New Monsoon takes a ride in the studio
June 15, 2005
On the subject of jam bands making their way into the studio – in my picture of it, they’re kicking and screaming, begging for just one more 20-minute live improvisation – Rajiv Parikh holds up the Grateful Dead’s “American Beauty” as the model. The songs were concise, lyrical and cohesive, without an extended jam in sight.”American Beauty,” which featured such Dead staples as “Truckin'” and “Sugar Magnolia,” was Parikh’s entrée into the jam world. Only later did he discover the exploratory, onstage side that virtually every fan would agree was the essence of the Dead.”It’s a great window of where they were at,” said Parikh, tabla player for another San Francisco-area band, New Monsoon, known more for their live performances than their studio output. “And live, they just took the songs to higher places.””American Beauty,” however, dates back to 1970, and the history of studio albums by jam bands is spotty at best. Of the leading jam bands, Phish alternated lackluster and worthwhile efforts. Widespread Panic followed some ’90s studio gems with a few lesser efforts. String Cheese Incident has seemed consistently lost away from the stage. The Dead themselves never again hit the heights of “American Beauty,” and avoided the studio the last six years of their existence.
Parikh and his mates in the septet New Monsoon know about taking a three-minute tune for a ride. On their recent release “Live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival” – recorded a year ago today – the songs generally stretch past the eight-minute mark. It is a good 12 minutes into the CD before a voice is even heard; the only track under two minutes is Parikh’s tabla solo.”The live music, it can go anywhere,” said Parikh. “A song can go out as far as we allow it.”Last December, New Monsoon directed themselves to In the Pocket Studios, in Petaluma, Calif. Working with producer Michael Shrieve, the original drummer for Santana, the band spent 10 days recording “The Sound,” due for release in August. It is their third studio CD, the first since 2003’s “Downstream.” Parikh says the goal is to use the studio to show a different side of the band.”We went for a little bit more of a rock sound,” he said. “That’s what we wanted. It’s a little different than the music we’ve played before. We had a specific vision in mind, specific songs we had on our plate. We eliminated the songs that didn’t seem to fit in.”The studio is a moment in time, putting it in a capsule.”
When New Monsoon performs today at the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest in Snowmass Village, it’s a good bet that attendees will hear live versions of some of those new songs. The band has been working out the new material on stage for months. But they have also kept a little something under wraps as well. The title track of “The Sound” hasn’t been played live, and won’t until probably the band’s appearance at the High Sierra later this month.”We don’t want to let the cat out of the bag,” said Parikh. “We needed to save some element of surprise. Which is hard to do in the jam world, because once you play something, it’s out there.”Parikh, a product of the San Francisco’s Easy Bay region, had only dabbled in music in childhood. But two entwined musical events coincided soon after he finished high school. His mother brought him an album by Zakir Hussein, a name Parikh was not even familiar with but whose Indian classical music he quickly adored.”It was one of those things that change your life,” said Parikh who, at 35, is in the same age range as the rest of his bandmates. “That sound, those drums were something I needed to be playing.”Simultaneously, Parikh learned that the Indian-born tabla master not only lived in the Bay Area, but was starting to conduct clinics. Parikh became a disciple.
“He held my hand and showed me the very basic things, from posture to hand positioning,” he said. “He’s definitely the man who still schools me.”In 1998, Parikh was invited to a jam session with a pair of transplanted Pennsylvanians, guitarists Bo Carper. “I was in another band, but I was blown away by what I heard,” he said. Soon enough, he was no longer in another band, but was part of New Monsoon.Parikh was impressed with both the music he heard, and with Carper’s concept for the band. Carper envisioned a three-piece rhythm section, with one of those pieces the tablas. The band, now a septet, does indeed sport three percussionists – conguera Brian Carey, drummer Marty Ylitalo and Parikh – plus keyboardist Phil Ferlino and new addition Ben Bernstein on bass, in addition to Miller and Carper. The instruments include not only tabla and guitars, but also digderidoo, banjo and mandolin, making for a most multicultural sonic exploration.”The sounds we create meld to where they need to be,” explained Parikh of mixing Eastern and Western, rock and bluegrass elements. “Sometimes, Bo and I will sit down and create a banjo-and-tabla piece. It’s about listening, providing input, experimenting with what we think will work. And then going for it.”The experiment is working. Two summers ago, New Monsoon played for a handful of fans at the base of Aspen Highlands. Last summer they played at Bonnaroo, the massive Tennessee music festival. The current tour, which begins this evening, brings them to Kansas’ Wakarusa Festival and the Taos Solar Music Festival. After High Sierra, they become the designated opening act for the Big Summer Classic, a touring festival that includes Keller Williams, Michael Franti & Spearhead and String Cheese Incident.
Should “The Sound” not fully resonate with listeners, it’s likely not to interfere with New Monsoon’s ascent. Parikh says making studio albums is important to the band. But even if it’s a total success, fans are still as likely to seek out a bootleg recording of some particularly hot show as to listen to the studio work. Either way, Parikh can chalk it up as another bump, or dip, in the road of a touring band.”It’s always an interesting and amazing journey filled with all kinds of different experiences. Some you expect and some you don’t expect,” he said. “It’s not always a bed of roses – being away from your family for weeks at a time is challenging. So is living with the same guys who are so passionate about what we’re doing.”But it’s very real. Every day you’re living life to the fullest. It’s a barrage of experiences you don’t get from a daily routine.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org