The 2016 presidential election undoubtedly shook the artistic community to its core, because the message at the center of the winning candidate basically stood for everything that art is against.
Art is all about inclusion, imagination and empathy, and when faced with the idea of authoritarianism, censure and intolerance, it can either prove to be a weapon or shelter. But art, especially under times of distress, can take time to create, which is why it can’t always respond immediately to world events or what’s affecting the lives of those who create it. In Remedy, Son Lux are trying to process what happened the second week of November 2016, through four songs that take us on a highly emotional arc, the electronic trio have delivered an operatic work in miniature.
During the week of the election, musicians Ryan Lott, Ian Chang, and Rafiq Bhatia crafted these songs, which seem to go through the stages of grief, wailing synth sounds and Lott’s mournful voice kicks off the EP with “Dangerous”, in which Lott asks the listener about the concept of self-deceit and complicitness. Using electronica to meditate on the issues plaguing our society, Son Lux know better than to end on a note of pessimism, and the EP builds up towards the glorious title track in which a choir backs up Lott and eventually takes over the song, a perfect reminder that community is essential when change is needed. The members of Son Lux walked us through the process of creating Remedy.
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The four songs form a narrative that goes from utter desolation to hope. Can you discuss the process of telling this story and is desolation to hope something you went through, or something you aspire to?
Lott: Many of us feel oscillations between extremes of emotion. But desolation and hope can coexist, and I’d argue that they do to the very last on this EP. There is no process of cultivating a narrative, beyond continually reminding myself to be honest.
As the three of you mourned and wrote these four songs, what surprised you the most about the creative process during a time of fear? Did creating music come easier or harder?
Bhatia: I’m not sure if it was easier or harder, but it was definitely a surreal experience. There wasn’t anything different about the underlying process of collaboration: we were still working in much the same way that we usually do. But we were barely speaking at first. Many of the ideas that came out, and the directions we were drawn to, felt foreign to us.
A few elements that were born that week are bound by a common conceit: relatively simple ideas, imbued with constant micro-level variation, cycling for what feels like an eternity. We’d create these musical voids and then sit in them silently, waiting for the next move to reveal itself.
This EP is only your second work together as a trio, what has changed the most in the way you work together?
Chang: It honestly hasn’t changed too drastically in the sense that it really varies from song to song. The song “Part of This” came about in a particularly unique way though. It started out as a guitar and drum idea that we landed on in a soundcheck. We recorded the idea on our phone and recreated it in the studio as a basis for the song.
In “Part of This” you go from saying “I don’t want to be a part of this/I don’t want to be ashamed” to “now I want to be ashamed”; do you feel the music industry have been doing enough work discussing the current political situation?
Lott: I’m encouraged by an increase in dialogue, but there is a dearth of rage. The moment is a mere psychological inconvenience to too many of us, but the sheer irrationality of it will haunt our children. The events of today, and our indifference to them, will become more inexplicable/excusable with time. I hear the future voice of my son every day. “Why did you let this happen?”
I can’t think of many electronic protest EPs, with Remedy you’re adding yet another layer to the richness of electronic music which now clearly can serve as a protest cry as potent as Dylan or Mahalia Jackson. Were any traditional protest albums influential in writing Remedy?
Bhatia: We could never accept a comparison to Dylan or queen Mahalia—are you kidding?! They are heroes of ours. There are a number of musicians—
Hendrix, Coltrane, Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach, Bob Marley, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Vijay Iyer, Kendrick Lamar and of course the ones you mentioned above—that have deeply inspired us and set an extremely high bar for what socially engaged music can be. But that being said, we didn’t turn to the work of other artists during this process because one, we didn’t set out to make a “protest” album and two, we tend to have a very internally focused approach to creating new music. The influence is undoubtedly there, but now as ever, it’s alive in how it has shaped our conception of music versus exerting any sort of active influence.
Did writing the EP make you reevaluate your work as creators?
Chang: I think that more accurately, the current state of the world we live in impacts each of us emotionally, which in turn has its effect on the work we make. It’s a common notion that artists reflect society, and right now what we’re seeing in the mirror is particularly toxic.
Why was it important to put together a choir for “Remedy”? What was the process like?
Lott: The idea came to me and my wife while we were participating in the Women’s March. And there’s a connection to the previous song on the EP, “Stolen”, which ends with these lines: “May the sound of our voices ringing out / With a song of great delight / A cheer, loud and clear / The last thing in your ears / As you hear what you stole / Stolen from you”.
The process of creating our “choir” was simple, but a lot of work in a short amount of time (five days). The key was to have a clear, simple “guide” track that everyone could sing along to. This served as a unifying mechanism to minimize variations among hundreds of performances, since we weren’t all together in the same room. Then, we needed a bunch of technical and logistical help, which we had in our friends and honorary bandmates Kate Bilinski and Hannah Houser. In the end, over 300 people sing with me on the recording. So fun!
Have other pieces of art been your remedy to battle the current state of the world? If so, which ones?
Bhatia: I saw an exhibition at MoMA recently that included some of Cameron Rowland’s work. I was particularly moved by Disgorgement, which highlights the policies that Aetna and others issued to slave owners to provide insurance on their human property, and shows how the company continues to profit off of that income today. As a part of the work, Rowland purchased shares in Aetna and placed them in a trust, which will be terminated, liquidated, and granted to the federal government if / when the government decides to make reparations for slavery.
Though other pieces of Rowland’s work more directly convey the aesthetic quality we usually associate with art, Disgorgement challenges that expectation outright. It is comprised of a series of memorandi arranged within two frames. But Rowland’s implicit demand that the gruesome reality contained within these seemingly mundane paragraphs and charts be scrutinized with the level of detail usually reserved for a thing of beauty elicited a more powerful and emotional reaction from me than anything else I encountered that day.
How do you think the songs in Remedy will play out when done live? Do you intend to keep them as a permanent structure or are you looking forward to seeing how they play with other Son Lux material?
Chang: We haven’t tackled live arrangements for the songs on Remedy yet, but I’m definitely excited about working it out. Like any of Son Lux’s music, it’s definitely going to be a fun challenge to figure out. With the exception of “Part of This”, we’ll likely be changing the arrangements significantly for the live versions. We generally think of the live set and the recordings as two different mediums, the goal is rarely to recreate what the album sounds like.
Why did you choose the Southern Poverty Law Center?
Bhatia: In the immediate aftermath of the election, we saw the SPLC step up to catalog and spread awareness about the uptick in hate crimes, intimidation, and abuse. We’ve also seen how they work on a person-to-person level by hearing about how they’ve engaged with friends of ours who have been targeted and threatened. And it’s important to us that they’ve been working effectively at this for decades now.
In general, like with anything else, I think those of us who are relatively new to this kind of engagement have a lot to learn from people who have been in the trenches for a much longer time.