Like moths to a flame, there is a mysterious, magnetic energy that seems to attract Josh Aubin, Lilah Larson, and Ezra Miller, the trio that make up Sons of an Illustrious Father. When we sit down to talk in the atrium of the Ludlow Hotel, they snuggle up to one another on the weathered brown chesterfield sofa. Theirs is a natural, unaffected closeness built over the course of a decade, all affection and tenderness. As they discuss the band’s debut album, Deus Sex Machina: Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla, the late spring sun bleeds through the skylights, the delicate clink of porcelain cups hitting porcelain saucers.
Miller, 25, and Larson, 27, met in middle school in New Jersey, where, as Miller put it, they “were lonely, isolated individuals who sought shelter amongst each other.” The pair bonded over a love of Bikini Kill and Patti Smith and Nirvana, and eventually started playing music together. Today, fans may recognize Miller as the Flash from 2017’s Justice League, or Credence Barebone from 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He is — or will be very soon — a bona fide movie star, and you can already hear the Hollywood image management machine whir into life. But back in 2010, when Aubin joined the band on bass, Miller was just a confused teenager trying to figure out his place in the world.
Those early years were rocky, with many rehearsal sessions devolving into alcohol-fueled arguments. Miller has admitted to having struggled with mental health issues during the formative years of the band, something he now knows he wasn’t addressing with the appropriate weight or urgency. His newfound ability to see his psychic struggles as part and parcel of who he is — rather than compartmentalizing them or allowing them to deny his emotional agency — has heartened his bandmates. This is where he belongs.
As calm as the trio seem, their tenderness belies a focused intensity and a clear-eyed recognition of the winding roads they all took to get here. All three are outspoken activists, and discuss gentrification, U.S. foreign policy, and the treatment of marginalized communities in America with equal energy and intelligence. The band first made waves with “U.S. Gay,” a triumphant anthem written in the wake of the Pulse massacre in Orlando in June 2016, where a gunman opened fire in the queer-friendly club and killed 49 people. It’s a song that forges purpose from its lyrics as well as its rhythm. When Miller croons, “I want us murdered, martyred, mutilated/Matthew Sheparded to the calm/To sprout wings as we fall/Don’t want my friends dead at all,” I’m not sure whether to weep or dance.
“I think for all of us it’s really important to be creating a space and sending a message that everyone is beautiful and amazing as they are, and there’s room for all of our strangeness here,” says Larson. “We want to create the music and the world that we wanted and needed as kids.”
Nonconformity extends to the band’s sound as well. They’ve called themselves “genre queer,” an impish and accurate description of a group that can combine new wave synthesizers with muddy grunge chords and come out with something that defies characterization. The effect is similar to the 1975 at their most experimental, or David Lynch’s work in Twin Peaks, where styles, tropes, and classifications were thrown into a blender with spellbinding results. There are times on Deus Sex Machina (“Crystal Tomes,” “Unarmed”) when Miller’s voice shifts from plaintive to fierce and back again. Album closer “Samscars” is stunningly unorthodox, both emotionally charged ballad and soaring stadium rock anthem, bridged by a layered instrumental section that wouldn’t be out of place on an Explosions in the Sky record.
“Extraordinary Rendition,” another track from Deus Sex Machina, is a spiritual follow-up to “U.S. Gay,” which opens the album. The song’s title refers to a particularly sinister abduction tactic used by the CIA, where the spy agency captures foreign nationals and transfers them to the custody of cooperative foreign governments, where they are held at “black site” prisons. The song slithers and booms, diving into a crash of heavy kick drums and cymbals before cutting to the moody strum of a single guitar and Miller’s haunted voice. The song “was an observation of the ceaseless crisis of our country and our world throughout our entire lives,” Miller says. It’s a portrait of an America rotten at its core, narrated by three artists who have made activism a core part of their collective identity.
For his part, Miller doesn’t believe that being queer compels him to activism, but he does think it grants a certain nuanced perspective on strife. “I think being alive obligates you to activism,” he says. “And I think being queer has the potential to free one from the uncertainty of identity that can hold one back from engaging in activism in the world.” Activating that activism in people who don’t find themselves under the thumb of the culture at large is a whole other question, of course, a topic that Larson broaches soon after. “Very rarely, I feel like, does a straight, cis, white man come to realizations about oppression without other people informing him,” she says.
“I think that’s one of the basic aspects of privilege, right?” Miller adds. “It’s that it’s the privilege to have the option to engage with the pain and horror of hegemony in the world because you benefit from its structure, whereas people who are victimized by those same structures don’t have that choice. They engage as a result of their existence. They’re already engaged.”
The band developed this inclination to tilt at privilege playing at DIY spaces like 285 Kent and Silent Barn, two now-defunct venues they have a special affection for. “The culture that created open alternative space in New York was a very persistent, extremely active combative culture of claiming and appropriating space,” says Miller. “They practically fought wars in the Lower East Side and throughout New York to hold and protect and to claim that space that we knew growing up.”
“We’re trying to find ways, spaces that are accessible to people, particularly youth, can be adopted and adapted for safety and expression and sites for the growth of community,” adds Larson. “What are we doing if we’re not serving that population that is literally the future?”
Miller cites the story of ABC No Rio, the legendary Lower East Side cultural space that withstood the twin forces of gentrification and City Hall for 36 years before the wrecking ball finally came. “Look at how hard people really had to fight to keep that space open to folks,” Miller says. “We definitely have a long way to go, I think, in this generation to have that sort of commitment and devotion and readiness to really fight.”
The band’s members do see hope in reaching a new generation, though, and they’re dedicated to developing a space for kids who may feel out of place or isolated to discover that there’s joy in living life outside the boundaries. They’re currently on a whirlwind tour, including a show in Brooklyn at Elsewhere on June 12 and a gig in Cleveland that is under-21 only, with those older needing to be accompanied by a minor to gain entry. “We’re trying to find ways and to find spaces that are accessible to people, particularly youth, can be adopted and adapted for safety and expression,” says Larson, who credits music with capsizing her perspective on gender. “As I got older and more aware of society — and therefore more aware of my failure to conform to gender norms — I wanted to feel like I could make sense of and justify myself within the world,” she continues. “Playing music became a way of achieving that justification, as it clearly was for people like Little Richard and David Bowie and Patti Smith.”
It’s that fearlessness, that devotion to coloring outside the lines, that has driven Sons of an Illustrious Father in their music and their advocacy. They are here to make the world better for everyone, and they want you to join them in the fight.
Sons of an Illustrious Father play Elsewhere in New York on June 12.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 11, 2018