Ryan Lott is a film composer, sound collector and remixer, and the founding member of the band Son Lux. Now with the help of multi-instrumentalists Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang, the trio has distilled Ryan’s earlier “investigations of sound” in We Are Rising and Lanterns into a new distilled voice that is both visceral and heady, precise and surprising. Their newest album, Bones, begins with Ryan singing, “Close your eyes / swallow the sun / you have only just begun,” a lyric that expresses the band’s musical ambitions and a theme throughout Ryan’s lyrics: a resolute desire to move through suffering towards light—no matter how painful that struggle might be. I talked with Ryan over email about metaphors, the “hidden” discoveries in the creative process, the way songs meet people in their suffering, lectio divina, and more.
Michael Wright: Hello Ryan, and thanks so much for your time. In interviews, you’ve mentioned a particular show in Berlin when you realized Son Lux was no longer a single artist with two hired hands but a trio. Why did that show have a catalyzing effect on the band? What is it about the three of you that makes your performance have that creative and unexpected excess?
Ryan Lott of Son Lux: That show was our very first show ever. It’s something we had the moment everything was plugged in and people were listening. I hadn’t experienced it before, that sort of effortless chemistry. We all feel the urge to throw a relentless energy into music. Perhaps that sort of unbridled, almost aggressive effort, combined with the mercurial ease with which our minds combine, is why it works. That and luck. And good food.
MW: You’ve called your music “investigations in sound,” and over the course of your albums, it seems to expand from an intellectual investigation to an emotional one. Now that Son Lux is a trio, there seems to be greater risk, and a distilled emotional struggle in your music. Do you think this is from the trust you’ve developed as a band? How would you characterize your search for new and honest sounds?
RL: I’ve never thought about it that way, but maybe I should. Intellectual and emotional investigations might be unfair paradigms to diametrically compartmentalize the human experience and expression. I understand your observation, but a change in the vehicle or manner of expression doesn’t necessarily change what is being expressed. If there is a perceptible change, it may be the result of what I hope is an emotional maturity that has allowed me to continue to become more vulnerable and honest with myself and the world around me.
MW: During my research, I was fascinated by the way you’ve built up sound libraries from years of collecting sonic scraps. Over and over again, you’ve talked about the importance of starting with acoustic, human-made sounds. Why is that? Why have an expansive collection of human-made sounds if the end result may not register to an untrained ear listening to electronic music? I’m interested in this paradox of your desire to “make human music” with new technology.
RL: Perhaps your questions answer themselves! I am interested in the same paradox. I believe there is truth on the other side of paradox. Or at least, there is truth that comes with greater confusion, dismantling our certainties. Personally, I’ve been guilty of assuming that clarity necessarily accompanies a revelation of truth. In so doing, I’m sure I’ve failed to see truth because of the grey fog of confusion and complexity surrounding it.
MW: That sense of truth-in-uncertainty definitely fits within a spiritual tradition (I’m specifically thinking of The Cloud of Unknowing and the via negativa), and it also reminds me of your discussions on the “hidden”. You’ve said in interviews, “In order to find the hidden thing, I’m always looking to place limitations on the main road,” and “It’s behind that bend, around that corner, where beautiful things happen that maybe I didn’t cause to happen but I came upon them. I had to be on that road to discover them, but more than that it feels much more like a discovery than a creation of my own.” I’m curious: what is that hidden thing? What are you looking for?
RL: The hidden thing is the thing you can’t will to exist. You can only put in the time and heart and money and strength and pain. Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” I’m not exactly saying this, but it’s a related sentiment. There is something beyond your imagination, that doesn’t just wait to be found; at some point it comes out to greet you. When you catch it in motion, creeping toward you of its own volition, there’s a beautiful feeling of excitement and humility.
MW: That’s fascinating—the discovery is a complete gift, but we still have to create the conditions for it to occur. It’s like cymatic experiments where scientists create a controlled space and discover new emerging forms; or, in your own words, your music is a kind of architecture for “the investigation of sound.” What has this musical approach provided you?
RL: My manager Michael Kaufmann once said to me that I build great cathedrals of sound, but I needed to fill it with smoke and sacrament. I love this analogy because it speaks to creating a space that serves as a platform to explore beyond the space. This relates to your previous question about intellectual and emotional expressions. Perhaps there is some distinction. I think this way, but I also think in a purely technical way. Theoretical ideas, divorced entirely from a lofty sense of purpose and gravitas, really excite me. They’re the kindling. Once the fire takes, I move into a more emotional, or perhaps more accurately, a more sensuous pursuit to create that “smoke.”
MW: The theologian Douglas Christie said in an essay on embodiment and the natural world, “The rupture—between the human and more-than-human, between body and soul, heaven and earth, spirit and matter—must be named and acknowledged before the healing can begin. Only when we allow ourselves to feel the full weight of our exile will we be able to begin describing and imagining a world charged with eros, a world straining to be joined together in a web of intimacy.” Your music seems to hover around this struggle. From lyrics like “let’s meet in your open wounds,” “I will be a breathing man,” to the lungs and bones imagery throughout Bones and Lanterns—there’s this sense of struggling to connect the body to the larger body of the world, whether that’s internal or communal. Could you reflect on this exile?
RL: I would betray the songs to build a didactic, or splay them out like a junior high biology project. But I love your interpretation! And it’s “let me in through your open wounds,” but I prefer your version. Do I have your permission to use it at some point?
MW: Of course! I’m happy to mishear whenever it’s helpful. Your lyrics also use metaphors of light. It’s in your name (which echoes the “fiat lux,” that moment in Genesis when God speaks light into existence), and it’s throughout Lanterns and Bones: light coming from mouths, swallowing the sun, etc. Why are you drawn to metaphors of light?
RL: We are all moths.
MW: Yes! This is exactly the image Annie Dillard explores in Holy The Firm; we can’t help but to move towards it—no matter what it burns away. Early in your career you and your wife founded the ministry ASH (Arts Serving Humanity). Looking back, was there something about that season that informed your full-time work as Son Lux? Do you see Son Lux’s music as a service to others? I’m curious if you have any stories of how fans receive your music.
RL: One of the most rewarding experiences we have on tour is meeting with fans after shows. We get to hear stories of the way our music, completely apart from us, does some sort of magical work. I’m grateful for Music’s ability to act in this way, despite its Makers’ intent. It’s something made in three dimensions, but occupies five. It does something we can’t do, and we’re grateful to glimpse it, and to feel it. We’ve heard stories from people on the precipice of suicide, even in the act of it, who’ve come back from the edge as a song of ours swirled into their mind. Who’s doing that? We’re not doing that.
MW: I think we all have songs that join us through our darkest times—they can express what we don’t know how to say. The mystic Meister Eckhart said that “the soul projects itself outward into created acts in order to understand itself.” I love that—it’s as if the right art at the right time reintroduces us to parts of ourselves we’ve forgotten or voices hope we couldn’t quite believe ourselves. On a more technical level, many of your songs have dramatic contrast in style and dynamics: the frenetic drumming and vulnerable silence, legato melodic lines and halting pizzicato, an almost mathematical precision in the arrangements and off-tempo horns and wavering voices. What’s going on there? Why are you drawn to these contrasts?
RL: Surprise in music is the best thing. The. Best. I’m essentially aiming to balance the fulfillment of expectation with surprise. Our brains are wired to dislike anything that fails to meet our expectations. As with life, so it is with music. But tension and release are the building blocks of musical architecture. Anticipation and expectation grow in moments of tension, and fulfillment of that expectation is the release. But there’s a way to bring release a different way, with surprise. But the sensuous impact of the surprise must trump the satisfaction of fulfilled expectation. In electronic music, “the drop,” is a good example of a release. It’s awesome, and as soon as you hear one, you want another, but it’s the easy way out. Give me a surprise that feels even more wonderful than what I hope is coming, and I’m yours. Good spiritual metaphor there, right?
MW: Sounds like the “hidden” to me! What surprises outside of music deepens your creative practice? Books? Meditation? The Brooklyn Museum? Hours browsing books in The Strand? Punch Brothers? All of the above?
RL: Here’s a good list, excluding the obvious influences of family & friends. New York, Paris, Bob Dylan, Hamza El Din, Radio & Portis heads, Andrew Norman, Young Thug, Zaha Hadid, Dawn of Midi, Samiyam, Senagalese dance drumming, Kendrick, Björk, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elon Musk, Krista Tippett.
MW: Great choices. Krista Tippett has said, “Christianity is my mother tongue,” and that seems true for you as well. You’ve used biblical imagery throughout your music, and Andy Whitman and you both compared your music to lectio divina. A song like “You Don’t Know Me” (both the song and music video) seems to continue that imagery with a strong critique of public forms of religion. How does your mother tongue inform your music and what animates you spiritually now?
RL: Let me grab some bourbon, one sec.
OK, I’m back. Lectio divina was an early influence on Son Lux. It was the thing that caused me to abandon binary form (verse/chorus) almost altogether on the first record. It also informed the process by which I investigated sound, because I needed sound and texture and color to do some heavy lifting, in lieu of structural pivot points that binary form provides. I could go on for a million years about this, but I like the mother tongue question. And this isn’t really answer, but we speak the language we’ve learned. When it fails us, we learn it better. And then when we learn another language, we discover the strengths and weaknesses of our mother tongue. The same is true of countries, of cultures, of religions, of everything, maybe? Christianity continues to provide an allegory analogous to my limited perception of the human condition, but I also recognize its weaknesses as a means to explain everything, or perhaps more generously, its insistence on keeping many explanations hidden from sight. For this, I’m incredibly frustrated and thankful.
MW: Björk sings, “no one is a lover alone / I propose an atom dance,” and it’s a good handhold into your work and the way you voice the struggle for authentic relationships in our world. You have a tribe of intellectuals and wayfarers and creatives reading this interview: any last proposals you’d like to make?
RL: Amplify the voices of the unheard, unshackle yourselves from the myth of an acceptable bell-curve.