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Interview: Rishi Dhir (Elephant Stone)

18 March 2024

Photo by Laurine Jousserand

Montreal’s psychedelic explorers, Elephant Stone, are back for another cosmic voyage. Their latest album, Back Into the Dream, is their sixth, and it finds them staying true to their trippy roots while simultaneously innovating.

The Beatles remain a clear influence, but Elephant Stone injects pop sensibilities into tracks like “The Spark” and “Another Year Gone,” while “Pilgrimage” adds a touch of jazzy flair.

This album was a homegrown affair for frontman Rishi Dhir, who produced, recorded, and mixed everything himself in his Sacred Sounds studio. Despite the lo-fi touches like intentional tape hiss, Back Into the Dream sounds polished and professional. Perhaps there’s something to be said for Canadian musicians who use long winters to create music brimming with warmth and hope.

Dhir recently spoke about the inspiration behind the album’s title, the pressure to cater to algorithms, the advantages of home recording, the art of crafting an album’s flow, and a particularly memorable dream (or nightmare?).

You released a number of singles before Back Into the Dream. That seems to be the trend these days. Did you do that to work with the algorithm and keep people’s attention?

RISHI: For the last Lemon Twigs album, they kept releasing singles. I loved their first record; I lost interest for the few records after. They started putting out singles and I was like, “Wow, this is really good.” They kept releasing singles and it kept bringing me back to them. I was like, “This is an interesting way of releasing it.”

I thought, we haven’t put a full album out in four years, why don’t we slowly reintroduce the band? And while we were doing it, I was like, “Oh, wait a minute. This means every single could be pitched to Spotify as a release and that it can go in the algorithm and get on playlists.” So, it actually worked out well that way.

I found with Hollow, our last album, we also did the singles thing but people’s attention spans have been decreasing so having them stay interested in a whole album, songs get lost in the cracks. With this album, I recorded, produced and mixed it by myself with the rest of the band in my studio so every song is very precious to me. In my mind, I thought every song was not necessarily a single but should get the attention it deserves. There’s many sides to Elephant Stone on this album, each song is its own time capsule. I wanted that to stand out a bit.

Your albums don’t all sound exactly the same, but the songs live within the bigger Elephant Stone world. Do you find different inspirations for each album?

RISHI: I’m a music fan and I don’t listen to just one style of music. I’m 46 now and I’ve listened to a lot of music. At this point in my life, I’ve been revisiting the music of my adolescence more and using that as inspiration for this album. I guess that’s a COVID thing where you had a lot of time to think about stuff. I got more reflective on this album, whereas Hollow was kind of like, “We’re all gonna die, it’s the end of the world.” This one is more about thinking about life. A song like, “BAE,” I remember my drummer Miles [Dupire-Gagnon] came in and was like, “What do I play on this?” I’m like, “Play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’” He did it. I was thinking about the Pixies and Nirvana and things like that, which I never really considered would influence the Elephant Stone world, but that’s the stuff I grew up on.

Do you still collect physical media like vinyl and CDs?

RISHI: The transition was letting go of all my CDs. I still have them in a CD wallet, I kept all the covers and stuff, I’m a total music nerd so I need to hold onto it but, vinyl, I don’t do that anymore. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve let go of material stuff. I’m glad people still buy vinyl. People are buying CDs again, which is surprising. I love CDs. They’re perfect, I can just put it in my car. But, no, I don’t buy music anymore.

Since you’re not buying music, I guess this question is moot but I was going to ask what makes you decide to buy something physical when you can listen to something on a streaming service?

RISHI: The vinyl thing is funny because it had kind of died off. I played in the Black Angels for about a year, I think it was back in 2012. We did Lollapalooza and Coachella and stuff like that. I remember I had a lot of downtime so my thing was that every day I would go to a record store and buy records. I went to, I think, Reckless Records in Chicago and I bought the first two Big Star albums on vinyl. I remember that I had been searching for that.

To answer your question, the music that I’ll buy is music that I already know and want on vinyl so, bands that I really, really, really love. Or, I’ll buy something that is really cool and obscure, like psych compilations that I’ve never seen before. I remember I found this crazy world compilation, Sa-Re-Gah! Funk, which was 1970s Indian psych rock stuff that I’d never heard. I know a lot of Bollywood music, I grew up on that stuff, so this comp blew my mind. Once my IKEA shelf got filled to the rim, that’s when I stopped. Also, people keep giving me vinyl and I don’t know what to do with it. My record player has been broken.

With an album called Back Into The Dream, I’m wondering if you remember dreams?

RISHI: Ever since I was a child, I was haunted by these terrifying dreams. I remember one was almost like a Platoon scene, going down a rabbit hole and I don’t know who we’re going after. I go into a room and it’s my old house and my grandmother, who lived with us when I was younger, is standing there on the bed. I was terrified of this room as a child and my grandfather, who I never met, was hanging by a noose in the dream. Then my grandmother pointed at me and would say “You’re next” I would have these horrible anxiety dreams. Also, I always had these dreams that were about space and time in some ways and I felt so far away from people. It was always panic inducing. All these dreams have haunted me my whole life, but I think during COVID, I started to daydream a lot and I tuned out all the time. I found I was doing that a lot during COVID just to escape every day.

For this album, I wrote the songs and I was looking for a title and then I came upon this article by a friend of mine that passed away, Paul Gleason. He was a music writer. We became really close. He died of, I think, kidney failure. He was based out of Chicago or somewhere near there. He wrote this review of our album The Three Poisons, and the headline was “Back Into the Dream.” I came upon that article one day and thought it would be a nice homage to Paul and it also sums up this album, either wanting to disconnect from society and get lost in your dreams, or maybe you want to follow your dreams, so it has a few meanings to it.

That’s a lovely tribute to Paul. Do you go into albums with themes in mind and try to craft stuff around that or do album themes emerge after you’ve written the songs and you take a step back and see that they are all about something?

RISHI: The melody and the harmony come first and the lyrics come after. I take my lyrics pretty seriously where it has to mean something, has to convey emotions. For this album, lyrically, I had a batch of songs and then I went into the studio and was like, “I gotta write lyrics.” It worked out that it has a strong, not necessarily a narrative, but a theme to it.

How important are lyrics to you?

RISHI: It’s funny because when I listen to music, I don’t really pay attention to lyrics. It’s about the melody and the lyrics. If it works sonically, that’s great. When I first listen to an album, I don’t pay attention to words but then I’ll get to the next layer and I’ll start focusing on the lyrics. For me, writing words has to mean something. In my catalog, I’ve had a few songs that I’ve written where I’ll look back at it and I’m like, “I’m saying nothing in that song. Why did I even bother?” But people don’t notice that.

For this album, the song “BAE” has no words. I demoed that song and I had a mic and I was singing along. It was all one take. I made up the whole melody in the moment. Over the next few months, I was trying to come up with words for it and nothing sounded right. I’m like, “What is this song about? I don’t know.” In the end, I said “Fuck it.” There’s this Italian song from the ‘60s, I forgot what it’s called, but the singer made up English words. It was a huge hit and it’s this great song and he sounds like he’s speaking English but he’s not. It became huge in Italy. All my songs start with gibberish lyrics. And “BAE” has no words. I could have put words just to make it work but it would have meant nothing to me. The emotion of the song meant more to me than the words.

The music you make fits into a certain niche. It’s not getting played on the radio but you probably have a lot of fans who discover you when they read something like this interview or maybe they read an article about another band and then as they go down the rabbit hole exploring that band, they’ll stumble on Elephant Stone. The popular band that I think could be a good starting off point that will eventually lead to you is Tame Impala. Are you okay with being that niche band while Tame Impala is selling out 5,000 seat venues?

RISHI: Definitely. At one point, I think with our album Little Ship of Fools, I was like, “Okay, I’m going for it.” I was listening to a lot more Manchester stuff, dance-y stuff, I was getting into that zone, and I remember I was like, “This is it. The band’s going to make it.” That didn’t happen. I was pushing myself for five years, just album, tour, album, tour. After that album, I needed to take a break and really think about what I was doing. I put Elephant Stone on the back burner. I put out a few singles with Acid House Ragas, which was this electronic project I did for a couple singles. I put out a record with MIEN, my other band with Alex from The Black Angels, Tom from The Horrors, and JM from The Earlies.

I just needed to understand what Elephant Stone meant to me. Coming back to Hollow, I realized Elephant Stone was an expression for me. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t playing thousand-seat arenas. If I was playing to 20 people, it didn’t matter. This was my therapy. A lot of my friends are seeing therapists these days. I think music’s my therapy. The fact that in these songs, I’m literally able to put my heart on my sleeve and once I get it out there, I can move on and not feel it and let go of things.

I’ve been doing Elephant Stone for 15 years. I’ve been making music for 25 years with bands. At this point, I know people appreciate us. I know we have fans. I don’t have any false delusions of grandeur where the band should be. I’m fine with that. It’s the music I make and it’s a niche market, which is good. It means there’s always going to be people for that.

Duster is having a viral moment, I think through TikTok. Have you had any viral moments, any songs used in movies or on TikTok or things like that?

RISHI: Our song “Sally Go Round the Sun’‘ from our 2013 album, it’s this minute and a half Sitar instrumental that’s kind of taken on a life of its own, not on TikTok, but on Spotify. A band at my level doesn’t usually have the streaming numbers that we have. I was surprised, in the past year it kind of took off.

I find it interesting that these days it doesn’t matter if the song was released yesterday or 20 years ago, like “Murder on the Dance Floor.” It’s the biggest song in the world now and it’s a great song, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Music’s in a vacuum right now.

On Instagram, you’ve posted some pictures from the studio where you’ve said, “Listening to (insert artist name) when creating this song.” Would you say those artists are more of an influence or more of an inspiration?

RISHI: It’s hard to say. When writing the song, you’re in a half-wake state. I come in the studio every day and I pick guitar and I just start playing a chord. I’m definitely inspired. I remember the album I was obsessed with was the last Frank Ocean album, Blonde. When I heard it, it sounded like Elliott Smith to me. It had that kind of genius to it. I guess I’ll be writing a song, I’ll be recording it, and then I’m like “Oh, this song reminds me of Yes.” And then I’ll start listening to Yes. Or, “This song reminds me of Genesis. What was that keyboard sound he’s using?” It’s always me doing my thing then also having all these touch points of music that I love and kind of checking it out and seeing how that applies to my music and mixing everything together.

I listen to a song like “History Repeating” and it sounds like it could be very specifically about your own life but it also sounds like it could be more universal and looking at society as a whole. When you’re writing lyrics, how much is personal and how much is more about looking around you and writing about universal themes?

RISHI: I think when I feel like I’ve succeeded most is when I’m able to make something very clear to me, but ambiguous to everyone else. I’m not stuffing it down their throat kind. For “History Repeating,” it started with a very personal thing when I came up with the words but then I took a step back. It starts very personal and then you look around you and it’s like, “That kind of relates to this. How does that make me feel?” Being a songwriter, you’re like an empath. Writing songs, you’re trying to feel what the other person’s feeling and understand why they’re that way or why things are happening that way?

It’s personal, but then as I’m writing the lyrics I’ll be like, “This is too literal. It’s kind of boring when things are too literal,” so then I’ll try to blur the lines a little and I’ll show it to my wife. What she takes out of it will be different than what I take out of it and then I’m like, “I think we’re getting somewhere with that.”

The way the album starts and ends, it’s a great sandwich. I’m always happy when the album is bookended by good stuff with good filling in between. Was the idea to come out strong out of the gate with “Lost in a Dream” and make a statement, take people on a journey for the next 39 minutes?

RISHI: “Lost in a Dream” was me trying to do the Nazz. I wanted to come out confident. Sequencing an album is everything, everything has to fit. I’ve sequenced every Elephant Stone album so that it works on vinyl. The first half has to be 20 minutes and Side B has to take you somewhere else. “Lost in a Dream” bookends with “Another Year Gone.” That song to me was like, “This has to close the album.”

Have you recorded everything at home?

RISHI: I started with Hollow. My wife and I bought a place and I built a studio in the basement. It was funny because I’ve been making records for decades, but I never really engineered. I always worked with a producer at a studio but I just ran out of money. With Hollow, I’m like, “I’m gonna have to figure this out.” I recorded it but I mixed it elsewhere.

During COVID I recorded a French EP, Le voyage de M. Lonely dans la lune, and for that one I recorded it but I wanted to figure out how to mix an album, so I mixed it too. We put out a movie, so I did a score for that in the studio.

With this last record, everything was done here. A friend of mine gave me this tape machine, a Teac 3440, and I got it fixed and I ran all the bass, drums and vocals through that. There was crazy tape hiss so I had to use a Dolby noise reduction thing. When you hear the album, there’s a lot of it but I love it. I love the tape. Sometimes it swells, sometimes it quiets down and that really gives a vibe to the album, the tape hiss.

I just mixed the new album from MIEN, but I didn’t use the tape machine. I used plugins instead. It’s a lot higher fidelity but it gave Back in to the Dream its dreaminess, this warm and fuzzy feeling. All that nerdy stuff is huge to me. I don’t over compress. I want things in high fidelity.

I think this is the best sounding album we’ve released because I had full control over it so I could spend the time and make sure everything sounded exactly how I wanted it to sound. I don’t like overly compressed records like so much of music that comes out now. It just hurts my ears after 10 seconds.

Have you figured out from a touring perspective how to make it financially successful at this point?

RISHI: No. Luckily where I’m from in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, I have access to grants for cultural exporting. I still have a day job. I’m a technical writer, I work 9-to-5. I come home and I work in the studio. I have three kids. The band is self-sustaining with our access to funding so I’m able to tour.