Montreal-based Elephant Stone is parts world beat (a near-archaic term these days when regionalism means something but as far as the distinct and disparate sounds of the world as Peter Gabriel’s One World label knew them, that’s available to all of us, all the time), parts indie-rock and parts psychedelic (which, with its roots in ‘60s rock like The Doors, Iron Butterfly and Captain Beefheart, is somehow totally fresh again). Front man Rishi Dhir (formerly of The High Dials) started Elephant Stone in ’09 originally as a solo project to pursue his interest in blending pop songs and sitar.
If that sounds like a stretch, even among the last decade’s wildly-imaginative fusion acts, it’s kind of not. Psychedelic rock, five decades ago, drew on the drones and ragas of Indian music; the Beatles, among others, experimented with bringing sitar into Western music; it was sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar who teamed up with George Harrison in ’66.
Dhir (who also plays bass) is taking the classical Indian instrument a step farther, recording and touring with The Black Angels, Brian Jonestown Massacre, the Horrors, the Soundtrack of Our Lives. He recently performed on stage, with Beck, in Sydney — he talks to Xpress about this, below.
Elephant Stone opens for the Black Angels at The Orange Peel on Friday, April 5. 9 p.m., $16 advance / $18 day of show.
Mountain Xpress: You’ve been called “the go-to sitar guy for indie bands on tour” — did you start studying the instrument with the idea that it could add to a western rock sound? (I understand you grew up listening to the Beatles…) When did you first successfully blend sitar and indie-rock?
Rishi Dhir: I thought I was called “the most highly sought after sitar player in the psychedelic music scene”? But I digress. I initially bought my first sitar (waaaaay back in ‘97) just as an instrument that I was interested in and wanted to explore. Incorporating a sitar into western music is nothing new (“Norwegian Wood,” “Paint it Black”)… however, incorporating it in a way that takes a song to next level and avoids the “kitsch” tag is a challenge. The first song I wrote on sitar was “Things Are Getting Better” from the High Dials’ A New Devotion (2003).
How does being a Canadian indie-rock band differ from being an American indie-rock band — is there a discernible and identifiable difference to sound or style? And how do you think that Montreal (the city) has impacted your sound?
I guess the most discernible difference is CanCon. Waaaay back in the 70s (I believe) The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications (CRTC) decided that in order to compete with the U.S., Canadian radio should have a quota of Canadian content that must be played. So, this put a lot of money into grant agencies to support Canadian talent. Was this good or bad? There’s a lot of bad Canadian music… but then there’s also a ton of bad American music. The good is that we get funding from amazing federal (that is, unless Harper kills them all) and provincial agencies to help create and export music. Sorry, went off on a tangent.
To answer your question, I’ve been making music for about 17 years, and the Montreal music scene played a very big role in my early days. However, I’ve traveled all around the world and have been exposed to so much amazing music. It’s a big world out there…
I read that one of the influences on your new album was your own exploration of Hinduism — I’m intrigued by the relationship between spirituality and music, and wondered how you used music to delve into or express your spiritual quest.
Music is leads you to God. What is God? That’s for you to decide. For me, God is perfection and is within us all. Lyrically, I touch upon a lot of things and spirituality plays a huge role in it. The Bhagavad Gita is a good read.
It seems to me that psychedelic rock with definitive nods to the ‘60s is making a comeback. Do you think that’s the case, and is it a sound you plan to continue with/hone/evolve in future recordings?
I completely agree with you. The term psychedelic is definitely hot right now (I actually taught it to my 2 year-old daughter) and encompasses so many different styles (I guess its the new alternative/indie rock). I make the music I make, whether it’s psychedelic/ power pop/ indie rock/ what have you. Music is music.
The video of you performing “Loser” with Beck is fantastic. Do you have another band/song in mind that you dream of adding a sitar part to?
I guess “Paint it Black” would be pretty sweet. Keef, I’m waiting for your call.