There are very few instances in which I’ve listened to an album for the first time and had a visceral, physical reaction to it. Deus Sex Machina: or Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla, the latest from the self-described “genre queer” band, Sons of An Illustrious Father, did just that. It’s only nine tracks long, but in the end I felt like all my nerves were raw and exposed, my lungs were on fire, and I had been both empowered and destroyed. It’s an electrifying exchange between our own humanity and how our increasingly industrialized world is potentially ripping us apart from the inside out. We got together with the band on a rainy afternoon at Tribeca’s Roxy Hotel to breakdown the record, the creative process, and the collaboration and battle between man and machine.
When you’re priming listeners for the journey of the album, take me behind the mentality of titling it “Deus Sex Machina: or Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla”.
Ezra Miller: Say, “Deus Sex Machina” – the theological, the biological, and the technological. And Nikola Tesla – the fallen martyr of energy processing. And so for priming listeners, we’d say the album in its journey is a bit like drinking ipecac. First you’ll feel kind of bad, then you’ll throw up, then you’ll feel better.
Josh Aubin: What’s ipecac?
Lilah Larson and Ezra: The stuff that makes you throw up.
Josh: I should try that sometime.
Lilah: Yeah you’ll feel better. But first you’ll feel bad.
Has it been a longterm fascination with Nikola Tesla or has this been a more recent development?
Josh: No, it’s pretty deeply ingrained.
Ezra: A common fascination for a very long-time.
Lilah: I feel like this album and this album title and what it indicates about the album thematically is the culmination of a lot of fixations of ours. We’re all sort of theology, mythology nerds and seekers and also people who read a lot of sci-fi and also worry about the coming apocalypse.
Ezra: And Nikola Tesla obviously is this figure who’s a contemporary figure, but who holds a lot of the combined elements of the theological, biological, and technological in ways that lots of practices did in the distance past, but few people have carried those factors in synthesis in this age. And Nikola Tesla is one of those people who did that. And we didn’t hear his cries, we tragically missed his message which has led us to this drastic situation on planet earth.
Lilah: Moving slowly beyond…
In terms of creation, I feel like there are two primary schools of thought: one is that it’s a product of the external and derived from that, and the other is that it’s very insular and can exist in somewhat of a vacuum. Where do you find yourselves on that spectrum?
Lilah: I mean that is sort of related to the album title question. We’re people who experience being creators as sort of being a conduit and view technology as a similar conduit that we now in this age are needing – sort of the biological and technological and happenstance occurs through us in miraculous ways and we can collaborate the biological and technological in that. I think we’re also people who are committed to being a crucible of sorts. There’s a lot of really hard stuff out there in the world and it needs to be processed and that I think is largely the role of art and artists in society – to process the crude material into something beautiful.
Ezra: Can we be pro tools for a bigger creature?
Josh: Can we be proto-tools for bigger creature?
Lilah: Or are we just tools? [laughs]
To me, the album felt very much like both a battle and a collaboration between man and machine: in some ways, the machine is what destroys us, in others it enhances us. I might be reading way too far into this, but was there any sort of parallel between the idea of this machine, but also our own mortality?
Ezra: I think the idea is that all of these inventions connect to the futile effort to achieve immortality, but neither the humans or the machines are lasting realities. You know, the cloud is our new version of stone engraving in terms of operating under the delusion that we can actually preserve information in a physical form or that a we can control it or that we can keep it so, yeah, I think there’s ideas in the album about the mortality of everyone and everything and you know the harm we inflict when we struggle against that inevitable reality.
Very directly on tracks like “Narcissus” you confront ego and indirectly, I thought it was a really interesting choice in the music video for “U.S.Gay” that you decided to shift the primary focus off of yourself and onto these other people as the storytellers for that song. What do you feel is the relationship between art and ego?
Josh: You know, I mean there’s the inevitability that art is the reflection of the ego, but there’s also the need to dismiss the ego so that the art exists and to be created, cause it’s not so much ego that creates it’s art, but it’s art that’s creating itself, but it’s finding the middle ground between those two things.
Ezra: I always think of our conception of ego, obviously stemming from the Freudian concept which is a pivotal point in the development of modern western thinking. But there’s lots of other ways to perceive the structure of consciousness in a human other than just ego, superego, and id, and I think what Freud identified as ego is a necessary tool or vessel, in the way we’re talking about human beings being vessels or machines being vessels, the mental identity is a vessel for making art, for channeling what is in the external world, through and internal reality, and into some sort of work. But then there’s an irony to the fact that art in turn serves to break down and challenge any sort of fixated mental identity.
So many of the tracks on this album have this really powerful, almost anthemic, climactic build. What’s the sort of inclination behind creating that?
Lilah: I don’t know if that was a conscious choice.
Josh: I don’t think it is. I think it’s just something that naturally kind of comes about.
Ezra: You’re talking about the structure of songs and how there’s often like a –
Yeah, like there’s a very strong emotional rollercoaster almost in places
Josh: I think a lot of that is just our personal styles of songwriting coming to fruition
Lilah: And our personal styles of processing and emoting
Josh: We’re very over-dramatic people so I think that’s what’s being portrayed in the music
Ezra: Yeah, that probably has to do with our mental identities but also all the other layers of what exists in a human, like our emotional and astro-bodies and you know our means and ways of prayer and practice and the way we work when we work to heal and heal ourselves as we go through life and suffer blows.
When you’re creating, is it more so a process of we’re going to do this live and then figure out how to recreate this in a studio or is it more of we’re going to create this and then figure out how to transform this into a live experience?
Lilah: More the latter, cause there are only three of us and there are rarely only three tracks on a recording which is an extremely fun and occasionally frustrating challenge when we’re like, “Oh we have to go on the road… this is literally impossible.”
Ezra: It definitely works both ways as well. Sometimes we have been playing a song for a while live when we bring it into the studio and then that’s always really fun because we know the solid structure of how we play it live and everything can kind of change when we have the freedom to layer tracks. But when it does work the other way it’s often befuddling.
Lilah: Confounding. And this album has more of that. More of the songs on this album came out of a room and an experiment and a strange collaborative process. And yeah, there are a couple songs on this album that we still don’t know how to play live.
Ezra: Yeah we haven’t even attempted with a couple.
Lilah: We haven’t even tried.
If you want to see them try, you can catch them at Elsewhere on June 12.