Spencer Stephenson, otherwise known as Botany, has created an amazing musical and neural tale through his instrumental electronic album Lava Diviner (Truestory). The 12 track record weaves it’s way through a tale so fantastic and ethereal that it seems to reach to the heavens and return to earth, to a place not so far from reality, not so far from our own lives. Therein lies the beauty of Lava Diviner- when a fantasy holds up a mirror to reality, and when magic becomes a word for daily life.
Beyond that the sounds are transformative and moving- it’s no small feat to be emotive and have a narrative in an instrumental album, and Spencer knows what he’s doing.
I was fortunate enough to have an illuminating conversation with Spencer, through Bowlegs Music, about the album as well as discussing the visual side to his music, creating an electronic narrative, & working with Father John Misty.
Bowlegs: There is something inherently Sci-Fi and fantastic about Lava Diviner. It’s as though the atmosphere is being played out- drops of water on magical plants emitting light and sound upon contact. It feels like it emerges from a natural interaction interpreted in a magical way.
Spencer:—I think that mostly comes from being a visual thinker when it comes to music. There is a certain amount of synesthesia that happens when a musical idea comes to me, and I try to capture that. I want the music to sound like the other neural activity it comes paired with in my mind when I’m inspired because I think that’s crucial to get the full depth of feeling I have during those bursts of inspiration. Magic and nature is its own conversation but I’ll say this– I’m not a believer in “magic” in the sense that events can occur completely independently of the laws of the universe, but I’m no less in awe of a universe without it. Magic is just an archaic term for a very specific kind of revelatory feeling, and I’m definitely in touch with that feeling.
Bowlegs: In light of the narrative of the record, a sect praying for a volcano to erupt, the sound makes perfect sense. How did this narrative come about?
Spencer: I was at a point in my life where I wanted to write stories, but music is the path of least resistance for me creatively. I had inspiration coming from a literary and visual place, but audio being my main medium I naturally starting letting those creative urges inform my music instead of letting them fade away as disparate unfinished projects. I’ve always been interested in the middle of the venn-diagram between the mystical and empirical interpretations of the world, and with this concept I was trying to create a fictional universe where those two world-views aren’t mutually exclusive. Not a very new idea but one that inspires me for whatever reason. And that was the entire point of creating the concept in the first place. I was using it as a kind of creative firewood for musical inspiration. It seemed like a good idea at the time to storyboard the album using a very specific story arc.
Bowlegs: You’ve mentioned that conceptually it relates to your own journey as an artist. Can you elaborate?
Spencer: Well really what ended up happening with the conceptual narrative was that it fell by the wayside and became secondary to the actual journey of my life happening parallel to it. I started to realize that the story made a good framework for an album but there were some tough things happening in reality while I was trying to bring the album to life, and in light of that, any kind of bloated fiction seemed hilarious and pointless. So I had this other part of myself cutting in and saying “no, no, this is a true story. This album is about your life no matter what kind of world you’re trying to create as an escape.” I think putting myself in an escapist headspace lets me deal with angst and bullshit more easily. With fiction you can quantify things with symbols and deal with them in a less existentially intimidating way. It’s a good practice.
Bowlegs: How does one go about crafting a narrative with beats and sounds?
Spencer: It’s really more about working with emotional tone and texture than anything. Obviously anything you do without lyrics is bound to be kind of implicit and impressionistic. I usually come at music-making from an impressionistic place, I want everything to blend seamlessly so that there aren’t any mundane interpretations like “oh yeah that’s a specific type of guitar running through this specific type of amplifier” or “yeah that’s such and such ableton effect plug-in.” I think it makes for a richer listening experience when most of the touchstones are purely emotional or psychological rather than earthly. With the exception of samples. Sometimes I do want people to hear a source they recognize in the samples or one they can go discover on their own later. I think that’s a game that sample-based musicians have probably always played with the audience.
Bowlegs: Did you plan each track, or was it more of a cohesive project? What was the writing process like?
Spencer: I sat down and worked on each part independently of the others, just making tracks as they came to me, trying not to pay any mind to how long songs are supposed to be or how songs of a certain genre are supposed to build and release or anything like that. I tried to think constantly about the dynamic of the album as a whole in a very straight-forward way, when I’d make a more hype track, that was a peak in the storyline, and when I made something more calm, that was a lull, and I was always thinking about track order. Songs could come from anywhere in any way, sometimes from a looped piece of a record, sometimes from a piano melody I’d play, or sometimes by drawing from a huge hard drive of samples, chasing after something that popped into my head out of the ether, trying to make it real. I had a very small set of limitations in place for continuity purposes that were more unconscious than not, like reiteration of certain sounds across several tracks, but I really didn’t set any rules per se, just guidelines. I hate when people get caught up in parameters like “this can’t be sampled because this person already sampled it” or “it’s not obscure enough” or anything else. I just picked sounds and made decisions based on whether I liked the results.
Bowlegs: It definitely listens as though there are no separations, no chapters. Instead it’s like a short story.
Spencer: Yeah I really wanted things to be continuous and feel like more of an experience than the same old “fade out this track, pause, next song starts” logic that too many albums are made with. I didn’t make the album with any single track in mind as a centerpiece. They all play their roles in the overall structure.
Bowlegs: Are there any tracks you would consider ‘singles’?
Spencer: I felt like it was difficult for me to present any one song off the album without the others. Even now that its out I resent knowing that people can cherry pick and buy songs based on a thirty second long preview. It might sound a little bit hubristic, but I’d honestly rather someone download the album illegally than cherry pick from a place like iTunes and the like if they can’t fork over the money for the whole album. I put a lot of thought into the overall layout, down to how each side of the vinyl plays out. It is definitely meant to be heard as a collage, as opposed to just a collection of songs.
Bowlegs: What was it like working with Father John Misty? How have you incorporated other genres?
Spencer: I have had long, shifting obsessions with a lot of different genres from collecting records and being interested in sounds that are new to me. When I made that track with Tillman, I had been into a lot of Britfolk stuff– Maddy Prior, Pentangle, even down into Ewan MacColl, a singer who made a lot of recordings of traditional and medieval British folk songs– So I was incorporating those sounds, slightly in reference to Tillman’s work and Fleet Foxes which he was a part of at the time, but working the same way I always do, loop by loop on a sampler and a computer. Working in a style that puts sampling at the forefront allows me to incorporate pretty much any sound from any genre past or present, I think that’s a huge part of why I’m drawn to this type of composition. If you can flip something in a way that’s interesting and generates some real emotion, the world is yours creatively. Working with Josh Tillman though, I had only met him a handful of times before we recorded that track, and I haven’t seen him since. I met him when I was really green and I assume that’s still his impression of me. I was recording an album back in 2010 that I ended up ditching, but I asked him if he wanted to be on a track– I think it was over myspace– and he liked my demos so he agreed. That could be totally different from his perspective, who knows. But I made a really rudimentary track for him to add to and sent it to him, he sent it back in just a couple of days with full vocals and amazing live drum parts and all of this stuff. It has been on my computer for a few years now and it didn’t really fit on Lava Divinerbut I wanted it to be heard, so I remixed it and let it go. It definitely helped shine a little bit of light on my album which is good because nobody knows who I am and he’s Father John Misty. The track didn’t go on this album partially because of how recognizable his name is, I didn’t want to stand on someone else’s shoulders on my first record. I wanted it to be my thing. I really like the track though. I imagine I’ll press it to vinyl someday, I don’t want it to drown in the digital ephemera.
Bowlegs: Are you sampling anything on the record?
Spencer: Yep, quite a bit. In 2013 there’s still a strange skepticism toward sampling, at least where I’m from, like it’s a crutch used in place of the ability to play instruments, but I don’t have an inferiority complex about that. I have been playing drums and guitar since before I was a teenager. I used to write songs that way. I’ve been back and forth between mainly playing and mainly producing several times trying to find the right balance of the two. But sampling really is an artform, to me, no matter what anyone else’s definition of an artform is. I find a really specific kind of peace and comfort in picking records apart, looping them up, chopping them, re-sampling everything, creating an entirely new thing out of something old and mostly forgotten. I feel like there’s room for so much expression in the selection and manipulation of samples. In the same way that a piano player chooses the chords that articulate a specific feeling, I pick samples that speak to a deep, personal place in my being, and reflect the inside of my mind. And that happens in the same, natural way as it does when I’m playing an instrument. I go through a record, or whatever the source is, audition things, try things out, and my favorite parts of the process end up in a track, just like I’m tinkering with guitar chords. The accessibility of an artform doesn’t invalidate it either. If it did, no one would respect National Geographic photographers on the grounds that anyone can take a picture with their phone. Not directly comparing what I do to what they do, just saying.
Bowlegs: One of my favorite tracks on the record is one of the shortest, Per-Eon. What moment along the narrative does this interlude represent?
Spencer: That’s one of my favorites, too. I was really trying to reflect some straight-up cosmic awe in that piece of the album. It was largely inspired by the Greek musician Iasos’s 1975 album Inter-Dimensional Music, which is this masterpiece of bubbly, wavy ambient music created on clunky analog equipment, a factor that gives the whole thing the warmth music had before we hit the uncanny valley of digital production.
In the conceptual scheme, I thought of this as the part of the story where the Diviners start to become indoctrinated, really becoming aware of some inherent power in the geology around them and being hypnotized by it. I imagined there being a mass meditation session wherein the participants receive a simultaneous vision of destruction and adopt a position of humility and awe toward that power, which leads into the lyrical themes of the succeeding track, Simple Creatures. But I encourage the listener to imagine whatever he or she wants to. Hopefully there’s a lot of room for that kind of listener participation.
Bowlegs: What was it like fitting a vocalist into one of the tracks? How does RYAT’s participation pertain to the rest of the album?
Spencer: What she contributed to the album was perfect. I gave her a synopsis of the concept and let her write lyrics to whatever facet of that inspired her most, and she came back with a really fitting part, lyrically and melodically. Like the rest of the album, she spoke to the concept, but wove in broader implications, and subtler ideas and emotions leaving room for personal interpretation on the part of the listener. When I got her contribution back and mixed it into the track, I listened to it dozens of times and got chills each time. She really puts across an ancientness I wanted to achieve in the emotional tone of the track. Trilobyte vibes. Deep time, eons, creation, destruction, rebirth, earth, universe. All of it is there, for me anyway.
Bowlegs: What kind of projects do you see in your future?
Spencer: There are some rappers and other vocalists I’d like to collaborate with. I’m working on an EP right now that I really like. I just want to keep creating. Hopefully I’ll see enough of a monetary return someday to be able to cut back on the day-job and spend most of my time just making the things I want to make. But I’ll keep making things either way. I doubt money is filling the hands of a lot of musicians these days.
Bowlegs: I feel like this record would be fantastic with a live installment (I’m thinking MoMA rain room + Lava Diviner). Have you considered pairing your music with art?
Spencer: Yeah definitely, I wanted to speak to that in the last question. I’ve considered making visuals alongside the audio production so that both things are coming from the same mind at the same time. I have some really specific ideas that I don’t want to put out into the world just yet, I’d rather them just be experienced as a final product and I don’t want anyone to beat me to it to be honest, so I won’t give them away now. I’ll just say that as a visual thinker, this is a really natural way for me to go. I just want to keep pushing things into the realm of novelty and create something of-this-time given the vast technological means available, just a full sensory experience not relegated to any single medium. So I guess you’ll see! Thanks for talking with me, I enjoyed it.