Warpaint doesn’t care what you think. Over the course of 12-plus years, the Los Angeles quartet has worked to refine their genre-busting brand of moody, atmospheric rock without a care for much outside of their own creative impulses. Backed by the ride-or-die solidarity of a street gang and an occasional assist from studio magicians such as Flood and Nigel Goodrich, they’ve been able to do it all without compromise.
After taking most of 2015 off to work on individual projects, the foursome of Stella Mozgawa, Emily Kokal, Theresa Wayman and Jenny Lee Lindberg resurfaced earlier this year with Heads Up—their third full-length release for Rough Trade Records.
Self-produced in conjunction with longtime friend and collaborator Jacob Bercovici, the album features some of Warpaint’s most pop-influenced material to date (“New Song,” “Heads Up,” “Whiteout”), but also some of their strongest. It additionally serves as the band’s first product of a recording process that didn’t involve all four members sitting in a room together.
Coupled with the year off to work on solo projects, the band’s newfound autonomy could have signaled unseen strife behind the scenes. But instead of being a sign of implosion or the subtext of division in the camp, drummer/keyboardist/programmer Mozgawa says it was simply a much-needed step in the right direction.
“We’ve basically developed a new muscle,” she tells CityBeat by phone from her L.A. home. “The four of us coming up with ideas in a room together, talking about them and having to try every single one is very time consuming. I think we’ve transcended any of those old energy blockages. We just decided to make the album we wanted to hear, go with the method that was naturally occurring and deal with all the other shit later.”
That naturally occurring method meant that when Mozgawa was helping Lindberg record her now year-old solo album, switching gears to bang out a few ideas for Warpaint was encouraged. And while Kokal was recording with Saul Williams or Wayman was dividing her time between her own solo album and new trio BOSS, Mozgawa was free to record with Kurt Vile, Kim Gordon, Jagwar Ma or any other collaboration that helped her stay creatively engaged.
“You’re constantly learning things you’re going to use,” Mozgawa says. “It’s just this beautiful, swirly pattern of activity. Everything just feels a bit clearer now in terms of the way we do things.”
And that “shit” part Mozgawa says they had to deal with later? It isn’t really a shit part at all. Their new tasks are defined by a band working to implement the best of their divergent ideas and whole-heartedly participating in the constant process of refinement. With everyone working smarter and not harder, morale is up.
“Action breeds enthusiasm,” says Mozgawa. “And being involved in that world, perfecting your craft and working on it every day allows you to do more things. It allows you to be enthusiastic about what’s coming next because you’re honing skills and ideas. And I don’t think it’s wise, unless you really, really need it, to take too much of a break.”
Warpaint’s new methodology also influenced the band’s decision to forego bringing in another big-name producer and instead turn to longtime band collaborator Bercovici to help them guide Heads Up.
The L.A.-based producer and bass/ synth player in Julian Casablancas kknd The Voidz has a long history with the band. He produced their self-released 2008 debut EP, Exquisite Corpse, as well as a pair of David Bowie and Duran Duran covers that made their way onto compilation albums.
Although Mozgawa didn’t join the band until after Exquisite Corpse was done, she still considers Bercovici an integral part of their history.
“He’s a friend,” she says. “And creatively, he is the one who was the catalyst for Warpaint getting out of the garage and putting something to tape. That’s a really beautiful achievement. He really is like the fifth member of our band.”
It’s unlikely that the next time Warpaint releases new music they’ll be a quintet. But then again, the two steadfast rules for this group are that creativity is encouraged and explored, and nothing is set in stone. As they move through their second decade together, adhering to those rules continues to bring positive returns and the kind of steadfast reinvestment that breeds longevity.
“The thing that I love so much about being in this band,” says Mozgawa, “is that we start from scratch every time. Even though the way it ends up may sound like something you’ve heard before, or is influenced by any number of different styles, ultimately, we just play our own individual interpretation of what our music should sound like in the moment.
“For better or worse, that’s what we do,” she adds. “It’s never ‘let’s make a punk record or let’s make a disco record.’ And to me, it’s so much cooler that way. It’s pure.”
Originally published in San Diego CityBeat