words Ryan Mo
photography Sean Pressley
It was December and the morning air was palpable.
It was cold.
I had a double-shot of espresso—not the best idea when you’re about to talk with one of the most quixotic trios in Western music. I’m not trying to exaggerate Son Lux either—critics have largely described his music as “suffocating,” “pretentious,” and “almost too ambitious to be listenable.” Any other musician would find it difficult to swallow the opinions of tastemakers with excess popism and buzzword vocabulary.
But Ryan Lott chooses instead to count his blessings. And today I caught him on a good afternoon—he operates on Eastern Standard Time—to talk candidly about the 2015 album Bones and offer a counterpoint to critics’ reactions.
As with most days, he was busy writing—already two songs in, one of which was new Son Lux material, and the other which was for Hanna Benn, a singer who had written some vocal arrangements on the Bones record. Two cups of coffee into his day and with one dog-walk down, Lott ventured to make some toast. He burned it.
“I need some sort of drug to maintain steady output; six or seven different tracks a day I’m working on sometimes, so my drug of choice is caffeine.”
In his daily grind, Lott keeps his coffee habit balanced with equal sips of water, and works across several different projects to maintain productivity without falling victim to artist’s block. “It’s yin and yang,” says Lott, who had his water bottle taken by his wife yesterday, and was subsequently parched by the evening. This belief in the compresence of contrasting forces not only plays a substantial role in Lott’s life; it’s inherent to Son Lux, and evident in Bones’ bit-crushed beats, digitized choirs and circuit decay. The textural, rhythmic and formal juxtapositions aren’t incidental, aren’t a product of knob-happy experimentation or last-minute panic.
But when a review casually mistakes an electric guitar for an acoustic guitar while saying it’s too much to take in? “That’s a red flag,” says Lott.
“If you can’t differentiate that, then the music would be difficult to take in. If you are a little more knowledgeable and have a little bit more training, you can tell that a song in 5/4 is pretty adventurous rhythmically for a folksy song, especially Americana folksy.”
“Maybe it is too much to take in. I hope I make music that is difficult to take in. However, I think what you bring to recordings as a listener is a huge factor.”
“From a lyrical standpoint, it matters a lot to me that people bring their own stories and experiences. I’m not a storyteller, and I’m not trying to tell stories, but maybe I am trying to invoke some stories. Even if they’re not narratives, they’re still personal. One of the reasons I do this is I really value about music the perception that varies from person to person, and with that variance, the possibility for myriad meanings to emerge. And I think that’s kind of a magical thing.”
Lott’s fixation on the subjective aesthetic experience informs even his deliberately opaque lyrics. He skirts around questions that he says would “shut off a kind of moment of revelation, even if it’s a tiny one in the listener, if I talked about what the song is about.”
That’s a tough break for some music critics, who, Lott feels, “are guilty of being clearly a writer writing about music with a bias towards words.”
He doesn’t necessarily blame them either. He can’t.
“That’s the world that they’re coming from, that’s their passion, and that’s what they hopefully spend a lot of time doing… But it’s like, sometimes I get flak about not being specific enough in my lyrics, and I think some reviewers just haven’t done enough to understand something that’s very intentional.”
This intent goes far beyond a numbered score; beyond a string of genre descriptors; beyond a measured state of (dis)pleasure and a cadre of similar sounds. One of his cohort, guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, extrapolated of the song “You Don’t Know Me” socio-political interpretations, no doubt charged by current world events. But that’s only his point of view. Others may peel meanings far different and more personal, that take a dialectical approach to expound on signifiers in sonic form and structure. Because our thoughts are capable of encompassing more than what we like or dislike.
That is what Son Lux, in its current tripartite form, aims to achieve. That is what almost every critic has failed to understand.
“And that’s the thing with us—we’re all geeks and we’re all interested in exploring contrasts not only from song to song, but also internally. We’re not aiming for a target on some sort of genre spectrum—that’s not how we create music and that’s not how we listen to music.”
So why do we act like it?
Son Lux has been a trio for about two years now, and that shift has probably affected all your personalities, or at least called greater attention to them. What idiosyncrasies have you noticed about Ian Chang and Rafiq Bhatia, and vice versa?
There is nothing idiosyncratic about me or Rafiq at all. But Ian doesn't drink coffee. That's messed up and I'll never understand it.
When you perform live, how does it feel? Can you describe or compare the chemistry that you experience on stage with Rafiq and Ian?
Every performance is unique and has its own personality. We aim for this. We embed moments of structured improvisation into the arrangements, allowing plenty of in-the-moment decisions. And there is even a certain flexibility for at least one of us in any given measure. The chemistry we have that enables this is hard to describe, but it's similar to a conversation. You don't have to rehearse a discussion with friends. Someone picks a topic and you run with it.
Son Lux thrives off collaboration, bouncing off ideas to create something unexpected. You've even opened up to collaborating with strangers on a recent Art Assignment feature. Why is collaboration important to you and to Son Lux?
Collaboration confronts the creative process with both new limitations and new possibilities. The only thing more conducive to the creative process than new opportunities is new limitations.
How did the collaboration with Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) come about? And what was it like working with her on such a beautifully off-kilter music video?
Tatiana has been a fan for a while and has shown us a lot of support on social media. We connected electronically, and finally met up in Brooklyn (her first time here!) while she was visiting New York. We became friends and sought an opportunity to collaborate on a video. The credit for the concept and direction goes exclusively to Made Shop, though. They also created the album artwork, as well as the ridiculous video for "Change is Everything."
Do you think certain concepts or emotions exist that can't be conveyed through music? Or that certain kinds of music can't be verbalized or interpreted?
Yes. Music doesn't elicit or convey feelings of rage or vengeful emotions well, which is among its virtues. Dance, at its best, can sometimes embody music. Other than that, I've never experienced another form of art or communication that interprets music well.
Has the music of Son Lux changed with respect to technological advancements as well, or is the change only at a human level?
Technology is a huge part of the equation. I'm always looking to technology to help me express something deeply human that I could otherwise not express.
How does it make you feel when critics and fans find difficulty categorizing the music of Son Lux?
I have the same difficulty.
What creeps you out?