Elephant Stone Frontman Rishi Dhir on the Sitar, The Beatles, and Self-Releasing

Jasmine Phull chats to multi-insrumentalist and Elephant Stone frontman Rishi Dhir about playing sitar for Black Angels and Brian Jonestown Massacre, and how his 60s psychadelic sound came to be.

Jayne Robinson

Date published: 26th Oct 2011

Whether it was his Indian heritage, his mother's Filmi renditions or his brother’s love for the Beatles, multi-instrumentalist Rishi Dhir learnt young.

As one of the most highly sought out sitar players in the psychedelic music scene, you can bet it’s Dhir behind the plucked stringed instrument, in more than half a dozen bands including the Black Angels and the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

Describing it as a ‘hollowed our pumpkin’, it was a trip to his homeland back in 1997, that sparked his love affair with the tool that would soon become synonymous with both his name and musical status. Upon their return from Iceland frontman Rishi Dhir talks to Jasmine Phull about the Canadian 60s psyche collective dubbed Elephant Stone.

You’re well known for your sitar-work and have worked with more than half a dozen bands, including Black Angels and Brian Jonestown Massacre. Why do you think the sitar is such an untapped resource in western music?

I guess there are a few reasons: first being that it’s really hard to amplify a sitar in a rock setting. I’ve been trying to get it right for about 12 years now, and I’ve only recently got to the point where it can sit nicely with two guitars, bass, keys and drums. Secondly, it takes a while to tune and master. Lastly, it’s really, really delicate. I mean, a hollowed out pumpkin… really?

Is there a back story? How do you know how to play the sitar?

It started back in 1997 when I went to go visit relatives in India. I’ve been exposed to sitar most of my life via Bollywood tunes and the Beatles. However, it was still a very exotic instrument to me. I figured I’d buy it and try to incorporate into the music I was making at the time. With what little knowledge I had of classical Indian music, I was able to copy some melodies from Ravi Shankar. However, after a year of teaching myself I decided it was time to find a proper teacher. I’ve been learning from the same teacher for 12 years and still have much to learn.

If Elephant Stone was a movie, which would it be?

Disco Dancer.

Why did you release 2010 EP Glass in a Box via your own imprint Elephants On Parade? What are the advantages to self-releasing?

I simply put it out myself because I did not want to wait for someone to come along. The advantages are that you decide when you want to release/record. The disadvantage is that it all comes from your pocket.

Your forte is obviously the psychedelic sounds of the 60s. Why do you think that is? What music did your parents listen to when you were growing up?

I pretty much grew up on Bollywood music and The Beatles/The Who. My Mom is a fantastic singer and would sing old Filmi tunes around the house. My brother turned me onto The Beatles when I was eight years and I haven’t looked back since.

You released debut The Seven Seas in 2009. How long was that in the making and what would be a lesson learnt that you would apply to the second album?

Well, the Seven Seas resulted from me leaving my old band and a subsequent trip to India. Making changes in your life makes you see things in a whole new light. After leaving the band I did a lot of soul searching.

Are your many collaborations indicative of the fact that you draw inspiration from being around lots of different people/artists?

Definitely. I’ve met so many amazing musicians/wonderful people throughout my travels and am always inspired by them.

How healthy is competition between artists in the music world?

I would say that the competitiveness is based more on trying to always up yourself rather then trying to be more successful than your friend’s bands. I’m a fan of all my friends bands (Black angels, Besnard Lakes, BJM, The Earlies, Suuns, Young Galaxy... the list goes on).

Is your music emotionally inspired? Do you avidly seek mentally challenging situations in order to feel and in turn create music?

Emotions definitely drive the music I make. I’ve been able to tap in the fragile moments in my life to help create music. It usually means I’m kind of bummed out for a day or two, but then I’m able to channel the emotions in our art.

Is there anything defining from your youth that shaped where you’re at today?

I guess my family and my Indian upbringing had the most influence on me. Although I grew up in Canada, my family made sure I had a connection to my Punjabi roots.

The one piece of advice you’d give the you starting out?

Live in the moment and always be honest to yourself.

What are you guys currently working on?

After the tour we’ll try to finish our next record.

Last song you listened to?

'Dead Mantra' by the Dead Skeletons.

First album you bought?

Lionel Richie - Dancing on the Ceiling

Interview by: Jasmine Phull

Catch Elephant Stone at Stereo in York on Thursday 27th October. Tickets are available below. 

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