21 May 2011: the world is due to end. It’s long been predicted, and one of these hunches has to come off. What’s more, the number 1 single on the Billboard Chart is Britney Spears’ ‘Till The World Ends’. Perfect.
In late 2012, with us all still here, May ’11’s misfire feels more like cruel coincidence than Mouseketeer prophecy, but for Taraka Larson it would fuel a growing, morbid obsession.
Taraka is one half of Prince Rama – a family affair with sister Nimai that already had plenty about it long before the release of last month’s apocalyptic concept album ‘Top Ten Hits of the End of the World’. They were signed, for example, by Avey Tare of Animal Collective, to his band’s Paw Tracks label. When he approached them after a show as SXSW, they didn’t even know who he was.
The Larson’s grew up on a Hare Krishna commune in Florida, schooled in Boston and moved to Brooklyn. Taraka – a former student of conceptual art – assisted Paul Laffoley; the outsider artist and architect who designed the second tower of New York City’s World Trade Center, and whose drawings inspired Prince Rama’s 2010 album (their third) ‘Architecture of Utopia’. And now the end is nigh, as it always has been.
Some months ago Taraka became “really obsessed” with cross-referencing predicted dates for the end of the world and what happened to be topping the Billboard 100 on those days. “I’d get excited because the songs would usually have these strange, eerie correlations,” she fizzes. “I started getting really interested in this idea that pop music is a vehicle for coded messages. I was like, ‘Shit, if there’s an apocalypse this year, I wonder what the Now compilation will sound like that’s released just afterwards?’.”
Prince Rama, if you’ve ever listened to any of their previous five albums of New Age philosophies, Sanskrit chants and progressive psychedelic grooves, are not a band to shirk a new fascination. So wondering turned to doing as Taraka and Nimai began creating a pseudo compilation album to mark the complete destruction of our world – 10 hits by 10 recently deceased bands from Earth’s non-too-distant past, all channelled by Prince Rama themselves.
‘Top Ten Hits of the End of the World’ is a curious time capsule artefact made all the more fantastic by the method-actor approach behind it. Prince Rama didn’t simply write the grinding, tense ‘No Way Back’ and assign it some band called Nu Fighters; they penned a biography for their creation (Grammy winners from 1989 that were secretly serial killer bikers who sensed Armageddon and provoked the cops into chasing them off a cliff) and elaborately dressed as them for a photo shoot. Guns of Dubai (mysterious ladies who’d distributed their own bootleg cassettes in empty artillery shells), Hyparxia (the first ever computer-generated band), I.M.M.O.R.T.A.L.I.F.E. (sex pests from the future) – Taraka and Nimai posed as each of them and mapped out what made them special enough to make the final compilation of all time. Taraka says it was surprisingly easy.
“Y’know what, it’s kind of crazy,” she accentuates. “I really feel like I almost can’t take credit for how that all came about. It really just sort of happened. I mean, I spend weeks writing one paragraph for a Prince Rama bio, but these just happened. It was like, ‘Right, this band are going to be called this, they’re going to wear this, and this is their story!’ It’s like we had this idea to channel these 10 bands, and then we did channel something.”
Years spent on the commune and studying conceptual art have meant that Taraka can deliver ideas like this with unwavering confidence. More than once she might contradict herself – loose lipped about her post modern thoughts one minute, dismissing them as something she doesn’t even understand herself the next – but you never want to not believe her. She’d make a great salesman.
She particularly likes to ponder the notion of time, that big, old head-scratcher. On ‘Top Ten Hits…’ it’s the end of it; in conversation it’s how a record turns at 33rpm regardless of how fast your car is travelling, or the world is spinning; via her online, lengthy and baffling manifesto The Now Age, it’s whether the present can even exist. (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).
So the first rule of The Now Age is that you do not talk about The Now Age?
“I feel like once you name something you kind of destroy it,” says Taraka. “Of course, some people will definitely think it’s all a bunch of bullshit, and I think it’s all bullshit too, but I’m also kind of into it. But it’s fun. I don’t get offended when people aren’t into it.”
Last year Taraka gave a lecture on The Now Age at The Clock Tower Gallery in New York… from a pool of fake blood, “a medium I’m really fascinated in,” she says. “Like, a simulated death is pretty sick when you think about it, and I’m pretty into that.”
Needless to say, Prince Rama is beyond a musical project, even if their spiritual philosophies do directly influence their reverberating chants and thunder drums. Of their true psychedelia, Avey Tare says: “There aren’t many psychedelic bands that I get really into, because a lot of the time it’s really retro, but I could see lots of new stuff going on in Prince Rama’s music and I really loved it.”
“I’m coming from a visual art background,” confirms Taraka. “I’m not a musician, I’m an artist. I did mostly conceptual art in school, whatever that means. I feel like I’m always thinking conceptually – I think that musical albums are just a piece of sonic sculpture.”
With the kind of exquisite timing that suggests he’s been listening at the door for the last 20 minutes, Chris, the band’s touring bassist, enters the dressing room. “Oh, is this an interview? It’s all lies!” he yells. “She’s talking all kinds of bullshit.”
“Yeah, I’m talking some straight-up art school bullshit to you,” Taraka laughs. “Now fuck of, Chris.”
For all her abstract ideas and intensity, Taraka is not without a firm grasp on reality. She knows, for example, that the most successful pop songs are lyrically vague, to a point, so us listeners can complete the puzzle with a little bit of ourselves. “They need to be hollow enough for anyone to project their own world into,” she says. “I didn’t want any of our songs to be like, ‘The world’s gonna end / We’re all gonna die / dur dur dur dur’,” she sings in a moronic, goofy way. “I was trying to write black holes that people can fall into.
“The other thing that struck me was that apocalypses can happen on a micro level as well as a macro cosmic level,” she adds, “and some of the songs that were number 1 on days when the world was predicted to end were apocalypses that happened on a very micro scale, like a breakup or something. Y’know, for Y2K it was Faith Hill ‘Just Breathe’ – this message for survival.”
At the time of writing ‘Top Ten Hits…’, both Taraka and Namai had recently split up with their boyfriends, “so that was all stewed into it as well”. But perhaps what makes the album so compelling is the very thing that makes it no more special than a record without such an elaborate plot and presentation – the fact that all recorded sound is “a fossil,” as Taraka puts it.
“Every record is an apocalypse because every record is the end of a time,” she reasons. “It’s an artefact of hair and tooth and nail. It can be brought back to life and resurrected, but it is, in essence, a dead thing. And it gets spookier when you’re listening to a record of someone who has died. Their voices remain like sonic phantoms.”
I’ve never thought of that when listening to The Doors, say, but of course Taraka is right. It is a little bit weird, dancing to the voice of a dead man.
Taraka maintains that an album about Armageddon and one about Utopia, like the 2010’s ‘Architecture of Utopia’ are two of the same, “two sides of the same wormhole”.
“In order to reach some utopic space there has to be destruction,” she says, sounding extra cult leader-ish. “But this record is a celebration, for sure. It’s a very happy record. As for the end of the world, I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom. I’m into it.”
Before I go and prepare my Kool-Aid, I ask Taraka if she thinks discussing spiritual ideas in the modern western world is more difficult than ever, given our overarching cynicism and post-ironic lols?
“I think it’s hard to discuss spiritual ideas, period,” she says. “I’m never offended if people don’t get what I’m saying because a lot of the time I don’t even get what I’m saying. I don’t really understand why people try to explain things to begin with. I feel like the more you explain them the more you destroy the essence of them, and it’s hard because in this world you should do interviews and you should explain yourself, but I would just as soon tell everyone, ‘don’t think about anything, just listen, and forget about everything I’ve said’.”
I need a lie down.