"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.
"OK ... 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."
The 25-year-old Olivier says she is a "spiritual person. I definitely believe in God. I believe in the Bible." Which only begins to explain the unique experience that is Midnight Movies' self-titled debut album. Released in 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 Olivier's vocal similarities to Laetitia Sadier. The two bands also share a love of quirky '60s music. "I like a lot of old '60s folk music a lot. Leonard Cohen I got into when I was 16," Olivier begins, before rattling off a long list of favorites that includes Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Trees, the Velvet Underground, and Pink Floyd. "It's pretty much all over the board as far as our inspirations," she concludes.
The way in which Midnight Movies interprets those oft-mined sounds, though, makes it special. The opening track on Midnight Movies, "Persimmon Tree," builds over Olivier's military half-step drumming before breaking with Schemel's rhythm guitar into a rollicking, wavering canter. The song, which flits between psych-rock and '90s grunge, is oddly 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, 'Time 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 two years ago. At the time, Olivier was working as a nanny; Schemel was a clerk at Amoeba Music; and Hammons was a waiter at a "fancy restaurant," Asia de Cuba. As it progressed musically, the band built a sizable audience, won a deal with Emperor Norton Records, and recorded its debut last spring.
Although Olivier sings all of the words, there is no main songwriter. The musicians 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," Olivier says.
Recorded in 14 days, Midnight Movies is the latest in a growing line of solid debuts from L.A. 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. L.A. in general is just buzzing," she marvels.
But it is Midnight Movies' merits, and not so much its scene, that have brought it 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."