Music News

Conscience of a Rock Star

These days, it's no surprise to see a rock star rally 'round a worthy cause. Hell, Bono alone seems to make more news than all the NGOs working in Africa combined. And bands such as Pearl Jam, Green Day, and Bad Religion have been rocking the good fight for years. But not since the age of MC5 has a rock band so viscerally united volume and message as have the Living Things.

Born in St. Louis, where guns come wrapped in Old Glory and God still has a seat at every table, Living Things have guts enough to bring Midwestern beliefs back to where they belong. That is, according to them, back to the land, to the sky, and, most important, to the people. The band is composed of three brothers, Lillian, Eve, and Bosh Berlin, and a childhood pal, Cory Becker. They combine to become the embodiment of pioneer high-spiritedness that built this country. And just the kind that might save it still.

As Living Things, they also happen to kick ass. Think of them as a kind of can-do band for a generation that can't stand it anymore. Four to the floor, five to the head; whatever it takes to make point and counterpoint.

And the band's latest points and counterpoints come on Habeas Corpus, an album as intent on taking names as it is on raising Cain. Like its predecessor, Ahead of the Lions, in 2005, Corpus covers all of the band's favorite themes: religion, war, money, and love. But unlike that rage-fueled debut, the Things' second LP focuses first on a single issue and uses it as a launching pad.

"To us, habeas corpus is like the right of the people," says Lillian Berlin, the man who puts the words to all the Things' songs. "And governments throughout all walks of life will override that authority and suspend it. So for us, it's kind of an inspiring idea beyond just the literal meaning."

The disc was recorded over almost a year in Berlin, Germany,'s infamous Hansa studios, the same facility where David Bowie tracked his Trilogy and Iggy Pop found Lust for Life. "It's a great studio and a great, inspiring city," Lillian says of Hansa and Berlin. "We're talking about doing the next album there too."

Corpus also boasts a band enlarging its sonic scope to grasp the weight of an increasingly tumultuous world. If you recall, Lions featured the Cingular/iTune tied-in semi-smash single "Bom, Bom, Bom," a track that smacked of T. Rex. (Still, Lillian assures me he'd never even listened to Marc Bolan before critics raised the comparison.) This time out, the boys come through with two radio-ready tunes — an idyllically idealistic power-pop rocker called "Let It Rain" and a breathless bit of neo-new wave titled "Oxygen."

But it's the front-porch Americana of "Island in Your Heart" and the blues-tinged boogie of "Snake Oil Man" that really has Things riding another sound wave and shows they know more than one trick. And if the opening rumble of "Brass Knuckles" brings to mind the MC5, the closing crash of "Kingdom Will Fall" recalls T. Rex's Electric Warrior all over again.

I ask Lillian if "Kingdom" is really about knocking back shots while counting down the last 24 hours of the world as we know it. His response: "You're spot-on, my man. Spot-on." But don't think for a second that the band's convinced we're no longer on the spot, regardless of whether America's elected a new president.

"For me, with the financial structure of America completely now falling apart, the world's probably a bit more chaotic than ever before," says Berlin. "We're engaging in two wars at the moment; maybe three soon. Is Obama better than Bush, and is Bush better than Obama? Well, we don't know yet. If we gauge from what's going on in America now, well, we're in a very unstable place." And if "what's happening in America definitely inspires [him] to write music on subjects that aren't always positive," the thinking singer's reading matter does offer some respite.

"I'm actually reading Daniel Quinn's Ishmael," he says. "I haven't really gotten into the spiritual end of things, so this was kind of attractive. And I'm also reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula, because I never really read some of those classic stories."

The Things' site also mentions that during the recording of Habeas Corpus, the band was reading Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Anne Sexton, Charles Bukowski, George Orwell, and Philip K. Dick. And, being big on the bound stuff, Berlin is also quick to recommend other books to those perhaps just beginning to read things.

"I'd say if somebody's not really into social philosophies and things like that to start with something as simple as Adam Parfrey's Apocalypse Culture. It's sort of a fun read. But it covers some ideas that might lure you into learning about the workings of government and stuff like that. Also, this guy named Richard Metzger puts out these books called Disinformation. Those books are pretty great."

Of course, neither Lillian nor Living Things are just a bunch of socially conscious eggheads. Like I said, they kick ass. And they've got rock star in their blood, even if they've yet to reach their rightful heights. Waif-thin, eyeliner-streaked, boasting great hair and tight trousers, they're the epitome of glam. So much so, in fact, that last year Kate Moss convinced Roberto Cavalli to put 'em in a campaign with her gorgeousness. "A friend of ours introduced Eve, the bass player, to her," says Lillian. "And they formed sort of a friendship, and she invited us to do it. It was fun."

And I bet that teaming up with Marky Ramone for Tommy Hilfiger's throwback black leather motorcycle jackets will be a blast too — and then some. But this is no band to fall for the models, bottles, and drugs that characteristically plague those of their ilk, not when there are things to be burned anyway. Throughout their last tour, the band burned Bush, on poster and in effigy; now, though, they've got other items to conflagrate.

"We're burning the dollar bill as a gesture against Wall Street," says Berlin. "We just take about five $1 bills, which is not very much money. But since we only get $10 a day per diem, that's half of our cash!" And they're not the only ones to sacrifice. "We had homeless guys come up during South by Southwest and give us their own dollars. So the stage was like, we were burning Wall Street's dirty dollars!

"They've taken our taxes and spent them on luxuries," he continues, "and we're bailing them out, which is more than a little unfair. So I'm suggesting we take one dollar out of your tax money and burn it as a gesture."

Whether you decide to join in the bonfire this Wednesday, Lillian promises that Living Things will deliver "the unexpected." Me, I'm just hoping that they tear the fucking roof off the world.

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John Hood