Let’s face it. At forty-five years old, I’m a little old to be chasing down up and coming rockers for interviews. Having spent twenty-some odd years working in the music industry, there’s little most rockers have to say that impresses me. I’ve heard the infamous “I am a golden god” line from the movie Almost Famous said in about a thousand different ways, the most recent incarnation only slightly more nauseating than the one before. So I set out to meet the young men in Living Things with antipathy and a certain weariness that only comes from dealing with too many fragile egos.
But my crankiness went away after the first few words we shared. The Living Things were in Tucson, promoting their new album Ahead of the Lions on a tour with Gogol Bordello. The band is comprised of Lillian, Eve, and Bosh Berlin. With pal Cory Becker, make up a quartet of well-spoken, unassailably intelligent gents who have a clear vision of what their music is about and the message they want to send.
“We want people our age to wake the fuck up!” started Lillian, the vocalist, lead guitarist and songwriter for the group. “Our peers have been zombified and dumbed down by what society provides. They don’t pay attention to what’s going on, and the major media certainly doesn’t give them any information like they did during the Vietnam War. Almost no one my age knows there are 15,000 injured US soldiers as a result of the war in Iraq.”
The Berlin Brothers were born and raised in the St. Louis suburbs during the 1980’s and ’90’s in a socially conservative environment. But the Berlin family was on the road much of the time, following their father, a carpet layer for carnivals. The Berlins, especially Lillian, had the opportunity to see how others from all economic walks of life lived. But as they grew older, they developed the same growing pains all teenagers do. Lillian acted out in junior high school, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and prescribed Ritalin and Prozac.
“Kids these days are just zombified by Ritalin and Prozac.” Lillian said. “They have little independent thought that isn’t controlled by these drugs.”
Video gaming and the internet has also brought about certain alienation. “The internet is both good and bad; it’s a web of mass information not that much different from mainstream media. And the internet tends to overexpose entertainment, which numbs kids to bands. Musicians should be able to put out music every six months instead of constantly satisfying the immediate gratification needs of consumer culture kids. Video games pull kids into these impossible fantasy worlds that have no resemblance to the realities they’ll have to face as they get older. The need to understand that their choices affect everything, the weight is on their shoulders to either ignore the present problems in our world or to counteract them.”
“The internet hasn’t found balance yet,” said Eve, “Much of the internet experience takes away from the specialness of human contact. The internet has the choice to be good, but just hasn’t gotten there yet.”
Living Things played the Operation Ceasefire March on Washington last September. It was the largest crowd they’ve played to so far, and they found the response between the kids and the adults in the audience to be vastly different.
“We went into the crowd after the show and shot a kind of video documentary, interviewing the people there,” Eve said, “And the results were remarkable. The adults were there for the political message in the rally, and the kids just came for the music. They were unaware of a lot of the issues being discussed.”
“It’s the Blackout Generation,” Lillian continued “they’re losing the human context factor.”
The band is committed to putting their message out, even if it means sacrificing major stardom. “Being politically oriented gets you dicked around by the system,” Lillian said “We were with DreamWorks until they found out how political we are. Then we were booted off the label. But we’ve found a good compromise with Jive. They’re comfortable with the content of the album, and we’re comfortable with them making money with it. There’s no place in the world better than Jive.”
Having a major distribution company behind you puts your product in the hands of commercial radio stations that have interests in multiple markets. “It’s hard to find artists who represent a viewpoint,” Lillian said. “Either they’re too scared of retaliation for that viewpoint or they just don’t care.”
“It’s kind of funny,” said Eve “what we have is this album that’s probably more appropriate for an indie market getting attention from big commercial programmers like Clear Channel, which would normally never play anything as politically charged as our album. So we’re reaching the same people who’re listening to Britney Spears.”
Whether or not the songs on Ahead of the Lions will reach fans of Spears remains to be seen, but it’s still a delicious irony. “People need to get out of their own box,” said Lillian. “They’re so influenced by what they hear and see, so it’s good they might be challenged a bit by hearing us.”
The Living Things may well find a larger market falling under the spell of their sparse musical approach and their emphasis on message. It may be just the kick in the ass these kids need to lay down their joysticks and wake the fuck up to the reality of their future.
(I’ve reviewed their album here.)
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