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“Back into the dream”: Elephant Stone’s Rishi Dhir and Stereo Embers in Conversation about The Beatles

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SEM was honored to conduct the interview you’re about to read. It’s a very rare opportunity to talk with one of today’s leading musicians about a band that’s been making him tick for his entire life.

Elephant Stone’s Rishi Dhir is that musician, and The Beatles are that band.

In a sprawling interview, Dhir discusses his personal experiences and memories of The Beatles and gives an in-depth commentary on the band’s Revolver period.

But the best part of the interview is Dhir’s discussion of the specific ways in which The Beatles inspired bands as diverse as Teenage Fanclub, The Chemical Brothers, New Order, Ride, The Jam, and, yes, Elephant Stone.

And, for the record, Dhir has amalgamated the influence of both Paul McCartney and George Harrison in Elephant Stone. His basslines are in the colorful and melodic tradition of Paul’s, and his spiritual approach to the sitar elevates Elephant Stone’s songs in a way that recalls Harrison’s work on the instrument. Anybody who loves The Beatles would also love Elephant Stone.

SEM would like to thank Dhir for the wonderful conversation.

SEM: When did you first listen to The Beatles?

RD: I guess it started when I was eight years old. My older brother of four years had a cassette of Revolver. It was the American release of Revolver, so it didn’t have “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “Doctor Robert,” and I think something else – but anyways, I listened to the cassette over and over, and my brother convinced me that “Taxman” was actually called “Batman” (laughs). So I obsessed over that song all the time!

SEM: What was it about that song?

RD: It was the bass. I mean, that song is so powerful. Just starting the record off like that with the count in and then right away with this heavy, heavy groove. The bass really stuck out to me. The fact that I kept thinking they were saying “Batman” connected with me also (laughs).

 

SEM: So I remember in the past we talked about the holy trinity of bass lines. And they all come from that period. You said they were “Taxman,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Rain,” right? And those were the big three for you. So is the 1966 era with Revolver and the surrounding singles your favorite period?

RD: I would say so. Just around that period as well I suppose the recording techniques just got better: bass sounds got better, drum sounds got better – basically, gear got better, so anything around that period just started sounding sonically more powerful. I definitely like that era and all the singles into “Strawberry Fields.”

But it does change for me all the time. That was my period and that was the one that I always loved the most, but then I got into “The White Album” era, but definitely Revolver was the album that I listened to most in my whole life.

SEM: Are you talking about the American version now or have you switched over to the British one?

RD: The British one (laughs). I remember I bought it on CD when I was 17 years old. So hearing “And Your Bird Can Sing,” in which the guitar line, the bass line – everything – was a revelation for me. And “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Doctor Robert”…that was like rediscovering the Beatles nine years later. It was a whole new record for me.

 

SEM: Speaking about the recording technique…there is obviously a strong Indian influence on the guitar sound really for the first time.

RD: Yep.

SEM: Do you know how they get that drone-y sound? Such as on “Taxman” – I mean, what makes the guitars sound that way? Are they straight-up chords? Are there effects?

RD: That one I think it’s pretty much straight-up, but the whole [Indian] influence is more or less prevalent on a lot of those songs. For me, if you look at “Taxman,” it’s pretty drone-y, right?

SEM: Yeah.

RD: There are just, like, two chords in that song, but it’s really drone-y. They push this D pedal, which, for Indian classical music, is what any song between C sharp and D is like, which is what you can do on the sitar. Anyhow, then it goes into “Love You To,” and then from that era, there is “The Inner Light” as well. That whole period was really drone-y. Then you get “Tomorrow Never Knows,” right? We were starting at the beginning of the record, but even in Paul’s “Eleanor Rigby,” there are only two chords.

SEM: I see Revolver, really, as a Paul album, songwriting-wise. It seems, though, that George with the drones had a tremendous influence on the music, but I know that McCartney played the solo on “Taxman.”

 

RD: Yeah, exactly. In that solo on “Taxman,” he’s got this droning D pedal over the solo, so it’s like his take on Indian music, which is pretty awesome. I mean, it’s a pretty rock ‘n’ roll solo.

SEM: Do you think McCartney gets enough credit, for spicing up the songs that he didn’t technically write? I know he did that on “Taxman”; he also did that on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” right?

RD: I feel like he’s the guy whose influence is felt everywhere. It’s kind of like my other favorite band, Teenage Fanclub. Norman Blake in Teenage Fanclub is the guy that adds everything to everyone’s songs, you know? So it’s similar for Paul McCartney. For instance, “Taxman”: Paul comes in and does this or that or adds a great bridge here or there. Or he’s just playing these unbelievable basslines. I mean, for a while people would just get on Paul’s case a bit, but now I think people are acknowledging how amazing he was. I’m actually reading his biography now.

 

SEM: McCartney, it seemed, was much more invested from ’66 and ’67 in particular, in kind of crafting the band’s sound – making it more complex so they could compete with groups like The Beach Boys.

RD: Yeah. I believe he was the guy who was going out to clubs and getting exposed to all the music and art. Sure, John had “Revolution 9” and stuff like that, but Paul was doing stuff like that as well. It’s just that he wrote great pop songs and loved pop music. He was always pushing the boundaries; he was very driven. But you know, I can only comment from what I read and my interpretations of it.

It’s like in the way I kind of get along with my band that I see it: I understand what my drive is and my personality. The amazing thing about Paul is I can relate to a lot of the stuff he says throughout [the biography]. Just like, you know that I’m a pretty friendly, laid-back guy, but I’m also very driven, and I know what I want. So I’m a bit of a control freak. And I’m reading Paul’s biography and realizing, “Oh, okay. I guess he was like me in that as well.” It’s just funny: no one is black or white right. It’s not like George was the quiet one, John was the difficult one, Paul was the friendly one, and Ringo was the goofy one. It’s just that they all have these different shades to their personalities, just like everybody else’s, except people want to put them in a box. You know, they want to sell puppets and dolls and be like, “Oh, this is my Paul doll.” But, man. You know all artists have dark corners in their minds, and that’s why they make music, or art.

SEM: I grew up loving John Lennon and was always under the impression that he was the genius in the band. Then I learned that Paul was really the most generous person and how he enhanced everybody else’s work. What’s a John or George song that you see Paul really enhancing through his bass work or through something else?

RD: Well, I guess the easy choice would be “A Day in the Life.” The build up on the strings and the alarm going off – that was definitely Paul. From what I understand, Paul’s mind moves really fast, and he’s always moving from one place to the next. That’s kind of how my mind works, too. But his contributions…he takes this dreamy, moody song and then makes it real; it’s like he takes it from a dream to reality and then back to the dream. And John – John’s the kind of guy where the songs are all dreams in some ways, right? Like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” It doesn’t have to be about anything real or tangible, but Paul always makes it more real, more tangible.

 

That’s what he did with “A Day in the Life,” at least, so it’s like the dichotomy of these two elements to the song. I personally think that song is so interesting because it gets so focused on Paul’s part, and then it falls back into the dream. That’s the magic of The Beatles: the different personalities and different talents and what they could do with that.

SEM: I found it fascinating that McCartney would go in later and record his basslines on top of what everybody else had done already. What do you think the bassline adds to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”?

 

RD: It enhances the dream-like mood of the song, I suppose. The cool thing is, during Sgt. Pepper, Paul would lay the basslines down after all those songs were being built in the studio. He can add counter melodies to the existing melody and actually enhance it without making it like jump out at you. But his bass playing on that album is phenomenal, and the sound is so powerful.

SEM: Let’s talk about the relationship between McCartney and Elephant Stone. Is that what it is – just to make the songs go in a different and less obvious direction in terms of the bassline?

RD: Yeah. Well, it depends on the song. It’s funny because in my old band, The High Dials, I wasn’t the singer, and I wasn’t the songwriter, so my contribution was just the bass. I guess I’m being schooled in some ways? But like McCartney and James Jamerson, I see the bass as a melodic instrument rather than just a rhythm instrument, and so with that I would always make really musical basslines.

When I started Elephant Stone, I started writing songs, and maybe for the first record I wasn’t as creative as far as my bass material, but with this album…I guess having Miles play made me see how much more rhythmic the band could be and how I could make the basslines something more than just an accompaniment to a song. For example, in “Knock You from Yr Mountain” – I didn’t realize this – but everyone commented on how the hook of the song is the bassline, which is cool because you don’t actually hear very often people saying, “Oh, the hook is the bassline!” The hook is usually the guitar line or the vocals, but it’s actually the bass on that song. So cool.

 

SEM: I think that The Beatles can do it, and I think New Order does it as well with Peter Hook, where, you know, he’s way up high on the fret board.

RD: That’s funny, because when I was listening to New Order when I was younger, I didn’t realize that that was a bass! I kept thinking that it was a guitar and wondered, “Where is the bass, where is the bass?” Only years later actually, did I start cluing in on the bassline, and then I started trying to play New Order basslines on songs and stuff. I guess the bassline for “Knock You” is kind of New Order-ish as well.

SEM: Right, well especially with that dance groove going on, it works really well. As far as rhythm section, you and Miles have grown together. What about McCartney and Ringo? What are some of their finest moments as a rhythm section?

RD: I think “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am the Walrus,” Paperback Writer,” “Rain”… the list goes on and on. Ringo’s got such a specific feel, and McCartney’s bass is so up, and there, it drives their songs. But McCartney was a great drummer, too – look at his solo records!

SEM: Yeah, “Dear Prudence” is his drumming, and “Back in the USSR,” he did the first two or three tracks on “The White Album.” A lot of people say he’s the best drummer in the band, the best guitarist in the band, the best bass player in the band…

RD: Well, he was the best musician, that’s for sure.

 

SEM: Let’s talk about The Beatles as individual players a little bit. I know that Ringo never really gets the credit that the others do. But what do you make of him as a drummer?

RD: I think he’s amazing. I know that in every band I’ve ever been in, I’ve wanted a drummer that plays like Ringo. If you’re looking at Abbey Road, the drumming really jumps out. Even in a song like “Rain.” It’s stuff like that that really grabs you. I guess it didn’t have the best time – it would speed up and slow down – but I don’t have that great time either!

SEM: So he has feel, right? I always felt his two best songs were “Rain” and “She Said She Said.” That’s another one with a really lazy, drone-y guitar riff.

RD: That song has a weird time signature – John had weird time signatures – but Ringo actually managed to make that weirdness sound normal.

 

SEM: Yeah, ultimately, for that period from 1966, that was pretty experimental music for its day. What do you think made it so accessible to the general public?

RD: Because they write amazing songs. First and foremost, they’re songwriters, right? The whole basis of The Beatles was to write their own songs and to get better at their craft, and that’s what they did. And as that happened, styles changed; they evolved. And even then, it’s funny because a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” to me, is probably the greatest song of all time.

SEM: Why?

RD: I guess it’s everything. I mean, that song has everything I love: drone, heavy grooves, a driving bass…and sonically, it’s got a lot of weird loops, like Paul’s backward laughing track. Also, the fact that it was experimental and referential to themselves. I mean, it’s like the guitar for “Taxman” played backwards – chopped up and played backwards. Or just like the throwaway title in some ways. It’s like it’s a Ringo line that you would always say: “Tomorrow never knows.” But then if you attribute it to the lyrics, which are based on Eastern spirituality and Buddhism, it has more depth to it. It’s genius because it’s a mixed bag of pop culture right there. It’s like it totally encapsulates that time in one song.

 

But the cool thing about it is that it never sounds dated. I mean, those lyrics transcend themselves. The song is so driving. And then there are the weird strings: the B flat that makes this chord change. And you listen to the demos from Anthology, and you hear the evolution, and it just makes sense.

SEM: Right, right. In its spirituality, it’s almost like an announcement of a transition to a new phase.

RD: Ending their record with the song called “Tomorrow Never Knows” is like a no-brainer. It’s really saying what’s next in life, you know, what’s next for all of us. How could you not end with “Tomorrow Never Knows”? And also, it is the most drastically different from all the songs on the record. Even “Love You To” is much more Indian-influenced, so forward-looking. For example, it is like The Chemical Brothers using the drum beat for “Setting Sun”; right there they use it, and it’s still fresh and new 30-plus years later.

 

SEM: In my opinion, The Beatles have the two greatest singles of all time: A and B sides. “Paperback Writer”/“Rain” and “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields.” Which single would you rather take and why?

RD: “Paperback Writer”/“Rain.” It’s always been those songs for me, from when I was a teenager. I love “Strawberry Fields,” and I really, really like “Penny Lane,” but it doesn’t grab me as much as “Rain.” That song is pretty heavy. There are so many ideas going on there, and harmonies. It’s always a song that when my whole band is rehearsing and we get sidetracked, I start playing the bassline to “Rain.” Then the drummer starts playing. It gives us joy.

 

It’s a genius bassline: simple, but a blueprint for so many bands out there. That bassline is tied to “Taxman,” as well in that same movement. It’s also pretty close to “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Paperback Writer.” It’s all from this era of McCartney basslines like this. I remember when I heard “Start” by The Jam for the first time. I was just getting into The Jam, but when I heard “Start,” I thought, “It’s exactly ‘’Taxman’.”

SEM: That’s a cool connection!

RD: It’s crazy because it really is exactly like “Taxman”: it’s the same rhythm guitar, it’s the same lead lines…and at first – because I was in love with The Jam – I, like, worshiped Paul Weller for years – when I heard all that similarity, I was kind of confused. I was like, “Is this good, or is this plagiarism?” But then I thought, it’s actually pretty awesome: he took probably one of the most iconic basslines and drumbeats and made them into his own song. And it was a single, a huge single, as you know. The fact that Paul Weller could do that…it’s like he’s the best plagiarist ever!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdSqpT6gfDU

 

SEM: And Ride, on “Seagull”…isn’t that the “Taxman” bassline as well?

RD: Oh yeah! (laughs). Yeah, totally. Yeah, that bassline is so great! I mean, I’ve used that bassline many times in my life. I don’t know if I used it on this record…I don’t think I did… (laughs).

 

SEM: Do you think that Revolver has aged better than Sgt. Pepper?

RD: I think so. Sgt. Pepper was very much of its time, right? Like flower power and Technicolor and stuff like that. Whereas I find Revolver has this grit to it, and it’s also very somber. I mean, like the black-and-white album cover. It’s just got…everything about it. It’s not as layered as Sgt. Pepper was sonically.

When I was younger, I’d always read articles about The Beatles, and everyone would say Sgt. Pepper was the greatest record. I always said that Revolver is better. It was always like that, and I couldn’t understand it. I mean, I like Sgt. Pepper, but, you know, there are moments like, “With a Little Help from My Friends”…I could do without that song sometimes, you know? It’s there, and it helps the concept, which is fine, but there is no song on Revolver I would say that about. Actually…“Yellow Submarine” is on Revolver isn’t it? (laughs)

 

SEM: It is, it is. (laughs)

RD: My kids love that song, and I loved it growing up as a kid myself, but I can do without it. That’s the thing with The Beatles: they had this whimsical, childlike thing, which works really well on, say, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but then they have the Ringo songs, “Octopuses’ Garden,” “Yellow Submarine,” “With a Little Help from My Friends”…“All Together Now” is okay, but once I had kids, I kind of understood those songs more because I would play it to the kids, and they would connect with them right away.

Then you kind of realize the genius of a song like “Yellow Submarine.” It’s such a simple melody, and it’s so easy to sing along to. Same thing with “With a Little Help from My Friends.” There’s so much to The Beatles that you can appreciate as you get older or only from the perspective of somebody younger. I’m opening my eyes now to that other side, that more childlike, less-psychedelic side of The Beatles.

(Interview transcribed by Cameron Billon; photography by Geoffrey Tischman.)