We Go There Together: Find the Deep Purpose with Son Lux

emilytreadgold #5, Features

If you have not yet acquainted yourself with the musical divinity that is Son Lux, you should do so immediately. In fact, it’s quite possible that you have already stumbled upon them by accident: the music of Son Lux – the trio composed of primary songwriter, keyboardist, and wordsmith Ryan Lott, guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, and drummer Ian Chang – was sampled heavily on recent songs by Fall Out Boy and Halsey, covered by Lorde, and featured in the film Paper Towns just to name a few notable pop culture appearances.

No stranger to being the man behind the curtain, founding member Ryan Lott has composed music for everything from commercials to films to dance choreography, although he says that Son Lux began as “a way to explore some of [his] creative urges that weren’t being satisfied in other pursuits musically.”

It all started with dance. A lifelong musician who began playing classical piano at age six, Lott later added instruments including guitar and drums to his creative arsenal, and has not stopped his musical investigations since. He credits his wife of fifteen years, a dancer and choreographer, with getting him into writing music for dance while he was in college studying music composition and piano.

When asked if dance can inform music in the same way that music informs dance he responded with an emphatic “absolutely,” elaborating that he typically “scores” dance much as he scores films, “where the film exists in some form or fashion first, and then [he] creates the music to accompany it.” In fact, he adds, most choreographers prefer this approach. Although he no longer exclusively writes music with the express purpose of choreography in mind, the music of Son Lux nonetheless retains its inherent dance-ability. “It’s really surprising in a great way to see how much the dance community seems to respond to our music,” he confesses, while discussing the myriad Instagram posts featuring Son Lux-inspired dance routines. That his music has become a mainstay in the dance world is “seriously serendipitous with the fact that I married a dancer,” he laughs.

But where his dance, film, and ad compositions “exist to serve the art from which [they] hearken,” Son Lux functions as a “sacred place for [his] own investigations that are brought about by nothing but curiosity and desire” and remains “a haven for the ideas that come from a pure fascination with music.” Lott describes his songwriting as “a varied process” that is somewhat unconventional in its progression. “I begin backwards with sound and with texture and with a particularly interesting rhythmic figure – something small, something that doesn’t feel like a song – and it’s usually through an investigation of that little sound that a larger framework begins to emerge. And then as that larger thing starts to take on a sense of life and a sense that it is its own kind of world or ecosystem, at that point I start to feel an impression about what kind of verbal sentiment appropriately accompanies that world.”

He illustrates the songwriting process through an elaborate anatomical metaphor, where the standard approach is to first create the skeleton of a song, the “fundamental aspects” such as its chords, rhythm, melody, and lyrics, and then apply the “outward aspects,” the remaining fleshy components that emerge, to this skeleton, in effect “dressing it with skin like a body.” When constructing his own song bodies, he takes a different approach and might start by “designing the fingernail and then work outwards to the fingers, then to the hands, to the arm, and then imagine what kind of body the arm goes on.”

The resulting body is a sonic force, and to properly explore and appreciate the intricacies, an autopsy is necessary. Listening to a Son Lux song is a transcendent experience. You will hear a symphony so complex that it flirts with chaos, yet always remains just within the confines of control – a veritable universe of dynamic sounds perfectly revolving and orbiting each other. Some of the sounds are recognizable as known instruments, while others remain more mysterious. At times, it even seems like Lott is challenging you to solve his auditory enigmas with lyrics such as “So open your ears and tell me what you hear” emerging out of the aural ether. The answer is often simpler than it seems, but is nonetheless fascinating.

When harvesting the small sounds that may give rise to a song’s fingernail, Lott typically sticks to “organic, naturally originating sources.” Such sources have historically included everything from the buzzy pulsing saxophones of “Easy” to the discernible hand claps and overtly plucked strings of “You Don’t Know Me.” “We harness a lot of acoustic sounds electronically and, to an extent through programming and manipulation, create ‘instruments’ and excerpts of sounds.” Such organic sounds can come from anywhere. “One of the things I’ve used is the sound of carbonation: when you first open a can and you put your ear right up to it you can hear all the crackling and popping of the carbonation and it is also happening inside the tin so it has a particular sonogram that’s really nice.”

The possibilities for forming soundscapes are endless with this approach, and perhaps this is why Son Lux has been categorized as everything from electro to hip hop to experimental rock. But Lott does not feel limited. “One of the great things about the adventure of making music is that we’re really not bound by medium, we don’t have the kind of expectations or constraint to a particular genre that can limit our creation. And we’re just a band that is really fascinated with exploring contrast and investigating mercurial combinations of elements that on the surface shouldn’t belong together but fortunately do create an amazing match.”

Not that he believes limitation is always negative. “There’s something incredible about the limitation of another art form on your own when you have an open mind about the kind of possibilities that exist.” He expounds, “I’ve always felt that limitation is one of the most important components of true creativity in that it forces a person to be diverse or hunt solutions rather than just go with gut instinct and the whim of impulse.”

One potential limitation exists, oddly, in the form of human overpopulation. When I inquired about the possibility of incorporating natural sounds, such as bird song and fire crackles, into his music, Lott explained that “it’s difficult to record the natural environment well and to isolate sounds in the natural world.” The biggest issue is that nature has been thoroughly permeated by the sounds of civilization. “A part of the great plague that humanity has brought is that our noise is almost everywhere. And where you can sort of isolate the independent natural sounds from the human sounds through the noise pollution, you can almost never isolate the independent natural sounds out.”

Yet, despite this, there is no other time period he would rather create than in this technological age. “One of the main reasons I feel fortunate is being able to make music right now and not one hundred years ago, not even twenty years ago, but currently.”

A potential trapping of limitless technology exists in never knowing when your work is done. But Son Lux has devised a clever way to address this issue: reimagining, revisiting, and restructuring songs. Their latest release, the EP Stranger Forms which came out in May, is a fantastic example of this. It features six songs from the last full length album, 2015’s Bones, completely reworked.

This has become a “well established” tradition for the group that began with their first album in 2008. “At the core of it is definitely a curiosity and a composer’s sort of frustration with finality and, as a writer, as someone who is constantly wanting to write, it is impossible to pull yourself away.” He adds, “It’s worth exploring the possibility of multiple ways to do a single thing in the same way you can rework a sentence using the same words. You can also rework an idea using many different sentences – sometimes you can come up with ten different sentences that express the same idea.” So, as a means of staving off this “composer’s frustration,” he not only creates his alternate versions of songs but offers them to the world. “Writing it and rewriting it is, I think, a natural part of the creative process and we just have taken it a step further by publishing both.”

Given that we live an era that seems to prefer turning out individual songs in lieu of entire albums, I inquired about the potential for Son Lux releases to be considered “concept pieces.” Lott mused that both schools of thought can apply to his music. “I think ideally a single song will take you, will transport you, and will feel like its own world, and its own reality. But at the same time, accompanied by its brothers and sisters, that impact should be heightened.”

However, he reiterates that Son Lux is a band that works primarily with opposites and there is not always a clear association between album components. “It’s a little bit tricky for us because the music we create is so varied and we’re going from so many different sources and we’re pulling together so many different ideas which are inherently, in some cases, very contrasting – very divergent. It’s often times difficult to create a sense of continuity through our catalogue but at the same time, that’s sort of the invention.”

The invention itself is only part of the Son Lux experience. Another way the trio offers their creations to the world is through particularly commanding live performances. Standing on stage, bathed in light and sound, Lott, alongside his crew, who were initially assembled for the express purpose of enhancing the live performance, expertly works the keys on his uniquely forward-slanted keyboard, moving his body while singing with the music. In addition to ergonomics, Lott has adjusted his keyboard this way to both “visually liberate” him so he can “use his upper body expressively” and to allow his fans to see him playing the instrument. This, he believes, makes for a more entertaining show. “That’s one of the reasons watching a guitarist perform is fun or watching a drummer perform is fun, you can see most of what they are doing with their hands.”

When combined with the evocative nature of the music itself, these stage efforts make for an intense live show. One fan even recounted a memorable occasion where the group performed in the rain, still garnering a devoted and powerful crowd response despite only being able to perform three songs. When asked if he feels a connection with his audience during such moments or if he is lost in the music, Lott, after some deliberation, replied “I think…we go there together.”

While he does to some extent get immersed in the performance and cannot always tell how his efforts are impacting those present, he asserts that “in the best moments you’re really getting lost together with the audience. I mean, that’s their avenue to sort of disappear into the moment together.” This comes as no surprise, given the emotionally charged yet candid quality of the music put forth, which Lott humbly attributes to the “emotive quality” and “vulnerability” that he hopes to achieve “without being cheesy or sappy.” Son Lux more than accomplishes this. If there is a proverbial fine line to be walked between the two realms, the group elegantly dances safely within poignant, always miles away from sappy.

With four studio albums, three EPs, a collaboration with Sufjan Stevens, a handful of movie scores, and countless dancers moving their bodies to his rhythms worldwide, the sky is barely the limit for Lott and his gang. While we wait for the next creative outpouring from Son Lux, Lott offers some great advice for achieving our own success as individuals: “One thing I would say is not necessarily something about me but something about [the fans] – about you – which is that if you want to accomplish something you need to challenge yourself not to be afraid of working harder at it than anyone else you know and anyone else around you working at that thing, or working at something similar.

You have to be willing to be the hardest working person you know at that thing. And if you’re not willing to do that, you have to be willing to ask yourself why. And if there’s something out there in life that you are willing to work harder at than anyone else you know, then maybe that is one of the secrets to finding the deep purpose.” Lott poses similar questions in his equally sage lyrics. In “Undone,” he challengingly implores: “Who are you? What then will you do?” and in “No Crimes” he inspires with: “All you ever wanted, all you ever need, your brand new history. (No crimes, no memories).”

Son Lux has definitely left me questing after the deep purpose and has inspired me to begin writing my own brand new history – and they will do the same for you, should you choose to listen. May we go there together.