Austin City Limits

The Living Things were the living end at South by Southwest

Texas -- even hippie-dippy Austin, even the rarefied confines of South by Southwest -- is Dubya country, which is to say it's a piss-poor place to make anti-war statements right now. Or so the Living Things learned a couple of weeks ago, when their onstage patter earned them a chorus of boos. "I don't think we resonate real well in Texas," says singer/guitarist Lillian Berlin. "What I said was 'Who wants to bomb the fuck out of Iraq?' And, like, three people raised their hands. Then I asked, 'Who, if they got the phone call right now, would go over there and fight?' And maybe one person raised his hand. And then I said, 'Who would rather just have Bush and Cheney go fight it themselves while we all stay home and fuck?' Then, after the show, these cowboys started fucking with us, these drunk idiots who loved George Bush."

Radar Station, alas, wasn't present to witness the impromptu agitprop, but our colleague David Holthouse, from Westword, the RFT's sister paper in Denver, e-mailed us after the festival, calling the Living Things "one of the best live pure rock bands I've seen in far too long." Wrote Holthouse: "It was interesting to note at SXSW this year that with all the Detroit hype in the air -- numerous Detroit showcases, most weakly attended -- the band that best nailed the classic Stooges/MC5 Detroit sound was from St. Louis -- the Living Things. They play it loud and nimble, screeching feedback between songs, razor-wire riffs lashing out -- thank you, may I have another? I loved them."

It's especially impressive given that the band, whose median age is twenty, played its first real gig only a year-and-a-half ago. Brought up by nomadic hippie parents, brothers Lillian, Eve and Bosh Berlin started playing rock & roll to kill time while they were grounded. Eventually the family settled in Maryland Heights and the boys attended Parkway North High School. By the time bass-playing middle brother Eve graduated, Lillian was impatient to get their music heard. In September of 2001, Lillian and Eve (both named for their grandmothers) borrowed a car and drove to LA to house-sit for a friend who had a home studio. "It was the first time we'd been exposed to real-life recording equipment," Lillian recalls. "We didn't really know how to work any of the stuff. We sat for a week and just kind of fucked with it, and then we winged it. We got all of our songs demoed out, and our youngest brother came out for a couple of weeks and played drums. We made three songs, and then [Bosh] had to go back to school."

On the advice of some juiced-in acquaintances, Eve took the demo to the LA offices of Hits magazine and gave it to a music columnist there, who helped the Living Things land a gig at the prestigious Viper Room. "We hadn't really played out in a club before, so we were kind of nervous," Lillian admits. "[Bosh] flew back out, and we got an offer from Capitol Records after the first show. We had no money at that point, and we were either gonna have to find a job or go back to St. Louis, and they were offering us money, like, the next day. We were, like, 'Shit, should we take this?'"

Their friends and advisors persuaded them to wait, so they set up a half-dozen shows in LA, eventually garnering offers from five labels. After the band settled on DreamWorks, Bosh dropped out of high school and they went to record in Chicago with seminal engineer/musician/provocateur Steve Albini, a vociferous critic of the major-label system. "We were with Albini for maybe three-and-a-half months, and we learned a lot," Lillian says. "I didn't really get that independent labels were more artist-friendly, and there are these corporate labels that are more numbers-friendly, but now that we've signed to a major and we've started making our record, it's been maybe nine months, and now I understand."

He's not too worried about getting reamed, though: "It's probably just because we're young and stupid right now, plus we've got a specific message/goal -- we want to shake some shit up -- and that's all we're thinking about. We're not thinking about comfort or money. I'm sure someday we will, but right now we just really want to get our message across. Too many bands are just talking about girls and partying and insincere bullshit. Our goal is just major-label mass distribution; if they believe in us in any remote way, we'll be able to get our shit to every kid in every high school."

Finally: A shock-and-awe campaign Radar Station can get behind. Watch for the Living Things' first full-length, Black Skies in Broad Daylight, due out later this year.

 
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