Lust For Life
Lilian Void is a life-long musician, activist, and all-around rockstar whose life and career have recently taken an unexpected turn. Just as his project Mz Neon began garnering international acclaim, his health rapidly declined. Now, this born-punk has been forced to turn down the volume in order to survive.
“I hope this is good,” Lilian Void said, popping the top to a $9 fermented soda. Always dressed in all black and covered in tattoos, with long curly black hair, his chiseled roman features take on a sly and mischievous glint as he speaks. He took a sip. “Pretttty good! Now that I don’t drink, I love to buy myself a delicious beverage and go on a hike. I never have a bad time with a delicious beverage and a hike. It’s impossible. It’s so easy to have a bad night at the club.”
We walked to the base of Elysian Park in Los Angeles, and started hiking up the tall hill at its center. Lilian seemed present, in the moment, and comfortable with himself– and the day was just hot enough to make us sweat. The air was dusty and the view was tinged with a haze of smog and sunshine. Wild flowers popped in purple and orange splotches along the hillside.
“You seem so adult,” I said, not knowing exactly what I meant, but a juxtaposing image of Lilian from high school flooding my mind. Seventeen years prior, crammed into a suburban recently-renovated basement, I had seen Lilian’s first band play. A group of cute dirty punk boys angstily crooned in fake British accents about the need to burn down society as they moshed so hard their skinny jeans ripped. Chuckling to myself, I pushed this vision aside, afraid its adolescent vulnerability might be too embarrassing to bring up.
This scene straight out of SLC Punk was not the beginning of Ian’s musical career. His introduction to music was much more formal and structured, with strict violin lessons starting at age three. From there he went on to play in orchestra throughout elementary and middle school.
We struggled our way towards the top of the hill, cutting through great bushes of mustard, and I got him reminiscing about these formative years in understanding music theory and technique.
“I was second chair,” he explained, smirking. “Because I was too nervous to be first chair, I intentionally bombed the audition.”
This timid attitude did not follow him into highschool. At fourteen he switched to the guitar, discovering Iggy Pop, art rock, electro pop, underground hip-hop, and punk. The rebellious, raucous, and overtly political nature of these genres commanded the attention of this young budding radical.
As he grew older and wiser, he remained fiery in his political convictions and saw his music as the best way to express himself in this regard. “A lot of my music has been intertwined with political action,” he said. “I’ve organized and played a lot of charity events and benefits. One of my bands played a generator show at a street protest while a group of protestors broke into the Portland Mayor’s apartment and vandalized it during the Black Lives Matter protests. Recently, I’ve mostly de-coupled music and politics and play music for music’s sake.”
“Why do you think you’ve ‘de-coupled’ the two?” I asked, pausing to catch my breath.
“It’s easy to get stuck in a static dogma that doesn’t allow you to change,” he said. “Once your music is immortalized in one political framework, if any facet of your opinions change, it’s hard for people to receive that message, because of the recording of you saying something different.”
“Do you think art, or more specifically music, is an effective tool of activism?” I asked.
“It can be,” he said. “It’s more of an expression than something that actually affects actionable change. It’s a hard thing to measure…. It can spread awareness. But there’s awareness, then there’s actionable steps.”
“There’s awareness, then there’s actionable steps.”
“Another problem with political art is that it dates itself super quickly,” I said.
“You’re right,” he said. “But more than that, wide swaths of music have had the same message going for 40 or 50 years. If you’re trying to eradicate police brutality, and you’re singing the same song to the same audience that already agrees with you for 40 years, is it actually doing anything? Or are you just singing a song?”
“Damnnnn!” he said with gusto, inhaling through his nose and out his mouth. “It smells good as hell up here!” We had reached the top, and sat ourselves in the herb garden, where rosemary mixed with sage, and California Poppies bloomed around us.
Lilian’s most recent project, Mz Neon, was, “originated by a trans woman named Neon,” he explained. “She plays a mixture of hyper-pop and glam-rock. I play guitar for her, produce some music, and DJ for her live.”
“It seems like you guys started blowing up crazy quick,” I said.
“She had been in a lot of punk bands in New York, around the CBGB scene and ballroom culture,” he said. “When she moved to LA, she decided to launch this as her solo project. It took off. We played a benefit show at the Roxy LA, and afterward, we got approached by Linda Perry, and she became our manager. She put us on a North American tour with popstar Poppy. We played a lot of [major] venues including the original House of Blues in New Orleans, First Avenue in Minneapolis where they filmed Purple Rain, and Webster Hall in New York.”
“Webster Hall is so iconic,” I said. “That’s like every young punk and club kid’s dream.”
“Yea, but I had gotten diagnosed with Crohn’s disease about four months before the tour,” he said, leaning back into the dry grass. “It started getting worse. I was on all this experimental medication, and I developed antibodies to the medication, so it stopped working. Touring was fun, and we were doing all these cool things, but I was exhausted. I wasn’t getting very good sleep or regular food and it became very difficult. I felt more exhausted than ever.”
“I had gotten diagnosed with Crohn’s disease about four months before the tour.”
“Touring is hard on anyone,” I said. “Even someone who is relatively healthy.”
“Yea and I was driving the tour,” he said. “I was the only person who had a driver’s license on that tour going all through the United States and Canada. I actually developed a cyst on my ‘bottom,’ [that required emergency medical attention]. It went away, but we had to pick up a new driver in New York– a guy who was in an 80s Punk Band called Murphy’s Law. I had to sit on a donut all day and then get on stage and perform every night.”
“That’s kind of tragic,” I said. “Were you able to enjoy your dream tour or was it just agony?”
“I mean it was fun,” he said, taking off his shirt and sitting up to tuck it into his back pocket. “But, when I got back from the tour, I was exhausted. I had no desire to tour anytime soon. That was over a year ago, and I still don’t want to tour.”
The severity of Lilian’s disease has led him to take somewhat extreme measures in the hopes of getting healthy. “I got entered into a medical study,” he told me. “I was actually the last person in the world to get entered into it. It’s a research medication for Crohn’s disease— without insurance it costs $4500 dollars a month, but I can get it for free. It literally just started working this month. It’s been a long road trying to work and survive with this disease, on top of finding the time and energy to play music.”
“Do you feel like getting diagnosed with this disease kind of ripped your dream away?” I asked.
“In one way,” he said. “It’s definitely set me back a few years, in the timeline of a growing musician. In other ways, it was a sign from the universe to slow down and chill out a bit. Life had different plans for me. My priorities had to shift to health. One day, when I figure out the disease and am in a better financial situation, I will be in a more comfortable place to tour and do it well.”
“It’s definitely set me back a few years, in the timeline of a growing musician. In other ways, it was a sign from the universe to slow down and chill out a bit. Life had different plans for me. My priorities had to shift to health.”
The harsh Southern California sun was getting to me, so I stood and moseyed over towards the shade. “Was your Crohn’s the main reason you decided to get sober?” I asked.
“It was a couple different things,” he said. “I was tired of the cycle of partying. Waking up, hungover, not able to do the things I had planned for the day. I really didn’t have time for partying. When you move to LA you have to work a lot, just to survive. It was like both my ‘body is telling me to stop’ and ‘my bank account is telling me to stop.’”
He really did seem so adult. I cracked a smile, and unable to help it, relayed the image I had had of him at 16 in that basement; all sweat and vigor and f*&k-you-dad. “What was with those accents?!” I asked, breaking into a laugh.
“I think all that came from the New York Dolls and like protopunk glam-rock stuff,” he said. “A lot of those guys were New Yorkers, but spoke in a fake British accent. We idolized them and drank cough syrup and thought it was so cool to be a mess.”
“Was it kind of cool to be a mess?” I asked.
“For the audience, sure,” he said.
“I guess this is kind of a trite question,” I hesitated. “But, what would your current self tell that version of you now?”
“I would tell myself to read more books earlier on,” he said looking out into the view, just as we started our trip back down. “I put my cart before the horse as a teenager, and didn’t really know what I was talking about all the time. Now with multiple degrees under my belt, going to grad school for social work, working at jails, homeless shelters, and mental health facilities, as well as doing a lot of volunteer work on skid row and other grassroots activism– I just have so much more both real world and theoretical knowledge about the situations I’m talking about.”
On our way down, what stuck out to me was what Lilian hadn’t said to his younger self. There was no cautionary lecture there. He hadn’t said to not break windows or run from cops or to make sure to eat his veggies. This was a call to learn more, do more, experience more, and to feel life more fully. And if that is the kind of adult he’s become, then I welcome it.