“Dear Dr. Dhir – I Read Your Recent Letter”
To update a thought we posted last year: We would never be able to say who the “best” band was at the Austin Psych Fest (whether this year or any other). First of all, like all art, music is personal and subjective – who can quantify such enjoyment? Second, the answer is Rishi Dhir.
Perhaps not the answer you were expecting – especially considering the fact that Rishi Dhir is not a band at all, though he is a member of a great band called Elephant Stone and he memorably joined another band onstage at Austin Psych Fest 4 (some hoodlums from Austin, TX, called The Black Angels – never heard of ‘em). Similarly, we were not necessarily expecting to find the interstitial, interstellar, solo sitar serenades presented by Mr. Dhir to be among the most strangely satisfying musical experiences of our old, old lives. But we did. And then we set about pestering Mr. Dhir to explain himself – which he was kind enough to do below.
What were your earliest musical obsessions? Can you recall the first music that truly affected you emotionally – whether it be joy, sadness, etc. – and how does that music make you feel today?
I guess my earliest obsessions was a mixtape my (older) brother made me of The Who’s “Meaty Beaty, Big and Bouncy” and “The Best of the Doors” as well as the North American release of “Revolver” (sans “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Dr. Robert”). I’d have to say that Teenage Fanclub’s “Alcoholiday” was the first song to really give me goose bumps all over … to this day the tune still sends my head into the clouds.
In making the transition from being a music listener to a music performer, what were the most critical steps for you? Who were the people who inspired you most to make that transition? At this point, can you imagine a life wherein you do not write, record or perform music?
I guess my brother was the one that inspired me to take the step to being a musician. I started playing bass when I was 15 (just after my brother got his guitar). We had a garage band that never really left the garage … at seventeen I joined a band called the Sea Beggars and have been playing music since … Music is who I am; there’s no way to separate it.
At what point did you make the conscious decision to focus on the sitar as your instrument of choice? Was this a long-dormant desire of yours and if so, was there a specific event or person that rekindled that desire?
I’ve been exposed to Indian music (pop and classical) my whole life; whether it be the Bollywood films that my parents would watch religiously every Saturday evening or the classical records they would play during the day. I went to India with my family back in ’97 and decided on that trip that I wanted a sitar. I guess having been exposed to it my whole upbringing did kind of make me gravitate towards the instrument … also, my aunt (RIP) was very supportive of me learning the instrument. From there I started messing around with it and eventually found my guru in Montreal in 2001. I’m still taking lessons to this day.
Aside from the time and commitment of mastering a new instrument, what were the biggest obstacles for you in getting comfortable with the sitar? If forced to choose, what’s your favorite use of the sitar in a rock or pop template?
I guess getting into the proper head-space is the hardest part. Although I was exposed to classical Indian music as a child, I was really brought up on the Beatles, the Who, Pixies, Teenage Fanclub … you get the idea. I find it very challenging to get into the mood when practicing. However, performing classical music in a live setting in front of an audience is a completely different experience; you feed off the energy of the crowd and the music just comes out…
Favorite use of the sitar in the rock idiom? It would have to be “Streets of Calcutta” by Ananda Shankar. My jaw literally dropped to the floor the first time I heard it. He’s a huge inspiration for me in fusing sitar/rock.
The late, legendary comedian Bill Hicks, when speaking about misconceptions regarding recreational drug use, once said the following:
“They tell you that pot smoking makes you unmotivated: lie. When you’re high, you can do everything you normally do just as well, you just realize it’s not worth the effort. ‘Sure, I could wake up at dawn, get in traffic and go to job I hate which does not inspire me creatively whatsoever for the rest of my life. I could do that, sure … Or I could sleep till noon, get up and learn to play the sitar …’ It’d be a better world, if it were all sitar players calling up aliens from the fifth dimension.”
Yeah, learning the sitar teaches you patience. By nature, I am a very impatient person; I like getting to the point right away. However, with classical Indian music, you have to take your time and let things flow naturally. So, yeah: a world of sitar players would be a pretty mellow/cool place.
How do you feel the music of Elephant Stone has evolved since the band’s formation? In any surprising ways? How do you think your own perspective on music and performing has changed – if at all – since becoming a father?
Well, I only really started writing songs when I left the High Dials in 2006. So, this is all still pretty new to me and the band just keeps evolving along with my songwriting. So, a new song is always a nice surprise! Especially when I can add some sitar to it;)
Become a father has definitely changed my perspective on how I approach touring. I’m much more selective on the shows I play, and try to keep the tours nice and short (two weeks max!). Songwriting-wise, I find inspiration in every facet of my life. Meera, my daughter, was pretty much the main inspiration for most of the songs on “The Glass Box.”
One of the things that makes the music of Elephant Stone distinctive is how it manages to balance unabashedly pop elements together with the dreamy drone of the sitar. Is there much of a give and take to your own internal barometer for new songs, to strike that balance between the perfect, three-minute Kinks-esque gem and the ability tie the headband on tight and open yourself up to a 22-minute raga?
Honestly, I try to add as much sitar as possible to every song. I’m usually a lil’ bummed out when it doesn’t work; I’m very conscious of avoiding the “kitsch” factor when adding sitar/tablas to a tune. I definitely find my forte is writing pop-songs, so I don’t find it that hard to avoid the 22-minute epics. Live, however, is a whole other issue; I could just play sitar all night …
What can you tell us about your initial introduction to and involvement with The Black Angels? What were your thoughts about performing on stage with the band at Austin Psych Fest 4?
I met them back when they first started up; my old band, the High Dials, played with the Brian Jonestown Massacre at SXSW and Alex and Christian were at the show. I spoke with them a bit and got along pretty well. The next time we played Austin The Black Angels opened up and I ended up crashing at their place. The relationship built from there … they’re really sweet, kind, lovely people. I guess the big thing was when I recorded sitar for “Deer Ree Shee” during one of my many times playing Austin. So, every time they’d play Montreal I’d get up on stage with them and play a few tunes. I was really touched that they wanted me to play the Psych Fest. Had a great time. I managed to bring down my wife and daughter, so I got to have my cake and eat it, too. I thought they did an amazing job with the festival and will definitely be coming back next year (hopefully with Elephant Stone!).
What’s next for Rishi Dhir and Elephant Stone?
We’re heading out on the road this week with The Soundtrack of Our Lives, playing a festival in Toronto, playing a festival in Montreal with the Flaming Lips, recording new tunes, playing the Iceland Airwaves and touring the UK in October! I couldn’t be more excited about life and music right now!
Original Rishi Dhir photo above by William Godwin