The world of Prince Rama is one heck of a ride. Sisters Nimai and Taraka Larson crank their affection for the eighties into a frenzied, neon mix of nostalgia contoured through their blend of dance music. Their flirtations with both experimental and pop forms are but one part of an interdisciplinary artistic practice. Prince Rama create art installations, fashion lines, and now even an energy drink to accompany their musical output. Subrewind sat down with Nimai over a hibiscus-mint iced tea and Lush’s dream-pop masterpiece Spooky as background soundtrack to discuss Rama’s latest album, Xtreme Now, of which the single “Bahia” shows the band having the most fun in a gym I’ve ever seen.
Nimai, wearing characteristic neon pink lipstick, articulated her history with the artistic process. “Taraka and I went to art school, and our parents are both artists, so visual art comes naturally. Prince Rama is just one part of our art form – a performance art aspect. We grew up with two spiritual Hare Krishna parents outside of Austin, an area not known for its Krishna population. It’s Texas, the bible belt. We were the only Hare Krishnas probably in a thousand mile radius.”
When Nimai and Taraka were fourteen and fifteen, their family moved to Florida, which contained the largest Hare Krishna community in North America. This came with some adjustment to the girls, who for the first time found their spirituality taking on more physical forms. They became involved in temple services which involved music, chant, and dance. This, in addition to a keyboard given to her by a man who proposed to Taraka (she declined the proposal but accepted the instrument), proved to be formative for her as a songwriter. “Some of our early music is mantras,” Nimai said, which can be heard all over Trust Now and Shadow Temple, a tradition that carries over to Top Ten Hits with “Radhamadhava.”
The idea for Xtreme Now came about in Estonia. Nimai and Taraka had been invited to be part of a film chronicling a pseudo-black metal utopian community documented by former college professor Ben Russell. “We both had very different experiences while there,” Nimai said. “Taraka found these Viking ruins and experienced a space-time continuum feeling of being in the future and the past at the same time. She had a vision of ‘speed art,’ a fusion of high art and extreme sports – which is weird, because both of us are really bad at sports!” This was around the time that Top 10 Hits of the End of the World came out, so Prince Rama weren’t able to explore these ideas until after touring. “People involved in extreme sports can die at any moment, which is something that usually frightens people. They’re addicted to the adrenaline rush while facing mankind’s greatest fear: willingly placing themselves at the edge of life and death. To experience that on a daily basis, as part of your profession, was mind-blowing to Taraka and I. That vision sparked her interest in exploring how people could live in an extreme way.”
In any extreme sport, utter presence is required to survive. Rama realized mere mortals outside these environments have problems maintaining presence when the digital world buzzes for attention throughout the day. The concept of extreme sports, combined with the “Now” of presence – a theme also touched on in their Now Age manifesto – led to the album title Xtreme Now.
“We started thinking about what types of music extreme athletes were listening to. What is time like? Does it slow down or speed up? Watching Youtube videos, we felt the music was not doing justice to these death-defying feats and amazing acts of courage. There was a void for an extreme sports music genre. We addressed time slowing down during those moments in ‘Sochi,’ and the theme of death in songs like ‘Your Life in the End’ and ‘Would You Die to be Adored.'”
To further the connection, Prince Rama created an official energy drink that’s available (in limited supply) at their live show merch booth. The “Xtreme Now Energy” track on the album is a manic sprint, with Taraka’s drowned, reverberant voice chanting “Energy creates you / Energy destroys you,” a blend of their spiritual beginnings and the caffeinated world they’d found themselves in.
Though Nimai was mum on the secret ingredients in Xtreme Now Energy, she divulged that she and her sister researched herbs represented in various unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in uptown Manhattan. These plants represented natural energy providers during the Renaissance, but today some are difficult to source. Last year, Nimai blogged about her one year-long sobriety experience, so it was more health-conscious to source herbs rather than caffeine, sugar and taurine for their drink, though the band drank tons of the big energy brands as album research. My hibiscus tea seemed bland by comparison.
Other ideas were explored in the new album. The “Now is the Time for Emotion” music video, for example, satirizes the art world’s sacred cows. “The song talks about intense emotions: agony, ecstasy, confusion, anger, and jealousy; all of which represent our ego. One question that came about in these sessions was: ‘what’s a beautiful way to destroy the ego?’ Taraka and I don’t want to be the tortured artist types, but it’s always a struggle and challenge to destroy our egos. That’s a big theme in both of our lives.”
Nimai maintains that the “Emotion” video isn’t really about destruction. Instead, it served as a constructive way for Rama to visually combat their egos. The different pieces of art represent various emotions they were destroying.
Prince Rama recorded with producers Alex Epton and Ryan Sciaino, who wanted the sisters at full potential. “We came to them with ten or twelve finished songs. They asked us to write twenty more and then pick the best ones. Taraka and I weren’t used to working with people who challenged us like that. Alex and Ryan saw themselves as collaborators, so they wanted to have more input, which overwhelmed Taraka since she had to write so much. It ended up being great. Some of my favorite tracks came out of this push to create more, but it was an ego blow at first. This album was the first time we were coming up with things on the spot. Usually we come into a studio with everything written and tested by touring and we record it in a matter of weeks. We recorded Xtreme Now over the course of a year in Brooklyn. When there’s stationary time, that’s stagnation for us, which was a real challenge. It really grew our songwriting abilities and pushed what we thought we were capable of.”
One cut, with a hilarious rap section about James Franco written by Nimai, is her particular favorite. The song will be introduced to the world through Joyful Noise in early 2017.
Contrast Xtreme Now with Top Ten Hits of the End of the World, a concept album channeling styles of ten fictional pop bands just before the apocalypse. “At the time, we’d never really written a pop album. Our earlier albums aren’t poppy at all. With each album, we’re trying to be honest about where we are at that time. Touring songs off Trust Now and Shadow Temple that have such heavy memories becomes not very fun after a while. With Top Ten Hits, Taraka started writing songs that aren’t necessarily happy, but demented in their own way. ‘So Destroyed’ is about a terrible breakup, but it’s set to catchy music.” Top Ten Hits is the band’s most coherent release, and brilliantly engages a doomed planet within the warped sensibilities of how Rama approaches pop music.
Pop didn’t come naturally for the band. “Top Ten Hits was really hard to write. The challenge was how to make straight pop music. We were listening to a lot of Sublime Frequencies, K-Pop and 90’s hits. The Middle Eastern influence was there as well since we were playing with Omar Souleyman. All that stuff is catchy. Really the weirdest album we could write was this pop album.”
Rama is experimenting with playing with tracked drums, the first time they’ve played with backing tracks in a live setting. I heard this a few months ago at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn for the Xtreme Now album release show.
“The difference between the live show of Top Ten Hits and Xtreme Now is Taraka’s growth as a performer,” Nimai said. “She didn’t want to be behind the keyboard any more. She wanted to be theatrical and connecting with the crowd, which is her natural state of being.”
Nimai sees Rama as more of a live than a studio band, which was curious as the band’s sound has utilized heavy effects for each record, something difficult to get right in a live setting. Though Rama played the first year of Austin’s psychedelically-oriented Levitation Festival (organized by members of The Black Angels), they don’t consider their music psychedelic any more. “The word ‘psychedelic’ gets thrown around a lot. A few albums ago, psychedelic was a term that was very true to where we were at. I don’t even see Top Ten Hits as being very psychedelic.” Yet Top Ten Hits uses psychedelic techniques, like trance-inducing vocal effects, heavy echoes and reverberations to give songs an other-worldly stroke.
“I had this image in my head of psychedelic music as sixties flower child stuff with paisley prints. We don’t identify so much with that. It’s tough, because coming up with a way of describing your music is like trying to write a report about yourself. I just don’t like doing it. When people ask me what kind of music I play, I say it’s loud, fun and dancey.” No one could disagree with that.
Check out the Prince Rama site for tour dates coming up in August and September.
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