Welcome the Now Age: Prince Rama Envision Pop Music as Spiritual Mantra

(L-R) Taraka and Nimai Larson are Prince Rama

(L-R) Taraka and Nimai Larson are Prince Rama. (Shawn LaChapelle)

Heading toward Bed-Stuy to meet Taraka and Nimai Larson, the sisters of Prince Rama, a reporter’s dilemma rages inside me. The press release for their righteous, buoyantly dancey new album about a future where extreme sports are our culture’s high art, Xtreme Now, claims they were inspired by Taraka’s out-of-body experiences at a Black Metal commune on Vȫrmsi, an island of Viking ruins off the coast of Estonia.

A little window into Prince Rama’s discography suggests they’ve spent time living communally before—their wonderful breakthrough album Shadow Temple recalls their time growing up together on a Hare Krishna ashram in Florida, through churning psychedelic synths and Hare Krishna chanting. But Vȫrmsi is a harder place to research. Where do the myths begin and end with Prince Rama?

Where do the myths begin and end with Prince Rama?

As it turns out, they don’t. Because all the stories of the wonderful places these sisters have been are true. In Prince Rama’s worlds, the very idea of “myth” is a reductive term for taking the repeated lessons and wisdoms of life and tying them to the past. The sisters have an artistic philosophy called the Now Age, which seeks to codify the difference between regurgitating the past and channeling it, between seeking transcendence and creating utopia in your life.

Borrowed from the philosophies of late Paul Laffoley, a visionary psychedelic artist from Boston whom Taraka apprenticed with, and mathematician/philosopher John G. Bennettthe Now Age claims that around the second millennium, our collective aesthetic impulse “was one that was less and less engaged in direct dialogue with the present and more and more haunted by the icons and vernacular of the past (now doomed to reincarnation under the veils of Kitsch and Nostalgia). Surface disembodied from form, form disembodied from spirit, spirit disembodied from gesture…”

Prince Rama teamed up with Paul Laffoley to interpret his artwork on 2010's "The Architecture of Utopia"

Prince Rama teamed up with Paul Laffoley to interpret his artwork on 2010’s The Architecture of Utopia. (Prince Rama)

To remedy this “ghost modernism,” the Now Age puts time on an X axis and space on a Y axis. Cutting between them is Bennett’s “Hyparxis,” a diagonal Z axis that lives in the now between time and space, music and sound, the actual and the ideal, the finite and the infinite. “Hyparxis combines what is actual with what is potential, thus creating a ‘present moment’ based on the internalized experience of external temporal events, past, present, or future,” Taraka writes. “Thus, the Now Age refers to no age at all, but instead describes an elemental quality of being.”

“The Now Age cannot be named, for once named, it becomes part of a fixed moment in time, and is thus lost. It is not to be confused with the New Age, because there is nothing new about it. It is, always was, and always will be. In the process of writing this, the Now Age will have already eluded itself. The process of reading will vanquish it entirely.”

At the risk of the Now Age further eluding itself, read on. Because inside the glittery dance-pop of Prince Rama’s “Now Age” affirmations, their shattering “the kitsch barrier” communicates a belief that pop music is capable of engaging our spiritual minds in a way we normally delegate to heavier, more esoteric sounds. The power of repetition, of chanting and of providing a syllabic space for our beliefs and affirmations to be explored, they explained to me, are more similar to the powers of mantra than we might realize, and as such, worth spending time with.

Our conversation was highlighted by a similar embrace of pop as the true mantras of the Now Age, outside of consciousness and unconsciousness to a state of pure awareness, outside of the concrete and the abstract to a state of pure being.

A colleague recently wrote a huge piece about how artists, visual artists, aren’t painting anything original anymore. I thought it was a nice little think piece, and I put it in the background of my mind. But then I read the Now Age treatise you wrote about Paul Laffoley and it got me thinking about that.

Taraka: Yeah, I was his artist’s assistant the whole time I was in school, for four years!

So all the spheres and zones and metaphysical illustrations, you were just absorbing them like a sponge?

Taraka: Yeah, yeah!

Your Now Age philosophy sees a difference between being present and being “here.” You’re pulling stuff from the past, but I understand that “channeling” something from the past is different from regurgitating it. How does that work for you in your music, and the idea of accessing a place that’s been accessed before, how is that different from just retreading?

Taraka: It boils down to the shells of things, the essences of things. There’s a difference between possession and channeling. When you’re trying to possess something you’re trying to take the shell and make it your own. Channeling is very much about being in the present moment and not trying to access the past, but just being there and realizing that the past is the present, the future is the present. Time is this sort of trick, and [you] divide it up.

Time is your X axis and space is your Y axis.

Taraka: Exactly! “Hyparxis” is what John Bennett calls the Z axis that goes through the present and the past, and the future as this sort of prism. It’s like taking a holographic needle or laser and seeing that every little atom has the entire image printed in it. Channeling is very much about being in that present with the past, like you’re dancing with it. It’s part of you.

‘I studied sculpture in school, and I look at what we’re doing as Prince Rama as an extension of sculptural practice, employing different mythologies and stuff.’

You’re interacting with it, not co-opting it?

Taraka: Exactly. It’s not taking the shell of this thing that was once dead and putting it here now. It’s listening to it, singing with it. I feel like a lot of it has to do with removing that illusion of Death. Death is one of the most telltale illusions of Time. As long as we’re fearing Death, Time is saying, “ha ha ha, I’ve got this thing over you!”

Death puts the cap on a linear trajectory that’s not necessarily accurate?

Taraka: Exactly, you look at Death as this little doorway and move through that to be in this other space. If you can just access these other spaces, then you’ve got it going on.

You make it sound so easy! You also talk about the difference between utopia and transcendence in the Now Age. I talked to the curator of this show at Walker Art Center whose recent show also addressed utopia. His idea was that Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” mantra was as a forward moving trajectory. You turn on and gain personal awareness, tune in to a prevailing collective consciousness, and then you can finally refuse these normative structures of society when the group just says fuck it and work toward utopia. Utopia doesn’t become this unattainable, unrealistic thing but this realized thing through the progression. You make it sound like a light bulb just going off, and maybe it is, but I feel like it starts with a community creating and having people around you who you make art with or go out dancing with.

Prince Rama's "Xtreme Now', where high art and extreme sports are one and the same.

Prince Rama’s Xtreme Now, where high art and extreme sports are one and the same. (Will Rahilly)

Taraka: Well, utopianism is very different from transcendentalism, which I feel like a lot of the Western religions and the hippie detritus is all about, sort of an escape from this world. Utopianism is not seeking an escape from this world; it’s seeking a deeper relationship with it, a realization of the real. It’s like digging your fingers into it and realizing its putty and you can play around with it. I know Paul was really into utopianism and I feel like I absorbed a lot of his sort of philosophies with it.

We did a whole album based on his utopian diagrams, Architecture of Utopia. He did these amazing diagrams looking at utopian space as a logarithmic spiral. I was looking at his paintings and light bulbs flashed in my mind, “This looks like a vinyl record!” This time cast as a logarithmic journey toward a spiral center, I’m thinking, “That’s just a record with a locked groove. You can make this!” I thought that was a really beautiful paradigm for music in general. It has many different levels of existence: it can exist as a shell sitting on your self, this piece of vinyl with some scribbles on it. And then as soon as you put it on this record player the needle becomes a sort of holographic laser, other images are projected.

Music is weird because it doesn’t end. Vibrations get really faint but they always keep going. That’s what my friend would always tell people to talk up the quality of analog recordings when they asked why he cared so much about vinyl. I’m interested too in how you guys create your own mythology. The first time I saw you guys was in support of Shadow Temple, and I liked the incorporation of Hare Krishna mythologies and the chanting. I’m curious to what extent you guys can talk about crafting those mythologies, especially reading about the origins of Xtreme Now. I want to respect the mystique and the mythologies of these stories, but my girlfriend told me about Joseph Beuys, who made up these elaborate mythologies about traveling with the Inuits or whatever not just to fuck with everybody, but because they provided him with a frame for exploring pedagogy in his art. Is that what’s going on here?

Taraka: Totally! [Taraka and Nimai laugh] Joseph Beuys was a huge inspiration to me. What I really love about him is not only how he employs mythology as this self-serving structure, but also as this way of creating a new language for sculpture. He was really into this idea of “social sculpture,” sometimes he would just go into a place or to a street corner and just start talking, literally just getting up on a cardboard box. The way he looked at it, that was the way he was interested in creating sculpture. Whatever people took from his conversation would shape the way the neurons fired in their brains, communications between synapses and stuff. I think music has this exact same sort of capability.

I studied sculpture in school, and I look at what we’re doing as Prince Rama as an extension of sculptural practice, employing different mythologies and stuff. Mythology, where does that word even come from? It’s a total Western way of discounting a lot of magic, or putting it in this box to say that this happened at this point in time. Star Wars movies always start out, “In a Galaxy far far away,” and it’s always this moment in the distant past, but the spirit of these myths are really a living present. You can just exchange the names and faces and it’s still alive. There are a lot of archetypes that are still very much living.

‘All the things you say over and over again, mantras or pop songs, affect the make up of your body.’

Nimai: With Shadow Temple and the Hare Krishna mantras and everything we were just being really honest with where we were right then. That was six years ago, and so six years ago we were six years closer to growing up on a Hare Krishna ashram. So it made sense to still weave that into our music at the time. Being so steeped in Krishna consciousness and being so steeped in chanting mantras back and forth, community living, we’ve taken that with us. I think that’s why we were so inspired by the commune that we lived on in Estonia. Us being honest with ourselves now is weaving that into our music.

[Taraka’s] film professor, this guy Ben Russell, he flew in a bunch of people who he knew had previous experience living in communes to Estonia, this island off the coast of Estonia called Vȫrmsi, and we all lived there together for three weeks. He was exploring different themes like utopia, communal living and Black Metal. It was amazing to live there with all these people that we didn’t know, and English was most people’s second language. So really you were just basing a lot of your bonding and relationships on feelings and on ritual practices we were doing each day—lighting the rocks under the sauna, and things where all of us could come together to have this bonding experience of steaming and sweating together at the end of each day.

We were building a geodesic dome…and all of us found our own roles within the commune. That experience of being so present and so honest with where we were, there was no electricity, no Wi-Fi, no selfies on the Baltic Sea. No room for narcissism at all. So all of us got super in touch with being present with who we were at that moment. So much of that feeling is what we’re trying to re-create with this album. And the title, Xtreme Now symbolizes extreme honesty, and being present in the moment.

Taraka: Yeah. You should see that movie, he turned it into a film, A Spell to Ward Off Darkness. It’s pretty sick.

What’s my thread to Black Metal? I hear some fuzzy guitar on the record, is this where it comes from? But I’m thinking of the people I know who like Black Metal, not necessarily the same people who acclimate well to communal living. Trying to find the connection.

Taraka: Again, I feel like that’s shells. I’m more interested in that inner kernel of Black Metal. These are questions we all asked when we went out there; it was framed as this Black Metal commune, then we got out there and no one was playing Black Metal. Some of these people definitely had involvement in Black Metal bands. Rob Lowe was out there from Lichens, he also played in Om and stuff.

There were other Scandinavian people out there also involved in some Black Metal things. But we never talked about Black Metal, we never played it, and yet we were surrounded by the spirit of Black Metal. In a way we had this very pure experience apart from words, apart from mythology. At its core, I feel like Black Metal is really inspired by this utopian pastoralism of Scandinavia and all these nature pagan rights that got taken down by the Christian church. And we had such a direct spiritual experience with the nature out there.

There’s also all this Viking lore that is steeped in a lot of the Black Metal bands, a lot of them try to emulate Viking demons, the imagery and stuff. That island was just a Viking outpost, so there are just ruins everywhere, dotting the loundscape. You’ll be walking in a field, see a mound and ask “What is that?” Then you’ll see the mound has a little door, and it leads into a cave. You feel the spirits out there for sure.

2010's 'Shadow Temple' featured this art installation by Prince Rama, using Hare Krishna chants, polyrhythmic drumming and thick synths to transport us.

2010’s Shadow Temple featured this art installation by Prince Rama, using Hare Krishna chants, polyrhythmic drumming and thick synths to transport us. (Prince Rama)

How did this add to the core philosophy of the group, the Now Age? And how did that philosophy manifest out of your upbringing? I thought that women traditionally had an external relationship to the rituals and practices of Hare Krishna culture.

Taraka: That’s debatable for sure. I can see how you feel that way, because I lived on a couple of ashrams and I felt that way as a woman. But it’s not something that’s in the core philosophy; it’s something that people have a misinterpretation of. I think a lot of men in particular have this misinterpretation, but at its core, Krishna manifests in a male and female form. There’s never a temple where there’s just a deity of Krishna. There’s always a deity of Krishna and Radharani, simultaneously both. So there’s this all-encompassing being, this divine hermaphrodite, which is where our spiritual energies are directed. That’s a really progressive look at it, but a lot of people miss that in the translation of things.

The culture seems a bit separated from the literal scripture.

Nimai: It also depends on which temple you visit, because different leaders will lead their temples in different ways. The way that they interpret the philosophy. The temple that we lived on in Alachua, Fla., was wonderful. There was no weirdness between male and female or anything like that. But when I hear about the experiences that Taraka had in other temples, it’s so prevalent, this separation between male and female, which wasn’t how we were raised. But there are thousands and thousands of temples, and the overarching philosophy is not that. It’s just someone’s interpretation of the scriptures.

And how do we connect that to this philosophy that developed when you apprenticed with Paul Laffoley? I’m trying to chart how we get from the Hare Krishna prayer music to the poppy dancey stuff. Did it become a vessel for communicating these ideas?

Taraka: What’s funny is, the entire time we’ve been writing music I’m always trying to write pop songs. Even when I’m writing these experimental, droney things—

‘Do you remember Algebra? Do you remember Trigonometry? Well I don’t, personally, but I do remember all the lyrics to the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. Those mantras are engrained in my head, because I was used to repeating them over and over again.’

Even Trust Now?

[They laugh]

Nimai: That’s the poppiest of all our albums! Obviously.

Taraka: That album, I was listening to so much Bollywood and Indian pop music, just a lot of sublime frequencies. Looking at pop music from a world perspective. But I don’t know! I think that Paul Laffoley bridged the gap between mantra and pop music for me. Paul was always really into these things that people just scoffed at. He was a Pop artist in the truest sense, to the point where Andy Warhol fired him.

He was hired by Andy Warhol to watch fucking late night tv, he had the graveyard shift reporting on the commercials and describing each one of them. After watching hours and hours a day of commercials he said, “You know? I think a lot of the most successful brands employ mandalic strategies!” and Andy Warhol was like, “Fired!” He didn’t want to see any deeper meanings in any of that stuff. Paul was always looking at pop to symbolize…he did this series of paintings on Elvis and saw all these occult symbols and meanings in Elvis’ life.

That’s a true pop psychology though, when you can look at something so seemingly banal and still find a heady, surging undercurrent.

Taraka: Totally! Paul gave me some permission to look at these things in a different light. Not taking things at surface value, but realizing that there’s a kitsch barrier. He would talk about the kitsch barrier of understanding, where you just take things at surface level. But so much mysticism looks at kitsch and sees a nice shiny envelope to put itself in. It’s this barrier, and once you can puncture it all these things unfold. In my closer looks at pop music something clicked and I realized, oh, pop music is just mantras! We grew up with mantras, where you repeat the same phrase.

“Because I’m happy, happy…happy…happy—”

Taraka: Yeah! Hare Krishna, Krishna Hare Hare Rama Hare Hare…

[Nimai laughs]

It effects us so often because it’s a process for us to impose on our consciousness.

Taraka: Yeah!

Nimai: Do you remember Algebra? Do you remember Trigonometry? Well I don’t, personally, but I do remember all the lyrics to the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. Those mantras are engrained in my head, because I was used to repeating them over and over again.

Taraka: And they’re consciousness shifting! Mantra is just some sort of hollow syllables that some sort of spirit can move through and affect consciousness. In that way, pop music is very sculptural, to take it back to Joseph Beuys. We listen to these pop songs and don’t even know how they’re affecting us. Years later, we are who we are.

Nimai: I don’t know if you ever read that book, Hidden Messages in Water Crystals, but if there was water in this cup, and it was chillin in this room with really chill music playing and the vibe was really chill, the water crystals that would form would be the chilliest crystals ever. But if you take this cup of water and put it in an abusive household, where people are yelling very unchill things and there was a lot of chaos going on, the crystals that would form from the vibrations in the room in the water would be very chaotic and fractured. They would look terrible and jagged. And our bodies are made of water, so whatever room you’re hanging out in, whatever music you’re singing, whatever you’re putting into your body, all affects the water inside your body and affects your makeup. So all the things you say over and over again, mantras or pop songs, affect the make up of your body.

When we talk about mythology, where does the extreme sports theme of Xtreme Now come in? Is it just a frame for exploring all these ideas?

Taraka: Well, I did have this direct experience that kind of spurred my interest in extreme sports. We grew up in Texas and tried out for everything, but didn’t make the cut. I couldn’t even try out for cheerleading because I couldn’t do a cartwheel.

Nimai: I was benched, every season.

Taraka: Yeah, so I never even considered extreme sports.

‘It was almost like these museums happening in a very kinetic way, aerial museums with the Mona Lisa on parachutes and unicorn tapestries on half pipes. I just got this transmission that the future is extreme sports. The future of aesthetics is going toward this direction of speed. Speed and shock and awe will be the new benchmarks for how we describe beauty.’

I see you guys as psychedelic cheerleaders in some way. You’re always smiling and putting out that energy every time I see you.

Nimai: Someone in Alabama called me a sorority drummer. I thought that was spot on! If I was able to do high kicks while I was drumming I think it would really make sense, with my general look.

Taraka: So I never really gave extreme sports a second thought, but then in Estonia I kind of had this weird, out-of-body experience. That sensation that we’re talking about where that goo that holds the world together suddenly became very pliable. I felt like I was experiencing things from this place outside of time. It was triggered by this Estonian pop song, we were all riding around in this van and listening to this song on repeat.

What was it called?

Nimai: “The Look” by Metronomy. It’s such a good song, god, that was all we listened to.

Taraka: They’re literally the biggest band in Estonia.

Nimai: And so are The Strokes.

Taraka: Yeah, it’s weird. They’re still experiencing 2001 out there!

[Both laugh]

Prince Rama circa 'Xtreme Now'

Prince Rama circa Xtreme Now. (David LaChapelle)

Taraka: So we’re listening to this song on repeat, and suddenly something fractured. My experience of time just got very gooey, and all of a sudden the song spiraled into this symphony. I could hear so many different things, and every time I moved the song would change. Any thought I had would change it, but every thought was linked to this color and every color was linked to this smell. It was very synesthetic. It was so bizarre, but because I also felt myself in this place outside of time I could touch the future. It was this person right across from me. The Vikings were sitting right next to me.

You were portalling.

Taraka: Yeah, I was just in whatever that space is. And I don’t know how to get back there, but it was just crazy. But in this space where I touched the future I saw this landscape of extreme sports and high art, fusing together. It was almost like these museums happening in a very kinetic way, aerial museums with the Mona Lisa on parachutes and unicorn tapestries on half pipes. I just got this transmission that the future is extreme sports. The future of aesthetics is going toward this direction of speed. Speed and shock and awe will be the new benchmarks for how we describe beauty.

It’s sad, but even in journalism now that’s fast becoming a reality. The time between when something happens and when you have to tell people about it is getting shorter and shorter with our 24-hour news cycle. I think that plays into our collective attention spans. And you talked about the World Wide Web too in your online treatise. The idea of the web as this omniscient deity that can summon those things sounds very connected to that, too. Do we view this idea of how quickly we’re able to find and digest information as an asset? How does this affect how we get our information, or how we process art and culture? How do you reconcile that in your creative process, or when you’re tripping out to Metronomy?

Taraka: As things get faster and faster, there’s more and more of a vital need to be extremely in the present. You can’t think about what you wrote tomorrow or have to do later. You have to be present with whatever you do, whether you’re seeing art or you’re looking at your Instagram feed. Because there’s no time for distractions.

Do you ever get caught up in something and realize two hours have passed?

Nimai: Oh yeah, it’s the worst. Hashtag World Wide Web.

Taraka: Hashtag Internet. [laughs]

Welcome the Now Age: Prince Rama Envision Pop Music as Spiritual Mantra