Interview by Katie Renz for Phyte Club. Original posting here.

BOTANIST: PLANT-INSPIRED, GUITAR-LESS BLACK METAL

Tuberous geophyte
Lanceolate speckled leaves
Compact raceme
Great plantae club of war
Rising out of the waste of humanity
A sign of vengeance to come

“Dactylorhiza Elata”, from The Suicide Tree (tUMULt, 2011)

A friend once asked me if Botanist, the one-man black metal band dedicated to writing albums about the plant kingdom, was based on Phyte Club. Nope, not at all (Botanist came first), though the two are — certainly, obviously – naturally allied. I mean, what other metal bands have a link to the California Native Plant Society on their website? In addition to this awesome union, how many forego the standard six-stringed backbone of the genre for a….hammered dulcimer? This past July, Botanist released a double album, “The Suicide Tree/A Rose From the Dead” on the San Francisco-based tUMULt; though totally untraditional in lyrical and instrument choices, the album’s garnered favorable reviews from various blogs, perhaps the most mainstream being National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” This first release represents only the initial two efforts, for Botanist is as prolific as basidiomycetes after autumn’s rains or Eschscholzia californica on hillsides in March, with a third album slated for release this coming winter and at least five others in various stages of completion.

Phyte Club recently sat down with the mastermind behind Botanist, Otrebor Illenitram, to discuss why black metal and green nature (and the hammered dulcimer) is such a worthy combination.

So, black metal and flora….?

The whole nature worship and black metal is certainly not new. It’s been going on for at least 20 years and as far as I’m concerned the first real band to do that was Ulver. They made probably the most nature-worship black metal series of records, their first three.

I started noticing how scientific plant names had a really black metal ring to them. I’d look up words in the dictionary and be like, “Oh, that word is so awesome. Ohhhh, it’s a plant name [sounds disgruntled].” And so then when it happened the fifteenth time, I thought, “Someone should make music about this.”

And, there’s a lot of really brutal stuff going on in the plant kingdom.

Oh sure. I have a song about the notion of sliding down Nepenthes and what would happen to you. Nepenthes is all about forgetting things that are painful for you, so it’s that feeling, that fantasy of sliding down Nepenthes and being consumed by it into nothingness.

slide to your death

Sounds like a good way to go. So then, would this be the start of a new plant metal genre?

It could be. You know, the whole pagan genre in black metal is really getting bigger and bigger. Part of it has nothing to do with nature, it’s more to do with heritage and tradition, and in a lot of cases it’s just a veil for National Socialism. And so instead of saying, “We’re Nazis,” they’re saying, “Oh, we’re pagans!” There are different scenes in this. But I don’t think anyone’s really done a band where it’s about plants, at least not in the way Carcass did a band all about medical terminology. No one had done that before, and then all these other people were all, “Oh that’s cool,” and then goregrind came along and goregrind’s basically about what Carcass did but more. Botanist is kind of what Carcass did but it’s about plants! [laughs] And it’s more of a concept too.

Does this mean you have a background in plant biology or plant identification? Because you’re throwing out a lot of crazy plant terms in your lyrics like “oblanceolate” and “adaxially glabrous.”

The truth is, I got the idea from finding plant names and thinking they were cool sounding, because I like words a lot. And that’s one of the things I’ve liked about metal is metal tends to use a lot of obscure words, and I’ll have to go look them up. Like there’s a band called Canorous Quintet. I didn’t know what “canorous” meant –- it means “pleasant-sounding.” And there’s “desultory,” I had to go look that up. So metal has that thing about it, and it’s something I like – the whole obscurity thing — and the words are just another facet of its obscurity. So all these obscure plant names that no one has written about? Wow, let’s do that! And then, just looking up about plants is not that hard. But I make a point of knowing what I’m writing about, though I might forget it the next day. I grew up with plants: My mom has the nicest garden in the City [San Francisco]. She has lots of rare stuff from Europe. So I grew up with my mom going, “Look at the [obscure Latin name]!”

lovely linear notes of antique botanical prints

Can you tell us about the “Verdant Realm,” the sort of meta-story behind the Botanist lore?

The theme is growing with each record. Originally, it was, “I’m going to write a bunch of stuff about plants.” Then it was like, “Well, what about these plants? What is so special about them? Well, what if it was all written by this person who was involved with all the plants? Why is he involved with the plants? Well, he’s a botanist. But what’s his deal, what does this have to do with black metal? Well, black metal’s generally misanthropic, so he hates people, and he’s afraid of people, and he wants everyone to die because that way he can be alone with his plants because everyone makes him feel weird.” It just started as that, and then I started looking at plants like, “Oh, what does this plant do? Oh, it does that, that’s cool, I can play that up. Or even if it doesn’t do anything harmful, I can play it up in an ominous way of how he sees it, like this plant grows in the snow and the snow is bad for people….”.

a verdant realm, from hickerphoto.com

….And snow is cold, which is evil, and it snows in Norway!

….Or, “There’s nothing particularly bad about this plant but it’s just watching you until you die” or something like that. So the Botanist sees all these plants as out to get people even though they’re not.

I kind of summon Botanist. Especially the first two records, I don’t even know where this music came from, I just made it. I just sat down and started recording this stuff. The first song on the first record was the first time I ever wrote anything for this project.

As Botanist, you’re playing the drums, the hammered dulcimer, and singing, and also writing all the music, too. Your debut is a double album, and you’re working on a third?

I have number five coming up and I’m working on VI.

You’ve played a lot of different styles of metal – you were in a grind band, a power prog project, and your other current band, Ophidian Forest, is black metal.  Are you at a point now where you mostly want to focus on black metal, then?

Well, the thing is, even though black metal has this kind of extreme stodginess, or extreme conservativeness to the way the music is perceived, like, “These are the rules of black metal,” it seems like there are just as many cases where black metal is the most artistic form of metal there is.

How so?

There’s a lot more allowance for avant garde-ness, or just retardation in general. You’re more likely to be able to have a totally retarded band and it be black metal and people go, “Whoa, this is totally amazing,” than it would if you tried to have a traditional heavy metal band. With black metal, even though there are all these supposed rules, I think at the same time we can get away with a lot more. So, I’m not trying to “get away” with anything, but I just wanted to make records in which my framework is dulcimer, drums, and vocals. I didn’t even intend for it to be black metal at first. I tried to pitch this idea to other people as a grind band: “Why don’t we do a two-man grindband about plants!?” And people said, “Oh…yeah….well, maybe….”. So I said, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself. Alright, dulcimer and drums.” If you look at the songs on the first two records, they’re all short. That’s because there was a tendency for it to be more like a grind thing. But then as I started writing the music I realized it’s not in me to write grind, especially on dulcimer. And then I’ve always identified more with black metal, so it became more of a natural connection to make music like that.

I think it goes really well together.

Absolutely. It does. And the theme is growing. The third album talks more about Azalea. The fourth is about mandragoras. It’s a concept record about how Azalea tells the Botanist, “Okay, you have to grow all these mandrakes that you must set lose and eradicate humanity. And this is how you’re going to do it.” The first song is about the lore – this is where mandrakes come from, you have these people hanging from trees, and their semen falls to the ground, and there’s this root, and you dig it up and you take milk and bats and throw them in a crypt. It was amazing.

beware the demon seed: Mandragora officinarum, painting by B.A. Vierli

Don’t these medieval plant stories already sound like metal songs? It’s like you don’t even have to do anything.

I got five songs out of this!

And Azalea’s the voice that speaks though the Botanist?

He’s like the Botanist’s Satan. The thing about the whole lore of this is it’s never really explicit that all these things really exist: They could exist, or they could be schizophrenia.

And then you’ve also got the Verdant Messiah?

Yeah, he’s like Jesus for the Botanist. I haven’t figured out who this is going to be, but there’s going to be a record called Verdant Messiah, maybe VIII, maybe IX.

Why the hammered dulcimer?

I’ve always liked it. I was introduced to it 12 or 13 years ago when I used to live in Japan and some guy was playing it on the street. I’m a drummer, so hitting things in time makes a lot of sense to me, especially while playing melodies. And I can apply drum rhythms to it, which opens up a whole different thing that I haven’t heard so much, especially in the metal world. And really the amount of music in any world that’s of hammered dulcimer that’s been distorted or affected with drums….? I think there’s one other dude that does it, and it’s definitely not metal. There’s just not a lot of that stuff, or at least with a popular music element to it that’s not folk music from Ireland or Appalachia.

not a guitar: the hammered dulcimer, from viewutopia.com

My goal is for there to be some kind of new angle on the sound from record to record, even if it’s just for me to notice. Either it’s a major genre, stylistic shift like from I to II to III, or what VI to VII is going to be, or it’s something that I’m doing to the instruments that is much different to make it sound different. For example, a drone is a really important and powerful tool in music. It sounds boring, and basically it is, but what you can do with it is amazing. So I get into it more with IV, and then V has a lot of it, and I’ll be looking into it more on VI, and VII’s going to be the big drone record.

Do you play shows?

It’s impossible because I’d have to find people that could play dulcimer. I’d love to play shows, and if I did I would play drums, and I might do vocals, too. I guess the only alternative would be to get keyboards that were sequenced with keys that sound like dulcimer, but then that would ruin the whole point. The thing that was really funny was when I first got my dulcimer I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go find people that like dulcimer!” And I found a club, and nobody was under 60, and they all got together and played “Greensleeves” and “Ave Maria.” I like that, but I don’t want to play it.

When I play drums, especially on earlier records, I always approached it as a feat of strength, like an athletic thing. I used to be a weight lifter, like the kind you see in the Olympics where you have to lift this maximum weight over your head, which means that you might not be able to do it, you might drop it. You drop it all the time, because it’s maximum. So there’s something even to this day about my playing that I’m starting to back off of but will always be there, like, I might not be able to play this, I might drop it and have to do it again. So there was something about that element to metal drumming that speaks to my personality, of cramming the air with as many notes as possible. That sounds amazing. Would I want to be in a rock band? Absolutely not, because to me it’s so dull. I like rock music, it’s fine, but to play it, it’s like, “Oh my god, can I do this ridiculous fill now?” “No, you can’t do that.” I took lessons from Paul Bostaph who played for Slayer for ten years. He was Slayer’s less famous drummer. And he said the same thing.

cramming the air

I started Phyte Club, in part, to inspire people about something bigger than themselves. Do you feel any sense of this? Not with the intention of being didactic but to use your lyrics to tell listeners cool stuff about the plant kingdom?

There’s nothing didactic about Botanist. But to inspire? No, it’s really not that angle. I get a lot of enrichment from doing this topic. I don’t see this getting old. I look at bands like Cannibal Corpse — and I’ve been thinking this for 15 years now — those guys must be so bored, writing another song about how you’re going to be chopped into pieces. But the thing with Cannibal Corpse, and with Botanist, is you can’t make a song that’s not about chopping up people because that’s not Cannibal Corpse anymore and people that want Cannibal Corpse would be pissed. But I don’t think I can get tired of this because there are so many plants to talk about.

How serious are you with the whole “anti-humanity” ideology versus how much of it is constructed?

None of this is a joke. It’s not meant to be a joke. Some people have already said, “Oh, it’s kind of campy, like you have “Gorechid,” which is like a stupid pun.” Yes, and I admit it is kind of a stupid pun, but the concept of what the song is about is not a stupid pun. It’s about the Botanist’s vision of human entrails dripping over orchids, and how those worthless, vapid people in life have now become useful in death because they’re going to feed the orchids. So it’s a more death metal, gore metal concept. But Botanist isn’t a joke, and it isn’t made to be gimmicky. It is me playing and having fun with it. The thing that maybe some people don’t understand about joke bands is that joke bands are really hard to maintain because jokes get old.

Everything that I write about in Botanist is from the perspective of the Botanist, and the Botanist as a character is a part of me, he exists within me. It’s like a more romantic, fatalistic version of a part of my personality that is in some way kind of a schizophrenic thing, like I have to find that in order to make the music I want to make. But do I think plants will bring about the end of Earth? No, I think people will bring about the end people. But I also think, which is also in line with the Botanist’s ideas, that when people will kill themselves off and cease to exist, the earth will carry on. The whole idea of, “We are ruining the Earth”? Yes, we are, but I don’t think it’s permanent. I think we could nuke the entire planet and within a certain amount of time the planet would come back – we’d all be dead – but the earth would come back with a bunch of animals and plants. And I think that’s already been proven with nuclear test sites and oil spills.

were these dripping with gore, they'd be gorechids.

Have you read The World Without Us? That’s exactly what it’s about, that in places like demilitarized zones or with a bunch of land mines, plants and animals are re-inhabiting them simply because people can’t go there.

We can’t ruin things. We can ruin it for us in terms of, “Oh, we used to have this beautiful bay and now we don’t because it has sludge in it.” Its ruined for us and it’s ruined for those animals, but I think the planet is much too powerful for us. It’s just a matter of time. I think that perspective is really clear with Botanist, that “Everyone will die, and when they die, plants can take over again, and I’m going to become a plant!”

There’s “saving” it for the planet and there’s “saving” it for us enjoying the planet, and really about energy. I could destroy your room, and you could get more furniture. But the impact of me destroying your room: What would that do to you, and what would that do to my relationship with you, and your relationship with everyone that knew I destroyed your room? And more practically, if you ruin the park, we can’t enjoy the park anymore, so why would you want to destroy the park? Or the rainforest?

and since i'm part of nature, i'm pissed too.

The sticker on your album labels it, in part, “ecoterrorist”. Did you decide on that term? To me, I have a negative connotation with it because it’s been used to really screw over a lot of radical environmental groups. I consider the real ecoterrorists to be the mega-corporations that are pillaging the planet.

I think you have a more of a deep perception of it than I do. That’s what I wanted it to be billed as, because it is possible to notice it — I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in black metal. “Terrorist,” yes. But what does it mean? It’s not political at all. Politics for me is some sort of effort to promote the interests of one group over the interests of another, and Botanist isn’t interested in any group of people. That’s the point. It’s anti-human, is the theme. So there’s nothing political about it, but in terms of being “ecoterrorist” it’s the angle of, “Nature is out to get you because you’ve been bad to it.” The ecology will be terrorizing.

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