Drummer Stella Mozgawa talks about the evolution of Warpaint, the new album, and why the band has never set out to make a statement.
With the release of their eponymously titled sophomore album in January of this year, L.A. indie rock quartet Warpaint has been making the rounds. Within the space of a year, the band has appeared on Conan, in a promotional campaign for Calvin Klein, and on the pages of The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone. Tuesday night, the band plays The Republic with Liam Finn opening.
In spite of the recent outpouring of critical accolades, the girls of Warpaint are indie-rock veterans, the band having been on the scene for over a decade. Formed in 2004, Warpaint released its debut EP, Exquisite Corpse in 2008, which features Theresa Wayman (guitar, vocals), Emily Kokal (guitar, vocals), and sisters Jenny Lee Lindberg (bass) and actress Shannyn Sossamon (drums). John Frusciante, then-guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, mixed the EP.
Following the release of Exquisite Corpse, the band toured sporadically, popping up at music festivals around the U.S. and Europe.
The first time I saw Warpaint perform live was in the summer of 2010 at Bonnaroo in a sweltering Manchester, Tennessee. Jenny was wearing a full-body, red wool pajama onesie, and Alex Ebert and Jade Castrinos, of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes bobbed along in the front row. The stage was in a small outlier tent and attendance was slight, a far cry from the crowds the group commands today, having recently headlined shows at Webster Hall, SXSW, and Rock en Seine.
Prior to that performance, in the the winter of 2009, the group brought on Australian Stella Mozgawa at drums and subsequently released their debut album The Fool, a refined extension of its earlier sound, in the fall of 2010.
The band recorded its newest album, Warpaint, in a geodesic dome in the California desert, which may account for the dreamscape quality of the sound. The record is the band’s most ambitious--and most polished--effort to date, and combines the group’s characteristic atmospheric art rock and technically tricky guitar riffs with a smattering of hip-hop and trip-hop. Recently, Mozgawa phoned in while on tour to talk about Warpaint’s new album, creative freedom, and the time Jon Theodore praised her drumming on hotel stationary.
Your new album, Warpaint, is a source of endless fascination for me. It’s very eclectic sounding. Is that something that was intentional?
It’s funny when you’re a band like us and you don’t really discuss the things you plan to do. Or really plan things like that in general. And then people build--not to try and pigeonhole it but to try and understand someone else’s process. We don’t really think about those things too much. Like, Oh, it has to be different from the last record. Or, It has to be this and that. We’re always just going with our whim. So it’s a lot more simple than most people think that our process is. It’s basically we do whatever we feel like doing [laughs]. And then we put it all into a clump that other people call an album. A lot of people say it’s a lot more mellow than the last album, and then other people say it’s a lot more aggressive or it’s a lot poppier or more ambient. I honestly don’t know. [laughs]
We didn’t really set out to make a different album. We set out to just make a great album, and to be able to express ourselves as best we could with it in a limited time frame.
When early press comes out about a record and press people are asking, “How do you describe your album?” and you describe it ,and then everyone else says, “Well, they describe it like this.” And it’s like, Well we don’t, actually. We were just forced into making something up because a journalist was asking us. [laughs] And then everyone starts quoting one particular article, saying So you guys describe your new album as really sexy. No, we were just in this hour-long conversation with this British journalist who was basically saying that the album sounded sexy to him and what did we feel like? And how did we feel about that? It’s funny how it gets twisted over time. In general, we’re a lot less conscious of making statements, aside from internal statements of trying to make a good piece of work.
You self-titled this album. Is this record then an accurate reflection of the band as a whole?
Yeah, I think the band as it is now and as it has been for the last five years, it was the first record that we all made together, from start to finish. Which was really special. The last record, The Fool, I joined the band, probably two or three weeks before we tracked the album. So I came in for the pre-production and going over songs and making things up pretty quickly. I wasn’t there when “Undertow” was written or when anyone was formulating the arrangement of songs and things like that. Although there was a lot of creativity in the studio and a lot of things changed, I definitely came in from the ground up on this record, which felt really special.
Why did you choose to include an instrumental intro track, “Intro,” on this album?
“Intro” and “Keep It Healthy” are the same track, and we had always played them together as one piece of music. But when it came time to record, it was fun for us to break them up. A lot of people have mentioned it as a point of interest for them, which is cool.
“Love is to Die”--are you guys feeling any pressure to make more radio-friendly or mainstream singles?
No. With that song it was interesting. We just wrote it and never felt like, Oh this is definitely going to be the single. But then once the record companies and managers come in and everyone starts listening to the stuff you’ve written for the album, everyone has their “Oh that’s definitely the single! That’s definitely the single!” It kind of puts a hex on a song sometimes, and makes you think about it differently.
["Love is to Die"] is definitely not a radio-friendly song. Our poppier sounding stuff sounds poppy just by way of a catchy melody. It’s too weird for American radio, unless it’s specialty radio or alternative radio. It’s way too weird for them. That’s the feedback that we get from radio pluggers and from radio stations that aren’t specialty radio stations. It’s too left of center.
We’ve never made songs to get them on the radio, so we’re just going to keep doing what we do. If people pick up on a song and say, Oh that’s great! That can be a single, or, You could push that to the mainstream, or whatever, then let them. Let them try, basically. [laughs] It’s been an uphill struggle for us to try and fit something that we do so naturally into a mold that’s already so established.
To me your most recent two albums, The Fool and Warpaint, are so much more accessible, sound-wise, than Exquisite Corpse. Do you think you’ll ever do that heavy distortion again, recapture that really early sound?
It definitely doesn’t feel to me that Warpaint was a lo-fi garage band back in the day and then it became a pop band. [laughs] We like to listen to things that sound rough and vibe-y and live and natural and organic and in the room. But we also like listening to shit that sounds good. It’s just another thing that people try and make it seem that things you’re doing are conscious. Like, “Oh yeah, that EP was so vibe-y and rad and lo-fi, and they didn’t give a fuck.” Then as soon as you start to clean up the sounds or do something that’s a little more hi-fi or something, they’re like “Oh man, they’re selling out.” It’s kind of bullshit. All you want from an artist that you really love is for them to do whatever the fuck they want, right? And to be able to express themselves exactly as they want to. Instead of saying, What are all our fans going to think? Are they going to think we’re contrived. Are they going to think we’re this or that? It’s a really dangerous territory, and I think it leads to a lot of bitterness to artists because they feel indebted to a particular aesthetic. Or a particular genre or a particular scene. Instead of being completely creative and being able to do whatever you want to do. And we still haven’t even gotten that point where we’re completely 100 percent satisfied with a record. And maybe we never will be. But that’s what you’re striving for--to reall,y really enjoy the music you make, as opposed to trying to fit into somebody’s idea of what the band is.
You guys went out to Joshua Tree to write this one?
Yeah, we spent a month out there before we did pre-production. Basically just hung out with each other for a month; it was really awesome. It was very important for us to have that bonding experience after being on tour for so long.
Is tour not bonding?
No, everything is bonding when you’re being together. But it’s a different kind of lifestyle. It’s a different pattern that you engage in when you’re on tour as opposed to just sitting in a room and being able to write something completely new every single day, or every hour. You can write something new and someone can come in and jam with you. It’s like opening a window and letting in fresh air. Sometimes it’s really nice in a room, but sometimes it’s nice to break shit open and experience something different with each other. Because you are the same character, basically, when you’re on tour. And when you get out and you do whatever you please, you learn a lot about the people around you and how they’ve grown. It’s a really interesting experience.
How much new material arrives organically from being on tour and playing live?
Yeah, there’s a few things that have come from us playing soundchecks and things that have happened spontaneously between songs that have come into tracks or the genus of a track.
Do you have a writing process or a particular dynamic for writing songs?
We’re not really a band that has a formula in terms of how we write music together. We do it in about 17 ways. Some of the songs were written in Joshua Tree and we all just jammed together. And then someone would put either gibberish vocals over it or sing stream-of-consciousness. Emily’s verse in “Disco//Very” is part of a stream-of-consciousness thing that we were doing over that groove, and we just kind of wrote that song in afternoon.
There were also a lot songs that people individually worked on, or worked on in pairs. Or worked on somebody’s demo. Our producer Flood had heard a lot of the demos, and he was really keen on keeping that spirit. A lot of the stuff on the record is actually the demo version of something. It wasn’t re-recorded. And we just added to it, added little sprinkles of magic.
One of my favorite videos of you is in Australia playing an improvised jam session with Foals. Do you remember doing that?
That was with my friend Jono [Ma], who plays in the band Jagwar Ma. Jono used to put on this awesome night in Sidney, and he was working with Foals in a studio just before we all came down and did the Laneways tour together three years ago. We were all hanging out one night and three of the Foals guys, who I didn’t know and had never heard of their band before, were playing this jam with Jono playing a synthesizer. I guess they’d been jamming for a little while and getting a bit tired, and somehow I just ended up on the drum kit. And then we jammed for half an hour. It was really, really fun. And those guys are really good friends now. I really love them.
Did Jon Theodore [drummer for the Mars Volta] really leave you a note saying he loved your drumming?
He really did [laughs].
I was very surprised. [laughs] I didn’t understand what was going on. He’s just such a Lord. He’s such a sweet guy and such an amazing drummer. Everyone really loves him and respects him.
It was one of the nights of Coachella, and I had a party in my room. So I had a bunch of people that slept over in my room. Then we woke up and I ordered breakfast for everyone and made some outlandish requests. It was some kind of stupid, hung-over morning request for food. We all ate breakfast, went down to the pool, and then came back up. And there was an envelope with my name on the front of it. Inside the envelope was a letter from the housekeeping lady. I was so confused. It was written as if someone had written with a ruler--you know, when you used to do that when you were a kid? And she had written with a ruler and it looked like a three year old had written and I was like What the fuck is going on? Is this a joke? And then on the other side of the envelope, written on top of it, was that little note from Jon.
Those two things together were so strange to me that it felt like a hoax, but it wasn’t funny enough to be a hoax. So it was just like this weird kind of David Lynch moment. I eventually got to the bottom of it, and Jon and I are friends now, which is cool.
What’s the deal with the skateboard concept in the music video for “Disco//very” and “Keep it Healthy?” Are you guys really in to skateboarding?
No, we appreciate skateboarding but we’re not skaters by any means. It was kind of a romanticism to old Beastie Boys video clips. They would be walking down the street, and that would be the concept. And weird things would be happening around them. Skaters or people throwing fruit or whatever. There was a different spirit to videos back then, and it felt that we missed that simplicity and that charm about video concepts.
I saw you did a Top 10 list for the Criterion Collection. I’m guessing you’re a big movie buff.
Oh yeah. I love movies almost as much as I love music. I feel like there’s a marriage of visual and sonic elements in pretty much everyone’s music whether they intend for it or not. Music videos are a really good example of that – the need for some kind of stimulus that goes along with something that is otherwise imagined.