"We're a gang of friends and musicians. It manifests itself directly in the sound we create together. It's the ace up our sleeves." So says Stella Mozgawa, drummer, programmer and keyboardist for Warpaint. Their gang mentality is still here and still seemingly strong. It's a sometimes under-appreciated asset. It was once said of The Beatles that they communicated with each other in a way that made others feel sidelined, that they acted like a gang which was difficult to penetrate, forged from years of being in each other’s pockets before they had even hit the big time. Similarly, Warpaint had played and worked with each other for several years before they became properly known beyond their Los Angeles base. Accordingly, they have created a super tight bond that few other bands can match, and which is reflected in their music.
As Stella says, Warpaint are in essence a gang of friends, who enjoy making music. A music that is democratic in nature (all four members are equal shareholders, as it were), which relies on a lot of spontaneity, but also telepathy. It's a telepathy that only really comes from jamming constantly in the studio, and via genuine friendships, where egos and leadership ambitions are left at the door. If they weren't, Warpaint would surely live up to their name, whether via its meaning as the ‘paint’ applied by North American natives in getting ready for battle, or indeed the make up applied by women when preparing for the coming ‘social’ battles!
Warpaint – in case you hadn't noticed – are all women. Of course, the mere mention of this fact (would we ever talk about an all-male band?) may seem ridiculous, and possibly patronising, in the supposedly thoroughly modern 2017. But it wasn't actually that long ago that all-female rock bands were almost unheard of. Women just didn't play electric or bass guitars, or drums, bar the odd mega-rare exception (Suzi Quatro on bass, Karen Carpenter on drums, before she ended up being frontwoman for her sibling duo). The Slits were trailblazers in this respect. Formed without having much of a clue as to how to play and make music, they featured Viv Albertine on guitar, who documented the difficulties they had in dealing with an almost wholly male-dominated industry via her recently-published and brilliant book Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. But, once the flame of the in some ways regressive punk scene started to die away, they were able to make progress and achieve much within the extended post-punk family, a remarkably revolutionary period in music making.
Like many of the greats from the punk, post-punk and new wave scenes, Warpaint have evolved from the ground up. They are a band who haven’t been moulded by music college standardisations, orthodoxies or traditional notions of musicianship. Instead, like The Slits, they have developed organically, creating a distinct sound that no other combination could have come up with. Indeed, if they were to be transported back to the late 70s they could, with the right audio tweaks here and there, fit in very nicely. Close your eyes and you can hear hints of PiL, Au Pairs and Joy Division. But beyond that they sound utterly contemporary; a heady mix of the avant-garde, and groove-based rhythms, with a pinch of artiness, in creating their own super-fresh, and often intoxicating sounds.
"I don't think we're an overtly experimental band," says Stella. "Our process is unique but I wouldn't say it's fringe necessarily. I guess what creates our particular sonic aesthetic is the openness for it to be manipulated song to song. There's no 'warpaint sound' that we're aware of and I think, and hope, that we use that to our advantage."
The band formed in 2004, but they spluttered to get it going properly due to babies (guitarist Theresa Wayman gave birth in 2005), other work commitments (modelling, acting) and not always living in the same city. Finally, they released the Exquisite Corpse EP in 2008, via their own label, before it was picked up by Manimal Vinyl who gave it a worldwide release in 2009. British label Rough Trade soon took an interest, and it was through them that all subsequent releases have been made. The Fool album was released in 2010, followed by Warpaint in 2014, and Heads Up last year. This last one cemented their reputation as experimental rock artists first and foremost, although their penchant for an atmospherically feverish dreamy/haunting musicality has given way somewhat to a more groove-based, and semi-orthodox song structure. But not entirely. Whereas they would often take their time in unfolding the song and its sentiments, via a moodily lurking intensity, with Heads Up the approach to music making has been a bit different.
"We wanted to get right back in the studio after touring," explains singer and guitarist Emily Kokal. "We were very ambitious about it. But as soon as we got off the road we were like, 'Actually, we need to take a proper break'." Theresa Wayman has previously talked about the difficulties of keeping the band interested in moving forward following the intense touring after the Warpaint album: “The schedule we’d had was so intense, and so rigorous, that we really needed that space from each other for a while. We needed to remind ourselves why we started this band. We each had our own sabbatical from the band after our last touring cycle," says Stella. "Jen made a solo record (2015's Right On!), Theresa worked on her solo record (which remains unreleased), Emily collaborated with a few artists, and I made a few records with various people (she's very much in demand these days, recording with the likes of The xx, Kim Gordon, Regina Spektor, Ed Harcourt, Adam Green, and Kurt Vile just these last couple of years). I feel like all our individual activities brought an added confidence that helped the creative process for this record. We were a little more in tune with our place in the whole and what qualities and skills we could bring to enhance the sound of Heads Up."
"Theresa and Jen might come in with fully formed songs," says Emily. "We thought that might be cheating, but we feel we have a lot to say individually. This idea of bringing songs to the band was a revelation for us, and a great experiment. We worked quickly this way; usually we work really slow because we do everything together. Everybody has a different idea, and that is a lot of talking. So this was a lot more like, 'Hey, put a guitar part on this.' It was nice. We also wanted to make an album that was fun to play live."
"It's something new for us which was ultimately a positive change," says Stella. "It's been pretty time consuming in the past to have an idea green-lit from all four members of the band. Something more direct occurs when one person has the space to see their idea through to its logical conclusion. I think we struck upon something this time around!"
Apparently recorded in pairs and by each band member alone, before they would get together as a band for final takes, Heads Up still retains that looseness in much of the sound, with many ideas seemingly jammed or improvised in a spirit of free creativity. Whereas with their previous albums they tended to slowly and patiently build songs up that often floated on a haze of moody psychedelic/cinematic intensities that would eventually ensnare the listener, here the sound is bigger, a bit more immediate, often involving head-nodding, feet-tapping, nay danceable grooves. But post-punk remains their closest ally, which of course had plenty of danceable beats and rhythms within it's often politicised narrative. Bassist Jenny Lee-Lindberg cites both Jah Wobble and Siouxsie Sioux as influences, and together with the Australian-born and raised Mozgawa, they have created a formidable and very highly respected rhythm section. Mozgawa brings plenty of ideas to the table, and her combination of electronic, real drums, looping and keyboard work gives the band extra dimensions and possibilities with which to work in, a music that is heavily 'feel' based, and therefore quite elemental and atmospheric. Meanwhile, Theresa Wayman and Emily Kokal’s unfussy, twin guitar work is mostly about textures and creating tensions and adjusting mood and intensity. Vocally is where the melodies are most apparent. They each contribute, but it's when they all sing together that they create this extra otherworldly sound, like a toned down eerie banshee shriek.
To my mind there is still a lot of free flowing jamming and spontaneity in Warpaint, albeit this leading into slightly more structured and traditional notions of 'song'. "That's what happens when we all get together, it's the byproduct of our relationship," says Stella. "And that's what we tried to harness for the last two albums. This album came from considerably less jamming and yet spontaneity was still very much a focus. If an idea seemed to work one moment we didn't labour so much over the perfection or manipulation of it. There was a faith in first takes, demos, last minute ideas and transformations that maybe weren't quite as prevalent on previous albums." Ideas still flowed from spontaneous jams and moments such as, perhaps ironically, their most pop moment to date, 'New Song'. "The vocal melody and sentiment of that track was born on stage at the Desert Daze festival a few years back," says Stella. "It was a spontaneous segue between songs during a technical failure."
In terms of music making, their socialist leanings (“A democracy of dictators” is how Emily puts it), has given way somewhat to a leaner, tougher, perhaps more practical way of doing things. And you can sense the relief the band have in not having to constantly talk to each other about the minutiae of what they are doing or trying to achieve. But, there is still plenty of debating going on, and there is no one ostensibly in charge of Warpaint. Are there disagreements? "Oh yes!” exclaims Stella. "Perhaps less disagreements and more labouring though. Conversations about an idea can kill an idea because often enough everyone wants to have a stake in it. Aside from that, I see a lot of positives in the new method.”
Although we have moved a considerable distance since the pre-punk days of gender division within musical settings (you know the score; women sang, and maybe played acoustic guitar or piano) it seems we haven’t entirely moved to a situation of equals, and I ask Stella about this. “I do think the dumbest and most prevalent comments are gender based. ‘How does it feel to be a band of all women?' I mean, how do we know? We've not experienced an alternative to being women in this lifetime. Very silly.”
Read our review of their latest album Warpaint – Heads Up here: https://brightonsfinest.com/html/index.php/12-music/1782-warpaint-heads-up