Rishi Dhir is the founder, lead singer, bassist, keyboardist, and sitar player for Montreal-based psychedelic rock band Elephant Stone, which released their fourth album, Ship of Fools, in late 2016. Recently Dhir took the time to answer some of Wanda Waterman’s questions about his long, strange musical trip. You can soon read another part of this interview at Rawckus Magazine, but for a few more details, have a look at the interview below. And stay tuned for updates on Dhir’s next project, Acid House Ragas.
Growing Up at a Musical Crossroads
I was pretty much born and raised in Brossard, Quebec, on the South Shore. My parents were Indian immigrants who came here in 1969. I’m the younger of two kids. My mom was very musical– a great singer. In the Indian community when the parents would get together they’d always end up singing things like old Bollywood songs. So I was more or less exposed to music from a very young age.
My older brother’s the one who gave me my formal training in rock and roll. I remember listening to The Who and Guns ‘N’ Roses and stuff like that when I was eight years old. My brother would always pass on the music to me. I feel like I’ve been schooled on music throughout my whole life by my family.
Motley Musical Mix
When you’re first starting to discover music, it’s all so new and so mysterious that you don’t really know what pieces make the whole. I started taking piano lessons, and then I started playing the guitar when I was around 14. My parents knew The Beatles’ music, and would get excited when I’d play it for them. I’d also play Indian music for them.
I remember when I discovered Cornershop I became a huge fan of theirs. A lot of the substance with them is very Indocentric. It’s a guy of my generation being influenced by the same things that I was influenced by and conveying that as music. They have Punjabi lyrics. As it turns out, his family was from the same village that my parents’ family were from, so, I played that for them, and they got really excited.
It really wasn’t until I went to India in 1997 for my cousin’s wedding that I became much more aware of the Indian influence in Western music. Going on that trip instilled in me a sense of pride in my Indian heritage. I bought my first sitar while I was there. When I came back I started going through my parents’ old records. They had Ravi Shankar and Live at Monterey and all of this Bollywood stuff.
There have been many highs and lows. I remember this one show while we were playing at a festival in Angers, France in 2013. There were like 2000 people outdoors there and I just remember this energy from the crowd. Bands always talk of this energy, but when you play a show for like 10 people it’s hard to find the energy and motivation to do it. Going on stage to perform for people isn’t just like being a rooster on stage strutting your stuff; you’re trying to convey something.
I remember when I was getting off the stage at that show in France there just being this great energy and my heart feeling so full. That happened again recently: We played at a show in Antwerp, Belgium. It was a small venue with a capacity of about 100. Playing every night in some ways is very restricting because you just do the same thing in the same part of the same song all the time. But I remember this one song that we weren’t happy with, so we used this sequence on my synthesizer. Instead of going into the big rock part of the song, I decided, I’m just going to see where this goes, and I held back– I was patient with it. The rest of the guys in the band are such phenomenal musicians, and they saw right away where I was going. We were doing it with “Devil’s Shelter” off of the new record. We started doing it, and the song just morphed into this 10-minute thing. The whole time we felt this excitement, as though everything was going to fall apart because we didn’t know where it was going to go next.
I remember finishing the set. The shows up to that point felt very restrictive and we hadn’t felt like we were serving the songs properly, but that moment felt like a huge release for us. It’s moments like that where you take chances that really reward you.
All audiences are not the same. It’s funny because I’ve been doing this for about 20 years now. The first tour I ever did was in 1996. That’s when I started doing music and putting out records with so many other bands.
When you first start a band you’re like, “Oh, man, we’re going to tour Canada!” and then you tour like Canada five or six times. Then you’re like, “We’re gonna tour the U.S. We’ve gotta make it in the US!” So you keeping going to the U.S. On this last run, I found that the U.S. isn’t where it’s happening.
That’s surprising, isn’t it? I mean, it’s such a great place. It was just that there really isn’t any room for what we’re doing now except maybe on the west coast. Like I said, it comes back to the drugs and the mentality and the search for a higher consciousness. The west coast gets us. The mid-west and east coast does not. The U.S. tour was very taxing on us.
I was in Portland just a day before the election and then off to Vancouver after that. When we played in Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver, it was like, “Canada’s getting us!” I never pinned much hope on us developing much in Canada, but over the past couple of years, with CHOM FM really getting behind us and other radio stations across Canada starting to pick up on us, I see things in Canada growing. Then there’s pride. I really don’t think that there’s any other band like us in Canada. We’re definitely different. With the exception of the UK, mainland Europe really respects artists and treats what they do as something respectable and noble.
On our last tour I hadn’t been to Europe in two years so it felt like we were starting over, but we had our fans and I felt it growing. We usually did well in London, but we did Manchester and we played to big audiences. Paris is great, also. I think that I’ll stick with Europe and Canada for now and take a break from trying to pursue America.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that American music is phenomenal. I think that modern hip-hop and R & B is the music that’s actually saying something these days. But listen to a lot of America’s rock bands— rock and roll in general to me right now isn’t saying anything. Not that it always has to have a powerful message or anything, but it has to have something.
The new Solange record is a powerful record. Blood Orange, Anderson Paak, Beyoncé . . . they’re all singing about something relevant to them. That’s really inspiring. During tough times in countries, the ’70s in the UK with punk rock, the Reagan era, the ’90s grunge . . . all of this was reactive music.
The Making of Ship of Fools
I released this record on my own record label, pretty much. I’m the label manager, so I’ve seen that you can’t be everywhere at once. You have to see where things are happening and take that and build on it. I could keep knocking on America’s door and saying, “Give us a chance,” but why not go where the door is already partly opened and see what’s behind it?
I’m always a bit depressed once I finish a record. I’m not a very nostalgic person— I’m always ready to move on to the next thing. This can be both good and bad. The bad thing is that I’m not going to dwell on something in an attempt to make it perfect. I just want to move on and try the next thing out. So, in the studio, it helps to have a producer who’s going to be like, “No, you’re going to do this!” I need someone like that.
When I finish a record right away my mind’s like, Okay! I have the new record mapped out. I think that I have the record mapped out, but in reality I don’t, and then I get a bit depressed. See, I haven’t really written a song since I finished Ship of Fools, which is fine. I released three records in just over three years. I wrote a record per year, pretty much. Right now I’m kind of happy that I’m not writing songs. I’m putting my energy into Acid House Ragas. I want to get back into my sitar studies again and fine tune that.
How to Live With Repeated Rejection
I’ve developed thick skin by being a musician for so long. I’m 39 now and still doing it. You can take the rejections. I’m fine with people saying “no” to me; you don’t just sit there and go, “Ohhhh, poor me! Maybe this isn’t right!”
Being artistic, you’re always going to be criticized, you’re always going to get some bad reviews, you’re not always going to get the contract, and so on and so forth. Like with this record, no label would release it because the climate’s changed. Even though I know it’s a great record, it wasn’t meant to be.
I was talking to my manager and we were like, “Let’s just do it ourselves.” We put a really good team together, and we did it.