It is an uncommon sight to see a sitar at center stage of an indie-rock show, but somehow Elephant Stone makes it work. The Montreal-based foursome has the niche market cornered with its distinct brand of “Hindi-pop” that has garnered it attention right from the start: The group’s first record, The Seven Seas, was long-listed for the coveted Polaris Music Prize in 2009.
Now, over three years later, Elephant Stone is gearing up to release its long-awaited second LP on February 5, 2013. None of the new tracks have been released, but singer Rishi Dhir assures me, “They’re really great.”
We caught up with singer/bassist/guitarist/sitarist Dhir via phone from his Montreal home to talk about old bands, new music and of course, the sitar.
How did Elephant Stone develop from its formation to where you guys are at now?
Well basically, in 2006 I quit my old band [the High Dials]. I’d pretty much had enough of being in a band and touring and all that stuff. I was weird because I had like a nervous breakdown, and I decided I would just focus on doing classical music. I’ve been playing sitar for 12-13 years, so I figured I’d just focus on sitar and that would be it. But then I started recording some sitar rock ’n’ roll instrumentals, and then I started writing songs again. All these songs started coming out, so I got some friends in Montreal and we recorded The Seven Seas together.
I didn’t really tour much when Seven Seas came out, but it got nominated for the Polaris Prize, so it got some recognition; people heard about it. So then I wrote another EP, and then all of the guys who were in the band for the first record had their own bands to go to, so I had to find new people. I’ve gone through so many members, and now at this point, Gabriel Lambert, our guitar player, and I have been the core of the band. So it’s us two, and we have a new drummer and keyboard player. It started off just as my project, like my vision, but Gab is a much bigger part of the band now.
When you were forming the vision for this band in your head, was sitar always in there?
Yeah. The first song I did was called “The Straight Line,” which was on Seven Seas. It’s like a seven-minute sitar acid house song or something. That was my original thing, but I didn’t want it to be one-dimensional. It’s become a bit more than that. Especially now having Gab in the band—having an amazing guitar player kind of opens your mind to where he’s free to go.
You mentioned your first album was long-listed for Polaris. Was that a surprise?
It was a total surprise. Like the album is weird, so I didn’t expect that at all. The album had just been out for a month, and I released it on my own label, you know? It was weird because I was totally independent: I had to pay for it myself, I put it out on my own label, and then my publicist called and told me.
The thing about Polaris is, it’s actually about the music; it’s not about anything else. And, also just getting the recognition, it was neat. I felt like it helped my ego a bit, and it got me excited about my music again, because when I started the band I had no intention of taking it to the level I’m taking it now.
It’s been about three years since the release of that record, and I know there were two EPs in between, but other than that, what were you up to?
Uh, I had two kids, and we did tours. We had one tour of Europe, like U.K., Germany, France, and then we toured North America, and we did this crazy tour that was California, Iceland and the U.K. It was a really crazy trip—it was pretty out there. We did some big tours, and we did SXSW, and I’ve been touring with the Black Angels, and we did Coachella and all that stuff, so it’s been pretty busy.
Did having kids change the way you approach your work?
Oh yeah! Oh, definitely. I think having kids makes you reassess your priority list. I don’t tour anymore just to tour. I did that all through my 20s in my old band High Dials, and we’d just go and say, “Oh let’s play Ottawa and Toronto…let’s go do these cities,” and I can’t do that anymore. If I’m going to tour, it’s gotta have a purpose, there has to be a reason to do it. I guess I’ve just become more business-minded since the kids came because money’s not easily accessible anymore. I’m much more focused than I used to be, and I’m much more critical of my next move.
You’re releasing your second LP this February. What’s the sound going to be like?
It’s pretty much recorded live, and I think it’s the best thing we’ve done yet. I think the songwriting is better. With the first record people were like, “Oh their sound is the sitar,” but now when you hear this album, it sounds like Elephant Stone. It’s rock ’n’ roll, but it’s kind of dancey at the same time, yet it’s still pop music. It sounds like a real band as opposed to just me and a bunch of guys hanging out.
Elephant Stone plays the Canadian Blast showcase at Arlene’s Grocery on Wednesday, October 17, as part of CMJ 2012.