The Living Things
Bill Cummings 27/02/2006
You may not have heard of the Living Things (brothers Lillian, Eve, and Bosh Berlin from St Louis, Missouri plus Corey Becker) before. I have, in 2003 they had a slated album release that passed by my desk called “Black Skies in Broad Daylight", I enjoyed it.
Reflecting the mood of post 9/11 era America, it was an in-your-face political long player of punky rock'n'roll. It stuck two fingers up to Bush, the Iraq war and bore more than passing resemblance to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Eighties Matchbox B-line disaster, The Ramones, and even Marilyn Manson. Their unreleased UK single "I Owe" still sounds great too: a fantastic vocal is matched by dirty bass, handclaps and uptight lyrics that sound like the manifesto for an American revolution: "They tell us to lay low/They've got you under control/They don't know right from wrong". But somewhere along the line the album was shelved: maybe it was the political situation in America at the time, maybe the Living Things didn't have the commercial sound that would be swallowed by American commercial radio. Whatever the case, their label Dreamworks eventually dropped them presumably for not propagating the right corporate image. Fast-forward to autumn 2005 now with management team Q Prime (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, Muse) in place, the band's new US label Jive Records has now, thankfully, brought this album to light. Retitled “Ahead Of The Lions”, it contains two new tracks, one of which is their new single "Bom Bom Bom", released on February 27th.
I caught up with the band's drummer Bosh for an early morning phone interview.
I wondered what influenced a band of brothers to start making music. “Well, our mother was very politically active, she was a big influence on us” reckons Bosh. “But mainly it was boredom of growing up in St Louis, Missouri. There's not a lot to do, we used to go down to our basement and play. In terms of musical influences I used to listen to a lot of Beatles as a kid, I really liked Ringo Starr as a drummer too, I used to listen to his solo albums a lot.”
The saga with Dreamworks meant that their first record had to be shelved; I wondered what was the root of the problems between band and label. "Dreamworks didn't believe in our politics, or what we had to say, they knocked us off the label, they believe in Mickey Mouse and stuff,” jokes Bosh. “The new album has songs from Black Skies, and now Jive records believe in what we have to say. We recorded two new songs, we recorded Bom Bom Bom in 2005.”
Their new single seems to be more tuneful and superficially “rock n roll” (Imagine BRMC duelling with the Stones) when compared to some of their other work, but examining the lyrics, it seems the political and personal elements are still at work. “It can be about political things” reckons Bosh, “it can be any way you interpret it. I think it's about life, politics, and messages and just life, what's going on in the world. Lillian writes the lyrics but we believe in everything he writes. It's very important to talk about the political situation everywhere. We're a rock n roll band with a message. We try to capture everything that's going on."
In 2003, tensions were high in the US, two years after 9/11. The Living Things suffered from the political fallout: not only did it give them problems with their record label but also on the road. Bosh is still troubled by one serious incident to this day: "We were playing in Texas and my brother said something political to the crowd and things went mad.” Bosh sounds palpably still upset “I just saw my brother nearly get pistol whipped, it was really scary, we had to run to get away."
The Living Things seem to follow the traditional punk rock process of songwriting, main Lyricist Lillian coming in with the gem of an idea that the band build upon. "Lillian comes with structures, Eve lays down a bass line, and I play a beat, we argue for an hour and it's done.” Explains Bosh, “when we go to a studio we lay down a bass take, a drum take, then we add guitars and overdubs... it's quite simple. Lillian says lets get together and work on this song, he usually has guitar parts and we all add our parts."
The original sessions for Black Skies in 2003 were overseen by legendary producer Steve Albini, well known throughout the music world for stripping a band's sound back to its raw foundations. Witness Nirvana's In Utero that laid bare the sound of Kurt Cobain and company. Bosh smiles when I bring up his name. “Steve Albini is amazing, we were in the studio for five months and he never records things in five months, we recorded millions of songs one by one, we picked ten, mixed them and they were on the record. He throws up the microphone presses record, and says 'OK, play your drums', he captures the live energy really well.”
It's good to have a band like the Living Things back. More than ever, America needs bands that are willing to stand up and object to the way their country is being run. Whether their newly reassembled album will still pack the punch that it did in 2003 is open to question, but it's certainly worthy of your investigation.