Interview: Queen Elephantine
This may seem like a strange choice for Pariah Child. But truth be told, Queen Elephantine could not be more fitting. Like Eight Hands For Kali jamming with Gnod, the music is a step removed from traditional songs. With a stripped back approach, lumbering pace and crystal clarity cutting through the otherworldly haze, they effortlessly and intuitively lull all who will lend an ear into a deep psychedelic trance. “Kailesh” was the first album that truly struck a chord. Returning often, craving more, I was met with huge percussive rumble by way of two thunderous drum kits, deep and droning tanpura reverberations, thickened again with electric, slide and bass guitars and some very sparse meditative mumblings. This vision goes by the mantra of “Scarab”…
Enter Indy, nomad, shaman of sound and our guide for tonight! Where are we? What do you see?
Cheers Danny! Right now Ian (drums) and I behold a gorgeous landscape! We are in the sacred paradise Hampi, in the Southwest Indian state of Karnataka. Graphite boulders and marvelous ancient temple ruins along an idyllic rural riverside. One, Vitthala Temple, is musical wonder and architectural mystery whose 56 pillars can be played musically. We have just performed with Srinivas (tanpura, sitar) as our side project Bismillah in Gujarat and in two days Brett (slide guitar) will come in from Vietnam to meet us in Kolkata, which is my birthplace, on the Eastern coast of India. Matt (bass) and Nate (drums) are back in Providence in the States.
Please describe your first encounters with music? What bearing did that have on your present footing?
My mother is a classical dancer of the ancient Hindu tradition and my father is a big fan of ‘70s hard rock and jazz like Floyd and Miles, so I can very easily place my tastes to their influence. I definitely had an early interest… I always knew I wanted to play some music and more specifically guitar, long before I understood why or what exactly a guitar was. Some kind of childish unqualified fixation which I never outgrew. Before guitar my parents tried to get me into piano and tabla but I didn’t last long on either.
Queen Elephantine has a playful roll when spoken aloud. When you create sounds, is there any inherent meaning or is flow paramount? The here and now…
Flow is certainly the name of the game. A number of Asian sonic theologies place non-signifying sound high above words, and I have tended to favor that view, but I am learning to balance that with the power of well-placed lyrics. It’s very much a work in progress for me.
Whilst spacious, both “Garland of Skulls” and “Scarab” feel more focused. Has there been some shift in song writing approach? A variation of a theme?
There has definitely been some shift and it has come from two forces. One, I have explored improvisation with dedication for about a decade and am now more interested in composition than I have been before.
The second force is the cumulative energy of the rest of the band. One of the most fun things about this group is its collective nature. The exact line-up changes a lot and the members at each moment put their stamp on things. This current band has had a definite preference for very deliberate written and rehearsed music. There were hardly two moments of improvisation on “Scarab”…
On the other extreme, our first album “Surya” was performed by a band of childhood friends who were simply playing from our hearts, quite freely around a couple of set riffs. That band was heavily about improvising and you could be sure that no one would show up if I said anything about rehearsing instead of playing.
It’s quite strange to reflect that “Veil” may be two or three times longer than a typical song yet it feels like a fleeting prelude to what follows…
It serves as an introduction, the tightest and most digestible thought on the record that we then try to unravel to its core. Textured by a calling of jungle shakers and temple bells, it sets off a rhythmic vibe of 3 over 2 and tonal triangular minor thirds that flavour the whole album, expanded on by what follows in less obvious and more painstaking ways. “Veil” doesn’t really finish till the end of the
first side. As it is going to be a long and tiring ride, one needs to enter at the right pace of mind. It’s also really the only track on here that you can hope to share with your auntie…
“Except me, I am Autumn in the Summer…” Out of step? Old before its time?
This one I will leave to your imagination…
Speaking of seasons and changing faces, “Crone” conjures up the third and final form of the Earth Goddess. Is that coincidence?
Yes, I am ignorant of the whole thing! I would love to know more about it.
Help me understand the final sequence (the closing few minutes) of the jam. Which instruments are involved? Do you recall what you saw or felt during such strange plucking and myriad of rhythms?
The instrumentation is the same for the whole record, we recorded it live and it’s one of my favourite parts… It is a very physical and spiritual experience. For me, this part is all in a lagging cyclical movement of my hips and shoulders as I try and hit the right harmonics on the mute guitar strings. As with much of the album, I try and move to the pulls of peculiar triangular light patterns behind my eyes and temples. Ian and Nate are locked into a wicked angular android beat, and pretty much Matt bringing a nasty pig gut bass solo here. It is all about landing that attitude. Brett and Srinivas embellish with microtonal swirls. Brett gets really nasty too. Really really fun part to play if we bring it right. Great way to end a live set too.
Does “Snake” describe the cyclic nature of the universe? Death and rebirth?
Not necessarily so specifically. These ideas and images are definitely a part of many of the band members’ lives but usually we try and stick to finding a name that feels right for the music and captures the mood. Matt and I for instance have totally different interpretations of how the title figures into the lyrics and the music but we accepted the name beforehand. The emotions we get specific about. “Snake” is a hopeless trudge across the desert. You are totally dehydrated, starved, and each heaving step takes all you’ve got.
What earthy tribal gathering was captured at the beginning of the “Clear Light of the Unborn” and how does their song fit thematically with the broader composition?
This was a prayer for a Vajrayana teacher’s 49th day after death, the last stage of burning away impurities and ascending to the next life.
It was a controversial decision to add this, but to me creates a moment to appreciate both the dread and tranquillity of the transmigration and usher in the utter dissolution that is confrontation with the clear light of the unborn, a sort of unravelling of the universe we had built up with the early rumblings of “Veil” – “Clear Light” is really not a rock song. It really feels like a prescribed alchemical sequence of rhythms that we had to recite pretty sombrely, holding back from really letting loose. It’s a strange one to deal with for sure.
It is a pretty challenging song but I am encouraged to hear some people call it their favourite track and for far out stuff to happen like an Indian choreographer wanting to use it in a dance piece!
How is the album bound by the classy artwork? Loving the colours and shapes within shapes…
Bound isn’t the word. Adrian Dexter is a true visionary and has always been a member of the band. We talk a lot about the critical symbols and shapes and emotions behind an album and then he turns something around from the next dimension, and we end up understanding the music deeper through his interpretations. Hexagons, triads, and monolithic obelisks were all quite central to both the art and music. The colours were almost entirely him.
I don’t know if you have seen Adrian’s art for the band Elder or his animation Vaesen but I highly recommend them.
(If you are interested in some more details, I have copied the text from Redefine Mag’s feature on the album art: “Triangles and hexagons were central, ranging from the double-trio band and a dominant emphasis on minor thirds to parts of songs being mapped and visualized as iterative triangles to move through. Another critical image was that of the band as a primordial cosmic chariot heaving a black-hole monolithic temple. A lot of discussion went into the exact nature of this temple, it being the casing of the Supreme and at the same time the void wherein collapse the
mysteries of time and space. We also thought about inhabiting spaces. We tried to balance each other sonically by representing different forces in the mix: Ian being earth, Nate being fire, Mat water, myself (Indrayudh) wind. Srini and Brett are the swarm and the divine mosquito respectively, so while the two drones aren’t quite elements, they’re sort of like the bindu at the head of the beast. And of course all of our music is for the goddess and each album has presented a different aspect of Her. Her stone head graces this particular cover.”)
Given your now traditional biennial cycle, a new record must be ripening even if not quite ready to hit the studio?
Yes, working on the new album and taking our time with it for once. Hoping to really make it the best we can. We are also doing three EPs! I don’t want to say too much but the first thing we have coming out is a retrospective compilation of unreleased material on France’s Atypeek Music. It is sounding really good. Besides that, two split albums, which we haven’t done in way too long. In general the line-ups across these EPs are bringing together a dozen members across 7 years. It has been a blast to get some of the “Surya” guys playing with some of the “Scarab” guys for the first time.
I wonder how the recorded and live experiences converge and diverge. How would you describe a typical Queen Elephantine gig if such a standard experience exists? How does that compare to one with ideal circumstances?
The band has been as varied live as on record. “Surya” is the one album in which we captured what we had already been doing live. During the “Kailash” era, we had a totally different sound on stage than in the studio and some of these live jams made it onto the 2008 and 2010 EPs. The “Garland of Skulls” era live band, on the other hand, was formed after the record was made. It was the slowest, sparest, grumpiest and loudest live band yet, as we were usually dedicated to presenting the long song in its entirety with few improvisatory sections and very rarely an old song thrown in. “Scarab” was commissioned by Heart and Crossbone Records and a new line-up was assembled to record it. This is the core of our current live band and I think we have been playing our tightest and most consistent. We will keep up efforts to continue to improve.
One of the best parts of Queen Elephantine is that we manage to fit on all sorts of bills, always somehow the odd ones out. We played the Hudson Valley Psych Festival one night with White Hills and that vibe, the next night with a bunch of serious free jazz bands in Brooklyn, and the next night a total drone show following 4 solo acts. And it all feels right.
There had been mention of a European tour. Did it or will it still happen?
Nearly two years ago we were approached about a two month tour but the organizer ran into some terrible health and we have not since planned another trip. I hope we will have the opportunity.
Pariah Child epitomises displacement. Wandering. Searching. As a stranger in a strange land and forever moving on, how does it feel? Where is home? Is Queen Elephantine that journey to inner sanctuary?
Oh man, it certainly is a trip to be a foreigner everywhere, and I have a love hate relationship with this kind of life. I have no definite home per se. I have grown up in four countries and deeply value travel. The world seems to shrink if I don’t shake up my surroundings. The universal meaningful things in life are somewhere beyond local fashions and trends. But I am learning to appreciate the joys that come from knowing a place inside out, and maybe I will find a place to settle. For now, I am loving Providence.
This music is great nourishment for my soul and I hope it can expand others’ minds and horizons as well. One irritating view some critics have put forth is that we are selling some Indian shtick. I think that view is rooted in ignorance coming from a place in want of heritage. This perspective can’t wrap its head around people with wide cultural backgrounds and musical interests. The band was founded by an Indian and a Canadian in Hong Kong, at one point the band has been 75% Indian and 25% Puerto Rican, and now it is mostly white Americans. It is really not about our flags or skin colours. We draw on Indian imagery but hardly exclusively. And even that is largely from a desire to draw on my own culture rather than randomly picking on cool and exotic ideas, which many bands are guilty of and which I certainly have been guilty of as a younger metalhead.
Perhaps our paths will meet someday! Any parting words, Indy?
I hope so! Thank you for the opportunity and for your work for the community Danny.