Elephant Stone's Rishi Dhir Talks Ancient Texts and Looking Inward | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Elephant Stone's Rishi Dhir Talks Ancient Texts and Looking Inward


Published December 13, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 16, 2017 at 11:57 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Bowen Stead & Daniel Barkley
  • Elephant Stone

In Buddhism, three states of mind — aka "the three poisons" — represent the roots of all evil: ignorance (moha); anger (dvesha) and greed (raga). Rishi Dhir, the bassist, sitarist and front man of the Montréal-based psychedelic-pop band Elephant Stone, planted such Eastern spiritual concepts into much of the group's early work — most obviously including the band's 2014 record, The Three Poisons. Other concepts are equally prominent, such as the consciousness-expanding Hindu mantra Om Namah Shivaya on the record's seventh track, "Child of Nature (Om Namah Shivaya)."

Dhir, 40, shifted the focus away from mystical abstraction to societal scrutiny on Elephant Stone's 2016 album, Ship of Fools. The title refers to an allegorical concept from Plato's Republic, in which a dysfunctional nautical crew dooms itself because of perpetual infighting over who is truly in command of the vessel. If that sounds eerily familiar, it's likely because it aptly describes the current state of global geopolitical dynamics.

Though he's been a professional musician for decades — often serving as guest sitarist for artists such as Beck, the Black Angels and Temples — Dhir seems to be in the midst of a reckoning with the way he writes. But musically, he's strengthened his vision more than altered it. The dreamy, synth- and sitar-infused rock sounds of Elephant Stone's first album, The Seven Seas, are now much glossier and more streamlined.

Elephant Stone perform on Friday, December 15, at the Monkey House in Winooski. Local psychedelic bands the Dead Shakers and the Thursday Torys add support.

Seven Days caught up with Dhir by phone.

SEVEN DAYS: I read in a 2014 interview that you were just starting to delve into Buddhism. Where would you say you're at now?

RISHI DHIR: It's funny, because my first two records [The Seven Seas and Elephant Stone] were, lyrically, heavily influenced by the Bhagavad Gita. And then, with The Three Poisons, I took a turn into the Buddhist philosophies in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

But it's funny. I've kind of abandoned religion recently. Spirituality is one thing, [but] I guess, in my mind, religion isn't going to save me. So now I'm writing more about how I perceive things and what's around me. I'm more chronicling the times rather than — I mean, I'm always looking for deeper meaning in things. I've lived a lot, and I actually have more to say than I did a few years ago.

SD: Does that mean you now disregard a text like the Bhagavad Gita? Would you discourage someone else from reading it?

RD: No, not at all. It was a huge influence. I've read and studied it enough that it's left its mark on who I am. But I don't need to constantly refer to that text to help guide me in the future. I'm ready to move on and discover something new.

My kids are half Indian, half Scottish. And, you know, I have a statue of Ganesh and stories about Krishna. My daughter will be like, "What is God?" She's only 8 years old. And I'm like, "I wanna have this discussion when I can really explain it, but I'm not going to right now." I'm not going to force [religion] on my kids.

SD: Do you encourage your kids to explore music, or do you have a more laissez-faire attitude?

RD: I guess before I had kids, I was like, "My kids have to listen to this, this and this." I mean, there's always music in our house. And I'm always exposing them to things. I'm gonna force my kids to take piano [lessons]. Learning an instrument is a great thing for any child.

SD: One thing that strikes me about tracks like "Manipulator" and "Cast the First Stone" is the balance between aggressive, confrontational lyrics and the overall groovy, danceable vibe. How conscious are you of that dichotomy when you're writing?

RD: For [Ship of Fools], I went into it with an overlying concept. I knew the title of the album before I had all the lyrics done. [It's an] analogy. We're all in a ship. No one's truly leading, and we all think we know which way to go.

The music does kind of dictate what the mood of the lyrics will be. If it's an aggressive, rock-and-roll thing, the lyrics might be more ... not judgmental but much more opinionated. If it's more laid back, like "Photograph," it'll be a bit more reflective. I have a good sense of my songs and what the mood should be.

SD: What can you tell me about your upcoming Acid House Ragas album?

RD: When I started, it was originally supposed to be this sitar-instrumental thing. And it quickly evolved to this song-based thing with Eastern influence.

There's this album called Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat [by Charanjit Singh] that got reissued in 2010. It's from the '80s. [Singh] redid ragas on synths over acid-house beats. I wanted to do something like that. I've done a few shows in Europe with just me and a DJ kind of vamping on stuff. I'm slowly working my way through a full-length album. I'm hoping that will be out at the end of 2018.

SD: In an interview with the Mindful Bard, you said, "The West Coast gets us. The Midwest and East Coast does not." What did you mean by that?

RD: In retrospect, that was kind of an ignorant comment for me to make. We're in the Midwest right now, and it's actually going really well. I guess, from our experience, our headlining shows were like that. [But] people are connecting with the music we make everywhere.

SD: Given that 2017 is wrapping up, I'd love to know what a few of your favorite records were this year. Do you feel like there were any artists who really shaped the zeitgeist?

RD: People have been writing to me asking for my top five albums. It's weird — I listened to a lot of music [this year], but I don't know. I really enjoyed the new Slowdive [record]. I've been listening to Frank Ocean's last record the most — but that's from 2016.

There're just so many records. It's almost too much music right now. I don't know how you guys — music critics — wade through all the music. It's just overwhelming.

SD: It's hard.

RD: I'll read Pitchfork's top albums or one of these [year-end lists], and I don't know most of [the artists.] One thing I did notice was how rock and roll is not really making the top lists. [Artists] that I've connected with recently are, like, Frank Ocean and Blood Orange. They're more personal, and they have something to say. A lot of rock and roll doesn't grab me.

The original print version of this article was headlined "New Religion"

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