“I can’t be frustrated if I can’t do better myself,” resigns Stolen Babies singer Dominique Lenore Persi, addressing the shorthand listeners use to describe her band. “How can I expect anyone to describe what we do with any kind of accuracy, when I’m in the middle of it and I still don’t know how to explain it?”
Be advised, this isn’t the immodest jaw jacking of a self-obsessed pop tart or a deluded hip-hop hero upset over people not recognizing his self-implied “genius.” Los Angeles-based post-everything unit Stolen Babies are as crunchy as they are curious, glamorous as they are gothic and diabolical as they are transcendently dynamic. With Persi (vocals, accordion) and twin brothers Gil and Rani Sharone (drums and bass, respectively) at its core, Stolen Babies are genuinely raising the bar with their wild synergy of math-metal power, opiate atmospheres and Brechtian cabaret.
The Stolen Babies’ mythology began back in 1997 when Persi, the Sharones and keyboardist Ben Rico were part of a 12-member-strong ensemble called the Fratellis. The group garnered a reputation in the Los Angeles area for productions that included puppets, performance art and a stellar level of musicianship. But the Fratellis weren’t just a bunch of opportunistic “weekend weirdos.” Rani and Persi’s keen interest in special effects, animation and ’80s fantasy films helped inform the band’s aesthetic. Rani had a stint as a machinist at the legendary shop Chiodos Bros., working with stop-motion animation and armatures on installations at Disneyland, as well as major motion pictures (Team America), while finding time to design props for the Fratellis’ live shows. Persi became versed in the realm of theatrical makeup, working at SOTA FX and bringing those visual techniques into both the Fratellis and Stolen Babies. But having a Las Vegas mentality about your show is one thing and the stuff coming out of the PA system is something else. How good were the Fratellis? Well, when you’re invited to play the birthday party of new-wave avatar and film-music composer veteran Danny Elfman, you better have more than a killer version of “Free Bird” in your repertoire.
“It was very jazzy, cartoony, all-over-the-place fun,” Gil remembers. “The name ‘Stolen Babies’ was actually the name of a Fratellis song. When we started to evolve and began leaning toward a more rock-based sound without the full horn section and the theatrical aspects, we took that name as a way to hold on to our roots.”
When the scheduling and economic realities of maintaining a large group became unmanageable, the Fratellis belonged to history. But Persi and the Sharone brothers were already looking forward to the next thing: a smaller band that would distill the breadth of the Fratellis’ musical worldview sans fronteres, with the power and fury of the underground hard-rock scene. “We came up early on, going out on the Sunset Strip handing out fliers to shows,” Gil says, “There was a scene for the rock bands, but we always stuck out because we were always true to ourselves. We weren’t jumping on what sound was happening at the time. We always isolated ourselves from being considered an ‘L.A. scene band.’ And when we started touring, it was awesome not to have that stigma.”
Stolen Babies’ debut album, There Be Squabbles Ahead, arrived in 2006, and it seems none of the genres they traipsed through would ever recover. Heavy-metal mazurkas buttressed against funhouse film scores and laudanum-punk rave-ups, while Persi conjured everyone from Edith Piaf to Judy Garland to the shrieking turbines of a Boeing 747. Squabbles was technical, but not self absorbed; cartoonish, but not jokey; urgent, but not mindless. The following year, the band embarked on a seven-week tour sponsored by Revolver Magazine. They were first on a bill of four, with the headlining slot belonging to the highly regarded metal act, Lacuna Coil. But instead of being eaten alive by that band’s dedicated fanbase, Stolen Babies hit a nerve with the headbanging faithful, selling tons of copies of Squabbles and other merchandise. They were garnering rave notices for Persi’s scorching schizophrenic vocal prowess and the band’s towering metal-meets-Kurt Weill velocity, powered by the Sharone brothers’ sibling mind-meld intuition. Critics and bloggers were making themselves arthritic trying to bang out an all-encompassing reduction of the Stolen Babies’ raison d’être.
And in a move that’s just as unpredictable as their sound, Stolen Babies celebrated their bona fide success on this tour in a most unusual way—by going on hiatus.
While parts of Squabbles could, at various junctures, feel as random and violent as a knife fight in pitch-black darkness, Naught shows a retooling of the Babies’ vision, influenced by all of their individual experiences during their break while raising the level of the group’s virtuosity. Despite Persi moving from Los Angeles to Oakland after touring behind Squabbles, her heart was very much still entrenched in Stolen Babies—and it shows on the band’s new music. “I went through a lot of personal stuff between the records,” she says. “Personally, I feel lucky to be alive. There’s a bond between us that won’t break, no matter how much we try to shake it off. That intense phase I went through informed Naught. I’m pushing myself more and more as vocalist and a writer, going places where I thought I needed to go.”
Producer Ulrich Wild gave Naught a greater sense of clarity, allowing many of the subtleties (especially Rani’s genre-hopscotching and Persi’s come-hither-so-I-may-stab-you delivery) to shine like halogen searchlights across a night sky. Crunching hard rock (“Splatter”), foreboding sound-design (“I Woke Up”), anabolic dance rock (“Prankster”), quirky new-wave rock (“Birthday Song”) and gothic vibes (“Dried Moat”) coexist like the best playlist you’ve never heard. (And in the case of “Mousefood,” it could be all of those genres in 165 seconds.) It’s to Stolen Babies’ credit such advantageous sonic pursuits don’t come off as contrived or clever. The fury, psychosis and musicianship come from the heart—not method acting. Gil laughs when he remembers the lively discussion that ensued when it came time for the band to pick a descriptive category for Naught in the iTunes store. These days, the band’s utility boilerplate tag for what they do is “experimental rock,” a designation Persi is most comfortable with. It’s a position shared by the band’s growing fanbase—listeners who want to go on a journey, instead of seeking out mere sonic wallpaper.
Today, Stolen Babies are as passionate as they ever were, enjoying the respect from fans, the chemistry they have with each other and most importantly, the aural discoveries they’ve made. They’ve laughed, cried, and impressed each other consistently for well over a decade. Persi and the Sharones are fostering the spirit of adventure in an age of seeming indifference. Not surprisingly, the band members are okay with that.
“Whenever we’re on tour or online, fans are always saying to us, ‘Why the fuck aren’t you guys huge yet?’” says Gil. He pauses to smile. “That’s flattering and that’s cool. But the journey is awesome…”