Interview: Botanist Frontman Says ‘God Is Unknowable’

In March, we caught up with Otrebor, whose artistic nom de plume is Botanist, for a feature that appears in the current edition of New Noise Magazine. During our conversation, we found out that Otrebor, who performs as avant-garde, experimental wizard, falls squarely into the latter category. He is so committed to the concept of Botanist that he and a rotating cast of backup musicians sometimes go whole hog and perform in forests — especially near redwood trees, which are Otrebor’s favorite.

That was just a small portion of what we learned during our conversation with Otrebor, who speaks with a rare eloquence on subjects ranging from the menial (tour riders) to the profound (“When it comes down to it, how human am I, really?”) We also talked extensively about the new Botanist album, VIII: Selenotrope (Prophecy), which comes out today. 

While New Noise’s recent conversation with Otrebor provided the basis for the feature on him that appears in the magazine’s new issue, it was, indeed, an abridged version. Thus, as a reward to the devoted readers of New Noise and fans of Botanist, we present you with the full transcript of our conversation.

What strikes your fancy about living in the San Francisco area?

I really like redwood trees, and it has them. I found that place because Lev Perrey, who is a friend of a friend, took all the photos of those sessions.

I need a place that has trees that grow straight out of the ground. I don’t want a lot of trees that deviate in angles with the trunks. And it’s gotta be flat, because I’m bringing my drum set and my dulcimer, so we can’t be on a hill with that.

He brought the band to one of the only places in that National Forest where it’s flat.

Importance of raising awareness about environmental damage?

I’m not entirely sure the world is collapsing. In some ways it is, in some ways I’m not sure that it is. It may be collapsing in a lot of different ways. Having a perspective that life goes on is really a good one. It’s a common thing that people say all the time. Remembering that adage is a good one, because it works on a macro and micro scale. … Natural resources have been destroyed. Well, that’s a macro one to say, “Life goes on.” And it goes on because, “Yeah, it’s been destroyed and it sucks, but on a long-enough timeline, all those things will grow back. They won’t grow back in exactly the same way, but they will grow back. But the human race might not be able to see it.

I was always dismayed by the environmental movement “Save the planet” as its motto, because it’s really “Save the human race.”

That’s what it absolutely ends up being. The selflessness, I understand that angle. But things are going to happen, ultimately, if it makes money for somebody or something.”

You once said: “The existence of plants and ecosystems proves there is an occult force at work. Could you elaborate on that?

I don’t remember saying that—but it reminds me of something else, I think: God is unknowable, and that’s one of the most wonderful things about being a limited, mortal being, is that we cannot possibly know the nature of God. Which makes religions work well, actually, because you can’t prove or disprove anything because God is unknowable.

To me, not knowing is a way more empowering thing than knowing. These quests for knowing the meaning of life and knowing the nature of God, I get why people are obsessed with it. But I really understand that, because it’s the mystery and awe that I find a lot more appealing.

And so, because you can’t know God or what causes everything to exist—and if, for instance, you don’t know what God is—I think it’s really awesome to believe that the closest manifestation of the existence of God is in the natural world. All these things exist in ways that we can measure with our sciences—and that’s true, but … ultimately we don’t know why everything is. It just is. And that’s amazing.

Where are monasteries? In the middle of nowhere in nature because they’re communing with nature, because that’s communing with God—in a sense. You get to be closest to what the actual real creation is. And I think that’s pretty amazing!

It pleases me to no end to hear that today. That point of view. It’s something I’ve thought about too. If you look into any mystic religious aspect of a religious belief system, the mystics always seem to arrive at that same point, which is, if you understand God, it would be God. It’s unknowable. Did your spiritual development evolve at a certain point in your life? And does the series of albums you’re putting out track that progression?

I wouldn’t say the albums necessarily track it, but what has happened is, I think that Botanist has focused my thoughts on this. Because it’s enabled and given me the opportunity to think about what was going on. 

When I started the band, I just wanted to make a band about plants and flowers. … Then I was, like, “Well, it can’t be just about plants and flowers. It has to have a black-metal spin, because I wanted to pay tribute to all these bands that I loved when I started the band. So what would the black-metal spin be?” 

So I started making this. And I didn’t have any intention or illusion that it was going to be any sort of success. I just wanted to make records on my own time and that I have a lot more control over releasing, because I’d been in bands where nothing was really happening, and it was frustrating, and I wanted to do it myself.

So I started doing that. And then, unforeseen, that was the thing people were interested in. So I began to notice over time that what I was doing was actually of importance, not just entertainment-wise, but on an emotional level. Like, people really like the music, and it meant something to them. They started coming to me because they felt I either held some sort of knowledge that would help them—or what I created enabled to discover some inner knowledge that would help them.

I was like, “Wow, this is amazing. I have this gift now, and what I was doing was helping people on some level. Then I wondered what I can do now. I think that focused thoughts and feelings that I already had into more words that were more soundbite-worthy.

I didn’t start the band as a joke at all. It was very serious, and it was very meaningful emotionally to me, not only terms of in the production of the music but also what it meant. The Verdant Realm totally existed when I started it. A lot of the [core lore] … when it moved outside of, “What does it mean to me as my artistic conduit for whatever it is that goes on inside me?” to having a more macro meaning. That’s what developed over the course of my fifth and sixth records.

Am in incorrect in saying that there’s no seventh chapter?

Oh yeah. I always owe an apology until all the records are released. I tried to put it in the press release, but I can’t ultimately control what labels or whoever will put in it. That’s a great question. All those records exist. So there’s no released V or VII—especially when VIII gets released, there won’t be VII. 

The Roman numerals denote in what order the albums were made chronologically, but they’re getting released out of chronological order. It’s something to aggravate people who are more OCD, and I don’t blame anyone for being, “What the heck?” But they totally exist and will be released.

It surprises me how you’ve had so many people reacting positively to the project, and it’s become a situation where you’re engaging with the people who want more by releasing more music. It seems like such a fascinating contradiction, because the character The Botanist is someone who wants to get away from people and not interact.

Yeah! Well, we all have different sides. The character of The Botanist is part of my personality that I understand, and it’s also part of my personality that I don’t understand. That part that I don’t understand is when things happen when I’m composing or recording that I don’t know—even to this day … it’s gotten a lot more familiar, so I understand how I make things.

Especially in the first five to eight years, I didn’t understand where all these things were coming from. They just manifested when I enabled them to. So part of me is The Botanist and part of me is not. Part of it I understand and part of it I don’t. But it’s not just me. I would say potentially everybody has different aspects to their personality. Some are really great, and some things we wouldn’t even want to admit to ourselves, that we are a certain way. But I think that’s what’s pretty interesting, and to say, “This is all of me, even the stuff that isn’t very good—and that’s OK.” In this case, it’s easier to say, “that’s OK”—but I’m not talking about the worst parts of my personality.

So there’s your duality in a nutshell: In the level of the band, it’s the very early decision that every artist makes that we either decide to make our work available to the public or we don’t. Those are both valid decisions—but they’re very important ones.

It’s funny, sometimes, when you see artists who decided to make their art available to the public but haven’t really thought it through, and the public starts reacting and the artist gets agitated because it’s not what they want the public to think. It’s not enough forethought. But making it available to the public means I have to deal with fine journalists like yourself because it’s meant to be promoted, and that’s the idea.

In this case, it worked for me, anyway. Making it available to the public is way more valuable than just keeping it for myself and being the most Botanist Botanist possible. It’s like, “Yeah, just for me!” And it’ll be discovered when everyone’s dead? I don’t know.

Do you approach Botanist with a “childlike mind,” trying not to overthink it?

I remember finding things in the natural world that I hadn’t really noticed before both on a big scale, like, “Look at that canopy of trees and how it was shaped by the wind.” Or, “Look at the intricacy of … even with my naked eye, of this branch and leaf,” and think about how impossibly complex whatever it is that made this. We have all these increasingly complex devices that we, as humans, create. And they are pretty amazing. … But I often think about factories that make parts for factories. Like, how does anyone even conceive of that, that’s insane. And yet, even how insanely complicated an airplane is, it’s really potentially nothing compared to what makes a branch and our human body.

When I first started making music, I was like, “How the fuck am I making these sounds? Did these sounds even happen? How is it that I’ve now put these sounds together, and somehow they work OK? Where is this coming from?”

What’s happening more now is, “How do I increasingly take what’s done and still do that and yet try to do something a bit different with it?” Or, “What other directions can this still go in while still having to stick with its core, very limiting—and happily limiting—parameters?” One way of enjoying art is trying to push the envelope. But the envelope is the thing that constrains you. And that’s what’s interesting: Figuring out how to push it further.

Did you ever arrive at an answer to the question you said: “How did this manage to work given the instruments that I used?”

I think I did pretty early on, and it’s the one I enjoy. It’s that I’m a conduit, and there’s some sort of being inside of me or outside of me that I enable to come through my body. I’m able to say, “Come on in!” And when I said, “Come on it,” it happens. There’s a way I can gauge stuff. So when I’m working on something—with Botanist, in particular—and it’s like, “This is really hard.” But the flavor of hard isn’t that it’s hard to play, it’s more like it’s not working. And I’m trying hard. And I’m trying harder. And it’s not working. And that’s when I go, “OK, that means I need to simplify it or do something else.” And, whatever it is, it comes to me.

It becomes like a child you have. Well, you can’t control the way the child will turn out, to a large degree. Then it becomes a thing, and you get to enjoy what that thing is. A lot of songs I’ve written have become like that. I mean, sure, there’s been things like, “I want to write this in a certain key to …

I’ve noticed that, as [my] career is getting longer, “Well, I’ve already done that, I’ve already done that.” Ultimately it’ll be redoing things, because I’m playing dulcimer to drums, and it’s about plants, right? But the beauty of it happening and just doing it is a lesson in letting go of things. … “What if I just let go of all that bullshit and made stuff?” … Just having faith that that’s going to be OK. And I don’t have to worry necessarily about the finished product, as much as I think I do, because of whatever perceptions …

Would it be more spiritually satisfying, authentic, and actually easier to take that approach and later decide they’re not a conduit, want to put their controlled music and have it be about themselves and wants to go the rock star route.

I think it can work, and I think it can’t. I guess it depends on so many factors. It’s too trite to nail it down to one thing. The first came to my mind was, “The intention is wrong.” I’ve met people before who do any kind of art because it’s like, “I’m doing it for therapy.” And, it’s like, “Well, that’s cool—but maybe you should just go to therapy and leave us out of it.” But it’s not fair to say that’s a universal statement because so much art is based on someone coping with what’s going on with them. Whether we know it or not, that’s what’s going on—and we perceive it as a different thing.

I hope I’m on track with what you’re talking about. Going back to that artist that releases their art and expects the public to react a certain way to it and then get agitated when the public doesn’t. “Well, this is my personal turmoil, and you must feel my personal turmoil exactly how I felt it, because this is what it’s meant to do.” What is the intention of what you’re making?

Do you consciously decide to change your vocal stylings from record to record, maybe in an effort to keep the anonymity of the Botanist in play?

[Laughs.] The anonymity thing is something I’ll just address. And I can because, again, Botanist is becoming ever more public, so the adherence to, “Nobody must see our faces. No one must know our names,” is way past possible at this point.

We just took more band photos yesterday, and they turned out great, with people other than me, because we already have the record for next year, and it’s done. We’re working on the layout for the record, and it’s the full band, the collective—and that’s all I’ll tell you. The scoop is that it’s not just me.

I’m not sure how many solo records I’m going to make going forward. Not because I don’t like it but because I have such a good group of people that I have in the band who are all way better at doing … It’s even downplaying them by saying, “They’re way better at doing the thing they do in the band … than all the things I do in the band.”

I was telling our bass player about how I had this idea, like: “What else can be done with anonymity but in an artistic way?” Well, corpse paint is this thing that people put on their faces so they look like they’re dead. But then it became this thing where they can look like they’re not them or they have a different name and they’re channeling a stage presence, in a sense, so that they can erase who they truly are. Escapism is essentially what it is.

So I said: “What else can be done with anonymity that’s not corpse paint?” So, on the first photos from I and II—even on III—it was all blurred out. It looked like a bunch of ghosts and me moving around. That’s anonymous.

What if I had a different person photograph for each album, and none of them are me or one of them is me, and you don’t know which one it is. I was like, “Ah, that’d be awesome!” If someone else can rip the idea off, because it’s too late for me.

As for your question about vocals, the boring answer is, at first, I was just doing what I thought I knew how to do. “What can I do that isn’t going to be completely terrible? Well, I can do this Abbath impression.”

It took me a really long time to figure out that I can hit notes well and holds pitches well, particularly when they’re high. When they start to actually get lower, it starts to fall apart. So, I have this natural falsetto that I can do, and I took it for granted, thinking, “Anybody can do this. It’s ridiculous.” ‘Cause it is kind of ridiculous. But other people can’t hit those notes. Even our singer now is, like, “I can’t hit those notes. I don’t know how you do that.” And I’m, like, “Well, I don’t know how to do all the other things you do.”

Even when I was making Selenotrope, I hadn’t totally embraced that I had whatever vocal ability I have. I kinda knew I did, and that I had pushed this in a way I hadn’t done before, and I want to really make it choral. I’d done choruses before—they’re on previous records—but they’re not as developed as they are on Selenotrope. And, more importantly, they’re not as loud.

There are no screams at all on this record. I wanted it to be scream-free. It’s just the chorals and the whispers, and the chorals don’t get started till Song 3. And they get more and more prevalent till the end.

Do you consider this to be a black-metal record?

[Pauses for a few seconds.]

In the sense that it’s very romantic. I’ve always maintained that black metal is the most romantic music I can think of. 

Do you feel that by studying plants and flowers, you become more connected to the present than any other exercise?

I think it’s a way to be in the present. I wouldn’t even dare say, “It’s the only way to go.” People can sit and knit and be in the moment or make a chair—get some wood and a saw—and it’s awesome. It’s really just slowing down and being with yourself. You talked about mindfulness earlier … it’s an enabler for mindfulness. No one has The Way To Do It. Looking at a flower may be emotionally creative inside one’s self.

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