Gentle Sometimes: An Interview with Sons of an Illustrious Father

“Whose truck is it?”

 

“Oh, I don’t know. We have no idea.”

 

Lilah Larson doesn’t tell me this until after we’ve wrapped up a half-hour spent crouching in the red pickup truck’s dusty laid-out bed. She and the other two members of the East Coast “heavy meadow” band Sons of an Illustrious Father—Josh Aubin and Ezra Miller—have been holding court there all evening, vagabondishly doling out pre-show interviews from the little nest they’ve constructed, so I naturally assumed the vehicle belonged to somebody in the band.

 

Apparently not.

 

In truth, though, that assumption was foolish on my part. In the roughly six years of their existence, Sons of an Illustrious Father have developed a definite affinity for repurposement—of musical elements and artistic communities, certainly—so why should that not extend to tangible objects? In fact, they largely conceive of boundaries as a waste of time altogether: it is readily apparent no one in the band appreciates being told what to do on either a personal or an artistic level. Larson and Miller—also a lauded actor whose impressive contributions to films like We Need To Talk About Kevin will soon be augmented by his upcoming star turn in the big-screen superhero feature The Flash—are both openly queer (nor does Aubin identify as straight); all three were active and vocal participants in Occupy Wall Street, and the band is a noted presence in and around a very specifically DIY subset of the music scene in New York City.

 

But what’s really special about the grunge-folk three-piece is their sheer earnestness—their genuine enthusiasm for unfettered exploration. Don’t let the Ludgate-esque tones of their voices trip you up: as we sit and talk in the back of that mystery pickup truck, there is no trace of cynicism to be found.  And in the context of today’s internet economy, where “otherness” is often a prize to be won, that is a rare and precious thing.

 

Let’s just hope the owner of the truck sees it the same way.

 

KEELY WEISS—I know the band is New York City-based, but you also have ties with the Hudson Valley, which definitely works its way into the sound. Do you feel like you identify more closely with that or with the city?

 

EZRA MILLER—I think that the city is a good place to expel work for me, and there’s a certain type of intake that happens there, but I find that being outside of an urban environment is important for writing a song.

 

JOSH AUBIN—I’m not really able to really write music when I’m in New York City. I don’t know, there’s something that’s not conducive about the manic environment that is New York when it comes to writing something.

 

EZRA—Often, the fragments are really born in New York and I find that things come together often in motion or in a place where there’s more space—physical space.

 

LILAH LARSON—I think, also, we take great pride in the history of that region. I grew up in the Hudson Valley, and that certainly had an effect.

 

EZRA—I think there’s an influence too in sort of the darker and older history, and the reality of living in the United States, that’s been really important as well—which specifically addresses the fact that we’re not natives.

 

KEELY—I’d be really interested in hearing how you guys relate to marginal spaces with your music. To my knowledge, two out of three of you identify as queer—is this something that influences how you make music?

 

LILAH—Enormously. I think that, for one thing, what making music does for me—the space that it creates is a very queer space, and from early childhood that was very important to me because I was able to create my own context on my own grounds for my own gender performance. And I think it’s also very important to all of us to be visible as different and socially conscious people.

 

EZRA—Also, I think music is an area where gender roles are strong and rigid and enforced incidentally, through communities who play music. And I think that some of those roles and standards are unquestionably limiting. Many of the people who make music, whom I admire, are transcending so much.

 

LILAH—Yeah, it really lends itself, as the history of rock‘n’roll can attest, to serious gender play. The fact that there is such prevailing misogyny and heteronormativity in the music world, to me, is honestly a really fun challenge [All laugh]. I’m into it.

 

KEELY—But you don’t necessarily consider yourselves a queer band—or do you?

 

LILAH—I consider us a queer band.

 

JOSH—Yeah.

 

EZRA—As much as we are eager to consider ourselves any sort of specifically-labeled band, [all laugh] if you’re going for a label it’s nice to have an anti-label label—so, yeah, we’ll allow it.

KEELY—In keeping with concept of queerness essentially being about the disruption of boundaries, I’d love to hear how you guys relate to the idea of disrupting boundaries sonically and whether your experiences have pushed you more in a boundary-less direction.

 

"We started out as this acoustic band and then decided to import our serious punk influences and then were like, you know, fuck it, we’re also gonna get a synthesizer, and we’re gonna do all this shit, and he’s gonna sing in falsetto and I’m gonna growl and we’re gonna, yeah, transgress in all the ways that are available to us."

LILAH—Yeah, I think certainly. You know, we started out as this acoustic band and then decided to import our serious punk influences and then were like, you know, fuck it, we’re also gonna get a synthesizer, and we’re gonna do all this shit, and he’s gonna sing in falsetto and I’m gonna growl and we’re gonna, yeah, transgress in all the ways that are available to us.

 

EZRA—We’ve had no patience with boundaries. We haven’t been able to ever sustain one of them. We’re an acoustic band—no we’re not. But we’re actually just an electrical and analog band—actually, never mind, not at all.

 

LILAH—And now we’re a synth-pop band. So yes, basically, yes, what you said. Very perceptive, and totally.

 

KEELY—What inspired the synthesizer? Do you think of these developments at all as “movements”?
 

LILAH—Well, just to take the queer parallel further: what inspired you to fuck a person of the same gender, or someone who doesn’t identify with any gender? It’s like—I’m interested in that. I like it. It’s pleasurable to me. So why not?

 

EZRA—Yeah. Essentially it wasn’t that we were inspired to do it so much as just, like, why are we not letting ourselves do this? Josh is really a great synth player, and we’re interested in this, and this could add sonic elements to our music. You know what I mean? It really was more the removal of a boundary than the addition of a tool.

 

KEELY—Ezra, I know when you were younger you used to sing opera. Has that snuck in as well?

 

EZRA—I think that opera plays an incredibly large role in everything because it’s where art kind of started for me.

 

LILAH—I think it also, I’ve always said that what makes Ezra such an amazing drummer is how much he understands language, and phrasing and timing in that sense, and I’ll literally hear him playing my vocal melodies in drums, and I think that’s because that was so central for him so early on.

 

KEELY—And how do you pull from your influences in general? How does that function in relation to your writing?


EZRA—Using strings, duct tape, and crystals.

 

JOSH—I make a circle of chocolate. And then I put the influence into the middle of the circle.


LILAH—I think it’s half intention and half just whatever, personally. I don’t know about their processes, but what I ingest organically becomes part of what I then—


EZRA—What Lilah does is she gets the game Mousetrap! and then she replaces the mouse with her influence. Then she traps it, then she ingests it.


LILAH—I love that you know this about me.

 

MILLER—She’s being shy, but that’s how it happens.

 

KEELY—I know we talked about how introducing new elements musically has mostly been about breaking down boundaries as opposed to adding new things, but do you think about the way your sound has shifted or evolved in terms of movements? Or do you just kind of follow the sound?

LILAH—I think for me the only conscious desire is to get continuously weirder. I think in my observations any band or artist who fails to get continually weirder as they progress gets… not good. I think Tom Waits is a fantastic example of someone who has successfully remained really relevant and amazing by just, like, really going there.

JOSH—I gently agree with that.

LILAH—Gently?

JOSH—Like I agree with most things.

EZRA—Look, man, you’re gentle most of the time. Then there are the other times.

LARSON—Can that be the byline? “Gentle, sometimes.”