Raw fish. That’s how Warpaint have chosen to celebrate the wrap of their cover photoshoot. It’s a flat 100 degrees outside – a fact made impossible to ignore by the brutal sun, which sufficiently melted everyone’s makeup off during the block-long walk to the parking lot – and we’re packed into a wooden booth as tight as a California roll.
Not that they serve those here. The spot the ladies have chosen is a downtown outpost of the Los Angeles upscale sushi empire Sugarfish, where imitation crab meat is as forbidden as cream cheese, spicy mayo, and anything tempura. It’s an institution best known for asking its customers to trust them with their selection – by way of a prefix literally called “Trust Me” – and to pay a premium for fresh fish that’s delivered daily and paired with melt-in-your-mouth rice. “Any time there’s a little celebrating I can make an excuse for it,” admits bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg, in between sips of sparkling water – her fizzy beverage competing with the shine coming off the pink crystal affixed below her right eye.
By now, 12 years into their career, trust has become second nature to Warpaint. The band, which was born out of a friendship between Lindberg, her sister Shannon and childhood choir classmates Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman, has uniquely weathered over a decade without a front person, eschewing typical band hierarchy for a democratic approach. “It’s a four-way street,” as Kokal puts it. “We can rely on each other’s strengths and part of the dynamic is leaving room for people to explore. There’s a payoff to being open to each other and sharing.”
In this moment, Kokal is sharing her plate of uni with the table, offering a piece to Lindberg, who is one course behind everyone else but unphased, distracting herself by playing with one of Wayman’s braided pigtails. The way they interact and dine together is an inspiring display of selflessness. Impressively, Kokal, Lindberg, and Wayman have managed to maintain their open structure through a series of personnel changes that eventually replaced Lindberg’s sister with Aussie drummer Stella Mozgawa in 2009. They’ve also shown plenty of people along the way – specifically pesky male journalists – that being in an all-female group is not a recipe for drama.
“We’re a microcosm of coexisting with other people,” says Kokal, before her words are playfully piled on by the other girls. “We’re a science experiment,” quips Mozgawa. “We’re a petri dish of menstruation and art combined,” concludes Wayman, politely, in between courses.
"With our other projects it’s like going out and fucking other people and coming back and saying, ‘I love you so much more!" - Stella Mozgawa
Jokes aside, there is something undeniably progressive about how they divvy up songwriting duties and instrumentals. In the past, they’ve each been slotted to specific instruments, with Kokal and Wayman handling guitar and everyone pitching in on vocals. Those roles will continue to blur when the band’s third LP Heads Up arrives next month. Beyond their signature woozy guitar hooks and gauzy vocals is an au courant post-genre exploration of the sounds they grew up hearing. As Lindberg explains, “one half of the album has more emphasis on guitar and the other has less.”
“We used to do a lot of all three of us playing guitar at the same time,” remembers Emily. “Now it’s like maybe I’ll play piano – we don’t just go to our station and do one thing.” The result is a reflection of the times, when musicians are multi-hyphenates dealing in moody atmospherics and left-of-center reworkings of mainstream trends.
For Warpaint though, their expansive new sound isn’t just trendy. Depending on your level of cynicism, it’s either a case of being consciously or unconsciously inspired by the music around them or an organic growth that began gestating well before their last album. “We all listen to dance, hip-hop, and RnB a lot so it makes sense that it would creep in there,” explains Kokal. “It’s not as subtle as it used to be.” The rap-referencing song titles could become something of a running theme. “Biggy was the last album and Dre is this album – East Coast, West Coast,” she says of the dreamy standout track named after the hip-hop producer, where her croons evaporate into breezy guitars. “This album is so rhythmic, I wanted to float on the top and belt less,” says Kokal, nearing the end of her bowl of tuna sashimi. “I knew that would be fun to perform because it’s really intense to be doing heavy belting live.”
The last time Kokal did any heavy belting was a few weeks ago when Warpaint opened for Massive Attack in London, which has become a kind of second home for the group. Their UK following is a serious rival to that of LA. Why? “I think our music has certain sensibilities – drone-y, ethereal post-punk – that’s typical of UK music, which we’ve been influenced by,” offers Kokal. “Whereas in America, we need something flashy – a lot of people who are really big in the US have a strong image, style and personality. It’s a whole package.” What they lacked for in flash at their Hyde Park gig, they made up for with a double rainbow that formed in the sky as they treated the crowd to a taste of Heads Up. “You want to see a photo?” asks Wayman. “Before my phone dies.” She whips out her iPhone and flashes a picture of their packed set, revealing one of the sharpest sets of rainbows ever taken on a camera phone.
“Will you send me that?” asks Lindberg. If a rainbow is an omen of good things to come, surely a picture of two carries some fraction of that luck, at least for the superstitious.
For a band often described as Californian, there is nothing overtly sunny, or rainbow-filled, about Warpaint’s music. Moreso, they fit into the continuum of Los Angeles artists who make music that’s as complicated as it is brooding, à la the Doors, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and N.W.A. “When we come home, instead of being hometown heroes – which we aren’t really – it’s a rest,” says Emily of being based in Los Angeles. “It’s not like we get recognised [here], which we do in London.”
The band are just about to attract a great deal of attention though. Our meeting today marks the beginning of their soon-to-be-life-dominating promo cycle for the release of Heads Up, which houses a handful of crossover alt-pop potentials like New Song, So Good, and Dre, to name a few. Up until now, Warpaint have never been a band of big moments (when asked about their best known song, the group takes a few moments to think before answering with 2010’s Undertow, a track that became a favorite among fashion designers like Preen and Doo.Ri, who sampled it in runway presentations). Rather, Warpaint have built their career on patience, trickling out an EP and a few albums over a period of time in which many bands buzzed brightly and then burnt out, giving them the rare chance to actually grow in private. “By the time we started playing shows,” remembers Kokal, “we were a really unique-sounding band because we spent a lot of time playing with no audience.”
In one way, Heads Up goes back to the beginning when shows were still new and exciting for Warpaint. “When we walked into making this album, we knew we wanted to play something dancier, faster and fun,” says Kokal. “A lot of times, people find our live shows to be exciting and our albums to be different – this album has the spirit of our live show.” The lead single New Song was quite literally born out of a live set: “We were singing about playing a new song and that’s where the line ‘You’re a New Song baby’ came from,” adds Kokal. Like By Your Side, an anthem about being with your girls, “they’re sing-a-longs.” “I definitely wanted to be more inclusive on this album,” says Kokal.
It’s notable that Heads Up is the fastest Warpaint has ever written and recorded an album. “The album mixing process was a lot less painful than other albums,” says Kokal. “If the roots come from a good place, then the tree is going to be healthy.”
Trite or not, a tree is a fitting metaphor for the band, since each member has increasingly branched out on their own over the past couple of years: Lindberg has been splitting time between her own solo project and a supergroup with Lolawolf called Crewshade, Mozgawa has lent a drumming hand to Kurt Vile and Jamie xx, Kokal released a stunning duet with Saul Williams entitled Burundi, and Wayman is in another band called BOSS. Like in any relationship, part of the recipe for keeping things healthy and exciting is finding your own independence within it. “It’s really important to have our own outlets so when we come together it’s not like ‘This is my only chance to express myself creatively.’” says Lindberg. “The other avenues help.” For Mozgawa, the relationship analogy is even more specific: “It’s like going out and fucking other people and coming back and saying, ‘I’m so much happier.’ I love you so much more! I have so many new diseases to share with you!’” she says, cracking up the whole table. “But, whether it’s music or painting, having your own time to do whatever you want contributes to being a happy person.”
“I think everyone is happier,” concludes Lindberg. “That’s a classic thing to say when you’re doing press – ‘everyone is better’. But it’s genuinely true.”
“I don’t know if most bands genuinely become better friends,” questions Theresa.
“No, but they say they are,” says Mozgawa. “And they take separate tour busses, and can’t stand the sight of each other.”
Heads Up is set for release 23 September via Rough Trade. Warpaint perform at Simple Things Festival, Bristol, 22 October