In the 1991 film Barton Fink, John Turturro plays a tortured writer trying to make it in Hollywood. "I've always found that writing comes from a great inner pain," he argues at one point with a colleague. "Maybe it's a pain that comes from a realization that one must do something for one's fellow man — to help somehow ease his suffering. Maybe it's a personal pain. At any rate, I don't believe good work is possible without it." The other writer, halfway through a bottle of Wild Turkey, shrugs and says "Well me, I just enjoy making things up."
Sometimes art comes from divine inspiration and sometimes it's just showing up and doing the work. The electronic musician known as Son Lux (a.k.a. Ryan Lott) got to consider as much when he agreed to our challenge to write and record an entire album, from start to finish, this past February. We were inspired to ask him by the small New Hampshire-based music magazine The Wire, which invites musicians everywhere to produce an entire record each February, the shortest month of the year. They call it the RPM Challenge - 10 tracks or 35 minutes of music in four short weeks.
Remarkably, Son Lux not only made the panic-inducing deadline, he also wrote and recorded a moving, powerful collection of new songs that stand up against anything on his 2008 debut At War With Walls And Mazes, a near-genius album he spent four years producing.
You can hear the entire new Son Lux album, We Are Rising, on our First Listen series, two weeks before its official release. In the interview below, Ryan Lott talks about the creative process and how the record came together for him.
Robin: So I gotta ask you, Ryan, what did you think when I pitched this idea to you? What was your initial reaction?
Son Lux: Oh man. Well, my initial reaction was I absolutely cannot do this. This is just not in the cards for me. It was just like, ah that's too bad because that would have been a super cool opportunity, what a cool thing for them to think of me, blah, blah, blah. So I slept on it and I told a couple of people about it, one of whom is my manager, Michael. He was like, "Oh dude you have to do this." (Laughs)
Robin: So what made you ultimately decide, "I'm going to go for it?"
Son Lux: You know honestly it was totally a gut thing, which turned out to sort of be the theme for the month. Just go with your gut.
Robin: So you're looking down the barrel of the shortest month of the year, and you have a whole lot of music to create, did you have a game plan? Did you map it all out, or did you think "I'm just going to let one idea lead to the next and hopefully it's going to work out?"
Son Lux: Absolutely the second thing. I felt like somewhere I had it in me but it was just going to be a sprint and I'm just going to hit the ground running, and come up with as many ideas as possible in as little time as possible, and I'm just going to follow through on those ideas, which was new for Son Lux. Son Lux before had always been like, I'll come up with an idea and work on it for a day or two, then I'll put it away for like a month. And if I come back in a month and it still totally rocks, I'll continue work on it. If it's like "eh," generally I'll just toss it. This time I didn't have that leisure which, in the end, taught me a lot about myself. But also just turned out great. I had to come up with those ideas and no matter what I thought of them, I had to follow through on them, which gave them a chance in a way that maybe they wouldn't have had in a normal situation.
Robin: I think working like this raises so many interesting questions about what it means to make art. You know, I'm reminded of a friend of mine who's a painter and very successful. I mean he makes oil paintings and actually makes a living selling those oil paintings. And I asked him one time, "what's your secret? How is it that you succeed at this when so many other people are still struggling?" And he just said "It's a lot of work." And so he really believes that when it comes to creating great works of art, it's not necessarily waiting for some sort of divine inspiration. It's just putting time in a chair and working.
Son Lux: Yeah, that's definitely true. For me, that's half of it. The other half is just being given the opportunity. You know, life deals you hands you have to deal with, and fortunately for me I was dealt a great hand. But yeah the other half is that with the hand you've been given, you know, work your ass off. Fortunately for me, it's so ridiculously fun to make music that working really hard, as hard as I can exhausts me but also energizes me in a really important way.
Robin: How do you compare this to a project like At War With Walls And Mazes, an album you spent, I read, four years working on that record, and it's a great record — this one, to me, stands up very well to that record, and you did it in four weeks versus four years — can a real work of art be something, let's say, that you just make up? You know, you're not deeply inspired, you're just making things up?
Son Lux: Yeah, I mean honestly, this record was more like improvisation. I mean it's definitely composing. But it's the closest I've come to improvising in the studio, which was fun. That's another thing I learned about myself. But the thing with my first record, I was halfway through it before I even realized or admitted that I was making a record. I wasn't supposed to sing, I was going to find someone who could sing. Or some people who could sing, to sing the songs, to even write the melodies and lyrics themselves. At some point I just started recording scratch vocals and was like, well, this kind of works. My voice is kind of ugly in maybe a cool way, and the music is so architectural, it's just so, if the vocals were that way (too), maybe it'd be overall too mathematical or too clean. So the yin and yang kind of came into play there and I realized that maybe I'm creating an alter ego and it sings and produces music. So that's one of the reasons it took so long, because I was just doing it for fun and realized it was a record about halfway through. This time, I knew March first I needed to have a record. (Laughs)
Robin: Well I think the point you're making, also, is that great art sometimes happens accidentally.
Son Lux: Absolutely.
Robin: You know, while you're busy doing something else, you don't realize that it's happening.
Son Lux: Yeah, that's very true.
Robin: You said you learned a lot about yourself during this whole process. What's something that you learned about yourself?
Son Lux: I learned that at this point in my career, or at least at this point in my career with Son Lux, that I can trust my instincts. I don't think that I could have said that about myself even a year ago. And that was a super important lesson. I also learned that before this month I knew about myself that I could have great ideas, but that I guess I always assumed that they took a lot of time. And that's probably just because they did. More and more I've become faster, working faster. A lot of that is because of my day job. I'm constantly working on deadlines. I was in three different genres today, just before this interview. So I'm constantly turning things around really fast. And before I started writing for ads, I thought I was fast. And I definitely wasn't. So, this time I learned that those instincts aren't always going to be great. But by now, I think I can lean on those instincts and trust my gut more.
Robin: You talked about working with other people, you had ideas that you were going to work with other people with the first record and ended up doing a lot yourself. I was surprised by how many people you brought on to help you with the new record that you're calling We Are Rising. You're an electronic artist and you have the ability to create many sounds entirely on your own that imitate acoustic instruments, pizzicato strings or whatever it may be. But rather than do that, you gathered all your friends from different places all over the country and had them record snippets and send them to you. And that just struck me as the most time consuming — you're doing it the hardest way possible! You've got four weeks to do this record, why are you trying to corral all these people from all over the country to help you out when this is something you could probably play on your own really quickly? Just find the right sample for it.
Son Lux: Well I have to disagree with that. Sample libraries are fantastic for mockups. And through the process of heavy manipulation, which I do frequently, they can be incredible assets. And it's maybe weird to sound so old school, but humans in a room, on instruments that they've fought with and learned to love over the course of decades, there is absolutely no substitute for that. And that comes through a microphone. Not only that, but dude, it is so unbelievably fun to work with other people. And it's partly my arrogance and megalomania, but I love to hear other people play my stuff and interpret it through their limbs and vocal chords. It's totally thrilling and scratches my ego in an awesome way. (Laughs)
Robin: Well, it also probably takes the music in surprising directions, too.
Son Lux: Absolutely. And for me, that's sort of the other thing I learned about myself is that I'm reactionary. I hear something and I react and that glues itself to the piece. And a lot of times what happens is I'll hear something and it turns the whole course of the composition on its ear. And then everything reorients itself around that surprise. 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.
Robin: Was there ever a moment when you were working on this project and just panicked and thought "there's no way I'm going to make this?"
Son Lux: There was a panic moment with, ironically, what was the simplest song, which was "Flowers." Well, I see it as the simplest song. What happened is, the song is super sad. I sort of dreaded working on it every time. I love it and I think it's beautiful. But it just feels so sad. And there was so much awesome, fun energy on this record that even in the darker parts or more melancholy moments that just the creation of it was so much fun, that it didn't really get me down. This song, I just dreaded working on it. I got to the very last day, which was just supposed to be about polishing up mixes, and I pulled up this track and thought it was finally time to deal with it. And I realized the only vocal I had recorded for it was a scratch vocal. I'd put away the mic and was totally outside of the tracking mode at that point. I mean this was my last day. And I had this panicked moment where not only am I afraid of this song, but now I've got to go and record the saddest vocal on the whole thing and I had to do it on a time crunch. It's the kind of thing where I'd never put myself in that kind of situation. But I looped it and what printed was a comp of the first two takes, so in the end there was no need to worry. But maybe some of that worry and stress found its way onto the tape.
Robin: Do you feel comfortable saying where that song was coming from for you that it was so difficult to work through it?
Son Lux: I usually like to avoid giving explanations of my songs, of the meanings, because — this is a really important thing for me — the meaning I have or at least the associations I have with a song are just one person's associations. And I would love to think that people can interact and engage with the music in a way that they bring their own stories and their own associations and their own thoughts to it that aren't necessarily learned from the songwriter or the composer. Does that make sense?
Robin: Totally, sure.
Son Lux: So I'd hate to say it's one thing and people say "Oh, that's what it's about," and then miss some beautiful story that may unfold in their mind as they listen. One of the coolest things for me about music is that once it's made it's not really yours anymore. Most music I make is for export. You know, there's very little that I keep to myself that no one hears. And once it's exported, what happens in people's ears is their own experience and it's totally awesome. Every once in a while I'll get notes from people and they'll tell me a story that happened to them and how the song relates to the story or something, and it's at that moment that I'm reminded that even my music is not my music. Once it's out the door it belongs to everyone. That sounds so cheesy.
Robin: Well, it sort of takes on a life of its own.
Son Lux: Absolutely.
Robin: So what's next? You've got this record that at the beginning of the year you weren't expecting to have and now you have it. Are you going to tour with it?
Son Lux: Yeah, I'm already working out live arrangements for these. And I sort of hate performing so, in a way, to make it less painful for me, I just think of it as composing. So I go back through and sort of recompose each one, because a lot of my songs are basically little plain chant melodies, so I can get away with doing that. I can totally just turn everything on its head and keep the melody.
Robin: What did you end up doing with all the Son Lux songs you were working on before this project?
Son Lux: Well yeah, so I have this whole other record I'm super excited about that, I mean, it's pretty close. There are some things I'm going to reconsider now having done a few ideas better on this one. I'm going to go back and see if maybe there's a better way to do those that would one-up myself again. (Laughs)
Robin: And maybe we won't have to wait another three years.
Son Lux: You definitely won't because I've already been working on it about that long. But I think there's something to be said about a creative process that's deliberately slow. There's the deliberately quick and going with gut instincts. But even as much as I loved the gut instinct thing, I don't think it's better than the more labored patient process. They're just different. And you can do both wrong and you can do both right. So I'm really interested in seeing now with a fresh look, looking back at my stuff, and really I have maybe 18 projects, 18 songs that I can come back to in a bit.
Robin: Now that it's all done, I have to ask, given the chance, would you do it all over again?
Son Lux: I definitely would. I'd love to do more, in general, of recording instruments and my ideas very early. Tracking ideas very early. I could still prolong the process of working with that audio. But this time it was just awesome because I literally did all my tracking in the first 15 days, except for my vocals. Which meant that people were literally walking through the door and I was writing their parts as they were unpacking. And where I didn't have time to actually (write out) the notes, I'd just try to verbally communicate, "Okay, now for this part maybe just loop back to that one section, but change up the order of the notes and play them all staccato." And then after the fact we could massage and rework, because I'm a collagist, I'm a sample-ist. So a lot of the coolest arrangements aren't things that I was clever enough to come up with on paper. But once I had the crutch of my ear, if you want to think about it that way, I could then craft it into really cool and clever ideas. And I got a lot out of that. I think one of the things that I didn't do great in the record was just that: Waiting too long to track the different instruments. Waiting too long until all the notes were already set. I think I'm going to just kind of, I don't know, screw that process for the next project. And as I go back, I'm going to just go with my gut, track the stuff, and then work with my mind and ear after the fact.
Robin: Well, I can't tell you how excited we were that you did this, and it was just so cool watching these songs unfold on the blog. And it's going to be even cooler now for everybody to hear what you came up with. So thank you for being fearless and taking this on. It's been one of the coolest things we've done.
Son Lux: Well thanks, man. I'm so thankful for the opportunity. I mean all the things I learned about myself this past month, I don't know how I could have otherwise. So thank you so much.