Warpaint: 'The pop world? We're not even in that universe'
Returning this month with a bewitching second album and a couple of iconic collaborators at their back, Jenny Lee Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa say Warpaint are in it for the long haul
Jenny Lee Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa stand on one of the few quiet slabs to be found on Sauchiehall Street at any time of the week, nervously sharing a cigarette as Warpaint's most extensive UK tour in some time reaches Glasgow. There’s a sense of occasion as they return to the ABC, scene of a particularly memorable win where the band became natural de facto headliners atop an ensemble festival bill of dozens at 2011's Stag & Dagger. Thanks in no small part to a lot of lost gear – including Jenny Lee’s personalised board of effects pedals – it'll take a bit of levity to bring the Los Angeles ambient rock rhythm section back to Zen.
With disarming frankness and a wicked sense of humour, the duo still know when to reserve a certain mystique – an art too many of their contemporaries have willingly surrendered. The odds of finding Warpaint locked in a Twitter ruckus with the flavour of the week aren’t particularly high. The duo erupt with laughter at the absurdity of it all. “The four of us were just having a conversation about this yesterday,” says Stella. "We’re at a point where we’re a little baffled by how to go about presenting the band online – what feels natural and what doesn’t. How far do we go before it starts to feel forced and we’re just becoming another product of…” she hesitates to identify rock’n’roll’s old nemesis "...the system?”
Signed to Rough Trade in 2009, the shady world of social networking did play a pivotal role in connecting Warpaint to one of London's original independent institutions. “The way that all went down was a happy accident,” Jenny Lee remarks of the alliance. “We’d only had one smaller label approach us before them, so when they did we were over the moon. I mean, we hadn’t even toured outside of Los Angeles. We had a small west coast tour booked on the back of an EP you could only find in Amoeba that we’d released ourselves, when [the label's A&R head] Paul Jones found us on MySpace and wrote to us. They had an A&R in Portland, Scott McLean, who came to the show we played up there, and that was that. We’re close to Geoff [Travis] and Jeanette [Lee, Rough Trade's managing partners], they came out to LA and listened to the record when we were about 70% finished, before we’d mixed. They’re really involved but they know when to give us space. Jarvis and Steve Mackey from Pulp are also really supportive.”
“We don’t want to be a flash in the pan, and we want to be able to dictate what we do" – Stella Mozgawa
Grafters from the get-go, the word ‘meteoric’ has regularly been misattributed by part-time spectators to a career now almost a decade in. Collecting endorsements from the likes of RZA (a vocal fan of Lindberg’s tripped-out basslines) and err… Justin Timberlake (who entreats prospective fans to listen “between giant, tingling swigs of scotch in a dark corner”), probably hasn’t hurt, but as trajectories go, Warpaint’s hard-fought ascent has otherwise been distinctly old school. With a live reputation that preceded their first gig on these shores, they’ve spent the last three or so years returning to a gradually loudening fanfare.
Now, by their own admission, it's become home away from home. “Jen loves haggis chips,” Stella deadpans, her bandmate’s face lighting up at the realisation she’s just come to the right town. But beyond our exotic potato snacks, their respect and awe for the history of British music has been well documented, perhaps more so in the mood of their records – the disparate likes of the The Cure, Mazzy Star and Cocteau Twins have become perpetual, fleeting touchstones – than any interview ever could.
Having finally caught their stride after several years of shedding drummers (a chance introduction to guitarist/vocalist Emily Kokal at a Metallica gig eventually brought Mozgawa into the fold full-time) and a maternity break for guitarist/vocalist Theresa Wayman, debut album The Fool delivered on the promise of their self-released Exquisite Corpse EP when it emerged in the autumn of 2010. “We didn’t want to sit on a second album for too long,” says Lindberg of its aftermath. “But we weren’t rushing the process, that’s for sure. If it wasn’t ready we weren’t going to record it.”
The band retreated to Joshua Tree for a month of self-imposed exile to get the sessions rolling – not, they insist, to ride the cliché and fall about the desert on peyote. Jenny Lee cackles. “Well, there was a little bit of that, which is necessary I think – almost ceremonial when you’re out there,” Stella concedes. “But it was Emily’s idea that we get out of town and avoid the distractions of being in the city, even though we could’ve done something there, I think it was really good for us to bond and play every single day, recording everything that we’d been playing and just have this period of time to only do that. Everything outside of that, you’re still going home to your personal environment, your boyfriend, your family, your friends, the same bars, and the same restaurants. We had to get out of that and know that this was the moment to focus.”
An unconventional band calls for unconventional allies. Enter eminent post-punk super-producer Flood, a significant figure behind the scenes on too many landmark releases to mention, ranging from Nick Cave's first step into the Bad Seeds (From Her to Eternity) to PJ Harvey's most celebrated (Let England Shake), allying with future heavyweights like Depeche Mode, U2 and Nine Inch Nails at key moments along the way. Regularly in the right time and place, his union with Warpaint makes absolute sense. It's destiny realised, says Jenny Lee. “Back in the day, Emily randomly asked a friend ‘if we were ever to get a producer, who d’you think?’ He immediately said Flood and that just stuck in her mind for years. When we were tossing the idea of having a producer around this time, his was one of only a few names that circled us. We were thinking about doing it all ourselves, but when he said he was available our minds were made up.”
Stella still pinches herself at the coup: “We’re all fans – something that he’s worked on in the past has changed each of our lives in the band. When we met up with him for the first time, which was at the end of 2011, we thought ‘he must take meetings with everyone.’ But I think he’s very particular about who he works with, very calculated about it, and I imagine he knows now – having worked with so many different bands on so many different projects – the things that need to satisfy him musically, creatively and personally. The fact he was attracted to the idea of working with us made us trust him coming in to the fold a lot more. All of his comments seemed totally in line with what we were thinking. He was very specific about the things that made any particular song work. It seemed we were on the same page from the start and that was a big relief.”
With Flood bringing his Midas touch to the album’s production, another common denominator in the arc of boundary smashing modern music – visionary video artist Chris Cunningham – was charged with documenting the band’s time in the desert. The results (teased on Warpaint’s new website and Love Is To Die single trailer) are the basis for an evocative audio-visual collage of remixes and captured moments – a graceful illustration of the purity in their music. As one in only a handful of projects that the ever in demand director has undertaken in the new millennium, how exactly did they snare his attention? “Well, he’s my husband, first of all – I should tell you,” reveals Jenny Lee, shy as she goes about it. Stella, laughing, finally lets go of a pregnant pause: “I didn’t want to say it if you didn’t wanna say it!”
Keen to shoot down any notions of nepotism, though, Jenny Lee elaborates: “…but that’s not why he’s working with us. He had to interview for the job too! He came out to Joshua Tree to do his own work and this was just something that came about quite naturally. He’s just been sporadically filming what we’ve been doing behind the scenes ever since, just the making of the album. We’re all pretty comfortable when he’s around; he’s very mindful about not wanting to disrupt the flow. We were rarely aware of his presence, so what he filmed was real, it never felt like a performance.” Stella pipes up: “He’s become like the fifth member! You look at what this guy’s done with Bjork, Aphex Twin, Portishead…Madonna, even. In all of those videos, it was a revolutionary style and aesthetic that he had, and it was still in an age where there was a certain artistry in making video clips. They became part of a lasting vision you have when you hear the corresponding song.”
With this formidable team of seasoned gothic aesthetes around them, the result is not a high-flung concept record pointing towards a meltdown. Rich in texture and a clear showcase of their still-evolving songwriting partnerships, there’s an abiding sense that – without forcing some tenuous narrative to hang 12 songs on – Warpaint have simply nailed their colours to the mast. In their own words, it’s the sound of four musicians in a practice space saying ‘this is us.’
Whereas The Fool was a light of touch stoner’s delight by design, their self-titled return blows open the possibilities with electronics. Somehow intimate and wild, it’s a stew of contradictions that keeps on giving. “We have a natural tendency to try and fit a million ideas into any one song, and it’s been really fun to explore that,” says Stella. “I think we’re honing in on our style, in a sort of intuitive and subconscious way. We’re getting closer to knowing what it is that works for each of us – whether it’s in a song or as this band – and how to interact with each other, now that we’ve played live together for so long. Before the last record we were still finding that, which was a wonderful experience. Touring and being together all the time forces you into a place where you’re trying not to get on each other’s nerves and find out what works as a democratic whole. I think this record is a true representation of us striving for that, to be better, and to get to the point as well, which is…” Jenny Lee shouts the rest of her bandmate’s sentence over the din of a passing lorry: “… pretty hard to do sometimes. This record is definitely getting to the point quicker than we have in the past, but getting to that point is still sort of time consuming and tedious. Then again, we want it to sound and feel just right – everyone has to be happy.”
In person, Warpaint’s natural chemistry suggests they’re collectively in that place – defying the bad hand they’ve been dealt by the air luggage Gods on opening night, backstage the quartet lift the mood by spontaneously breaking into song while The Skinny’s photographer snaps away. On record, where darker moods intertwine with this easy elegance, it’s a different story. Take the sinister gang chorus to Disco//very, where the album’s vaunted rap influence announces itself the loudest. ‘Don’t you battle, we’ll kill you,” shrieks Jenny Lee out in front. ‘Rip you up and tear you in two.’ “That song’s a free for all; it’s very bass and drums,” she says. “We wanted to have everybody singing. I wrote the first verse, Theresa wrote the second, Emily took the third. All three of our verses were very spontaneous and spoke to where we were all individually coming from at that point in time. Speaking for myself, that song’s like a rowdy child that had too much sugar. It’s like a hip-hop song. Someone said to me that it sounds really aggro and angry, I know it probably does, but it’s coming from a very child-like innocent place.”
Since the Cyrus vs O’Connor debate recently gave new voice to the seemingly immortal topic of what constitutes a righteous feminine representation on planet pop, the elephant in the room inevitably stumbles into our conversation. Jenny Lee lets out a pre-emptive scream and hands the baton to a grinning Stella. “There’s all these small tangents and decisions some artists must have to make all the time, especially in the pop world. We’re not even in that universe. If we were to do something provocative it would be of our own volition. We’d make a decision to be disgusting, or be really sexual, or even really prudish. We wouldn’t be swayed by what our managers or anyone else thinks we have to do. Luckily, we’re not that kind of band or people.”
Warpaint have undoubtedly clung to their own creative vision without tuning into any external expectations. “We don’t pay any attention to them,” Jenny Lee starts. “I think people, even back in the day, would ask ‘how does it feel to be an all-girl band?' The truth is we don’t care. Whether we’re all-boy, girl, dog or monkey, it doesn’t matter; we’re just there playing music together.” Stella's chuckling again: “I’m just picturing an all-dog band here…”
Presented from the outset as a band playing primarily for itself, have Warpaint’s aspirations changed since The Fool went down smooth – do they consider themselves lifers? “For sure,” Jenny Lee nods without hesitation. “I think all of the decisions we make relate to that,” Stella elaborates. “We don’t want to be a flash in the pan, and we want to be able to dictate what we do."
Fragments of their DNA may be in thrall to a treasure trove of guitar and electronic music’s past, but Warpaint offer a compelling case for its future. There’s a sense they’re aiming for sustainability on their own terms rather than disposable superstar status. What might they consider a model career to be? Jenny Lee chews on the question and clears her throat. “I think Radiohead’s a pretty damn good example of a band that, from day one, has just done whatever they wanted, managed to take it to the top and they’ve stayed there. No matter what the fuck they do. People are always listening and watching and they’ve still managed to stay true to themselves. That’s the best example I can think of it. Now, I’m not saying we want to be Radiohead, but it’s a good ballpark.”
As Warpaint step into the night, with a parting promise that we’ll be seeing a lot more of them in 2014, earlier gags about leaving the venue without their laminates are punished when they can’t actually get back into their own gig. But if they’re already halfway to winning the battle for Britain, it’s a safe bet they can take the bouncer.