Meet The Teach: Brad Roberts, Lead Singer Of Iconic Crash Test Dummies
It was the rich bass-baritone voice of Brad Roberts that put Crash Test Dummies on the map in the early 90s. His eventual discovery of yoga and spiritual inquiry naturally led to an interest in mantra, and he became an avid student of the practice. With a finely aged, sometimes gravelly voice, Roberts is now at work on a second mantra album after a successful first one called Rajanaka. YogaCity NYC’s Kathleen Kraft caught up with him to learn more.
Kathleen Kraft: Talk about the road from rock 'n’ roll to mantra.
Brad Roberts: When I first began to write songs, I didn’t intend to sing them myself because I thought my voice was too low. I started writing music in the 80’s, when everyone was a screamer, so I would get other people to sing the songs for me. But I could never get the emphasis and feeling I wanted, so I defaulted to using my voice out of necessity, and people thought it was great. I had concentrated all my musical interest on the guitar, so that was a surprise for me.
Twenty years down the road, I started practicing yoga asana, primarily because I was in terrible shape. I liked moving in the rough square footage of the mat, and the economy of movements in the practice. My teacher Laura Juell, who I worked with one-on-one for a while, told me about Douglas Brooks’s ideas and philosophy. So I wound up learning about mantra from him, and took it into my vocal practice—the two nicely flowed together. I made a recording, Rajanaka Mantra, and am working on a second one now. I took simple mantras and made a sophisticated recording that blends east and west and experiments with time signatures. It wouldn’t have been possible without making a bunch of records and my background in the music business. Ever since the album, I’ve been teaching classes in mantra—it’s a nice wedding of what I used to do and what I’m doing now with teaching yoga.
KK: Tell us about “Mantra and Movement” classes.
BR: I’ve done a bunch, and I’ve refined a scheme that works well. I open the class with chanting myself, and then we do some pranayama and a light chanting of OM or bija syllables, then we practice asana for about half an hour. That gets everyone warmed up, and then we dive into a longer mantra, chanting for about 15 minutes, and then we sit in silence for 10 or 15 minutes. It’s striking when everyone stops chanting at once. The silence that happens afterwards—it’s beautiful. And it gets me into a conversation about mantra with myself. I’ll approach it with a different perspective from week to week, sometimes diving in without much introduction, other times giving the class more background and context for it.
KK: What kind of feedback are you getting?
BR: Really positive feedback, and I’m always a little surprised because it’s not easy—just sitting for 20 minutes is challenging for a lot of people. It took me a long time to sit without feeling uncomfortable; it’s only after years of yoga that I can do it. In that sense, it's an “advanced class," but not in terms of asana.
KK: Do you give your students guidance on approaching mantra and sitting?
BR: I bring a tanpura, which is the four stringed instrument which is typically played as a drone, along with the principal part, which is the melody and the drums. I play it along with a recording. That’s a guide to staying on the same tone. I do some guided imagery, with yoga nidra, at the end of the class as well. There’s been a lot of research on what happens to the brain when you get into deep relaxation—your brainwaves go into a lower level of activity and the breath gets shallow. And it takes about 15 minutes, so the nidra is a nice alternative to the typical 5 minute savasana.
KK: That’s a wonderful gift you’re giving them.
BR: I feel lucky to be doing it. I didn’t seek out these classes, I was asked to teach them, and it turned into something good.
KK: You’re working on a second mantra album now?
BR: I am, it’s almost there—there’s one more mantra we’re working on. It’s different than the first. It’s a refinement and a further exploration of what I was doing then. It has a large, lush instrumental texture that is perhaps more magnified than on the first one.
KK: Is there a mantra that particularly resonates with you?
BR: Yes, the Lalita Septa Bija. They are seven bija syllables for the goddess Lalita—her yantra is the one composed of all the triangles. She’s the goddess of abundance in the Sri Vidya sect, and has many interesting mantras. A large part of my affinity for it is that I learned it early on, and she has a privileged position in that sect of the practice.
Roberts teaches Mantra and Movement classes at Twisted Trunk Yoga in Soho. Check the schedule for his dates.