Taraka on Living With Snakes, the End of Prince Rama, and Being Misunderstood

Taraka on Living With Snakes, the End of Prince Rama, and Being Misunderstood
Photo by Matthew Hoffman
Photo by Matthew Hoffman

I followed Taraka's career as 1/2 of Prince Rama when the band was still active,  and earlier this year she self-released her solo debut Welcome to Paradise as the first entry on her own Rage Peace label. Between starting her own label, returning as a solo artist, and reflecting on the 2010s indie industrial complex, I had a few things I wanted to talk to her about, and it was a good conversation.

How did this album come together after the dissolution of Prince Rama?

It's kind of like that song—"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." It spawned from heartbreak. My entire world totally ended, which I'm not a total stranger to. I've always been fascinated with the idea of apocalypse on personal and collective levels. I was trying to write it in the spirit of Prince Rama. How can I face this in a present way without fear and let the sadness devour me whole?

So I did that. I quit music and vowed never to make anything again, as you do. I did an artist residency in Texas—right near the tiny redneck town outside Austin where I grew up—and I decided to create a simulated Garden of Eden. I was thinking about how Genesis is found in apocalypse. I started constructing this hot, non-air-conditioned gallery space to live out of these dreamlike slices of my youth growing up. We started Prince Rama so young that in order for me to reconnect with who I was, I needed to go back to playing guitar. I started decorating the walls with Blink-182 and Nirvana posters, stuff I would've had in my room when I was 15.

I also found this snake on Craigslist, and I was like, "Well, if I'm gonna do a Garden of Eden, I have to have a snake." So I got this garden snake and lived with it in isolation for a month. I did some deep facing fears and tense shadow work. While I was in the gallery space, I just picked up a guitar one night and just started singing. The snake liked to sleep inside the guitar amp, so I was just making music with this fuckin' snake. It felt like I was reconnecting with my inner teenager. I wasn't allowed to write punk stuff with Prince Rama because my sister doesn't like that music.

It felt very cathartic and raw. I was pressing "record" as the songs were coming and letting them reveal themselves to me. For one of the songs, I tried to cut it with a lathe on pizza dough as a pizza record. It was a total failure, but you could eat it. But it was a cool experimental time. At the end, I let the snake go near my childhood home. This record felt like the right thing for myself to do.

What's your overall relationship with nature?

I was raised without TV, so me and my sister ran around in the woods and played fantasy games. We were always saving our imaginary boyfriends from death-defying situations. Nature's always felt like a friend. Growing up vegetarian, there's always been a respect for animals as equals, too. I forget which indigenous tribe talked about this, but it's the concept of multiple souls. You're born with this human soul, then you have a soul mate in another person, a soul family, and an animal soul—and once you connect with that, it's your power animal, in a way. We're born fractured, and there's a part of us that's always searching for the other parts of our soul. Maybe that's the purpose of life.

With the snake, I was having these recurring nightmares for years about snakes—about me having to take care of a snake and doing a really bad job. In the dream, I forget about it, and then I discover it's dying because of me. That was another reason why I decided to take care of a snake. I thought that if I connected with this creature, it was another part of my soul crying out in my dreams, so me taking care of the snake is reconnecting with a part of myself. I don't see nature as something that's so separate from us. We're all interconnected to feel whole, you just have to recognize yourself and nurture that.

Tell me about the decision to end Prince Rama.

I love my sister, and we've been best friends since we were little, but we're very different people. She's a genius drummer, but for her the music thing wasn't necessarily something she wanted to do her entire life. It reached a certain point where we'd been doing it for a number of years, and it's grueling—especially for a rock band as misunderstood as we were—and she was like, "I can't keep doing this. I wanna live a normal life." And that's cool, I totally got it. I was sad, but I understood. I could've gone on and continued the band without her, but it just didn't feel right. Think about all the lame examples of bands that continue without core members—it's like Guns N' Roses without Slash. So I decided to end the band to honor what it was.

You mentioned being misunderstood. What do you see as misconceptions about your work?

I mean, you wrote for Pitchfork, you must know some of the stuff.

I think that the time that you guys got attention as a band was an interesting time. It was a wide open space for a lot of bands to get noticed, and it also created this hyperspeed vacuum where snap judgments could be formed more quickly. Instead of communities fostered to grow, multiple competing interests just made it more toxic. What was that time like for you and the band?

I mean, I get it, we were a total weird band, and I've come to appreciate that more and more. At the time, I thought we were making completely normal pop music. Me and my sister always grew up trying to fit in, but now that I'm looking back I'm like, "What were you thinking, Taraka? That stuff is not normal at all."

A lot of the misconceptions were around how we were raised. We got accused of being part of a cult, which is kind of hurtful and ironic because the town we grew up in was a super conservative, Christian town where we were religiously persecuted and driven out of the town because my parents are both Hari Krishnas. After we moved from that town, I never thought we'd ever have to face that again, especially in the hyper-liberal and progressive bubble of New York City, but it was the same closemindedness from the other end. I just wish people asked us more questions about it.

When you say closemindedness, were you facing that from the music press or the quote-unquote Brooklyn art community?

Mostly the music press. I just felt so inspired with the whole scene and the people we played shows with. It felt like my fantasy of what living in the '60s would've been like, being a part of a very supportive group of artists and making stuff outside the system. Some of those first tours I booked myself, it felt like a grand adventure.

Then it started changing a little bit, and it got more about playing shows for guarantees, and you're playing more of these "legit" venues so your booking agent can get paid. I do miss that sense of community I felt in the beginning. It made us want to push our own creativity further. I'm really struggling with inspiration these days. On one hand, it's just part of the journey, but humans are a tribal species and we're always looking for a group of like-minded people to challenge us, too.

Your comments about thinking you were making pop music is something that the guys in Animal Collective have said frequently about their own music. You put out some of your records through their label Paw Tracks.

That was such an inspiring label, I loved everyone on there—some of my songwriting heroes. It was total fucking chance, how that all came about. We were on our way to SXSW back in 2010, and we got there a day early. We went to a show that our friend was putting on in a dive bar outside of Austin, and they were like, "Hey! This band dropped out!" So we set up and played a set. It was super fun, there was only 30 people there, and Dave Portner was one of those people. I didn't know what he looked like even though I was a huge fan of Animal Collective, so he was just a guy who came up to me asking about buying records and merch. I noticed people were coming up to him and saying, "Hey, you're Dave Portner!" and I realized who he was. Those guys are so down to earth and connected to music. They hear things in a cool way, it's really rare.

You started your own label, Rage Peace, to release this album.

I got the idea during lockdown. I realized that we're going into uncharted territory, and a lot that has worked in the music world may not work going forward. There's a lot of outdated models, and maybe it's for the better that things are changing as drastically as they are. Instead of grieving—which, to be perfectly honest, I felt like a lot of label models were predatory towards artists—how can we create seeds for new paradigms? From a practical standpoint, how are underground artists like myself supposed to survive, especially when live shows can be so easily taken away from us? A lot of artists, myself included, put up with a lot of bullshit from record labels because we depended on the gig economy to sustain us. So when touring became gone, I was like, "Whoa. We need to change the way we look at recorded music." You're putting so much time and love and labor into this thing, and it becomes a mass-produced product that loses that creative aura.

With Rage Peace, I wanted to get back to the handmade approach of making records by selling these handmade art projects for higher costs to cover what it takes to make a record—which, I have very rapidly discovered, is jaw-droppingly expensive. There's so few returns that, unless you're a trust fund person or a son of a giant oil mogul, how are you supposed to start a record label?

I'm seeing how the economy for selling art and the economy for selling music is so insanely different. Artists' labor is valued more than musicians' labor, and I don't know why. I don't know why you can make a painting and sell it for $10,000, and then you take three years to make a record and sell it for $25. How does that make sense? I don't have the answers, but I'm living out the questions by bridging the worlds a little bit, just to see if that's a viable way to sustain myself as an artist.

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Jamie Larson