How Prince Rama Made Its Avant-Garde Workout Jam
If it’s possible for the already out-there Prince Rama to take a left turn, the Brooklyn psychedelic outfit has managed it with Utopia = No Person. While the group is known for its Sanskrit vocals and tribal drum patterns, its new EP—out on Not Not Fun Records—includes dabbles in something even more alien to art poppers: exercise. The label describes the 19-minute A-side as a “shamanistic electro work-out anthem, equal parts apocalypto opera, hippie ecstasy, and new wave cardio dance.” Groovy.
Prince Rama, which is made up of sisters Taraka (vocals, synthesizers, guitars) and Nimai Larson (percussion), plays at Comet Ping Pong with Pygmy Lush tonight, the first stop on a tour down to SXSW in Austin. I spoke with Taraka about the band’s stylistic shift, what exercise videos and Thomas More have in common, and Space Jam.
Washington City Paper: Could you tell me a bit about the music on Utopia = No Person? It came out of a museum piece?
Taraka Larson: Yeah, it was this gallery in Brooklyn, ISSUE Project Room. We have this residency over there. Basically, we did this series of three performances that had to deal with the theme of utopia. We broke it down in to person, place, time. So, the first one was "Utopia = No Person." We were kind of just looking at the body as this vehicle for utopian experimentation—just kind of the length between the physical and the metaphysical, and got kind of fascinated with exercise videos and exercise music in general—how strange and repetitive and trancy and minimal it kind of is. The idea of syncopating bodily movements with sort of a more metaphysical time pattern that’s embedded in exercise music. Having music have this direct sculptural effect on the body—if you keep moving to it routinely, then it will change the way your body looks, often is the belief—that’s the idea.
WCP: The meaning of the title — is that because utopia is not a physical thing or an identity? How would you explain that concept?
TL: I guess it’s just kind of a play off of the definition of utopia that Thomas More first put forth—“Utopia equals no place”—sort of looking at the person as a place and the body as this physical landscape. I’m actually not super experienced in exercise. I feel like a lot of this is conjecture or stuff I’ve thought about since writing it down because I haven’t really exercised that much. It’s not really something I’m into on a personal level. But I feel like since writing this, I’ve been doing it a lot more, like a choreographed exercise routine...There’s this moment when you’re exercising where your body is reaching this physical break. Or you’re pushing yourself to your physical limit and there’s this moment of rupture when you have a physic break with your self and your surroundings. And you’re kind of just, like, no person. Losing yourself. There’s a lot of stuff like that in exercise videos. I was watching this Paul Eugene video from the ’80s, and his whole motto is "let yourself go" and "lose yourself." There’s all this rhetoric about losing yourself and letting go. It’s kind of like getting lost and finding utopia there in that space of loss.
WCP: Is getting lost the same kind of thing you try to do at a concert? Or is it a different sort of transcendence?
TL: Yeah! Definitely! Well—I feel like utopia and transcendence are two different ideas. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, what the differences are. I don’t think it’s about reaching a transcendent state, so to speak. Because I feel like utopia is more about finding this sort of space that you’re already in and making that mystical authority there– not trying to go beyond it but go super into it.
I feel like that definitely is a desire to reach in concerts. I think a lot of that sort of utopic state that happens whenever there’s a really amazing concert is that moment when everyone’s just kind of losing themselves and it’s this emerging experience.
WCP: Is that type of more electronic sounding music [from Utopia = No Person] the direction the band is headed in?
TL: I don’t know. I think we’re definitely more interested in doing a lot more tighter, minimal dance music. I feel like trying to incorporate that. And more than anything else really—try to get our bodies more involved in the live show. It’s just so fun to do be able to do that exercise and be free of our instruments for a few minutes and do things with our bodies and move around—that’s definitely something we want to do more.
WCP: On last year’s Trust Now LP, what language are you singing in when you begin that album?
TL: The first song is actually sung in a language I kind of made up. And there’s some Sanskirt on there, too. And some English, obviously. On that album, I experimented a lot with language. I was studying Shakerism and stuff for awhile and there’s this belief of glossolalia. When you’re singing, sort of letting the syllables be more free and not strap yourself to words, just see what happens, you know? I feel like that was happening a lot on that album.
WCP: When you were singing in a non-actualized language, did that intend to express a feeling or an idea?
TL: Well, singing on that first song, that particular song, that’s actually about—I wrote that right after my grandma died. I felt the need to write a eulogy or something for her. It was a really weird moment when the song came about—I had laryngitis, I had lost my voice. I started fooling around with synths, trying to write the song, and all of a sudden, this new wave of energy came to me and I just started singing and I started singing words I had never heard before. I don’t know how to put it in to words—I felt really close to my grandma while I was singing. I felt like she was helping me. Even I don’t know what the words mean—like, if you asked me what each individual word means, I couldn’t tell you, but as a whole, I think it was her communicating something through me.
WCP: When you play the song live, if you do, do you sing the same sounds?
WCP: What’s it like to revisit something—I don’t know if it was improvised or you wrote out those sounds?
TL: No, I actually never wrote it out. Once it happened, I was just like, "Allright, I’ve got it. I don’t need to write it down, I can remember it." Which is weird too, because I’m always forgetting words, I’m always writing lyrics down. It’s interesting performing it live. I feel that same power every time—it hasn’t really left. I feel really close to her when I sing it.
WCP: Is there any taboo at all to singing in Sanskirt, or is it that anyone’s welcome to use that language?
TL: Yeah. It’s a pretty sacred language, but it’s kind of the thing where it’s—it’s kind of meant to be sung and meant to be spread. There’s nothing really secretive about it—there are no mantras that I sing that are secret mantras. I know there are mantras out there that are secret, but the ones I’m singing are pretty much fair game.
WCP: Are these all pre-existing things that you’re taking for your songs?
TL: Some of them. Some of them I’m taking different words and kind of made my own sense of them I guess, kind of made them more personal for me. It’s the kind of thing where, if you have weird intentions when you’re singing this stuff, it’s the same as if you have weird intentions singing anything—your weird intentions are going to come across. I don’t really feel like I have any ulterior motives with it. They’re just mantras that mean a lot to me.
WCP: There’s a quote out there saying the band once self-identified as a “blink-182 rip-off band.” I was wondering how you got interested in making the type of music you make now.
TL: Well, college happened for one thing. [laughs] I feel like when we were in high school, we grew up in a super-small town and blink-182 was the most weird band we could possible listen to. And then I moved up to Boston and went to art school and was taking a lot of classes and sound art and listening to a lot of kind of more noise and experimental composers and being pretty blown away by that. I think it just took moving away from a small hick-ass town.
WCP: Is there any way you would describe the stuff you got in to? The kind of music you play now, it’s just more experimental?
TL: I don’t know. I feel like pop music influences me way more than experimental music. I don’t know if that really comes across. I think people would be pretty surprised by what we listen to, honestly.
WCP: What’s something you listen to?
TL: I’ve been listening to a lot of Len the past couple days. You know that band that did “Steal My Sunshine”? And Ace of Base and Space Jam.
WCP: Space Jam?
TL: Yeah, like the movie. The soundtrack is amazing.
Prince Rama performs with Pygmy Lush at 9 p.m. at Comet Ping Pong, 5037 Connecticutt Ave. NW. $10.