The act of questioning mattered as much in 55BC as it does now…
Based on De Rerum Natura by the 1st century BC Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus, San Franciscan duo Lotus Thief’s debut album, Rervm, is a world, a universe all its own. MR’s Jason Guest spoke with both Bezaelith and Otrebor about the album, their reason for choosing that particular text, how it influenced their approached to capturing it in music, the ideal setting for a performance of the piece, and how music can be a means of challenging twenty-first century western ideologies and facilitating transformation and transcendence of the mundane…
Hi, thanks for taking time out for this interview and congratulations on Rervm (reviewed here). Rervm is a translation-based retelling of De Rerum Natura by the 1st century BC Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus. Why this work? What drew you to that particular text for your debut release?
Bezaelith: “De Rerum Natura” is a captivating text for its time period and more importantly along the lines of its ideas. I initially read “The Swerve”, which is a Harvard professor’s background story of “De Rerum Natura” with emphasis on how this text came close to being lost. That historical chance that someone scouring crumbling texts in a German monastery (in hopes of making some cash off of bringing an old manuscript back to life) accounts for us being able to look back into history at this philosophical voice. And what this particular writer’s voice suggests to humanity is in many ways in conflict with the barbarous and superstitious world we had then, and also with the often barbarous and superstitious world we live in now. I read the text itself and my gut reaction was here was some guy two thousand years ago who was calling people on stuff like sacrificing your daughter to the gods or entering into loveless marriages, or being afraid of shadows without trying to understand what shadows are. Given, much of his explanatory delivery lacks the hard science we have now, but the big ideas I thought were way ahead of their time. For our first burst out of the gates as a band, I wanted something powerful that stood for something, because I knew this debut was going to lay claim for what the band means. Why not start with something beautiful and true that managed to stand the test of time? Perhaps Lotus Thief will follow suit.
How did you seek to capture, to represent, or to embody this text? When writing for Rervm, did you have an idea of how you wanted it to sound or did each of the tracks and the whole thing take shape as it was being developed? And did the text have any influence on your approach to the writing of Rervm?
Bezaelith: I had zero ideas of how I wanted this album to sound. All I knew was how I felt about the poem and how I write as a musician. I’m the kind of writer that doesn’t produce prolifically or in long runs. I have to build up the stress, desire, questions, emotions, whatever in my head in order to fire that gun. I can’t sit for weeks and weeks and hammer away song after song, so I didn’t. The tracks took shape by me playing the drumlines and pondering the spaces they filled, like looking at the foundation of a building you could determine the look of as you built skyward. I guess the biggest question of all for me writing this thing sonically was asking myself what does a shard of philosophy sound like? Why does this particular shard matter? So the text’s influence was absolutely central in sculpting the sound. The reverby caverns and skies in the pieces probably account for the desire to bend time, to slide Lucretius’ world up to ours and to cast the poem’s light on humanity: that we are creatures ever seeking knowledge, that we house an incredible capacity to learn. As a debut, I needed Rervm above all things to speak to this.
Do you have any texts in mind for future works?
Bezaelith: Indeed we do, and we can’t take them off the bookshelf yet to show you, because they are still in that wavering state of becoming songs. I can tell you this: the entire second album is composed and in the process of being pulled up out of the water and polished so to speak. I can tell you also that there will be new incredible voices and composers on this album. Lastly, I can tell you that based on how it sounds so far, I think the next one will be just as wild if not more than Rervm in its own strange way.
What would be your ideal setting for a performance of Rervm?
Bezaelith: I’ve been asking myself precisely this for some time. Either a reviewer or a commenter on a review put my sentiments best. I can’t remember the exact wording but it was along the lines of: “Lotus Thief is going to need a very big room.” I kept thinking of Robert Shaw in “Jaws” saying “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” To some extent, that’s Lotus Thief, it’s big. If we are talking totally ideal setting, that’s easy: an ancient amphitheatre, the likes of which Pink Floyd used in Live in Pompeii. If we are talking the real world where we don’t have a couple million dollars to put into a performance, a large room with a solid sound system is good enough. This will be a challenging performance to bring to tiny bars and clubs because the sound itself is bombastic and full. I say this because we have played this live in our studio and are in the process of assembling a strong live team. We will gladly face the challenge of starting in smaller venues, but I most certainly hope that we can bring this to a stage where we can fill a huge space with the colours and textures of the songs, so people can be in the musical landscape rather than get run over by it bouncing off the walls.
The artwork for the album is a very striking image. Can you tell us about the design and what it represents?
Bezaelith: The Lotus Thief is the embodiment of a person grasping this beautiful bit of knowledge. The design is partially a shout out to the context of the album (ancient Rome, “De Rerum Natura”) but it also heralds in what Lotus Thief boils down to, that overused but ever true adage: knowledge is power. Though they might work out great in other projects, we’re not writing songs about breakups and who’s got money and a Benz or how dark and demonic we are for no particular reason on these records. We’re interested in music accompanied by big ideas that have made it through the alien land of the past. The Lotus Thief is not a person who sits in front of the television for seven hours; it’s a person who pushes out of what’s comfortable to answer the important questions and to go on the adventures life has to offer. We know that because the people from the past did crazy things to gain new knowledge.
Who’s the artist? And why did you choose to work with him/her?
Otrebor: The art and layout was done by Irrwisch Artdesign. He became part of our extended team after he proved himself to be a serious and organized talent on the layout of Botanist’s VI: Flora.
Both of you are in Botanist. Why form Lotus Thief? Does this band offer something that Botanist doesn’t?
Otrebor: Bezaelith was in Botanist for a short but important time during the first year of the band’s launch as a full, performing outfit. She left the band after 2013 and has been replaced by Balan. The formation of Lotus Thief has nothing to do with filling any voids Botanist does not offer. Lotus Thief started because I asked Bezaelith to contribute a track to the Botanist III: Allies disk. It went so well I pushed her to do a full record, and here we are today. What Lotus Thief offers me is the chance to be in a band with another driven individual with a strong work ethic, clear goals, and who is talented at what she does. I get to play a supporting role in this group, which is a nice change from having my own project that I manage. I need only one of those.
How do you write for Lotus Thief? Does your approach differ to that for Botanist?
Otrebor: It’s not entirely a fair comparison as Botanist has been done up till now as a 1-person project. In Lotus Thief, we began the project with the “Allies” track, “Nymphaea Carulea,” which, like all the other “Allies” tracks, was written to pre-existing drum tracks. That worked so well for us, and Bezaelith in particular, that she requested we repeat the approach for the full-length. This compositional style would likely not work with most musicians, but it works well for both of us. In the future, however, we will not be sticking to our guns and trying different compositional approaches. Lotus Thief is on its way to being a touring live band, and we look forward to including our new bandmates’ inputs into future songs as well.
How did you come to work with Svart Records? Do you plan to stay with them for future releases?
Otrebor: We were humbled and honoured to have gotten as much label interest as we did when we started shopping Rervm around. There were some solid parties that wanted to release it, but as soon as Bezaelith told me Svart was one of them, I knew that the search was over. I was already well aware of its solid standing not only in having some of heavy music’s most interesting and eclectic recording acts, but also having an outstanding track record in releasing vinyl versions of heavy, progressive and psychedelic music’s household names’ most prominent albums. I had never dreamed we would hit as big a home run on the first outing as Svart, and the payoff has immediately been apparent. We hope this relationship proves to be a launchpad for further success for all parties.
Culturally (or at least sub-culturally), there’s a deep-seated desire to explore texts and belief systems, systems of symbolic representation, and philosophies that are in distinct opposition to the dominant ideologies of the west in the 21st century. Why this desire?
Bezaelith: In the end, we want answers. This comes back to the ideology that human beings are seekers by nature. I truly believe that while they might feel marginally safer or content, very few people are genuinely happy living their lives pressing the repeat button every day, not exploring new mental or physical territories. Even the stuff we are learning about the human brain and body suggests this universal truth. Turns out that learning new skills keeps our brains alive longer and fends off disease. Speaking for myself and the great musicians I have had the honour of working with, I’ve observed that many are not interested in playing the same things over and over again if it means sacrificing going someplace new and interesting in a different way. Culturally and sub-culturally, the ‘explorer’ is there in all of us.
As to how such a focus is on texts, ideologies, beliefs and symbols in direct opposition to the dominant ideologies of the West, I think this is a natural response to any ideology, or even person for that matter, that achieves dominance. If we’re explorers and seekers, we are thereby naturally predisposed to question what we have been told must be the truth, especially if ‘the truth’ doesn’t really set us free. Perhaps that is an overly romanticized reduction of truth as that which sets us free (for surely some truths are cripplingly painful). But speaking from the standpoint of a female who grew up in America, under the ideology that this is the most “free” and “powerful” empire, I am forced to look at empires past and present and to ask, are we free, or what is freedom for that matter? That rabbit hole cycles back to that question I had starting the composition of Rervm which is: why does this matter now? The answer I discovered was that the act of questioning mattered as much in 55BC as it does now, and will as long as humanity occupies this universe. Even and especially if it means questioning authority.
Music is a very powerful medium for conveying messages, secular and spiritual. Your music has a meditative feel to it, almost of transcendence and transformation. Do you think that music, something intangible and abstract, is itself imbued with a power to provide an avenue into these unknown aspects of existence?
Bezaelith: I do. There’s the physical side of things on the one hand. I believe music, as much as any art form, has the ability provoke reactions. Then of course there’s the spiritual side of things. Certainly, music is a spiritual experience for me because it comes from my spirit. I didn’t build it into my personality, it was just there. When I’m playing and writing music, afterwards I go home and say to myself, “That’s what I was built to do.” Music latches onto both emotion and imagination in a very powerful way if you let it. I had to let that process happen for me writing “Rervm” in order to put into music what was happening in my head. As a kid I used to listen to music before I went to sleep, and it made my imagination come alive in the dark. That feeling was with me composing this album, and its successor.
What does the future hold for Lotus Thief? Is there more music in the pipeline?
Otrebor: For sure. We’ve already got rough demos for the next album and a bunch of recorded instrumental tracks and ideas to last us longer. While the benchmark signature sound that will become more familiar with time will be present, Lotus Thief will not be releasing the same record twice in a row.
Any gigs or tours planned? And will we be seeing you in England any time soon?
Otrebor: As mentioned, Lotus Thief is on its way to be a full, touring band. We’ll start most locally and test some waters within our time zone, I’d expect. Any farther than that would require solid booking help, but we have a feeling Svart has its connections.
Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any closing words for our readers?
Bezaelith: We want to thank you! We also want to thank our listeners and reviewers for having both the patience and open-mindedness they have had both with waiting for our music to come out, and then embracing it with open arms when the time finally came. It is an honour to be able to make music and we hope to continue to do justice to the stories we have yet to tell.