Living Things are playing a one-night only show at the Harmon Theater on June 10.
“Habeas Corpus,” the second album from Living Things, is a slingshot of modern Americana, arching from St. Louis through Chicago, New York City and London to pierce the international vagabond outpost of Berlin, as seen through the eyes of four political junkies high on the poet and the layman’s right to intellectual freedom. The themes they cover include life, love, money, religion and war in these turbulent times.
“In some ways I’ve looked at this whole record as a celebration of the uncertain times ahead,” says lead vocalist/lyricist/guitarist Lillian Berlin. Anthemic, prophetic and bumping through “Habeas Corpus,” Living Things have taken their journey from St. Louis, the city where old-timers pick out the blues on their porches and giant signs proclaim “Guns Save Lives” and “Jesus Saves,” on to new cities and new horizons of the mind. Yet St. Louis and the contorting contradictions this city wears is never far from their minds. It’s still the homestead for which they sing their fiery hymns of revolution and revelation.
With “Habeas Corpus” the scream of four angry young men evolved into a record that brands flesh by way of a more elegant, textured fury. Released Feb. 17, 2009, on Jive Records, it was birthed in the beating heart of Hansa Ton Studio in Berlin, an expansive ballroom used by the German military, at the height of its power, to entertain society with classical recitals. Today, through a line of wide, tall windows, a virgin dawn breaks over the dark city skyline, touching Potsdamer Platz, where the Berlin Wall once stood, and sweeps across a Gothic city blinking in the light of a new future.
Inside, four rock ’n’ roll adventurers-in-residence attacked their guitars, taking their cue from the beating drums of Bosh Berlin, which, amid the wide acoustics of the ballroom, sounded like rolling peals of thunder, pumping bright blood through the dank air of this ancient, cavernous, six-story building. Drums, cables and percussive instruments were strewn across the floor. A Chamberlain box (etched with graffiti by previous Hansa tenants “David+Iggy”) kicked up freaked-out distortion and noise. To one side lay an old metal army suitcase heaving with notebooks full of lyrics, riffs and ideas scribbled by Lillian, some as old as 10 years and others as new as here and now. A 60’s telecaster and tape echoes absorbed Cory Becker. When Eve Berlin dropped his bass guitar to reach for one of the timbales, congas or shakers at his feet, a Star of David tattoo on his arm was revealed.
“Berlin is like a scar that reminds us of how serious bombs, weapons and dictators are,” says Eve (who, of all four band members, soaked up the Dionysian delights of Berlin with the greatest relish). “For us, to be writing our own version of soul music inside Hansa, knowing that once upon a time the most evil powers gathered there …Yet there we were, looking out the windows and seeing that good prevails. It felt really powerful. Berlin is a great city now.”
“The starkness, the gothicness, the melancholy of Hansa and the heathen, debauching atmosphere of Berlin seeped into our sound,” observed Lillian. “The visual reminder of a broken dictatorship was a theme that haunted me, along with writer Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Mark Twain (whose house is in my home state of Missouri), Oscar Wilde, Anne Sexton, Charles Bukowski, George Orwell and Philip K. Dick. Musically it was Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Revolver era Beatles, John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Bob Marley blaring in my subconscious.”
The three brothers, Lillian, Eve and Bosh Berlin, have been in a band together since grade school. “We have a concrete basement at the bottom of our parents’ house; we’ve been rehearsing in it since we were kids and recorded half our first album there,” says Lillian. “It was totally our own world, where, at one point, everybody lost their virginity, tried drugs for the first time, wrote our first songs. It was the nucleus of our reality.” The three boys would disappear into the basement and play music late into the night. “There are also a lot of caves in St. Louis,” continues Lillian. “We’d go down to the caves after rehearsing, hold parties and the band would play. Two to three hundred people would fit into the caves, and the music would go on until either the power generators blew, the cops came or the sun came up. Then we’d all go skinny-dipping in the Missouri River.”
With Lillian on vocals and guitar, Eve on bass and Bosh on drums, the boys migrated to Chicago, then New York, then across to L.A., up to Canada, over to Europe and back. Inspired by a ’60s poster that read “War is not healthy for children and other living things,” the band found its name. Joining them on both the journey and guitar was childhood friend Cory Becker. He came on board just as they finished recording their debut album, “Ahead Of The Lions” (released Oct. 4, 2005, on Jive Records), which included the singles “Bombs Below,” “I Owe” and “Bom Bom Bom” — the latter featured in a Cingular television commercial. Big, brotherly bust-ups and arguments are par for the course with the Berlin boys – “Things don’t get going until one or all of us has thrown down their instruments and started yelling,” Eve attests – and Cory turned three into a balanced four.
While relentlessly touring in support of the critically praised “Ahead Of The Lions,” Lillian was loved and hated for visceral actions like burning George Bush posters onstage. “This whole idea of speaking out against the wrongdoings of government was something that we were taught at a very young age by our mother, who protested in the ’60s and ’70s,” says Lillian. “When I first started writing songs it felt natural to sing about socially conscious ideas. Early on, as a young band, we were admonished not to talk about this or that. But an artist is in many ways a reflection of what is going on in their surroundings and they’re going to express what is affecting them. We write about what interests us.”
This doesn’t always lead to a happy result. After one gig Lillian was jumped and beaten by angry Bush supporters, one of whom fired a gun, the bullet whizzing past Lillian’s ear. “We’ve been perceived in some corners as an anti-American band, but that’s the furthest away from what we are,” says Eve. “We love our country and that’s why we care to understand the reality of where it stands and how to make it better and to sing about it. What inspires us most is what’s going on in the world. Sometimes you need to step outside and look back in to have perspective on your own country, to see what’s really going on. We’re not content to wait 50 years for the history to be written.”
Living Things haven’t changed their vision to fit anybody’s desire for politeness; instead, they’ve pursued their own musical story, coming back up for air with a new chapter.
“Lillian came up with the name of the album and it sums up a lot of things,” says Eve. “Habeas corpus is supposed to safeguard our individual freedom against arbitrary State action. It’s supposed to protect us from unlawful imprisonment by a rogue government. So many people we meet don’t even know their rights have been eroded lately. But we need to be aware of these rights to protect them.”
Lillian sums up his philosophy: “Society is divided into two antagonistic factions, those who issue the orders and those who obey the orders. The problem is that the ones who issue the orders have abused their authority and have seduced society into abdicating their rights. It’s time to learn to recite your rights like the ABC’s and 123’s so you are aware of what you’re giving up.”
Adds Eve: “We really value our Constitutional right to express ourselves. When somebody says ‘rock ’n’ roll,’ to me it means freedom, being who you are, running wild and letting it all hang out.”
About the Harmon Theater The Harmon Theater, located at the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort, is home to “Amazing Johnathan,” “Magic’s a Drag” and “Voices of a Generation.” The box office can be reached at 702-836-0836. For more information, visit www.harmontheater.com.
WHO: Living Things
WHAT: One-night only show at the Harmon Theater
WHEN: Wednesday, June 10, doors open at 9 p.m.
WHERE: Harmon Theater Located at the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood Resort Valet parking on Harmon Avenue