Either the stragglers lined up in front of Spaceland were oblivious or they had trouble finding parking spots in the unforgiving surroundings. My bad for not showing up earlier than a quarter to midnight to catch one of the free shows Midnight Movies put on last November as part of their monthlong residency. I was aware of the hype, which had originated months before a product hit the shelves. I knew about the trio’s fabled ascent to amazingness — that they played their first show on the sidewalk in front of Vice during Sunset Junction, with practically no one watching except Jay-Z, and movie-minutes later ubiquitous music impresario Scott Sterling had them gigging regularly at the Derby and Silverlake Lounge. Over and over I had read the comparisons between singer/drummer Gena Olivier and Teutonic chanteuse Nico. (“I’d like to hear an original opinion just for the sake of hearing an original opinion,” Olivier says.) But no matter how in the know I thought I was, the hipsters who had beaten me to the scene had me doubting whether I was privy to “that thing,” guitarist and occasional bassist Larry Schemel says of his band, “that attracts outsiders.”
“Overall the residency was a B-plus,” Olivier says. “People know to go to those clubs. You’re guaranteed a good audience.” Try getting through the door, though. Ten minutes later and only a fortunate few had. The line continued to grow. A distraught female behind me made a cell-phone call to her friend inside to make sure the place really was at capacity.
When Olivier, Schemel and multi-instrumentalist Jason Hammons (guitar, keyboard, sleigh bells, bass, Apple laptop) halved their original band of six to become Midnight Movies, a name derived from Schemel’s fascination with the occult, they initially didn’t think they had enough firepower. Olivier surprised the guys one day when she nonchalantly sat down behind a kit and channeled what she had learned as a kid banging away on a set of drums in her parents’ house, and honed as a teenager thumping at raves. “Rhythm is something I grasped naturally,” she says. (And, er . . . talk about a manager’s wet dream: a drummer who’s a siren. Take heed, Meg.)
After waiting nearly a half-hour in the blustery weather, a bass drum, steadfast and rising, began reverberating through Spaceland’s walls. I realized my window of opportunity was closing but waited out the first song before saying to hell with it.
For those who enjoy faddish rock without the hassle of crowds, check out Midnight Movies’ six-song, self-titled EP. “Human Mind Trap” features Olivier’s Venice Beach tribal beat giving way to Schemel’s Chuck Berry–cum–Dick Dale guitar solo. Over Hammons’ eerily celestial key taps on “Just To Play,” Olivier sings, “Too old for cute, too young for cool/If she yells enough, she’ll get her way.” Her low-register phone-sex voice speaks of salacious backroom affairs, echoing her counterpart from the Velvet Underground. The spacy “Strange Design” jumps out of the gates with a droning beat embellished by rudimentary guitar bursts before flaring into a bells-and-whistles-laden tempo tantrum.
A couple of days later, while shopping at Amoeba Music, where Schemel works part time, I spotted Music We Like, a booklet of employees’ favorites. Among the cheers, staffer Christy Greenwood wrote that her colleague’s band “should blow up soon.” The Midnight Movies EP was on a display rack next to the checkout line. The sticker below it praised “L.A.’s best underground rock band.” Grabbing a copy, I headed upstairs, where I tried scanning the bar codes on a stack of new and old CDs that hadn’t been programmed into the listening stations (annoying). Then I noticed Schemel drifting through the aisles below. He seemed listless, as if weighed down by the responsibility that comes with stardom — answering the same questions with the same answers, posing for countless magazines, juggling his onstage fame with his in-store presence. Not a bad problem to have for a band admittedly still finding its sound, and for a guy who once said of his ambition to become a rock & roll guitar player: “If only I can sound like the Ramones.” In time, perhaps.