Sons of an Illustrious Father began as a love story: At the height of pre-teen inelegance, Ezra Miller was desperately in love with Lilah Larson.
In young Miller’s mind, the best way to win her heart was by singing.
“I have a very distinct memory of Ezra just stopping and spontaneously singing opera,” Larson says, recalling Miller’s unique middle school courtship.
Miller remembers Larson as “the coolest person I had ever bore witness to.” At age 11, he knew he wanted Lilah to be his life partner.
Thus began a partnership, and while not romantic, the two have forged a powerful creative bond. Together, they founded their band, Sons of an Illustrious Father, which represents an artistic collaboration and friendship worth envying.
Larson, who sings and plays guitar, bass and drums, and Miller, who plays a number of instruments and sings, are joined by Josh Aubin, who plays the bass, keyboard, guitar and also sings. The three are also songwriters, which results in a very flexible and collaborative songwriting process—unlike many other musical groups, there really isn’t room for one person to control the band’s sound.
What emerges is an amorphous expression, allowing each member to introduce their individual style—and, defying expectations, it works. Their third album, 2016’s Revol, wavers between otherworldly and something completely, intimately familiar. We might hear Tom Waits’ influence, combined with the poetic lyricism of Leonard Cohen, but they still create a sound that is firmly their own. Despite having a number of other projects—Larson recently released a solo album and Miller is a prominent actor—the band members treat their music as a serious commitment.
“[Sons of an Illustrious Father] is about confronting and destroying the lower self, by engaging as a family and airing our words that come to mind,” Aubin says.
For each member, writing music is not a set equation. For the band as a whole, there is obviously no correct way to approach a song. Even though they are all accomplished musicians, inspiration still remains a mystery.
“I praise the unknown, I laud the unnamable,” Miller says. “I do not know how it happens, or what causes it to happen in terms of inspiration. It’s this bizarre electrical current—I wish I could bottle it and take a sip of it when I wanted to write a song, but it’s still a mystery.”
The subjects of the songs range from self-reflection and empowerment, to relationships and sexuality and all the spaces in between.
“I think the dream or prayer is to be able to guide people through different phases of a wonderland, a desert, a place that’s scary or confrontational, or a place that is empowering and makes you want to dance,” Miller says. “We like to be able to hit all the spots, and go all sorts of places, like a spaceship.”
Honesty is at the core, even when it comes to difficult or uncomfortable topics. Larson hopes the audience will also feel more willing to confront emotions through the band’s music and vulnerability on stage.
“For one thing, a lot of people are not down to be in touch with their feelings,” Larson says. “Through all of our expressions, we try to be radically honest and that can be challenging. The truth hurts and healing hurts.”
Their radical honesty translates through the band members’ gender expressions as well. While their sound is nearly impossible to pin down, they also reject conventional boundaries formed by the gender binary. Just as the band is neither all feminine nor all masculine—fluidly embracing the spaces that are a little bit of both or neither at all—they don’t exist as one genre either and appropriately call their sound “genre queer.”
Larson describes always feeling at odds with the rest of society when it came to gender identity.
“As a kid, I had an inability to perform the type of femininity that was expected of me. It took seeing Bowie, Prince, and Patti Smith to realize my gender made sense for rock stars,” Larson says. “Since I was a child and I didn’t have a queer community around me … [playing music] was a way of creating a queer space around myself.”
For Sons of an Illustrious Father, gender is meant to be explored and altered.
“Music and performance in gender has become a sanctuary, a place where I can be explorative and curious in terms of my gender identity,” Miller says. “It’s a life line that we continue to hold onto.”
Purposefully bringing gender and queerness to the forefront of the band’s performances may be liberating for audience members who are grappling with identity. Just as Larson found sanctuary in creating music, some listeners may feel less alone, particularly in a society that may be isolating for those who are transgender, non-binary or genderqueer.
It is an important discussion that often gets ignored or left out of concerts or creative spaces. Possibly, though, this discussion will leave the dance floor long after the show has ended.
“Mostly, we wanted to take them to places that will help them create spaces in their everyday lives,” Aubin says. “It’s a balance—to be able to challenge some of the cobwebs in their heads, but at the same time make sure everyone feels seen and accepted. No one is getting hurt.”
Sons of an Illustrious Father show us that music can mean more than just entertainment. They help us explore the complexities of gender and expression—how the two intersect and diverge. Beautifully, Miller and Larson show us that love does not have to be romantic to be powerful, intimate and moving.
Catch Sons of an Illustrious Father on Sat, March 25 at Firecreek Coffee Co., 22 E. Rte. 66. Openers include False North, Flight of Ryan and the Cesar Ruiz Band. The all-ages show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $5. For more info, call 774-2266 or visit www.sonsofanillustriousfather.com.