Interview: Son Lux on ‘Bones’ (Album of the Week)
June 24th 2015
Ryan Lott, who you might know as Son Lux, is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and a man that will generally play with your mind at every twist and turn.
Evolving from a solo project to a fully-formed three piece that further builds on Lott’s music, Son Lux is a genre-pushing auditory experience that’s better heard than described. With a growing list of collaborations including Sufjan Stevens, Lorde and Beyonce producer BOOTS, Son Lux’s fourth album Bones builds on an already remarkably technical discography with vivid production quality and simplistically resonant lyricism.
Lachlan Wyllie chatted with Ryan Lott about the process of creating Bones, working as a three piece, and technical easter eggs in his music.
LW: This is your fourth record as Son Lux, but your first one as a three-piece. Collaboration is a really big part of your music – one only has to look at the credits on your recent album Lanterns to see that. Did you have a similar collaborative mindset in the process of making bones?
Son Lux: Bones was uniquely collaborative among my records because I have now shifted the identity of Son Lux from just me and my ego to a trio and all of our egos. Collaboration is always at the heart of what I do and it’s part of how I’m searching for new ideas and searching to catalyse surprise and the unexpected in my music, and that’s no different. But this time it’s just taken to a new level because there are two other people sort of in the inner circle with me.
Ian and Rafiq initially started as members of your live band before becoming a part of what is now Son Lux. What did that shift from stage to studio look like?
Well, it was actually pretty seamless, especially considering the fact that we really made our “studio for the most part last year was our tour bus. We made most of Bones on the road, on the fly, and we developed a lot of material moving 100 kilometres an hour across Europe mostly. When we were home, we did pop into the studio and track things, but as far as the development of ideas, we were intermingling our experience on stage and our experience making this record, because they were really happening at the same time. Psychologically, the shift was really quite seamless, because every day we’d be both making new music and performing our older music.
So it was quite an organic process, there was no courting idea going on there.
Yeah. You know what happened was I just felt like there was this incredible energy that we had immediately catalysed as a trio and I was really excited to capture that moment, that early energy we had as a trio. And so all the creative urges we were having as a result of this newfound chemistry that we’re all really happy about, that’s what gave birth to Bones.
Your music as Son Lux has always, to me at least, been strikingly technical. When I listen to your music I hear someone who loves geeking out in the studio as much as I hear someone who loves making considered and subverted pop. Was there much room for nerding out in the process of creating Bones?
Yeah, I mean if anything, y’know now it’s just like three nerds. [laughs] Like three times the nerd. But that said, we all have a really strong sensitivity to soulful music, to music that is deeply emotional and visceral, and if anything I think that, while Bones is highly technical like all the other records, if anything we’ve taken a leap towards the soulful and toward the sensuous and visceral with Bones. And there’s always a balance, you know? And I think this balance is going to be different to everyone. There will be some who listen and they’ll say ‘this music is too emotive, too expressive’, and some people will say ‘this music is too technical’. Ultimately, I’m just trying to be honest and make music as beautifully as I can with my technique and with heart.
Bones has quite a vivid production quality throughout the record, and it seems to deal with ideas of freedom and change, and that stands in contrast to Lanterns, which I see as touching on the notion of escapism. Was there a particular intention behind the formation of Bones?
What happens when I make music as Son Lux, the lyrical content and the melody and sometimes even the harmonic structure come later in the process, which is the exact opposite of the traditional approach to songwriting. I’ve always said that I’m not a songwriter. I write songs of course, but I more like to discover songs inside worlds of sound that I generate slowly over time and through experimentation. As such, the lyrical content of what emerges is not predetermined, I’m not setting out to tell a series of related stories, but rather, the album just begins to kind of speak, and it’s my job to listen and be receptive to any themes that are consistent with the sounds that I’m hearing.
That’s the opposite of what is usually done, right, you’re thinking of sounds that will be consistent with the themes that you’re developing. I’m doing the opposite.
So the theme that has developed, at least to me, is it a happy coincidence?
No, of course, I mean reinvention and the struggle for change and liberation, these are universal concepts. They’re also concepts that have coloured all of my records.
With Bones, there’s a stronger connection to the physical body, there’s more metaphorical content related to the human body. But it’s important to me that my songs, if you can call them that, they don’t have a particular meaning. They may have a meaning to me, but they don’t have a particular intended meaning for the listener. And what I mean by that is I want people to bring their own associations, their own experiences, to these songs, and it’s my job to create a spark, to create a prompt for those very personal experiences.
It’s not really my job to tell people what to think about these songs, and what to think about anything, but rather just to make music that feels beautiful to me and that is as honest as possible. Intellectually honest and emotionally honest – I think that is enough to create a type of personal connection and meanings and stories and themes emerge, but they should emerge within the listener. I think beyond that I’ve done quite enough already.
Back to the instrumental side of Bones, another striking thing is the use of atmosphere. Often when you’re not hearing a brief instrumental or vocal stab, you’re hearing the space that it leaves behind, which is quite a different approach to your previous records. Was there an idea behind the production on Bones, or was that a natural process?
I’m always investigating texture and colour and density. I see these kinds of things on a similar plane as the other aspects, more conventional and foundational aspects of music, which would be melody, harmony and rhythm. But colour, texture, density – these are the things that really fascinate me about a record. These are the things that technology has afforded us the opportunity to develop further, and to explore the musical idea that is texture, the musical idea that is colour, that is mix, that is space; all these things that did not emerge from a performative tradition of music but that emerged from the recording techniques that have developed with technology.
We are making music that is so young compared with music that comes from the written page, from a performance, from a performance practice tradition. We are discovering the significance of things that we can now control in a recording, and that’s an exciting place to be. That’s where I have a place, I hope this isn’t arrogant to say, but that’s where I have a place in the trajectory of things. I feel my place is somewhere there. Not everybody will get it, and not everybody will be with me there, but I do think that there is pioneering work to be done, and I am trying to do it.
We touched on collaboration earlier, of which you as Son Lux and as Ryan Lott have done a substantial amount, with people like Sufjan Stevens, Lorde and Peter Silberman from The Antlers. How did this come about with reference to your music?
I try to keep really open ears and to think about music beyond genre and idiom, and so I’m always fascinated with unexpected collaborations.
Lorde was a good example of that, she was this Billboard #1 huge pop star, and turns out a huge Son Lux fan, so explore the potential of that collaboration was really exciting for me, not just because of the high profile collaboration opportunity, but because her sensibilities are so different than mine, and yet there’s something in my music that has resonated with her for years since she was a kid.
I really love those mercurial combinations, and really that’s at the heart of Son Lux, sonically speaking. In real life with people, I’m also looking to do the same thing, and that is to take two things which you should not expect to go together and find a curious and surprising combination that is mutualistic. I think we can do that with sound and we can do that with people as we do with our relationships.
You do work a number of very intricate tricks in the studio. I read somewhere that you like to transpose the mix of a track up half a step, record vocals, and then transpose the vocals back down to give yourself a hollow vocal presence. Are there any technical easter eggs on Bones that you’re particularly fond of, or for a listener that might be listening to Son Lux for the first time that you’d like to point them towards?
Ooh that’s a really good question. One thing that I do very often is I design my own instruments, and these are virtual instruments. So these are instruments that I can play on a MIDI keyboard that is triggering recordings that I’ve made using the computer.
For example, I can record some sounds, and then chop them up and them map those different sounds to a keyboard so that I’m ‘playing’ the instrument that is those sounds, or that is that sound. I do this with traditional instruments that are modified, like a glockenspiel with a metal chain on it so that it dings and buzzes. That would be a very traditional way to think about a virtual instrument. But I also do much more abstract things, where I’ll find pieces of non-music, that are just ‘sound’ sound, and that happened quite a bit on Bones, and it’s often hard to hear what it is. Ideally you don’t actually hear what it is that I’m using as raw material.
One fun example is the song ‘White Lies’, which all began from a little piece of recording that I found from a drum session. We were recording drums but in one of the tracks during a pause, there was this really strange squeaking and jangling sound. As I was jumping around between tracks auditioning things and looking for curious moments, cause I’m always looking for curious moments, my ear caught this sound and I was like ‘what is that?’ – and I opened it up and I could not for the life of me determine what it was, and I’m still not quite sure. I think it might be the squeak of a high-hat pedal and the jingling keys of Ian maybe on the floor. This moment, I highly compressed it, so that everything that’s quiet becomes really loud, and I took this little moment and made an instrument out of it where I could play it back at different speeds, and I could develop a rhythmic pattern based on this tiny little fragment of sound.
From that blossomed the whole song ‘White Lies’, but it all began from this little sound. In the recording, in the final version, you’d be hard-pressed to even hear it.
It seems that with the spacious production on Bones, there’s more room for having those little organic samples, for using sounds that can’t quite identified.
Yeah, I’m really interested in that. I think of it as sound inside of sound. Sound that’s there, but it needs to be sort of uncovered, and when you find that sound inside of sound, you end up working with material that is both strange and familiar at the same time. There’s something familiar about it but you can’t place it, and I love that. I hope that my music is always full of that.
The Son Lux experience hasn’t hit Australia yet. Is there a chance of a visit to Aus in support of Bones?
Absolutely. It’s something my team is working on and I’m hoping to get there in 2016. Sooner rather than later. So, let me know if you have a spare bedroom.
I do have a spare bedroom! You and the band are more than welcome to stay.
Well we’ve got that on record now. [Laughs]
Finally, the name Bones: it’s a bit enigmatic, it’s a bit strange, quite like Lanterns. When you see ‘Son Lux – Lanterns’, it’s just there, you have to take it for what it is. Was there a particular idea that you were trying to encapsulate with that name?
I mean, it’s an evocative title. I try to avoid telling people ‘this is what this song means and this is what this title means’, because I’d like people to bring their own meanings and associations to the music. I can say, looking back in retrospect, the word ‘bones’ really just stood out to all of us. It appears in lyrics, but it really stood out to us as an album title. Really bold and brief and strong and breakable.
In retrospect as I look back, it feels like the right title, because if anything, the trio is new. Son Lux as a trio is a new thing, and this record is a foundation that we’ll build on, and if Bones means only that, which is doesn’t, if it only means that then I think that’s enough.
Ryan, thanks for joining me, congratulations on Bones and I hope you do get to visit Australia in 2016.
Aw me too! Me too.
Bones is FBi’s album of the week – released through Glassnote Records.
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