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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 3.31.11

Growing Up in Public

Evolutionary gradualism

By Rick Levin

Four very talented women who communicate telepathically in a quadrilateral universe of their own peculiar making comprise Warpaint, an L.A.-based pop-drone-jam band with deep roots in Eugene. Like the intricate gears that tick-tock the hands of a clock, Warpaint creates the illusion of times sound through the smooth grinding and purposeful revolution of individually meshing parts. Their songs ‹ at once gauzy, aquatic, poetic, razor sharp and seductively dangerous ‹ are the outcome of that human machinery working its way through contradiction and concession, thesis and antithesis. Warpaint makes music to dream on, fuck to, collapse upon, drift away with. They are theory brought to life, or reality put to sleep. A dream dreaming itself awake.

In the alley with Warpaint ‹ Jenny Lindberg (left), Emily Kokal, theresa Wayman and Stella Mozgawa. Photo by todd cooper
Photo by trask bedortha
Warpaint at Wow Hall, march 17: (from top) Theresa Wayman, Emily Kokal, Jenny Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa
Photos by todd cooper

Warpaint is guitarist Emily Kokal, guitarist Theresa Wayman, bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg and drummer Stella Mozgawa. All four of them sing ‹ beautifully, as though born to it like sisters. Kokal and Wayman, friends since they were 11 years old, grew up in Eugene; as Kokal joked at the bands March 17 WOW Hall show, øFifty percent of Warpaint is from Eugene." So, in the tradition of uplift narratives, this is a story of local girl makes good, times two.

Because Warpaint is in that fizzy, heady first stage of an upward trajectory toward the constellation of Big Recognition, shooting off sparks that have landed burning on the cover of NME (øBest Live Band Youll See All Year"), in the pages of Spin, Beat and Pitchfork, and on BBC Radios øSound of 2011" most promising new artists playlist. The video for øUndertow," the first single off their new full-length, The Fool, has received 1.2 million-plus hits on YouTube, and the week of Nov. 13 the album reached No. 4 on Billboards øHeatseekers" chart and No. 26 on the list of top-selling indie albums. In music reviews, critics are starting to use Warpaint as an adjective to describe what other bands sound like.

The Fool, released late last year on Rough Trade, is a spiked lullaby of an album ‹ a hypnotic collection of guitar-driven songs that soar and dip on angelic harmonies, sometimes deconstructing into jarring tempo changes and martial beats, sometimes walking a serrated edge of sonic squelch before flying off into a gorgeous chromatic cloud of twining, twinning horizontal guitar lines. Warpaints music is visceral, cinematic, oceanic, sepia-tinged. The lyrics are a house haunted by ghosts of love, of longing and repudiation.û

The best Warpaint album, however, is the one they havent made yet.

Being longtime Eugene gadabouts, Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman ask me to meet the band at Sweet Life, where I find them surrounded by a throng of family and friends. The table is a carnage of coffee mugs and plates sprinkled with crumbs and hunks of frosting. I ask Kokal and Wayman how it feels to be home. øI have so much Oregon pride," Kokal says. øI love it here. I love being from here."

Hang out with Warpaint for any length of time and you quickly realize that these women are tight ‹ as in blood-pact tight, in like Flynn, sisterly, connected. Often this sort of kinetic synergy can be off-putting for outsiders, but not so with Warpaint. Theyre not cliquey or condescending. In person, I found their collective closeness touching. They exude a sweet-silly charm that belies the aural spookiness of Warpaints music.

øA word or a look can send any of us into hysterics," says drummer Stella Mozgawa. øIt really is a band of goofballs. Its a nice contrast to how serious the music is. There really is too much to laugh at."

Its not such a cognitive cramp, really, to contemplate Warpaint as a band of goofballs. Laughter, after all, is organic, and I can think of no better way to describe Warpaint ‹ organic, as in naturally occurring, alive and additive free, a single organism sprung among the various elements of its surroundings. From the ethereal unity of their sound, to the arc of their success, to the dynamic interplay that defines the band, Warpaint is a singularly unified organism, intrinsically greater than the sum of its parts.

øIt was really meant to be," says Wayman of the bands current incarnation. øI dont really know what that means, but thats how it felt."

Despite all the heated ølook what I found" hollering of the music press, Warpaint is far from a new band. They formed in 2004, went through several incarnations ‹ at one point, bassist Jenny Lee Lindbergs sister, Shannyn Sossamon, was on board ‹ and self-released a critically acclaimed EP, Exquisite Corpse, that was re-issued internationally by Manimal Vinyl in 2008. When Mozgawa joined the band in late 2009, everything finally fell into place.

Unlike most bands these days, then, Warpaint was not stamped, sealed and shrink-wrapped overnight like some demographically targeted commodity readymade for the kids. Artistically, theyve been patient, allowing their sound and their songs to germinate over time, and the bands popularity has been a slow burn. Their gradual climb to recognition is something rare, almost extinct in todays interwebbed music industry, where opportunity knocks once and the door slams shut. Instead, Warpaints success follows the model of such indie pioneers as R.E.M. and the Replacements. In the DIY lexicon of punk, aint nobody tellin Warpaint what to do. The game is on their terms.

øIts old school," bassist Jenny Lindberg says of Warpaints unhurried development. øIm happy its gotten to that point."

øTheres a vulnerability about growing up in public," says singer/songwriter Kokal. øYou learn how to use that."

This sense of gradual artistic germination extends to every aspect of Warpaints music. Often, their songs evolve from extended jam sessions, with structures and melodies repeated and repeated until suddenly clicking into place. øYou can feel the conversation is happening and were all communicating," says Kokal of such moments. øI dont think we have a process of intentional songwriting."

At other times, Kokal or Wayman will come in with a song more or less ready to go, only to have it deconstructed, reiterated and revised several times before it feels right. Constant change is Warpaints musical currency. Wayman refers to this creative process as a øbraid" of ideas involving every members input. øThe songwriting process is really democratic," she says. øThis happens a lot, just kind of stitching things together."

Technically speaking, The Fool ‹ a record thats making a lot of critical top tens right now ‹ is Warpaintsû full-length debut, though its hardly a ønew" album. øA lot of these songs developed over six years," Wayman explains. In the studio, the tracks were laid down individually, with Lindberg and Mozgawa recording the rhythm parts first, followed by guitars and then those lovely vocals. The sound is crystalline and contagious; with each successive listen, The Fool becomes richer, more complex and compelling, unpeeling layers upon layers like the skin of an onion. The album as a whole evokes the spectral atmospherics of Pink Floyd-meets-Sonic Youth-meets-Motown-meets-The Ronettes, by way of lesser-known bands like Hugo Largo and Helium.

øIt sounds great when youre stoned," Lindberg says of The Fool. Shes proud of the album, though she says that in concert the songs are øone hundred thousand times better than our record." Lindberg ‹ who grew up listening to ølots of old school R&B" along with such retro/recherch¹ artists as the Cure, Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins and Kate Bush ‹ says that the best way to experience Warpaint is live, where the bands dynamic fosters an explosive tension that constantly pushes songs over their own borders, into new sonic territories. øIm a firm believer in always changing it up and doing something new," she says

According to Lindberg, this productive tension derives in part from the opposing but not opposed poles of Warpaints two halves: namely, the more ethereal, jammy, songwriterly Eugene vibe of Kokal and Wayland up against the edgier rhythmic pairing of the Australian-born Mozgawa and Lindberg, who grew up in the shitsville of Reno (the øbiggest little city in the world"). Lindberg, who sports a Minor Threat sticker on the flipside of her Rickenbacker, says that she and Mozgawa represent the tougher, rougher side of Warpaint, anchoring the gorgeously cosmic flights of Wayland and Kokal.


The Future According to Warpaint

øMy dream is to open up for Hall and Oates," says Lindberg. Were sitting outside on the wooden ramp behind WOW Hall, just before Warpaints set. Its cold and drizzly. We start singing øRich Girl," but everything falls apart after the line, øIts a bitch, girl." I realize shes sort of serious about opening up for Hall and Oates. How fucking cool is that?

Aside from the possibility of opening for the yacht-rock gods responsible for øI Cant Go for That (No Can Do)" and øManeater," Warpaint will start an extensive European tour on May 11 that includes shows in Manchester, Dublin, Leeds, Paris, Barcelona and Oslo. For the first part of the tour the band will be opening for Gorilla, and they will also be hitting the Stag and Dagger Festival, the Primavera Sound Fest, the Glastonbury Festival and the Reading Festival, where their Northwest forbears Nirvana broke punk and changed the world in 1991.

Lindberg says that once the current round of touring is over, she cant wait to get down to the business of writing and recording the next Warpaint album. øWe have so many ideas we just cant wait to write," she says. øWe have so many things that we all want to do individually. We just want to keep evolving."

To a person, Warpaint shares this excitement. Its not that they arent happy with The Fool. They are, and for good reason. Its a great record. But ‹ getting back to the idea of the organic ‹ The Fool is the quintessential studio album, recorded in parts, separately, and polished to a gleam. Warpaint wants to record the next album live, with all of four members in the same room playing at the same time, channeling that secret language. They want the dynamic laid bare, open and exposed like a raw nerve. This is what they are. This is what they do.

And this is why the best Warpaint album doesnt exist ‹ yet. Kokal says that, opposed to the exacting pressure that brought about the new record, the band now wants to bring the energy of playing live into the studio.

øIts really exciting to me," she explains. øBecause of the rushed process, theres so much we havent tapped out on yet. I feel really proud of The Fool, and really excited about the next album.

øIts all about how much can you really remain true to the moment," Kokal says, smiling.