Utopia, Now and Forever:
All That Glitters Is Prince Rama
It wasn’t until last year that I discovered Prince Rama, when Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label released their album Top 10 Hits of the End of the World. On its surface, it’s an intriguingly odd, crafty array of mirrorball/dancefloor/transcendental pop songs pollinated by exotic cultural and cross-temporal threads, so that everything sounds both foreign and familiar, futuristic and retro and now all at once. When I first heard it, I thought it was the strangest, coolest album Kate Bush never made, at least back when she was still making strange, cool albums that defied categorization. Psychedelic in the way people and creatures and customs and life itself can be such, if you weren’t aware you wouldn’t readily be able tell where it came from, or when. You just know it’s weird and wonderful.
Of course, true to their multilayered imaginations, Prince Rama’s Top 10 Hits goes beyond that. Designed to resemble one of those K-tel mail-order “super hits” compilation albums, its ten songs are purported to be the work of ten different groups “as channeled by Prince Rama,” all of whom, the concept goes, met their demise in the apocalypse. Each “group” has its own look (the promo photos – all Prince Rama in various wild guises – are hilarious) and back-story, all vastly more colorful and interesting than most real bands I’ve ever encountered.
If you think that sounds colossally conceptual, you’re right, but it’s sometimes best to think of Prince Rama not as a band but as one big conceptual art project in and of itself, albeit one that’s constantly evolving. Even their history seems conceptualized, but it’s true. The offspring of Hare Krishna parents, sisters Taraka (vocalist, keyboardist, guitarist, manifesto author, etc.) and Nimai (percussionist, tallest, youngest, etc.) Larson grew up in tiny Wimberley, Texas, southwest of Austin. Later the family moved to Alachua, Florida to live amongst the largest Krishna community in the Western Hemisphere. Artists themselves, Taraka and Nimai’s parents always encouraged their daughters’ creative notions and interests, and both sisters studied art and film in college. Prince Rama of Ayodhya, as they originally called the project, began in Boston, where Taraka was attending the Museum School of Fine Arts, with more of what some might call freak-folk trappings that turned Hindu mysticism inside-out. They’ve evolved steadily from there, appropriating more global pop and performance elements; they also relocated to Brooklyn.
Live, they are absolutely delightful, blending music, art, dance, film and fashion into a fun, colorful party where performer/audience lines are blurred and obliterated. On a Wednesday night last month, they pulled into downtown Athens for a show at Farm255, where I was lucky enough to catch them on – and off – the outdoor patio stage. It began with a screening of their new movie, Never Forever (hello, Kate!), basically a long-form music video combining several of Top 10 Hits’ songs with choreographed ensemble dance numbers, resembling something excavated from MTV’s earliest years. Subsequently, Taraka – on keys, vocals, electronics and guitar – and Nimai – standing, or dancing, rather, while playing minimal drums as if the sticks were extensions of her limbs – conquered unfortunate soundsystem issues to manifest a refreshingly magical, moonlit night.
Beforehand, I had a chance to sit down with the Larson sisters to talk about all this crazy stuff they’re doing. To my left, Taraka – wearing a black jumpsuit adorned with white stars, woven breastplate mirror necklace and sparkly face glitter – and to my right, Nimai – all in black with cheap plastic gold jewelry adding to her tacky glamour-goddess look – turned out to be two of the friendliest, most open people I’ve met in ages…
I love your outfits. Where’d you get all the fancy clothes and accouterments?
Taraka: “This stuff was locally sourced in my neighborhood in New York. There’s like this one strip of cheap, ghetto-tabulous stores and stuff. I just saw this (outfit) and it just kind of reminded me of a magician, and I feel like that’s kind of what we do. This (necklace) was really inspired by old Japanese Samurai outfits. That armor. You know, they have a lot of textiles, colors, like leather, and shields, and everything’s woven… and I know it ‘s not anything like that, but I want to eventually build it up so I have more of like a shield. I don’t know… when I play it’s kind of like a combination of magician and warrior. It’s a very Samurai concept.”
Is this something you’ve always been into – the fashion, the hair, makeup, as far as it being part of what you do?
Taraka: “Oh yeah. And more and more so. Like anything else, if you look at fashion as fashion, then that’s cool, but I kind of like the idea of ‘power’ clothes. So it’s like, I only wear this for our shows, because it has a certain power. It’s almost like you’re performing a certain sacrifice, and so you have to wear the martyr’s outfit or something.”
Nimai: “I have a very big respect for performing. And I think it just kind of calls for a costume change, out of respect. Does that make sense? Unlike, ‘I just rolled in here in the clothes that I wore in the car all day.’ I would smell bad! You know, this is like my job. This is my career. And a lot of people, when they go to their workplace, they wear something different. Just like if you’re a nurse, if you’re a doctor, you wear scrubs. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. People take you seriously when they see the scrubs, and they know your position.”
Taraka: “Similarly, I just want to make sure that it comes across like we don’t take it for granted, what we’re doing. And it’s worth the costume change, it’s worth the effort. Also, clothes, as with anything else, it’s just objects. And so, a certain object accumulates a certain amount of power when you put that energy into it. It’s like, you were attracted to this outfit, and the outfit absorbs that energy. And it helps to give that off.”
Nimai: “And I also feel like (it’s) part of your identity… I mean, businesswoman with the pointy, amazing shoulders and A-line skirt is very different than woman when she comes home and puts sweatpants on. It’s very different people.”
Taraka: “You respond differently.”
Has dancing always been part of your performance? Or is it a more recent thing?
Taraka: “Dancing was pre-Prince Rama, actually. That dates back to kindergarten. We took ballet for years and years before we ever really took any instruments. We took ballet, tap, jazz…”
Do you have any theater experience in your past?
Taraka: “A little bit. Actually, I wanted to be an actress before I knew anything about music. I did theater, like summer Shakespeare, stuff like that when I was in school. And then…I just… I don’t know… It got very frustrating because I wanted to play roles a certain way, or I wanted certain roles, or I wanted to create this scene a certain way… you just can’t do that as an actor. You’re actually very powerless, as an actor. You’re very at the whims of the director, you’re very at the whims of the set design, you’re at the whims of the costume design…”
Not to mention the script.
Taraka: “Exactly. I wanted to do all that! I mean, we’re all actors. I feel like I still have a very ‘all the world’s a stage’ kind of mindset. I’m aware that what I’m doing now is acting. And I’m aware that there’s another sort of scene being set. But I like it better when I have more creative input into it.”
It’s like you’re writing your own plays now, and designing them and directing them.
Nimai: “Well, what was interesting about [Never Forever] was that we were in collaboration with the director. It wasn’t like we were directing, it wasn’t like everything was our stage plot. So we were being directed. And we were being told what to do in our character, but that was what became interesting. As we were ‘acting,’ it almost became so much more a natural part of ourselves. In the film, I’m wearing this huge blonde wig, and these big heels, I put on big fake boobs and huge false eyelashes, and I was playing a character. But, after the whole course of filming, I was like, you know what? Something that’s really real that I’m taking away from this is that I felt very confident.”
You became the character.
Nimai: “Yes! And similarly, this happened with Taraka too, where she just started feeling like, ‘This is just an extension of myself! Oh my God, I am playing like the best part of myself!’ And walking away from the film set, I dyed my hair blonde. I went from like kind of a brunette to white blonde, I started wearing heels, I started getting into lipstick. These are the things that I want to continue. That shouldn’t just be acting. That makes me feel legit good about myself.”
So you’ve changed your personality, in a way, from doing the film.
Taraka: “Well, it’s become this real meta experience. We were told by this girl (Lily X, Never Forever’s director) who doesn’t know us that well, but who is very aware of our music and has like a deep connection with the music, and from that, she’s gathered this essence of what she believes to be Nimai and what she believes to be Taraka, and then casts us as ourselves, but our magical selves. You know, our cinema selves. Our silver screen beings. Which is kind of different than the way we were portraying ourselves, but in a way, it was kind of just taking what was inside that we didn’t know, and turning it inside out. And then it just became this sort of, ‘when is art becoming life becoming art becoming life…?’ I mean, it became a very slippery slope. I feel like during the filming of that, we kind of did just become different. And since then, I think we’ve been performing a lot differently, and… I don’t know, it’s kind of surreal.”
Well, in pop music, rock ‘n’ roll, entertainment in general, it’s all people playing roles. The real people are usually nothing like what their fans think they are.
Taraka: “Yeah, I know, totally. Like Ziggy Stardust.”
Right, the ultimate rock star fantasy.
Taraka: “And (Bowie) became a rock star because of that album. And then all of a sudden, people wanted Ziggy Stardust shows, they didn’t want David Bowie shows!”
And he had to do a farewell Ziggy tour.
Taraka: “Right, exactly! That’s like super meta.”
Your photos are great, too. You seem to treat them as their own art projects. You clearly intend Prince Rama to be as interesting and fun visually as well as musically.
Taraka: “Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, band photos are totally ridiculous. Everyone has to go into a field, and look away from the camera, like, ‘Oh, I’m so not looking. I’m so unaware that someone’s taking a picture of me with this unplugged guitar in a field of corn right now…’ Dude, get over yourself.”
I know you both went to art school. But I get the impression you were incredibly artistic and creative long before all that, when you were kids.
Nimai: “Our parents are artists. So they were always super encouraging of, kind of, wild thinking. And encouraged us to go with our thoughts, and to really embrace all of our feelings. Even if they didn’t seem right. Or if our thoughts didn’t seem cohesive with the rest of our peers, or in line with anyone, they would just encourage that.”
Taraka: “We grew up in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Texas, where there’s no encouragement of creative thought whatsoever!”
Nimai: “Nooo. It was like, super Christian.”
What kind of artists are your parents?
Taraka: “All over the place. I mean, my dad does mostly visual art. Sculpture and stuff. He did dioramas for museums. He and my mom both actually met making dioramas for this Bhagavad-gita Museum in Los Angeles – they were making animatronic Krishna and Ganeshas and stuff, and installing it in this museum.”
Nimai: “They also both worked on film. My mom did Dune. Like, she was the ‘dune dresser.’ So every time those creatures would come out to the dunes, she would create the dunes over and over and over, like after every shoot. And then simultaneously, my dad was working on Conan the Destroyer with Arnold Schwarzenegger. They were both in Mexico working on movies together. And he created that monster thing at the end – he was the chief sculptor. Those are the only movies they did. They were not into it.”
How did they end up in a small town in Texas?
Taraka: “My dad is from Texas originally.”
Nimai: “I think that when they knew they were gonna have kids, and he was trying to take off with the art thing, it made sense to move back to Texas (from L.A.), because at least they’d have family support. And also my dad started an art program for mentally challenged adults who are like, living independently. His mom started this whole community for mentally handicapped adults to live on their own. And my dad started this program for all of them to make art together, and sell their art, so they really feel like they’re contributing, and they’re fully functioning, you know.”
Growing up in Texas, with your parents encouraging you to be artistic, did you feel like you were out of place?
Nimai: “Duh, oh yeah. Being a kid was hard!”
Taraka: “We tried to be jocks for a while. But then we were like, ‘Oh, man, we’re not even good at sports.’ [laughs]
Nimai: “We put the I in TEAM. We are not team players.”
Taraka: “Now that we’re not really part of it, I’m pretty into jock culture, aesthetically and stuff.”
So your parents are Krishnas?
Nimai: “Yeah, yeah. They are.”
I’m not an expert on the Krishna theology or religion…
Taraka: “That’s fine – we’re not either!”
But you grew up raised as that, right?
Nimai: “Right. In Texas, it was a little looser. So there wasn’t like a huge community there. Because we were in this Christian town, and there wasn’t like a Hare Krishna support system. But when we moved to Florida, it was because there was the largest Hare Krishna community in North America. So we went from hardly any Krishna association to, like, whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa!! Overnight. (Our parents have) always been practicing Hare Krishnas. They joined in their early 20s, and have been practicing Hare Krishnas ever since.”
Taraka: “I think 9/11 just kinda freaked ‘em out, honestly. They wanted us to be around more like-minded people. ‘Cause we were out in the middle of nowhere, and we were getting like pretty strongly religiously persecuted in Texas. Even though we weren’t that religious, but just the fact that we weren’t Christian, it was really problematic for people, I guess. So there was a lot of religious extremism in the town we were in after 9/11, and my mom and dad were fed up with it, and they were like, ‘This is enough – we need to live somewhere where it’s more chill to be here.’”
Did you enjoy the Florida environment, then?
Taraka: “No. We got the fuck out as soon as we could! [laughs]”
Nimai: “It’s not like we were living on the beach or anything. We were living in the swamps.”
Taraka: “Yeah, it was like more redneck than the town where we were living in Texas, if that was even possible!”
So you guys are not like bigtime Krishnas, then?
Nimai: “We’re just pretty chill about it all. It’s like, identifying with something with that much weight to it is kind of like…we’d rather just chill out about it.”
Taraka: “I identify as being a human being.”
Was your Krishna upbringing more of a musical influence on the early Prince Rama records?
Taraka: “Yeah, definitely. That whole call-and-response chanting, for sure. And also, a lot of those recordings were made in Boston, near where I was living. And it was kind of a special situation in Boston, where we lived – there was this amazing house called the White House, that was really sort of a catalyst in bringing all these different people from the community together, and they’d have, like, hootenannies every Friday night. People would come and do their songs, and you had a sing-a-long. It was all kind of, this real open environment. Everyone would jump in, sing along, or grab something and bang on it. That was the environment where we shared a lot of these songs originally. So I really like that energy of having other people around, and banging on stuff, that whole spontaneous group element. I feel like that definitely got on some of the earlier recordings, too.”
You were in a band prior to Prince Rama, in high school?
Taraka: “Yeah, we were all in a Krishna band together. It was pretty pop-punk.”
Hard to imagine you doing something like that, based on the music you’re doing now. So how’d you get from pop-punk to all these different things?
Taraka: “Well, I mean, our high school band, it was kind of traumatizing, actually. I mean, it was really fun, but also we really didn’t know what we were doing, and we had all these sound problems at every single show. And we were just like, ‘Oh my God, we never want to play out ever again!’ And so, then I moved out to Boston, and went to art school, and Nimai went to Austin to go to school, and we just sort of took a break from music for a few years, and I really just concentrated on visual arts for a while. I got really involved in filmmaking, and I think there was something with filmmaking that really triggered a different way of looking at music, instead of this sort of, you know, traditional structured way. I would edit a lot of my own movies, and create soundtracks for them – not musical soundtracks, more soundscape kind of stuff, and just thinking about how sound relates to images. When I’d be making a soundtrack, I’d be seeing images to go along with things, and thinking about sound in terms of creating a picture, creating a narrative, or having good edits or something, within a song. I guess I was trying to capture that visual experience of film through sound. And then, after a while, it was just like a natural evolution – I just started missing music a lot. And I was like, ‘What am I doing?’ So I started approaching music again, but totally differently. Like, through more of this art-blend. And at first, it was kind of, I was doing it all for school, and… I had to justify music in terms of art, somehow, so I could keep doing it. So I had to tell my professors, ‘Look, I’m doing this band, but it’s really part of my art practice.’ So when Prince Rama first started, as I said, we were so traumatized by bad sound and stuff in high school, we were like, ‘Dude, if we’re going to start a band again, it’s not going to be plugged in. We’re not going to plug anything in. It’s all going to be acoustic.’ I like the idea of being able to have a show anywhere. Like, not having to be in a club. I remember a show we did in Boston once where the flyer was like a treasure map, and you had to go through woods and stuff, and there was like an X, and that was where we were playing. I was interested in those non-traditional show environments and stuff. But, you know, then, kind of like anything, you do stuff for a while, and you get sick of that kind of sound, and you’d like to beef it up, and now we’re all-electric. I haven’t played autoharp in years.”
Did Nimai start out sitting while playing drums? The standard setup?
Taraka: “When she was in high school, she was on a sit-down kit. And then she moved to djembe, actually. Kind of got rid of the drumkit, and took some African djembe lessons from this guy from Ghana. And got really into djembe. And then, when we were playing more live, it was kind of hard to find a djembe, so she was trying to figure out ways to kind of replicate the sounds she was doing on djembe, things like using stand-up drums. And that just seemed like it was the perfect kind of organization for it.”
What about you, Taraka? Any lessons on keyboards or guitar?
Taraka: “I took piano a long, long time ago. We both did, actually. And you know, it’s one of those things – you take piano, you take ballet, and then all of a sudden it’s really not cool to do all that kind of stuff, so then we tried out for cheerleading, and did track-and-field. So I did play piano for years and years, and forgot everything. And I kind of had to re-teach myself. I was still much better at seven than I am now. And then guitar, I’ve taken lessons countless times, and somehow I’ve still never learned anything beyond power chords. But yeah, I mean… I feel like most of the stuff we do is pretty intuitive.”
Are the two of you pretty much in sync as far as your ideas for what you want to do with Prince Rama?
Taraka: “No [laughs]. It’s a lot of give-and-take. I feel like our core is the same, but our specific ideas about things are different. But it kind of makes it more interesting, because you can bounce things around.”
How’d you get turned on to all the different music that’s had such a strong impact on you? Through friends, family, just searching on your own?
Taraka: “All of the above. I mean, I would say I’m not really one of those people that researches a lot of bands. Like, I’m not a digger. I’m not always going out and searching. I feel like things always kind of find me. I mean, when we’re touring a lot, we’re just meeting so many crazy, awesome bands. We’ll be in, I don’t know, Omaha, Nebraska and finding the weirdest noise band to play with or something. Or like, Boise, Idaho. We’re like, ‘where did these guys come from?’ So we’re finding a lot of music that way. But I feel like I’m still influenced by a lot of film soundtracks, like I really like the soundtracks for Kenneth Anger films, which I know are a lot of pop songs, but I’m interested in the way that is used, or Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Ennio Morricone, of course.”
Have you ever heard of a record label called Finders Keepers?
Taraka: “I don’t think so.”
It’s an amazing label. They put out all of this bizarre pop and rock music from all over the world, from past decades. They’ll go back and dig up a bunch of music from various countries, and either put out a compilation or focus on a particular artist or something. Cool stuff like Middle Eastern pop music from the ‘70s, or Hungarian prog rock from the late ‘60s, all these scenes that were happening that didn’t get much attention beyond the respective countries or regions.
Taraka: “Oh, that sounds amazing. It kind of sounds like Sublime Frequencies. We both know a lot of Sublime Frequencies releases. That’s definitely a huge influence. To me, it’s like, we grew up in a small town, and where are you gonna get exposed to, like, the state archives of Cambodia or something?”
Photo by Angel Celballos.