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Look Inward, Voyager

L.A. buzz band Midnight Movies stands out from the pack with its love of Sixties rock and spiritual affairs

Midnight Movies aren't your stereotypical rock act. They don't bang out tortured, obsessive love songs about past paramours and current flames. And, although they'll be hitting Miami this weekend for a Swing the State concert with neo-New Wave band Metric, they aren't exactly agit-popsters eager to demonstrate a tenuous grasp of current affairs.

"Wait, I'm getting them confused, I think ... Liberal is generally Democratic?" asks drummer and lead singer Gena Olivier during a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. It seems that some confusion has arisen from her assertion that she's "pretty conservative," which follows a question about whether or not her growing up in Orange County, a notoriously Republican enclave, has had any influence on her beliefs. Still, when told what conservative means in this rancorous election year, she quickly corrects herself.

"Okay ... No, I'm just kidding, I'm liberal. I always get that confused," chuckles Olivier. "We're definitely all on the liberal side. I wouldn't say that I was a Democrat. I would probably say that I'm undecided at the moment."

Midnight Movies, post-matinee: Jason Hammons, Gena Olivier, and Larry Schemel
Ryan Rickett
Midnight Movies, post-matinee: Jason Hammons, Gena Olivier, and Larry Schemel

The 25-year-old Olivier says she is a "spiritual person. I definitely believe in God," she says. "I believe in the Bible." Which only begins to explain the unique experience that is Midnight Movies's self-titled debut album. Released last August on Emperor Norton, Midnight Movies is a cosmic journey led by Olivier, 36-year-old guitarist Larry Schemel, and 29-year-old keyboardist Jason Hammons, an album full of eerie and wonderful ruminations on life and the hereafter.

Reductionists will call Midnight Movies "Stereolab with a pulsing rock beat," thanks to drummer Olivier's vocal similarities to Laetitia Sadier. The two bands also share a love of quirky Sixties music. "I like a lot of old Sixties folk music a lot. Leonard Cohen, I got into when I was sixteen," Olivier begins, before rattling off a long list of favorites that includes Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Trees, Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd. "It's pretty much all over the board as far as our inspirations ... yeah," she concludes.

The way in which Midnight Movies interprets those oft-mined sounds, though, makes them special. The opening track, "Persimmon Tree," builds over Olivier's military half-step drumming before breaking with Schemel's rhythm guitar into a rollicking, wavering canter. The track, which flits between psych-rock's military irony and Nineties grunge, is eerily appropriate for Olivier's searching lyrics of physical and religious renewal. "The end is here to begin again," she sings. "There's no time for what you believe in."

"I talk a lot about ideas of spirituality and beliefs and things. One song, öTime and Space,' is basically just about that, and how perhaps [space] is eternity," she says. "That's something I think about a lot, and have for a long time ... It's definitely about faith and our place in the universe."

Midnight Movies started out as an after-work hobby around two years ago. At the time, Olivier was working as a nanny; Schemel was a clerk at Amoeba Records; and Hammons was a waiter at a "fancy restaurant," Asia de Cuba. As they progressed musically, the band built a sizable audience, won a deal with Emperor Norton Records, and recorded their debut last spring.

Although Olivier sings all of the words, there is no main songwriter. The trio see themselves as a collective to the extent that their individual names aren't even credited in the CD's booklet. They work collaboratively, devising their own parts and ideas through jam sessions. A song can form from one "measure," explains Olivier, including a keyboard phrase, a drum pattern, a guitar hook, or a vocal line. These ideas are sometimes fleshed out into full pieces through jamming; other times, the band simply collects different ideas and works them into a unified whole. "None of us are virtuosos in any sense, so it really takes us a while to get it exactly the way we want to hear it," she says.

Recorded in fourteen days, Midnight Movies is the latest in a growing line of solid debuts from other LA artists such as Moving Units, Earlimart, and Autolux. Far from being competitive, Olivier says that "there's a sense of camaraderie" among all the bands on the scene. "There is something really happening that everybody's really excited about. LA in general is just buzzing," she marvels.

But it is more a result of Midnight Movies's merits that have brought them that most coveted of titles: a "buzz" band. "Yeah, we've been called that," says Olivier drolly. "It's cool. The response has been good, and people are really into it."

 
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