Photo: Djeneba Aduayom

A Gaggle of Elephants: In Conversation with Son Lux’s Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang

Alternative experimental trio Son Lux are as unafraid to look into the hopeless abysses of the world as they are ambitious. It’s this fearlessness that has culminated in their biggest project yet: the Tomorrows trilogy of albums, with each instalment containing ten tracks that veer between apocalyptic despair, harrowing introspection and the fundamental desire to liberate oneself from dark forces.

I recently had the honour of speaking two-thirds of the band – guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang. Lead singer Ryan Lott was occupied but he’s still very present as the love and admiration his bandmates have for him is very apparent in this interview. We speak about COVID (naturally), recording, collaborations, sequencing, their penchant for darkness (and light), and the violent footage that inspired their amazing album opener “Unbind” and the title of this interview. Don’t forget to check out our review of the amazing Tomorrows III and listen to the whole Tomorrows trilogy because it is truly something great.

When we were trying to organise this interview earlier, I was told that you were in “deadline mode.” What exactly happens when you’re in this mode?

Ian: Well it’s funny because I think for us – and as Rafiq had mentioned to you earlier – we were talking about how we all live in different cities. It’s a lot of like…texting [laughs]. Like it’s a lot of trying to communicate little details about music. Being like: “So yeah…between 3:18 and 3:19 there’s this one sound that could use less mid-range.” A lot of that happening between the three of us and just making sure everything’s approved and we’re all feeling everything. But it does get frantic and we usually have a joint Google Doc of running notes and making sure every song’s been touched. And I will say that one thing that has definitely made it all possible [for the Tomorrows trilogy] to get done in time was offloading some of the mixing to our mix engineer Chris Tabron. Ryan used to sort of handle mixing all of the Son Lux material but lately having a different set of ears and outside perspective working on that has really helped streamline our process. It definitely gets hectic.

You mentioned texting – has it always been like that or specifically because of COVID?

Ian: It’s kinda always been like that. We usually have times as a band together in person but that’s typically earlier in the process. It’s usually for the recording and kind of getting a lot of material together that we can then all – and mostly Ryan to be honest – shape in our studios at home.

What’s the feeling when you finally complete such a large project? Do you guys feel elated, or perhaps bittersweet that it’s over – or just complete relief?

Rafiq: I feel like this exceptional circumstance. A lot of times when you finish a recording you’re sort of looking ahead to a long process of it getting into a queue and then waiting around. Eventually it’ll come out and probably by the time between [finishing] writing the music and it coming out you had to proof-listen to like, thousands of versions of the same file to the point where you’ve beat the music to death in your own mind. But then there’s this other gratification that comes from starting to imagine what it’ll be like to play the music live and for us that’s like a whole other chapter in its development. We’re not the kind of band where the record is like a document of the way we play together or something like that. It’s more constructed and then we have to figure out how what we’ve made translates to playing it. Then that sort of ends up having all sorts of implications for how the song grows and changes over time. There’s something really exciting about this one because we’re finishing it so close to when it’s actually gonna be heard by other people that we can get really excited about it right now, but then it’s offset by this sadness a little bit knowing that there’s no telling of or when we’ll be able to play this stuff live.

Since you mentioned concerts – that’s probably one of the most demoralising aspects of the pandemic for people in the music industry. They’re not able to tour or really meet with fans as much as they previously could – if at all. Obviously last year was awful due to the pandemic – and politics – and so on a personal note, how have you guys been doing during these tumultuous times?

Ian: It’s definitely been a huge adjustment. All three of us are obviously used to a life of touring and stuff like that, but I think I tour the most out of the three of us [laughs] because I also tour with other artists. I was supposed to have a full year of touring; playing drums for Moses Sumney – it was just something that felt like it got cut short. I’ve really just mainly been on the road touring for 10 years or so, which is long enough time that I feel my brain is hardwired a certain way – if that makes sense? So I had to adjust; I pretty much stay at home and walk my dog and go to the grocery store. But also in a weird way it’s been something that I realise I needed in my life personally. I have to say I feel very lucky that I have been able to sort of work steadily on various projects including the three volumes of Tomorrows, and to be honest, the record is probably stronger because we’ve been able to hole up and really spend as much time as we have on it. So yeah, it’s obviously been a lot of setbacks and negatives but I’ve been trying to focus on the things I can be grateful for as well. And I’m grateful that we’ve been able to be this active recording and making music together because I miss these guys a lot… like, I haven’t seen them in almost a full year now and still being able to feel connected through making music has really helped for sure.

I know you guys said that you typically work remotely with each other but was there any kind of adjustments that arose?

Rafiq: I mean, there was definitely an adjustment – the biggest was that Ryan and his family relocated. What had been planned as a short visit that happened to fall on the weekend the lockdown started turned into them not leaving. So Ryan had a suitcase and a little pelican case of his most essential gear with him. That just turned into him finding different spaces for work and thinking he was gonna be there a little longer…and ended up just being there the whole time. But I think it’s also hard to say how much of the adjustment was due to the pandemic because there were so many taking place before the pandemic started.

We kept making more music, and what started out as just us kind of deciding not to be focused on the idea of an album or treat the album as a sacred length of time turned into this open-ended sort of ‘what could it be?’ or ‘how might we present this to people?’ As we kept thinking about that, we kept making more things so it was ongoing for sure. But I think the most remarkable thing was how much it didn’t change for us; I think we were just really lucky that we already were sort of in the mode of collaborating from afar.

Ian: And we had also just spent a lot of time in person working together. Like we did a couple of weeks in New York and in March of last year. We had a week and a half in LA where we working and specifically also trying to wrap our heads around sequencing a three volume release. I think we had like 30-something ideas we had to review. We also did some recording as well that ended up being pretty crucial, and that was the last time I saw these guys.

Rafiq: Yeah I flew out the same day so… We just ended up staying in those places. Frozen.

As regards sequencing, was the Tomorrows trilogy all worked on in no particular order and you had to go from there?

Ian: The way it actually started was: The day after Brighter Wounds was handed into the label, Ryan started doing a thing where he would generate a new idea everyday. And actually the idea he generated on day one is on Volume III – That’s “The Hour”. So it wasn’t done in any order whatsoever. It was kind of like Ryan started generating an idea a day for a while and then we just started gravitating to some and scrapped some. That last trip to LA we laid it all out and was like ‘okay how can we sequence this and organise this in a way that feels like it’s all interconnected but feels also like it’s got three sections.’ And also we weren’t done with any of the music at this point, so it was all instrumental. I think Ryan had some ideas in his head for lyrics and melodies but we were still figuring out a lot of stuff. So it was an interesting process – totally different from anything we’d done before in terms of sequencing.

Well, for the record, they all flow amazingly, so your decisions paid off. One album is already such a huge project to undertake – what do you guys consider to be the overarching narrative of the Tomorrows trilogy and why explore it across three albums? We’re lucky these days if albums have more than eight tracks so to have 30 new tracks is quite a gift for us fans.

Rafiq: Something that permeates the lyrics but is also very present in how the music has been put together is what we might call ‘sustained frictional spaces’ inside the music where you can hear components that are rubbing against each other, or parting ways from each other. It’s not something that happens in a moment and then it’s over, it’s a more sustained peeling apart and dovetailing and these kind of motions. Something that we all kept returning to was just the idea of sitting with the tension and allowing ourselves to not summarise it or wrap it in a bow, but just kind of sit there, let it do what it does and be in that moment, in that space with things that are unravelling.

Sitting with the tension is definitely something we all had to learn to do the past year so that’s very adept. From what you’ve told me I feel there was already this consensus that you guys were going to do three albums. Who was the one who officially broached the idea of multiple albums and what was your response?

Ian: I think it was our manager. His initial idea was six EPs instead of three albums, but we distilled into that which I’m really glad we did actually. Just trying to figure out a way in which we can release more music over a longer period of time rather than ‘here’s ten songs! We’ll see you in a year or two!’. We were all really drawn to the idea and Ryan had already started cooking up enough stuff that we knew it would be possible.

I think the one idea that really sold me on it was talking about how in doing three volumes it would give us a lot more leeway to explore non-song formats or instrumental tracks. Stuff that on a regular album there’s pressures not to do because you want every song to be like a song that can maybe be playlisted or whatever. But for us I think our curiosity as musicians and producers has always been the scope of it – bigger than what we’ve allowed ourselves to be in Son Lux. So in kinda expanding the format it gave us space to do different things that have always been at our fingertips but have never given ourselves permission to do.

As regards instrumentals, your entire discography is quite unconventional that I feel you could write lyrics to anything. But how do you make that decision about which songs become an instrumental?

Rafiq: A lot of that ends up coming down to Ryan’s experience as he’s shaping some of these things. Keeping in mind the fact that we usually start with the music and the lyrics are kind of written in response to the world of sound or the rhythmic idea that underlines something. The song will kind of be like scoring the instrumental rather than the other way around. A lot of the musical aspects come early on in the process and then it sort of turns into something where, as Ryan is working with something a song, the lyrics and that side of the song might emerge from that interaction. But also, there’s an example – it’s not always the case – of a song that’s on Tomorrows III, “Sever”, that we had for a long time assumed it was going to be an instrumental. But we worked with a really amazing collaborator, Holland Andrews, who’s a vocalist who has this kind of amazing range with their voice and can create everything from these angelic vocal sounds to just very intense, visceral, fraying noise with her voice. So originally we had thought that maybe we’d generate vocal textures or something like that for the piece so it that it might still be instrumental, but they actually ended up writing something over it that had words and sending it back to us and it turned into a song and it’s one of all of our favourite songs that we’ve ever made. So sometimes the inspiration comes from somewhere else and that was really fun for that to happen this time around.

On “Sever”, I didn’t realise there was a feature so I thought it was Ryan doing his vocal manipulations. I was like “Wow he’s really feeling the gospel on this track! Really belting!”

Ian: He wishes [laughs].

Rafiq: He’ll be intensely flattered that you thought that well of him.

You started this trilogy three and a half years ago and it feels like it inadvertently portended future events. But you’ve always had some of the apocalyptic in your music. What draws you to this darker subject matter and is it difficult to get in that headspace?

Ian: That’s an interesting question because I do have friends who are like “Yeah I really enjoy what Son Lux does but man I cannot really listen to it that much because it’s so intense and so dark.” And I get that… I don’t really have a real answer for that question. One thing I will say is that Ryan – back when Son Lux was his solo project – was already kind of developing a very distinct sound that is Son Lux you know? And so when Rafiq and I are joined we weren’t trying to completely uproot it and make it something totally different. We found a lot of commonality in things we like to gravitate towards and building a language together. But it was growing out of what Ryan had already started, and I think he’s always been coming from a place where he’s exploring darker subject matters in his songs, both sonically and lyrically. I’m not sure why we are the way we are [laughs].

Rafiq: I mean it’s funny because we’re all like incredibly silly human beings.

Ian: Especially Ryan.

To flip the script from your darker side, I read on your Reddit AMA that somebody asked what the definitive venue for a Son Lux concert would be and one of you answered “above a dark ocean.” But I feel like it would be a dark ocean with those luminescent plankton because you guys have some really bright, inspiring tracks. How is the vibe of recording these compared to when you’re creating the darker stuff?

Ian: It’s so hard to say because the way that our ideas develop typically come from these tiny seeds. I think maybe one way to describe Son Lux’s music is that it tends to be quite cinematic or at least, it’s stuff that works well with picture. And again I couldn’t definitely say why that is but Ryan definitely has a lot of experience writing to picture with movie scoring, so I think in a way, the more inspiring and uplifting stuff and the darker, more brooding stuff is like two sides of the same coin.

I think the variation is what makes your music so great. For example, I love that Tomorrows II starts off so sad with “Warning” and then we head to “Prophecy” and it’s a great uplifting contrast.

So let’s talk about Tomorrows III. The opening track “Unbind” is incredible and really packs a punch. Rafiq you were obviously the one casually shredding on the guitar and Ian you were obviously on drums – was that all improvised and how many takes did it take to get that all down?

Ian: I think you did two or three takes and I think I did three maybe. It was improvised.

Rafiq: I can’t remember how it came up or what got us thinking about it but there’s this very intense footage, which I think is from Planet Earth, but it’s of this situation where there’s a pack of lions who are starving and they are essentially in a situation where if they don’t find some food they’re not gonna make it. And there is – I don’t know what the correct term is for a group of elephants. A family of elephants? What is it?

Ian: A gaggle.

Rafiq: [laughs] But in any event, an elephant is very dangerous prey for a lion but because they’re desperate they try to see if they can hunt the elephants and they manage to separate one from the rest. They challenge the elephant and what happens is at the beginning the elephant is mighty and is able to carry all the lions and they’re struggling to make any headway. But eventually the elephant succumbs to the lion and it’s gut-wrenching – the spectrum of emotions that I felt from watching it… But we were talking about it and something about that idea that Ryan had written that’s like the core melody inspired us to try a series of improvisations that were channelling that footage. We weren’t watching it while we were playing, but it was playing in the control room while we were doing our respective improvisations. I think we had Ian go in first, and just based on what he played I felt like I want to play something too. So my part was improvised in response to Ian’s part.

I had no idea that song was inspired by something so…awful [laughs]. There’s also a lot more features on this album such as Khadja Bonet, Holland Andrews and Kiah Victoria. What made you want to centralise all the features on this particular instalment?

Ian: I think we knew we wanted Holland on “Sever” and we knew that Khadja was going to be on “Plans We Made”, but in a more sort of background role – and “Plans We Make” and “Plans We Made” used to be one track, rather than one song on Tomorrows I and one song on Tomorrows III. We decided to make them into two separate things where Khadja takes the lead on “Plans We Make” and Ryan takes the lead on “Plans We Made”. And then Kiah was kind of a surprise – I think Ryan was working on “Vacancy” and it was just something that hit him that we should have her sing a verse. And I think that was a good decision.

It was a very natural kind of thing but I also do like that it kind of feels that towards the end of the volume we’re kind of opening up in a way that Son Lux really hasn’t before on a proper Son Lux album that isn’t like a reworks. I don’t think we’ve ever had this many instances of different singers basically taking the lead vocal. It’s been a learning experience and I think it’s something I’m excited about and hope that we get to do more of in the future. It was very invigorating.

Rafiq: It was also funny because that was the original idea for Ryan when he was starting the Son Lux project. He didn’t actually plan on singing in the band.

Ian: Like at all.

Rafiq: He wanted other singers to sing all the songs and he recorded his own voice as a way to like demo them. And he started sending them to friends and people who he admired, and people kept being like ‘oh whose voice is that? It’s really weird but it’s really cool.’ And he was like: ‘Oh yeah…I’ll let them know.’ [laughs]. So there’s an aspect of that that feels really natural to all of us because that’s just how he’s sort of thinking of it as. And also, I would say that all of us collaborate heavily, but Ryan is someone who – speaking personally at least – I’ve learned a lot about the selflessness with which he approaches collaborative situations and his willingness specifically to shift the entire song on a dime if he feels another idea is presenting itself that might be more interesting or exciting. He’s not precious about his own ideas to the extent that many other people are in a lot of cases and so, it’s also just cool to watch that go down and have that really make space for some other voices towards the end of this volume.

I’m glad he did decide to sing because he has a fantastic voice. Now across all 30 tracks of the trilogy, what is your favourite song?

Ian & Rafiq: [contemplative silence]

You can do your top three if that’s easier?

Ian: Okay I’ll do the top one from each volume because right now I’m the most enamoured with Volume III because it’s so close to us. But from Volume III it’s probably a tie between “Sever” and “Vacancy”; I really love both of those a lot and I feel good saying that too because I actually like didn’t do too much on those ones, so my ego isn’t really wrapped up in it [laughs]. From Volume I think “Undertow” is a favourite for me and Volume II it’s between “Leaves” and I do like “Prophecy” a lot. I think it’s definitely one of our sunnier numbers and it’s a song that is just very different for us and I was really stoked with how it came out. It almost felt like it came out from a different band but not in a way.

Rafiq: I mean mine are pretty similar [laughs]. I think right now from III “Sever” is my favourite. I love “Vacancy” though – that’s up there for sure. And from II I like “Prophecy” a lot, but also there’s one of the instrumental tracks on there that’s called “The Weight of Your Air” which is actually related to “Molecules”. I have soft spot for that one. And from Volume I, at the time it came out I think “Undertow” was my favourite song on it but over time that has actually changed and I would say now “Only”.

It’s probably a little ungrateful to ask this question because you guys have recorded three albums, recorded a podcast [appropriately titled: Plans We Make] and released solo projects but what’s next – what more can you give us [laughs]. No but what’s 2021 looking like for Son Lux… A well-deserved break perhaps?

Ian: Not at all. A bunch of things.

Rafiq: I don’t really know how much we can say…

Ian: I think we can say that we are scoring a film that will be finished this year. I have no idea when it will be released. And I can say that it’s gonna be really insane. It’s been a real experience working on it and we’ve still got a bunch to do. And then around that, there’s gonna be a lot of other Tomorrows-related stuff coming through. Remixes that other artists have done and also some reworks. And there’s a few other collaborative projects in the pipeline but yeah – we’re not taking a break, there’s gonna be plenty more for people to sink their teeth into.

Son Lux’s Tomorrows III is out now on City Slang (read our review). You can follow Son Lux on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.