Lillian Berlin of Living Things in the Berlin Family Caverns studio
Photo: Floria Sigismondi
Living Things is a hard-driving but hook-heavy rock quartet of three oddly named brothers — Lillian (lead vocals, guitar), Eve (bass) and Bosh (drums) Berlin — and their guitarist friend Cory Becker. Lyricist Lillian Berlin writes a lot of overtly political and socially conscious material, but underneath that veneer they're a solid band with echoes of everyone from the Stones to T. Rex to Iggy Pop in their sound. They've put out two albums: The first, Ahead of the Lions, was recorded by Steve Albini; their latest, Habeas Corpus, was cut at Hansa Studios in Berlin, Germany (ground zero for classic David Bowie and Iggy records), with producer Michael Ilbert (who mixed the first disc).
Living Things also have their own studio, nicknamed the Berlin Family Caverns, in their ancestral home in a woodsy, rural area outside of St. Louis. The control room — which is equipped with a Quad 8 Ventura console, and Neve BCM 10 and Neve Melbourne sidecars chained together; KRK and Yamaha monitors; and MCI 8, 16 and 24-track recorders — is in the basement of the house; tracking takes place in various rooms upstairs that are tied in by audio and video to the basement. The band records its demos there and even did a full song on the new album at home — the catchy “Shake Your Shimmy.”
Where did they get their recording knowledge? “I learned everything I know from our first record with Steve Albini,” Lillian Berlin says. “We had made some demos before the first album, but we didn't really know what we were doing. After we got our deal, we went to work with Steve and spent about six weeks with him at his place and it was like going to recording school. Then, we had a little money from touring and Steve suggested we buy some stuff, so we bought a couple of tape machines from him, and when we got home we set it all up and started recording on our own. He was a great teacher!”
The group began recording Habeas Corpus at home, but they were dissatisfied with the results and eagerly moved to producer Ilbert's Berlin base, where they stayed for more than eight months. “It was actually cheaper there than here,” Lillian Berlin says. “But it also totally affected the writing. We basically scrapped the songs we brought over there and wrote new, better ones.”
The members like to record live, together, which poses an interesting problem in their multifloor home studio when they're engineering themselves. Who runs the board? “That's the gymnastics of it,” Lillian Berlin says with a laugh. “We roll the machines, one of us jets upstairs and there's always five minutes of blank tape before we play a note!” And that hasn't encouraged them to go tapeless? “Funny you should mention that,” Lillian Berlin replies. “We just got a Pro Tools HD setup recently and discovered that, yeah, it's a lot easier and cheaper to do that!”
Other favorite pieces of gear in the Living Things' studio includes Neumann U47 and 67, Brauner VM-1 and an assortment of RCA ribbon mics, and Neve 1073 mic pre's. “It's a comfortable place to work,” Lillian Berlin says. “We can play as loud and long as we want, and nobody cares.”