"How do we get in?" reads a text message from co-frontwoman Theresa Wayman to her bandmate Stella Mozgawa, drummer and one-quarter of Warpaint. It's noon on a Friday and Stella, "double-tanned" from two back-to-back vacations, is the first Warpaint member to arrive. She's exuberantly bounding about the front lounge of Tenants of the Trees, the hippest bar in Silver Lake, LA. The lounge is called Out of Order—a rather exclusive, super private spot within Tenants that boasts its own entrance—and is frequented by everyone from The Weeknd, to Gaga, to Lana Del Rey. The first thing to take away regarding the whole venue is its maddening door policy. You? Nuh-uh. You can't come in, don't even try. Unless you know someone who is someone. Or you're Father John Misty.
But Friday lunchtime nobody's allowed into Tenants—except Warpaint. When news hit that today's photoshoot coincides with scorchio SoCal temperatures, and Warpaint may well melt in the great outdoors, Tenants offers to host. "Warpaint?!" exclaims the club owner Reza Fahim. "Anything for the homies!"
The door is always open for the quartet, which is not surprising really: Since the band's birth back in 2004, they've been staples of the East LA arts community. Today we have the run of the entire joint: every bar and booth, including the DJ booth where Stella spun tunes for her 30th birthday earlier this year. (If memory serves, she dropped both George Michael and Technotronic.) Why do they love this place so much? "The cocaine," says singer/guitarist Emily Kokal mischievously. "And there's your headline," quips bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg, rolling her eyes.
The love for guitarists and childhood friends "T" and "Em," and their rhythmic cohorts Jenny and Stella, goes well beyond this LA enclave. Outside of Warpaint, the girls are in demand. Let's start with Jenny, who strolls in dispensing a cigarette butt and offering hugs with her regular greeting: "Right on!" This phrase also happens to be the title of Jenny's first solo record, which she released last December. Emily rocks up at the same time as Theresa. Warpaint's two main spokespeople have also been busy spreading their creative seeds: Theresa in an outfit called BOSS, plus she's reportedly working on solo material with producer Dan Carey (Bat for Lashes / Oh Land); meanwhile Emily taught herself Ableton, worked with Saul Williams, and added her tones to Paul Bergmann's soft spun compositions. Stella, who describes herself as "creatively promiscuous," has been particularly wanton with her skills of late. Last year she drummed on Kurt Vile's album b'lieve i'm goin down…, and performed live with Jamie xx; this year she contributed to Cate Le Bon's Crab Day, Adam Green's Aladdin and the forthcoming Jagwar Ma LP, recorded in Australia, where she's from. Surely to get all this done Stella must be drumming in her sleep. "No, I don't. That would probably help if I had those extra hours in my day.
"Emily interjects to inform us that Stella worked on two other records while making the third Warpaint album, then turns and mocks her Aussie accent. "You bloody cunt!" she says. "Just kidding, kidding!" All jokes aside, solo projects generally double up as a big red flashing warning sign: BREAKUP IMMINENT. The Killers seem to be the exception, perhaps The Strokes too, and 12 years into their career, Warpaint are also defying stereotype. Strained relations? Their biggest quibble today is a harmless debate about Theresa's technical ineptitude. While Emily and Stella gasp about the majesty of Rihanna's ANTI—which came out in January—it seems Theresa only found the record on Spotify last night.
Emily: "What are you talking about? It's been on Spotify for ages."
Theresa:"When we went to the desert that time I looked up Rihanna on Spotify and it wasn't there."
Emily: "That's weird 'cause we were definitely playing it that night, don't you remember?!"
Theresa:"Well maybe it's a glitch in my matrix."
Emily: "Right, or maybe you're spelling it wrong."
Emily: "I don't know. Are you spelling it like A-U-N-T-I-E?"
Warpaint are funny. Sometimes laugh out loud hilarious, sometimes plain bizarre. Their chemistry, like their output and their live performances, is always evolving: the beat can change in a flash. As Theresa edges towards me to play with my earring, Jenny lies on top of her, erupting in fits of hysterics. I ask what she's eating, wary the "scone" inside a brown bag may be somewhat enhanced. "It's a scone," she shrugs. Then without warning she cracks every bone in her neck like a WWF wrestler, exhaling with ecstatic relief. "Jesus, Jen!" says Stella. Jenny looks on unperturbed: "Carry on."
Jenny Lee Lindberg. Photo by Cara Robbins.
When I first received Heads Up it came with the precursory comment: "You know, it's classic Warpaint." Except, to me, an evergreen Warpaint fan, it didn't sound like classic Warpaint at all. Well, let me re-phrase that: It's not exactly Skrillex and Diplo featuring Justin Bieber, though the influence of that seems to be somewhere on lead single, "New Song"—a banger that immediately slaps you with a "WTF where have you been all my life?" There are still songs on Heads Up that chime with 2010's The Fool and 2014's self-titled opus, but Warpaint are moving in a faster, more frantic direction. "The Stall" and "So Good" build around Jenny's well-loved, Cure-like bass lines, but then we're transported to the dance floor via house-ier beats. Last year's double A-side "No Way Out/I'll Start Believing" was definitely the toe-dipping exercise required before diving head-first into this liberated, more euphoric direction. "Above Control" begins like something off Blur's 13, but builds to a pace more aligned with their live sets. Perhaps the clearest indication of something less mulled over is a spare track like "Don't Wanna," which recalls Mezzanine-era Massive Attack.
It's non-traditional Warpaint in the sense that there's something unrehearsed about it—it feels less like it's loitered in a practice space for two years, and more freshly squeezed. I suggest that's why it's called Heads Up, like a warning. "Like when you're throwing a set of keys or a ball at someone?" asks Stella.
"Actually it's more like, 'Keep your head up'," states Jenny.
Right from the opening sentiment of "Whiteout" and the line "I want to rip it open and pour it out," this record wears its heart on its sleeve. "Yeah, I was just keeping it casual," goofs Emily, chief lyricist. She's keeping it light, but a theme begins to emerge—that there's little left to lose. Heads Up also shimmers with female solidarity, particularly on "By My Side," a song that hints at personal turmoil, but draws strength from those around her: "Now I know I'm not alone / Got my girls I'm not alone."
With all the band's together-apart lifestyle, I wonder if it's thanks to the experience of collaborating with other artists that they've returned to Warpaint, realizing its special alchemy. "Actually, we wanted to quit the band," jokes Emily. "No, we didn't. We were just pretty tapped out."
She takes a deep breath. "Well, OK… We almost split up."
"It wasn't that we don't love each other, or that we can't figure out how to get along, we were just exhausted from touring," she continues. "To realize that we can come together again and make some of our favorite things we've ever made has been big. It was weird to almost break up. That was a big wake-up call."
Theresa Wayman. Photo by Cara Robbins.
I last interviewed Warpaint in March 2015. They'd just come off the road, after 18 solid months of touring their second record. They looked unified but also drained and frustrated, unsure of their next move. Theresa mentioned they weren't the biggest fans of the make-an-album-then-tour-it-for-two-years cycle, Emily suggested that their protracted method of making albums was for the scrapheap. "We have a new rule," she said. "When we write a song and agree that we're stoked about it, we're done."
Back then they indicated they wanted to ramp up the BPMs and make tunes more aligned with the high energy of their live sets. With that in mind, Heads Up is mission accomplished. Rather than holing themselves up Cabin in the Woods-style, losing perspective for weeks while trying to jam out a record, they overhauled their process with enforced separation. This time they worked together in pairs, and alone. "We built up tracks, and weirdly they sound more immediate," notes Emily. "We've never given ourselves guidelines like that before.
"It took just four months to create Heads Up. They'd take turns to go to their practice space in Downtown LA, each member playing with their own ideas privately first. This new MO was not only a timesaver but a personal confidence boost too. I recall Theresa talking a lot about her affections for Bjork last year; how the Icelandic visionary was able to take huge themes of life experience and make fun, danceable music from it. "When you work on things apart you have time to be in it yourself and not fear the judgment of others," she offers. "Just for a moment, you know?"
This process also kept them on their toes, making cutthroat decisions far less painful. "It's less emotional," says Emily. When you work on an idea together for four weeks, as the band have been known to do, it's hard to disengage and let go. "We'd sit on something for five years and change a song 900 times," says Jenny of their past process. "This was instinctual. Nine times out of ten our first attempt was pretty right on."
Stella Mozgawa. Photo by Cara Robbins.
Produced by Jacob Bercovici—a member of Julian Casablancas + The Voidz who also produced the band's debut EP—Heads Up is a hodgepodge of sound and emotion. Take "Dre," the most obvious example of trappy, hip-hop beats, sparse like Clipse, A$AP Rocky, and Clams Casino. Stella made a habit of listening to Janet Jackson's Janet and The Velvet Rope en route to and from the studio, but insists it didn't influence the sound. "I just used that in the car, like taking a shower after a long hard day—a Janet shower!"
Theresa disagrees. "It had an influence. The quality of pop music back then was so youthful and raw, so organic." Looking at Stella she adds: "I think it helped you realize the qualities of that production. We were looking at that as the Holy Grail, or something."
Speaking of the Holy Grail, "New Song" arrived like the anthem they've been searching for ever since the immediacy of 2010's "Undertow." lt's the biggest departure, an upbeat track comparing the freshness of a new love interest to the addiction you feel upon first hearing a contagious pop hook. Jenny brought it to the table after an "assignment" where she listened to Daft's Punk's "Get Lucky," then forced herself to write that same day. "I'm obviously not gonna make 'Get Lucky' but I took the energy of it, thought about how it made me feel, and 'New Song' is what happened."
Emily Kokal. Photo by Cara Robbins.
Like many great pop songs its genesis was also, in part, a happy accident. At last year's Desert Daze Festival in Mecca, California, the band were about to start playing their single "I'll Start Believing," a different version of it… "Before we played it, I was introducing the track and started singing, 'It's a new song, you're a new song to me…' Then afterwards my sister and our manager came up to me and said, 'What a moment! That was awesome! Is that coming out?!'"
All that remained was a final secret ingredient—the opening "vocal" which sounds like a dolphin, and was quite literally the light at the end of a tunnel. "That's my voice," laughs Emily, before doing a convincing dolphin impression. She discovered her inner Flipper while hiking with her boyfriend one day and stumbled across said tunnel. As Emily started singing into the darkness, he recorded it. "Then we went home and made a MIDI keyboard sound from it."
It took a little adjustment before they were comfortable to press go on "New Song." It is, after all, considerably more pop than Warpaint's oeuvre. "Well, we want every record to be more successful than the one before. We certainly don't want them to be less successful. It's just what's happened, you know? It's a great song," says Theresa.
"I don't think we were sitting there thinking, 'How do we write a pop song? Let's sit here and make some money,'" adds Jenny. "It was just me fucking around, trying to have fun."
Stella recognizes the lease of life that "New Song" has brought them. "At this point there aren't many limitations to our band unless you set them for yourself," she explains. "You can't restrict yourself, or worry about fitting into a genre. If you want to establish your future as being more surprising, then you have to release that music, release everything that's a part of you. Otherwise you're hiding all these gems. Construct your own future. For us, 'New Song' is a bastion for that."
The first time they played it—at London's Hyde Park back in July—the universe approved with a double-rainbow arcing across the sky. "It was incredible!" smiles Stella. "I felt guilty that people were watching us!" adds Emily. "People were singing along by the second chorus. That was a new experience for us! Double rainbow and people singing our song. We were like, This is our moment! Our rainbow! Hahaha!"
In the back room of Tenants of the Trees, Emily, Theresa, Jenny, and Stella pretend to bartend for the camera. Ever the pun fan, Stella works her comedic angles. "POURPAINT!" she says. "Warpint," I counter. High fives are exchanged. "One way of remembering how much you love people is making cool shit that you all like together," she says. "That's the main line to affection, I find."
It's the wider music world, too, that's given Warpaint an extra smack of inspiration when it comes to believing in their own mad methods. Stella uses the example of the lately released second Avalanches record—16 years in the making and currently on heavy rotation. It makes her feel 14 again, reminding her that everything's possible. "The walls are coming down," she says. "Paradigms have shifted. Whether you're mainstream pop or on our kinda level everyone can just do whatever the fuck they want. You're not guaranteed any success, monetary or otherwise, but you can release music and have it resonate with the world."
Welcome back, Warpaint. We weren't ready to say goodbye.
Warpaint Tour Dates
September 19 Seattle, WA The Showbox*
September 20 Vancouver, BC Imperial Vancouver*
September 21 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom*
September 23 Oakdale, CA Symbiosis Festival
September 24 Long Beach, CA Music Tastes Good
September 25 Las Vegas, NV Life is Beautiful
September 27 Englewood, CO Gothic Theatre†
September 29 Minneapolis, MN Varsity Theater†
September 30 Chicago, IL Thalia Hall†
October 1 Detroit, MI St. Andrews Hall†
October 3 Toronto, ON Danforth Music Hall†
October 4 Washington, DC 9:30 Club†
October 6 Boston, MA Paradise Rock Club†
October 7 Brooklyn, NY Warsaw†
October 8 New York, NY The Bowery Ballroom†
October 9 Philadelphia, PA Union Transfer†
October 12 San Francisco, CA The Fillmore*
October 13 Los Angeles, CA The Fonda Theatre*
October 22 Bristol, U.K. Simple Things Festival
October 23 Edinburgh, U.K. Queens Hall
October 24 Manchester, U.K. Albert Hall
October 26 Liverpool, U.K. The Dome
October 27 London, U.K. The Roundhouse
October 29 Paris, France Pitchfork Festival
October 30 Cologne, Germany Live Musik Hall
November 1 Berlin, Germany Astra
November 2 Amsterdam, Netherlands Paradiso
November 4 Reykjavik, Iceland Iceland Airwaves – Húrra
November 10 Atlanta, GA Terminal West‡
November 11 Chattanooga, TN Revelry Room‡
November 12 Nashville, TN 3rd & Lindsey‡
November 14 New Orleans, LA One Eyed Jack's‡
November 16 Houston, TX Warehouse Live – Ballroom‡
November 17 Austin, TX Emo's‡
November 18 Dallas, TX Trees‡
November 22 San Diego, CA Observatory North Park‡
Heads Up is out on September 23 via Rough Trade.
Eve Barlow's first Warpaint gig was at Shepherds Bush Empire in 2011 and she's been hallucinating ever since. She's on Twitter.
Cara Robbins is a photographer based in LA. Follow her on Instagram.