Jun 16, 2021
By Jasper Willems
Midnight Sister’s Juliana Giraffe and Ari Balouzian met while making a low budget film called El Camino Real, a surrealistic tale of starry-eyed Hollywood dreams that inevitably ends in some kind of nightmare scenario. Its shoestring budget suggests it could have been made somewhere during cinema’s silver age, if not for the mischievously hammy performance of Giraffe. Peculiarly enough, El Camino Real also borrows elements of Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece Brazil, another film in which the protagonist escapes into an unattainable fantasy.
Though this project was the genesis in which the Giraffe and Balouzian creative pact blossomed, Midnight Sister clearly does something similar: exploring all the what if’s of bygone pop culture, throwing different elements back into the mix together and deliberately not having the slightest clue what to expect. It has resulted in two brilliant retrofuturistic pop records: 2017’s Saturn Over Sunset and this year’s Painting the Roses. With both founding members juggling many projects, Midnight Sister has become the mystical world in which unexplored ideas can still find a place to exist. Ideas that often tread into the wickedly vaudevillian, theatrical arenas.
Jasper Willems (Under the Radar): The two of you met in London doing this short film called El Camino Real. What kind of movie was this, and what was the set like?
Ari Balouzian: The movie is actually online. You can see it: we can send the link to you. We were just making little videos together at the time. I’d be sharing music or ideas with Juliana and her sister Nicky. At the time, there was this song I had done called “Camino Real” which was based on this Tennessee Williams play about this “last town.” Nicky heard the song and wrote a story based around that score idea, expanding on it. I worked on the sound, and Julie can speak more on what it’s about. But that’s kind of how it came about: we were just friends who worked on it together. We were all at the stage of this learning and figuring stuff out just by doing it. In my case, working on how to bring sound and picture together.
Juliana Giraffe: It was this short film my sister and I made: it was more of an experimental piece. For us it was definitely a learning experience as well, of how to bring different ideas together. Nicky and I would mostly concentrate on making goofy, fun music videos. Take songs and put images to them. And El Camino Real was our first attempt at making a short film. It tried to have a narrative, but it was mostly just an experimental film. Ari scored it and the project was just a fun low-pressure learning experience for all of us. That’s when we started all hanging out and forge the bond that would lead us to start making music together.
I’m curious about what the circumstances were in making the movie: was it shot in a studio, or on location?
Juliana: We kind of pieced it together. Some of it was shot in London and outside of London in the country. The second half was actually shot around the area where we grew up in the valley, in my mom’s house. We created a little set in the backyard. One of my fondest memories of that was making a miniature Hollywood Hills with my sister. There’s a shot where we have this toy car coming down the hills, and we made it out of paper mache. We lit it up on fire inside the house as the car was tumbling down the hills. It was one of the most stupid things my sister and I ever did! But we wanted it to look real. So we took a match and set this hill on fire. It started burning inside this paper mache mountain that we made. We ended up having to call the fire department. Eight firemen ran into my mom’s house and started asking us: “What’s going on here?” Nicky and I just looked at each other and said: “We wanted it to look real so we set this hill on fire.” It was such a funny, stupid experience.
Way to start a band though: setting Hollywood Hills on fire.
Ari: Sums it right up.
How long did it take after that for Midnight Sister to be born?
Ari: I guess there was a fair amount of space between that. We were just hanging out. I would do maybe little things, collaborate with Julie on music video jobs. We were all just making stuff and learning. I used to send these tracks and images in emails with close friends, including Juliana. I sent one over to her one day and she sent it back with vocals on it. It was really cool. That became a song called “Their Eyes” which became the last track of our first album. We did a second track after that called “Shimmy,” and when she sent vocals back from that it was like: “Damn!” Juliana’s voice took the song to this whole other place. I never really worked with someone before who could do that. It felt really exciting: we could just go down this rabbit hole and make these songs together. Before I was doing more weird scores and instrumental music. It was exciting to bring ideas we had from film or more experimental within the structure of the songs, and play around with that and have fun with it. And we just kind of took it from there.
Was there a point, Juliana, where you had a visual idea that Ari could react to musically? As in… sort of the other way around?
Juliana: I feel like most of the time it was Ari sending me music; little demoes of things he was working on. And then I would get really inspired by, and I would start writing lyrics and a melody to it. That’s usually the way it would start. I will say that—based on what I would send back—he would build the arrangements that were influenced by what I brought to the table. But I don’t think I’ve ever brought a visual idea and told Ari to compose something that sonically represents that. We never really worked that way.
Ari: I think a lot of ideas you share with me inspire how a song ends up getting made. Visual stuff, even the type of songs, the tempos, the vibe. A lot of stuff has gone into the reverse as well from stuff Julie has shown me, and those talks definitely inform the music I share with her. It definitely developed a lot more like that over time.
Now Midnight Sister has developed even more. There’s a whole ensemble of musicians now operating in the kitchen. There seems to be a bit more of an immersion on how records used to sound. Is that a fair assessment?
Juliana: Yeah, I think we learned so much from Saturn Over Sunset. I started [to get] a lot more comfortable with even just singing, because that album was my first rodeo in writing music and being a singer. It was still so new to me. On Painting the Roses, you can sonically feel that I am a little bit in control of my voice. What also helped, like you said, is how a band developed. We went on tour for the first record, so we all glued together from doing so many live shows. And you can really hear that on Painting the Roses, because we’re all so comfortable playing together. We’re all friends, so the heart and soul is really there. We’re all very present.
Both of you have projects outside of the band of course. It just feels like this big comfort to have a vehicle for materializing great ideas that would otherwise fall between the seams.
Ari: Definitely. I feel like that was what became exciting about it. To sort of see whether an idea can actually work, and see what we can do differently on the next record. It was cool to go back to the process of what changed from the first album to the second one. Saturn Over Sunset was recorded separately, and no people played together. After we went on tour, we recorded all the rhythm tracks with the five of us together in a room at the same time. As opposed to the home recorded vibe. Even when we got to recording the horns, we tried to put as many people in the room at once. That is that thing you said about classic records. You feel the room: different instruments are bleeding into the mics, which gives it that glue, that lively element. It was a cool process of having our ideas demoed out like on the first album, and then go into the studio and record them in an organic way.
Juliana, I read in length about your background in the art of mime. Of course that’s also a form of physical performance. Are there similarities between mime performance and you as a performer in Midnight Sister?
Juliana: I started seriously studying mime about four years ago. David Bowie is one of my favorite artists of all time, but a lot of people don’t know this about him but he actually studied with [famous mime artist] Marcel Marceau. [My interest] stemmed from seeing footage of the last Ziggy Stardust tour. I saw it at the Egyptian Theatre here in Hollywood. I was so inspired with him miming on stage; using mime in his performance was such a magical thing. I grew up dancing ballet and after I graduated from high school I left ballet in the dust. I was missing that physicality of using my body in a lyrical way. So when I got inspired by mime I found it to be this really cool art form. It’s not dance: it’s just the human experience translated through the body in a poetic way. That really resonated with me, so I started finding places where I could study it further. My sister and I started studying mime together. As I got more entranced and entrenched in the art form, it became clear to me I could use it in Midnight Sister. Because generally speaking, I would say I’m a pretty shy person. So when we would have to play in front of people, mime allowed me to transform in a way. It was kind of this shield where I could become myself. I still had some form of transformation that made me feel safe on stage. It unfolded itself very organically. I decided it felt right for this project.
That’s so cool though, that performance art can unlock this new courage. I read somewhere that Orson Welles couldn’t perform on screen at all without prosthetics.
Juliana: That makes sense. I read that Tim Burton said this one time too that a mask either hides you from the world or let’s you be who you are. I think that’s an important thing to think about.
It’s easy to think of theatricality as smoke and mirrors, but maybe the stage is where a lot of people can be more themselves than anywhere else. In real life, people have to act all the time. On a stage, I reckon there’s a fluidity where you can explore different sides of you. Mime is expressing an emotion or telling a story through physicality, but music scoring does the same: it acts as a character that reinforces a certain feeling or vibe. It seems like the same thing, but through a different medium.
Ari: Definitely, it’s like heightening the drama or creating a certain atmosphere. And saying something without the use of words, which I think is interesting. The way Julie and I work together: I can have an idea and communicate it without saying it directly. Just express it in a different kind of way. It’s cool because both of us are trying something that’s out of our main wheelhouse. And it comes together as something rather unique.
The track that drew my attention to Painting the Roses was “My Elevator Song,” which has this cool “angry bees”-type of arrangement. I kind of wonder to what extent you study the lore of older records, and hypothesize how they would sound within today’s framework.
Ari: With “My Elevator Song,” all these weird ideas came together. I think what you’re saying is that maybe those older records would sound more low-end, a wider frequency range I guess. On those older records you don’t hear the bass and the kicks as clearly, it’s less robust. We kind of wanted to make it a more robust version of that. We weren’t sure if that song would even make it on the record because it felt so different.
From a conceptual standpoint—and I might be reaching here—I had to think about Hollywood in the Golden age. Everyone talked about the two sides of it: the splendor and the squalor. I almost see Midnight Sister’s music as this magnified revisionist take on that duality. All the hedonism and haze of stimulants made people see that world through rosy glasses. Problematic things were swept under the rug. This music kind of shows all that through a more contemporary lens, which makes it slightly more warped and sinister. I don’t know, I’m not sure I’m making sense to you.
Ari: That idea of splendor and squalor is what’s so crazy about it. You’re either winning and doing so well or you’re completely broke. This crazy era of desperation, where people don’t know what they actually want out of it. That’s a pretty big theme I feel. Even literally in the short film we did together years ago, that was one of the main narratives. I think that’s a big part of what Midnight Sister does. And I like the revisionist idea of remaking this stuff with our modern ideas. I also feel a big part of it is us not having any real attachment to any sort of genre, to sort of move between all of it. Because modern listening allows people to listen to entire catalogues of recorded music. There’s no predominant idea of how shit should sound. You can pull ideas from all kinds of sources and place them next to each other.
Also read our 2017 interview with Midnight Sister.