There are few in electronic music who come close to the purity of finding symbiosis and intelligently intertwining it. Well? The hour is nigh! Sound-soothsayer and transmitter; Ryan Lott, aka Son Lux, triangulates through genres by boldly heightening theoretical layers of classical composition with post-rock tints and hip-hop colorations. Yes, it's a lot to take in; it's analogous to the feeling one has when watching a conductor wield his baton.
Ever since the details were unveiled for his third full-length album, Lanterns', through the lead single 'Lost It To Trying', the ticker is stuck in a time-suspendium and creeping slowly toward the 29th of October. This is arguably Ryan's most enlightened project, available soon through Joyful Noise Recordings, who previously released the music of his friend Kishi Bashi. When prompted about the move to another label, he firmly testifies that "Joyful Noise is great. Anticon was great. Both labels are run by people who are passionate about music and musicians curating a diverse, adventurous repertoire."
Punishingly intimate and ludicrously layered, his well known past ensembles and cross-genre collaborations transcend a worthy interaction between instrumental layers and textures that allow for the listener to become the 'connector' for this orchestral electro-pop. Here, the Son Lux sound fully integrates itself with evocative minimalism. I caught up with him during the pique-of-momentum whilst he completes three "massive" projects in Indianapolis telling me outright that he's in a rather great spot without any distractions. This curator flies through the ideals of what I imagine an alchemist, a magician; a multi-instrumentalist would be fuelled by. Which track is he most excited about? Well, his reply lays starkly... "the first nine."
Your sound is getting bigger and more complex; tell me about the recording process for Lanterns, did you record everything in one studio?
I recorded all over the place and lots of people recorded themselves for me. In cases where folks couldn't engineer themselves - I would hire a studio near them to make it all happen. There are some people on the record that I have never actually met yet in person.
Was it pre or post the notable NPR challenge two years ago that you began writing this album?
Some of the ideas were hatched before that all went down. I was in the middle of making a record at that point and I paused it to make We Are Rising. When I got back into it, I wasn't satisfied with some of the material. Certain musical concepts I was exploring before making W.A.R. wound up finding a home in W.A.R. Returning, so previous explorations of those concepts felt counterintuitive. Some of the material made the cut and developed into songs on Lanterns.
Was there that 'stop-and-glare' moment during the progression of this record?
There were many types of euphoria. One of my favorite moments was working with Chris Thile (Punch Brothers), who is a musician of giant skill and acclaim. In the studio, while we were checking his mic levels, he was blowing through spontaneous improvisations on my older songs. It was just an insane moment for me. He actually recorded two tunes, but only one of them made it onto the record. The other will emerge eventually.
Clearly 'Time' is an unimaginable obstacle for you, what with your other collaborations, writing for three films (Looper, Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Assassin's Creed IV) - what are the obstacles you overcome when you're composing?
Well, to clarify, Looper is not 'my' score, I worked extensively on it for many months yes, but it's my good friend Nathan Johnson's score. Every note is his and I just helped to bring them out. There are plenty of other things happening. I'm working on the next s/s/s recording with Sufjan and Serengeti, the recording of a 55-min work for a small band and childrens choir that I composed for Stephen Petronio Company, another 55-minute work for string quartet and electronics for Gibney Dance, premiering in November, and lots of prep for my album release show at Joe's Pub in NYC on November 4th. I'll perform the whole album live... somehow. The only obstacle I have to overcome is time, and in that way I am incredibly fortunate.
This album explores guest vocals that are so richly lathered, delicate and fittingly complimentary - who have you brought on board?
That's Lily & Madeleine on the single, a sister duo from Indianapolis. They're debut full-length on Asthmatic Kitty drops the same day as Lanterns, Oct. 29. They also sing on another song on the record. I've brought several other folks on board to sing: Peter Silberman of the Antlers, David (DM) Stith (who both sang on We Are Rising) Ieva Berberian of Gem Club, Cat Martino, Kate Davis and two buddies of mine who swung through town one night just before I wrapped.
Amongst everything, you also experiment with building custom software instruments - are you more drawn to organic sounds, even though you were using modern technology for the album?
When I design my own instruments I'm generally more interested in sound that originates from an acoustic source. I use Kontakt. I also love to make my own synths, but I never build those from the ground-up. Reaktor completely confuses me.
Your muso-geekiness for technical composition and instrumentation is fully welcomed here. I've heard you speak about 'Metric Modulation', where across the album did you explore compositional modulation and has it become habitual?
I definitely do some geeky metric/rhythmic things on this record, though nothing quite as overtly in-your-face as the codas of 'Let Go' and 'Rising' (from We Are Rising). One of my tricks is to work within a grid that is cleanly proportionate to the "real" tempo and meter of the song. This allows me to work efficiently within a gridded system.
What skills do you use in order to harness and manipulate sound the way you do? Do you map and experiment with programs ahead of time?
It gets pretty geeky. Honestly I just pursue the possibilities within a sound as much as I possibly can by using all the tools at my disposal. I keep discovering different ways to accomplish what my ear is looking for. 'Detours' are important - imposing creative roadblocks that send you off in search of a route that's off the beaten path. It's on those detours where the most incredible discoveries occur. But sometimes they just take a lot of time and you wind up with nothing. But you have to be willing to go there.
Often, I'll have an intellectual idea, a theoretical concept that I'll pursue for a long time in search of something. I think, "I'll know it when I hear it," but I usually never do. However, I almost always discover something else along the way. You have to be patient, and you cannot be lazy. You can't be wishing you were watching TV. You won't discover anything good if you are.
It seems like nothing you ever do is simply compiled or processed, which is why the sound leaves many speechless. Do you feel like you put yourself through a different musical-process every time?
Well, I appreciate that, thanks! I consciously try to avoid templates, whether my own or others. When I do borrow an idea, I always attempt to subvert it in some way, to open up a unique opportunity. I use all sorts of common devices and techniques and vocabulary, but I never want to sound like an emulation. I want to make music that feels like something you've always known, and yet, never heard.
You previously used some unused audio on the We Are Rising album, did you revisit any sounds you had spare for this one?
The only unused audio I used on We Are Rising was some dueling-drums improvisations Darren King and McKenzie Smith tracked for me. I didn't re-use anything for Lanterns, but some ideas I had begun before making We Are Rising certainly made their way into this record. For example, I tracked Peter and David (vocals) a long time ago. That was probably... fall 2010? Wow, crazy.
So do you use traditional methods of writing or do you run across a bed of hot coals to coax the creativity out of yourself?
I'm very fortunate that for some reason whenever I sit down to write, I can write. The only hindrance is the lack of time to do so.
What is the process of choosing the final compilation of songs for the album?
This is tricky. This is the point where outside opinions are very important. Everything is completely pixelated when standing so close, and you are committed to each pixel. Personally, I need the perspective of someone standing further back to help me decide what stays and what goes.
You're known for constantly reinventing your sound, sometimes to a point where the live version tends to morph into another body barely resembling its original, how do you foresee playing Lanterns live?
I'm actually working all that out now for my release show in NYC. I'll have a bunch of special guests helping me out on that one too. Then I'll spend December putting a band of multi-instrumentalists together and creating a set that I can tour. It will be tricky, because my music is comprised of "parts" - such that I can say, "Hey, you play that synth part on guitar." Certain things feel different live than in recording, so even aspects of the song I'm able to execute live manually or by triggering playback, aren't necessarily the best choice. However, I am going to stick much closer to the album this time around.
Are you a composer or an instrumentalist first and foremost?
I'm only a composer. I can fool some people into thinking I'm a good pianist, and I can't fool anyone into thinking I'm a good vocalist. If I am an instrumentalist, my instrument is the studio.
It is indeed music that will long live the backstory; "I had the same intention for this album as with any of my projects. I want to make music that is as beautiful, interesting and as honest as possible." Perhaps the node of 'time' and it being his only obstruction is the vibrating pulse that allows for this superb pace to continue in the first place. Energy breeds energy and having already collaborated with an impressive helm of artists, there was never a conscious decision to go forth and solidify a third Son Lux sound, because for Ryan, it was inevitable.
He alludes to a broth of enchanting, heavy-handed experimentation and stirs it vigorously with tactile disciplines, which in of itself permeates the cracks that the boundless sounds open themselves up toward. How fitting that he aligns with curators who are adventurous. There was one point where my left hand magically detached and snatched the right hand from clicking replay. I lost it, to listening.
Lanterns, the third album by Son Lux, is out on October 29th via Joyful Noise Recordings.