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Immersive Bloom: A Conversation With Otrebor of Botanist

Diving into a special chapter of an ever-growing powerhouse driven by nature.

botanist, progressive metal

Words by Luis (@HeaviestOfArt):


World-building as an avenue for audience immersion is a commendable act that yields memorable results unique to the listening experience. On May 19th, new Botanist album VIII: Selenotrope did just that, pushing an expansive catalog further into an audiovisual splendor unlike many in the avant-garde metal arena. Spearheaded by multi-instrumentalist Otrebor, the San Francisco-based Botanist never ceases to garner attention from those keen for an enthralling narrative, one led by a botanist lost to insanity after a man-made natural destruction. He becomes one with his plant surroundings and the band's lyricism, composition, and artwork reflects the occurrences and themes explored by said botanist.


VIII: Selenotrope, the eighth solo album by Otrebor under the Botanist moniker, treads various metal boundaries with vivid excellence. True to its name taken from plants that flower in moonlight, the album sports exquisite melodies alongside its signature use of the hammered dulcimer, predominantly clean vocals, and varied instrumentation, On the visual end, it welcomes the prowess of Benjamin König (Sperber Illustrationen), who unknowingly created the ideal forefront to this body of work prior to the music's inception.


Read through an insightful Q&A with Botanist mastermind Otrebor regarding the band's latest incarnation:

 

We’re now a little over decade since ‘Botanist I: The Suicide Tree’ (2011) first arrived and with ‘Botanist VIII’ here and in circulation, there’s certainly much to be proud of as you see this culminating new chapter through. In an act of reflection, where do you see yourself now compared to when this all began?

Otrebor: For the "now compared to before", I'd say that I now "know a lot more what I'm doing." In the beginning, making albums felt like opening the door to an entity that would create the music. I sort of guided what the entity would do, but what ended up felt like I had been a conduit. Now, the entity is still summoned, but my conscious mind feels more like it has a handle on what is going on... maybe I just understand better what the entity wants!

botanist, prog metal
Photograph by Tony Thomas

You became more grounded in the identity of the project and the creative development of it all. Though one could say that most bands seem to settle at this point of their career, you do the opposite and expand upon your craft to realize what many will surely consider your best work to date, ‘Botanist VIII’. With the numerical entries in the band’s discography completely self-contained body of work, is there a great sense of realization in operating this way? Perhaps largely distinct to the ‘Ecosystem’ (2019) series and ‘Photosynthesis’ (2020)? It’s been several years since ‘Flora’ (2014).

Your words honor me. I do think it's fair and apt to consider the solo body of work and the full-band stuff as separate eras that curiously co-exist in the same time. "Ecosystem" and "Photosynthesis", as well as "The Shape of He to Come" (2017) (and forthcoming albums), all feature members of the full live band. All these people make me and Botanist look good because they're very good at what they do, and generally better than I am at their roles.

botanist, prog metal
Cover Artwork by Irrwisch Art

So yeah, let's keep apples with apples and talk about the solo albums. Somehow nine years elapsed between the release of "VI" and "VIII" ("VII" was recorded too but will be released later). My goal with each successive album was to make some kind of inversion from the previous one. That got less obviously possible as the albums went on, so I started making a loose road map in my head of what each solo album would be about fundamentally both as thematic and musical concepts. Like, way, way in advance.


"VIII: Selenotrope" happened a little bit adjacently from the main "story arc". I had songs worth of drums for a project that dead-ended, but I put a lot of energy getting those drums really tight, so I used them for Botanist. Not long before, I fell in love with the concept of selenotropism — plants that would flower under the light of the moon — so the pairing of the concept with the percussive framework was magical serendipity.

By the time of "Selenotrope"'s creation, it was less about being radically different than before and more about pushing what talents or abilities I had. Some of it has to do with increasing my skill at the instruments I play, but I think much more had to do with the building of confidence. I started dabbling in clean vocals as early as album "II", and though those developed over the years, I took a new, bolder step on "VIII". Dan Swanö pushed them more out in front than I would have dared, but I felt emboldened by his moves, and figured if he felt it was ok, it probably was ok. At least it would be different!



I started imagining that going forward, solo album material would be phased out live, and the band would concentrate more on the material that it made as a group. This encouraged me to write songs with more than two dulcimer parts — generally I do two in imagining that on stage all the parts could be played by two dulcimerists. Some of the less obvious but still crucial bits happened along the way, like Swanö's sonic treatments and audial sawdust — Dan listened to what I was going for with the album and helped that along in a big way!

That level of ambition and diving into uncomfortable territory extends into Botanist's visual identity, which is truly remarkable from one album to the next. For the cover of "VII", you worked with Benjamin at Sperber Illustrationen, who captured the feel of this album perfectly. What inspired the transition from longtime partner Irrwisch to Benjamin?

Oh, Irrwisch is still part of the team! He's doing the layout out for the next album as I type this interview up. Irrwisch has laid out at least 3/4 of the Botanist discography, and contributed art and logo. He's been a regular part of the Prophecy team since he designed all the art for a Prophecy Fest around 2017.

irrwisch art, botanist
Cover Artwork by Irrwisch Art

I try to mix things up in general. I actually find it relatively easy to do within a project with a pretty rigid thematic structure. I think the structure facilitates the shakeups. One way to do this is to cycle through artists who make our cover art. It's good to find people with talent and who have a different style than what we have done before, and give the public some kind of reframing of the look, at least. We can always come back and work with people again after a while, but doing the exact same thing each time is what I'm trying to avoid.

I agree wholeheartedly, and it's neat to hear that Irrwisch is still very much involved with Botanist and Prophecy's releases overall! Visually, what were you looking for when approaching Benjamin for the project and where did you find common ground?

I was in a bit of a time crunch when I found Sperber. We were going to work with someone else but there were some contractual issues with the label, so we had to postpone the plan and find someone else. I went through all my CD collection and looked for people I'd like to work with. Sperber was on the very short list. I loved his work with Spectral Lore and Lunar Aurora (I later was delighted to discover Benjamin was a founding member of that very cool act!). I was even more delighted to find that a great piece of art that would fit "Selenotrope" had already been created on his site, so we could have it really fast: The basic image of a forest creature rising in a clearing embodied some new face on the entity of The Botanist. Since Benjamin works with a digital tablet, he was able to make some minor alterations to the original work to further highlight the themes of flowers blooming in moonlight and yield the version that is on the album cover!


Sperber does a fair amount of work for non-musical projects with tight deadlines, like kids books, so when he said he could no problem whip up the other commissions I needed for the album, I said yes! I gave Benjamin visual concepts for 3-5 other images, and links to what the real life equivalents of the flora and fauna in question looked like, and in an artistic blink of an eye, he had all the work done. It was incredibly efficient yet also just as flexible working with him.

You can't ask for more than that. The additional artwork he contributed was beautiful. Your partnership with Benjamin and Irrwisch speaks to how intentional you are about every aspect of Botanist. As mentioned before, your merchandise designs, promo photographs, audiovisual cohesion, and so on all expand on the central them of botany. How significant is it for you to have developed this visual identity and continued to expand on it since the band’s inception?

It's extremely important. It's also a path that I am ever learning about. Like with hiring visual artists, it's crucial to people who have talent and vision, who will grasp the project and intention, and then letting them do their thing. The result is beautiful and inspirational, generally beyond what I could ever imagine.

botanist, black metal
Photograph by Tony Thomas

Music is entertainment. Metal music tends to have a greater sense of theatricality than other genres. This is absolutely something that an arty project like Botanist has to play up. Of course, we're always limited by what our budget is, which is low. But at the same time, having rigid funds may be like having a rigid thematic limitation — it forces us to maximize what we can do with what we have. It's amazing to feel that our group of people with creative input and ability is ever growing, which will allow us to tweak the presentation with each passing album and year on stage!

botanist
Photograph by Tony Thomas

Scarce resources lead to creative measures! Shifting gears a bit, how much do your surroundings impact the creative process for Botanist and how does it inform an album’s creative development, if at all? By surroundings, I mean the San Francisco metal scene, the prog scene at large, your own personal experiences, etc.

The surroundings impact to some degree: I love redwoods, and there are lots of those here. I love forests and parks one can get a little lost in. We have those. And we have a very fine diversity of natural landscape in California. That's inspirational.

But largely, my surroundings are the ones in my mind. What Botanist means to me, where it comes from emotionally and spiritually, how it fits in context with classical and metal music, how it's informed by film, TV, and Literature that helped shape this vision, these are things that I can't totally explain even if I wrote a million words on it. It drives Botanist. Botanist means something different to each person who gets something out of it, from the listener to every band member, and me, too. All of these differing impressions come together to make Botanist what it is, from creation to perception.

botanist, prog metal
Photograph by Siren Sea Media, Mask by Woodland Shrine

Sure, the San Francisco metal scene had impact on me. I can point to how wondrous Weakling's "Dead as Dreams" was to me: the trance-like drumming, the huge melodies, the droolingly insane vocals... it sounded like an endless examination and annihilation of the soul into some kind of negative bliss euphoria. How much Hammers of Misfortune's first couple records (and Slough Feg's from around the same time) inspired me: the twin guitar harmonies that sounded like something old and something new, Mike Scalzi's entrancingly weird and unique vocals, the woodcut etching style of "The Bastard" metal opera and how it told a story. How much it meant to know Wrest when he was tirelessly creating demo after demo of Leviathan, alone in his apartment, every day after work. It wasn't an immediate lightbulb, but it for sure had an impact in showing me another musician who was primarily a drummer and who decided to "do it all himself." The message may have sat dormant for years, but I have no doubt it enabled me to say "yes, you can." By his own account, Wrest wasn't the greatest at much of anything other than playing drums, and so he'd alter the music based on his drum parts. To me, that's what made Leviathan a success — someone with a strong artistic vision and conceptual talent who did the best with what he had, and didn't let his shortcomings stop him, rather maximizing what he had into something magical, focusing on the craft rather than trying to out-athleticize or carbon copy the next project. Put on any of these albums from these periods and you'll immediately know who they are, and how much they influenced others.

Absolutely. You just named landmark albums that remain influential years beyond their inception. For Botanist, you took a lyrical concept in mind and built an expansive, narrative-driven experience that has grown immensely over the years. Is Botanist one of those ideas that you continue to organically invest in and see where it goes, or was this long-term plan in place from the beginning?

Yes to all your questions. The framework for the basic worldview happened as albums "I/II" were being created: the botanist who loses his mind at the destruction of the natural world at the hand of man. How his insanity enables him to hear the voices of the plants, who each is a character who speaks to him, that he interprets informed by his scientific knowledge, but distorted through an apocalyptic Romantic worldview.

At the same time, what I've permitted myself is *not* to have a conceptual project that must be tied to a narrative or a plot. Rather, it's allowing to draw concepts from the source of the world's botany, which is practically infinite. This means that if the project is going through a more focused misanthropic, black metal-intentioned period, it can. If it's going through a more dreamy, post-metal period, it can. If it's going for something plodding and doom, it can. If we want to explore different musical and emotional territory, the basic premise can be altered without being adulterated, and again, it can. You'll see what comes next, it'll be some of the familiar, and a lot of the new...

 

VIII: Selenotrope is available now via Prophecy Productions (Order/Stream).

Sperber Illustrationen, botanist
Cover Artwork by Sperber Illustrationen

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