Article by: Jamie McCormick | Photo Credits: Brenden Beecy & Pete Gibson | Posted: 09/24/2012
As the actor, nervous and twitching, creeps slowly through a darkened room, each step is accentuated by a single jarring tone. Underneath those highlights, one long and foreboding note rings out, sustained, alarming, electrifying. Ryan Lott is hard at work, assisting the composer of the film Looper, on arrangements, orchestrations, instrument design, and playing piano. As easily as if they were two pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, he snaps together music and acting, creating a larger and more compelling scene, and fusing together two different yet complementary worlds.
Both stylistically and instrumentally, Lott's music has long resided far outside the realm of the ordinary. But for the film, the composer, Nathan Johnson, and director, Rian Johnson, took the endeavor one step farther, recording sounds on set and bringing them to Lott, where he and Nathan created not only the music, but the tools with which to make the music itself. “We worked together to design virtual instruments from field recordings,” explains Lott. “They're playable instruments that are created from sounds that he recorded on location on the set and in the surrounding area down in New Orleans.” But not only did Lott come out of the project with a few new instruments and his name on a major film soundtrack, he also walked away with an amped-up arsenal. “It was one of those things where I learned a lot about myself and about my tools,” he recalls. “It was a pressure-cooker situation.”
Lott, who releases music under the moniker Son Lux, is no stranger to high pressure situations. In fact, he is a decorated veteran. In February, 2011, Lott accepted a challenge from an NPR reporter, writing and recording his entire sophomore offering, We Are Rising, for the annual world-wide RPM Challenge – a contest that requires an artist to go from a blank page to a finished record during the unfathomably short 28 day month. “I actually don't really think of it as difficult in my memory,” says Lott, slightly incredulous himself. But “I'm sure that the me of February, 2011, would probably disagree with me.” And that album has debuted to high critical acclaim, a hard thing to accomplish even with years of tweaking.
But Lott sees an easy explanation for the fact that he was able to churn out such a high quality album with so little in the way of time and resources. The answer lies in his approach, his manner of music-making. In order to make an album easily, he simply makes it hard on himself, by way of “purposeful limitations.” “One of my creative philosophies is that limitations stretch creativity,” he theorizes. “The more you present yourself with roadblocks, the more you are forced to find detours creatively. And those detours will always be the less traveled path.”
So while Lott wandered around in the metaphorical musical woods last February, searching for a quick direction in which to carry his time-cramped album, he found himself at the edge of a cliff with his feet standing on a new path, one he had never traveled. “I had never imposed the limitation of time on myself,” he says. “Having to follow through on all of my initial impulses rather than constantly explore and re-approach from various perspectives was probably the biggest challenge, because it was so different from the way I usually create music.” But once he set down the path, there was no pausing, no looking back, no second guessing. There remained only the need, the desire, and the ability, to create overwhelmingly brilliant and utterly unique music.
And impressive though his work continually proves, in quality, quantity, and clip, Lott's fluency in the language of music becomes all the more sensational in light of his musical heritage. In short, he has none. Claiming to be from “a family where no one is musical,” Lott admits that he hated his childhood piano lessons, “a necessary evil”, which were “really more a rule of discipline than anything else.” He recalls, “That particular iteration of piano performance wasn't my shtick.” The young man, growing in himself and his music, wanted fun. But his teacher set his attitude straight. “I said, 'It's just not fun anymore,' and I remember it so vividly -- she said, 'At some point, it can't be about fun anymore.'”
So Lott gritted his teeth and dug in his heels, sticking it out through the lessons in order to get to the good part that he had discovered around the age of ten, the only part that kept him coming back to the keys. “Music came alive to me when I realized I could make it, as opposed to recreating it,” he remembers. “It wasn't just something to learn and to execute, but it was something I could actually create myself.” Even early, before he really new all the forms that music could take, he liked the fresh, clean air on the outskirts of the industry where he had the open space to create without running into anyone else's style.
With the help of an awesome new teacher, who rocked mismatched Converse as hard as the icons in the posters on his wall rocked a guitar, Lott found a new musical trajectory. He explains, “What [my new teacher] did was help me to be open-minded about music in a way that embraced both worlds as the same world -- which is why he introduced me to some really cool music, like pop music that demonstrated a level of creativity and technical prowess that I had only heard previously in classical music.”
Transporting that lesson into his college dorm room, Lott maintained a foothold in both worlds, continuing to stitch them together. “It was that parallel nature that gave me a pretty well-rounded musical education. I didn't have one without the other,” he recalls. “And for that reason, I was able to continue on that path of thinking of both worlds as really the same world. The skills and techniques and ideas that I glean from one are open game for use in the other.
Now Lott carries that approach with him into all of his many undertakings. And why not? It found him a spot on the roster of the collaborative and pattern-shattering label Anticon, and it paved the way for the parallel education that would make possible the music on both We Are Rising and his new project s / s / s, a collaboration with Sufjan Stevens and rapper Serengeti. Lott explains the beauty of the trio, who ended up as an accidental group formed through a series of “I bet this could be cool” experiments, saying, “We wound up challenging each other into places that we wouldn't have gone without each other. What we were doing was so... We weren't following anyone's template.”
And that is just how Lott likes it. How does he write the strange and haunting and beautiful tracks that coalesce into an auditory painting unlike any you have ever heard? He lays out the process, so simple and natural to him, and yet so seldom used: “Doing a lot with a little, exploring the possibilities of collagist production, the juxtaposition of elements that are unrelated, and creating new things from the amalgam of things that are from different sources.” When such process as that is the result, you can only thank the heavens for moms who make their kids stick out piano lessons.
Son Lux - "Weapons VII"