Over the last two years, Ryan Lott’s multidimensional solo project Son Lux has transformed into a trio of boldly experimental artists, including guitarist-composer Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang. The urgently textured 2015 album Bones grew from a necessary need for collaboration, the generative rush that undoes and remakes a sound. Bones is certainly that new architecture for Son Lux. With its operatic lusciousness, these songs are an ambient, glowing indictment of a culture on the cusp of its own poisonous undoing. They are also a wild, crackling celebration of collective presence and action.
The recently announced EP, Stranger Forms, picks up where Bones left off, growing directly out of the themes and lyrics of the former album, somehow managing to pack even more energy and collaborative force into these new songs. The EP’s lead track “Cage of Bones,” is the roiling antidote to the usual summer radio doldrums. The accompanying music video is as terrifying as it is beautiful, moving through images of excess and mediocrity. With its commanding horns, layers of lyrical depth, and smooth improvisatory jazz-like juxtapositions, “You Don’t Own Me,” featuring Hanna Benn, is a fierce amplification of agency, experimentation, and resistance.
ArtsATL had the chance to talk with Lott, Bhatia, and Chang about Bones, their collaborative energies, and the necessary role of improvisation. As they write and perform together, they also answer together, generating a shared space for thinking through their processes and range of influences. Son Lux plays at Aisle 5 tonight, Monday, May 23.
ArtsATL: Ryan, you first came together with Ian Chang and Rafiq Bhatia to complete the live sound on your tour with Lanterns, a collaborative process that turned Son Lux into a trio and led directly to the creation of Bones. This album, with all of its lush, crystalline textures, seems to speak to how collaboration, plural presence, is necessary for the creative process. As someone who has collaborated widely throughout their career, what’s happened around Bones that induced a shift, a transformation, in your process?
Ryan Lott: Beyond the successful process of envisioning a new life for the Lanterns material as a trio, our sound checks and “off” times were immediately full of energy for new ideas and different ways of thinking about writing and performing music. The energy felt foreign to me, as I’ve never had a “band,” but it also felt natural and instinctual. This was unexpected, and the spark of that feeling lit the way for Bones’ development.
ArtsATL: Is that transformation continuing now that you’re touring with Bones?
Lott: Bones is the sound of us just scratching the surface.
ArtsATL: Themes of anonymity and collectivity run through the lyrics on Bones. As these themes accumulate, I hear a kind of resistance to the way we isolate or idolize individuality. What role does music play, in general, in these other ways of imagining selfhood?
Rafiq Bhatia: The narrator in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” describes himself as “contain[ing] multitudes.” I think that’s true of us all; we are shaped by so many experiences, so much history, and such strong constraints that our experience of trying to negotiate with them – to live our lives – requires multitudes. The self is a construct we use to give form, definition, and stability to something that is actually very porous, malleable, and volatile; a cage of bones.
But our bones cannot contain us. We flow out of ourselves and into each other. Our realities, though experienced individually, are continuous, infinite, common.
At its best, music is both a result and a reminder of that paradox. It shows what we can do together, for each other, and reminds us where we come from and what remains to be done. The more of ourselves we pour into it (and I mean “selves” in the singular, individual sense and the plural sense of multitudes), the more information it contains about what it means to be living, breathing, mobile, and among each other. Structures can restrict, as in the case of cages, but as architecture shows us, they can also be the spaces in which we interact.
But selfhood is also a privilege; some of us are allowed more freedom than others. Music can help to both affirm the selfhood of the marginalized and harness the empathy of the privileged (most of us are both, depending on the lens). It can be one of the most powerful ways to call us all to action.
ArtsATL: Improvisation and surprise are crucial elements in your live shows. The chorus in “Flight” – “Oh, what a noise we’ll make / Drowning out our mistakes, we can’t erase” – speaks to this dedication to spontaneity. What happens when art allows itself to contain mistakes, to be founded on an exposure of the medium’s unfixed, improvisatory qualities?
Bhatia: Your question illuminates an overarching tendency of people in Eurocentric societies/traditions like ours to associate improvisation in art with “mistakes.” In America, as in Europe, many of us tend to think of the “unfixed” in music as somehow less intentional, less reasoned, or less valid, even. And I think there are long-standing prejudices that are inseparable from this kind of thinking, but that are so deeply ingrained into our collective history that we seldom pause to question them.
But, as the composer and pianist Vijay Iyer pointed out, we actually improvise our way through life, including many of its most important moments. We rely heavily on our instincts when we do almost everything, and for good reason: they are honed by evolution, time, experience, and practice. They are the reason why we are still here.
As I said above, structure can, of course, be enabling. But what is “fixed” is by definition less porous and malleable – less like the self, particularly in how it relates to others. In a live setting especially, it’s important to us to be able to use structure to create a space in which we share an experience with our audience, for us to all be there as it unfolds, for them to be involved. And there are limits to how directly you can speak to someone in a particular moment if you decide what you’re going to say ahead of time, if only for the simple fact that you can’t know what that moment is going to be like any better than you can when you’re in it.
ArtsATL: There’s such a palpable urgency in Bones. What energies are you drawing on to sustain that urgency?
Ian Chang: The three of us are always challenging each others’ ideas, and pushing one another to be our best creative selves. This collaborative environment creates a sustainable well of inspirational energy. I think the way our music sounds is informed by how our creative process feels. The making of Bones felt very explosive, and there were always a lot of rich and contrasting ideas pouring out. As a result, the songs have a bursting-at-the-seams type quality. Also, I need to give a shout-out to our fourth member, coffee, who is an important part of the energy equation.
ArtsATL: What “freedom” or “being free” is seems to be a lot of things in these songs, not just because the lyrics repeat and vary the concept, but because a sense of freedom is embedded in the music itself. Does this album, and this new Son Lux, generate a new kind of freedom for your music going forward?
Chang: Son Lux is and always has been an exercise in freedom. The project started out as Ryan’s sacred creative space and now has expanded to include Rafiq and myself. At every juncture, we’re hoping to free ourselves from our old selves. The “new” Son Lux is just another step along the way, and we are already working on the next record . . . hopefully a reinvention.