Recently, there has been quite a hype about the American electronic formation SON LUX – which originally started as a solo project by composer and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Lott, but finally developed itself into a trio with the latest LP Bones. Ian Chang, who’s responsible for the drums, and the guitarist Rafiq Bhatia are the other two persons entangled in the project. And they add just the perfect ingredients to Ryan’s music: a balanced mixture of analogue and digital sounds.
Last week, the three guys came to Germany to play a show at Berlin’s Bi Nuu, where the artists had their first gig ever as a trio. For that reason it has been quite an emotional evening for SON LUX. Before the intense show started, NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION got the chance to talk with them about their unique music and their way of working together.
So Ryan, SON LUX isn’t your solo project anymore, you got Rafiq and Ian on board and now you’re a trio. How did your composing style change since you’re working as a trio and not alone anymore?
Ryan: Collaboration has always been a big part of my process. I’m always looking outward for ideas. So in a way developing SON LUX as a trio has been a natural thing to do once I found the right chemistry of musicians that I trusted and I felt were different enough for me and that were different enough from one another.
So when I formed this trio initially as a live band, my goal of creating a live band was met, but over and above that an unspoken goal of having and growing the community SON LUX even came to mind. The process is in some ways the same because it’s still rooted in collaboration but it’s fundamentally different now because I’m not the only ego in the room. And now from start to finish we’re all engaged, we’re all invested and we can all have a say.
‘There’s always the opportunity to share or influence an idea together.’
So do you have sessions together like an instrumental band? Or is the process different?
Ryan: No, there’s no role method to the madness. We’re always working in different ways.
Ian: Every song starts pretty differently and has its own soul of recording. Sometimes it’s an idea and we’re just talking about. Or on this tour, we developed it during sound check when we were just messing around. Someone plays something and the other goes: Oh, that’s cool. A lot of other times it’s like we’re doing a recording session with either us or other musicians playing and then we we’ll pick moments from the recording that are inspiring to us. Or these weird sounds that are happening when we’re messing around with the sound.
Ryan: It’s really organic ‘cause we spend so much time together. There’s always the opportunity to share or influence an idea together.
Ian: But there’s not much like jamming in a room together and coming over arrangements as instrumentalists. It’s more like producers.
Your music is quite hard to put in a genre. Where are your influences coming from? How would you describe your sound?
Ryan: I agree. I think our music is difficult to put in a single genre because we’re always looking outside to find inspiration. And to record our aesthetic, it’s an exploration of contrasts. So as soon as you say: Oh the music is like this. Well, it may be true but also misleading because it’s also the opposite of that thing. Personally, I grew up listening to everything from classical music to radio pop. You know, BEETHOVEN and BEASTIE BOYS. That contrast right there is something that I had around in my mind since I was a little kid. I actually think the first tape that I stole from my brother was License To Ill, the BEASTIE BOYS record. And the first tape I bought with my own money was BEETOVEN’s Sonatas. And actually at the same time as I bought that BEETHOVEN tape I think I bought an ELTON JOHN tape.
So there you go, ELTON JOHN, BEASTIE BOYS and BEETHOVEN. You can see it the really early original of SON LUX. Right now, I would say most of the music I input into my brain has African origins, as Afrocentric music and I’m really into hip-hop, into jazz, into afro-beat and really into traditional African music.
Your music also appears to be perfectly constructed and detailed. Are you in general a perfectionist?
Ian and Rafiq: Yeah, he is.
Ian: I think we all are. We’re all our harshest critics, the three of us. Maybe perfectionists in different ways but we all like to dive into details and I think that’s a big part of SON LUX’s sound and identity in a way.
But isn’t quite hard to stop working on a song as perfectionists?
Ian: I think the only song that I remember taking a little while was White Lies…
Ryan: Well, I think part of that is because we’re also a live band and our life as a live-band is different than our life in the studio. And we recognize that the thing we create on a record will ultimately be reinvented at the stage and with that comes a certain piece of mind. The recording itself has its own world and if we love that world and it’s not that it can’t ultimately change when we walk on stage. Also the thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, is everyone’s ears are very different. And so you have to be true and totally honest to yourself about how things sound. Life is too short. So you do that but all the while recognizing that perception is different. You can’t obsess over how you think people are gonna perceive your music ‘cause you have no control over it. And ultimately no peace will come from that, the only peace that will come is when you’re truly satisfied with your own work ‘cause that’s the thing that you’re not gonna regret at the end of the day and on your death-bed.
Rafiq: It does take a long time if you’re a perfectionist, except that we work really hard but we all are pretty fast when we’re in the work flow. And Ryan especially is very, very fast. He’ll dive into the details to the same degree as somebody who works on a track for a very long time.
We don’t rely on other producers, we don’t really rely on engineers except for when it’s to record certain things.
Being quick ends up being possible if you spend the same amount of time as your band-mates to get things done.
Ian: You can tell that we’re perfectionist about how lengthy we answer your questions.
Ryan: We like to be sure that we’ve checked in with you about that before we moved on.
Undoubtedly Ryan, you’ve got quite a special way to sing. How do you do this? Is it a special technique?
Ryan: I grew up studying music but never really being able to sing. And in music school, I had to study two instruments, one of them was my primary instrument piano. The thing that I felt like I couldn’t really access was my voice. And also as a composer I knew that it would be wise for me to study voice so that I can coach singers. I also knew that I could write better for the voice if I understood the instrument better. So I studied classical voice and I just couldn’t access anything usable for that idiom. But I was also part of an ensemble called International Vocal Ensemble.
We studied and performed music from cultures outside of the western classical tradition.
It was in that context that I found I had a very valuable voice turns out I could do things with my voice that were the right kind of wrong. And that was the first time I realized: Well maybe I actually have a voice. But I still kept it on the back burner until I began to develop the SON LUX project starting in 2004/2005. I was making sort of rough versions of songs and recorded my voice for other people to learn to sing certain things, I began to get very strong feedback from friends and from people that heard the music saying: Who is this singing? This is a really interesting voice. I’ve never expected that to happen. As I began to tour with these two guys, my voice, my instrument changed and began to evolve and so now I can sing more than just in the fifth range.
Let’s talk about your latest record Bones. Some of your songs, like for example Change Is Everything seem to mix elements of euphoria and angst. Is that intended?
All of them: Absolutely.
Ryan: That’s a good compliment. I think as we were working on that as with really any track it’s about making something that sounds like a type of reality that you need music to access. So yeah, there’s definitely moments of ecstasy and euphoria in that song and like you said, there’s also an aggression and angst. I’m glad you think that because that’s what we all hope the track has.
Alright. Another track on Bones is White Lies, for which you got DAUGHTER’s Elene Tonra as a guest vocalist. How did that collaboration start? Are you a DAUGHTER fan?
Ryan: Actually I haven’t listened to their music before we joined our new record label Glassnote. (DAUGHTER is at the same record label) So when I was thinking about people I like to have a collaboration with that I hadn’t met, she was just someone whom I could reach out to. The more prominent voice on that recording is a young woman named Hanna Benn and she’s an American. Incredible talented, she actually did both arrangements for that song as well. Just aesthetically – I really like the support of women’s voices. You can hear on Bones a lot of women’s voices, there is a group of eight or nine women who are singing with us.
Let’s get away from the record again. You’ve been making music for various commercials. What was your favourite one?
Ryan: I have a soft spot for the very first ad that I won. Generally speaking, when you write music for advertising, you’re competing. When I started writing for advertising I was freelancing and I was living in Cleveland, Ohio, which is where I developed the SON LUX project initially. A friend of mine got me on a list where I could start to submit songs and ideas for ads. And this big ad came up for Absolut Vodka – an international ad. It was a big competition and I wanted to win it. Pretty much the next day or two days later I got a job offer to move from Cleveland to New York. And the offer was great. They offered to build me my own studio right in downtown, Manhattan and give me a place to live for a while to adjust. I just have such great memories of that one moment ‘cause it just was like: Wow. And I absolutely think that it’s a cool track. (Laughs) I think you can still find it on YouTube. It’s like Absolut Moon, I think. And basically the moon is a giant disco ball and the whole planet parties. There’s footage of people from space, installing panels and stuff.
‘All three of us are people who have pretty specific passions.’
You’ve also been making soundtracks for various movies, for example Paper Towns or The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Has your working process been different than doing a normal record?
Ryan: The main difference is that when you’re writing music for a film or an ad you’re writing music that’s explicitly in service for that other medium. So your goal is to make that film better than it can be by itself. Or your goal is to make that ad better. And what that means is your creative direction and your focus is completely guided by that principle. When you’re making an album, you may have a concept in mind that you can target. And every decision navigates you in that direction. Even still you’re serving your own purpose. And that’s the biggest difference.
Okay. Now our last question. What do hope and passion mean to you?
(the three are sinking back deeply into the sofa, starting to think)
Ryan: That’s two questions.
Ryan: For me, I think the concept of hope is wrapped up in the idea of a promise. And a promise is something that doesn’t necessarily exist now but secures something in the future. So for me hope and promise are tangled up together. That doesn’t really answer the question, but I think it’s a nice thought. And then passion I think belongs to the thing that you would die if you didn’t do. That’s not what passion is but when you feed that thing for your soul to survive you can find passion.
Ian: My thought on passion is that – that doesn’t totally answer the question either- but I think there’s a lot of pressure in the world for people to have a passion – a specific passion. I think all three of us are people who have pretty specific passions. But I know a lot of people who never had such a specific thing that totally took over their thoughts for every minute and hour. And I think it’s like their passion is spread out in a few different things or can also change. Especially in the process of becoming a person there’s so much pressure on finding your passion, your thing. When you’re applying to a college, it’s like: What is your passion? Yeah, that’s what I thought about recently.