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By: Sarah L. Myers
I first met Lillian Berlin three years ago. The Living Things were doing a short Midwest tour and stopped in Chicago for a couple of days. We were hanging out upstairs at Schuba’s Tavern, discussing the band’s debut album “Ahead of the Lions”. Their single, “Bom Bom Bom” had just been featured in a commercial for the iTunes phone - new technology at the time. George Bush had just begun his second term. Just as the world seemingly has distanced itself so much from these times, Living Things have passed them as well. The band releases its second record, “Habeas Corpus” this month, and hits the road with Eagles of Death Metal this spring.
It was nice to catch up with Lillian again, this time phoning in from home in LA, which he shares with his wife, noted director Floria Sigismondi - who also shot the video for first single “Let It Rain”.
Thirsty: It's been a few years since I last talked to you. The band seems to have grown a lot. What is the biggest difference between this new album and "Ahead of the Lions"?
Lillian Berlin: Probably the biggest difference is the surroundings in which we recorded it in. We went Berlin, Germany, the Hansa Ton Studios, which is this old Berlin building that's pre-World War I, it was built in like 1902 and it's very gothic looking, kind of looked like an old castle slash church. Bowie had done "Heroes" there. And when you record you're overlooking the old Berlin wall so it's a kind of a eerie reminder of what used to happen in Berlin, and how power was sort of abused and the whole city has a very sort of inspiring gray, dark, gothic, bleak, rainy vibe that appealed really. For us it was a weird inspiration in a good way. Last record we recorded in Chicago with (Steve) Albini and then we went to our mom's house in St. Louis, so that sort of Midwest vibe in recording is very different than European vibe in recording!
Thirsty: And you lived in Berlin the entire 10 months of recording?
Lillian: Yeah, we went there to write, so we wrote songs for a good four to six months and then we started pre-production around that time and then we actually tracked the record for about three months, and we did about 32 songs and whittled it down to the best 11.
Thirsty: One of the things I noted about the record is you have so many different styles of music on it this time. Was there a reason for that? I'm just kind of imagining what ended up on the cutting room floor then!
Lillian: Yeah, we definitely wrote about three albums, or four albums worth of material, you know. And we recorded, you know, over two albums worth of material and the direction for the record from the get-go was to do it in the style of like an old Beatles album where every song kind of had its own personality and you could separate, you know, one song from another. It kind of felt like exciting, it wasn't like the same drum and guitar sound the whole record. And I don't feel like we completely did what we wanted to do but we definitely, that what's we were aiming for as far as that approach, and I think we pretty much almost nailed it. And during this process we, you know, recorded so many different types of songs and I think that also lent to the variation in sound.
Thirsty: What was the first track on the album you actually laid down?
Lillian: The first track we laid down for the record was actually the last track on the record. "The Kingdom Will Fall". And that was actually just a test. We were in the studio and we wanted to test the studio out before we got rolling so we set up and tracked about 85 percent of that song live just to get a feel for the studio and what everything sounded like. And it sounded great so we finished that song not even thinking we'd put it on the record but then when it came time to whittle down the tracks, we felt like that had a spark of sort of inspiration of spontaneous combustion to it that it had to be on there.
Thirsty: That sounds the most like a song on the first record.
Lillian: That was like one of the.. It was funny because some of the guitars on "The Kingdom Will Fall" were distorting the tape machine and it probably wasn't a good thing, but we left it alone and thought it was pretty happening, you know.
Thirsty: You were in Berlin the night of the election. How was it experiencing that outside of America?
Lillian: Yes. We were there. We were watching it over the Internet, just taking it all in. We were actually also there when Obama visited during the summer. He made a visit over there and gave a speech where Kennedy had given a speech and we got to view that also. Being in Berlin, we had very up close and personal imagery with Obama. We got pretty close actually.
Thirsty: What changes in the reaction did you witness?
Lillian: Well, I could lie or I could be honest. To be honest, when Obama was giving his speech there were actually some boos. Actually, quite a lot of boos. They're probably not showing that on CNN. But the people in Berlin - because, during when Obama came during the summer it was this big deal and when you're out on the town and people are talking about it they didn't like Obama any better than they liked any other president we've had so, you know, which I thought was sort of surprising. I thought he would be a breath of fresh air for people in Europe, who hated the George Bush presidency. But I think people are just so wary of America and the government tension. The Europeans kind of feel like the trust has kind of been broken.
Thirsty: The album opener, "Brass Knuckles" is all about America being on the brink of monumental change. Do you think with the election of a new president, that is starting to happen?
Lillian: Yeah, I feel that people, if anything, the government and the men who run the government of our country can't change overnight all the shit that's gone down over the past couple hundred years but I think the mind of civilians like us are thinking we're going toward positive places now with this new president, Barack Obama. And everybody's mood, as far as civilians, is up and, you know, let's get out there and fix what's wrong, which I think it important because it takes the whole nation in order for there to be a change. Not just a president. I do think some positivity will come but, you know, I don’t know if it’s going to tomorrow. I doubt it!
Thirsty: How did the lead single, “Let It Rain”, come about? It sounds very different than anything you’ve done before.
Lillian: I wrote the majority of that song by myself at the piano when we were actually finishing up our last record. And I had the verse, the entire verse and the bridge and stuff, already written and i was kind of stuck on the chorus so it never made our last record. It’s been floating around for awhile, and when it came time to record this record I thought I’d revisit it again and we were sort of just playing on it at Hansa in Berlin and we’re still kind of stuck on the chorus and the producer there gave me a book by Fyodor Dostoyevsky as inspiration and we had a little break for four or five days, and in the four or five days it kind of hit me what to do and we got in there and figured it out, and now it’s done I guess!
Thirsty: Is that your favorite song on the record?
Lillian: Yeah, I actually quite like it. I don’t know if it’s my number one favorite, but definitely in my top two or three. But I definitely have because I feel like that song’s sort of a turning point for us. It’s something we’ve always been trying to do, which is kind of tone down the punk and the aggression in the music for more of a melodic thing. When we started the band that’s kind of how we started it, as more melodic. Then it just got angrier and angrier. So it’s nice to see that we were able to not only write a song like that but write a good song like that.
Thirsty: “Oxygen” really struck me as sounding like an old New Wave song. Eve’s bass line sounds like one from a New Order track. Are earlier influences really showing themselves more on this record?
Lillian: Yeah, that’s more of the music we listened to growing up. Whenever I would even hear music or be exposed to music it was alot of sort of the 90s goth music, or 80s goth music - The Cure and Nine Inch Nails and New Order and Joy Division and that sort of stuff, so that’s definitely more up our alley and somehow when we made our first record we sounded more like comparisons to I guess MC5 or Stooges and stuff but we just never really had that reference point, you know? Sort of a happy accident I guess!
Thirsty: There’s a song on the record, “Mercedes Marxist”, which is all about being broke and wanting the good life. Last summer you guys posed with Kate Moss in an ad for Roberto Cavalli. How did that come about?
Lillian: (laughs) The Roberto Cavalli thing came about, I’m not quite sure actually! I think somebody, Cory - the guitar player for the band - or Bosh, the drummer, had met Kate Moss and became friends or something and she wanted, it was like a last minute thing, she wanted some guys to pose (with her) so they called Bosh or Cory. We had actually had a break, we came back to LA for ten days from Berlin and it was just a weird coincidence we were around and so we were like, fuck it let’s go do it! Gotta pay the bills!
Thirsty: Any future plans for more modeling?
Lillian: No, it’s not anything we seek. It’s just something we get offered and if the money’s right then we do it. In this day and age, the job description of what a musician’s got to do to not have credit card collectors calling them is kind of broad, you know?
Thirsty: My favorite song on the record is “Shake Your Shimmy”. You sound like you’re having a lot of fun and just jamming. What was recording that like?
Lillian: That’s exactly what it is! That was toward the end of the recording before we mixed. We had at that point been very settled in the studio and the studio was running really great, and we had like a late night sort of party, festivities kind of thing, girlfriends were in town and wives and shit, so we had this big party. There was some friends that we’d met in Berlin and they all came over, and we were playing some new tracks for everybody so we decided to jam on this riff and it came together pretty quickly in two or three hours and some of the people that were there - some of the girls and stuff - are singing with us and we recorded it not really thinking anything of it. Then when it, about three weeks later when it came time to start mixing and whittling down what songs we’re gonna use that one had a really great energy about it so we decided to leave it in!
Thirsty: How did this tour with Eagles of Death Metal come together?
Lillian: One of the guys in the band, I think it’s the singer Jesse, had heard about us and met some of the guys in the band and asked us to open for them. I’ve met him before, really cool guys. What I like about Josh Homme and EODM, the production and stuff it always feels like sonically pushing the boundaries. Where he’s got sort of like hard rock type of sound but it sounds like, you know, more interesting than standard run-of-the-mill hard rock band. I’ve always been a fan, so I’m really happy to play with them.