"We’ve made for each other a foam pit into which flips may be attempted," Ezra Miller says, with a hint of self-aware amusement. He’s speaking figuratively about the nurturing creative process of Sons of an Illustrious Father -- but talk among the bandmates quickly turns literal.
"We recently went to a trampoline park in North Dakota and there was a foam pit, it was delightful," says guitarist Lilah Larson. "We have to build the first trampoline park in Brooklyn because they desperately need it here," adds bassist Josh Aubin. "If there was ever a place that needed a trampoline park..." Miller says, before Larson finishes: "People are so weighed down."
This ping-pong banter is illustrative of the trio’s dynamic, as talk swings lithely from the siren song of Mister Softee (it’s a hot day in Brooklyn, where the band is based) to eschewing the gender binary. It’s the kind of ease that comes from trust and familiarity, or in the case of Miller and Larson, a lengthy shared history. The 25-year-olds met in middle school in New York’s Hudson Valley, long before Miller became one of Hollywood’s most interesting rising stars, playing the titular role in We Need to Talk About Kevin opposite Tilda Swinton, donning the superhero suit of DC’s The Flash, and unleashing dark magic havoc in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. "I’ve known Lilah since before I was even really drumming. My whole history as an instrumentalist is tied to the memories of Lilah," Miller says.
Back then they were trading graphic novels about music luminaries ("You read the Kurt Cobain one and gave it back to me very promptly and I read your Jimi Hendrix one and then lost it," Miller reminds Larson). But the two have been making music together since 2009, when they merged their punk-heavy basement jams with Larson’s already existing folk project, Sons of an Illustrious Father. Aubin joined them on tour in 2010 and stayed for good. The three share singing and songwriting responsibilities and the result is a cohesively eclectic mix of sounds and sensibilities, one that becomes more compellingly disparate on their third album, Deus Sex Machina: or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla, released June 1.
The record’s nine tracks provide a sonic smorgasbord: on "Extraordinary Rendition," frenetic instrumentation swells along with the intensity of Miller’s singing; electronic rat-a-tats skitter alongside Larson’s aching croon on "Narcissus"; the sweet, soft pop of "Unarmed" ebbs and flows under hushed vocals that will ensure the song lands on the playlists of ASMR devotees everywhere. The trio’s inspiration is just as far-reaching. The chorus of "E.G." is taken from a medieval drawing of a poem credited to someone named E.G.; "When Things Fall Apart" is directly influenced by the book of the same name, by Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön; and "Samscars" is a play on the Sanskrit samskaras, which Miller says, "refers to the sea of suffering, the knot of existence that keeps us trapped in cycles of reincarnation."
Larson calls it their "weirdest, least genre-normative album yet," itself an extension of the band members’ own aversion to categorization. "For me it totally stems from personal identification, or really it’s eschewing identification. That is a huge part of how I relate to gender and sexuality and also a huge part of how I feel about genre definition in general. Restrictive self-identification can be very compromising," Larson says. "We didn’t really set out to be a band that breaks down genre barriers or breaks down barriers around ideas of queerness. We have just been true to ourselves about what we need to express and how we need to express it."
Much of that authentic expression is political by default. One of the most evocative tracks on Deus Sex Machina is "U.S. Gay," a soulful, defiant, and ultimately uplifting anthem written by the band in the wake of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. "If I don’t die tonight/I’m gonna dance until I do" Larson warbles over the song’s sparse opening guitars. In the video, directed by Mars Hobrecker and choreographed by Jerome Bwire, a club filled with members of New York’s queer community dance and flirt and lounge in various positions of repose. It’s striking and beautiful in its poignancy, much like the song.
"We would normally say that all music is of a political reference, but when shit gets really rugged…" Miller says, before Larson completes his sentence: "…art follows suit." The world feels as though it’s intensified in the past year and a half, particularly in the U.S. where the Trump administration continually fans the flames of unrest; the band’s music seems to reflect that. But a political bent has always been part of their makeup, Larson says: "We all grew up going to protests and being involved in anarchist-punk scenes and DIY communities, and the early days of the band were very much within those spaces."
The group continues to draw from that ethos, carving out a safe space in an industry that could use its own #MeToo-style reckoning that Hollywood, home to Miller’s primary profession, is experiencing. The notion elicits an impassioned speech from the actor-musician. "All industries and communities in the world need that reckoning, not just as a singular moment, but as a constant, ceaseless vigilance—a culture protecting and caring for one another," he says. "These types of movements need to develop into cultures that can grow and become as much a part of the fabric of our society as rape culture and misogyny have been." Smashing the patriarchy of the music industry might be a tall order for the trio, but it’s clear they’re willing to work on cementing their place in the lineage of musicians whose music has stirred the pot (they often mention Patti Smith and Kathleen Hanna as influences) and fomented real change. "It’s an ongoing historic struggle of which we hope to be, we seek to be, a useful part," Miller says, sincerely. "And to serve in whatever way we can."