Straight from the fertile imagination of Texan producer Spencer Stephenson (aka. Botany), is ‘Lava Diviner (True Story)’, his dazzling debut LP. Strung together around the loose concept of an imagined religious sect waiting for a volcano to erupt, the album’s bizarre themes are lent weight by the very real emotion that Stephenson pours in to it. With the music a patchwork of highly textured, rich beats and gorgeous dreamscapes that will instantly strike a chord with fans of Brainfeeder et al, it would appear that Stephenson has emerged out of leftfield to drop an impressive first album.
Talking to Hyponik, Stephenson was kind enough to go into great detail on the creative, biographical and technical contexts behind every track on his new album, with more than a few interesting anecdotes and tidbits thrown in along the way. Stream the album (below, courtesy of Dazed Digital) whilst you read Stephenson’s in depth track-by-track dissections.
As I remember, this opening track began in the percussionless drone-zone, with a 2-minute recording of me just doing cascades on the zither. I wanted to create something using only strong drums and melodic textures, with no mind paid to any kind of noticeable structure, although the final draft didn’t adhere to that limitation. The original title of the track was “Zawinuk” which is a mistype of the last name of the famous keyboardist Josef Zawinul. For some reason this one Weather Report rhythm has been stuck in my head since I was 14, and it came to me randomly when I was making this track. The whole thing really revolves around the bassline. I always tie my basslines pretty close to the kick-drum patterns, and this song is a great example of that. I ended up changing the final name to play off of “communicate” or “come” as a kind of invitation for the listener to participate in the album.
This is one of those tracks where the structure documents the creation process fully, in a linear way. Those first four bars– that’s how it started, and the rest of the song just filled itself into the next minute and a half. The dissonant laughing loop that plays under the whole track came from an old home-recording of some kids playing with the echo effect on their karaoke machine, the one with the dual tape deck that we all had. All of the sounds from that tape lend themselves to this really unintentionally eerie vibe.. I started this track trying to appeal to a darker side, but ended up with something completely melodic. The title ‘Anchor’ comes from the working title ‘Anchor Chest’ which refers to a heaviness I feel on my chest from time to time because of a heart condition, but also to the physical weight that heavy emotions can manifest in the body.
This is a companion piece to ‘Anchor’ and there was never any question that they would border each other on the album. This track opens with a sample of Tibetan monks chanting. Each bar ends with a guttural pronunciation of some mantra that I admit I can’t interpret. I took that drone of the monks’ voices and overlayed the same sample on top of itself at various pitches to give it some kind of chord structure.
This song is kind of like the bong-rip that gives way to the high of the rest of the album. It just so happens that I finished one of the final drafts of this track while waiting to be released from the hospital for the heart condition that partly inspired ‘Anchor’.
I put this together, on a laptop and earbuds, late one night in my living quarters at the farm I worked and lived on in 2012. There are quite a number of chord changes in this one, as opposed to the usual modal form I fall into naturally. This one was massively inspired by the work of new-age home recording pioneer, Iasos, particularly on his 1975 album, Inter-Dimensional Music. This track came to me as-is and remained pretty much untouched until the album was turned in. I would go so far as to say this is my favorite piece on Lava Diviner, although it’s not that representative of my music overall.
SIMPLE CREATURES WITH RYAT
Christina’s (RYAT) vocal work on this is really incredible. I gave her a little bit of the concept of the album to work with thematically and lyrically and she really ran with it. “Iron core will simply cover us” is one of the opening lines of the song. She really nailed the ancient, geological theme I was aiming for on the album, particularly on this track. I had chills when I first got her material back from her, she really rounded it out and brought some life to it. The final line of the song really resonates with me “we must live, we must live, simple, creatures.” It really speaks to the primacy and deep time I tried to put across in the mood of the track/album.
CANT / GOOSEMOTHER
This one began as an outgrowth of trying to make an original piece for my girlfriend, who is a dancer, to choreograph to. In her line of work she runs into quite a bit of pop-cheese, and I wanted to make something really primal and uncompromising for her to create to. The rhythm that this song is based on is one of my natural patterns that I fall into in making tracks. During an altered state with some close friends a few years ago, I had an encounter with some tessellated entities that performed this same kind of rhythm wrapped up in a blaring bass tone, and they ‘asked’ me to participate by tapping along. Ever since that experience, this rhythm has been a recurring pattern for me. The title was intended to mean ‘chant’ or ‘sing’ in reference to the medieval choral sample used throughout, but it turns out that it actually means “Angular deviation from a vertical or horizontal plane” which works equally well on a lot of levels. This song is also a shout-out to my brother who lives in The Gambia.
When I started this one, I was trying to alter a water drop sample to create something akin to the warm synth tones you sometimes find on 70’s library records. I wanted to create a kind of retro-futuristic synth piece that could soundtrack the singularity but after beating the idea to death it moved closer and closer to hip-hop which is more of a natural channel for me, so I just stopped resisting. I cut up a really small piece of an old Emerald Web vocal to make what I call the hook, and put it with some live harp samples that a friend had recently captured for me on a handheld cassette recorder, and a million other minute details that I can’t name off the top of my head. This was one of my favorites for quite a long time. I was looking at a lot of paintings by Zdzislaw Beksinski ( see painting below ) and Kilian Eng, and artists like that, using them as a visual backdrop when I’d listen to playbacks, and “Quatic” reflected and matched the tone of a lot of those paintings.
“Small Keys” is like an encore to “Quatic”. I made them both around the same time and for some unconscious reason they ended up being the same tempo. My roommate at the time, added some ascending and descending slides on the violin, caked in delay, and really brought out the turmoil buried in the track. The violin tracks by themselves sound so fucking eerie, I listened to those isolated parts a few times over with tears in my eyes.
This track is based on samples I cut from an acapella track I made when I was 20. I dug it up out of my hard drive and completely flipped it, adding some samples and other elements to add to the continuity of the album. Although it came from an old track, this one embodies the near-death-experience side of my music and I thought it would be interesting to push this one forward as a title track to the album.
I wrote the basis of this while living on a farm. I was there getting away from a lot of trouble in my life. I had a pending assault charge for a fist fight and I’d spent so much mental energy and time on music that my personal life had descended into a really lonely, introverted place, and this melody just passed over me like a gap in the clouds while experimenting with open tunings on a guitar one afternoon. So I recorded it to a handheld recorder and took it to the laptop that night and layered a drone I made out of a sample of a tugboat. For me this is one of the more deeply emotive tracks on the album. In the conceptual narrative, this is the peak point where everything is destroyed and the Earth is scorched, and that’s definitely how I felt about my life at the time.
SUNNA / SHOW ME
This track was made almost entirely from field recordings I compiled while living at a friend’s house in Denton, Texas. I would take my hand-held recorder into the living room on several mornings and just capture chord progressions on an old junk piano that was sitting by the backdoor, and take them back to my space and sample them if they stood out. The first half bleeds into a very personal piece I strung together out of the same piano sample for my girlfriend one evening at that house, which is the “Show Me” half.
I didn’t know whether to put this song first or last until I added the string arrangements at the end, which I think is one of the more affecting moments of the album. It was one of the first I made for Lava Diviner. The whole song is a kind of giant upward arc, and I think its a good epilogue. After hashing out this album for a year and a half, listening to playbacks and thinking constantly of which track would fit where, the whole sequence of the album fell together in a one-hour session at my computer, with this track as the period on the end of the sentence.
‘Lava Diviner ( True Story )’ is out now on Western Vinyl. Buy it here.