Son Lux on “Brighter Wounds”

Existing In Shadow

Apr 20, 2018 Photography by Charles Steinberg Web Exclusive
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The ethos of Son Lux has always been of allowance–absorption. Anything discovered or stumbled upon that perks the ear can be engaged if it enriches the dynamism of the work. Accordingly, flourishes of the myriad genre have flowed in and out of Ryan Lott's compositions since he began officially making music as Son Lux in 2008. Theatrical and neo-classical, dubstep, avant-garde jazz, neo-soul, and frequent suggestions of hip-hop have become part of an otherworldly ensemble that Lott conducts with wizardly command, versatile in energizing and subduing.

It's apt to picture Lott advancing on his ideas in the studio or performance space in the way you might a young astronomer, racing up the hill with his telescope under arm and star map flapping behind him on the way to plot the undiscovered. The invaluable power of the music that springs from this enthusiasm is to expand, illuminate, or eliminate boundaries for the listener. The outcome can be tangible evanescence, a soundtrack to life and it's parallel realms.

Son Lux has always been a hero's journey for Lott. You can interpret the invoking of dramatic sound sweeps as forest forums where he acts out his dream sequences, some of which have ghosts. After having proven himself a worthy traveler on his own, willing to join forces with other like minds in early work, he welcomed fellow adventurers for the creation of 2015's Bones who have since become his brothers in arms. Drummer Ian Chang and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia have solidified Son Lux as a force capable of stunning combined power and their arrival has enabled Lott to more completely articulate the mission he set out on, that of pushing boundaries of how sentient beings create and hear music.

Amidst the trio's bold trapeze flips through airs crossed with waves of virtuosic instrument and electronic graphing, each has found the other's sure-handed grasp. The various levels of musical acquaintance reached independently has mirrored or complemented the others. United, their diversely inclusive string theory of alternative music is deserving of the suffix world.

Spring brought the members of Son Lux to New York to display the exotic fruits of their new work, which encompasses the fifth and most riveting Son Lux album, Brighter Wounds, Rafiq Bhatia's advanced and borderless new solo album, Breaking English, on which Ian chang also drums, and Chang's strobe and neuron triggering percussive arrangements that are staggering and featured on his 2017 EP Spiritual Leader. I caught up with Lott and Chang after the sound check for Son Lux's Brooklyn Steel show in March, with Bhatia in an adjoining room giving an interview to The New York Times about his solo album and its release performance at National Sawdust in April. In the discussion, shades of the Son Lux theory were revealed, that of music without limits or endpoint.

Charles Steinberg (Under the Radar): So, this is your first Brooklyn Steel show.

Ian Chang: Yeah, the last time we played in New York this place didn't exist yet.

That was the Bones tour? I think I was at that show. Where was it?

Ian: National Sawdust...or maybe you saw us at Rough Trade.

I think it was Rough Trade. I haven't been to National Sawdust yet.

Ryan Lott: Oh, it's awesome. A really great space.

Ian: It's small and they do a lot of contemporary classical stuff there. It's easy to overlook but super awesome....[the capacity is only] like 250. So, this is a big leap for us to play in this space.

So are you guys mixing a lot between big and small rooms for this tour?

Ryan: It totally depends. We added a tiny show on a day off at an art space in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. That's going to be a really major show.

Ian: If there are a hundred people there I'll be...

Ryan: Surprised.... We really like different kinds of shows. There's definitely some magic to be found that's unique to different sized shows. Different environments. Ultimately, we really are obsessed with sound. If it's a small space we really want to make sure it's still a good sounding space and it sounded like this place might be that.

Ian: It varies quite a bit, especially when you throw Europe into the equation. With Portsmouth being kind of an outlier, [our shows] vary from like 300 people to 2000 people.

What's the biggest show you'll play on this tour?

Ian: We already played it. Warsaw is crazy about us for some reason.

You played Warsaw [the venue in Brooklyn] When?!

Ian: No, Warsaw, Poland! It's weirdly our best market right now.

Ryan: Yeah, we sold out a 2000 cap in a week. Which we don't have the ability to do anywhere else. [Laughs]

I wanted to ask you about your trajectory as a band. You had Bones under your belt as the first full start-to-finish album experience as a band and now Brighter Wounds. How would you guys describe your point in the growth curve as a group? Was there anything that stood out in the way you worked together this time?

Ryan: For sure. With Brighter Wounds we did a really intense studio residency at Red Bull [Studios] here in the city. Not only did we not do that for Bones, I've never done that for any Son Lux record, so that was really unique to this record. Before that...

Ian: ...We did like two or three totally separate recording sessions early on...

Ryan: Yeah, early in the process. Which is something we do. We like to cultivate raw material first. But raw material is then committed to tape because improvisation and gut reaction performances are a really important part of imbuing a recording with a certain kind of energy and they also help propel a creative process that forces us to cope with certain things that are committed. At this time in which every imaginable option is at your fingertips with technology, it's sometimes really great to deny yourself that much flexibility, so that you can help determine your path. That's what happens when we commit to some really early ideas and then we use them throughout the process to help inform what will ultimately become songs. So, we did that but once those songs were formed we came together and spent a 14-day residency [at Red Bull]. We were 'round the clock. We would leave the gear there, had the full facility with three engineers helping us and we worked in two to three rooms simultaneously. That was a uniquely concentrated time.

So you actually take snippets of live takes and incorporate them into the final recordings?

Ryan: Absolutely.

Ian: Yeah, Ryan is pretty good at preparing something [for us to work from].... A lot of times, one of the first things we'll do is a drum session, which is a lot of improvisation and me reacting to ideas I might have or me playing to some loop that Rayn created. The original loops and stuff often don't make it into any final version of a song. It's just generating inspired playing and sounds and material to work with.... A few songs on the record came about from that [process]. We also did a really fun couple of days at this studio called Figure 8 where we had a bunch of very particular and unique musicians come through that we really respected. Each person [got] one hour and we'd think of ideas for them and have them just play free.... It's stuff we still haven't used that we'll probably use in the future.

But you used some for this album...

Both: Totally, yeah!

Ryan: Oh yeah, and there's a huge library that we're creating.

Ian: I think we all value having some sort of personal relationship to the ingredients we're working with. It's really easy to find sounds now, for free or whatever. You can get access to so much it can be overwhelming. But if it's like, 'Oh yeah I remember when [someone] did this thing!' it's fucking sick when we find that, ya know what I mean?

Ryan: Exactly

Ian: It's nice and when you have control of how it's tracked, you can breathe your life into it from the beginning.... A bunch of musicians from the chamber group yMusic did some stuff and they've done stuff for Son Lux for a long time. There's this guy Arrington who lives in Olympia. He's this throat singer and kind of noise bass clarinet player. He attaches these tubes to his clarinet and creates this contrabass instrument. He's used a lot actually. There was [also] this trumpet player Dave Douglass...a lot of people.

Ryan: A classical Indian string trio.....

Wow, where do you find all these people?

Ian: We all have orbits of people that we know, so between the three of us...There are still so many that we haven't even [worked with]. New York is a great place to find musicians who have a very particular relationship with their instrument and are also really into experimentation.

That makes me think of an observation I had. Unlike some other bands where the impression you feel is that everyone's kind of cut from the same cloth, you guys have very distinct entities. Backgrounds...spheres of people.

Ryan: That's right, yeah. That was one of the reasons we actually became a band. One of the reasons I really wanted to work with Rafiq [Bhatia, guitarist] was because he existed within his own sphere of musicians, of whom I knew none. I knew he was a collaborator, as was I, so I knew by marrying him, I was marrying into a family that was obviously a vividly creative world of musicians. Interestingly, he had had only one experiential connection with you [motions to Ian] and so there was a whole other sphere of people that you brought to the equation. That was definitely what I was looking for when I was looking for a band.

Other than musically, What attracted you to one another? You obviously have to find common ground from a strictly musical perspective but how much does one's disposition factor into the cohesion?

Ian: I think it's huge. Well first of all, when you're touring together if you're not getting along that's only going to get magnified over time. It just won't work. But I think to answer what you're asking more, it's being able to communicate something as subjective as music ideas and to respect each other and be able to hear each other out on certain things and not have your ego wrapped up in it is really important for a band.

Ryan: Yeahbenefit of the doubt...

Ian: I've also played in a lot of other bands with different dynamics, with varying degrees of one person being a leader. In playing and in writing and especially with improvisation happening, it's important to be able to respect each other and listen to each other. There is something to be said for [friction too].... For example, there's this Duke Ellington record Money Jungle that he did with Max Roach and Charles Mingus and they fucking hated each other in that session but it's amazing ya know, because there's some kind of tension from that. Situations like that [you'd want to be rare though].... If you're going to be a band working together for multiple cycles of albums...

Ryan: Yeah, fuck that. [All laugh]

Ian: You gotta keep the vibes positive. It's like having a relationshipwhich is hard enoughbut with multiple people. So it's important and permeates every aspect.

So Ryan, I know you have a classical music background. Ian, you have a jazz background?

Ian: Yep, I have a degree in jazz [ironic self-importance]. Rafiq doesn't have a degree in music but he had a similar experience at Oberlin where he went to school.

Oh, I went there.

Ian: So you probably have some idea of what it's like there where somebody is steeped in [a few things] he might as well have been a music major but he also studied some other intense shit. [Laughs]

Ryan: Yeah some sort of neuroscience. I think he did find a way to satisfy that musical itch by studying the perception of music, the way sound is perceived and incorporated. But yeah, we all have different backgrounds. I had a formal classical training but also had an informal training in pop, rock, and jazz music by playing with all kinds of musicians growing up. Then I had a teacher starting in high school who basically opened my mind up to appreciating all different kinds of music. Then I worked in ads.

Ian: That was an education as well.

Ryan: Yeah it and it was kind of a purgatory but I also really gained a lot of respect for different kinds of music that I had, you know, distaste for, and maybe I still have no interest in making, but I have respect for and understand the integrity behind different kinds of music making that I had been a little too snooty about. I think I had a functional snootiness that kind of served me well in some ways because it helped me focus. But yeah, I always had a sort of parallel education to the classical one.

How much does the formal training you both had factor into the communication between you now?

Ryan: I think a lot actually. A lot more than...

Ian: I've played with people in bands who have had formal training versus ones with people who have not and it does change things in certain ways. With [formally trained people] things move faster, especially when you're rehearsing. We all speak the same language and you can kind of just get shit done. And the opposite, where you just have to be a little more patient. One thing I've learned is that while formal training affects the way you hear and make music, not having it can be a blessing in many ways.

Ryan: Totally, and I've had the same experience.

Ian: For me, it comes down to vision. If you have a strong vision, formal training will be able to help you manifest it, especially when you have other musicians in the room and you're trying to collectively get everyone to do a thing, but in terms of making a recording you definitely don't need to know like what [so and so] chords names are.... For us, we all come from having learned the language and information of music. We're a band that likes spending a lot of time working on [particulars] so it frees us up where we might otherwise be scratching our heads trying to find the root key for some moment in an improvisation that we decide to sample. That basically takes [no time] because we [speak each other's language].

Ryan: Also, a lot of the ideas that we share are verbal, where I might be like 'Okay, you know what we need to do? We need to have a beat where embedded in it is a 1/32 measure but the 1/16 remains consistent so it actually begins to flip onto the other side...the kick and the snare stay the same, so there's the extra break before the 1.' And then we're like 'Yeah let's try that.' So, you know...

Ian: And also we don't have the luxury of all living in the same city. A lot of bands will get together once a week in a room of instruments and hash out ideas. A lot of times we're just in a van talking about music so it's super helpful and essential for us that we are able to speak that language. That also points at something unique about this band. You were saying that we're not all cut from the same cloth and I think another thing too is that a lot of times with bands it's very clear what everyone's jobs are, ya know? With us, our hands are in each other's pockets. Like Ryan will write a beat or I might have an idea for the arrangement of a song or whatever. We're all producers in our way and not limited to speaking with our respective instruments.

Yeah, well some of the most interesting modern music to me has come from people with formal training. Like Spencer Krug for instance and you know Owen Pallett?

Ryan: Yeah, of course. He's a buddy.

I get some Owen Pallett on We Are Rising a little bit.

Ryan: Yeah, yeah, I can hear that. I can definitely hear that. I made that album really fast in about 28 days.... I was writing a lot of quick chamber arrangements, little fragments of ideas for chamber instruments and there's definitely some aesthetic overlap [between Owen and me] in the chamber music department. That has always been a strong force in his music. Because that music [We Are Rising] was made really quickly, a lot of that stuff is on the surface and is out in the open and featured [like with Owen], whereas, on other Son Lux records, those things are more abstractedpart of a thicker web of things happening.

I wanted to ask about your drumming language, Ian. I haven't really encountered it before and I'd like to know the origins of it. And Ryan, what attracted you to his style? It's very striking to me...no pun intended.

Ryan: For a long time I kind of felt like I was a pianist but I was born a drummer and wound up being a pianist. For a long time in my music, I've had a strong bias toward rhythm.... In my writing, I had been cultivating a sort of a feel that basically when I found Ian, I discovered that he was an extreme version of that thing that I was dabbling with.

Ian: You did some pretty insane shit though on earlier records though.

Ryan: Definitely but there was this feel aspect and you were a more committed version of that thing I was starting to go for.

Ian: I think it's a really interesting time to be a drummer because a lot of popular music has become extremely watered down in terms of the amount of harmonic and melodic information. If you listen to Top 40 from the '90s versus now it's completely different in the amount of chords being used. But rhythmically shit is off the chain right now compared to any other time during American pop.

Ryan: Yeah, the stuff you can get away with is [crazy].

Ian: The big thing in the origins of what you're getting at is hip-hop. That was a huge thing that I think all three of us have a relationship to.

Ryan: A debt to.

Ian: A debt to for sure. Actually the first year I was in New York2017I answered some Craigslist ads and basically, all the gigs I played were hip-hop gigs. That was a form of education for sure...hip-hop and electronic music...beats that people were coming up with that weren't played but [triggered] on a computer. The modern day listener's ear is very sophisticated rhythmically and is able to digest things that would be strange to play with the body. So that's something that I've spent a lot of time digging into.

Ryan: And I was obsessed with that. I've always been obsessed with that.

You really do have your own language percussively. It's like this off-kilter, come on and drop off thing.

Ian: Yeah yeah yeah, and I think that's the thing with electronic music. People describe it as limitless but one of the major limits of it typically is that it's very rigid and clocked in.... [People] are still doing things on a grid but we're fucking with the grid.... Ultimately it creates, for me at least, an opportunity to have the rhythmic language have an emotional aspect to it. Especially when played live.

Do you feel the patterns are hard to recreate live.... Like sometimes you just have to go with whatever the feeling is?

Ian: Yeah, so for example, there's a song called "Stolen" off an EP we put out before Brighter Wounds called Remedy and that was built off a loop that's kind of irrational and when playing it live we don't aim to recreate that exactly.

Ryan: Yeah it's not rational [to try]. We actually did that twice on that record. There's a song called "Remedy" and I imposed rationality on an irrational moment of a drum fill that I discovered through repetition. So like, if you repeat something that's irrational when heard once it may be through repetition that you find the pattern in it. Then your brain accepts it as something that actually grooves. We built a song off that for Remedy and we did the same thing for "Stolen" it was actually [Ian] playing Rafiq's guitar with chopsticks and then Rafiq prepared the guitar and improvised over top of that, free-form and it was actually the unique synchronicity of a moment of both of them playing and improvising the first take that together made something really particular. By scrubbing audio of that performance I discovered this little magical moment that through repetition gained a certain logic....standard indie rock shit you know. [Laughs]

You guys have kind of come up with your own code of music in a way. Do you see it that way?

Ian: It's not in a vacuum.

Ryan: Yes and no. That's one of the things a music education gives you I guess, is a broad understanding of how badass people have been for a really long time and how wildly creative people who are smarter than you are. I think a lot of times if you're just absorbing what you can based on what your natural inclinations are then you're going to miss out on a lot that the world of music has to offer. I think we have enough experience with other forms of music from other times and cultures, and other musicians alive today, to not make the mistake that we are doing something totally original. Because there are monsters in whose shadows we exist. But one of our charges, personally, is to bring into pop music some sensitivities that we have from those outside experiences. At least philosophically if we have a niche, that's one of them.

What else about hip hop and its influences?

Ian: Since we're on the subject of creating your own code. When MPC [drum machine]'s started to become important within that community, there was a certain type of [beats] language that developed. Everyone talks about [J] Dilla as being the one that sort of broke away from the quantized approach to making drum beats and having things feel early or late or elastic. He was a huge influence and I spent a lot of time in college listening to that and what Flying Lotus was putting out at the time and all of that Brainfeeder stuff. I was definitely vibing on that stuff.

So would you try to recreate those kinds of patterns?

Ian: I would sit for a long time and listen to that stuff and play along with it.

Ryan: I remember one time I saw [drummer] Chris Dave at Village Vanguard and he was doing this thing where he was stuttering with his kick pedal in a way that happens when you miss hit a kick on an MPC and it fires the sample twice. The way he was playing you could tell he was absolutely thinking of that effect. That's a great example of how technology and the limits of technology have introduced new ideas. The thing about hip hop is that it's this wild playground of totally evolving creativity. It's constantly reinventing and self-referential. For me, more than stylizations of hip-hop, the mosaic philosophy and approach to sampling and bringing elements that shouldn't belong together into a quizzical, unexpected but amazing unionthat to me is a huge influence on the way I realized you could think about music. That stuff is dealing with existing audio but what I've become obsessed with is what if you're actually generating the material you're recording. What if you are making your own samples. That's why we generate material early that we can "sample" and treat as found audio and find unexpected combinations of sound and unexpected results through manipulation. That's something that hip-hop taught me; it's not something I learned in music school. So more than stylizationyou're not going to hear trap hats in our music, at least not now.

Ian: Nah, that's not going to happen. [Laughs]

Ryan: Even just the idea that hip-hop began with limitation.

Yeah, how to create an ongoing beat.

Ryan: Yeah a loop, exactly, so that whole idea emerged from the fact that you didn't have the ability to do more and again, I think limitation is the key to opening up creativity. That's a lesson that I think we can't forget in this era when we have every option at our disposal.

So, it's almost like you don't want to take full advantage of what you can use all the time.

Ryan: Yeah you can think of it that way or you can say I want to take full advantage, so I want to limit things right out of the gate. Like if I'm only going to take this main road in front of me, I'm basically going to see all of the fast food chains on the way from A to B but if I put a roadblock on the main road and force into detours, I'm going to see the cool mom and pop places and carve my way across the desert. That's where all the opportunities are in my opinion. I'm okay with abandoning certain opportunities for the sake of ones that are maybe lesser known.

As far as this album, it seems like a record of arrival more than of searching. Like you're more comfortable with what you're language is now. Like you're still taking risks but you have a firmer grasp on those risks.

Ryan: Interesting.

Ian: That makes sense in the way that it's our second record all together. One thing that Rafiq picked up on is that there are a lot of things that have seeped into our playing that are expressed more understatedly on this record. The detail is still there but there's more of a feeling of ease and comfort. I totally get that too. I played it for a buddy, a producer friend, early on and he had the interesting observation that the last record was so full of life and energy and ideas but it was more demanding of the listener in some ways. He felt like it was a record that he would listen to when just listening to music but he wouldn't put it on while doing something else, whereas with this record he had the vibe that he could do either.

Ryan: And that was definitely intentional. That's something I wanted to achieve on this record. I knew there was going to be a heavy quality to it because it's an emotional record and I knew I needed to frame that emotional challenge properly so that it wouldn't be [too] taxing. So some of the toughest sentiments are couched in the context of a pretty breezy vibe.

Like "Labor."

Ian: Totally. That's a good example.

Ryan: Yeah that song is basically about bearing the burden of helping someone die and also helping someone come alive in the second half [of the song]. It's pretty intense. That's a perfect example of something getting under your skin if it has the right mechanism.

It's like a gentle handshake from a hand that you feel is strong. This record was pivotal for you in terms of what occurred in your personal life while it was being conceived but also the unrest in society around you. How does that translate tangibly into the way you write and play?

Ryan: There's no separation. Making music for us is like breathing. We don't have a choice not to do it. I fully recognize that that's a function of extreme privilege and in that way, it's different from breathing but in other ways, it's like you breathe in and breathe out the air in your environment. With everything in life, the atmosphere within which you exist informs your psyche and your emotions. You have your internal life which is constantly coping with your external life and music is both of those things.

So, what's the next frontier for you guys? There have been many leaps so far. Like would you do a live score for a film? That kind of thing? 

Ryan: That kind of thing is definitely on our radar. I love to do [film related] stuff. We're always looking for unique projects that have some bizarre context. Individually we also have our own projects going on.

Ian: Rafiq is about to put out his solo record.

Ryan: It's amazing. And Ian is not only creating his own recordings but is helping to pioneer a whole new technology.

Does that have anything to do with the percussive light triggering? That's so wild.

Ian: Yeah. The live vision of it is basically me pulling the puppet strings on all of these sounds. The next time I'm doing that is actually opening for Rafiq's album release show here at National Sawdust.

Ryan: Which [Ian's] also playing in. For Son Lux, I'm super excited about what's on the horizon as a band. It's weird to be just coming off of creating a record and starting to tour and I just want to look forward. I'm so happy with Brighter Wounds and we're having so much fun playing it live but at the same time as soon as the record came out I was like "Alright what's next?" One of the things I always do is as soon as I'm done with a big project, I start fresh on as much as possible, basically one thing a day, whatever I can do in that day. I had a good nine or ten days of all brand new stuff after [the record came out]. Within two weeks there was the start of something. Like Ian described, a lot of times there will be an initial sketch but what we record on top of becomes the real foundation. And because I'm writing music for film and dance and other things, I don't feel like anything is going to be wasted. I can just create, create, create and if it works for the trio, it's like, "fuck yeah" and if it doesn't it just becomes something else. It's all positive.

www.sonluxmusic.com

 

 

 

 

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