Interview by Noah Berlatsky for The Awl, originally posted on July 29, 2014, here.
Alan Weisman's 2007 The World Without Us is a lushly bleak non-fiction vision of apocalyptic utopia—a scientific extrapolation of what would happen if all the people on earth disappeared, all at once. Our parasites and dependents would die; carnivores would thrive; trees would push their way up through the asphalt; bridges would fall; nuclear power plants would fail, spilling radiation into the countryside, poisoning the land for millennia; plastics would be everywhere, virtually forever; and the earth would go on.
I asked Otrebor, the one-man force behind the black metal, green freak band Botanist, if he'd ever read Weisman's book. He said he hadn't, but that hasn't stopped him from effectively writing its soundtrack. Botanist's latest album, VI: Flora, which arrives on August 19th, is a long, sweeping, chthonic drone, as Otrebor growls about his beloved plants: "Pendant stamens/Bulbous teeth/Daggers pointed down/Perennial plant/Nascent In spring" he chokes and spits and whispers with all the reverent bile that black metal bands usually reserve for paeans to Satan. Botanist imagines a prettier, quieter doom: flowers growing while we're not watching, in a world without us staining it.
The other day I talked to Otrebor about his dark ecological vision, black metal, and his unusual instrumentation of drums and hammered dulcimer and, of course, human extinction.
Your concerns seem somewhat different than the mainstream environmental movement. What exactly is your investment in environmental issues?
The first thing I think of when you mention that the focus is different is that—a lot of what I see with the environmental movement is, "We have to save the planet." We have to save the whales, the polar bears, the owls, the forest. What Botanist is saying is that the planet doesn't really need saving—that though all those things may go extinct, but it's really to our detriment that they go extinct. So eventually what will happen is, when all those things die, then the human race will also die. When the human race dies, all those things in some other form will come back, without the human race.
We're not more powerful than the planet. It's absolutely the opposite. Really, we have to focus on saving ourselves, and to do that we have to save the natural environment. There's nothing we can do that will wreck nature permanently. We can destroy everything. Whatever impact humanity has can ruin everything, and everything may die including ourselves, but something will come back. Even if it takes ten thousand years, something will come back. That's sort of the core messages of Botanist—and it's a message of hope and beauty. That these things are eternal, and we are the things that are ephemeral. We are the ones who will not last a long time.
What led you to play hammered dulcimer, or to make that instrument central to Botanist?
Being a drummer, hammered dulcimer is one of the most obvious things. I can hit things in time very well. And it's a bit of a different skill, but you can transpose those skills onto a dulcimer, and making music is very easy.
Outside that there are a bunch of factors. Number one is I'm fundamentally an iconoclast. If someone's doing something one way, I want to do it a different way. But also I've always loved it. Ever since seeing some guy play it on the streets of Tokyo, who was busking, to playing it in folk music instrument stores.
I think it's largely about the choral aspect of it. Because each chorus is two strings; you can't hit them separately. It's kind of like playing a piano with the dampers off. So you hit each note, and it just keeps going until it stops. Every note you hit is always ringing—or not always, but it'll ring out not like a guitar whatsoever. The best way I can talk about it is that it's this classical instrument. It's got piano, and harpsichord, and a harp, and a xylophone and maybe a little guitar mixed together, and that's fantastic.
Your songs on Flora are mostly descriptions of particular plants, like Callistemon, which is a shrub, or Dianthus, which is a flowering plant. Why approach ecological issues that way? Do you see your music as protest art or political art?
Well, Flora is one of the least concept-oriented records Botanist has done. It's one of the more simple approaches to revering plants and flowers. It's coming off Mandragora, and I thought Botanist had gone down a black metal hole or cave for a while, and…
So Mandragora was more of a black metal album?
Botanist has this universe of characters, and the central character is the Botanist, and the peripheral characters are all the plants. One of the main characters is this Azalea persona, who is sort of like the Satan of the Botanist universe. He's the entity that speaks to the Botanist and directs his actions. Azalea's goal is to take over nature; it wants to have the natural world take over the planet again, so it's telling Botanist what to do.
Azalea tells Botanist, you have to raise this army of mandrakes, this mythical creature derived from an actual plant. This army of mandrakes will wipe out humanity; that’s the whole misanthropic angle of raising this whole legion of creatures to kill everybody.
So I don't want to do the same thing all the time. I want to mix it up. Now it's time to do a record that gets out of that mindset. We're going to talk about just these plants, and not have the misanthropic aspect so much. It'll come back.
But I think Botanist is not so much about the misanthropy, which people in the black metal world connect with. It's easy to go, oh it's all about hating people. But, no, it's it's actually about loving nature more than hating people. Hating people got played up a lot. But Botanist is actually about how beautiful and wonderful the plants are and how spiritual they are, and the spiritual connection I get with them, that channels through me.
Why black metal then, if misanthropy is not what you're into? If you're all about loving animals and plants, it seems like that would fit more easily with some kinds of folk music.
I didn't say I wasn't into misanthropy. Misanthropy is definitely an intrinsic part of Botanist. But to answer your question, a lot of my inspiration is black metal. There's lots of different schools of black metal. There's the goat semen worshipping devil sacrifice–a-virgin sort of thing. That's a very important aspect of it, but it's not what really resonates with me. For me, it's more about being alone in nature and getting a true sense of yourself in relation to the entire world, as represented by the primordial forces of nature.
I think that really strongly comes from Norwegian culture. Because a lot of what black metal has become today is from this explosion of black metal from 20 to 25 years ago in Scandinavia. Even if they're not into black metal, the people there have this innate desire to be as far away from their neighbors as possible, and have as much natural surroundings as possible around them.
So that resonates a lot with me. The removing oneself from the constant buzz and false importance of our everyday society. And being able to retreat to nature, which can give us lessons in what is more important.
That's really the black metal aspect of influence which goes into Botanist.
So is it about misanthropy? Absolutely. I think that the black metal way is to tell the story about, you know, we're really fucking things up. Not every single person in the world is, but I think at a world cultural level, the consciousness of humanity is not in a really good place. I think because of that we're messing things up, as I said, mostly for ourselves, and it's going to be our undoing. That's the misanthropic angle of Botanist, but it's also the difference the band has over a lot of black metal bands, in that there's a message to it. It's not just, humanity sucks, everyone should die. No, humanity's blowing it, and if we don't change, the planet will kill us, and it'll move on.