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tolen Babies are a strange band, even for its eclectic label, The End. An accordion-playing woman, Dominique Persi, fronts the group, backed by men in German cabaret costumes and makeup. Drummer Gil and guitarist Rani Sharone are twin brothers. Gil is a drum virtuoso who's rapidly earning worldwide attention. Rani scores films and TV commercials on the side. Collectively, the band extols the virtues of German Expressionism, Sisters of Mercy, Oingo Boingo, and Betty Boop.
There's a lot going on here, yet on its debut album, There Be Squabbles Ahead, the band distills its influences down to dark and catchy songs. Don't download it—you'd miss out on vivid artwork by author/artist Crab Scrambly. His aesthetic is so integral to the band it considers him an honorary member. In this interview with Stylus, Rani Sharone sheds light on the weird, wonderful world of Stolen Babies.
Stolen Babies arose out of a group called the Fratellis. What were they like?
We were basically cartoon music. We were a theatrical group that had a lot of incidental music, which is music for stage. Dominique, that was her brainchild—the theatrical side of the group. The more instrumental stuff I started writing, she was like, "Let's put some theatrical stuff to this." She went from there and created little skits. The music evolved, and it became more complex, and the compositions become longer. It was along the lines of Raymond Scott, Carl Stalling, a lot of slasher cartoon music influence, [with] Oingo Boingo mixed in. The delivery and the performances were all very reminiscent of Betty Boop cartoons.
The band's sound doesn't fit neatly into any box. Was it hard to find a record deal?
I wouldn't say it was hard because we weren't really looking. When you first start out, everybody has dreams of getting signed to a major label and living the whole rock star life. But once we started to take the craft more seriously and be really confident with what we were doing, all that shit went out the window. We didn't care who was looking into the band; we weren't trying to impress anybody in the industry. That was one of the reasons why we started No Comment Records and released our album on our own initially. We didn't want to bow down to anybody. The whole musical world seems like it's inundated with bands that are told what to do, especially in the mainstream. That's a big turn-off for a band like us, who has a very strong creative vision.
You've gotten exposure in the goth/industrial world. How much do you identify with that scene?
I personally feel pretty comfortable with it. Growing up, besides classical music and film scores, gothic and industrial music played the greatest role in my life, [as well as] '80s dance music. A lot of the bands that we like—Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, New Order, Bauhaus—came out in the '80s. That's something we've always identified with. We're embraced by that scene, and that's totally cool. Our aesthetic fits into that world; our music fits into that world. I wouldn't call us a goth band, but we have no problem being a part of that world.
The band played at a Fangoria Convention. What was that like?
That was incredible. Just to be a part of something like that was really great, being a horror movie fanatic myself. The highlight of Fangoria was having Bill Moseley from The Devil's Rejects and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 become a huge fan of the band. He's an avid Stolen Babies listener now—it's pretty cool! It was great playing in front of that audience and feeling at home. We love doing anything that has to do with the horror world or things on the darker side of life.
Do you prefer playing to that audience rather than the straights?
I wouldn't necessary say it's a preference, but it's always a nice thing when we do those specialized events. In LA, for example, we like to play at this place called Bar Sinister. It's a goth/industrial club, and we know whenever we play Sinister, we're going to pack it, the crowd is going to be dressed up, people are going to have makeup on, and things like that. It creates a vibe, and that's always nice. Sometimes it's surprising. On this East Coast tour, we did a lot of bars. They were just whoever's there at that particular time, whether they had heard of you or not. So you're exposed to people you normally wouldn't play in front of. It's nice to get reactions where people say, "Dude, I'm just here having a beer, and I saw you guys, and you blew me away."
What's the concept behind the video for "Push Button"?
I remember drawing a sketch when we were talking about doing a video. I drew this desert, very reminiscent of the Saturn sequence in Beetlejuice, that desert sand land with the sand worms. I showed Dominique the drawing—it was literally stick figures—and she was like, "Dude, I totally see that." My older brother was shooting a video for another band, and he [said], "Hey guys, let's dovetail this shoot with your shoot. I can keep the crew and all the equipment for another day." So we got a greenscreen warehouse, threw some costumes together, and told Crab Scrambly, who's our artist, "We're going to do this video. It's going to be all greenscreen. We're going to do greenscreen removal with your paintings and artwork. Are you interested?" He was like, "Are you kidding me? Of course!" We [decided to] shoot different angles and different props, and leave it to post-production to make it all come together. I bought some props that didn't end up getting used in the video, but at least they were springboards to other ideas. For example, when we jump into that well, originally there was a well that I bought, but it didn't work out with the greenscreen.
You bought a well?
Yeah, we rented this little well at a prop shop. It wasn't wide enough for the band members. But I had this idea, like a Super Mario Bros. thing, [to] jump into a portal that takes you into another world. So we set up this greenscreen thing to be in place of where a well would be, what Crab Scrambly ended up drawing. We're playing in this one land, [with] the band's performance, and we get lured into this other dimension by the Ray Ray, those two characters in the desert sequence. We jump in, we're in this other world, and to make a long story short, the Ray Ray scare the shit out of us, we jump back in the well, and come back out to the hometown.
What was working with Crab like?
For the video, it was us giving him stills of all the angles he'd be working with. We knew that the more angles [there were], the more complicated it would be for him to do backgrounds. So we kept it simple. A lot of the camera shots are just locked movements. The camera doesn't pan or anything like that; it's just straight shots. Basically, we were like, "Look, we like what you did for our website. We want a town like that. We want something very vibrant, full color, a lot of things in the background, the sky's going to move, maybe gears, just some action." We consider Crab an honorary member of the band. His artwork is synonymous with our music. He's one of my best friends. We're always on the same page. It's almost too good to be true, how we work with each other.
How did you meet him?
I used to be a machinist/mechanic at a special effects shop. I was making stop-motion armatures, and Crab Scrambly was at the shop with his friend, author/artist Gris Grimly. They saw what I was doing, and Crab looked over my shoulder. [He] was interested in stop-motion animation. We started talking, and I invited him to a show we had that weekend. He came out, and from then on, that was it. He did our first EP, he did our website, he does our merch, everything.
You do work scoring films. What films have you done, and what does the music sound like?
Mostly independent [films]. I have a history of scoring a lot of TV commercials. I've done Nike commercials and things like that. I did this one animated short called "Doggy Door." A friend of mine from Cal Arts did [it], and he entered it in this animation magazine competition. It ended up winning and aired on Nicktoons. That was wall-to-wall music. I pretty much wrote it as one composition, very much like Carl Stalling in the Looney Tunes music. Another one I just finished is called "Made Love." That one is kind of weird. It's a romantic story, but it's dark and quirky and kind of twisted. [It's] about this guy whose girl leaves him, and he's so distraught over the whole thing that he ends up making a doll out of her undergarments. He falls in love with the doll because the doll is everything he wanted out of this girl, and he kind of loses it. The music parallels what's going on psychologically for him. I had a lot of fun. It's a lot of accordion, it's like a gypsy theme at one point, there's a lot of dissonant contemporary classical music, minimalist stuff like John Adams or Philip Glass. [But] it's my own voice. I really think I'm starting to come into my own as a composer outside the band.
Are you musically trained?
On my instrument, I'm pretty much self-taught. All my life, I pretty much just wanted to be a bass player in orchestras. [But] when I got into composition in my senior year of high school, [my focus became] all film scores and contemporary classical music. I studied composition; I went to community college and transferred to university. I went to USC as a composition major. It was pretty promising; all my teachers wanted me to stick with school. But I ended up leaving after a year. It wasn't the right environment for me at the time, and [also] not right now [since] I'm pursuing the band. The shelf life of a touring rock musician is a lot shorter than [that of] a concert composer; I could get into that whenever. We all have our things we want to do, but the band is a priority, it's #1.
Your music has a strong visual element. What's a Stolen Babies live show like?
You're going to get a show. On this East Coast run, we didn't bring props, and the Ray Ray didn't come out with us. That's Dominique's brother, actually. He's a director on “The Simpsons.” [They] did all the theatrical stuff for the Fratellis. In some of the bigger headlining shows, he'll do some things with her onstage and really make it interactive for the crowd. But generally speaking, we are in costumes. I like to say that our live show is if Betty Boop and Bimbo had this crazy, demented clown baby—that would be Dominique—fronting a band of crazy zombies. We like to create a show and create our world. Props help, but none of that's a gimmick. Music is first and foremost, period.
What are you trying to create?
This is always going to be ever-changing, but the general aesthetic and look of the band [comes from] the early Betty Boop cartoons… Jan Švankmajer—he's a Czechoslovakian filmmaker who's done Faust and Alice— is a big influence on us. German Expressionism also plays a big role. That's probably one of the main reasons why we dress up and wear makeup; we're such film buffs of that era and the artwork.
Are you assuming certain identities in the costumes?
Not necessarily. Dominique likes to say all the makeup is exaggerated versions of who we are without the makeup. I strongly endorse that opinion. She looks the way she does because that's how she is inside. She's a little kid, honestly. She is very impish and mischievous. She's kind of like Amélie when she wears the makeup.
Maybe Amélie gone goth.
Yeah, exactly (laughs). The guys—me, my brother, and Ben, our touring guitar player—we try to balance that aesthetic with what we like. I like darker things; I like zombie movies and things like that, and of course, the German Expressionist stuff. The pale faces and everything, that's no different than The Threepenny Opera. To me, it's not even really goth; it's not makeup because the Cure or the Sisters of Mercy or anybody else is doing it. It's really coming from theater. Dominique's hugely into Sweeney Todd, the musical, and funny enough, that's going to be Tim Burton's next film. The black around the eyes, the white face—I don't think that can ever be overdone, especially when it's done with taste and integrity.
If you could raise bands from the dead, what would be the dream tour for Stolen Babies?
Oingo Boingo, unanimously, across the board. We've had the good fortune of playing with members of Oingo Boingo and other outfits that they're in. We just did a show in LA with The Mutaytor—I call them the Burning Man Cirque du Soleil. John Avila, Steve Bartek, and Johnny "Vatos" Hernandez from Oingo Boingo all sat in with The Mutaytor that night. And that was great because we go way back with John. He's like Uncle John to us. He's worked with the Fratellis and Stolen Babies.
Seeing as how Danny Elfman is a composer, he must be your hero.
Yeah, Danny's a big, big influence on Dominique and me. He's the reason why we even started the band, to be honest. Danny has become someone that we know. I had the good fortune of hanging out with him a few weeks ago before our tour. I went to the scoring stage of Meet the Robinsons, the Disney animated film that he just finished scoring. Steve Bartek, the guitarist of Oingo Boingo and Danny's orchestrator, invited me down, and that was really incredible. I got to hang out and see him in action and be on the scoring stage. Danny will always be held in very, very high regard by me and Dominique.
Stolen Babies @ MySpace
The End Records