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Sons Of An Illustrious Father Is Turning The Horrors Of Our World Into Gold

Music
photo courtesy of sons of an illustrious father

“It feels really good sometimes to just let it feel awful”

Sons of an Illustrious Father began 15 years ago, at a hippie-gothic private school where 10-year-old Ezra Miller fell in love with 12-year-old Lilah Larson: “I was like a cool, older rocker chick he had a crush on.” The youth, who had become interested in opera as a rebuke to his bluegrass-obsessed parents’ folksy ways, sang Lilah an aria in courtship; she winced. “Alto soprano back then,” Ezra recalls. “A shrill aria.” In another attempt at romance, he thrust upon her a cassette of The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder, and advised, “You know, you really shouldn’t eat meat.” Lilah decided, instead, to offer her hand to an older drug addict who pierced his nose during class. “The choice we’ve all made at one time or another,” says Ezra philosophically.

Tweenage romance was not meant to be, but what did happen was arguably more magical: Two creative, misfit queer children find one another in the world, and an intimate, soul mate-y friendship roots. They grow up and make music together. “We started jamming together in high school, in various basements,” Lilah recalls. Sons of an Illustrious Father was initially an "acoustic folk-country gospel cover thing" she was doing with another person, while she and Ezra had a "slowly developing, mostly improvisation-based metal duo act." When Lilah grew deeply distressed at the news of her father’s departure, Ezra’s solution to the pain of it was to merge the two bands, with the metal project becoming the rhythm section for a new iteration of the Sons. From the start, they have been utilizing music to combat demons.

Needing a bass player for a tour, they find Josh Aubin, a musician living in a punk house stuffed with the abandoned antiques of a former resident. A chandelier hangs, covered in tea bags; a vessel contains the runaway roomie’s sister’s ashes. Behind the house sits a dumpster for a pizza restaurant, abundant with dive-worthy pies. Lilah and Ezra don’t realize that Josh is not merely a bass player but a veritable musical savant who can play many instruments and only picked up the bass a month earlier, for the tour. Of course, he becomes an integrated member of the group, his own sensibility, musical and intellectual, merging nicely with the others.

The terroir of their beginnings—gothic hippie punk, pain and connection, a trading and mashing of instruments and genres—is audible in their new release, Deus Sex Machina: Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla. The album starts with the straightforward, intensely rousing anthem "U.S. Gay," which name-checks Valerie Solanas and Matthew Shepard, sung mostly by Lilah, whose glorious, soaring vocals are offset by Ezra’s feral, anguished growl. The effect is breathtaking, inspiring a listener to accept the band’s offer to "fuck shit up" or "fix it up," depending on how you happen to be feeling about the misery of our culture at the moment of listening.

Deux Sex Machina is an album for the apocalyptic times we are experiencing. The band’s PR materials read like the thesis of an especially promising queer theory scholar, likening the record to a funeral, the inclusion of machine a metaphor for embracing of the entirety of our world—the plastic, ruined world, as well as the hopeful, thriving one. “Everything we’ve lost is beautiful and deserves celebration on this planet, and everything we haven’t, deserves celebration and active appreciation,” says Ezra. “And protection and cultivation.”

This reminds me of a graphic novel I recently read, Witchbody by Canadian academic and witch Sabrina Scott. The work says that witches, and the rest of us, cannot conveniently demonize the degraded parts of the planet, but must recognize—value, even—these destroyed landscapes, even as we advocate for environmental justice. I mention the work to the band as we sit together, not in an underground lair dimly lit with a sputtering Tesla coil, which would feel more correct, but at an excessively sunny French restaurant tacked onto a SoHo hotel. Which actually fits into the metaphor quite nicely.

“The unnatural is an extension of and thereby part of the natural,” Ezra agrees. “Any practitioner—whether it’s magic, or art, or the sciences, or healing—has to work with existing factors that might be outside of what the practitioner would imagine as being ideal.” For Ezra, this embrace of the imperfect and problematic resonates with alchemy, another of the band’s occult interests.

“It’s sort of the central premise of alchemical practices, making gold out of so-called inferior metals,” he explains. “Alchemy was illegal because it distorted currency standards based on gold, because they were so good at making so-called ‘fake gold.’ But it wasn’t fake gold, it was real. The spiritual practice that western esotericism associates with alchemy really uses that true practice as a metaphor for our practice in life; taking the junk of your existence—and our collective existence here on earth—and making it work.”

"Extraordinary Rendition," named for the governmental practice of kidnapping of foreign nationals, practiced by the U.S. and condemned by the U.N. as a crime against humanity, is one of the most powerful tracks on Deus Sex Machina; a precision-sharp storm of guitar and drums, Ezra’s grief-tangled voice a passionate, sonic spiral above the waves. The brutal story underpinning the song (“But do you feel the bones that you can’t own/ Rattle the moans of the loner’s vacant cavities”) also carries a desperate, hopeful wisdom (“But what our brains simply cannot endure/ Is the oh so simple fact that we’re all derived from one source”). Listening to these intellectual fight songs feels like you are listening to the soundtrack of a dramatic rock opera. Then you realize you are: It's the soundtrack to our life today, as migrant children are locked parentless in American warehouses and whales gorge themselves on plastic and white women call the cops on black people barbecuing, checking out of Airbnbs, hanging out in a Starbucks, selling water to fund a trip to Disneyland.


Ezra speaks how when the band is apart, engaged in their other work—his films, Lilah’s solo project, Josh’s amazing-sounding zodiac space shooter video game "Space Unknown"the daily pain of existing in 2018 can get, perhaps deliberately, overlooked. “And it always feels like when we come back to the band—because that is our work—it creates and allows this space to allow ourselves to feel the sadness and feel the sorrow. And to feel the fear. It feels really good sometimes to just let it feel awful. And let that resonate.”

“And to let it move through you, and to alchemize it into something beautiful that you feel good about,” Lilah adds. “Return it to the world.”

In the Sons’ collective mind, America is grief-stricken from a history of death and trauma; only, we’re mostly lodged in the early, denial-level of Kubler-Ross’s Seven Stages of Grief. “We’re excited for the other parts,” Ezra says. “Like the anger.” The Sons are already there. Though the themes on the album may be heavy—like the drums, and the bass, and the guitar—there is a vibrant, violently alive passion, a loving anger, perhaps, that burns off the numbness of depression that could come with handling such material.

Seeing the Sons live, as I was lucky to one Saturday night in Los Angeles, is catharsis by osmosis; the pure power of their ragged earnestness, their breathless pain transformed into raw beauty before you, the beauty of this trio of queers taking on the compromised soul of our culture and transmuting it through the magic of music, was everything I needed to feel, strongly if momentarily, better. In addition to songs from the new album and the rollicking, bluesy "Conquest" from the 2016 album Revol, the Sons performed two covers: a performance of "I’m Afraid of Americans" so devastating it signaled Bowie in the beyond and flooded the room in his spirit, and an unexpectedly cuddly a capella of "All Apologies," sung by the trio in a swaying embrace. When they crooned "everyone is gay," the crowd erupted in giggles.

What a gift it is that artists give us. They eat the world, the best and the worst of it, and alchemize it to gold—real gold—something the powers that be will always try to outlaw for the ways it confuses and ruins their systems. Influenced by Bikini Kill and Patti Smith, Nikola Tesla and Peter Grey, Kim Gordon and Jimi Hendrix, LSD and Rugrats, X-Ray Spex and Opera, Sons of an Illustrious Father are rock wildness at its most lucid and intellectual, protest music that is creating change by altering the brain chemistry of their listeners. Exiting the Echo Rock club into the cool L.A. night, I felt giddy and renewed. The empire is crashing, and it won’t go down without a fight, but we have one another and rebellion in our bodies, in our blood, and in our music.


Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.