Believe in Something Fun:
NOW Is The Time Of PRINCE RAMA
Strange things happen to Taraka Larson, whether it involves being attacked by raccoons in Central Park, as happened in the summer of 2013, or emerging without a scratch after her van spun out of control and slammed into a guard rail (nearly ending up in a frozen lake) during an sudden blizzard in the Catskills, as happened just a couple of weeks ago.
“I guess it’s just a new level of normal,” she remarks about her ongoing series of curious experiences. But then, Taraka herself can be a little… not strange. Perhaps unconventional is a better word. Certainly infinitely fascinating. Prince Rama, the band she anchors with her younger sister Nimai, is surely one of the most unique, imaginative, eccentric and stimulating groups I’ve ever encountered. My personal introduction to their captivating magic came with 2012’s Top 10 Hits of the End of the World, a pivotal turning point from the bewildering, avant-garde Kashmir folk and psychedelia of their earlier output (reflecting their Krishna upbringing) into an enthusiastic embrace of pop, disco and rock sounds which, blended with their more exotic instincts (not to mention an unforeseen keenness for wacky conceptualization), made for one of my freshest musical discoveries of that or any other year. Seeing them in performance several months’ later, with their vivid, exhilarating swirl of dance, glitter, uninhibited glee and indisputable magnetism only caused me to love them more. And they’ve grown more confident and compelling with each show I’ve seen since. As I’ve gotten to know the Larsons, they’ve consistently inspired me with their tireless creativity.
Xtreme Now, out March 4th on Carpark Records, successfully refines and advances the leaps undertaken with Top 10 Hits. Still deftly crossbreeding cultures, the pop sheen is more pronounced, the styles more varied, the songs more emotionally direct and the performances – especially the vocals – noticeably bolder, and better. Produced with Alex Epton and Ryan Sciaino, both of whom also contributing to the instrumentation (with Sciaino subsequently joining Prince Rama as a third member), this album’s a joy to absorb, at once retro and futuristic, synthetic and soulful, playful and passionate. And yeah, there’s an odd concept attached to it, and the story behind it is even odder. Not surprisingly, it involves Taraka and another of her strange experiences, this one happening during the sisters’ summer 2012 retreat on Vormsi, a remote isle off the coast of Estonia…
“If I could explain it, I feel like maybe it wouldn’t be as magical as it was,” she begins. “We’re staying out in this sort of compound built by this 70-year-old shaman witch. And I was riding my bike around the island, and I was just kind of drawn to this one spot on the landscape. There was this little hill. I dismounted and went towards it, and then I realized the hill was actually this sort of ruin that was underground, with this hole sort of leading into it. And it was completely empty inside. You could hear your voice echo and stuff – the acoustics were really crazy. And I just felt drawn to these certain bricks, for some reason. I don’t know why. I’m sort of like in this trance state. And I loosened one of the bricks, and – I’m not kidding you – there’s this old, ancient rusted key inside. I reach in and I grab it, without really thinking. It felt as natural as picking up a loaf of bread to make toast or something. It was like I was just sort of getting this message that I needed to take something from this place in exchange for participation in this other sort of world. Like, if I take this thing, I have to use it almost like it’s some sort of diving key. Not a key to open a door. It’s almost like it’s to receive radio transmissions or something like that… And there’s so much under the surface that’s going on that to talk about it, it doesn’t really make any sense.”
Perhaps not. But, there’s more…
“I didn’t really feel like I was myself. I felt like I was not in my body – I was watching my body do these different things. Like, Taraka Larson would probably not be into the idea of taking an old key from this weird underground chamber that she just found. But there was like something else guiding my hands, and it was very bizarre, ‘cause it was like, in that moment I felt I knew where everything was in this place. There’s part of me that sort of remembered being there, or something. I felt very much present in this sort of medieval Viking era, and being able to communicate almost in that language with those sort of ancient forces. But it didn’t feel ancient, it felt very present. I kept getting these weird visions of extreme sports.”
Yep, extreme sports. It gets weirder:
“I was like, ‘Why extreme sports? I’m not into extreme sports at all, and that doesn’t have anything to do with where I am now!’ But I kept getting these bizarre visions, and it was sort of like I was doing them. Again, it was like my body was doing these different things kind of simultaneously. I think a near-death experience is like any sort of out-of-body experience where… you realize that your body is just this shell, and you realize the time you’re in it is not real. You know, you can be in these different times simultaneously, and time travel is totally possible as soon as you’re in that near-death state. Which is why I got that feeling whenever I got these visions of extreme sports. It’s like, when you’re putting yourself at the edge of your mortality, all of a sudden, you know, your life flashes before you, or past lives flash before you, and all of a sudden time becomes this thing that’s very prismic, and the way you’re navigating it suddenly becomes clear and easy, and it’s not as if you have to build this H.G. Wellian machine to access these different times, you just have to have the courage to put yourself in this sort of near-death state.”
Now, I’m not 100% sure I buy all of this, either. Picking up an ancient key in an underground chamber in Estonia triggers visions of extreme sports and time travel? Right. But regardless of how much is real and how much is imagination, I can’t deny that her whole account of the episode and its aftermath enthralls me. She claims to have become obsessed with watching GoPro videos of extreme sports athletes – whom she compares to ancient mystics – which led to a realization that the soundtracks to the sports footage are too often incongruous, which in turn inspired Xtreme Now.
“You’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m watching people risk their lives, and I’m listening to fucking dubstep!’ It’s terrible! The music just ruins it! So I just put it on mute, because it’s ruining it for me. And in watching them on mute, I would hear the way things needed to sound. And the songs kind of came to me that way. I mean, it really just came out of what I think is a definite need, in the extreme sports market, for a score that accurately represents the sort of metaphysical nature of it as well. Not just the pure adrenaline. Like a mixture of both.”
When asked if Nimai shares this newfound appetite for extreme sports videos and Monster Energy drink, both of which fueled the writing and recording of Xtreme Now, Taraka says that, “Yeah, she’s down with it. But you know, what’s nice about me and Nimai, we’re very yin and yang. She’s very of this earth. She’s very grounded. And I feel like I maybe have one foot on the ground and one foot kind of in the sky all the time. I go and have all these different ethereal experiences, and I feel like she’s able to kind of translate them, and make them more earthy.”
For her part, Nimai agrees totally. Reached by phone a couple of days later, she says, “I don’t think I was able to determine what my strengths were for a long time. But now that I have, I feel like I’ve been able to excel in those places where our band needed help. For example, I’ve been getting really into accounting. Doing our taxes, budgeting, doing budgets for our videos, taking care of merch, taking care of organization, taking care of planning our schedule, planning our calendar. Just a lot of businessy stuff. Which I didn’t ever think I was interested in. But now I am, and I love it!” she laughs. “I think Taraka was really relieved when I was like, ‘Can I tour manage us? Can I take over doing all the business end?’ And she’s like, ‘Whoa! Shit, yeah!’”
Nimai attributes much of her newfound organizational focus to her decision, in June 2014, to quit drinking alcohol. It was something she’d attempted – and failed – several times before, on her own. One time, she says she made it 30 days sober, “and then as soon as some guy asked me on a date, I was like, blackout. I was powerless over… men. I was powerless over saying no to drinking. I just realized, I was powerless over so many things! And so, seriously, by the grace of God, I don’t know what made me do this, but I let a friend of mine take me to an AA meeting. And I really would’ve never, ever considered doing that in my life before. Because my ego’s just too big, and in my mind I was like, ‘I can do this on my own,’ even though I’d never successfully quit. But I’ve been in the program ever since. And it’s really helped me immensely. I pretty much owe my whole sobriety to that program.
“Taraka’s not a big drinker. She would forget alcohol exists if you don’t put it in front of her,” Nimai continues. “I never expected to not be drinking. I always thought that that was a part of my identity. I mean, big time. Since I was 14, I feel like that was part of my identity. It was like, I’m the sister who drinks, I’m the partier, I can outdrink other people, you know. But it’s like, that’s not Nimai. I’m not a glass of wine. It’s just weird what I used to seriously associate my identity with. So trying to now – I’m 27 now, I quit drinking when I was 25 – figure out, ‘Wait a minute – if that’s not my identity, what is?’ It’s psychological, and it’s hard, and it’s scary. And it kind of reminds me of when I decided not to finish college, because we were touring so much. Touring and being in a band made me happy. College did not make me happy. And it was like that risk of, ‘Will people still take me seriously if I don’t have a college degree?’ And it’s the same risk. Like, ‘Will I still have friends? Will guys still wanna date me? Will I make people uncomfortable? Will people still wanna hang out with me if I don’t drink?’ It’s the same risk. But I could see that my life was not progressing, and I could see that my role in the band… I don’t know if Taraka would agree with this or not, but I could see it diminishing. Just because I wasn’t taking care of myself, and therefore I wasn’t taking care of everything else in my life. So, it’s been emotional, to be honest. But I think sticking with it has given me confidence. And it’s helped me to get a lot more spiritual and clear.”
Of Xtreme Now’s high points – and there are many – my personal favorite would have to be “Your Life in the End,” which despite potentially downer lines like, “I never reached so far/ I never fell so bad/ I never loved so much/ I’m losing all I had,” is a truly uplifting, spiritual piece wherein Taraka’s finest vocal performance of the album is lifted heavenward on the chorus through the accompaniment of Wallena Alston, a gospel singer from the church down the street from the sisters’ Brooklyn apartment who has been giving Taraka vocal lessons of late.
“Taraka’s voice has gotten exponentially better,” Nimai underscores. “She sings with way more confidence now. Which is good, because this album needs that. I mean, you hear the songs – they’re very confident songs. Really, it’s a blessing that Taraka met Wallena when she did. She wrote ‘Your Life in the End,’ and didn’t hear herself singing the chorus, but heard a gospel choir singing the chorus! It’s really a message from another world. It’s like if you had your really kind grandmother telling you soothing things from the afterlife. And I feel in order to channel that, it just makes sense that we had Wallena singing on it. Because she’s channeling something. You can hear it in her voice. She’s a powerful woman. And you can hear it in Taraka’s voice having taken lessons from her. I think people can relate to it in a spiritual way, that song. It’s not blatantly in-your-face about it. It’s just comforting. It really is.”
Just as inner enrichment and elevation propel the Prince Rama experience, so too does sheer fun. Perhaps that might be best illustrated with the forthcoming video for their new song “Now Is the Time of Emotion,” which, if the final video captures even a tenth of how Taraka describes the making of it, sounds like the most fun ever. It’s why they were in the Catskills to begin with – in Wassaic, New York, to be specific – when their van nearly slid into that lake. They’d spent the previous two weeks toiling on this ambitious D.I.Y. video in which art is destroyed in the name of creating art. Or at least, in the name of demystifying the stuffiness and amplifying the stupidity of so much modern art. Or something. It all just sounds like a great big party, to me.
“We were doing this artist residency out in Wassaic, New York, the Wassaic Project. Amazing, magical little hamlet in the Catskills, on a farm and stuff,” says Taraka. “But they have this space, this seven-story mill, and they’ve somewhat turned it into this exhibition space, but it’s still pretty raw and industrial. And they agreed to let us do a music video in there. And pretty much gave us free reign to do whatever we wanted. I mean, we had motorcycles breaking through walls, and explosions and pyrotechnics, and exotic animals and all these things. They were like, ‘Whatever!’ And there’s not that many spaces that’ll let you do that! It’s pretty amazing. So the illusion (of the video) is that we’re in this really hoity-toity gallery space, where nothing’s allowed, this really blue chip Chelsea gallery space. We had all these different famous artists represented. We had some Warhols, some Frank Stella, some Barbara Kruger, Jasper Johns, all these different kinds of artists. Our main criteria for the artwork for the show was it had to be super-dumb. Like the dumbest art ever. We had some Jeff Koons, some Damien Hirst, just the dumbest art in the art world these days, you know, stuff that people usually look at and they’re like, ‘Wow, I could’ve done that.’ If you were gonna make a show of art you just wanted to destroy, what would it be? And it wasn’t really about the destruction of art, it’s almost like unleashing the art from these sort of white-wall confines and unleashing the spirit that’s tucked away in there. So really, it’s like, are we destroying the art, or are we helping it come back to its full fruition? We had a whole troupe of skaters drive up from DC, there’s about ten of them skateboarding off all the art, knocking things over and breaking through walls and stuff. And then we had a bunch of kids in dinosaur costumes and stuff, and they were destroying things and eating photo cakes. We just had an open call for the town of Wassaic to see what kind of weirdness might show up, and there was definitely some weirdoes that showed up outta nowhere! Like, crazy people. People who are into roleplaying, bringing samurai swords, and tap dancers. It was pretty much the best thing ever!”
Nobody else is really doing what Prince Rama are doing right now, certainly not to the extent they are with their music and art and videos and concepts and custom made clothes, and on and no. You know how you always complain that so much stuff now all sounds the same, or it’s predictable, or you can immediately tell who they’re trying to copy or steal from? Nobody sounds like Prince Rama.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Taraka,” stresses Nimai, “because… you know, I was telling her this yesterday. I don’t know why I’ve never told her this before, but I really, really appreciate her optimism. And I feel like there are a lot of people, a lot of musicians, in my experience, that I’ve met, who let fear hold them back. And who let the fear of what other people will think of them, the fear of letting themselves be completely honest in their music, they let that hold them back. A lot. And so you get a lot of people that sound the same. Because it’s guaranteed a lot of listeners, it’s guaranteed a following. And for the most part it’s guaranteed a certain amount of stars or whatever on Pitchfork. I appreciate that Taraka seems to, when writing her music, really shed that fear. And it paves a really smooth path for me to come in and be able to build upon the platform of honesty that she’s already set there. I feel like I’m able to come in and fill in all the blanks where needed, but we’re both working so collaboratively, but it’s only able to work that way because she’s being so honest. I’m so blessed to be working with her.”
And we are blessed to have it shared with us.