How Son Lux Left my Mind in Tatters
And a brief interview with guitarist Rafiq Bhatia…
If your concert history is longer than a single event, there’s a good chance you’re aware of the “it’s-better-if-you-already-love-the-song” phenomenon. There’s just something about anticipating a sound before it’s played that elevates a song watching experience to sensual nirvana. Don’t get me wrong, if you never heard of the opening band, or if the band you came to see decides to play a song from their upcoming album, I won’t deny that soul touching is still possible. But when I walk into a venue, wanting to hear those songs, and I’m not sure if they’ll play those songs, and then they do, those are the moments why I buy the ticket. I mean, consider for a moment going to a Vanilla Ice concert, and not hearing “Ice, Ice Baby.” It’s like, why even go to a Vanilla Ice concert if you can’t get down to “Ice, Ice Baby.” Unforgivable; you see my point. Well, the reason I’m saying all of this is because, through unavoidable circumstances, I really had no idea who Son Lux were as I stood in the Constellation Room last Friday night, waiting for them to take the stage. There were no songs I was looking forward to, and only a vague idea of what to expect. And yet, when the drumsticks were lowered, the PAs turned off, and the lights undimmed, I found myself paralyzed in a state of musical shellshock, my beliefs wholly defied. Now, you may think that’s just a bunch of empty words and rhetoric, but I’m prepared to dedicate an entire blogpost to explain how a band I’ve never even heard of before could actually live up to such exaggerative phrasing.
So who is Son Lux, you (and I) ask? Originally, and for the most part, “they” are just Ryan Lott. Mr. Lott has released four albums under this stage name, which I can’t help but appreciate as the best play on the word “sunlight” I’ve ever witnessed. Not that he’s been alone in the studio the whole time. A quick survey of his Wikipedia will tell you that he’s worked with many a distinguished artist throughout his career. However, after discovering a chemistry with his most recent touring band that could not be ignored, he decided to make Son Lux’s most recent album a fully collaborative effort. The result is Bones, a seamless blend of varied genres, quivering melodies, weird sounds, and unconventional rhythms. As suggested by these descriptions, Lott seemed eager to continue exploring the delightfully unpredictable world of “post-rock,” and with guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, and drummer Ian Chang at his side, that exploration was quite a sight to behold.
The immersion into their world began as soon as the lights turned low. After the initial “whoo’s” were gotten out of the way, a deep, rumbling bass began to vibrate the airwaves, shaking bowels and lubing up ear canals all across the room. By the time they walked onstage, this rumbling had blossomed into an all encompassing wall of synth. In spite of having no idea what to expect, when Chang began to pepper the soundscape with nimble, crescendoing fills, I knew exactly what was happening: I was witnessing the beginnings of a glorious build-up. This was later confirmed when the trio exploded into the thundering chorus of “Change is Everything.” This kind of impassioned momentum, attention to atmosphere, and emotional release characterized the concert as a whole, with each song inviting us to dance, sway, and groove in a world entirely its own.
Speaking of which, Son Lux’s set seemed to span across all manner of beat and sound, seemingly never comfortable within the confines of a single genre. Sometimes their music was so heavy and chaotic, it felt like my brain had eaten bath salts, sometimes it was downright thick with raunchy groove, and other times it was the equivalent of a warm musical blanket, gentle and reverberous to the point of mental cooing. The sonic and emotional valleys created by these highs, lows, and in-betweens had me constantly engaged, never knowing when I was going to be thrown about or tenderly cradled. Simply put, and in fun juxtaposition to the complex experience I just described, I found this to be totally awesome. And not just because it sounded so; as performers, all three of them were mesmerizing.
Whoever taught these men how to write and perform music is probably feeling pretty good about themselves right about now. But I suspect the kind of talent that they were kind enough to share with us was not the kind that is taught. For starters, Chang is a mad, masterful maestro behind the kit, kicking out intricate, syncopated, layered, textured beats with the ferocity of an angry wildebeest, and yet, the cool concentration of a surgeon in the OR. How he managed to combine these opposing qualities is both unclear and fascinating. With all kinds of electronic pads, two different snare drums, and smaller cymbals on top of his bigger cymbals, Chang certainly had more than enough to keep his hands, and our minds, busy the whole time. By the end of the night, he was a panting, sweaty mess, and I doubt he would have it any other way. Less sweaty, but no less intricate in his performance, was Mr. Bhatia on guitar.
For the first three songs, I wasn’t even sure if he knew how to play guitar like a normal person. He seemed far more concerned with providing important flourishes and atmospheric noise, either by wiggling vibrato out of individual notes, drenching those notes in cavernous reverb, hitting a bunch of them in what seemed like random order, scraping the ridges of a guitar string, etc. Like a disciple of Ed O’brien, he acted as the sonic glue that held his bandmates together. Some of the notes he strummed were more obscured by effects than the Edge’s wildest nightmares, and I was consistently, joyfully confused by the sounds he was able to emit from the audial weapon in his hands. His distortions were often so modulated, robotified, and novelly weird that I wouldn’t be surprised if he built his own pedals. Lastly, but not leastly, rounding out this artistic motley crew is none other than the son of light himself, Ryan Lott.
In general, I feel comfortable asserting that if you were curious to know which member of any given band was the most outwardly passionate performer, then you should look to the lead singer. There’s a certain emotional requirement to belting out the same notes night after night while looking not bored. I imagine it’s a lot like having to treat every concert like it’s the last one you’ll ever play. Which is exactly how I felt about Ryan’s performance. I could not help but fixate on the mannerisms of his musicianship; with his eyes closed, hands shaking with passion, his mind and body clearly enveloped by the soundscape it was creating, I felt like I was witnessing something truly special. Whether or not he is like this at every concert doesn’t matter, it wouldn’t have made his emotional display any less real. It was obvious that he truly cared about the songs he was sharing, that he wasn’t just up there for the adoration of strangers. When he clapped alongside the audience at the end of every song, it seemed in awe of his bandmates ability, of what he gets to call a job. And I appreciate that quite a bit.
However, these feelings and descriptions aren’t limited to just Lott; all three of them played, swayed, and grooved with their own unique display of raw contribution. When we were only, and sadly, a couple songs away from the inevitable denouement, it was all but expected when Ryan announced that there would be no encore. While his reasoning was that they had a long night of driving ahead of them, his playful slandering and dismissal of the usual encore routine — in which bands pretend to leave, and then come back once they’ve gotten enough people to yell about it — felt like a natural move for a band who has no obvious interest in being restrained by commonality. Needless to say, and as far as I’m concerned, these guys deserve the Staples Center, not an indie venue. And if you do anything else with the miracle of life today, I implore that it consists of Googling this band.
Below you’ll find a short interview with the guitarist of Son Lux, Rafiq Bhatia. He was kind enough to answer a few questions that I felt would expand on the experience I just wrote about. Enjoy!
Joey – Who are your inspirations? What artists/musicians make you want to sit down and write a song?
Rafiq Bhatia – We’re all musically omnivorous, but we also come from distinct backgrounds, so our collective list is long and varied. It would have to include Björk, Coltrane, Dylan, Hendrix, Madlib, Portishead, Prince, and Radiohead, but honestly it would span pages. But mainly, we all owe an enormous debt to African and African-American musics.
Joey – What is your writing process like? How are songs born, and how do you know it is ready to master?
Rafiq Bhatia – Often, we start with sound itself, cultivating a single sound or environment that inspires a broader form, chords, melody, lyrics, etc. Lyrics and melody tend to come last in our music, actually, which is the opposite of how most bands write. Ryan likes to compare it to starting with a particular chair, and then designing a room around the chair, and then a house around the room, and so on, as opposed to the traditional approach where the house is designed first. It allows us to weave the specific characteristics of sound into the song in a way that we never could if we approached it the other way around.
Joey – Do you have any goals as a performer, or as a band? I guess another way to put it is, what is it that makes you look back at a show and go, “Gee golly, now that was a concert”?
Rafiq Bhatia – I don’t think any of us have ever said “gee golly” in our lives! But I think we would all agree that an ideal show is consistently surprising, dynamic, and unique, yet also personal, vulnerable, and intimate, and when it feels like the audience and the performer have shared a special and one of a kind moment.
Joey – What is the best concert you’ve ever bought tickets to? And why is it so?
Rafiq Bhatia – We’ve all been fortunate enough to experience so many great shows, but one unforgettable one that comes to mind is seeing Portishead together at Melt! Festival in 2014. Set amongst gigantic old mining machines lit up in color, the band delivered one of the most powerful, surprising, and sonically detailed performances we’ve ever heard. A “gee golly” kind of moment if we’ve ever had one.