At twenty-six, Living Things singer Lillian Berlin has survived heroin addiction, a half-dozen arrests and being beaten to a pulp outside a Dallas club by thugs who took exception to his political rants. Onstage, Berlin bounces around like the demon love child of Grace Slick and Iggy Pop, routinely burning a photo of George W. Bush and pissing out the flames. But sitting in a cafe in his adopted hometown of New York, he’s cleareyed and focused as he talks about Iraq, his brothers and bandmates Eve (23, bass) and Bosh (20, drums), and Living Things’ cherry bomb of a debut album, Ahead of the Lions.
Recorded by Nirvana and Pixies producer Steve Albini in 2003 (and long delayed by record-company squabbles), Lions works up a catchy, supercharged scuzz-rock sound fueled by lyrics about government chicanery and dead GIs. Lillian owes his feistiness to his mom, an activist from Chicago who was raised Catholic and once tried to join the Black Panthers before moving to the conservative St. Louis suburb where her boys — two of whom she named after their grandmothers — were born.
In 1997, Lillian — a daydreaming diarist who revered Kurt Cobain but also considered Sylvia Plath a rock star — dropped out of high school and bounced around the country with his girlfriend, panhandling and busking for drug money. His mother tracked him down in Chicago. “She took me home and basically beat [the heroin] out of me,” Lillian says. “That’s when we formed Living Things.”
After adding their buddy Cory Becker, 24, on guitar, the Berlin boys moved to Los Angeles in 2002, scoring a major-label deal within weeks. While Living Things toured during the next two years, Lillian held debates onstage, was arrested for disturbing the peace at the 2004 Republican National Convention and got into politically charged spats with Nikki Sixx, a biker gang and their label, Geffen, which eventually dropped the band.
In 2003, while shooting a video for “Bombs Below” in Prague, Lillian hooked up with the director, Italian filmmaker Floria Sigismondi. They married in 2004 and had a daughter that same year. With Living Things’ current label, Jive, firmly behind their album, Lillian has no plans to settle down. “I just want to get our message out,” he says. “Whatever happens, I hope Bosh, Eve and I can stay together somehow.”