Interview by Kelly Hoffart for Full Metal Attorney
Last month I reviewed the weirdest metal album of the year, and I loved it. I'm talking about the dulcimer-based black metal band Botanist, of course. I recently had a chance to interview sole member, songwriter, and performer Otrebor about the project's origin and more.
I like to imagine that you found a creepy old music shop, and hidden in the corner of their basement there was a cobweb-covered dulcimer. The shop owner warned you that it was cursed--but you bought it anyway. After you left the shop and started playing it, strange things started happening. You tried to return and learn more about the curse, but the shop was empty, and looked as if it had been deserted for years. Is that an accurate description of how you came to play the dulcimer?
Otrebor/Botanist: Let's make the story you painted above as the official one.
You see, Botanist's dulcimer IS cursed. Even when a tuner says it's in tune, it still sounds creepy and morbid. Maybe that's why the manufacturer was trying to get rid of it at a used price. Other dulcimers will sound sweet, serene... even dainty. This one is ominous and foreboding. Fate has it that it's the one I got.
Strange things indeed. Just listen to the albums.
From reading the liner notes, it sounds as if you tried to form a more conventional black metal band which happened to also feature the dulcimer, but were frustrated by others' lack of vision. How did you come to the conclusion that you could do this without guitars?
Otrebor/Botanist: Thank you for reading. You are extrapolating a bit beyond what actually happened. I'd been in a number of bands, of different styles, that did little to nothing, but mostly nothing. The cause for this seemed to consistently be lack of personnel, and/or lack of ambition/drive/dedication of the existing personnel. Instead of being increasingly frustrated at the behavior or availability of others, which I cannot control, I decided to do it all myself, which would allow for a practically unlimited outlet for creativity and recording.
There is some dulcimer to be found on the other project I'm currently in, Ophidian Forest. The two first compositions and recordings I ever did on dulcimer are to be found on our third album, "Susurrus," which is yet to be released.
As to how it came down to making this project without guitars, it's a combination of my being an iconoclast, a contrarian, that I had a vision of what could be done with dulcimer and drums with the Botanist concept, and also that I'm a drummer: I am most inspired musically through the rhythmic textures of hitting things in time, so using an instrument that essentially works that way and also makes melodies was the instinctual choice.
How has the response been to the project so far? Do you think the people who turned down your idea are kicking themselves?
Otrebor/Botanist: A personal adage that drives me in all creative things is that "no matter how bad something is, someone will like it." Considering that, it has been remarkable how many someones, with blogs and in charge of magazines (and who run labels!), are passionate about Botanist. It seemed likelier to happen when tUMULt overlord Andee Connors said Botanist "I/II" was "the most insane and inspired shit; the most demented, retarded stuff ever. I feel like you sort of made it for tUMULt." It had been a decade-old dream of having a release on tUMULt, so when that opportunity came up, it was a harbinger of what may come to pass.
What's been happening in the couple months since the album's release has not only already been what I had hoped for, but has exceeded that. This has also been the case for tUMULt as well, as spotlight coverage on NPR, Decibel, and Zero Tolerance (in addition to all the other thoughtful, creative writing on the project chronicled on www.botanist.nu) is all a first for the label, which is particularly remarkable considering all the cult, essential albums it has released.
The personal adage's counterpart, namely, "no matter how good something is, someone will hate it," is also true. Considering that, we are awaiting the first enthusiastically negative review. It will be chronicled in equal regards with the laudatory articles.
So far, the most negative comments are something along the lines of "it's kind of interesting, I think, but I don't know what to make of it." Such people will grab at straws of familiarity and compare "I/II" to local black metal projects, which are awesome in their own right, but does Botanist really sound at all like Weakling or Pale Chalice? However, this is in its own way excellent and kind of encouraging. It means that the person's comfort zone and perceptions are being challenged. They can't get their mind around it and in a way are squirming.
Botanist, for what it is, is going to be a polarizing act. It will polarize those metal fans that hear it, either as progressive, avant-garde art, or utterly awkward bumbling from someone who doesn't get the genre at all. Already people are seeing it as metal, yet wholly other. The excellent point that you made, Kelly, about how Botanist doesn't sound like metal, yet sounds like black metal, is one of the most poignant in this regard. I think Botanist challenged you, you were open enough to accept it, and still you are getting your mind around it. These are all welcome aspects of the reactions to Botanist's work.
As to if people are kicking themselves... maybe. I'd imagine most have no clue as to Botanist's existence, and if they did, they probably would find it whimsical.
The sticker on the front of the album labels Botanist as "eco-terrorist black metal". Is the idea of the Botanist (the character) merely an interesting story, or is there a serious political agenda?
Otrebor/Botanist: A political agenda would mean upholding the interests of one group of people over another. The Botanist is not interested in that. Rather, the "eco-terrorist" stance is a reflection of The Botanist's view of the Natural World's reclaiming of the Earth, and particularly in direct opposition to Humanity. The Botanist sees Humanity as flora's nemesis, and as such, flora will do all that it can to eradicate its enemy.
The artwork in the album looks like it was taken from old botanical illustrations. Can you tell us about the artwork?
Otrebor/Botanist: The art is exclusively classical 18th Century botanical artwork. It's astounding in terms of it being meticulously accurate scientifically while simultaneously aesthetically pleasing. It evokes a timeless, classic feel; one that is forever past and future, which is the kind of outlook on flora that fits ideally with the world of Botanist. Like the musical approach, the art from album to album will not be of the same style, but it was important to establish the Botanist look with such classical works.
The band logo is one of the coolest I've seen in a long time. What can you tell us about the design?
Otrebor/Botanist: The logo was designed by Bastiaan de Vries at Crash Test Logo. The branches are all from an authentic Dutch tree. The flowers are Sparaxises. Get in touch with Bastiaan if his talent is of interest. He is a big metal fan and his rates are reasonable.
The follow-up album is said to incorporate some low-end, and to have an overall doomier approach. What additional instrumentation was used, and who plays it?
Otrebor/Botanist: The next album is "III: Doom in Bloom." As the title states, it will be Botanist's attempt at a doom-oriented record. In many ways, it is the antithesis of the sound, approach, and feel of the first two records: long, slow songs, with huge, heavy drumming. Obviously the experiment was a success, as the dedicated doom label TotalRust will be releasing it in February of next year.
The added instrumentation you asked about is largely from piano and bass guitar. As will be the case with every element on Botanist, all performances are and will forever be done by The Botanist.
You have five full albums recorded for this project so far, and seem to be in the stage of finding labels to release all the material. Have you given thought to putting an album (or even an EP) out on Bandcamp for free download, to drum up interest? On what other distribution methods / media formats can we expect Botanist releases?
Otrebor/Botanist: I'm not with it as far as online marketing goes. I've never even visited Bandcamp or many other sites that seem indispensable in people at large's lives. It's probably to my detriment that I largely find them repugnant.
At this stage, though, such promotion seems unnecessary. The release of the next 3+ albums are already practically confirmed, on highly regarded, hard-working indie labels. There is talk of having at least one album next year released on vinyl. I'd expect "IV: Mandragora" to be the most obvious candidate for that.
Besides, if anyone would like any kind of taste of the present and of things to come, all they need to do is go to www.botanist.nu. There are entire songs from all five completed albums on high-quality mp3.
Obviously, the Botanist is forging an entirely unique path. But are there any primary influences?
Otrebor/Botanist: Influences can differ from album to album, but artists that seem to consistently shape or inspire Botanist are The Ruins of Beverast, Stars of the Lid (and side projects), Ulver, Immortal, Pagan's Mind, Antonio Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, Arvo Part, Edenbridge, Helloween, Angra, Martyr (Canada), Bolt Thrower (Whale era). Ask on a different day and you may get a different list.
Are you still involved in Ophidian Forest, or any other musical endeavors?
Otrebor/Botanist: I am. 2011 has been a bit of a break-out year for Ophidian Forest, as well. We had a split with Greek group Pyrifleyethon, titled "Summoning of the Igneous," co-released by Le Crépuscule du Soir (France) and Victory by Fire (Holland). The three songs on our side of the split are sort of B-sides from our third record, "Susurrus," which we hope will be released some day.
The beginning of 2012 will see another split release. The label, UW Records (run by ex-Catholicon, current Excommunicated vocalist Chad Kelley, out of Louisiana) is saying it will be an Ophidian Forest / Heresiarchs of Dis split. We're excited about that prospect, as Heresiarchs of Dis has been carving out its own interesting work.
Another couple albums (with failed bands) are in limbo somewhere on CDR in a stack of other odds and ends. It is doubtful those will ever be released.
You started a dulcimer-focused black metal band. What other instruments do you think could replace guitars for an interesting avant-garde metal project?
Otrebor/Botanist: The cello is the most obvious instrument. Think about what Apocalyptica did, particularly on their masterwork, "Cult." Or listen to how Grayceon incorporates the cello in such a way that you'll find people who don't even notice that it's been a cello playing all along in the music they've been listening to. Particularly recommended is Grayceon's third album, "All We Destroy."
Certainly metal is driven by guitars and drums, as is rock music. However, there is an extreme in adhering to that perception as law that enters into the realm of stagnation.
Considering a guitar is a stringed instrument, it's not such a stretch to imagine that other stringed instruments, given a similar treatment of distortion and musical approach, could fit into a metal context just as well. Consider what a guitar can sound like the the hands of a "singer/songwriter" or country musician -- it is far removed from metal, even though it is the same instrument. With that in mind, what is to say that a banjo, given the same treatment and intent as a guitar, with the same musical approach as metal's, wouldn't also be an interesting and objectively fitting way to express heavy, aggressive music?
Listen to some folk music played on a hammer dulcimer, and then listen to the clips on www.botanist.nu. It's the same instrument. Does that mean that the music made with it must be singularly limited in style?
For more instruments that may challenge your perception of what can drive metal-oriented music, await the release of future Botanist albums and decide for yourself.
If you could force everyone in the world to listen to one album, what would it be and why?
Otrebor/Botanist: Today, I'm going to go with The Ruins of Beverast "Foulest Semen of a Sheltered Elite." Not only is the music deep and fascinating, but it's all done by one person. As far as one-man bands, and one-man black metal bands in particular go, the scope of what Meilenwald is doing in Beverast outdoes every other comparable band. His composition, range of performance, musical ear, execution, and sense of style is unparalleled. With that said, the world at large is not able to hear black metal, so it would be a wasted effort. In a way, that is the point of black metal.
Finally, I'd like to address the comments you made about Botanist's "cheesy" song titles. Yes, you can see something like "Gorechid" and "Rhododendoom" as such. It is a valid remark. However, beyond its own contrarian nature, even within itself, there is a wholehearted theme and intent. "Gorechid" is a representation of The Botanist's desire to see mankind slaughtered for the benefit of plants -- the song's imagery is of human viscera dripping down orchids, pooling amongst the mycorrhiza, providing nourishment. "Rhododendoom" introduces the pivotal character of Azalea, the deity who speaks as voices in The Botanist's head, directing his efforts to bring about the floral apocalypse. (An azalea is a rhododendron.) Azalea will be a bigger part of Botanist's lore in albums to come.
Even if some aspects of Botanist seem playful or even cute, Botanist is not a joke. I wouldn't be able to maintain it for much more than an album if it were. It is a seriously-minded creative expression reflective of the extreme paradoxes that exist within me, and in some weird regard, us, as The Botanist also exists within me. He is summoned each time something is composed and recorded.
Kelly, you mentioned "Sparaxis of Perdition," but missed titles like "Chaining the Catechin" and "A Rose From the Dead." Hahahahaha.