Living Things: Rock'n'roll music from the front line

Living Things' acclaimed debut album was rejected by two labels. James McNair meets the band whose uncompromising language and anti-war message nearly scuppered their chances

Friday 24 March 2006 01:00

Lillian Berlin is wearing a tight-fitting, mustard-coloured suit that was handmade for him by a fan. Relaxing in an Asbury Park, New Jersey motel, he looks an unlikely agitator, but there's more to the skinny singer than meets the eye. Last June, he played Dallas, Texas with Living Things, the gutsy agit-rock band he formed with his younger brothers Eve (guitar), and Bosh (drums). Neither they nor Cory Becker (bass) torched pictures of George Bush on stage, but their gig's anti-Iraq-war content still cost Lillian a pistol-whipping and two broken ribs at the hands of local right-wingers. "They jumped me outside the venue and beat me up", says Berlin of his attackers. "One of the guys was in the military and he fired a shot that whistled passed my eardrum."

The singer concedes that the Dallas fracas shook him up badly, yet Living Things will return to Texas this month, Bush-baiting and all. "What can we do?" says the leader of the band whose stage act once saw a Donald Rumsfeld impersonator doing unspeakable things to a likeness of "Dubya". "We can't pretend our music's apolitical."

The more you talk to Lillian Berlin, the more you realise Living Things don't do compromise. Their debut album, Ahead Of The Lions, was finished by January 2004, but numerous disagreements between the band and their record company - about lyrics and about a controversial video for the song "Bombs Below", which cost $110,000 to make and will likely never be screened - meant it languished unreleased for more than a year in the US (and has only just come out here).

First Dreamworks records washed their hands of Living Things, then Geffen followed suit. Between them, they had spent a quarter of a million dollars on the Berlin brothers, but "Target Fixation", a song about religion creating hate, wasn't the kind of material they felt able to promote post-September-11 and Iraq, especially as it arrived alongside further revelations about Berlin's heroin-using past.

But fast-forward a year or so, and Living Things are on Jive Records, and their single "Bom Bom Bom" is airing in a TV ad for Apple's iTunes and Cingular phones. You do wonder, though, if Apple and Cingular have noticed that the fabulous, Rolling Stones-like riff-fest they've procured concerns young US troops being "shipped off ready to die."

All of the above is more intriguing when you consider that Living Things have a dialogue with US servicemen. "We get a lot of e-mails from troops in Iraq", says Berlin. "Some say they totally understand what we're doing, but others are a little confused. We're not anti-military - we're just anti-war-in-Iraq and anti- what the war is selling.

"Two months ago we played this radio festival in Washington DC", the singer goes on, "and a bunch of Iraq-wounded soldiers had been carted out there on a bus. There were young guys in wheelchairs and guys with arms and legs missing, all of them in the front row, and all of them into our music. Five or six of those guys now e-mail me once a week, and we've been keeping in touch. The truth is I feel terrible for them. They wanted a way out of high school and were duped into fighting an illegal war."

The Berlin brothers were born in Maryland Heights, an ultra-conservative suburb of St Louis, Missouri. Lillian, 26, and Eve, 22, were named after a maternal grandmother and an aunt, respectively, while Bosh, 20, was named after the painter Hieronymous Bosch. The brothers have long acknowledged that their activism and political awareness owe much to their mother, Joan, a Chicago-born, strict Irish Catholic-raised woman who once tried to join the Black Panthers despite being white. "When she was 16 or 17 she rebelled against her background", says Lillian Berlin of his anarchist mother. "She got pregnant by a coloured guy, and in her situation that was obviously taboo." Joan Berlin and her then-lover soon split up, but they maintained a close friendship. When he later became a member of the Black Panthers, she was allowed to accompany him to some of the militant political party's meetings.

"He's since passed away, this Black Panther guy", says Berlin, "but he kept an amazing journal that my mother still has. There are pages on how it feels to be a black man in the US in 1972. It's one of the most articulate, beautifully written things I've ever read."

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The Berlin brothers' father, Lillian says, is not a political animal at all, but rather "a religious Jew who later came out as being gay." When Joan met him he was still straight, however. As a Jewish-Catholic family, the Berlins were somewhat conspicuous in their evangelical Christian neighbourhood. "You felt a lot of racism", says Berlin. "Especially as our mother was such a loudmouth."

The singer is vocal about his somewhat troubled schooldays. Aged 12, he was diagnosed as having attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), put in a class for slow learners, and prescribed the drug Ritalin. He says it was supposed to calm him down, but instead made him depressed and aggressive. "I would get into fights. At noon they called you to the nurses' room, and if you didn't take the pill, you could get expelled." The school also insisted that Berlin kept a record of his feelings. In June, Apocrypha Press will publish his teenage diaries under the title Post-Mortem Bliss.

The irony was that the boy deemed slow at school was reading Rimbaud and Chomsky at home. Indeed, Berlin maintains that reading played a far greater part in his teenage life than music did, his interest in The MC5, Iggy Pop and the like coming comparatively late to him.

But a fledgling rock band was an early fixture of the Berlin household. Even by the time producer Steve Albini (of Nirvana fame) was helping Lillian, Eve and Bosh put their debut album together, the brothers were still recording in their mother's St Louis basement. Nobody expected the album that Spin magazine called "One of the most ferocious, straight-ahead rock albums since Nevermind" to spend time down a corporate pothole, of course, but when it did see the light of day, even Rolling Stone recognised it as one of the best records of 2005.

Another fan is Berlin's glamorous partner, the Italian-born director Floria Sigismondi. As my interview with Berlin winds down, she appears in the motel foyer, their baby daughter Tosca in her arms. Nine years Berlin's senior, Sigismondi met him while filming the aforementioned video for "Bombs Below.

Asked what he hopes to achieve, Berlin says: "No one band can change anything, but hopefully we'll be part of a movement that injects meaningful social commentary into their art. "If our album does well", he adds, "we'll put money into worthy causes. Many young people today are so out of the political loop that you have to do everything that you can to motivate them."

'Ahead of the Lions' is out now on Jive Records

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