At War with Walls & Mazes
Son Lux (a.k.a. Ryan Lott) is an alchemist. He fused hip-hop beats, sparse piano and liturgical chant to form the spiraling, pensive record, At War with Walls & Mazes. It was one of my favorite albums of 2008 and apparently many other critics' as well. NPR named Son Lux "Best New Artist" on All Songs Considered, and ranked him No. 1 "Greatest Unknown of 2008" on their show Second Stage.
Three weeks ago, I drove eight hours to Minneapolis to see him perform. Joined by a ballet troupe and video artist, Joshua Ott, Son Lux transformed Southern Theater into a musical labyrinth worthy of his album's title.
Son Lux: So, you live in Minneapolis, yeah?
Wunderkammer: No, actually I live in Chicago.
SL: You were in town for...?
WK: I was visiting some friends and I noticed you were performing here. I thought that I might go to your concert because I've been enjoying your album, At War with Walls & Mazes. It was a wonderful show.
SL: Thank you.
WK: How often do you get a chance to perform?
SL: I don't perform very often… because I have this personal rule to make it as hard as possible on myself, every time [laughs]— well, it's not really a rule I guess, but I'm so much more at home in the studio. When I play, I love to reinvent the material because my heart is in creating something new, not performing—that's who I am, I guess. I'm always looking to recreate things. Performing feels more like a burden. Unless I challenge myself to do things differently, you know. And it satisfies my compositional urge. There's a theoretical reason, too: in the Son Lux Project I purposely abandon the particular binary structure of chorus/verse while maintaining other pop conventions. Instead of chorus/verse I worked with little chants, little meditations, little fragments of text and very simple melodies. So if the soul of the song has nothing to do with the chorus/verse, it really is just a melody and a small piece of text. How I present that can be completely open. I'm constantly exploring different ways to present these melodies and tiny pieces of text, trying to reincarnate them each time.
Also, I don't have a regular band. Each time I perform I have a new collection of musicians and I write the music to fit that ensemble. So, in the Minneapolis show I wanted to work with my wife, Jennifer, who is also a choreographer, because the venue was conducive to dance, it had the space for it—the lighting and the seats—and they have dance [performances] there often. It happened that two of her friends who are dancers were going to be in town as well. It became a no-brainer to feature some dance, which I've never done before as Son Lux. So, rather than a band, I thought I might create some solo arrangements and work with my wife to tailor them in such a way that they were conducive to choreography in certain instances and in others so they were conducive to film—which she created with our friend Brenden Beecy. I also had some meditative piano pieces to pair with Superdraw visuals. I started with the ensemble: I knew I was going to bring a visualist and four dancers. And I knew I would have a nice piano, so I worked on those piano arrangements, which I was quite happy with. Altogether I would say it worked, for the most part [laughs].
WK: You've been described as a “fierce collaborator”—as I can tell—how did you start collaborating with different types of artists?
SL: It started with my wife. We were both at school at Indiana University. I was studying composition and she was in the ballet theater there. She started creating these small pieces for various classes and she asked me to compose something for one of them. I had never thought about writing for dance before. From the start we worked very well together. She turned me onto the idea of writing for dance and cross collaboration in general. Writing music for another medium, creating the other half of another work is just awesome, it's such a thrill.
Eventually, we got married and were invited to move to Cleveland, Ohio to join a modern dance company called Inlet Dance Theatre—one of their focuses was in teaching dance to at-risk youth. So, we moved to Cleveland, she to dance with Inlet, and I to write music for the company… for pennies. What makes Cleveland interesting is that though it is small, it has a thriving, passionate, guerilla art scene. There is an awesome sense of abandon in the spirit of Cleveland—it’s in the water. It’s also cheap to live. I looked around me and saw this talent, and creative friends and I started initiating collaborations of any kind, wherever I could. Eventually this gave way to two large scale collaborative events that doubled as fundraisers. I was making fifteen pieces of music at a time for twelve different collaborations. I loved to see my friends and the people I knew be a part of it all.
And then I moved to New York and it's a lot harder [to collaborate] here. But still, it's New York and has its own pervasive spirit, and everywhere you turn there are beautifully talented people—more talented than you. They're everywhere.
WK: What did you set out to accomplish with At War with Walls & Mazes? What do you want the listener to take away from the album?
SL: Huh, that's a really good question. I don't think I've been asked that before. I had always been the guy who worked on random collaborations, which was wonderful, but I was itching to do something to satisfy my own creative urges. So, in between other projects, in my attic studio in Cleveland, I started to put together these little meditations, these little musical… microcosms. And I slowly began to realize that I had a record. But I didn't know what it was. So in order to bring shape to this emerging "thing," I gave myself certain musical challenges to solve, and imposed certain limitations on myself. But mostly that's boring theoretical stuff.
More importantly was the philosophical challenge: to create music that the listener could bring his or her own stories to, because I feel like I am not a story teller. Music that I really love either tells an incredible story, or doesn't tell a story at all; I'm compelled by both extremes. I feel like I haven't had the depth of experience to tell compelling stories. And I thought, “the stories are out there, in people's lives. How can I create music that's a window into someone’s own experiences, into their own associations, into their own beautiful stories?” So I created prompts—lyrically as well as musically—through textures in the music. I wanted to do it in such a way that the songs tell stories, but they are stories in people's heads that stem from associations. You know what I mean?
WK: Yeah. That's interesting.
SL: One of the first tracks I wrote, which didn't actually make it on the record is called “Do.” It's on the blog if you want to check it out. The entire lyrics are “I can't do it. I've tried my best. You'll have to do it.”
Do an out-take from At War with Walls & Mazes by Son Lux is used with permission.
WK: “You'll have to do it”?
WK: Who is “you” then? Or is that up to the listener?
SL: Yeah, that's the point. It's vague. It could be two dudes at a construction site and one says to the other “Oh, I can't do it. You'll have to do it.” Or it could be something profound. It could be the story of a wounded veteran, who can no longer use his legs and depends on his wife for mobility.
WK: So, you're inviting the listener to be a collaborator with you, in a sense?
SL: Hah. Yeah, that's totally right. There are so many amazing stories out there. Music that touches me makes me reflect on my own life; it is something that takes me away. Well, maybe not “takes me away,” necessarily, but helps me understand my life better. And I can't really do that with lyrics; as I said, I'm not really a lyric writer. But people say amazing things—even off the cuff—that I can turn into little prompts, that through meditative process, or just listening, can unfold layers of meaning and association. For example: a friend of mine had gone through a divorce and was contemplating a new relationship, it compelled me to write the text for “Stay:” “Will you love me like he loved me? Or will you stay?”Hopefully that brings a thousand stories from that one little line. I love creating sonic environments for these “non-stories” because they blossom into stories in people's imaginations. A cycling piece of text takes on new meanings through time, and as the sonic landscape of a song transforms. So in “Stand” I can cast that line “you stand between me and all my enemies,” I could cast that in a beautiful, serene landscape of sound or I can drop it into the middle of a burning forest, or a battlefield—its meaning and feeling different for each context. And I could do that all within one song.
Stay from At War with Walls & Mazes by Son Lux is used with permission.
WK: That's pretty cool.
SL: Yeah, hopefully. So that's the x-axis. The y-axis is what I can do live. Performing live I can reinvent these things and tell these “non-stories” in a completely different way. I can take a piece of text that sounds horribly agonized and put a light-hearted melody over it so it takes on a weird bittersweet quality. So, I could do that on the record and maybe I don't do that live. An example is “Betray” “You will betray me, baby and I will be true. I only ask that I can share dinner with you.” On the album it's over a funky, hip-hop track with trilling flutes and a standard chorale progression. But live, I could do something that's very stirring and agonized and pensive that could directly support the text.
WK: Huh. I don't exactly know what the recorded woman’s voice kept repeating in the show. At first, I heard what she said as wholly negative. But then, between later songs, you played the rest of the track, and it was revealed to be very different. I don't remember quite what that was.
SL: Yeah, you're totally right. I'm glad you picked up on that. In a sense it was a “Son Lux” song. It was small fragment of text that unfolds over time, that grows to take on an entirely other meaning than you originally thought. What the woman was saying was “I feel like I'm leaving. I feel like I'm leaving.” That's what she starts out saying. But she ends up saying “I feel like I'm leaving something for my family, something that they can take in the future...” Well, I'm paraphrasing a bit, but it was something like “you don't have to stay in this situation, you can overcome, you can turn right around like a ballerina and change your whole life.” That right there is a “Son Lux” song. Hopefully, you can add your own associations to it. I just love these little pieces of text that are broad, but engaging enough to link to your own experience. And what's funny is that I've read reviews saying “he really needs to learn how to write lyrics” or “the songs are really boring—there are not enough lyrics” [laughs]. In a sense I'm encouraged by that because it's going against the grain and tearing down some of the walls of a traditional song structure, of a traditional approach, even to lyrics. There can be something profound in mundane words like that.
WK: So, are there any upcoming projects for your Son Lux moniker, or some other grand collaborative project just as Ryan Lott?
SL: Well, all of the above, I guess. I just finished up a large-scale commission for Ballet de Lorraine, a French ballet company, choreographed by a New York City choreographer Steven Petronio. And it's appearing at the end of this month in Montpeiller, France. It was my first commission as Son Lux, which was kind of interesting. I used some existing music, but I mostly wrote new stuff, which will eventually, in some way or another, make it onto a new record. And I'm also writing for Gina Gibney who is a New York City choreographer, who is sort of a long-term collaborator, and some of that material will be the foundation for new recordings. 'm also finishing up an EP, which will be a series of reincarnations of the song "Weapons." It's a further extension of the minimal chant-based song-writing model, but taken to the extreme. I'm not sure when that's going to come out, or whether it's going to be free, or if I am going to charge for it. And I'm really excited about that. And speaking of Nico Muhly, [the other act on the Minneapolis bill], he actually did a remix of the song for the EP.
Weapons from At War with Walls & Mazes by Son Lux is used with permission.
WK: Of “Weapons”? He mentioned that he liked that melody a lot, didn't he?
SL: Yeah, he did. Oh, so you saw the first night, didn't you?
SL: Ah, shoot, the second night was a lot better. The second show was a little more extreme. In a sense, it was even more minimal. It was pretty sparse.I felt like I did well enough the first night that I was able to experiment and loosen up for the second show. So it was a better performance overall from my perspective...
WK: Maybe the next time you're in Minneapolis...