Texas-born sonic shapeshifter Botany (aka Spencer Stephenson) uses music to create a surrealist soundscape that simultaneously comforts and confuses. His debut album Lava Diviner (Truestory), released Oct 29 on Western Vinyl, is constructed around the story of a religious sect praying for a volcano to erupt, fusing dense, unpredictable beats, dusty chorale and delicate orchestral melodies to build up to the album’s dramatic climax. While his sounds intersect with the cascading, scattered percussiveness of West Coast beatmakers such as Flying Lotus, there's a warmer timbre and wider scope to Lava Diviner (Truestory), which is fluid in its ability to move between the melancholic, the uplifting and the ethereal without notice. Stream the album, and read our interview with Stephenson below.
Dazed Digital: Why did you decide to make a concept album?
Spencer Stephenson: All of that stuff kind of came to me at the same time. I had that working title for the album for the entire two years that I was working on it, and I’ve always been really into these 70s psych albums that have these conceptual themes behind them. I know it’s a cheesy route and a cliché piece of music history but I really thought that just having some sort of narrative like that would be a great way to story board an album. I was reading a lot of sci-fi books at the time and really getting into the pace that these authors would write their books with. I was really trying to fill out the narrative of an album in the same way: build, struggle, then catharsis in the middle, relaxing at the end, and a final conclusion.
DD: So did you spend a lot of time sequencing the album and putting the tracks in order, or did you build the album around the track titles?
Spencer Stephenson: Well I think I just approached the creation of each track on its own, but I did realise at a certain point that I didn’t want the album to be perceived as full-scale escapism. I think that it loses its value at a certain point when there’s no personal touchstone.
DD: So the concept was eventually linked to your personal emotional state?
Spencer Stephenson: I think the concept of the album was more the skeleton of it, and the flesh and blood of the thing was my actual emotions, regardless of where they were coming from. I mean, I was making the album for two years, I pretty much experienced the full range of emotions.
DD: Tell us a bit about your modern musical influences.
Spencer Stephenson: When I was 18 I discovered Four Tet on the album Rounds. Before that I’d been listening to a lot of sample-based music that carried on the legacy of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, but then I heard the textures that Four Tet used, like acoustic guitars and harps and things that you wouldn’t expect to hear in electronic music. During that time period, in the 2000s, I was really influenced by the whole electro-acoustic thing, groups like The Books, Caribou, Prefuse 73.
DD: Do you rely heavily on samples?
Spencer Stephenson: I’ll grab sounds from the environment, or just interesting sounds I hear every day. I’m huge into sampling records and tapes, and that’s what I’ve been doing for a long time. I suppose in some people's eyes, that’s a thing they used to do in the 90s, like that’s a really old way to do it, but it really feels good to me. I think with samples you can go back and find something that was recorded in a specific way that only could’ve been done in 1972 and now it would be impossible to track all that equipment down, and ridiculously expensive. On top of that there are millions and millions of records to pool from, so it’s a constant source of inspiration.
DD: And what do you think of the L.A beat scene? It seems inevitable that you will be compared to some of those artists.
Spencer Stephenson: I love that stuff too, but my favourite stuff coming up out of that is Matthew David’s label Leaving Records. As far as being compared to all that stuff, I know that that whole world seems like a real bandwagon thing. It’s super easy for people to just download Ableton or whatever and do all that stuff on their own – which is great – but I don’t ever really start to feel like one of those bandwagon kids cause I’ve been doing this since I was fifteen. It was six years before I’d even heard of Flying Lotus! But now I see the popularity of that scene and I’m like "oh great, maybe there will be an audience for what I do!" I guess millions of other kids feel like people who were doing that before seemed kinda trendy, but they probably feel like "wow, there’s a lot of other people in the world doing this, maybe I’ll find a family someday."
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