Love Is to Dance:
Warpaint Gets a Fresh Coat
My first experience seeing Warpaint came in October 2014 when they were touring in support of their eponymous second full-length album. I’d been entranced by that record since its release earlier that year, adrift in the gentle flow of its shadowy tones and enchanting voices. There wasn’t much pep to it, mind you. Produced by seasoned British mood enhancer Flood, it radiated more of a chill vibe – drowsy, mysterious, minimalist and ethereal. Its most engaging, uptempo track, “Keep It Healthy,” brushes across your suddenly tingling skin like a flickering phantom, its meditations unfazed by your presence. “Disco//very” isn’t very disco in the Tony Manero sense but rather chugs along detached and trancelike as if it’s some female spellcaster counterpoint to PiL’s “Death Disco.” “Love Is to Die,” another of Warpaint’s striking standouts, is a beautiful wisp of a willow swaying in a mushroom haze. And those are the upbeat numbers!
So I didn’t exactly expect to be moving to the music very much upon entering the Variety Playhouse that evening. But Warpaint proved to be a far more fun, engaging, energized outfit than I would have ever imagined. I went in a fan, but I emerged two hours later with a newfound appreciation for their skills, not to mention heightened anticipation for where they’d go next, in a musical sense.
Two years and assorted side gigs and projects later, Warpaint LP number three, Heads Up (Rough Trade), fully delivers on the formidable live promise they displayed that night in 2014. Their music still haunts like a memory that you can’t fully pinpoint, like you’re unsure if it’s real or you dreamt it. It still sounds like Warpaint – but with a fresh coat, a refreshing coat, where there’s a pronounced pop undercurrent (sometimes overcurrent) to the proceedings and, y’know, you can dance if you wanna. Every member’s individual instruments – Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman’s subtly shimmering guitars; Jenny Lee Lindberg’s bold, free-spirited basslines; and Stella Mozgawa’s on-point drumming – are more clearly defined this time, taking charge of their own presence with melodies bouncing off counter-melodies as their captivating vocals intertwine and bewilder. And with the title track and, especially, “New Song,” an insanely catchy earworm accurately described as “a pop song, but…a totally weird pop song” by its main writer Lindberg, Warpaint have made their most accessible album to date, all while retaining the band’s identity. It’s absolutely one of this year’s most essential albums.
Hoping to discuss such matters, I recently managed to catch Lindberg briefly on her cellphone before Warpaint’s set at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris as they plowed through a European tour…
I’ve always loved bands with prominent basslines, where the bass is a lead instrument with its own melodies. You really shine on this album, with more variety at play. There’s a song or two that almost have a dub feel to them, even.
“Yeah, totally! But to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think that we ever go into the room and go, ‘Let’s make a song that sounds like this.’ It just happens. And most times…it never turns out the way we were intending it to, anyway.”
When Warpaint started in 2004, were the chemistry and sound there right from the get go?
“Definitely. The very first time we ever played together and got in a room, we were all really pleased with what we were hearing. It was like, ‘Let’s just mess around and play and jam out and see what happens.’ We didn’t have to talk about anything – we were just communicating through music. It felt really intuitive. We were all really patient for a really long time, sort of discovering what our sound was. No one was forcing anything.”
You put out a solo album last year, Right On!, a lot of which sounds like a stylistic precursor to much of the direction taken on Heads Up.
“Definitely, even if it wasn’t conscious. I think whatever we’re all doing on our own, we all sort of bring whatever our tastes are, our flavors are, to the band. And that’s kind of what makes our sound original and unique. Obviously we can get on the same page and we like a lot of the same things, but where we’re all coming from is slightly different. Which is cool.”
I understand the band took a different route for the songwriting for Heads Up, in that you all wrote separately and brought those songs, or parts of songs, in to the rest of the band, instead of just jamming on ideas as in the past.
“Yeah, I mean, we did a little bit of everything. Some of the songs were written before we even went into the studio – we wrote them all together in a room, jamming it out and figuring out what the changes would be. Some songs were written solely by one person at their homes, or wherever they made it, and we kept the demos and then had people put stuff on top of it. A lot of the stuff was actually written like that. We weren’t sitting over each other’s shoulders. We gave each other a lot of freedom. The thing that we did the most, I would say, that was the most foreign to us, was going in the studio and just being me with [producer] Jake [Berkovici], or Stella with Jake, or Emily with Jake, or Theresa with Jake. Just having one-on-one time with him to write your parts, get in there and figure it out.”
“New Song” is incredible. It really sticks in your head. You brought that one in to the band?
“I brought the instrumentation in. The original version that I had, the bass is the same, the time is the same, everything’s the same there. The drums have been embellished, and then there’s a couple of things that I had on there that we took out so the girls could put in something else. So it was a fully written song, the guitar parts, everything was done. It really just needed vocals, but it wasn’t even necessarily going to be a Warpaint song. It was going to be something I just did, and then I showed the girls and they loved it. I just wanted to make a dance song, And when writing it, I loved everything about it, and there was nothing that was stepping outside of my comfort level. Obviously stepping out of your comfort zone is good to do – it’s nice to stretch yourself. But what I mean is that we never put anything out into the world that we don’t actually love… And I think it goes really well on the album, too. If you listen to the whole album, there’s a couple of songs for each dance genre of music, basically. I think it’s a dance album, but it’s not just a techno album, or just a disco album, or a reggae album, or hip-hop album, or R&B album. It’s got a little bit of everything.”
I would imagine that these songs come across really well in concert.
“I would say [more so than] any of the others, besides the first record, because we were playing those songs before we recorded them, and for so long anyways. Obviously the more you play songs, the more they just become something different, or they really come into themselves. And this time around it’s been really super easy and natural for us to transpose the songs for the live show. Like, right away. It’s not taking six to eight months into the tour for the songs to finally find themselves. Which has happened in the past, at least in my opinion. I guess there’s an art to making a set list, and putting on a good show. Figuring out what kind of journey you want to have. It’s nice having another album to work with – especially this one, ‘cause it’s definitely more high energy. Oftentimes in the past, we would make a song, and then when we played it live we would change it, because something felt like it was missing, or it was a little lackluster, or whatever. We don’t want to be putting ourselves to sleep.”
Ever since the first album, your albums and singles have been coming at an increasingly frequent pace. Have you just become more prolific?
“Yeah. And I think just after doing it for [so long], you know, it’s our livelihood. I guess the more we keep doing it, the more we’re allowed the time and space to keep doing it. It’s like, well, this is our job, so let’s take it seriously. This is our craft. And writing and making music all the time is really good fun! I’m grateful that we’re still doing it, and we’ve stuck it out. Because it’s not easy being in a band. And 2017, it’ll be 13 years we’ve been a band. I’m proud of us. I’m proud of us for staying in there.”
Warpaint will take command of Terminal West on Thursday, Nov. 10th. Goldensuns and Vs. Colour will open.
Photo by Mia Kirby.