Interview with Son Lux

Son Lux Left to Right – Rafiq Bhatia, Ryan Lott and Ian Chang, Photo by Cara Robbins)

It’s easy to see why the multiverse is all the rage when it comes to the multiplex. From sci-fi to superheroes (and even a romantic comedy as far back as “Sliding Doors”), there’s no storyline that upends the narrative like one where death is but a dream, unassuming people can slide from costumed heroics to cosmic villainy and logic is as bendable and breakable as a slinkie made of Jello. Now into this realm comes perhaps its most insane example of all with “Everything, Everywhere All at Once,” in which the drab existence of laundromat owner, her even meeker husband, a crotchety wheelchair-bound father and the family’s woefully unhappy lesbian daughter is turned into the stuff of reality-warping legend. For if you thought that casting glamorous Hong Kong superstar Michelle Yeoh was a frumpy against-image move (let alone Jamie Lee Curtis as a dumpy tax auditor nemesis) then the insane writer-director team of The Daniels (actually the quite ethnically different Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) are there to wildly upend expectations. Impossibly bringing even more nuttiness here than they did to the multi-purpose corpse of their “Swiss Army Man,” the duo create an anything-goes, often wonderfully incomprehensible epic of hotdog fingers, subtitled rocks and Wing Chun martial arts among hundreds of Dada-ist images to constantly shifting, insane life.

(Photo by Lisa Wassmann)

Answering the musical call to make musical sense out of this cacophony while still being utterly batshit is the alt. rock group Son Lux. Solely created in 2008 by Ryan Lott with a host of transfixingly surreal vibes that filled his initial three albums “At War with Wall & Mazes,” “We are Rising” and “Lanterns,” Lott was joined in 2014 by Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang to create an incarnation of the band that uniquely merged their trippy voices from their disparate locations of NYC, LA and Dallas. Producing the records “Bones,” “Brighter Wounds” and the “Tomorrows” trilogy, Lux now channels their experimental synergy into what’s arguably the most bizarre score to define a wave of modern art rockers turned composers. Imagine Jon Brion’s brain exploding from a massive acid trip, and you might get a fraction of the idea of the insane, otherworldly percussion and rhythm-filled score that embodies the film’s title. Instantaneously mashing together Chinese opera, “Claire de Lune,” chopsocky beats and most importantly the emotional heart of an Asian family discovering there’s no place like Earth One, Son Lux’s gonzo soundtrack warps the idea of film music’s wackiest possibilities into about two hours of score for a nearly two hour and twenty-minute film. The result is sonically invigorating and exhausting as it takes the age of old chestnut of writing something we’ve never heard before and running with it like a Looney Toon for a soundtrack where any musical style can happen and does simultaneously.

Ryan Lott (Photo by Sergei Sarakhanov)

Talk about your musical beginnings, and what drew you together as a band from its solo start. 

Ryan Lott: Son Lux began very humbly, just me in my attic posting things on… um, MySpace. After quietly and slowly releasing three records and two EPs, it felt like time to form a band and begin performing live. I had already been working with Rafiq on my first film score, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and a couple other things, including the song, “Easy” from the Lanterns record. I knew I wanted to keep working with Rafiq, and he suggested Ian. After watching a couple videos of Ian playing I was sure I’d found my band. What I didn’t anticipate was the deep creative bond we’d quickly form, and how naturally it felt to make music with these guys after doing it solo for so long. It didn’t take long to realize that in this universe, Son Lux should be us three, not just me.  

Ian Chang (Photo by Shayna Fontana)

Why do you think your various approaches clicked as Son Lux, and then as film composers?

Ian Chang: Even though we all have different perspectives, something that clicked early on is that we’re all deeply interested in making music that is simultaneously unlike anything we’ve heard, and emotionally potent.  I’d say that this shared value is on our minds whenever we work on anything together, including this film score.  

Throughout our 8 years as a trio, we’ve developed a band vocabulary and approach to sound that naturally made its way into the process of scoring this film together.  A big part of this is that Ryan has been a mentor to both Rafiq and myself in the realm of production and sound design, and that definitely extended over into the world of film scoring with this project. 

Your first feature score was for 2016’s rural thriller “Mean Dreams.” What was the experience of adapting your sound to that format like?

Ryan: I loved doing this one, but it was extremely intense. I’m not going to say out loud how quickly I had to do it. But I had the director and his creative partner on the project in the room with me for much of the process, so I was able to avoid going down any wrong paths. Also, I was calling upon a vast amount of raw sound material I had recently cultivated. So I was able to bypass an exploratory phase that is usually a time-consuming and tedious part of the process.   

What did you learn about the scoring process from contributing to “Looper” and “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby?”

Ryan: Looper, scored by my dear friend Nathan Johnson, was similar to EEAAO in that I worked on it over an extended period of time, and lived in multiple headspaces at once (instrument design, orchestrator, pianist, mixer). That was my first foray into making virtual instrument design, something I had done a lot of on Son Lux records by that point, an essential aspect of a score. That continued on Disappearance, where I used playable instruments I designed from recordings of tuned wine glasses, guitars (Rafiq’s!), and voice. 

Your songs have been used in numerous soundtracks like “Paper Towns,” “Shameless” and even the NXIVM documentary “The Vow.” Do you think the tunes gave a “head trip” quality to these projects before “Everything” came your way?

Ryan: Maybe! I do often aim for an otherworldly feeling when making music. I love to feel propelled by music into an altered state.  

The Daniels – Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (photo by Danny Moloshok Invision/AP)

Talk about how it is for four composers to work with two directors? And did it help that Dan and Daniel were fans of the band, let alone had gotten a truly insanely surrealistic score for their film “Swiss Army Man?” 

Ian: You’d think that that would be too many cooks, but it somehow never really felt that way.  One factor that helped is that the three of us each took on different cues to spearhead while calling on the other two to help along the way.  This meant we were each responsible for taking charge of our own cues and for getting them approved by Daniels.  For a bulk of the process, the three of us were delivering music and hopping on zoom calls with Daniels for notes once a week.  They worked with us closely and were instrumental in getting the score to where it ended up. 

Rafiq Bhatia

What are some of your favorite “alternative” scores and composers, and how do you think they inspired you here? There’s a real explosion now of “alternative” scores, and ones that are just plain out there. How do you think “Everything” fits into that genre, and expands the idea of scoring to begin with?

Rafiq Bhatia; I’m not sure exactly what qualifies as “alternative” these days, but I think we’ve enjoyed seeing how some of our peers have seamlessly extended their existing musical identities into the world of film scoring – folks like Ben Frost, Colin Stetson, Alex Somers, Mica Levi, etc. Honestly though, I think this score was much less about drawing external inspiration than it was about finding ourselves within each of the crazy universes that were thrown our way. 

One thing about this score that differs significantly from what has become common practice is that we wrote or reshaped almost all of the music—close to two hour’s worth—tightly to picture. Not only does every universe have its own detailed musical logic, but pretty much every cue is bespoke from the ground up. It was an insane amount of work, but that’s just what this project called for and the film’s outrageous excellence made it impossible to not strive to rise to the occasion.  

Given that most composers come in after everything has been shot, what was it like for you to be at “Everything’s” inception and through the filmmaking process?

Rafiq: It proved to be very crucial to get in from the ground up. We were able to agree with Daniels on key thematic, sonic, and musical ideas, and supply a ton of little sketches and ideas that made their way into the temp. Also, a good portion of the temp drew on Son Lux music as well as each of our solo projects, which was kind of critical in making it possible for us to make the volume of music required. 

But there’s another aspect of what it was like, which is that we got to see up close both the seemingly limitless creativity—and I say “seemingly” because what seems unbridled or even silly was actually only effective due to diligent and rigorous interrogation of each premise—and deep trust of their collaborators that the Daniels bring to their work. Both of those things have been very, very inspiring.  

How did you want to convey the idea of someone who thinks they’re losing their mind?

Rafiq: We worked with Daniels on finding a musical analog for the visual language they were developing around splitting, fracturing, splintering and fraying. Different contexts of the film allow for different interpretations of that process. For example, we utilized phasing vocals when Evelyn jumps to the movie star montage to mirror the excitement of being able to harness this power and her sense of wonder and awe at the universe it took her to. By contrast, there are many moments where the context feels more involuntary and overwhelming, and we treated those with scattered drumming, abrupt textural jumps and pan-universal noise to infuse those scenes with a sense of volatility and chaos – like someone changing channels through different scores but with confusion and anguish building underneath. At the height of that aspect of the film, a guitar solo which changes sonically with every single cut scores Evelyn’s multiversal scream, accumulating noise from across all the universes until it hits peak overload. 

What’s the challenge of scoring a film where the music rarely stops?

Ryan: Finding time to sleep.  

How did you want to play with Michelle Yeoh’s iconic status, especially when it comes to her as a Hong Kong action star?

Ian: All I can say about this is that it was imperative that the score didn’t get in the way of a 10/10 performance from Queen Michelle.  As someone who was born and raised in Hong Kong, messing this up was not an option.  

The score sounds often like a mad tinkertoy laboratory. What instruments went into it?

Ryan: We wrote much of the score using instruments of our own design, most of them “virtual.” The way we do this is to make a bunch of recordings of ourselves and others improvising or performing short musical gestures on acoustic instruments. From those recordings, we extract moments and explore their potential when used as the building blocks for new digital instruments. It’s a lot of programming and exploring. This film contains an insane amount of music, but since we started working on it in the fall of 2019, we had time to develop a custom sonic language this way. In addition to all the custom stuff, though, familiar instruments—from solo piano to voices to full orchestra—play an important part. It’s everything everywhere all at once.  

EEAAO_AR_02182020_0049.ARW

How did you want to balance your experimental music with a more traditional approach for the orchestra? And do you think that more identifiable melody was needed at points so the audience wouldn’t get sonically lost?

Ryan: This was an insight that Daniels had from the start. They were wise to direct us to find simple melodic themes with lots of emotive potential that could bring cohesion between seemingly disconnected visual and narrative universes. Part of the enormous fun was leaning into sonic familiarity to conjure an earnest and tender emotional quality, and then chase the film’s perplexing shifts into the wild and weird. A scoring dream, tbh! 

How crazy did you think the score could get, or were there points where you thought it was too strange?

Ryan: Yea, day one was too strange. Haha. Our very first task was to write a heart-on-sleeve love song to accompany a mating ritual that occurs in a universe where— well, I don’t want to give anything away. But the short answer is yes, things got too strange immediately. God bless those Dans for trusting, beyond all reason, that we could go there with them. I’m so glad we did.  

Multiverses are now the rage now in comic book films. In its way, would you say that “Everything” is a superhero picture, let alone a thematic extension of the “Matrix” universe? And if so, how did you want to bring that idea to the music?

Rafiq: There are definitely aspects of the film, musically and otherwise, that are very intentionally referencing (and poking fun at) aspects of “The Matrix.” Daniels were definitely thinking of aspects of the score to the first film, especially in the earlier more expository stuff about verse jumping in the IRS building and so forth. In order for the comedy of those parts to hit, we tried to be as earnest in our implementation of that musical style as possible, yet still find ways to subvert it (e.g. inserting Clair de Lune references into it in a seemingly unironic way).  

Talk about the importance of rhythm and percussion in this score? 

Ian: Rhythm and percussion play a big role in the various fight sequences throughout the movie.  Since these scenes required the music to hit specific moments to picture, we definitely leaned on percussion to make it feel like the music was engaged in a dance with the action and the edits happening on screen.  In a lot of these cases, I would approach a scene by first creating a tempo map that flowed, before actually writing any of the music.  This was especially helpful when faced with a sequence of 4-5 fight scenes strung together, because it helped me think about how to maintain momentum and excitement over the course of so many fights from a tempo perspective. 

It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the sonic DNA for the percussion in this movie came from a sampling session that we did the day before the US went into lockdown in 2020. We rented a variety of gongs and traditional Chinese drums (排鼓 and 大鼓) and went to town.  

Given the idea of multiverses, how important was it for the music to function individualistically in getting across the idea of a cosmic cacophony, yet end up as a cohesive listen?

Rafiq: This was one of the greatest challenges presented by the film, and also one of the main reasons Daniels reached out to us to begin with. They knew after listening to our ouput as Son Lux and our individual projects that we could cover a lot of ground between the three of us and also find ways to make seemingly disparate elements coexist. In a way, the coexisting came more naturally than some of the more referential or comedic musical elements, like the “Matrix” stuff or the Hot Dog Musical. But then again, we were surprised at how quickly we managed to find footing for the funnier musical moments—we always thought it was a little ironic that we make such sad and serious music given how goofy we all are, so maybe it makes sense.  

How did you want to reflect the Wangs’ cultural identity?

Ian: Daniels made it clear early on that they didn’t want the score to sound overtly Chinese unless it was specifically called for, like in the Fanny Pack fight or the Opera universe fight.  While we did use some Chinese instrumentation for percussion, we made a conscious effort to make sure the score didn’t feel culturally prescriptive.  

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, Jamie Lee Curtis, 2022. © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

Given the absurdist humor of “Everything,” what’s the trick of the music being ironic without slipping into comedy – all while being funny.

Ryan: Another important insight Daniels had was that the music should always be completely earnest. There are scenes that are indebted to specific genres, or even homages to particular films. In those cases, we are followed their lead, but just like Daniels, we did it our own way. And the picture didn’t ever need “help” having humor or heart or violence or absurdity, so we didn’t need to try to push in any direction other than into honesty and beauty and radness.    

How important was it for the music to yank listeners from insanity to identifiable emotion?

Rafiq: Very. One of the weapons Daniels employ most expertly is using contrast to get the audience to let their guard down. It’s way easier to hit someone hard if they can’t see it coming, and a lot of times the insanity is designed to distract from the gut punch. The writing and performances did such a great job getting that across, giving us inspiration as we looked for ways to thread that needle.  

I loved how you warped “Claire de Lune” for a fight scene with Dierdre, as well as put vocals into it. How did that piece get chosen as a theme for her and Evelyn in love and war?

Ryan: Yet another great piece of early intuition from Daniels was that Deirdre’s theme should be “Clair de Lune.” There’s a reason it starts to show up in that fight scene, which we only discover later in the film. This was one of those ideas Daniels had that I was like, “Um, yea no that’s not gonna work.” And then it completely worked and yielded two of my proudest scoring moments in the film: A choral arrangement of “Clair de Lune” in early Stravinskian style as Deirdre leaps down a stairwell in super slo-mo in “flying knee” pose, and a serene arrangement of the tune for tuned Chinese gongs as Evelyn starts to kick her ass.  

Another great innovative sequence is in “The Opera Fight.”

Ian: This was another cue that was born out of a specific vision from Daniels.  They wanted the music to start out as a traditional Chinese folk song that Evelyn is singing from the opera universe, but that it would morph into a remix of that song as she harnesses the power from that universe to kick various alphaverse asses. I want to give a special shoutout to Surrija (Jane Lui) for convincingly nailing the part of what Evelyn would sound like as a singer.

I got a kick with Randy Newman doing his own spin on “Ratatouille.” How did he become involved with “Everything?”

Ryan: Daniels had a pipe dream that Randy would voice the character. They managed to get him an early screener, and after watching it with his whole family, he told them “My wife hasn’t laughed that hard the whole pandemic.” So immediately he was in. Then I had the enormous privilege and challenge of writing a song for Randy Newman in the style of Randy Newman. Bananas. Our session over Zoom was wild. Dude is so funny and sharp. Once he got a hang of the song, he just completely nailed it. It only occurs briefly in the movie, but we recorded a full version of the song for the soundtrack, which I sing with him in duet. Real life is crazy.  

Moses Sumney

Could you talk about creating the songs “This is a Life” and “Fence” with Moses Sumney? And on that note, how do you go about writing a tune like “Sucked into a Bagel.”

Rafiq: “This Is A Life” was designed from the ground up as an end credits song for this movie. In our first conversation with David Byrne, he remarked that it would be both fitting and satisfying to remind the audience of all of the beauty and wonder that exists amidst the chaos of the film, which was right in line with our intentions. It was so enlightening and inspiring to work with him, to see how thoughtful and studious he is in crafting a song. Mitski and Son Lux were Daniel Kwan two most streamed artists in 2020, so we were extra happy she agreed to join us for this track and make Kwan’s collab dreams come true. Having her voice serenely rise up within the chaos of Evelyn’s mind with a break before the final blast felt like the perfect way to close out the music in the film. 

“Fence,” on the other hand, grew outwards from a score cue that we are all particularly attached to. It took on a whole new life with the addition of Moses Sumney, who we’ve all admired since we first met him in 2014. Moses managed to find a gorgeous and fully-fledged song inside of a piece of film music, which is no small feat, but also no surprise if you know Moses!

Making “Sucked into A Bagel” was a fun challenge given that the idea was to take that one take of one line—which Stephanie decided to sing instead of speak on the spot!—and transform it into a universe of its own. The approach that ended up working was to make as much out of that little bit of audio as possible, and the realization that the melody she sang made a lot of sense against the end of our Story of Jobu score cue. I think I was subconsciously trying to make something that felt like surfing with Jobu through an asteroid belt of vocal fragments, with her voice being contorted in and out of space-time throughout.  

How do you think this score reflects your philosophy as a band, especially with its link with your album “Tomorrows?”

Rafiq: I think it’s interesting how the sound that we arrive at as the universes all start to collide and converge is essentially the sound of Son Lux. In that way, the score is almost an exposition of aspects of our process, finding the common thread between seemingly disparate elements and articulating something that feels cohesive, personal and honest that’s cut from so many different kinds of cloths. 

I’ve always felt that growing up as the son of immigrants is a big part of what led me to approach making music this way—it reflects the experience of not seeing yourself fitting into any existing molds and having to cobble together your identity out of whatever resonates or affects you. In that way, making music like this has always been therapeutic, a way of cultivating a home, of making peace. 

As far as Tomorrows goes, we actually first started discussing this project with Daniels on a call we had while in the studio recording the album, and a lot of our initial ideas for the film arose from the same seeds as the record. In fact, those who have spent time with the record will notice that the main theme of the film shares almost all its DNA with the song “Unbind” from Tomorrows III.  

Do you think that scoring this during covid added to the score’s creativity?

Rafiq: We were in a fortunate position going into lockdown because the three of us had just had a good amount of quality time together in person collecting ingredients for the score. We even got some time in on set that week—they managed to wrap just before the lockdown hit. The three of us had already been living in different cities for years prior to the pandemic and had gotten pretty adept at working from a distance, which really came in handy here. I honestly don’t know what we would have done were it not for that foundation we had to build on.  

Photo by Cara Robbins

Do you think you’ll ever get another film as wonderfully bizarre as this one?

Ian: To quote the movie, it’s “a statistical inevitability.” However, in this universe, I’d say the chances are extremely low.  

Go see “Everything, Everywhere All at Once” explodes in our Multiverse today, with Son Lux’s album available on April 8th on A24 Music HERE

https://www.amazon.com/music/player/albums/B09TG52S8P?ref=sr_1_1&keywords=everything+everywhere+all+at+once+soundtrack&crid=1PDYA8VT8YRBB&sprefix=everything+everywhere+all+at+once+soundtrack%2Caps%2C130&qid=1647925754&sr=8-1

Visit Son Lux’s web site at:

https://sonluxmusic.com

Special thanks to Gabby Edzie, Andrew Krop, Kyrie Hood