A Visit with Lillian Berlin from Living Things
By Myles Crawley
Photos by Danica Waters
On a late Monday afternoon in LA’s Silver Lake district, I walked into the local coffee house to find Lillian Berlin standing at the front counter. Black boots, black pants, black shirt, topped off with a black bolero gave him the look of a modern day Zorro. There was no missing him. I was here to meet up with Lillian and have a chat over coffee before his show later that night, at the newly renamed Satellite club, with his band Living Things. I introduced myself, we shook hands heartily and grabbed a table.
Lillian is an open, friendly guy. He has none of the affectations of so many in the music business. He isn’t self centered or self-serving. We joked about narcissism which, as you could probably guess, runs rampant in Hollywood. In my opinion he is not a narcissist. He’s just a nice guy from Missouri, which was where we started our conversation.
Lillian, born Lawrence Berlin Rothman, grew up in a small rural town called Creve Coeur, outside St. Louis. His father, a music lover and a quiet yet humorous man, would take him and his two younger brothers, Yves and Joshua, on weekend drives and introduce them to Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and other 50’s and 60’s music on the radio. There certainly isn’t much evidence of this influence in Living Things songs, but Lillian says that their song structure and strong use of verse/chorus was the extraction that was utilized. Lillian’s mother, a somewhat eccentric hippie, flower child of the 60’s, was outspoken and, believe it or not, extremely enterprising. She was able to establish a three mile radius of all-organic businesses in their hometown. Every restaurant, every market – all of it organic! This was no small feat in rural Missouri during the eighties, where no one had ever heard of Whole Foods and not many were attuned to the dangers that pesticides brought to human consumption.
The boys stuck close to home and spent a lot of time in the family basement. It was this close knit family bond that spurred the beginning of Living Things. As they grew older, they began to play music together. At first it was a hard edged, screaming, in-your-face style of music. Funny enough, Lillian told me that this approach was utilized to cover over the fact that none of them were that particularly good at playing yet. With childhood friend, Cory Becker, the brothers began playing at parties inside caves down along the Missouri River. Lillian says the cave parties were an incredible beginning. They would pack as many people into a cave as possible and light torches and play until the sun came up or the generator ran out of gas, whichever came first. From these humble beginnings came a band that would eventually move to Los Angeles, sign with a major label and release two albums that spawned multiple hits and commercial, television and film placements.
Fast forward a bit…
Just recently Lillian scored the soundtrack for the film “The Runaways” starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. His wife, film and video director Floria Sigismondi, wrote and directed the film. Ms. Sigismondi is, in my estimation, one of those rare few who look at life through a completely different lens than the rest of us. Her work is moving and artsy, it’s like addictive eye candy that you can’t get enough of. And her client list reads like a rock ‘n’ roll Who’s Who. She’s done videos with David Bowie, Muse, The Cure, Fiona Apple, and The White Stripes, as well as clothiers like Old Navy and Adidas. And now it seems she has jumped headlong into the film business.
Lillian seemed a bit defensive about landing the soundtrack for the film. He wanted to make it clear that he got the job on his own merit. He’s a really open guy, but he seemed kind of vulnerable on this issue, as though he wasn’t a stranger to insinuations that the soundtrack was an inside deal. Although it was obvious by the way that he told his story that he had aced the job himself. He told me that he submitted what he thought at the time would be just idea tracks, something to improve upon. He set up a screen in his studio and watched the film while recording some live guitar tracks. The execs from the film company came to the studio to hear what Lillian had done and were so taken by it that they asked that he not change a thing. They were happy with it just as it was. And six hours’ worth of preliminary work formed the major core of what would become the soundtrack to “The Runaways” film.
Last week Living Things released a free 7 -song mixtape called Malocchio. Project Rhythm Seed offered it up to our viewers on Tuesday, March 8th. View and download it here. I wanted to ask Lillian a little about what led up to not only the release of this free mixtape, but why the sudden change in musical direction. The project was recorded between Living Things’ studio in LA and Militia Sound in Kingston, Jamaica. Lillian said that the change in musical direction was very much intentional. After two albums, they felt it was time to explore musically a little before constructing number three. He said that the band was intrigued by the mixtape idea. Projects tend to come together quickly and can be released every few months, which is hard to do in album form these days. They decided to offer the mixtapes for free to encourage a new group of listeners to tune in. I must admit that it worked on me. And because the band owns its own studio facility, these projects can be recorded for a minimal amount of money. As an interesting side note, Living Things uses all analog recording equipment, slaving two 16 track tape machines together with a Neve recording desk. They only transfer to digital for mastering.
The style changes one notices when listening to Malocchio are intriguing. There is a definite reggae flavor to these songs. But it’s not forced. It is very much organic and works extremely well with everything else the band is doing. Lillian told me that they have so many songs still unreleased that they could do several more of these mixtapes, and indeed there is another in the pipeline right now that will be released in six months. They are even contemplating a punk version. A third Living Things album will be released soon under their own new record label, Brotherly Recordings.
I was intrigued by the name “Malocchio” and inquired about how this became the title. Lillian told me that his Italian mother-in-law has a ritual with olive oil and water that she performs when someone is having a bad day, or feels some negative influence in their lives. The gist of it is that the olive oil and water will create bubbles, which are then sprinkled on the forehead of the inflicted. Then a short prayer is said. After an hour or so, the ritual is repeated and if things have gone as planned, there will be no more bubbles in the olive oil/water mixture. Malocchio is the evil eye that shows up as bubbles in the first mixture. Lillian feels that with all of the unrest and craziness in the world right now, Malocchio is a timely and relevant ritual and the right choice as the title of this mixtape. I tend to agree.
Before we wrapped up I asked Lillian if any tours were in the works. He said that the band is considering a tour, but would like to do something different than the usual tour bus and night club thing. He said they have identified caves throughout the US and are pondering the idea of doing an actual cave tour with four or five other bands, just like their humble beginnings along the Missouri River.
We concluded our coffee meeting and headed in different directions. Later that night I went back over to Silver Lake to catch Living Things show at Satellite. It was a tight set of songs that included their hits “Bom Bom Bom”, “Mercedes Marxist”, “Brass Knuckles” and “Bombs Below.” This was the first time that I have ever seen this band live. All four members were impressive to watch. Yves and Joshua (Bosh) Berlin are a formidable rhythm duo. They work together in unison to create the glue that holds this band together. Corey Becker is an inventive and melodic guitar player. Corey’s playing adds top end richness to the band’s sound and gives them a resonant fluidity.
Lillian was magnificent to watch. As Bowie would say he “moved like a tiger on Vaseline.” He actually reminded me a lot of a young Jagger (despite the fact that he isn’t necessarily a Stones fan). His voice sounded great, even through a somewhat substandard PA system. And although the house was only half full, he made the best of what he had to work with. The one negative I have with the show was with the lighting, which I think had been designed and operated by a blind man. It consisted of a smoke machine and very dramatic back lighting. The problem was all you could see from the audience’s perspective were silhouettes. If I hadn’t just had coffee with Lillian I still would have no idea what he looked like. It nearly appeared like an entire bank of front lights had malfunctioned, and for all I know maybe they had. All in all though, it was a great show. I highly suggest that you go and see this band if and when they come to a cave near you.