Answering The Phone To Destructive Insiders
interviewed by Nelson Stanley
Ensconced in a room at the ever-so rock 'n' roll Columbia Hotel (in June 2004), I'm sitting on the bed of American sleaze punk outfit the Living Things. Sprawled around me in a semi-circle are the Living Things themselves, all of them glowering and pouting in the way that only four good-looking young men who happen to be in a rock band can glower (can you take courses in that? Where do you sign up?). While I'm worrying about whatever they've left on their sheets, most of the talking is done by their lead singer/ sometime guitarist, Lillian Berlin, the oldest of the three brothers (bassist Eve and drummer Bam complete the triumvirate. From their names, one can only deduce that their mum really loved them...). He looks - under the tattoos and the stubble and de rigueur shoulder-length black hair - like he'd require ID to purchase alcohol, but his voice sounds like he smokes 50 or 60 a day.
LB: We came to this late. We didn't have a very musical background. Our mother never let us have record collections or anything like that. She was something of a hardcore activist. She tried to join the Black Panthers at one point... She brought us up, even though Dad was around. I think what was most important was that she really wanted to drill into us some concept of social ethics. In our house, instead of like a Beatles record, we had a Karl Marx book, a Noam Chomsky pamphlet. We didn't get into, like the history of music until we kind of grew up and went off to live by ourselves.
Which I find hard to credit; at least two of them look like they haven't left school. Anyway...
LB: We grew up in the middle of St Louis, Missouri, which is like the heart of flyover country. There is absolutely nothing to do there apart from take drugs, worship God or join the Ku Klux Klan, and we had a big basement, so we decided to try making music. We travelled a lot with our Dad, who'd visit churches and stuff that were having summer carnivals, and install Astroturf bases for the big rides. We'd tag along and turn up singing songs about butt-fucking Klan members... It was fun.
Personally, I can't get most music. I write the lyrics, and I find most of my inspiration in something like Sylvia Plath. It's fun to read something, get inside an author's head, think 'What kind of song would they write', you know?
The kind of songs the Living Things write tend to be big, sloganeering, stomping hard rock songs, as evinced by their debut Black Skies In Broad Daylight. They tend to deliver their rhythmically propulsive, abrasive songs in a stripped down style that echoes Brian Young era AC/DC in its approach and benefits enormously from having Big Black/ Rapeman/ Nirvana producer Steve Albini behind the mixing desk. Added to the polemic, they lack almost any form of subtlety, lyrical or otherwise; on the other hand, they rock like a motherfucker, in a Guardian-reading ARE Weapons kind of way. Lillian is in full flow now, though, and wishes to enlighten me further on their upbringing, which you have to admit reads like a psychotropically enhanced Ray Bradbury story.
LB: Nobody fucked with us in St Louis, though. The hicks there - and that's like 90 percent of the population - almost regarded us as pariahs, because our parents were from New York. That's like a big taboo. Really. I swear no-one else from that place [St Louis] has ever set foot outside it. Like I said, no-one fucked with us, perhaps because our Mom had a rep for burning down people's houses... She only did that like twice, though. We had very few friends there. There's a curfew if you're under 18, you can't be out on the street after a certain age. So we're inspired by anti-authoritarianism; a lot of people write about drugs or sex, you know, girls, boys, hermaphrodites or whatever. About sex. Our songs tend to be about the fucked up things in the world...
Which includes, one suspects, being thrown out of the Viper Room in LA...
LB: Uh, the Viper Room thing? The people that run that place are kind of right-wing, man. Straight up. In Los Angeles, if they got money then... You can't trust them. All we were doing was having a, uh, protest. Then Eve ran into me while we were playing, and I kind of pushed him back, and they shut the PA down, and we had the bouncers physically taking us off the stage. It's not like we were knocking holes in the walls or anything. Next thing we know we had these big fucking dudes trying to bounce us off the pavement, you know? Just a simple protest.
And would it be gauche of me to enquire exactly what that simple protest would involve? Lillian looks shifty. Well, more shifty.
LB: All we did was make like dolls, effigies of George Bush and Senator John Ashcroft. And then we set them to fucking each other. Then they kind of caught fire...
Spontaneous on-stage combustion?
LB: Something like that. Anyway, after they got a bit burnt, they threw out our gear, our instruments... The crowd, you know, you can't do that thing [throw people offstage] if kids have paid to see a show, you know? They kind of reacted, and it... It, erm, degenerated. Next thing we knew there was a fucking full-on barroom brawl going on. They banned us from that entire block. There's a whole load of clubs on that block, it's right on the Strip, and we're banned for life from them. But it's all that LA hipster shit, so fuck them. We didn't really want to play that gig anyway.
As I've mentioned, other than burning major American Government officials in effigy, one of the more interesting things about the Living Things is the way they got Steve Albini (a man whose reputation is perhaps done a disservice by the epithet 'Living Legend') on board to produce Black Skies...
LB: How the Albini thing occurred, was we played a show in Chicago. While we were there - and this is before we'd even written half the album - we checked the phone book. And what do you know? He's listed, so we called him up. Did you know Steve Albini answers his own phone?
Bassist Eve cuts in:
EB: Does that shit restore your faith in rock 'n' roll or what?
It certainly does.
LB: I don't want to give the impression we're naive. Or too naive! 'Cos, you know, everybody needs money [he ponders]. Everybody's in rock 'n' roll to make money, from the biggest record corporation down to the tiniest little Mom 'n' Pop outfit that throws out two records a year. You've got to play the game, man, learn how they do their shit. So you can get inside and destroy it.
At that moment their PR person intrudes, and the band slouch off to perform a recording for a TV slot. Later that evening, they wander on stage at London Metro, and deliver a set that, despite its lack of pretensions, begs to be enjoyed in the most simple and enjoyed form: it's music you can mosh to, the sound that young men with over-amplified guitars have made and will continue to make as long as Fender are still in business. Three-minute bursts of stripped down hard rock, with big chanting choruses and half-screamed vocals. The end of the show comes when Lillian decides to rugby tackle Eve to the floor, and the mikes, amps and both brothers become a whirling, thrashing mess of hair and black leather. After what seems like an age, Lillian untangles himself and aims a solid kick into his bro's flank. Not to take this kind of thing lying down (as it were), Lillian throws his bass at him as he stalks from the stage.
The 'other brother', drummer Bam walks up to me after the show...
BB: Do you think that kind of thing detracts from the music?
I incline my head slightly. Something bitchy about empty rhetoric comes to mind, but for once I choose tact and reply that it seems in keeping with their ethos, if not their stated intentions.
He nods thoughtfully.
BB: Yeah. You've got to do what you think is right, though, or there's just no point.