Interview by Alex for Metal-Fi.com. Original posting here.
Two years ago, while perusing Pitchfork’s Top 40 Metal Albums List, I stumbled upon quite an interesting project simply known as Botanist. It was described as an eco-terrorist black metal project using voice, drums, dulcimer on tracks about plants and flowers. So I checked out its double full-length debut, I: The Suicide Tree / II: A Rose From the Dead, and it really caught me by surprise, not just because of its unorthodox instrumentation, but for its sheer intensity and percussion-driven dynamics.
Since then, the project has seen two more full-lengths, again both rooted in hammered dulcimer and drums, but with entirely different soundscapes. Last year’sIII: Doom in Bloom is as described: a slower and heavy doom-based affair with some dark drone thrown in for good measure. The project’s latest offering, IV: Mandragora, released last February on the fantastic label The Flenser, presents you yet again with an entirely different journey and is without a doubt the best Botanist record to date.
I got to have an in-depth conversation with the creative mastermind behind Botanist, the artist simply known as Otrebor, and his partner in plants…well, certainly a gentleman that would have a special place in the Verdant Realm, Jack Shirley of the The Atomic Garden Recording Studio in East Palo Alto, California, who’s been involved in the engineering and production of Botanist since its inception. Below is a transcription of the conversation that ensued.
MFi: Jack, when did you get involved in the Botanist project? I know you’ve had history with Otrebor since 2007 with his other band, Ophidian Forest.
Jack: That’s right. That’s where my involvement came in. I was the resident engineer for Otrebor’s projects, so it was like, “hey, here’s the new thing I’m going to work on.” So it was right place, right time.
My end of the production, at least initially, was more in the post-production side of things. I don’t know how known this is but Otrebor records almost all of this stuff on his own. All of the Botanist records have been mixed and mastered here at The Atomic Garden, and they’ve had varying degrees of involvement on my end pre-mixing and mastering.
MFi: I was reading up on the arsenal you have in your studio. What instruments have made it onto Botanist’s recordings?
Jack: We’ve used the organ and maybe the piano…
Otrebor: We’ve used the piano. The organ hasn’t been unveiled yet as far as the discography is concerned, but I will divulge that it has become known as the longtime family organ of the brothers who are behind the outstanding Bay Area project Mamaleek. The organ is on the discography, but the discography to come.
MFi: Ooh, an organ. I hadn’t heard about that yet. A Metal-Fi exclusive!
Jack: Damn, I spilled the beans.
Otrebor: Don’t get too excited, Alex, it’s not super prominent.
Jack: Yeah, it’s pretty background. Another thing I’m not sure people know is that the Botanist records are on a time line that is a couple years ahead of what is public.
Otrebor: Right. Basically, whatever you are listening to at this time is basically two to three years old in terms of when it was completed. IV was completed in 2010.
Jack: And we just finished VI.
Otrebor: Yes, and there’s stuff past VI whose tracking is complete.
Jack: We had to go over some of the lineage over dinner because I had forgotten some of the details of the production of these records as it’s been years since we worked on them.
MFi: I was reading that Botanist X may be the final chapter.
Otrebor: That’s something I suggested, something that appeals to my romantic vision of the end of Botanist. I’m not holding that as etched in stone, and already I have more ideas for albums that would push the total number past ten. So, I reserve the right to change the final chapter at any time, but the main theme of what the final chapter will be about is indeed set, whatever the associated Roman numeral may end up being.
MFi: I was wondering if there’s a boxed set in the future?
Jack: Oh, man. That would be for, like, X. You’d do the whole thing.
Otrebor: Yeah, it would be called Encyclopedia Botanica. It would be all the records.
Jack: Hahaha. From a collector’s standpoint, there is a book that exists called The Book of Botany, where Otrebor keeps all his notes and lyrics. All the production notes. As a superfan, you could find what the fuzz pedal settings were for Botanist IV or V. That book exists, and I think it should be made into a proper…
Otrebor: Right, eBayable in 50 years.
Jack: …and put into the box set for X.
Otrebor: It would be like John Zorn’s book that he made for one of his releases, except it will be my scratchings that no one can decipher.
Jack: But that makes it even cooler. If you can figure them out…
MFi: You’ve gone through the Ophidian Forest records, and now three Botanist releases, has the dynamic between you two changed? Since Otrebor has much more involvement on this project than other artists would have as far as mixing and mastering?
Jack: Just by the nature of the project, it throws you some curveballs as to how you’d approach production. It’s a whole new set of issues that you get. It’s not like working with guitars. A dulcimer, when trying to work with it in this kind of context, can be really elusive.
But as far as our personal dynamic, no, we’ve worked the same. When it comes to mixing Botanist, I would say Otrebor has gotten more hands-off. He and I share this philosophy about how everything that gets done past the initial lay-in and rough mixes and general balancing of things is kind of a waste. Like it’s masturbatory or something. That extra 10 or 15% of extra fine-tuning that you work on for a month is lost on the listener anyway. The music and the production reflect each other in that they can seem kind of quick and aggressive and immediate. When it’s time to mix, we throw it all up, and when it sounds right, it’s pretty much done. There’s not a lot of laboring over the minor details.
Otrebor: There’s a motto that I say to myself and to other musicians, how “no one will notice, and no one will care.” I don’t say that to be defeatist, like, “oh, man, whatever I do, no one will care about it.” It’s not like that.
I’ve played on other people’s records, and I’ve seen people agonize over the smallest, piddliest details, and they’ll listen to the record 18,000 times to ascertain whether the reverb on the snare’s bottom mic should last 4 milliseconds or 6 milliseconds… and you just drive yourself crazy. I’ve learned from agonizing over details on past records I’ve worked on that after listening to something critically over and over and over again, I just end up hating that record because of how it reminds me of all the critical listening I put myself through. For example, to this day Ophidian Forest’s “Plains” is far and away my favorite record with that project, and I believe it’s in part because the tracking and mixing process was quick and efficient, and there were very few revisions.
There’s a code Jack and I have with each other about big strokes versus small strokes, like with a painting. People will notice the big strokes, but might not notice the small strokes so much, or even at all. The times when I enjoy my own creation the most is listening to it right after it’s first tracked, when the emotion of the musical expression is at its most immediate and true. Every step past that is a reduction of that initial thrill. So a lot of the personal challenge of making records for me is liking my own creation after it’s done. If you take any record you love, even if it’s not yours, and listen to it critically 1,000 times, by about 300 times you’re going to hate that record. You don’t want that record to be yours. I don’t want that record to be mine!
Otrebor: So I’ll ask Jack, “Is this a small stroke?” and he’ll say, “yeah, it’s a small stroke,” which means no one is on the listening end or will notice or care whether it’s one way or another, and we’ll leave it alone and move on – focus on the big strokes because it’s those that make the record remarkable.
MFi: Otrebor, you’ve talked about writing drum “riffs,” and working from those. That seems to be the sense on all these records – that you start with the drum riffs and the rest manifests itself from there.
Otrebor: The best case of that is indeed the first two records, the I/II In 2009, when I made those records, I remember thinking that the result was the closest thing to being inside my head that I could convey with my physical ability – that rhythmic music that would fly around in my head and the melodic element was the counterpoint to that rhythmic element.
I do think, though, that as records have gone on – and this will be revealed in the years to come – that’s less and less of the way it works. Now the drum riffs are more in terms of a larger texture. I feel like my drumming has gotten dialed down, and whose role is more to serve the song. I’m perfectly happy, and I think it would be a good artistic decision, to keep Botanist I and II as the only I and II I’ll ever do. It makes the records more special, and I like to avoid doing the same things over and over again.
MFi: My personal spin is that the first album was totally mis-sold by the press in general. First of all a lot of people focused on the eco-terrorist comment, which got old fast. But it was also labeled as a black metal project. When I got the CD, instantly to me, it was a grindcore record. It had 40 songs on it, it had songs that were 6 seconds long, etc. For me, it was like shock and awe: not only were you getting hammered dulcimer and drums, and it was very rhythmic and intense, but it was all within a grindcore framework – short, bite-sized bits that come at you and go away, and then come at you again… I thought that was a very audacious debut: a double CD grindcore record featuring hammered dulcimer and drums. Was that the intent?
Otrebor: It sort of was. Before I decided to do Botanist alone, I had envisioned the project as being in a super stripped-down grindcore style with two people – guitar and drums. When I recorded the material for the first two albums, I approached the drumming and the song length as a grindcore record. But then when I wrote the music, it didn’t end up being grindcore at all, of course.
You mentioned that it’s not black metal. There’s that debate about whether Botanist is black metal or not. And frankly, I don’t care whether Botanist is black metal or not. But I can say, whether people will ultimately feel that it is or not, that when I create these records, they come from a place within me where my admiration lies for the black metal music that has shaped me as a musician – with the emotional space that I feel from the black metal albums that I enjoy and how those have inspired me – that comes through in the music that I make whether they end up sounding like what people expect black metal to sound like or not.
MFi: I can see that. The latest album however does sound to me a lot like black metal. Certainly, there’s the black metal aesthetic that’s associated with the project, and justly so. I’m a big fan of the project. I really am. Some people like it from a gimmicky standpoint – I think that’s ok. But I genuinely like the project. The last record is probably my favorite.
Otrebor: Cool. It’s definitely the most metal in a lot of ways. And talking about the gimmicky aspect…I never intended for it to be a gimmick.
Otrebor: No, that’s ok. I’m not offended by it, because I recognize how else will people see it other than a gimmick? It’s easy to see it that way. I accept that. That’s fine. But the gimmick has to wear off, either because it’s gotten old and boring, or because people will notice more and more that the music is really cool…
Jack: …”hey, there’s actually music in here!”
Otrebor: …”the gimmick has gotten old, but there’s a new record, and I really like this song.” I hope that’s what will come to pass.
MFi: I agree with you. I’ve called it a black metal singularity. What’s funny is after about a song or two, once the shock settles down, and you concentrate on the music and its sense of rhythm, you go, “wow, this is really cool.” Another thing I like is on the Botanist site, you post the positive and negative reactions to the albums. It’s very entertaining to read both.
Otrebor: Yeah, man. I’ve been in bands where, seriously, people just don’t get this: When somebody writes something really bad about you? That’s good. When people say really good things and really bad things, that’s good. What you don’t want is when people say, “eh, it’s ok, I guess.” Middle of the road is bad.
Jack: Hahaha. That’s true. You want poles.
Otrebor: If you have people saying “this is the best thing I’ve ever heard” and others saying “this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” as an artist, you’re doing something right. If you’re getting a strong reaction from people, that means the art is able to cause a strong emotional response, and that means you’re doing something right.
Jack: You want to raise some pulses.
MFi: I want to bring the conversation back to the first record, and then to Doom in Bloom. What were the challenges, production-wise, of the first record, and what did you learn from that process?
Otrebor: The first thing that comes to mind is another adage that I stand by and try to pass on to other musicians: Don’t wait till you have everything perfectly figured out to start recording. This is a common pitfall – the notion that the first record cannot proceed until all conceivable variables are ironed out. And that’s an impossible situation, because no matter how well you prepare, there is always a laundry list of things to do better the next time, creative ideas to try next time, and that goes for the second, fourth, eighth, twenty-ninth record, too.
After the first couple records were done, there was this great opportunity to use these drum recordings I had done that were basically going to be thrown away. The drums came out amazing, and to this day, and probably forever into the future, III may be Jack Shirley’s favorite Botanist record, simply because he recorded those drums and he did a damn good job of it. Those drums and how they sound really play into what appeals to him about recording.
So the drums were slow. I wanted to challenge myself to make a slow Botanist album, particularly to contrast from the freneticism of the first two records, again, coming from what personally appeals to me about the doom genre. So I came to Jack and asked him how we could make it slow and heavy, while still being this thing that Botanist had started. And we ended up coming up with this sound that I think turned out very well for what it was intended to do.
Jack: III might be my favorite.
MFi: You mentioned that on Doom in Bloom, on top of the structures, there’s a remarkable difference in sound treatment and recording technique. Is that an aspect because they were recorded in 2008, or was something else added?
Jack: The production on that record is different than any of the others – up until then and after that. Other than III, the records were entirely recorded by Otrebor. But the drums for III were recorded entirely here, they were recorded on a stripped-down drum kit. If you saw the normal Botanist drum kit compared to the III one, it’s kind of funny. It wasn’t intended for Botanist so it was a totally different thing. It was like a punk rock drum kit: a couple of toms (actually, three: one rack and two floors – Otrebor), a kick/snare, and a couple of cymbals (there were a few more than that – Otrebor). It was a simple setup that was also miked simply. There were four microphones total on the drums on that record, which compares to the normal set-up of five toms, two kicks, two snares, seven cymbals, spot mics everywhere… it’s way more metal.
And that’s what Otrebor means when he said it was more to my sensibilities – the drum set up for III is more my speed: really stripped-down and open, ambient. So that’s a huge difference.
In terms of the production treatment, I was brought all these dulcimers that were recorded to drums we had done years before, and we needed to figure out how to make it all fit. The post-production on III was by far the most extensive. Normally, when I record at The Atomic Garden, I record everything to 2″ tape. When I’m given sessions other people recorded, my go-to move is to bounce everything onto tape so I can get that sweetness and sonic imprint that I like. So that’s what we did with Botanist III. And that’s where the bulk of the distortion you hear comes from – it’s tape distortion, saturation and compression, and then some outboard equipment. It’s by far the most analog-sounding recording of all the Botanists.
Otrebor: As far as using that catch-all term, “organic,” it is perhaps the most organic record that Botanist will ever do.
Jack: It was all acoustic, right?
Otrebor: Yes, but the distinction about that is that it is also heavily distorted, just not distorted in the way people are used to hearing.
Jack: It’s post-microphone distorted. I love that sound. I don’t know if you are familiar with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Airplane Over the Sea?
Otrebor: Right. That was Jack’s starting point for the idea on how to make Botanist III sound.
Jack: That record has a fuzz sound to it that was groundbreaking. They took acoustic guitars and recorded them like you normally would, with a microphone, and then slammed the tape, pushed all the equipment – tube mic-pres, recording to tape and over-compressing – and achieved this kind of distortion that for some reason doesn’t seem artificial, even though it’s just as artificial as a distortion pedal, but it sounds more natural. That was my idea to add to the dynamic quality ofIII: We can do it like this and yet still retain its acoustic quality but still be kind of fucked-up.
Otrebor: Right. To give you an idea, to A/B the clear acoustic sound with the tape distorted one, there’s one section on the record that does not have that slamming effect to it, and that’s the end of the first song, “Quoth Azalea, the Demon,” when the drums cut out and you’re left with just the solo dulcimer.
MFi: That’s interesting. I noticed that on Doom, the dynamics went down a little bit compared to I/II and IV, where they hovered around DR9.
Jack: There’s a lot more to III in terms of space taken up by the recording. Is there bass guitar on III?
Jack: So, on I/II, there’s nothing on the record but hammered dulcimer, drums and vocals. Sonically, in terms of frequency ranges, there’s no low-end at all, other than the kick drum and a little from the toms…
Otrebor: And some fabricated low-end on the dulcimers on II…
Jack: But for the most part, the frequency spectrum was not being used to its full potential. For III, it’s a lot deeper. The drums are way bigger and more resonant. There’s a bass guitar…
Otrebor: And when there’s not a bass guitar, there’s a piano.
Jack: Right! Doing low-end stuff. It’s not that it was purposely less dynamic, it’s that there’s more shit in there.
MFi: At one point you mentioned that part of this project is trying to take a hammered dulcimer and trying to run it through guitar amps. On the last record, I hear a lot of pedal effects. Is that true?
Otrebor: Yes, that’s right. It was something I hadn’t explored yet. That’s the modus operandi for every record: do something I haven’t done yet. The place that Botanist is fortunately in comes from a place that may not seem so fortunate: I’ve knowingly and gladly painted myself into a corner. And the corner is, it’s dulcimer and drums, it’s about plants.
Every record is going to be dulcimer and drums and be about plants, as told through the eyes of a crazed botanist. I look at bands (and I don’t want to name names), but look at your favorite death metal band – they can’t possibly record a record that isn’t death metal because their fans will kill them. So in contrast to that corner, the corner that Botanist has painted itself in… I feel like I can do anything and it will still be Botanist, so long as it’s dulcimer and drums and about plants – because no one else is doing this.
Jack: That’s true. So in the end it’s really no corner at all.
MFi: Otrebor, you mentioned in another interview that you felt that after artists release a couple of albums, it changes them. You talked about Max Cavalera, and how he said he could never make the kind of record he did in the glory days of Sepultura. Has making Botanist albums changed you? You mentioned you’ll never do another I and II again. Have you seen yourself evolve throughout this process?
Otrebor: In case some of your readers don’t know what we’re talking about, I read an interview with Max Cavalera years ago that strongly affected the way I look at producing music and being in the moment, really. There’s been a fair amount of criticism about “why are you making so many records?!” “Is there some sort of race?
Well, primarily I do it because I enjoy it. It feeds an inner need to create. But when I read that interview with him – and this was long after he had left Sepultura. He was in Soulfly – and my feeling was that he recognized that records like Schizophrenia, Beneath the Remains, and Arise were his best stuff. And even if they weren’t, he realized he could never make records like that again. That he had moved on as an artist or as a person. So that really affected me. I feel that when the iron is hot, I’d better goddamn take advantage of it, because it might go cold without notice. So while I can, I’m going to make as much stuff as I can, while I’m inspired to do it. And even if it gets released 10 years later… I don’t care. Even if I’m touring on a record that’s four years old to me… I don’t care.
Have I changed as a person since I began? I think so. I talked about how already I approach the drums in the music, the writing process…
Jack: Not to mention being “in a band.” I saw a pretty defeated gentleman – tired of dealing with other people who were flaky or didn’t see eye-to-eye – become liberated because there was no restriction on productivity or creativity… It was like, “hey, I can do this. I can do whatever I want, and there’s nobody holding me up. I don’t need to answer to anybody or adhere to someone else’s schedule and their trappings.” As a musician, I’ve seen him liberated. It’s cool. He can do whatever the fuck he wants.
Otrebor: People grow. Whether they’re in a band or not, people grow and change over time. I’m sure that Max Cavalera, in the 10-15 years since he’d made “Arise” and gave that interview, had grown a lot. It’s been 4 years since I started Botanist, and I’m sure I’ve grown and changed. That will be reflected in the music as the records come out. I welcome that, because that’s interesting – as opposed to doing the same thing over and over again, or feeling like I have to, and it becomes lame.
MFi: One of the things that’s interesting about the project is its rich back story. Have you ever thought about formalizing it a little bit more? I know last year’s Pig Destroyer’s Book Burner came with a short story called The Atheist. It was loosely based on the lyrical themes of the album. Have you thought about doing something like that in a Botanist record?
Otrebor: You mean develop the written story, and be like two steps away from a comic book type of thing?
MFi: I guess… a comic book, a short story, or a novella even?
Otrebor: The way I feel about this right now is I’m trying to keep it simple. And I want to mention that Pig Destroyer is the best at doing what they do. I’m a big fan of their music. The vocalist/lyricist has a knack for writing really creepy, crawly, disturbing shit, and I really appreciate that. Prowler in the Yard is one of my favorite albums of all time.
But do I want to develop the Botanist story to the point that you suggested? It is being developed, but not necessarily at a “chapter 1, chapter 2″ pace. Botanist is more about the development of the concept rather than the progression of a story. When something arises that is interesting to throw into the mix, the pantheon, then it gets thrown in. But there is no schedule to move the story along. It has to be worthy enough to be included.
Some of the worst offenders are power metal bands. Now, I love power metal, but there have been some bands that have had the hokiest stories, and it’s like every record they are obligated to develop that story even more; it doesn’t make any sense, it’s totally generic, trite, non-specific…
Jack: Talk about a corner to paint yourself into!
Otrebor: …it has no substance, at least to me. I don’t want to put myself under that pressure for Botanist. When something happens, it’s going to be meaningful.
I want to keep it simple, without a full-blown manifesto with complicated ideas – I can think of bands espousing convoluted philosophies. I don’t know what they’re talking about. It doesn’t make any sense to me because I can’t relate to it. If it’s simple, it’s much easier to relate to. I believe the simplicity of what Botanist stands for is powerful, and it is worthwhile. The simplicity of the idea that we humans are not the rulers of the planet, that the natural world is beautiful and essential, and that if we don’t realign our values to preserve our environment, the natural world will destroy us and move on.
MFi: You’ve said you found some of the digital musical outlets “repugnant.” I’m assuming you were referring to technologies like Bandcamp, or Spotiy?
Otrebor: Oh yeah! That was an old interview.
MFi: The reason I wanted to touch upon this is, one aspect of Botanist that I find absolutely brilliant is how you have images of the plants referred to in the songs as cover art for each track you download off the Botanist Bandcamp page. It gives you a visual connection with the subject matter. I wish more artists would utilize the digital format that way. But then I read you thought it was repugnant and that had me totally confused.
Otrebor: Being able to provide the images that you are talking about is another wonderful aspect of the corner I’ve painted myself into: It’s such an obvious thing to attach visual art to the music. But in Botanist’s case, it’s easier and more obvious. So, think of other bands that may make concept records but aren’t necessarily a concept band, for them, attaching art is much more challenging. I think of the bands that I’ve been in that aren’t concept bands, coming up with art that aptly reflects the content of a given song isn’t as easy. In Botanist’s case, the music is about the veneration of the form and essence of the plantae world, so in terms of supporting that concept visually, I am lucky to have so many options available.
Now, I definitely did say these digital mediums are repugnant, but where I can put you a bit straighter is where that statement comes from and why. Part of it is what Botanist is trying to say. We may enjoy greater senses of ease and convenience with more electronic and digital gadgets at our disposal, but in another sense we are increasingly losing our way. Our increasing adherence and very fascination, obsession, and addiction to staring at screens of various forms distorts our perception of reality. Yes, the worldwide movement to preserve the environment has only risen with the digital age, but on a fundamental basis, our inability to shut off the electronically-produced noise we are immersed in directly affects our ability to slow down, which is crucial in being able to perceive the value of our surroundings, and the natural world in particular. The natural world provides an antithesis of the endless information drivel we subject ourselves and others to.
Another part of why I said that comes from some black metal side of me. The means that you mentioned are at anyone’s disposal who wants publicity. But is it black metal to be on Facebook? Fuck, no! It is not black metal to be on Facebook. By black metal standards, that is poser shit.
Reconciling these two statements is why Botanist uses these digital mediums and I subject myself to the very screen time I am decrying: It’s a balance. Standing for what Botanist stands for is more important than adhering to some stodgy, fastidious sense of being “true.” Trying to reach as many people as possible about the beauty and relevance of the natural world is what’s important, and that can only happen the more people know about Botanist, and that is directly proportional to having as big a digital presence as possible, and to having as big a presence on social media as possible. And now, it is also directly proportional to how many people can see Botanist play concerts.
MFi: Let’s switch back to some production-level questions. Jack, you mentioned before the interview about Metal-Fi’s crusade about the loss of dynamics in modern music, and in metal in particular. I know you work on a lot of projects, but metal is what you are most heavily involved in?
Otrebor: You should put hardcore above that.
Jack: I would say that of the music that I’m involved in, metal would be the smallest representative. And of the metal that I have been involved in is not typical metal production. Bands come to me because they don’t want to sound like a metal band so much.
MFi: You did the Grayceon CD, right?
Jack: I’ve done all the Grayceon records.
MFi: That’s an atypical metal band.
Jack: For sure. And at this point I’ve also done all the Deafheaven records.
MFi: Right, the shoegaze sound. “Roads to Judah” is a great record. But the Loudness Wars permeates every genre, except maybe classical.
Jack: It’s in folk music at this point, you know what I mean? It’s crazy.
What we’re talking about here is the idea that if a record is louder than another record, then that is somehow better – it sounds better or it’s more in your face or whatever. It’s a total fallacy, and in fact, it’s the opposite. If you really look at the technical side of it, the louder a record is, usually the worse it sounds. And yeah, when you’re flipping around in iTunes, it might blast your face off when you get to that loud song and it’s got that crazy impact, but the fact of the matter is you can’t listen to the whole record because it’s fatiguing; it’s physically hard on your ears.
I don’t like the loudness thing, but I will say I’ve done it, either because I was asked to do it or because I felt it fit a project. Even when I do it, though, I don’t think I’m doing it to the extent a lot of people are doing it in terms of how loud records have gotten. The whole loudness thing is starting to come back down. Would you agree?
MFi: From my standpoint, from a lot of the CDs we see, it seems to be…
Jack: Holding fast?
MFi: Yeah, I hate to say it, but the brickwall is definitely there. Most of the metal CDs we review typically hover around DR6.
Jack: Oh, that’s gnarly. That’s crazy.
MFi: Well, we just reviewed an album that was DR3.
Jack: Come on! Really? I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a recording that loud.
MFi: They’re pretty famous, too. Here’s something that shocked me: I talked to one famous artist that I’m positive Otrebor knows. His record actually featured a lot of digital clipping.
Jack: Jesus. I think people are starting to respond to this whole loudness thing. Obviously, with the whole Metallica “Death Magnetic” thing, where pretty much every snare hit on the record clips, and people noticed the “Rock Band” video game version sounded better than the album? In the age of MP3s and streaming audio, when your audience notices your record sounds like shit, that’s a huge wakeup call. Do you know what I mean?
MFi: Yeah, I totally agree with you. And I was shocked too by “Death Magnetic.”
Jack: I think the thinking behind this comes from the idea of, “well, if people want to do loud, we’ll do louder!” And apparently, historically, this goes all the way back to Motown, where people wanted their record to be louder than the other label’s record. It’s been strived for forever.
It’s a weird thing. I’ve talked to and read about mastering engineers who kind of accept it. Like, “loud is cool, and it is rock and roll,” and a lot of times it can serve the music, but obviously, to an extent. I know from mixing and mastering, that there’s always a breaking point where a mix goes from sounding kick ass to all of a sudden it starts to sound kind of shitty. So I think that compared to what else is out there, my records tend to be on the quieter side.
But compression is a magical musical tool that when used properly, can enhance the way things sound. But like anything, it can be overdone. When I do a vinyl and digital master, one of the things I do is I usually take the digital master and turn it down in the software about 4 decibels. I leave the vinyl master with a good degree more headroom. And it’s crazy to compare two versions of a recording, one that has been limited to the degree that it is competitively loud, and the other isn’t, and you A/B them, it’s crazy how much more life and air there is to something that hasn’t been brick-wall limited when you just turn it up.
The idea that you can slam everything and make it crazy loud, what that means is yes, the digital file is loud, but when you actually turn it up and make it audibly loud, it’s super fatiguing, versus something that has a bunch of range, you can crank it up, and it punches still – it has so much room still to jump out of the speakers… versus the super loud thing, which just hurts.
I appreciate that you’re trying to raise awareness about this whole thing. I try to educate as much as I can when a band is in here and they’re like, “yeah, just fuckin’ make it loud, man!” And usually the conversation is like what I just told you, and then them saying, “oh, that’s cool, but can you just make it really loud, still?”
I find that most of the time, the people that really want it smashed to bits – even though technically, the recording might suffer, for the kind of music that it is, it doesn’t really matter. I’ll try to do some A/Bing, but when they’re in that mindset, all they really care about is when they put their song on their iPod, it’s as loud or louder than their favorite recording. Even when it’s explained, they don’t want to understand. It’s hard to educate people that don’t understand and don’t want to understand, anyway. They want that knee-jerk reaction of “fuck yeah, dude!” With the people that care about dynamics, I don’t need to talk to them about it. They know I’m going to do whatever I think is right, and they roll with it.
MFi: The Atomic Garden started out as a digital studio, then you learned about analog and its process, and now what you do is essentially in the analog space. Why did you go in that direction?
Jack: The short answer is it sounds better.
When you start with digital, you have plug-ins. You record into the computer, and use a plug-in to simulate a processor: It could be a compressor or an equalizer. A lot of these plug-ins emulate hardware – it could be vintage hardware or whatever – and the picture on screen looks like you have the faceplate of the actual hardware, with all the knobs you can turn, and whatever. It’s supposed to sound like it. But the difference between a plug-in and a piece of hardware is kind of like the difference between an amp simulator and a tube amp. If you didn’t know the difference, you’d think, “wow, this is super cool.” But if you heard them side-by-side, well, clearly there’s one you’re going to pick.
Analog is super expensive. Starting a recording studio and saying, “I’m going to get enough stuff to have a fully analog studio” is like impossible. It’s super daunting financially. But the second you start buying high-end analog equipment, all you want to do is buy more high-end analog equipment, because the shit sounds incredible. And the thing that I love about analog that you don’t get from software (and it’s getting there, but I think it still has a long way to go) is that you can really push this stuff, and it really responds. It’s like a tube amp. Be it the mic-pre, or the EQ, or the actual tape recording medium, you can push it and it responds like it’s interactive or alive.
The tape was the last thing that I added that was analog. And it’s made the biggest impact on my recording and the studio sound by far. The two tape machines that are here have made a crazy impact. Tape is a beautiful medium. I would compare it to film photography vs. digital photography – there’s grain and there’s contrast and there’s depth, and you can blow it out, and it’s cool.
Actually, this is funny, as this is something Otrebor and I have compared as to how digital is the worst thing to happen to black metal. I love this analogy.
Otrebor: Yes, this is funny.
Jack: Ok, guys in their home, who are using like a 4-track, and can turn everything to 10, and it sounds awful, but it sounds awesome, you know? It’s so perfect and so fitting. And you do that on a computer, and it sounds like complete garbage. It sounds like an Atari.
It’s the same thing with layouts: Somebody who would make photocopies of photos that they liked that were all blown out and shitty, and paste them together, and it was so cool.
Otrebor: And then photocopies of photocopies. And that looks awesome!
Jack: Yeah, yeah! And then you try to do that in Photoshop… and essentially you’re taking someone who doesn’t know how to use something, and they’re feeling it out and trying to make something happen, but if you try to do that in Photoshop, you just end up with a big pixellated mess. It looks like “My First Layout,” like you’re in kindergarten, or something. Meaning, not in a cool way at all, but rather in a really embarrassingly bad way.
Sure, there are digital tools that will allow you to achieve some of the same ends you can get in analog, but the thing is, in analog, you can do it by accident. Like, “I don’t know how to use this 4-track, but the thing I’m going to make is going to sound awesome because it’ll let me,” or, “I don’t know how to do a layout, but I can fuck with this copy machine long enough to get something to work,” you know?
Jack: We’ve veered off topic a little bit, but the analog stuff? It sounds super romanticized, but it’s no bullshit, man. It really is more rich and more serving for the creative experience and artistic expression. Recording to tape: It just sounds right.
And I would say that if I didn’t have to use the computer – and I do have to use it – I would get rid of it in a heartbeat. If I could have fully analog-only studio… it’s a little wet dream of mine. I think about it all the time… but it’s impossible. I mean, I’d go out of business.
MFi: Otrebor, I just read that there is a live Botanist plan that is now finally in the works. You had talked about it several times, and it was always you needed a label to back you, finances, etc…
Otrebor: “Bandmates” was the big one.
MFi: But now is this going to happen? Is this true?
Otrebor: The official statement is our goal is to be ready by the Summer to go on at least a small tour on the West Coast. I’m really thrilled to already be getting offers to be flown out to play, which is amazing. It’s also a little scary, because with re-inventing at least something of a wheel, there’s a whole lot of unexplored territory that reveals itself as logistics to figure out at a moment’s notice. That was the case when Botanist started recording, but the allowance of what you can get away with on a recording is a lot greater than what you can get away with live. But Botanist is a live band with five members that will play its shows come hell or high water. I’ve got some great people I’m working with and feel very fortunate to have assembled the line-up that Botanist has. We have many practice recordings and a set ready to play. The big challenge is how to take instruments that aren’t designed to do what we want them to do, and make them do it.
Jack: Meaning that if I try to take this acoustic instrument and plug it into a 5150 and turn it up loud enough to get pas the drums on stage, it starts feeding back like crazy, the drums are being amplified up by the pickups on the dulcimer and getting distorted by the effects pedal and bleeding through the amps louder than the dulcimer itself… it’s a crazy world to have come alive. But from the progress reports that I’ve heard and from some of the practice recordings, it seems like it’s going really well.
Otrebor: Put it this way: There’s a reason why Marduk, or Metallica, or Dying Fetus, or AC/DC don’t go on stage with acoustic guitars and play their fully-distorted material. There’s a reason why they use electric guitars. Unfortunately for Botanist, at this time there is no electric dulcimer available on the market. You can’t just go down to Guitar Center and pick one up. So it needs to be invented. And it’s being invented. It’s being custom-built.
MFi: Is that James Jones?
Otrebor: Yeah, James Jones is on the case. James has always been there through all the radical ideas I’ve had for applications for the hammered dulcimer. This time has been no exception. He’d come up with a blueprint for an electric dulcimer, and when that didn’t work, he’d come up with another. I’m not sure what he thinks about Botanist’s music, but I can tell you he’s not one to back away from a challenge.
MFi: Would you play the whole US?
Otrebor: Hell, man, I’m interested in getting this music and what it stands for our as much as I can. I have people who are with me who are stoked to be able to do something like that. So the whole US? Bring it on.
MFi: Otrebor, I hope you make it to the East Coast.
Otrebor: I’m pretty sure we will.
MFi: I can’t wait. Thanks guys, this was a lot of fun.