“These days, there’s less of that ‘oh, here’s the part where he breaks out the sitar!’” — Rishi Dhir

Words by Jasper Willems
Photo by Remco Brinkhuis

Rishi Dhir’s a cool cat, just not in that conspicuous, braggadocio rockstar sort of way. Naw, Dhir is more the Matt Hooper-archetype, that goofy science maverick who wears a profound love for the job on his sleeve. As opposed to dropping into a shark cage, though, Dhir drops the sitar for the likes of Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Horrors, Allah-Las and The Black Angels.

Oh, right, he also happens to front his own dynamite outfit since 2009: Montreal-based psych rockers Elephant Stone. With third album The Three Poisonsdue for release next week, Rishi sat down with us within the confines of the placid press area at this year’s Best Kept Secret festival to discuss what may be the band’s most ambitious LP yet.

So…the show went down well?
It was fun! It’s the last show of the tour. How many people, two thousand? I don’t know exactly how many people showed up , but it was packed! It was like four thousand capacity. Basically if you would pile up all the crowds of our previous shows this tour, it would basically be as big as this show.

So you’re basically saying Best Kept Secret was the biggest Elephant Stone show yet?
I think so… *suddenly has dumbstruck expression on face* Yeah, totally! That’s the biggest show we’ve ever played! In cities like London or Paris we’ve been playing for a hundred, maybe a hundred and fifty people. *laughs*

Have you guys figured out the new songs by now? The material on The Three Poisons seems tricky to translate to a live stage.
We’re still figuring those out. We started the tour by playing a lot of new songs. And then we realized that the mood of these songs were different from the last record. So we kept moving songs around. By the end of it, we realized people actually know our last record, so they want to hear that record. People knew the lyrics and they were singing them along! So when we play the new songs, it doesn’t get as much reaction out of them. So we played about two new songs each night. We’re playing our single “Three Poisons” and “Echo & The Machine”.

I recall you mentioning one particular show where you played The Three Poisonsin its entirety.
Yeah, that was pretty much a week after we finished the record. We played Austin Psych Fest and my publicist wanted me to play the whole record. So we learned everything within a week. And it was really stressful! But the crowd appreciated it. I hope people thought it was a bold move to just play the new material. I think people liked it, it was an interesting challenge.

I could imagine you engaging different entry points while constructing these tunes, less of a traditional songwriting MO for one. Can you tell a bit more on how The Three Poisons deviates from your previous LP’s?
We’ve been touring for a year and a half, almost two years together with this formation of the band. Gab (guitarist Jean-Gabriel Lambert) and I recorded our last (self-titled) record with two other guys. With The Three Poisons, the four of us went in already knowing what our respective strengths were. We’ve been developing the sound a lot live, so as we went to the studio we just really took our time with it. Actually, we mostly worked on a song-by-song basis. Also, we didn’t have our current drummer Miles (Dupire) on our previous record, which was more straight up rock. With him playing our music has definitely become more groovy. He’s really taken the band to the next level. So much in fact, that as we were mixing the record we made drums more present. These songs are a lot dancier now. Touring a lot makes you realize that people like to dance. Girls like to dance. (Meanwhile Gab, sitting next to Rishi, muses on why Elephant Stone doesn’t just do “what girls like!”)

It’s funny , I mean we’re a band that wants to grow. We want to do this our whole lives and we realize people come to shows to have a good time. I really want to put out this meditative record, that might come in later. But with The Three Poisons we wanted to make an album that got people moving both emotionally and on the dance floor.

Well, The Three Poisons does have its meditative moments. Miles kind of “set off” the creative process by making a sound on one of his cymbals that resembled a singing bowl, right?
Yeah, Miles and I were at our rehearsal space when he suddenly hit this small cymbal, which I thought sounded like a singing bowl! That basically set off the chain reaction for the record. I ended up bringing over this guy to play singing bowls for like half an hour. It’s a really cool sound. I can just sit and listen to that sound alone for hours. We had to be so quiet in the studio, we were like ‘Can we talk now?’ So we basically just sat and listened the whole way. I remember Gab going, ‘I’m so relaxed!’ It set off the theme of the record…the lyrics. To me, the singing bowl brought all of it together.

Everything about this LP feels very much done on a whim. Like, ‘why not do this or that?’ It’s sort of outlandish…in a good way, I mean.
Yeah, it was totally about making the record! And we didn’t really dissect what we did afterwards. But now we’re paying the price, (laughs) because trying to play these songs live, that’s not easy! We treated the studio as an instrument. We didn’t it just use it as a medium, but more like “what can we do in the studio to improve our abilities?” To create something that we could never replicate in a live environment. We had access to all these keyboards and synths. One song we used like seven different vintage synths. *Gab says he’s never been into playing keyboards, yet on one song he ended up recording an improvised keyboard part* On its own, it sounded like bagpipes. But then you mix it in with the Moog Prodigy, the Roland Juno-60. It’s the last song of the record, “Between The Lines”, it starts off with all these keyboards. I think there is a Farfisa in there too. And the Crumar…I bought this synth called the Crumar Multiman-S. It’s a polyphonic string orchestra machine I got modded. This is all nerd-talk by the way! Anyway, it has an 8 step arpeggio pedal. It allows me to send a voltage into the Crumar and create arpeggio’s on an analog synth. So basically, you get all these crazy sounds! It was all analog stuff, we didn’t use any digital keyboards, so we were never able to create the same thing twice.

Most of the songs are these long epic pieces. Does it draw in any way closer to perpetuating traditional Indian music than the other Elephant Stone-stuff?
I’m not sure whether to call it specifically Indian, but yeah, there is kind of a mysticism to the songs. The record has a meditative, profoundly deep side. But then there’s also a side that’s even more pop than anything we’d done up to this point. It’s funny, those two worlds are much more intertwined than in the past. These days, there’s less of that “oh, here’s the part where he breaks out the sitar!” I mean, “Knock You From Yr Mountain”, that song simply started from jamming and playing “Sally Go Round The Sun” off our last record. We played that song every night on tour, always improvising parts of it. I remember that’s where I’d always come up with this bassline which I kept playing live. It has this other groove to it. Once the tour ended, I remember coming home thinking “that’s a cool bassline!”, I should just make a song out of it! Then a melody came in, the piece started coming together. Gab came up with this guitar part, and Miles with the drums. When I listened to the sitar parts on “Knock You From Yr Mountain” in the studio, I suddenly realized this wasn’t Indian music. Nor was it pop music. It’s like Elephant Stone, which is cool! I think that between the lines it sounds really droney. The Three Poisons too, with the cymbals in the intro…

Three Poisons… sounds like your version of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’… which is cool, ’cause you always appear to have this scholarly yet bewildered approach to creating music, really digging down to the fabric of it. It’s fun, you know…
Exactly! Yeah, just finding out how you can mess with things, mess with a pop song. Turn it into something else! It doesn’t have to be defined as one thing. All of us in the band are big music geeks, getting excited about stuff. Everything comes from somewhere, it’s not like we’re creating this music out of the blue. We follow the lineage of rock-’n-roll, right? Taking what came before us and bringing it along the lines.

Let’s talk Seven Seas, the first Elephant Stone LP (2009), for a bit. First of all, I have to tell you how much I adore’I Am Blind.’ That bass riff totally channels the spirit of Jackie Wilson’s ‘Your Love Is Lifting Me Higher.’
Really? (laughs) That’s awesome!

The fact that Seven Seas was written entirely in India is really interesting. What’s the story behind it?
My wife and I went to India and got this cottage in Rishikesh (a town in the district of Dehrdun in the region of Uttarakhand) for about ten days. I brought my guitar and every day I was trying to write stuff. I was reading Tagore, who’s an Indian poet. I wrote ‘A Morning Song’ there, and ‘The Seven Seas;’ that song is like a love song to India. That whole record is about that!

You left for India right after leaving The High Dials. Was writing during this trip a means to an end for you to develop your own discourse as a musician?
Well, I left The High Dials because I was literally done with being in a band. I wasn’t enjoying it, I wasn’t enjoying the touring. I just got married. I needed a change. After our honeymoon I came back and quit the band. I was focussing more on only playing classical sitar. But I guess the big thing for me was the fact that my wife and I were trying to conceive a child. We lost our first baby. From that point, you have to deal with that stuff your own way. For me, I tried to take the sorrow and put it into song. I had an uncle that always told me that in order to write great poetry, you have to first experience great sorrow in life. All these great poets have suffered at one point in their lives. And I always thought to myself: “I’ve had a pretty easy life, I have nothing to be upset about.” But when that happened, I was able to put things into perspective. I started looking more inwards and find myself. You know, I never tried writing my own songs before this one thing that happened. In the end, my wife and I have two beautiful kids and it’s all great now. But that set things in motion, Seven Seas came out of that. There are actually a lot of songs referencing that…

You don’t have to tell me which ones exactly. I’m just glad to notice you seem to have given it its place.
For the first two years I had to tap into this sadness, but now I don’t have to do that anymore. It comes more easily to me. I don’t have to get into this somber mood or anything.

What’s so empowering about Seven Seas is that, despite all that, it’s an incredibly soaring, uplifting listen. You know, like that moment where you start using the sitar to brazenly rock out, kickstarting that jam at the end of ‘Don’t You Know.’ At one point did you start harnessing this instrument more individually, to break free from all the left-brained stuff?
Well, when I started playing sitar around’ 98 I wasn’t schooled in it. I taught myself for a few years, but eventually I got a teacher in 2000 and I’ve been taking lessons ever since. Pretty much around the time I started Elephant Stone, I really wanted to incorporate it more. I listened to the classical stuff, but also to Brian Jones or The Beatles playing sitar. But to me Ananda Shankar (Ravi Shankar’s nephew) is like the guy who really rocked the sitar. He synthesized sitar playing and rock-’n-roll, so he was a big influence on me…my biggest influence really! I’m like a sponge, always absorbing new sounds around me!

Initially you went to India by yourself, right? The first time you were like what, 19 years old?
I went with my parents the first time actually, it was for a cousin’s wedding. That’s when I bought my first sitar. It’s like going back to my motherland right? Learning your roots, learning who you really are. Meeting family is a big part of that, so I connected with my Indian side much more. I came back ‘nationalistic,’ I was really proud to be Indian. My wife and I went back in 2007, ten years later. That’s what set things off again.

I reckon being 29 the spiritual aspect of the culture became much more of interest, as opposed to being 19. You said in one interview you actually went to Dharamsala that trip, where the Dalai Llama stayed.
Yeah, at the headquarters where the Tibetan government was in exile. It was a really anomalous experience. We spent like a week there as well. It was different, we learned a lot about Tibet, about what had happened. It kind of stuck with me. It’s interesting, because for this record, the whole singing bowls-thing, it sent me right back to that trip. I actually bought the Tibetan Book Of The Dead. *laughs* It got me thinking about the singing bowls, about Tibet, about “Tomorrow Never Knows”. I thought about Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience. I was like “Woah! I always wanted to read the Tibetan Book Of The Dead!” The whole thing about that: when someone dies, a monk is supposed to recite these words to carry the deceased to the next life, through the intermediate state. On the record I have a song called “The Intermediate State”. The song “Child Of Nature” also derives from the Book Of The Dead, it’s about someone whispering to a dead person to carry him on to the next life. The Om Namah Sivaya is a famous Hindu mantra. So it’s like putting these two worlds together. I’m always looking to mix the pot.

Did you draw your own interpretation from The Book Of The Dead?
Yeah, I basically draw my own conclusions out of it. The same with Hinduism. The past two records were heavily influenced by the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. The Three Poisons is de the buddhist cycle of life, represented by the pig, snake and the bird: detachment, hate and greed. All the songs kind of touch on those subjects. It’s funny, it turned out like a concept record! It’s the most conceptual record I’ve ever done but it’s not like linear storyline. But definitely in its moods and motions.

Not like those indulgent Moody Blues concept records, which is probably a good thing. It’s got more of a personal touch.
The songs are very personal, yeah. I wear my heart very much on my sleeve. I’m very up front about things. Each song has something I won’t share with other people but once you write it, once you record it and get it out there, it’s not just mine anymore. It becomes part of the whole band. I feel I’m very limited in my musical abilities: I’m not a good drummer nor am I a good guitar player. I’m lucky that I have the best drummer and guitar player I’ve ever played with! Gab and I have been playing together for four years now. Now we’re at this level where we know what kind of music we want to make. I always had a vision for the band. But more so with this record, in this day and age you have to produce something special. You have to embrace your own identity. I mean, there are so many bands out there. But I really feel Elephant Stone has its own thing going on now. I’m not the type to ride other peoples coattails, like “ah, this is popular now…let’s do this!”. For instance, I love Tame Impala. They are one of my favorite new bands, but people immediately compare us to them after hearing the new album. That’s the reference point people use nowadays for independent, psychedelic music.

It’s kind of funny, because Tame Impala is actually symptom of that “everyone discovering everything at once”-playing field the millennial bands are experiencing now. Music’s no longer this generational thing. Tame Impala are a bit younger than you guys, so that inherent curiosity basically drives them headfirst into blissful excess. They probably do listen to those indulgent Moody Blues-albums, yet bumpin’ Jay-Z in their tour van all the same. Kind of makes you envious, doesn’t it?
I think that last record of theirs was one of the best things of the past couple of years! Kevin Parker is a great musician and songwriter. I remember hearing that record, I was really mad! (laughs) I was like ‘I wish I wrote that record!’ It’s so, SO good! We listened to Lonerism all the time in the van. Every time we put it on, we’re like ‘Really? Really!?’ The new Horrors album is amazing too.

They played right after your set here at Best Kept Secret. Did you catch up?
Yes! Tom (Cowan) actually played with us during the last song of our set!

They did a remix right? That’s another thing: Elephant Stone seems to really enjoy the wider collaborative scope with other artists.
I know all these bands like The Horrors, Dandy Warhols and Temples, so I reached out to them to ask if they would like to remix our songs. And I’m always collaborating with Tom of The Horrors, sending files back and forth. Gab did three records this year as well.

You have a full-time job to manage as well. How does that equate to having a band and all that?
Whenever I’m touring I have to work while on the road. It’s not easy, I’m pretty exhausted all the time. I remember our first show in Groningen, I was working up to half an hour before the set. And then as I went on stage and I was still thinking about work…’Oh god, I forgot to send this file!’ So ever since, I’ve been stopping about an hour before the show. This tour I’ve been off work, so it’s been just music. We went out in Paris! So…

…it makes sense to have your own intermediate state between work and “work” I guess.
Well, I do over-think things a bit. My mind keeps moving very fast. It’s like chess where I’m always planning six moves ahead. Which can be really annoying when I’m playing a show, ’cause I’m always thinking what should happen next. Fortunately I increasingly get really caught up in the moment. Like today, it felt like the best Elephant Stone-show in a very long time!