Gena Olivier, vocals, keyboards
Larry Schemel, guitar
Ryan Wood, bass, keyboards
Sandra Vu, drums
The sound of Midnight Movies conjures a certain Los Angeles – but it’s no sun-drenched, glamorized metropolis. This is a decidedly noir L.A., replete with mystery, desire and yearning. On Lion the Girl (New Line), their second full-length release, the band explores haunting new vistas and back alleys of the soul, expanding the reach of their acclaimed “psychedelic pop” with an expanded lineup and more expansive songwriting.
Produced by Steve Fisk (Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Pell Mell), Lion the Girl finds the band putting its atmospheric stamp on new-wave rock (the barreling leadoff track “Souvenirs”), darkly baroque psychedelia (the brooding but tender “Patient Eye,” the insistent, incantatory “Lion Song”), Velvets-inflected girl-group pop (the stately “Ribbons”) and other styles. Yet the subject matter also reveals a more intimate focus.
“It’s an album about pure love,” explains singer Gena Olivier of the disc. “A recurring theme in the album is the longing for or celebration of truth and those rare but vital glimpses of pure love.” Olivier adds that the album’s title reflects Midnight Movies’ quest to bring opposing elements into balance. “We’re always trying to marry masculine and feminine, organic and electronic,” she notes. “The title contains this idea of a girl being delicate and gentile, but also a determined, primal animal.”
Olivier’s elegant, beguiling vocals and Larry Schemel’s buzzingly urgent guitar lines are, as ever, the dominant sonic elements. But two new members, bassist Ryan Wood and drummer Sandra Vu, add considerably to the outfit’s musical reach.
Having previously been the drummer as well as the lead singer of Midnight Movies – she, Schemel and keyboardist Jason Hammons comprised the original lineup – Olivier says she feels “liberated” after stepping out from behind the kit. “For me, it was always about singing – vocal melodies and lyrics,” she relates. “I regret disappointing the die-hard drummer/singer fans, but I had to compromise the vocals too much when I was drumming at the same time. We feel much stronger now as a band, with all the members concentrating on their individual strengths.”
Bringing in Vu and Wood not only enriched the sound, but allowed the band to explore new musical territory. “We knew the only way to progress and grow and evolve was to make some major changes,” insists Schemel. He and Olivier both admired Vu’s supple yet raw drumming and Wood’s facility with both organic and electronic music.
Hammons, meanwhile, departed the band. “On the last tour, we had a glimpse of what the next record would be like, and Larry and I were on the same page,” Olivier points out. “But with Jason it wasn’t working anymore. It was sad, but it was time for us to go our separate ways. He moved on, I came up front, we got new members and now he’s really happy with his new band.” Olivier now plays keyboard parts to fill out the band’s sound.
“The first record [2004’s Midnight Movies] was full of ideas we’d had our whole lives, things we’d been sitting on forever,” the singer declares. “It was like we had this cabinet full of ideas to choose from. Once we got through those, we developed this style that inspired new ideas. That became our process of finding our collective sound and vibe as a band.”
The sense of change and evolution is evident in Lion’s turbulent, emotionally complex songs, which frequently address the push and pull of intimacy and independence. However, not every track dwells on romantic concerns. On “Twenty Four Hour Dream,” for example, Olivier was inspired by a 1968 speech she’d read years earlier. “It was by a Yale professor, and the basic idea was, when you get up, don’t take anything from the prior day with you into today. Just set your goals for today and that’s it. Shed the day like clothes and go to sleep; start everything fresh the next day. I took the lyric from that.”
The band pays homage to some important influences on the dreamy “Ribbons.” “I had a minimal guitar part, and Gena put the lyrics and melody over it, and it just clicked,” Schemel remembers. “Instantly it was done. It initially had more of a Velvet Underground feel, but when we put the bass and drums down, it took on a bit of a Phil Spector quality. We love all that classic music, but we don’t want to be caught in the trap of being a retro band – we try to take those elements and put our own stamp on them.”
Schemel grew up in the suburbs of Seattle and began teaching himself guitar in his teens. After first falling in love with classic rock and pop, he discovered punk, ’60s psychedelia and other iconoclastic styles. “Getting into punk rock was about freedom,” he says, “but when I heard the first Velvet Underground record, a whole world opened up.” He was soon studying everything from the primal licks of the Stooges’ Ron Asheton to the pastoral filigrees of Nick Drake.
He played in various bands before relocating to Los Angeles. There (through mutually answered “musician wanted” ads) he met Louisiana-born Olivier, who’d moved with her family to California when she was seven. Her mother, a trumpeter who played in her school’s marching band, inspired Gena to follow in her footsteps, and she played horn herself for a few years. But her love for rhythm drew her to a drum kit her mother had gotten as a Christmas present. This, along with an early fixation on classic rockers like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, helped set her course. “I had a friend at 13 who played drums, and he taught me the standard 4/4 beat and fills,” she recalls. “My neighbors and I would pretend we were in a rock band and do Nirvana songs as a game; I’d play that one beat over and over again. I never played again until the band started. I’d totally forgotten the experience until then.”
Though she was a skilled vocalist who briefly considered studying opera, Olivier took a decidedly more alternative turn while in high school. “I really got into electronic music,” she relates. “I became obsessed with Björk and then got turned on to a lot of other great musicians in that world. Fresh out of that I met Larry, who introduced me to a lot of new music.”
The immediate chemistry between the pair (with the added keyboard inventions of Hammons) resulted very quickly in a unique sound, which finally found a name after they’d rejected countless potential monikers. “I’d written this book title down in my notebook, Midnight Movies; the book was about the cult of midnight movies in the ’70s, and it conjured this really cool imagery. It was kind of a ritual where these people would come late at night to watch these bizarre underground movies. Our music already had this dark, mysterious thing happening – so the name just clicked.”
The threesome played their first show at Sunset Junction, a street fair in L.A.’s Silverlake neighborhood; they subsequently took any gigs they could, playing parties, salons and tiny clubs. They issued a six-song, self-released EP in 2002 and soon they were selling out local venues, getting love in both domestic and international press (including Filter, NME, UNCUT and the Fader) and touring with kindred spirits like Clinic, Broadcast, Luna and the Von Bondies. They garnered Best New Artist laurels at the 2003 L.A. Weekly Music Awards.
The band’s eponymous full-length debut, released in 2004 on the Emperor Norton label, garnered even more lavish praise, notably a nomination in the L.A. Weekly’s “Best Pop/Rock Band” category. They toured in Europe and the U.K., meeting scores of fans who adored their record but didn’t know Olivier was the drummer until they caught the band live.
“It’s all come full circle, in a way,” Schemel reflects. “At the very beginning, it was just Gena and me writing music together. There was this instant chemistry between the two of us that was very inspiring. The growth we’ve made over the years, coupled with the contribution and talents of the new members, feels as exciting as the chemistry we discovered years ago.”