “creatures of the night” and the metal clichés that are done ad naseum. Botanist has that in spades.
Otrebor: Everything can be done to the point where it is accepted as rote and therefore if you are going to be in this type of band you have to do songs that do “this type of thing.” Originally, going back to the Norwegian scene, they were goofy kids that had a bunch of matches and set fire to a barn and then got out of control but it was something that they really felt about what they were doing. Whether it was misguided or whatever, there was something legitimate about how they were feeling that caused them to do this. That’s really the compelling aspect of any good music, when you can feel that the artist has something to say and feels what is going on. When you get to the point where it’s just the same old thing, there’s this lack of really feeling what is going on. I think that is what separates the notable acts from the not so notable ones.
Dead Rhetoric: Botanist has an off the beaten path and has a unique sound and you do a good job of posting all the reviews, even the negative ones. How do you approach a review where it’s clear that someone just didn’t understand it? Do you take it in stride or ask “how can I improve it?”
Otrebor: There’s no thought at all about how can I improve it. One of the underlying tenets of me as an artist, no matter what band/project it is, is that no matter how bad it is, someone will like it and no matter how good it is, someone will hate it. It’s just how it is with all art. You can’t please everyone all the time so someone may never get it. Hypothetically, you can go online and see this. “I really think that the first record is the best, or I think the third record is the best” and that’s amazing and that is the point to having different responses. If you don’t like all of it, fine; not everyone is going to like it. But it’s not going to change making the record. I think it’s great that some people like some records but not other records, because that shows the intention of making records that were different. People are welcome to think whatever they want, but the record is still going to be made.
Dead Rhetoric: Very true, if you are changing it based on what people think, you are more approaching pop music.
Otrebor: I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that I know how to make a record that is going to sell a lot of copies. I just know how to make a record that will come out and be honestly what is going on within the thing that I feel and that’s what I know how to do. I don’t know how to appeal to a bunch of people. If they like it, that’s wonderful but if not, that’s okay too.