Interview: Living Things Vocalist/Guitarist Lillian Berlin
For as much flak as native sons the Living Things receive from St. Louis for perceived criticisms - and the crap they take from everyone else for doing things like burning money onstage - the reality of the band is far less controversial. In fact, Lillian Berlin (née Jason Rothman) was (gasp) a nice, affable interviewee when I spoke to him last fall.
Mic Becker Living Things!
He spent much of 2008 - eight months, to be exact - at Hansa Tonstudios in Berlin, Germany, with the rest of the band working on their latest album, Habeas Corpus. (This explains why he hadn't had much time to visit the Lou, even though his mom still lives in the St. Charles area.) Corpus achieves what Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has always aspired to be: It's a moody, stormy record with flashes of synthpunk ("Oxygen") and distortion-laden fuzz explosions ("Let It Rain").
And contrary to what many people claim, Berlin doesn't hate his hometown at all: During our conversation, he waxes ecstatic about Vintage Vinyl, The Point (105.7 FM) and laughs that he has a soft spot for food from The Pasta House. He also revealed that Chuck Berry's late keyboardist, Johnnie Johnson - who lived two blocks away from his mom - was set to contribute to Living Things' last album, Ahead of the Lions.
"Right before he died, I think it was three years ago now, we were set up in a house in St. Louis recording part of our last record," Berlin recalls via phone. "And we were going to have him come by and play piano. He was all booked - and then he died. It would have been his last performance on tape, it would have been great to have had."
Catch the band at Vintage Vinyl this afternoon at 4 p.m., and again later tonight at Off Broadway. The latter show starts at 9 p.m.; Nothing Still opens. After the jump, more chatting with Berlin and a bonus MP3 from his Chicago-era Y2K band, Atrixo.
MP3: Atrixo, "Audacious"
Annie Zaleski: The perception I have of Berlin is of the place where Bowie recorded, that it's all very Teutonic and amazing. Give me the reality of recording over there.
Lillian Berlin: We recorded at Hansaton Studios, which is the studio where Bowie recorded "Heroes," where Iggy Pop recordoed The Idiot, "Nightclubbing," "Lust for Life," that whole great era. Hansa, it's actually a massive ex-symphony hall, and pre-World War II Berlin used to hold all of its classical and operas at this Hansa Ton studios. The architecture is early 1900s, very Gothic, really beautiful. It's kind of hard to put into words, it's just so mesmerizing. Even the fact that it's still standing [is amazing], because [it's] one of the only old buildings that's standing in West Berlin as a result of World War II, everything else got bombed and destroyed.
The really inspiring part about it, when you're in the studio recording, it's got wall-to-wall windows. And when you're looking out, you're looking at where the [Berlin] Wall used to be. So when David Bowie let's say was there, he'd be looking at the Wall with the guards and the whole thing. And now, when we're recording, we're looking at it as this Wall, whatever's left of it, and now there's new buildings and stuff. It was, for me, a great reminder of [the] Communist society that lost, and the people won. I was writing a record that the theme was the people taking control of their lives - from love to war to finances. It was very appropriate for me to be singing every day, and seeing where the wall used to be, and seeing people walking with their families where the wall used to be.
Living Things, "Oxygen"
How did all of this influence the way you approached writing the music and lyrics for the record?
It gave me a fresh perspective. For me, I look as art as a reflection of society or a reflection of culture. I think a filmmaker makes films about what is going on during that time, a musician writes about what's going on during tha time. For me, musicians and filmmakers and painters that do that sort of thing are the kind that I always respect - the Bob Dylans of the wrld, the Bob Marleys. In the simplest form, somebody writing a love song today, it's still a reflection of how society feels about love.
Up until this Berlin record, I was more coming from [the perspective of] growing up in St. Louis, having a certain smaller idea of what the world thinks about certain issues - be it politics or be it family values or whatever. I had my midwestern style of values. Being in Berlin that long opened me up to how people think on the other side of the world. And they think very differently about everything, from family values to religion to politics. In Berlin, they think about it in a way that's more open-minded maybe than we do here in the States.
For me to get into conversations with people - it's a learning exercise of arguing what I thought was something, and then a Berliner arguing what they thought was something. And at the end of it, my eyes [were] opened to something I wasn't really turned on to before. People in Berlin don't think highly of Americans right now, so you have a lot of that rhetoric. When you'd turn on the news stations over there, [you] got a different perspective of what was going on in the world that you definitely don't get over here. [laughs] A lot of that infiltrated my lyrics and my music, and had an enormous influence on me.
Musically, how does Corpus compare to Ahead of the Lions?
It's a lot more intense lyrically. It's a lot more intense and emotional. And the music is maybe a little bit more emotional, even in the way that we recorded it. We kept it very live-feeling, and there's also a little bit of coldness to it all, that is a result of being in Germany. It kind of makes things feel cold and dark and German-ish, it seeps into the music, I think. Even when you listen to the records that have been rceorded at Hansa, they all have that flavor to it, because the studio's ghosts haunt the music in that way.
It's a very intangible thing about the records that have been recorded there. The ghosts around the studio is a really good description.
A lot of my favorite bands, my favorite records were recorded there. From Bowie to Iggy to Depeche Mode to U2 recording Achtung Baby. Something about that studio, you definitely get a very interesting record.