Sons of an Illustrious Father was born of its surroundings. The trio, comprised of Lilah Larson, actor Ezra Miller, and Josh Aubin, came up in the punk and queer party scenes, and whether on tour or starring in multi-million dollar blockbuster productions, they remain intimately connected to their DIY roots.
When the massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub struck last June, shaking LGBTQIA+ communities across the country and forcing us to question the constitution of our safe spaces, the group reacted in the only ways they knew how: crying, blasting Bikini Kill, and filtering their hurt through a melodic prism.
The result is 'U.S. Gay,' at once a visceral shout of fear and an energizing, defiant anthem. The making of the video, releasing on i-D for the first time, was a community effort in itself. Shot beneath the lowlights of an underground Queens club, the band called upon visible members of the greater New York queer community. Directed by Mars Hobrecker and choreographed by Jerome Bwire, the film features writers Arabelle Sicardi, Tyler Ford, and Jahmal Golden, artist/comedian Karmenife Paulino, clothing designer Third, and artists Archie Robertson and Enok Ripley.
We caught up with the band to talk about the Pulse tragedy, safe spaces, and community building.
'U.S. Gay' was written as a reaction to the Pulse shooting in Orlando, which shook queer and POC communities across the country. How did that event resonate for you, personally?
Ezra: I remember finding out about the Pulse massacre standing in line to board a flight and hearing someone talking about it as the news broke. And I remember weeping and weeping on this airplane and this flight attendant asking me if "everything was alright" over and over again, and I remember being utterly incapable of telling them that it was. It isn't.
Josh: I remember crying a lot. I remember feeling a deep dread that I don't usually get from reading the news, 'cause I also tend to dissociate from the reality of the situation. I remember going to pick up a lamp from some guy on Craigslist and then crying in his apartment because trying to go about normal life just felt wrong.
Lilah: To be honest I have a tendency to dissociate when it comes to mass shootings and other large scale tragedies. But in the case of Orlando, I think because it happened to a community I identify with—the broader queer community, though the Latinx queer community was of course most specifically affected—it hit me very viscerally, before any coping mechanism could take hold; the de facto numbness never set in. It really stimulated for me some of the bodily fear I've experienced being publicly queer. I feel like many queer people carry a great deal of fear around, often without even realizing, and it felt like an appalling confirmation of that fear. But while totally making me feel this desire to go into a self-protective cocoon of invisibility it simultaneously made me want to be more visibly queer, more defiant than ever. The song came out of that tension.
For decades, gay bars have functioned both as watering holes and community centers for the queer community. What roles have safe spaces like this played in your own lives?
Lilah: Queer parties and DIY spaces were really my entrance into New York. And now as a touring musician, going to a lot of places where I know no one, know nothing about, the first thing I do is always look up the gay bars, queer nights, and punk shows. It's been a crucial way of finding and connecting to people for me in this weird, often isolating, nomadic lifestyle.
Josh: The DIY punk scene I grew up in created a really weird dynamic of safe spaces for me for a long time. Safe spaces help us collectively deal with and heal from the trauma of our everyday lives, and it's something that everyone needs.
How can we work to create and uphold safe spaces, and are you involved in any grassroots efforts to do so?
Ezra: This is something we talk about and think about a lot because the goal for us, first and foremost, is to create safe space for all bodies in our music and then more literally in the spaces we occupy and the spaces in which we perform. We really try to ensure that the artists and communities with whom we co-create space share this ethos.
The not-so-far-away-from-reality dream we share is quite literally to own and operate a physical space and be able to autonomously provide it and hold it for creative folks of all sorts.
How can we move forward after traumatic experiences like this? Can music be a means for coping?
Lilah: Hopefully! Yes, for me it certainly is. Ezra and Josh will tell you that whenever I experience some sort of misogynist microaggression on tour I tend to blast Bikini Kill or X-Ray Spex in the van and sympathetically resonating with the righteous indignation in that music is really helpful for me. And listening to something that makes you cry is often such crucial catharsis. [U.S. Gay] is kind of an attempt at both at once—holding the anger and defiance along with the grief. Ideally people will dance, cry, and scream all at once to this song.
Ezra: It's true that people say tons of sexist shit to Lilah when we play, like, "Isn't that guitar a bit big for a girl like you?" And we do listen to a lot of riot grrrl to find comfort and thus resist the temptation to smash Lilah's guitar into these dudes' faces while screaming something like, "It's a little big for you, isn't it?!," which for legal reasons is not a great move for us at this particular time.
I really do feel music is one of the most potent tools we have to heal and to fight and to elevate ourselves and each other. I remember reading Mumia Abu-Jamal's Message to the Movement and being so struck that his central point was that we must use the weapon of music. Music has the power to make people feel more deeply, so I feel it must be a part of the cure.
Josh: It's hard to say how to move forward after these attacks, when, while we as a society are both furthering our recognition of oppression and working towards better pathways of equality for all people, and just totally fucking up and letting POC and people in LGBTQIA communities continue to be ostracized. I guess there's just the element of putting thought and attention into the idea that we really need to take care of each other in the broadest scope.
In your video, we hardly see you guys! The dancers featured take center stage and you three take backseat. Was this intentional?
Lilah: Yes, fully. We wanted to be part of it if only as an entrance for the viewer. But it didn't feel like ego had much of a place here. It's about community. It's about the spaces community creates and is created by. Also, everyone else in the video is way cooler and hotter than us and deserve much more screen time.
Ezra: Yeah, all my plans and efforts to upstage everyone and pout in the middle of every frame were summarily thwarted by all of their aforementioned cool and hotness.
Do you identify your music as being political? Do you feel like being independent from a label gives you more freedom to make political work?
Lilah: Absolutely and absolutely. I'd argue that all art is political. Just being a human with a fucking body is political. But we strive to make our art intentionally and articulately so, and certainly having no master holding the reigns means that our own bravery is the only limit—there's no argument over what might alienate the mainstream and compromise the bottom line.
Ezra: Fucking body! Yeah, your fucking body is one of 8 billion fucking bodies co-creating this historical narrative at this fucking time on earth and both the action and inaction of the fucking bodies will play a role in the progression of that fucking narrative. Fuck! Fucking corporate labels censoring their artists—fuck that!
Josh: Yeah, what Ezra said.
Is there an album in the works?
Lilah: There sure is. This is but the first single. It's still being polished, but hopefully it'll be out before the end of the year or early 2018.
Ezra: In terms of the coming record: I mean, look, I don't want to say too much, but at several points we are audibly naked.
Text Coco Romack