Much has changed since Los Angeles’s Midnight Movies released its promising self-titled debut in 2004. The label it came out on, Emperor Norton, went out of business. The band parted ways amicably with a bassist. And, most important to the band’s direction, drummer and vocalist Gena Olivier decided it would free up her singing more if she got out from behind the kit. So she and guitarist Larry Schemel brought in drummer Sandra Vu and bassist Ryan Wood and hooked up with legendary producer Steve Fisk to record in a reportedly haunted studio in Seattle. The result? Lion the Girl, a super-fuzzed-out big bomb of a psych-rock record. (Which, incidentally, was released this week (April 24) via New Line Records.)
I recently talked with Schemel and Olivier about the lineup changes, the band’s upcoming tour plans with some prominent indie names, and the overarching positive message buried within Lion the Girl‘s dark atmospherics.
Tell me about all the changes that have happened since the first album.
Larry Schemel: Three or four months after the record came out, the label went under, so we were out of a label. That’s what happened there. The lineup change really came out of always talking about Gena moving forward, out from behind the drums. I always thought that her being back there compromised her singing. That was just one of the ways we felt confined, so we talked about it when we got home from touring for that record. Our bassist at the time, Jason, initially went along with getting another drummer. But as we started writing new music, he realized he wasn’t on the same page. So he left amicably; it wasn’t like he quit or got fired.
I know that Gena writes all the lyrics. Does that mean you write all the music, Larry?
LS: We collaborate on the music, but yes, Gena pretty much writes all the lyrics. We don’t really have a set way for how that works. Sometimes I’ll come in with a riff, or I’ll have a verse and she’ll have a chorus, or sometimes I’ll have a full song written with chord changes but no lyrics. It’s usually pretty piece by piece, pretty open.
Tell me about the lyrical content, Gena. I definitely sense some recurring themes throughout the album. Is this a breakup record or some other kind of concept album?
GO: It definitely incorporates relationship stuff. That was a lyrical goal with the album. On the first record I decided to totally remove myself personally, so the lyrics tended to be abstract, which was kind of refreshing. But then I went through this period where I saw how many people had bought the album — it wasn’t a huge number, but still it was strange that that many people would listen to what I have to say — and I thought I should be saying something to those people. If there’s a theme, it’s about love in general and relationships — more about just the pure essence of love.
What about all the imagery of children in the songs? There are lots of lines that mention children. “Ribbons” seems to be about a little girl tying bows.
GO: I guess that comes from how it can feel like you’re a little kid again when you’re in love. “Ribbons” was one of those cases where words just came to my mind that fit the meter of the song.
What about “Lion Song,” which has the album’s title as a lyric. Is there some kind of Wizard of Oz reference going on there?
GO: No, not at all. I’m using the lion there as an image of something strong. It’s about pouncing on the day like a lion. It’s almost a message to kids to follow their dreams and not screw off. It’s encouraging people to not give up, telling them it’s okay to have goals and aspirations.
How did you get together with Steve Fisk, and what did he bring to the table?
LS: I’ve always been a fan of his work and grew up in and around Seattle listening to Beat Happening and Screaming Trees and Nirvana. His name came up, and it seemed like a really good fit. We contacted him, sent music, and he was really into it. From the first conversation, it really clicked. He was really easy to work with. He brought in a lot of experimentation and instruments. We recorded it in Seattle at Robert Lang studio, which is a big house with the studio in the basement. Rumor has it there was a ghost in the house.
The album is drenched in guitar effects. Larry, I imagine you must have a massive closet full of distortion pedals at home.
LS: Not really. I can’t afford all the stuff I really want to get, so I kind of get by with what I can pick up. Whenever I see bands with an army of effects pedals, I think that’s really cool and get jealous. I don’t try to get overly crazy with the effects, though. I try to keep it to the basics, like fuzz pedal and echo and tremolo and wah-wah.
Who are some of your guitar heroes?
LS: They change every day, because there are so many. The big ones would be Sterling Morrison and Ron Asheton and Syd Barrett. Of course Hendrix, but I tend to lean more toward minimal players.
You picked up some positive press at this year’s South by Southwest. Was this your first time at the festival?
LS: It was our third time, actually. We went a few years ago before the first record, and then we went after it came out. This time was definitely the best for us as far as playing a bunch of shows. We played five shows in three days. It was a lot of fun but pretty crazy as well. With South by Southwest getting bigger all the time, there are all these new rules about where to park vans and put equipment and roads getting shut down. It’s to the point where it’s hard even to function. It’s almost harder for little bands to get noticed because of the huge size. Hopefully the original inspiration — about finding new music and new bands — doesn’t get lost.
Gena, do you like being freed up from having to drum?
GO: Yes. It totally happened out of necessity. I never really played drums before we started the band, so this is a good progression. You can only do so much with those limitations. We got lucky to find two people who are totally with it and great musicians. That adds a much sturdier foundation for us.
The band is about to head out on some pretty major touring. Do you enjoy touring or dread it?
LS: I think we all enjoy touring. It’s hard work but just the whole idea of traveling and seeing all these new cities and new people and getting paid to do something we love — we’re all really happy with that. We feel good because we have some touring under our belts at this point; we know we can do this and not kill each other.
How did you hook up with bands like Blonde Redhead and the Raveonettes?
LS: With the Raveonettes, we met them through MySpace, actually. They sent us a message saying they really liked our music and then they asked us to join them on tour, so that was awesome.
Tell me how the video for “Patient Eye” came together.
GO: It was the idea of the directing team [Dot and Cross]. They envisioned it like a Sleeping Beauty concept. It was super low budget. We got all our friends to work on it. The little girl is a girl I’ve been a nanny for. The mystery man walking through the scenery is a good friend of mine. And we borrowed a friend’s house to shoot it in.
Gena, you seem like a natural in the lead role. Living in L.A., have you ever thought of going into acting?
GO: No. I did a bunch of theater in school and took some acting classes, but I didn’t think I was really good at it. I thought I wanted to be a writer for a while. All this time I was playing music as well, so I guess I just came around to the idea of doing music full-time, since I was doing it all the time anyway.
Where do you see Midnight Movies fitting into the current L.A. rock scene? Do you think it can even be talked about as one “scene,” or are there multiple scenes?
LS: It’s definitely kind of fractured right now. You have a lot of bands doing a folk sound, a lot of bands doing a new-wave kind of sound. I think the bands we’re closest to in terms of what we do are Darker My Love, who are friends of ours, and Silversun Pickups. It’s been cool to see Silversun Pickups come up, because they’re contemporaries of ours.
If a local movie theater was going to turn over to you programming their midnight movies for a month, what movies would you put on?
GO: Betty Blue. And I don’t know if this exactly fits, but Down by Law.
LS: I would add Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Suspiria.