October 16, 2019

Interview - The Ecosystem of a Botanist

Botanist’s newest album, Ecosystem, is another “Collective” album, wherein main-man Otrebor brings his live band into the writing and recording process. The result is in perfect harmony with Botanist’s “solo” albums, but yet also brings in different sounds and energies.
By Justin C.

Botanist’s newest album, Ecosystem, is another “Collective” album, wherein main-man Otrebor brings his live band into the writing and recording process. The result is in perfect harmony with Botanist’s “solo” albums, but yet also brings in different sounds and energies. Metal Bandcamp has covered Botanist from its very beginnings, so you’ve gotten a lot of words from me about the project. For this release, I wanted to change it up a little, and Otrebor was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the album.

In the overall arc of Botanist's developing discography, are the collective albums planned, or do they come about more spontaneously?

The “Collective” albums take a lot more practical planning mostly because they involve other people’s schedules, priorities, and work ethics. In Ecosystem’s case, the initial idea came during the 2017 European tour to make an album that we would play entirely on stage — further differentiating studio / solo Botanist from the live band. We would take a year to write it, and tour on it in 2019. When it’s just me, that kind of deadline is easy to stick to, but with other musicians involved, it goes much slower... like, The Shape of He to Come took 3 years! In contrast, VI: Flora took me 4-5 months from beginning of writing to completing tracking of all instruments. So a year and a half to have a finished album to send to be pressed to vinyl in time for a planned tour made for tight scheduling, as any delays by one member would make all other members’ work more stressful.

Thematically, it’s all the same level of planning, or rather, an album being a “Collective” doesn’t make it more or less planned inherently than a solo album. The most conceptual album I’ve got planned for the future is a solo album, but the “Collective” albums to date and to come are more thematically conceptual than Botanist I/II, III, V, VI...

What drew you to the idea of doing an album focused on the Redwood ecosystem? I know a little about them, and they're pretty fascinating, especially the "mini-forests" that can actually grown on top of them.

The mini forests within the branches of the redwoods are amazing. Redwoods are my single favorite botanical entity, so having a concept album revolving essentially around them would be very inspirational to me. Redwoods will be making another entry or two in albums to come.

Reading the lyrics puts me in mind of a biology textbook in verse form. You cover a lot of scientific ground, but the musical end result certainly doesn’t come across as a dry recitation. Are there particular challenges to lyrically detailing an ecosystem, or do you approach it as you would any other narrative arc?

I don’t really have a deep answer for you. I researched redwood forests, pulled out eight elements that would inspire me to write a song about, and applied that balance of Romantic spin on scientific fact that most Botanist lyric writing draws from. There’s not so much a narrative arc present. The theme is the ecosystem of a redwood forest in the Pacific Northwest of the United States (also some stuff is taken from research about forests in Santa Cruz), but it’s not like a King Diamond album where there are characters and a plot one can follow. I wanted the darkest, most unsettling song to be “Disturbance,” as it’s about forest fires, and the last song to be the triumphant uplift, and that had to be “Red Crown” — the culmination of the theme of the red crown (a term used to describe clusters of redwood trees) mentioned throughout the album to come to a climax with that song being the tribute to Sequoia Sempervirens itself.

The rest of the album’s list was determined by emotional flow and how much one song’s first note transitioned well from the previous song’s last note, how well each side fit onto an LP, and how well we could imagine this album as a live set would flow. Song 1 has a strong anthemic chorus, and its intro works well as a “we’re beginning the set / album” attention getter, before the volume kicks in. Song 7 (“Abiotic”) is the relaxed breather before the big finale. Stuff like that determines how the album gets arranged — it’s largely after that the sets of lyrics get paired up based on mood.

In terms of music, I'm continually impressed with your ability to write a melody that can convey almost any shade of emotion, and every album has some new sonic aspect that keeps things fresh. What struck me with this album is that there are more clean vocals, often in chorus with other band members. You worked those into the last collective album, The Shape of He to Come, but they seem to play a larger role here. Some of them are even painfully vulnerable, like in "Abiotic." Was that a conscious decision to go that direction, or did it just happen naturally? Is it hard to step out from behind a more black metal vocal styling into something so unadorned?

Thanks for that first comment. I want the music Botanist creates to feature a full range of emotions. As much as I love metal, it’s one of the biggest critiques I have of it: Bands on average tend to stick to the same emotional space that they set their bands out to inhabit. Personally, it would burn me out to have to always be angry, or sad, or happy when creating, and having to convey a singular emotion on stage, particularly negative emotions, day in and day out on tour, and to be around that energy that it creates, with people bringing and expecting that kind of energy to the shows... I question what kind of toll that would take.

I want there to be more clean vocals because of the emotional facets that a variety of vocals can bring: screaming, consonant melodic vocals, dissonant, eerie melodic vocals, deathgrunts... it will be an ongoing study of how to experiment implementing them to new results. It’s also because I want to challenge myself on singing better. That’s a personal challenge too, to be willing to be vulnerable on a whole new level. To grow as an artist and explore that emotional feedback. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a great singer, but I do have the ability to write a melody, understand how to construct a harmony, and kind of like my drumming and probably all of Botanist, my style is mine and you'll know it’s me when you hear it. The challenge going forward is to increasingly admit to myself, “yeah, I sing.” It was a self-realization when I was in the studio with Fredrik Nordström and was hemming and hawing about the singing, saying I wasn’t a singer. Fredrik’s response was, “You are. You’re singing on the songs.”

It’s a weird thing coming from a place where I wanted just to play drums in bands, to then doing whatever vocals I could because I was the only person who would, to developing vocals into things I never would have attempted 10 years ago. Then the big challenge is to get it as good as I honestly can, present that new vulnerability to the world, and be prepared for whatever reaction.

“Abiotic” is painfully vulnerable. You’re right. Cynoxylon helped me with some of the sections, and his comment in a part or two after tracking was, “That’s pretty femme.” And it is. It’s an aspect of Botanist that needs to be, whether it’s me singing or not.

Botanist has passed its 10-year anniversary as a musical project. Climate change and environmentalism were certainly ongoing topics when you started, but now in 2019, the conversation seems to be both more impassioned and, unfortunately, just as unproductive. Does that affect how you approach Botanist?

It has no effect on the creative output. I create because I have the fervent desire to do so systematically. I do so in Botanist because I’m obsessed with classical botanical art, Romantic poetry and art, and black metal. What keeps me doing Botanist in particular is it’s enabled me to find something to support that is bigger than I am, that transcends my self-importance and personal needs — feeling that I do what I do to support my own perception of the greater good, which is something I can comfortably and confidently do through art.

For those of us with OCD tendencies, I have to ask: What about V? Where is album V? :)

It exists. It’s called Whorl, and was created somewhere in late 2010-early 2011. The 16-minute “Lathyrus” was up on Botanist.nu for a while in 2011 when I had samplers from the first five records to listen to. Whorl is largely what got Botanist signed to The Flenser in 2013 — Jonathan really wanted to release that record in particular. The problem was that Flora also existed at the same time, and the only person who thought Whorl was better was Jonathan. Haha. Balan from Palace of Worms listened to both on our marathon 2-man drive back from dropping off all the other kids at Sea-Tac airport after our 2013 West Coast tour, and he said Whorl was ok/good, but Flora was clearly the one to release after Mandragora as it was the most remarkable step forward. I believe he’s right, and the fans and critical feedback support that. Look, Whorl is fine, it’s the fifth solo record, it’s not as good as the sixth, and the sixth was ready to go at the same time. Botanist “V” will for sure be released, I’d love to do it with The Flenser, and I’d love to put it out between solo records “IX” and “X,” so by then it will be unmistakably be old school as fuck, and it will at least appeal to the crowd that prefers “the old stuff” more. Hahaha.

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