The Living Things are four dreamy fellas with cool hair and a flamboyant style that’s really missing from American rock right now. But don’t be fooled by their neo-glitter veneer. The Berlin brothers (singer Lillian, bassist Eve and drummer Bosh) and childhood pal/guitarist Corey Becker are out to make a statement — and it ain’t about fashion. Take the gig that got ’em signed and maligned all in the same night: their infamous early-2003 Viper Room show.
“We had these three life-size papier-mâché dolls of George W., Barbara Bush and George Bush Sr., and we filled them with a bunch of raw meat, trash and anything we could throw in there,” recalls Lillian, the mastermind of most of the band’s wild stage antics and the eldest Berlin (26). “After the second song, we smacked them open with a bat, and the shit just exploded everywhere. It was awesome. I also had a little George Bush doll, and I lit him on fire.”
Before he knew it, Berlin says, “I was on the curb outside. Security threw me out, they broke my arm, and I took off running. They said if I ever came back I’d be arrested. To this day they still have our fuckin’ gear, too.”
The band was banned from the Viper — and as they found out recently when they tried to book a show there, the ban has held even through a change of club ownership. According to current talent buyer Joe Rinaldi, the production team that worked on the show that night is the same. “We wish that band the best, just not here,” he says. (The lesson here: Don’t piss off the sound guys!)
But it’s not the first time the boys have had trouble with club owners (or audiences). Lillian is a passionate, caustic, fairly self-righteous dude, and he has scuffled with everyone from hecklers in New York City clubs to red (state) necks. (His effeminate look probably doesn’t help him in the Deep South.) Still, Berlin earnestly believes most people’s problems with him have less to do with actual damage or liability issues than with politics.
If the Viper stunt didn’t make it glaringly apparent, the Living Things are more than pretty boys crooning about wild nights and women. Sure, Lillian’s got that feral, ’70s–Mick Jagger rock-star vibe (and a certain T. Rex–ish allure to boot), but the Living Things’ songs are potent statements of political outrage that hold their own, even without the rebel-rousing shows. The chorus to their single “Bom Bom Bom,” for example (heard a lot lately on Indie 103), may seem like a party anthem, but on closer listen it’s anything but: “We’re gonna take this city tonight/Oh watch it burn into the twilight/I said hey this is our birthright/to be bought and sold, shipped off ready to die/or ready to fight.”
A staunchly anti-government, anti-war message permeates nearly every song on the band’s debut disc, Ahead of the Lions, released in October. But political blustering seems to be in their blood. The guys’ mom, Joan Berlin, was an activist in the radical Weather Underground in the ’60s and ’70s. Lillian continued the family tradition, leaving his St. Louis home while still in his teens to run with a posse of protester pals, disseminating propaganda while attending rallies and “trying to open minds.” As it turned out, the mind-opening also involved mind-numbing, and he became addicted to heroin.
That ended when his mom found him wandering the mean streets of nearby Chicago one night. She took him home and detoxed him in the family basement — the same basement where he and his brothers decided soon after to form a band, an endeavor that was more about finding a therapeutic outlet than fame or fortune.
“I didn’t even pick up a guitar till I was 20,” says Lillian, who adds that he’s been sober ever since. “I’ve always been a writer, so I just adapted that to music. It took us four to five months where we just fucked around, but it finally started to come together.”
After sending Nirvana/Pixies production whiz Steve Albini a boom-box recording of their first few songs — and subsequently recording a demo with him in his Chicago studio — they headed to L.A. in ’03. They squatted in a pal’s living room while booking gigs around town, including the infamous Viper show that got them signed to DreamWorks. Unfortunately, the label folded soon after, and the band was shuffled over to Geffen, which apparently wasn’t so keen on their anarchistic stage show. After one particularly wild opening set for Velvet Revolver — involving porn stars wearing Bush and Rumsfeld masks, strap-on penises and penetration — Lillian says the band were told to tone it down or risk being dropped.
“We got a 10-point list of shit we couldn’t do, from the stage show to banter with press to essays I had on the Web site,” he claims, adding that it was an election year. “They also had a babysitter come on tour with us. I was, like, if I can’t perform and do my thing, I’m not into it. They dropped us right before the record was about to come out.”
A Geffen spokesman says the band was not dropped based on that performance or the group’s political views, but for a combination of reasons. (The fact that the album was taking a while to complete couldn’t have helped matters.) “It was clearly a relationship that wasn’t working for either the label or the band.”
Lillian had faith they’d find a different home, though, and while Jive Records (home of the Backstreet Boys) may not seem like a good fit, he says it’s been smooth sailing so far: At its start the label handled hardcore rap artists.
The boys also added one new song to the album, the über-catchy “Bom Bom Bom.” Its more upbeat vibe definitely stands out from the rest of the album, which mostly conjures the messy swagger of the Stooges with the angst and power of Nirvana — not to mention didactic Clash-style hooks.
Other rock references abound as well: “I Owe” sounds like Social Distortion before Mike Ness got jaded and complacent, while “Keep It Til You Fold” has a Smashing Pumpkins–esque melancholy. The collection is, in fact, kinda all over the place — although it’s garnered glowing reviews for its thematic weight as much as its sound. Still, the band have yet to break through big time, something that may be particularly difficult considering their almost contradictory combo of brash politics and glam iconography. Their video has been added on MTVU and Fuse, and a feature on MTV’s Advance Warning new-music show (as well as a just-confirmed slot on this year’s Coachella bill) may change that.
The Living Things definitely stand out amid the maelstrom of ’80s new-wave wannabes dominating the rock charts; their vibrant video (directed by Lillian’s wife, Floria Sigismondi) even features blatant T. Rex–like prancing. Or is it?
“Who’s that?” Berlin asks when I mention the Marc Bolan influence. “Oh that . . . Marc, uh, what’s his name again? Bolan, right. I’m really not too familiar with them.” Cynics might smirk, but his quick, almost nervous follow-up response — and a statement in a recent Spin interview (he admitted to only discovering the MC5 and the Stooges a few years ago) — make me believe him. “Look, I’m not really a music guy,” he says. “I come from a writer background, and that’s what gets me off. Sylvia Plath is my inspiration, or lyricists like Courtney Love and Tupac Shakur.”
Whether he really is a musical neophyte or just a damn good fronter doesn’t really matter. Lillian (who now lives in St. Louis with his wife and kid, while the rest of the band lives here) writes a compelling — and catchy — song, and knows how to work an audience, something that’s absurdly obvious during the band’s Key Club set after our interview. By the end, he’s sweaty and shirtless in the middle of the crowd, kneeling on the floor, surrounded by a perfect circle of adoring young fans. There’re no piñatas tonight, but the crowd still can’t take their eyes off the guy.
Does he ever worry that the message behind his madness might get lost?
“It does get lost sometimes,” he responds. “But it’s a building process, and if more and more artists speak out, then it can start to have an influence. It’s a ladder, and we just have to keep climbing.”
The Living Things • New Year’s Eve • Little Radio Warehouse, 1218 Long Beach Ave., downtown • with the Warlocks, the Icarus Line, DJs Steve Aoki and Shepard Fairey
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