+ Ryan Lott (of Son Lux) teaches how to build custom virtual instruments for sound design and scoring in Soundfly’s new course, Designing Sample-Based Instruments.
Son Lux is a trio of versatile musicians comprised of vocalist, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, Ryan Lott, guitarist, Rafiq Bhatia, and drummer, Ian Chang. While all three make beautiful work on their own (Lott has scored films such as Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Bhatia’s latest offering, Breaking English is coming in early April, and Chang’s 2017 EP, Spiritual Leader highlights both the future of electronic music and his own virtuosity as a composer and performer), the group has been prolific for the past few years, releasing a steady stream of ground-breaking and unusual works of experimental pop music.
The band’s latest release, Brighter Wounds, is a triumph of their collective strengths, a clashing of desperation and ecstasy, an expansive treatise on strain and abandon. The production is assiduously masterful and unique, as it was with the band’s last four studio offerings, but there is also a new facility here, a kind of confidence that allows it to sound, happily, both stranger and simpler at the same time.
I think this is true of many of the arrangements, as well. “The Fool You Need” is based around a lovely rhythmic asymmetry which Chang pulls into a deep, hypnotic groove. It feels at once stilted and solid. Lott explains the mechanisms at work here:
“Each beat is divided into 7, with the accents on every odd subdivision, creating the illusion… Since the accents are evenly spaced, things feel “straight”-ish. But because the fourth accent is “cheated,” the whole thing feels either more insistent, or more lurching, depending on your perspective.”
Marty Fowler — who conducted this interview (and who happens to be the bassist and producer in my band, Arthur Moon) — described to me his favorite aspects of what each member brings to the project: Bhatia with his “explosive, almost vocal guitar work,” Chang’s uncanny ability to integrate these wild, “time-stretching grooves,” and Lott’s “distinctive voice as a melodic composer and unique arranger.” I agree. And I think what’s so wonderful about Son Lux’s dynamic is the unusual way these strengths compliment and subvert each other, and how that’s changed and matured over the past few years.
But first, if that excites you, Soundfly just launched our newest online course with Son Lux’s Ryan Lott himself, exploring his singular approach to building new hybrid electronic instruments and synths out of raw, sampled source audio, and so much more about his unique, creative composition and production process. Check out Ryan Lott: Designing Virtual Instruments and preview a full lesson for free.
– Lora-Faye Åshuvud
Interview by Martin Fowler
RL = Ryan Lott
RB = Rafiq Bhatia
IC = Ian Chang
Firstly, where did the album title, Brighter Wounds, come from?
RL: The phrase conjures two opposing feelings at once, which seemed appropriate for an album that is often playing on opposites and extreme contrasts. The phrase comes from a lyric, but not one that appears on this album. It’ll show up soon, though.
In your production style, there’s an almost virtuosic use of spaces and time-based effects, almost as another instrument, or at least as a heavy-handed arrangement tool. That includes many moments that are very starkly dry, like the vocals and horns in “The Fool You Need.” How do you choose what space to put instruments in, and when (especially with regards to the vocals)?
RL: This is a simple, but endlessly exciting, aspect of music production. Use of space is a musical decision, but one which we’ve only recently been able to fully control and harness to creative effect, thanks to recording technology. The recorded medium affords us the ability to hear supernaturally; we can experience sound from multiple sources at once. This stratifies the experience of sound, challenging our dimensional understanding of space.
So naturally it’s something we think about with respect to each instrument or sound in a song, as well as to the whole. There is always a decision to make because there is always an option. There are no rules, but our bias is toward contrast. Our perception of each element is informed by our perception of the others, so the question we often ask is: “how can we make this thing feel small and close and inside the brain in a way that makes that other thing feel huge and outside the body?”
While many Son Lux songs settle into a repeating three- or four-chord progression as a “chorus” section, the harmony throughout any single song can take a listener for a wild, non-diatonic ride without the listener necessarily realizing it. For example, in the opening verse section of “Forty Screams,” an A minor ascends to a D minor, but then a short, stark F♯ diminished chord bridges to the E minor following it. It’s a subtle and smooth move, but it’s not something you’d hear in a Taylor Swift tune. How does this more complex harmonic sensibility play a role in the identity of the band’s sound, and in the composition process?
RL: You’ve got it almost right. That F# shows up in what I’m thinking of as an Am6 (E F# C, with an A implied at first and showing up later in the falling fourths). So I think of it as a return to a familiar place, but something is different. The Dm that separates the two Am chords gives us the F-natural, which makes the second Am’s major-sixth feel uneasy. But as the full progression reveals itself (including the Em and C), it’s the F-natural that’s out of place. So later, when we move to the chorus, an F major appears at the moment of the “better world” or “another world” lyric. It’s no longer out of place, it’s the root of an unexpected new harmony that, though less familiar, feels sweeter than from where we’ve come. But as soon as we leave those worlds, we leave the sonority.
Generally, I’m obsessing almost exclusively over rhythm, but this is an instance where I’m playing with harmony a bit. I tried to challenge myself harmonically and melodically on this record, to break some habits and explore new ground. I’m definitely still taking baby steps, though.
As you say, there’s a lot of forward-thinking harmony on this record, but it’s also deeply rhythmically complex. In “The Fool You Need,” Ian’s time-warping work brings a jolting hip-hop influence, such that the triplet-based horn stabs in the chorus sound like they’re played straight, but at a slower tempo. Rafiq’s arpeggio work in the middle of the tune has a similar feel of rushing and pausing. It’s almost as if time itself is expanding and contracting within the course of a song. How do you compose these moments? Do they arise naturally out of Ian’s (or everyone’s) sense of time?
RL: I technically “authored” that beat, but of course Ian’s feel and choices while tracking made it come alive in the right way. Each beat is divided into 7, with the accents on every odd subdivision, creating the illusion you describe. Since the accents are evenly spaced, things feel “straight”-ish. But because the fourth accent is “cheated,” the whole thing feels either more insistent, or more lurching, depending on your perspective. Subconsciously, this may have influenced my lyrics: “I can play the fool you need. I’m not giving up.”
“The recorded medium affords us the ability to hear supernaturally; we can experience sound from multiple sources at once. This stratifies the experience of sound, challenging our dimensional understanding of space.”
Rafiq and Ian have both mentioned in the past that you work “very fast.” These days, how do you know when something feels complete? Not just a song, or record, but how do you know when a section of a song is done, or a lyric is done, or the timbre of a backbeat sound is complete, and it’s time to move on? What is that feeling like?
RL: Well now that we’re a trio, it’s a group decision. But one of the reasons I’ve historically reinvented songs and put them on companion EPs (i.e., on Lanterns, Alternate Worlds EP, Bones, and the Stranger Forms EP) is that I never really feel “done” with a song. And on stage, the songs come alive again in a new way.
Every idea has too much potential, it doesn’t want to rest, and I don’t either.
Your songwriting, production, and record making in general brings so many layers of music from so many different genres and sonic sources. It’s clear you’re all very curious and also well-educated individuals. How does your collective cultural and musical education play into your creative process?
RB: I think all of us treat education as an ongoing process. Part of that is about recognizing that knowledge can be derived from many sources, or even from looking at the same source from a different angle. To that end, seeking out perspectives outside of our own helps us stay open to new possibilities and hopefully helps keep us from getting too set in our ways.
All of us work in many different configurations and among different musical communities outside of Son Lux, and the same can be said of our collaborations with others on Son Lux projects.
“Every idea has too much potential, it doesn’t want to rest, and I don’t either.”
How do you think about the balance between making music as your profession and as artistic expression, particularly within our current socio-political landscape?
RB: We are extremely privileged to be able to make honest music with people we love. A big part of that is thanks to our management, who recognize the fragility of artistic practice. They encourage us to be ourselves and create music we believe in, and then help us think about how to get it out into the world.
That being said, in recent years, I think we’ve all come to agree that art is not created in a vacuum. Simultaneously, the world around us has made it harder for us to operate within it without it seeping into the work we are creating. In that sense, it’s perhaps less about balance and more about osmosis.
Do you feel like it’s important to understand what you’re doing before doing it? Or do you think approaching creation from a place of improvised naïveté is as valid as an educated, planned approach?
IC: I think both approaches are important to me. On the one hand, knowing exactly how to achieve an imagined result is essential to my process, but on the other hand, wading into uncharted territory is where excitement and growth is. I don’t think I’d be interested in making music if I always knew what I was doing.
At Soundfly, we love to use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that go against people’s assumptions, or even their own instincts, but which yield exciting and unique results. What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?
IC: On this album, we made a conscious effort to insert moments in the music that went against both people’s assumptions as well as our own instincts. Ryan was inspired by a dance piece by William Forsythe called “Artifact” that had thrilling shifts where the lighting, costume, dancers and set design would all change on a dime. Ryan described these sudden shifts as ecstatic moments, which was a term we kept coming back to throughout the recording process.
We sought to adapt this concept for music by creating vignettes in our songs that simultaneously introduced new instrumentation, harmony, rhythm, and sometimes tempo (or lack thereof). A few examples of this are the acoustic guitar ending of “The Fool You Need,” the middle of “Dream State” where everything drops out except for an organ, and the end of “Resurrection,” where a giant explosive moment suddenly cuts to a quite intimate moment.
What is the importance of creating art in today’s instant consumer culture? Is art only as effective as it is relevant to the moment at hand?
IC: Art captures who we are, so it helps us understand our past and present. In addition to that, it has the power to manifest the future, so I think that its importance transcends the moment at hand.
Don’t stop here!
Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, mixing, recording and production, composing, beat making, and more on Soundfly, with in-depth artist-led courses by Kimbra, Com Truise, Jlin, Kiefer, and the newly released Ryan Lott: Designing Sample-Based Instruments.