Musical trio Son Lux — comprising Rafiq Bhatia, Ian Chang, and founder Ryan Lott — have received Academy Award nominations for best original score and best song for the film Everything Everywhere All at Once. In an exclusive interview with The Ismaili, Rafiq shares thoughts on his early passion for music, working on a Hollywood film, and his hopes for the future.

Sporting an experimental electronic-acoustic style, Son Lux are the first band since the Beatles to be nominated for best score. The band will also play on stage at the 95th annual Academy Awards, on 12 March 2023 at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood, to perform This Is A Life the Oscar-nominated song from the film.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a hilarious, absurdist, sci-fi, multiverse fantasy, action film with serious themes such as intergenerational family tension and choosing love in the midst of all the noise and chaos of modern life. Starring Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Jamie Lee Curtis, the film has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards.

In a rare moment of downtime, at his home in Brooklyn, New York, we caught up with the 35-year-old composer-musician Rafiq Bhatia, whose virtuoso guitar skills and penchant for improvisational jazz have been highly praised by music critics.

Have you had a chance to step back and take it all in?

I still feel like I'm in a state of shock. I remember the morning that I found out. I set my alarm — not expecting that we would be nominated — just to watch some of our extended family from the film, hopefully get nominated. The last thing that I expected was that we would actually be nominated ourselves.

I was in Atlanta, and I went into my parent’s room, because they were just waking up. They were being parents, hopeful and excited that maybe something would happen, but I had been adamant that they should not get their hopes up.

It was one of the most wonderful things, to get to see the look on their faces in real time when we found out about it. 

I think these awards can be very complicated. I have seen the other side of it enough times, where somebody did work that was exceptional and deserving of wider recognition, that gets ignored or side lined. Maybe part of the reason I feel this way is because I'm not used to seeing people who look like me get nominated. I never thought that music was a viable career path, when I was a kid, partly because of these issues around visibility and representation. And so, one of the things that I'm the happiest about is the idea that maybe for somebody who's coming up now, this might contribute to changing that a little bit.

How are you feeling about performing live at the Academy Awards?

We are going to be playing our song This Is A Life from the end credits of the film. We're performing live on the Oscars telecast, and it feels very surreal and crazy. We've been working pretty hard on getting things together for that and it's a lot of moving parts. I don't think we've ever done a performance with the level of production that something like this necessitates but also enables. We're really, really excited.

What was it like working with the writer-directors of the film, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as the Daniels?

It was very collaborative with the directors. We had meetings with them once a week, for many, many months. They are excellent directors; in that they could give very specific advice without being overly prescriptive. They would give us feedback that helped us know what we needed to do without telling us exactly how to do it. And they would trust us. Working with the sound design team was just a beautiful, collaborative and learning experience for all of us to get to do things and kind of figure out how they would all cohere at the end. Stressful but beautiful.

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Rafiq and Son Lux will perform at the 95th annual Academy Awards in Hollywood on 12 March 2023.
Rafiq and Son Lux will perform at the 95th annual Academy Awards in Hollywood on 12 March 2023.
Photo: Kate Starkel / Courtesy of MERU Management

You said you grew up not believing that music could be a viable career path for you. What advice would you give to younger artists or musicians just starting out?

I'm a composer, but I'm also a guitar player. And I come from the creative, improvised music tradition in America, which has a history that is written by black Americans and their creative presence in defiance of the dehumanising conditions and social political subjugation that they endured. I've drawn a lot of inspiration from that history and gotten to be around a lot of practitioners of that music. 

I remember one of the hallowed grounds of jazz in America is a club called the Village Vanguard. That's where John Coltrane made live recordings. You go into this little basement and everything's red and photos of all the great musicians who have played over the years are on the wall, and you can feel the spirit of the music that endures there. When I was about 18 years old, my dad and I went to the Village Vanguard for the first time, and I was so excited to be there and to get to hear music played in that room. And my favourite living guitarist, Bill Frisell, was playing guitar that night. And it's a small place, so after they finished playing, the musicians walked out through the audience. And I observed myself stopping Bill, and I said, “I'm so sorry to stop you like this. But that was just the most incredible thing. Do you have any advice for a young musician who's just starting out?” And he looked around the room and leaned in, like, he was going to tell me this big secret. And he said, “Just lock yourself in a room, man, and just play, just play for hours.” And then he smiled at me real big and walked away. And it seems so simple, but that was one of the best pieces of advice that anyone ever gave me. Because when you're young, there are so many people who give you the impression that you can get the answer somewhere, you can read it in a book, or you can pay to go to a school, or you can buy equipment. But it doesn't replace the personal relationship that you can cultivate with the work of making art. And ultimately, it's from that personal relationship, that all of the things that might be distinctive, or unique, or that might imbue your music with something recognizable, that only you could produce, comes about.

I think there's a lot of pressure for young people to perform at a certain level to be good at something right out the gate, to get good grades, to show excellence, you know. And if there could be more emphasis placed on learning and loving to learn and loving to fall on your face, and not being good at something out of the gate but putting in the work and the time because you love it, those qualities in the long term, go way further than the grade.

You mentioned going to the Village Vanguard with your dad, that’s pretty cool. Tell us a little bit about your family. Did they support your career path?

It's even cooler to me now than it was at the time because I realise just how far outside of the scope of his interests that activity was. On my mom's side of the family, things were very different. Her father, who I never met, was a violinist. And he had this cafe in Dar es Salaam called Cozy Café that a lot of Ismailis will know. I believe it's a historical landmark now. But, you know, again, music was never something that he would consider doing for a living. His way of keeping up with it was that he would play violin for whoever was in Cozy Café. So, he had an artistic practice that was very personal, and that had nothing to do with achieving markers of success or monetary fulfilment, it was just because he loved music. 

And my grandfather on my dad's side was not musical, but his voice was the thing that made me fall in love with music because he would sing ginans with this very reedy, sort of nasal tone. I couldn't sleep unless he would sing ginans for me when I was little. 

So, while there were certain vantage points for my family to see, or understand where I was coming from, or what music meant to me, there was also, rightfully, a lot to be concerned about. You know, it's a precarious path. But yeah they were very supportive.

And what do you hope the future holds for you and Son Lux?

We were absolutely overjoyed by this nomination, and already thinking that we'd like to be more active in this space. Hopefully our work on the film will serve as a calling card for more opportunities where creativity is foregrounded and enabled, and we're not trying to adhere to preconceived notions or rules. That's the kind of work where we all thrive as individuals and collectively. I hope that this gives us the opportunity to do more of that and to do it on a high level.

On a personal front, I hope, in between the touring and recording, I get to spend more time at home with my partner Nina — we’re getting married in May — and with our dog.

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The Everything Everywhere All at Once 49-track sound score is available to stream on all major platforms and the film is available online. Search for Rafiq Bhatia online to hear his extraordinary musical creations.