Anarchy in the U.S.A.: An Interview with The Living Things

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By Deirdre Day-MacLeod

The Living Things are Lillian, Eve and Bosh Berlin, three crashingly confrontational brothers from St. Louis who have been giving rough-heeled, raucous performances since their only stage was a grade school parking lot. Swathed in black leather, with unruly shocks of black hair bursting in every direction, these three young men clearly don’t represent the ideal of wholesome Midwestern youth. And they know it. “You know how in every neighborhood there’s a family of weirdos? We were the weirdos—we hung out with the orphans from the orphanage down the street,” Lillian Berlin says. An orphanage in St. Louis? In this day and age? “Well they didn’t call it an orphanage, but that’s what it was.”

The Living Things follow their first EP, Turn in Your Friends and Neighbors, with their debut full length,Black Skies in Broad Daylight, scheduled for release on February 24 from Dreamworks. On this project, the brothers Berlin had the heady thrill of working with producer Steve Albini, who recorded some of their favorite music including Rid of Me by PJ Harvey and Nirvana’s In Utero.

From collaborating with Albini they went to burned out Prague to shoot a video with acclaimed film director Floria Sigismondi. Despite their youth (Lillian, the oldest, is 25 and Bosh is only 19) these guys are clearly taking on some big issues, and the beautiful and disturbing video for “Bombs Below” makes no attempt to disguise or soften its anti-war message. The starkness of the scenery and images of children and guns underline the darkness and directness of Lillian’s unmistakably political, anti- institutional lyrics: “Where do all the dead boys go? No solutions but bombs below.”

What makes the Living Things so different from the rest of the disaffected, scowling youths smoking cigarettes behind the 7-Eleven is not just that they’ve been playing music together since the days when they accompanied their father to carnivals and amusement parks (his job was to lay the carpet that goes under Ferris wheels—the indoor-outdoor-like stuff prevents the movement of static electricity and makes it possible to ride the rides in the rain and not get electrocuted). It’s not simply that while dad did his job, his sons got their start playing covers in the adjacent parking lots (Bosh, then a kindergartner, could pound out 170 beats a minute on the drums). What distinguishes these guys is their determination not to be just sullen and pissed off, but to do it for a reason.

The Berlin brothers also learned pretty quickly that expressing yourself can be dangerous. The brothers’ early expulsions from gigs came at the hands of right-wing militia types, who not only didn’t like their music but also the way they looked. “There is a lot of Ku Klux Klan stuff out there and here we are just kids, and then there’s our mother handing out pamphlets for pro-choice. There were times when we pulled up and we knew they’d be trouble right away. Other times we got chased out for not playing religious stuff.” They’ve been tossed out of fairgrounds all over the Midwest and they’ve now graduated to finding themselves silenced in such venerable institutions as L.A.‘s hip Viper Room (though Lillian makes sure to say that he does not hold Johnny Depp in any way responsible for the impoliteness of his employees). “Getting thrown out of places, it’s kind of our tradition.”

High school is not too far behind Lillian, and Bosh is still there, so much of what they talk about is the repression of the classroom and their experiences as the odd ones. Lillian knew the cops better than he knew his teachers, he claims, and says he learned more at his mother’s kitchen table than he ever did in school. Their names didn’t help the boys fit in—more than a few people have to do a double take comparing the Ramones-looking lads to their distinctly feminine monikers . “I was named after Lillian, my grandmother, and Eve was named after an aunt…so it was a tradition to pass on names, even if they weren’t traditional names. We got so much shit, though, for other things, that the names were just icing on the cake.”

To express themselves the boys turned to music. “Our mother let us play as loud as we wanted but the condition was that we address social issues.” There had to be a message that went beyond the “I’m in love” or “I’m in lust” standard that occupies most of pop music and, in fact, the Viper Room incident was provoked by Lillian asking members of the audience if they were going to vote. “I didn’t tell them who to vote for, I just asked if they were voting and who they were voting for,” he says. It’s a standard thing for the band to directly engage their audience, asking questions and provoking discussion. “They don’t have to agree with us,” says Eve, “We just want discussion.” At the High Point in their native St. Louis they once brought the entire audience on stage to talk about the upcoming presidential election. By the end of the evening, says Lillian, pushing back his wild mop of dark hair, “We had convinced the unregistered to register.”

But when asked about being angry, Lillian denies it vehemently. “We aren’t angry, we’re frustrated.” With what? “With our government,” (Lillian says with a delighted laugh; “John Ashcroft came to the library in St. Louis and I shook hands with him—I shook hands with the devil!). Prozac for teens—“It’s refusal to deal with the issues of youth except by prescription. Prozac is just a gateway drug, ” Lillian explains, “It will only lead to coke and other illegal substances because it trains people to treat their problems with chemicals.” The education system: “The schools don’t want you to talk, so kids come to our shows and they are so happy they can speak their fucking minds.” Perhaps all the band’s frustrations coalesce in the issue of censorship. “We hate the idea that if you speak out against the government, it means you don’t support America,” says Eve.” And Lillian elaborates, “It seems that freedom of speech isn’t represented very well.” And he cites the Viper Room incident and becomes very serious about how he sees his role: “It’s all fun and games—you wear your leather jacket and stuff—but at the end of the day it’s the responsibility of the artist to provide a snapshot or the world.” Can that seem preachy or didactic? “Oh, no, an artist can never preach!”

That expulsion from the Viper Room led to their discovery and eventual signing by Dreamworks doesn’t enrage the band so much as annoy them. “They’ll want us back,” says Eve confidently. Is there anything else that they want to add? “Oh yeah,” Lillian, Eve and Bosh smile broadly as Lillian pronounces, “Other than we’re three brothers from St. Louis who play music? Write that I love emo! I love people that sing about women. It’s a flawless genre!”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/living-things-040207/