L.A.'s Warpaint branches out from the abstract with stepped-up spin
Warpaint follows up its successful 2010 debut with an album that keeps the band's 'impressionistic' nature while adding an electronic groove.
By Todd Martens
7:30 AM PST, January 21, 2014
On the surface, the members of local quartet Warpaint give the impression they're low-key when it comes to making music. Bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg will tell you she doesn't think about music — she "feels" it — and along with singer-guitarist Emily Kokal, the two will regularly apply words such as "chill," "vibe" and "energy" to the band's creative process.
Don't be fooled.
With the release of a self-titled second album this week, Warpaint enters a key phase of its career. The band's 2010 debut, "The Fool," sold 150,000 copies worldwide, and its success allowed Warpaint to call on some of the most respected studio technicians in the music industry for the follow-up. Flood, whose credits include U2's "Achtung Baby" and Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral," served as producer, and Radiohead confidant Nigel Godrich mixed two tracks.
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When the currently touring band next visits Southern California, it will do so at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Such achievements haven't come Warpaint's way simply because the band, in the sometimes flowery words of Kokal, has "a language together."
But forgive Warpaint for speaking in the abstract. The band's musical vernacular, after all, is increasingly out there.
The new album finds a groove and then lets it spin. Vocals, guitars, whispers and a serpent-like bass lock in orbit around Stella Mozgawa's drums. The songs are more spacious, more drum-and-bass driven and more electronic. Guitars don't riff, they drip as if from a faucet, and sometimes the beat is up for dancing, but often it's down for conjuring a trance.
"We create very sensual, not sexual, music. It's music that creates a sensation around you, a world," says Kokal.
Got that? Let Geoff Travis of the band's label, Rough Trade Records, translate. "I really love 'Surrealistic Pillow,' that Jefferson Airplane record. They reminded me of that," Travis says of hearing Warpaint in 2009.
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"Now it's more like Questlove playing with Jefferson Airplane or Questlove playing with the Grateful Dead," Travis says, referencing the drummer for celebrated hip-hop band the Roots. "Jenny plays bass in a way that sort of anchors around the sound. It's a tunnel. … Sometimes it's also like the Sugarhill Gang."
Visit Warpaint in its downtown arts district rehearsal space, and it's clear that the band is less about "vibing out" and more about perfectionism. The band is apt to spend 90 minutes shaping just 30 seconds of a song. At a momentary loss as to why a new tune wasn't coming together, the band eventually realized that vocalist-keyboardist Theresa Wayman was quietly intoning the phrase "she said" 21 times instead of the desired 20, a miscalculation that set off a domino effect of barely audible tonal shifts.
Every ghostly harmony, every snaking bass line and every beat must always be in its right place. And every outsider is a potential intruder.
Warpaint's habits were also shaped by the band's circle having always been celebrity adjacent. Warpaint formed in 2004 with Lindberg's sister Shannyn Sossamon on drums, and Lindberg herself left Reno as a teenager to chase a potential career in acting or modeling. When Sossamon's acting took off, the remaining members of Warpaint settled into a daily routine of rehearsing and working at bars and coffee shops.
"L.A. got demystified real fast," says Kokal. "The goal of trying to be known by everyone? Sure, we want people to hear our music, but we saw the stress our friends had. Simple pleasures weren't even an option just due to the awareness of the attention on them. So as much excitement as there was to come to L.A. and 'make it,' that all got quickly put into perspective. We protect our space."
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Flood's resume, for instance, is impeccable, but when he met with the band for pre-production in 2012 he wasn't immediately welcomed with open arms. Warpaint, whose members are all in their early 30s, cut right to the point.
"Jenny was forthright," recalled Flood. "She said, 'I don't think we need a producer.' She was incredibly honest about it."
Flood, who enjoys a close professional relationship with Rough Trade, says he saw the band as a challenge and worked to quell Kokal's nerves that he would take the group to the "next level." He was drawn to what he says is the band's "impressionistic" nature.
"That needed to be kept," he says. "I loved that every song had a different structure."
Lindberg and Kokal credit Flood for helping the band learn how to step away from a song. Whereas in the past a song would have "17 changes and 15 hooks," Kokal says, moments such as "Biggy" or "Son" on the new album are slower, more minimal and built on shading rather than layers. The results resemble a less digital but certainly spiritual companion to Godrich's project with Thom Yorke, Atoms for Peace.
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"When you're not as mature, you're not as trusting," Lindberg says. "You start to think, 'I didn't write anything on this song. It's my turn.' No. It's done. We were able to recognize when something was finished, and how it's sometimes more important what you don't add. That was a huge lesson."
The band has now moved on to learning other music industry lessons. Warpaint, for instance, could be heard late last year in a Calvin Klein ad. "Those opportunities are coming more, especially with us being girls," Kokal says. "There's all these angles that people approach you with."
Angles? "We probably do more fashion spreads than most dude bands."
It's perhaps no coincidence then that Warpaint has begun to take greater control over its image. While the band's fashion aesthetic is in the style of hand-me-down vintage, Lindberg's husband happens to be famed video director Chris Cunningham, who has worked with Bjork, Madonna and others. His art graces the album, a cover that features the four band members superimposed over one another.
Cunningham says he initially suggested something more simple — a Polaroid of the band against the wall, for example. He was overruled.
Says Lindberg, "Since Chris has been onboard, a lot of the artwork has been montages instead of a picture of the four us. 'Here we are as a band.'
"Yes, we are a band," she adds. "But we're a four-headed monster."