War Games

At home with LA four-piece Warpaint as they launch their new album, plus an exclusive Love Is To Die performance

PhotographyNick Haymes

Taken from the December issue of Dazed & Confused:

Emily Kokal walks barefoot through the airy rehearsal space on the first floor of bandmate Theresa Wayman’s home, navigating around vintage synths, a cluster of effects pedals and piles of neatly stacked vinyl. It’s a balmy evening on a quiet street in Angelino Heights, one of the oldest surviving districts of Los Angeles, and Wayman’s busy Victorian house feels like a world away from the city’s freeways and strip malls. Shelves are crammed with books on tarot and meditation, the wrinkled records on the floor include the likes of British electronic pioneer Daphne Oram, New Jersey folk-rock sisters The Roches and Prince, and among the tomato plants as you enter the house peeks a statue of Ganesha, the Hindu deity of new beginnings. “You want one?” smiles the Warpaint singer/guitarist, nodding to the two tumblers of iced rosé in her hands. She hollers downstairs for her childhood friend “T” (Wayman, also guitars/vocals) to bring up a fresh glass.

“I think it’s probably impossible to not have a visual to a song, even if it’s really abstract and surreal in your head” — Theresa Wayman

If there was ever a time for Warpaint to pour it up, it’s now. Tomorrow, they’re mastering their eponymous second album, which by the time of its release in early 2014 will have been three years in the making. All the signatures of their 2010 debut, The Fool, are there — unctuous washes of noise, girl group ooh-ooh-oohs, freeform flex — but the deep cuts are more muscular and the hooks more pronounced, as on the brilliant lead single, "Love is to Die". It’s a landmark release not only because it's a career best, but also as the first Warpaint record that formidable drummer Stella Mozgawa has been creatively involved in from the get-go. Additionally, the recording process has been filmed and the music remixed for a twisted behind-the-scenes documentary by extremist video artist Chris Cunningham, husband of the band’s bassist, Hawaiian-born Jenny Lee Lindberg. If you’ve seen his alien infrared video nightmare Rubber Johnny (2005), a riff on Aphex Twin’s “afx237 v7”, you know we’re not talking Katy Perry: Part of Me 3D.

“I think it’s probably impossible to not have a visual to a song, even if it’s really abstract and surreal in your head,” says Wayman, settled down with the rest of the band on a tealight-dotted balcony just off the practice room. She lives here with her mom, her energetic, sandy-haired seven-year-old son Sirius and, every few months, her boyfriend, British electronic musician James Blake. (“It’s long-distance, but it works,” she shrugs.) The band’s promotional machinations are gearing up again — they just returned from playing Irish festival Electric Picnic, where they were impressed by The Knife's spectacular community-focused live show for Shaking the Habitual. “I like that it’s less accessible than the record they did before,” says Lindberg, gesturing with her American Spirit. “They’re just doing what they want to do, and I follow that kind of idea. I like that idea.”

“What was fun was rediscovering the songs and coming from new places with them, jamming or changing them a little bit” — Emily Kokal

Warpaint stood out immediately. Their remarkable debut EP, Exquisite Corpse (2009), introduced a sound that paired knotty post-punk rhythms with ritualistic, family-band-like three-part harmonies and a gorse-bush groove. One of their most striking elements was an intuitive, toe-dipping sense of fun on songs like “Billie Holiday” not often found in the music of their peers. “There was something endearing about it,” recalls Rough Trade’s head of A&R, Paul Jones, of first hearing the track. He signed the band after witnessing them play at NYC industry showcase CMJ in 2009. “Warpaint and The xx were the two hot bands that year. They’d play these grungy places like Cake Shop and Berkeley Lounge — secret sets at like, 2pm — and you’d think, ‘Bloody hell, it’s brilliant!’ Live they were a different proposition. They weave the songs together and it was quite mesmerising – almost like they made up a guitar style themselves.” 

Seeing Warpaint live around the time of that first album, the songs seemed to form, mitosis-like, as the show moved through “acts” as if a screenplay rather than a rock performance. “I think that’s when we discovered what those songs really were — almost more so than when they were recorded,” says Kokal of the lengthy tour that followed. She’s sitting on Wayman’s sun-drenched porch sporting  a fetching leopard-print hairdresser’s cape with oozing foils on her hair. (“It’s easy for me to look like I’m from Oregon,” she deadpans of her home state.) This afternoon, she’s going from chestnut brown to a popstar pale peach. “What was fun was rediscovering the songs and coming from new places with them, jamming or changing them a little bit. The evolution process was intense, especially with Stella playing EP songs.” Dazed’s photographer, loading up his camera on the porch, cuts in: “So you’ve had more drummers than...” Quick as a whip, Kokal hits back: “Spinal Tap?”

Warpaint formed on Valentine’s Day, 2004, when original drummer Shannyn Sossamon, Lindberg’s sister and an actress known for her roles in The Rules of Attraction and 40 Days and 40 Nights, called up Kokal, Wayman and Lindberg from New York. “Theresa was dating my roommate at the time and I knew her and her friend Emily played guitar a little,” Sossamon writes in an email. “It was all very spontaneous and instant.” Sossamon relocated from New York to start drumming and the four moved into a house in Los Feliz together, setting up the garage as a practice space. “There were no preconceived ideas of how we wanted to sound or what kind of band we wanted to be,” Lindberg says. “That first practice was really effortless, and it also sounded different. It didn’t really sound like anything we’d heard before.” When Sossamon was filming a movie in Deep Cove, on the outskirts of North Vancouver, the band relocated to the waterfront community and wrote “Billie Holiday”, which interpolates elements of Mary Wells’ 1964 pop hit “My Guy”Subsequently, they played a handful of gigs in LA venues such as Spaceland and The Viper Room, sometimes unbilled or under names like Notes from the Underground and I Love You.

“I left the band about a year or two after we first started,” says Sossamon. “I had a kid to take care of and another job calling. I stayed out for a year or so, and then missed the music so badly I rejoined, very seriously, for about a year or so. Then I quit forever on January 23, 2008. It’s a date I’ll never forget because it was the day after Heath Ledger passed away.” The death of the band’s dear friend affected them deeply, and while they’re uneasy about singling out that loss as marking a creative sea change — “there was a lot that was simultaneous,” says Wayman — the painful period gave way to a new poise and determination. Later that year, they self-released Exquisite Corpse. “After I left the band the second time the girls never worked harder,” says Sossamon. “That would have never happened with the way we were going together. There was too much darkness and immaturity to have any real movement forward.” 

The arrival of Australian-born Mozgawa gave the band the propulsion that was missing. She had recently relocated from NYC to LA and was living, as she puts it with characteristic brusqueness, a “kinda slutty music life,” playing in Flea's band and whoever else would have her (“She puts the ‘whore' in whorepaint!” interjects Wayman). Weary of marching to someone else’s beat, she ran into the girls at a mutual friend’s party: “We all took mushrooms – it was the first time I took mushrooms — and Theresa was like, ‘You should come and play in our band.’” 

“It’s not that we didn’t love the other people that we’ve played with,” says Kokal of those that had filled in, “but it just didn’t feel like that right personality, the right feel, the right gender — just kidding!” She laughs, acutely aware of the familiar yet necessary conversation. “There’s two sides to it,” says Mozgawa. “It can be really empowering, and then sometimes people just use it as a novelty when they’re writing about the band.” Wayman: “It was really an awakening to me. Like, ‘Oh, it is really rare, and that’s weird that it’s really rare.’ So we’re standing for something without even knowing we’re trying to. And that’s a really valuable place to be.” 

To jam out their new album, Warpaint rented a domed house in Joshua Tree National Park, a two-hour drive from LA. “It felt like a new incarnation of the band because there was a lot more going on,” says Kokal. “I mean, I barely play guitar on this whole album — I’ve been playing a lot of keys.” With the nearest house about two miles away, the idea was to work on music without interruption. For three weeks, they woke up next to a “wildlife corridor” ruled by skulking bobcats and drank mate, a Brazilian tea. It “tastes and smells and looks and feels like hay,” Kokal explains brightly. 

“There’s the idea that they’re a stoner, west coast, hippy band – they’re not, they have a real edge to them. They’re almost fascistic hippies!” — Flood

“What happened to the recording of the police officer?” gasps Lindberg. “The police turned up and said somebody had called from down the street and said the music was making them nauseous!” Kokal breathlessly continues: “The police came to the door and there was a bong right here, and we were like, ‘Ooh, please don’t look down, please don’t look down...’ The song's making somebody sick? Yeah, it’s going on the album!’” The offending number was “Disco // very”, a spare track propelled by bass stabs, hi-hat flicks and Lindberg’s gleefully snotty vocal (“Don’t you battle We’ll kill you / Rip you up and tear you in two”). “It was set up kind of like a rap song would be,” explains Lindberg, “with each rapper humming a verse and a sample between each verse, with us as the sample.”

“Disco // very”, the spacious “Drive” and the strutting “Biggie” (named after who you think) are among their most exciting new tracks. Warpaint was recorded at Conor Oberst’s Five Star Studios in LA and in Westbourne Park, London, with Flood, the highly regarded producer whose records include Nick Cave's From Her to Eternity (1984), The Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) and PJ Harvey's Let England Shake (2011). “I’d come across them a few times but it was more about what they stood for,” he says. “There’s the idea that they’re a stoner, west coast, hippy band — they’re not, they have a real edge to them. They’re almost fascistic hippies! Music quite often now is so bland, nobody is actually trying to say anything or provoke anybody, so anybody coming at it from a slightly different angle? I’m in. They are not a standard band, the music they make is not standard, the visuals are not standard and what they stand for is not standard.”

Warpaint’s easy LA confidence belies a steely determination, and it’s hard to say where the limit lies for their multi-platform collaboration with Cunningham, which seems unequalled in scope and ambition by anything else around. It perhaps has more in common with Radiohead’s video art project The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time (2004) than interactive album “experiences" such as Biophilia or ARTPOP. Warpaint aren’t just trying to make us engage with the album format in new ways, but allowing it to be transformed into a completely different and unrecognisable medium. 

It’s dark now and the ice in our tumblers has given way to a mushy pink sludge. The crickets are starting to chirp, and the band have a midday appointment at the studio tomorrow. Nervous? Kokal laughs, plucking a Marlboro Light from Mozgawa’s pack before saying, with grand understatement: “Like we haven’t done this before.” Wayman stands up and stretches, eyes twinkling and with a sly smile. “So... Anyone want a shot?” 

Warpaint is out on January 20 on Rough Trade

See what Chris Cunningham had to say when he spoke to Dazed & Confused about what it was like to work with Warpaint and the future of the moving image here.

Hair Eika Abe

Make-Up Daniel Moon from Andy Lecompte Salon / Pravana

Photographic assistant Grant Hatfield