interview by Andrew Cunningham for Metal Ireland. Original posting here.

What constitutes black metal in the year 2012?

As the genre shifts with the fluidity of an oil slick, it bends and twists itself into ever more unexpected forms and it seems harder and harder to actually quantify what it is.

Or maybe the opposite is true. The more things change the more they stay the same, or so they say.

So while the necronauts explore the outermost edges of the black metal fabric, tugging it further and further from its core and unraveling its thread to locate points of contact with a growing list of divergent elements, that same core burns ever darker, solidifying itself and sharpening its claws against the outside world.

One of the most oddball acts to have emerged recently from black metal’s more eco-friendly ‘Verdant Realm’ is the one-man enigma with the unlikely handle of Botanist and the even more unlikely employment of hammered-dulcimer. While being possibly the most tangentially linked practitioner of the black arts it is The Botanist’s willful iconoclasm and subversion of black metal norms that could arguably mark him out as a true wielder the genre’s fundamental ideals. I caught up with The Botanist himself to try to unravel some of the mysteries that make up the roots of this highly unique project.

Welcome. Please tell us about the background of Botanist and what your personal musical journey was that lead you to this point.

I grew up listening to metal. It was largely as a result of cool older kids that were into the music. I remember being like six or seven, at a school picnic, and someone was playing something heavy on a boom-box, and I remember thinking about how incredible that music made me feel. When I was nine, my favorite record was Manowar’s “Battle Hymns.” When I was eleven, Iron Maiden became my favorite band when I heard “Somewhere in Time.” To this day, that’s still one of my favorite albums.

After some unsuccessful dabbling, I definitively got converted to black metal when I heard Immortal’s “At the Heart of Winter,” which started to make things click, probably not surprising as the album mixes a good dose of heavy metal with the black metal goings on. Since then, it’s been an ever deepening forage into the underground.

Although I get into other styles of music, too, metal is my favorite. In my own particular way, I’m totally obsessed with it. Even though some people think Botanist isn’t metal, and I accept and understand (and maybe kind of like) that, the creation of the material is in an important way processing the music that’s meant so much to me throughout my life. You can find little homages to metal throughout lyrics in the bands that I’ve been in. For example, in Botanist, the song “Wings of Antichrys” and its depiction of inverted Chrysanthemums is a little tribute to the band Triumphator and its perfect boring/ awesome/ tedious/ amazing album, and by extension, everything Marduk has done.

Perhaps more obviously, “Euonymous in Darkness,” and its plant character being named as the “deciduous prince” is a tribute to Euronymous, Mayhem’s black prince of darkness. Both are characters that exist/existed in real life. Look them up. There are tons more.

Botanist was originally meant to be a band with other people. The problem was that no one that I told of the idea was down with doing the band. They smiled and gave their best go at sounding enthusiastic. I had had plenty of negative experience waiting around for people to show up/manifest/get their asses in gear to make the band a proper band that I knew that Botanist would never happen unless I made it happen. Since then, Botanist has been the product of recording albums by myself only, and with all talents and personal limitations that go along with it. Some of those limitations irritate me, but fuck it, black metal.

You have one of the most singular sounds to emerge from the constantly transforming black metal scene, or any other for that matter. Where did the idea come from to take the leap from the more traditional Ophidian Forest sound into the realms of complete loner weirdness?

That’s giving me more credit than I deserve in Ophidian Forest. I can take only up to a third of that.

Whatever my drumming style is, it’s just as much retarded as anything else. But it’s mine. I like that. And I’ll boast that if you hear enough records with me on it, you’ll be able to pick out other records I’m on in a blind taste test.

That’s part of the reason Andy Whale is one of my favorite and most influential drummers. On the Bolt Thrower albums he’s on, he basically plays three beats, total, and about one-and-a-half different fills. But his style makes the music that much heavier, that much more the perfect version of what that music is. The dudes that Bolt Thrower got after they stupidly got rid of Whale are technically better, no doubt, but inversely remarkable. I dedicated most of the drum work on the song “A Rose From the Dead” to Andy Whale’s legacy.

Or going back to Marduk, take Fredrik Andersson as another example. That guy’s totally (again) boring/lame/oh-my-god-not-again-please-kill-me thing about playing a double on the ride or hat at the end of each phrase of blast beats, which he plays about 90%+ of the time (and I’m being conservative) in every band he’s been in, the thing that seemed so excruciatingly trite at first, in fact went on to be not only his defining signature, but went on to define an entire generation of black metal drummers’ styles. He defines the Marduk records he’s on as much as any other member that was in the band at the time. Respect.

Coming back to your question, in order to make Botanist the perfect version of my style, I needed an instrument that would be the closest melodic version of whatever it is that my drumming style is channeling within me. The hammered dulcimer was the obvious choice. It allows me the most intuitive means of constructing melodic versions or companions to the rhythmic phrases that spin around in my head. The notion that what Botanist is doing has never been done before, and the challenging and bending of some of the most blindingly accepted norms in metal is a secondary catalyst, one that rises out of my contrarian nature.

I hear an unlikely mixture of vague reference points in your sound. Everything from the manic technical onslaught of The Dillinger Escape Plan to Master’s Hammer to Krallice to, I suppose, a mangled form of blast-beat molested classical music. Where and how do you see yourself fitting into the super-exclusive world of black metal?

I love metal, and I will fly its flag for the rest of my life. But it can also fuck off. That’s how I see Botanist fitting in.

Is it easier now for a band like Botanist to exist? Black metal has proven itself to be one of the most absorbent and elastic styles of metal, taking in everything from classical music to jazz, electronica, doom, death, hardcore punk, noise, goth, shoegaze etc. over the past number of years so do you think people’s minds are opening up more to the bands that have a more iconoclastic take on a particularly precious genre?

It’s ironic how black metal is now being talked as the most forward-thinking genre. For years after the turn of the millennium, it was the most stringent, conservative genre. Although great albums of any genre are always released, black metal didn’t have quite so many of them in the few years following the end of the world that never came.

But now people are starting to say how forward thinking and creative black metal is. I’m for it. I’m also for the stringent, conservative kind. Whatever black metal is or isn’t, I have no control over it. I’ll make the records that interest me, and Botanist will fit in wherever that is, or not at all.

For a sound that is so manic one of the main attractions for me is that you manage to retain a certain ambience; that droning quality that can only be achieved by being either ultra slow or super, super fast. The oddly dreamlike effect of the hammered dulcimer, combined with the pretty chaotic drumming, create a weirdly reflective headspace for the listener to bathe in. Was it a conscious effort to combine those two qualities or was it mere luck?

Like I was saying, Botanist is a result of all my abilities and limitations. It’s a result of careful planning, or of winging it, or of total mistakes… which can sometimes lead to a different kind of careful planning. It’s a result of all of those.

I’ve made something like 19 different recordings so far with various bands. Something important I’ve learned from this is that records are kind of like children: You can have a set plan for how the record is going to turn out, and although you do have influence, ultimately the record is going to turn out the way it’s going to turn out, and the debut Botanist release is a perfect example of that.

I think that artists that move us do so because their art is as a result of seeing the world in a way that we cannot; either because they are geniuses or insane, or damaged, or any of the above. I’ll let others speak about the qualities or lack thereof of Botanist, but I can speak about your question as to the amount of “conscious” effort that goes into its creation. Botanist is as much a non-conscious effort as it is a conscious one. Although each record has its own set of specific ground rules and limitations, there is also something of an invisible hand that guides whatever it is that’s going on. I know this because of the general feeling of uncertainty, bordering on bewilderment, about how any Botanist song turns out the way it does. Although partially the songs are a result of my conscious decisions, I feel that there is some other entity at work, be it one that exists out there, or one that exists somewhere in a hidden part of me. I’ve come to name that entity as The Botanist. Both he and I come together to create the songs.

You have a completely oddball lyrical concept. What’s going on there?

The songs of Botanist are told from the perspective of The Botanist, a crazed man of science who lives in self-imposed exile, as far away from Humanity and its crimes against Nature as possible. In his sanctuary of fantasy and wonder, which he calls the Verdant Realm, he surrounds himself with plants and flowers, finding solace in the company of the Natural world, and envisioning the destruction of man. There, seated upon his throne of Veltheimia, The Botanist awaits the day when humans will either die or kill each other off, which will allow plants to make the Earth green once again.

I presume from your song titles and lyrics that your interest in botany is something more than a superficial phase. Tell us about your background in such matters; how your interest formed and to what extent you have researched the subject.

Part of what makes a project in which all songs are about plants and flowers good to work with is that the source of material is practically inexhaustible. I could never make as many songs as there are kinds of plants (and then there are also the alchemical and mythological aspects of flora). There’s so much to know about them, particularly if the main point is simply the glorification of their form. I can assure you that all the plants exist in the natural world (with obvious exceptions, like Rhododendoom), and all the terms that describe them are actually from botanical science and pertain to the plants described.

Although limiting oneself to plants and flowers may be kind of like Cannibal Corpse limiting itself to its lyrical content, I can personally say that the source of Botanist’s inspiration is tremendously satisfying both emotionally and spiritually. I don’t mean to speak for Cannibal Corpse, though. Maybe they feel deep emotional harmony at writing songs about zombies raping women.

Are you a joker? Do you see yourself as a Loki figure in an otherwise straight-laced scene or are you 100% serious?

That’s a short question, but it covers a lot of ground.

Some have wondered if Botanist is something of a joke band, and with understandable reason. Songs like “Gorechid” and even “A Rose from the Dead” played on a hammer dulcimer might seem to some like someone’s taking the piss. I can assure you that Botanist is entirely a serious project, inasmuch as it is dedicated to the concept of the exaltation of the Plantae world through the core instrumentation of drums and hammered dulcimer.
I can assure this to anyone who’s tried to form a joke band. Have you tried? If so, how long was the joke interesting to you? Long enough to keep going at being in a band, which you probably know is generally perceived as fun, but requires a lot of toil and emotional dedication?

On the other hand, titles like “Rhododendoom,” “Chaining the Catechin” (another tribute to a metal institution, Deathspell Omega… take a look what a catechin is — it’s something contained in the plant presented in that song, Camelia Sinensis) or even “A Rose From the Dead” have an element of irreverence to them, something that arises, again, from my contrarian nature. But in each of those cases, there is sincerity in the apparent goofiness: for example, “A Rose From the Dead” is a depiction of Nature rising out of the seemingly utter destruction that mankind has wrought upon itself and everything around it — “From the deathfield, solitary entity blooms. Up from the wasteplains, a rose from the dead.” The image of a single flower re-emerging from total destruction is a representation of the strong underlying notion that Mankind cannot ruin Nature… Mankind can ruin Nature only for Mankind.

Here’s one more: “Rhododendoom” is titled as such not just as a nerdy pun, but also to point to the Rhododendron’s nature of invading as much space as it can take, “devouring all beyond its needs” (count that as another tribute to Bolt Thrower, I think “Dying Creed”) and how it compares to Humanity’s prevalent nature of consuming more than it requires. In the case of the Rhododendoom, and its singular figurehead, the demon Azalea, it is an image of the tables turning and Nature devouring Mankind.

Am I a Loki, an entity of mischief? Yes, I am.

I love your artwork. Again it spits in the eye of black metal stereotypes, presenting beautifully crafted scientific botanical illustrations that seem fairly benign until you view them in conjunction with the twisted lyrics. How do you see this developing on future releases to prevent it from becoming a gimmick?

That’s a good point you raise, particularly about the gimmick aspect. I’d really like to avoid any gimmickry whenever possible. Sure, detractors will say that a black metal band on hammered dulcimer is a gimmick, but time will tell. Maybe Botanist is living its 15 minutes of fame right now; maybe it isn’t.

As much as I love classical botanical art, and it would be convenient to use it as an easily identifiable visual calling card, things are going to change. I hired the talented artist M.S. Waldron to do the artwork for “III: Doom in Bloom,” whose cover will be unveiled soon. You can stay informed by checking in to the project’s homepage at www.botanist.nu or follow on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Verdant.Realm.Botanist. It’s my intention to hire different artists (I won’t name names until the work is completed and approved) for the next few Botanist albums, and return to the classical look a few releases from now, on “V,” and then depart again. It’s already mostly planned out.

I read recently that the material on your next album is moving into drone doom territory. Is there a common philosophical or artistic thread between these musical styles that you feel needs to be capitalized on or are you simply happy to keep listeners on their toes?

What I do with Botanist I do primarily to interest myself. That other people like it is great, but I’d make Botanist even if no one else cared, and I did, for two years before anyone knew anything about it. I had no expectation the project would reach this level of recognition, especially this soon, and thus envisioned that I would be releasing all the albums myself. I’m thankful for all of those who support the project.

What you gathered about the nature of Botanist “III” is partially true. Indeed, it is an effort of my interpretation of the doom metal genre. However, it isn’t so droney. It’s more big, distorted acoustic-ey. There is an important drone element introduced on song four, “Vriesea,” that will become a major player in Botanist albums to come, but overall, the doom drone Botanist will have to wait a few albums… it’s been in conceptual planning for more than a year. Time permitting I may start recording it at the end of 2012.

The conceptual thread on “III” deals primarily with the development of the demon Azalea and how he fits into The Botanist’s world. There’s also a good deal about mushrooms.

Some of my favorite bands have made the same album over and over again. I’m glad about that. But I don’t think I want to do that, especially since I have the recording bug, big time, so doing a similar thing multiple times in a short span would not be so good, not to mention boring for me.

For Botanist, the result is a drive to do more, and to do something different each time. So while those interested in the project are focused on albums “I/II,” I am already way ahead. If you like Botanist, I can promise you that the best albums are yet to come.

I presume you don’t perform live as you are a one man band but if you could, how would you envisage your ideal gig and what other bands would you like to share a stage with?

You’re right, there are no live performances, but having a live incarnation for Botanist is something that I’m more than open to. Botanist has gotten out-of-state offers to play, including South by Southwest, all of which I’d love to take advantage of. It’s been a long-time dream of mine to tour in Europe. Playing in Japan is something I’d love to do again, too.

If Botanist did play live, I would play drums and do vocals. I’d need at least two people to play dulcimer, and then probably a bass player and someone to play drones (stuff that will be needed for later albums). People would need their own instruments. If you can hit things in time on a very small surface, you can play in Botanist. I’ve been thinking about posting a video of me playing the main dulcimer part along to the drums to a song that I’m working on now for a split with Palace of Worms, which should be released at the end of 2012. People could get an idea of how feasible Botanist can be. I’ll announce it on the sites if it happens.

What bands in the metal world and beyond would you ideally love to share a split record with? Do you feel a kinship with any other bands?

I mentioned the Palace of Worms split above. Balan and I are talking to US label Antithetic about that. We’re pretty stoked at the level of product Shawn Sambol is releasing, like the 4LP Maudlin of the Well box set, which, love it or hate it, is a pretty sought-after bit of music.

The Palace of Worms split appeals to me especially in a “represent new wave of Bay Area black metal” kind of way. It also ties in well with collaborating with Balan on the second Ordo Obsidium record, for which I just finished recording the session drums.

Now onto fantasy. The first name to come to mind for a different split would be Vhernen, the one-man black metal band from the Faroe Islands who also doesn’t use guitars, but rather electric cello and electric harp. That guy’s music is wonderful. In a lot of ways, particularly the droney aspects, I feel Vhernen is achieving a great deal of what I’m trying to do (you’ll get a better idea of that on later Botanist albums).

The Northern Californian duo Wreck and Reference is another band that comes to mind. Like Botanist, do something that challenges the norm, although that’s a little harder to tell on their records, which sound like guitar or guitar loops, which it is, but that tells only part of the story. What’s special and unique about this band is apparent when you see them live, because instead of drums and guitar, it’s drums and a guy playing a sampler that he slings over his shoulder as if it were a guitar, and fucking shreds on it. He’s got the sampler hooked up to a computer with banks of samples, all of which he controls with a computer keyboard with most of the keys removed (and uses it like a footswitch). What seems like it could be some dumb concept performance art actually becomes a bona fide musical performance, as Wreck and Reference actually *play* their songs.

I think that particularly for those audience members who aren’t necessarily guitar geeks, the sampler provides a more captivating spectacle as the various buttons light up in the rhythmic fury that Felix plays that thing with. The drums are heavy and rad, too. And I’m also a fan of bands with minimalist lineups that deliver maximum goods (I’m thinking of Pig Destroyer or local super amazing duo Times of Desperation. Why isn’t that band bigger?) Anyway, Wreck and Reference and Botanist (and Palace of Worms, too!) are going to be labelmates soon, as Jon Tuite from The Flenser wants to put out a couple Botanist albums in the next couple years, and I want to let him. If Botanist live happens, Wreck an Reference would be my top pick to tour with, as I think both our projects have elements that fits in solidly with metal, yet are also tangential to the genre in a way that would appeal to an audience beyond a metal crowd and into more arty circles.

Thanks to Kim Kelly, I’ve gotten super into another Californian black metal act called Oskoreien. The cover might make it look like the sylvan version of Slint, but it’s raging, melodic, atmospheric and gorgeous. A split seems like it would fit really well. Oskoreien guy Jay Valena and I have agreed that might happen in the years to come.

Petrychor and Skagos are another two amazing Nature-oriented acts that I dig big time. The double Petrychor album released this year is hairy and fucked, and played by a guy who’s got the kind of stupendous guitar chops and style that I really go for. And Skagos’ “Ast” is simply one of my favorite black metal albums in the past years. The split with Panopticon is my favorite Flenser release.

Finally, there’s another Bay Area black metal weirdo project called Mamaleek, which consists of two brothers and an old-school MPC drum machine. Their music is all about slaves and slavery, as the name Mamaleek refers to a race of slaves. You should check their stuff out, it’s definitely unlike anything else.

What sort of response have you generated from the underground metal world? I can’t help but feel that something this willfully off the wall generates nothing but scorn!

No matter how bad something is, someone will like it. Also, no matter how good something is, someone will hate it. That’s how it goes with all art. Hell, with everything. Like my friend Jack Shirley (who did the post-production for so many of my recordings) says, “no matter how hot a chick is, there’s one dude that hates to fuck her.” I know what he means. I’m sure at some point, I’ve been that dude. I think we all have.

I think that Botanist lucked out in appealing to music journalists who are weary of getting the 7,406th re-interpretation of “Slaughter of the Soul” to write about, and can sink their teeth into something different, yet still somehow familiar. There sure seems to be enough of those journalists out there, as of the date of this writing, “I: The Suicide Tree / II: A Rose From the Dead” has made 10 Best of 2011 lists, including sites like Grindthieves, which caters to very little metal at all. I’m ironically somehow most excited by the positive response of non-exclusively metal-oriented sites as it means to me that I can do what I want to do and still appeal to a much wider audience than I had ever expected.

Thanks for your time. The last words are yours.

Thanks for yours. Might as well wrap up with all of the product pitching that I didn’t manage to squeeze in on the questions you actually asked.

2012 is going to be a big year for Botanist in terms of release schedule, which will either delight or dismay with the sheer volume of material. But if you all die from being sick of Botanist, at least The Botanist will be happy.

upcoming:

“III: Doom in Bloom” double CD (April 2012, TotalRust)

“IV: Mandragora” CD/LP (third quarter 2012 (projected), The Flenser)

Botanist/Palace of Worms (yet untitled), (fourth quarter (projected), Antithetic)

also:

“Ophidian Forest/Heresiarchs of Dis” split CD (nowish, UW Records)

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