“Queen Elephantine makes Soundgarden sound like the Carpenters.” – Dr. Hal Roth, Professor of Asian Religions at Brown University
With a fluid lineup and various experiments in approach over the course of their four albums, Queen Elephantine is a nebulous worship of heavy mood and time. Founded in Hong Kong in 2006 but now based in Providence, USA, the group released their fifth album KALA on all formats through an international coalition of labels: Argonauta (Italy), Cimmerian Shade (USA), Tartarus (Netherlands), Atypeek (France), and Transcending Obscurity (India).
INTERVIEW WITH INDY SHOME (GUITARIST/VOCALIST)
(Interview conducted and written by Connor Sullivan)
Q: How would you describe your relationship with Providence?
A: Providence is great, but to be honest, I hadn’t heard of it until I moved here. Before Providence, I grew up living only in the biggest cities in the world, all over India, Hong Kong, and then New York. So when I moved here it was very strange and I didn’t know what to expect, but I lived here for eight years and loved it.
I think AS220 is one of the things that encapsulates what’s unique and cool about Providence. Not a lot of places have an establishment and tight-knit community like this that’s dedicated to outsider art. The city has a lot going for it. It successfully turned away from the fate that fell upon other cities like Detroit. They said, “Fuck, we have a lot of unemployment, we have a lot of vacant industrial space, and we have a huge drug problem. What do we do?”
And Providence’s answer has been to push arts and culture, and so far it seems to going really well. I think ten, twenty years down the line Providence is going to be more like Austin or Portland or something like that. But hopefully, it’ll keep its head down a little bit more down. I’m a little suspicious of those cities. Portland’s motto is “Keep Portland Weird.” I once heard a friend say “Keep Providence Lame” and I’m all about that.
For a city this size, there are so many great bands. Often, there are too many good shows happening on a given night, too many for the number of people that actually live here, and that is a pretty great problem to have.
Q: Your beautiful and enigmatic album art, designed by Adrian Dexter, contributes to a sort of band mythology. Certain allusions to Eastern mythology like Kailash and Surya also contribute to this. This kind of mythology-making has long been synonymous with metal bands but seems to be disappearing with the transparency of the digital age. How do you see Queen Elephantine’s mythology fitting into such a landscape?
A: First off, Adrian is the man. I really hope he’s a household name by the time we die. He also does the artwork for Elder. He has been a big part of both of our bands. Their second album Dead Roots Stirring… that isn’t rock album art, it belongs in a museum. And yeah, it’s true that that mystery and mythology isn’t present in a lot of music anymore, but I think that makes people appreciate it even more. There are a couple of Finnish bands actually, like Dark Buddha Rising, that put out very little information about themselves and have this attractive mysterious element.
With Queen Elephantine…I’ve always been a student of religion and philosophy. Most of us are in some capacity. Srini is even a professor of Indian music and philosophy, so it runs deep. A lot of the early Queen Elephantine releases had references to Egyptian mythology. But then I saw a metal band with a Sanskrit album name, which they didn’t know how to pronounce. This, in turn, made me realize how exoticized, however sincere, my interest in Egypt was. It motivated me to draw more from my own cultural mind, to explore the symbols and impressions of divinity left through my own genetics and environment.
So a lot of it is Asian because of our own backgrounds and interests, but definitely not exclusively so. The album Kailash, which is an explicit Hindu reference, has the Egyptian goddess Isis depicted on the cover, and the record we’re working on now actually deals with a Dungeons & Dragons goddess so…hopefully we haven’t gotten too heady and lost our sense of humor.
The vibe is pretty deep and important for this band though. That’s what we’re trying to impress and evoke in people. In much ancient art and architecture, Indian especially, there wasn’t a strong concept of authorship. We’re inconsequential and that we’re just doing the work that needs to be done. We try and stick to that to keep our egos minimally involved. Queen Elephantine is just a spirit of its own. We try to do it service and move with it and try and create that space for people to vibe in.
Our band has something like 25 people in the family, and it’s all very fluid and communal. I’m on most of the songs, but there are a few that even I’m not on. That whole setup is really important to how we do things.
For example, the drums for our third album Garland of Skulls were originally worked out by Mike Isley. Soon after that, Chris Dialogue began developing those parts (made it half-time) and played the drums on those songs live. Then for the actual recording, Mike Isley played the drums again, implementing the tempo and style Chris brought, while Chris performed noise effects and backup vocals. When Garland was finally released and we went on tour to support it, Samer Ghadry played drums. Now on our latest record kala, Samer played synth and guitar. Ian, one of our current drummers, has talked about only playing zither on the next record.
Q: Who are the other constant members apart from you?
A: I’m the only constant member. It kind of started as a long-term project I could do and not ever have to break up, though I built it with Danny Quinn, my partner in much creative mischief. I grew up in Hong Kong. It’s a huge international city and that means there are tons of people coming in to create these really weird and cool fusions of sounds, but the flip side is the transience, especially in the expatriate community. People move out as easily as they move in. So bands would constantly form and dissolve. I played in another band that had a promising start with a lot of momentum, but within a year our drummer moved to England and our singer moved to America.
Queen Elephantine was formed in part to withstand this short lifespan typical of Hong Kong’s expat bands. Even our first demo tape had three drummers switching out on two kits. Queen Elephantine goes through cycles of death and rebirth, so I was able to continue the project even after I moved to the US for college, with Danny’s blessings.
This philosophy was inspired by a number of other bands which we were into, and some of that influence is even embedded in our name: King Crimson, Queens of the Stone Age, Swans. I remember hearing Robert Fripp say that King Crimson materializes and disintegrates as the universe needs it to, and that feels right for Queen.
Q: What were your avenues into these prog rock, drone metal, noise, and avant-garde acts?
A: I was always into music and my tastes seem to have been pretty defined and strange from the start. And my parents loved music, so they were very supportive and encouraging. So I think the first proper album that I picked for myself was Alice In Chains’ Dirt, when I was 9, based completely on the cover and title. Of course, the music delivered.
If I had to point to a single person that pulled me into “experimental” music beyond just rock or metal, it was Nathan Fischer. He was my guitar teacher when I was 12. I mean I think we only met four times, but it was a wonderful relationship. He was as excited about a student who didn’t want to learn Metallica or Blink riffs as I was to have a mentor that got me. I told him I just wanted to learn how to make cool nasty sounds, and he gave me some Sonic Youth and Blonde Redhead CDs, and that was it.
Before the digital era really took off, it was a really exciting treasure hunt trying to locate far out albums, especially in Hong Kong and India, where the markets and therefore distribution for outsider music and especially vinyl are very small. So you would hear a rumor that there were some old records somewhere and try and hunt them down. There was no way to preview this music, right, no YouTube or Spotify. You just had to go off whims. So I’d get lost in the bustling streets of Mumbai’s “Thieves Market,” roaming between crumbling buildings and aging mosques, or I’d find myself in a dark apartment in a shady part of Kowloon, second-guessing my judgment, before being led into a back room filled to the brim with records.
My parents are obvious influences on my taste. My mom is an Indian classical dancer. Before I started going to school, I was just on the road with her all the time. So my diaper days were spent in ancient candle-lit temples listening to deep droning tones and thunderous rhythms. All of that seems to have left a lasting mark on my aesthetic. On the other side, my dad was into Miles Davis and The Doors and Pink Floyd and Shakti. Take Indian classical dance music and 60s psych jazz fusion and you get me.
Some of it is weirdly innate though. Like I remember, I think I was just three, my dad had bought a Deep Purple cassette and was excited to share it with me. I didn’t have the words to describe it, but I very clearly remember feeling, “This could be heavier.”
Q: Your music drains in the best possible way. How do you think this translates to a live setting?
A: I think it took us a while to figure out how to do it effectively live. But actually, a lot of people have told us that they “got” it only after seeing us live. It’s visual and it’s theatrical and also clearly intentional. I think people unfamiliar with this kind of music can’t always make sense of what they’re hearing on the records. Some people probably just hear a muddy cacophony of strange nonsense sounds and envision a bunch of hacks probably getting high and fucking around… so it probably helps to see that, whatever it sounds like, there’s actually a tightly focused ensemble behind it. It probably doesn’t help that we like to fuck with the sound of records. On kala I wanted to specifically mix the multiple drummers to sound like one tabla, an Indian hand percussion. Live it’s a little less treated so, well, two drummers sound like two drummers.
There’s like ten people on some of our songs and it can be a lot. You could listen to a song and be like, “Is this a rock band?” And well, yes, but there are four drummers that are each playing a quarter of the drum set. Normally with listening to a band, you can be like, “Oh, that’s the drummer.” Or if you’re listening to the Melvins, “Those are the two drummers.” But people have kind of a hard time pinning what the fuck is going down with us sometimes.
On a track off kala, for example, one person plays most of the drum set. There’s someone else that only plays hi-hats for the first half of the song, and then only toms for the second half. Someone else plays bells and clave, and then another person plays a second drumset for the last couple minutes of the song. There are also three synthesizers and three guitars. So you don’t know what the fuck is going on.
So while the mystique is nice, it’s fun to actually make the music in front of people. Going back to the accessibility factor in the digital era, on one hand, you can know a lot of info about a band. On the other hand, it’s easier than ever to just stitch shit together on a computer or in a studio somewhere.
Q: And you don’t think playing it live taints the music’s enigmatic and ritualistic elements?
A: It depends. We definitely have a different approach live than on record. We try to play songs that are engaging live. I love Earth, but on one of their quieter sets, I remember feeling really disappointed. I loved the record, but a rock concert was the wrong setting for some of those songs. I wished they and the audience could disappear and I could just enjoy them in the dark.
I think to play the music well we need to take ourselves to the zone and take people with us. I don’t think we really lose the spirit because if we do it well, people feel it.