Interview: Warpaint on their writing process, new album, and playing huge music festivals

photo: Warpaint press photoOver the course of ten years and various lineup changes, Los Angeles band Warpaint has gained international attention for forays into sonic experimentation and melodic art rock. Their latest album “Warpaint,” released earlier this year, is their finest record to date: check out our review here.

The four-piece recently stopped in Denver to play the SnowBall Music Festival, and will return to Colorado this month to play Belly Up in Aspen on April 28 with James Supercave. They will also open for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds on June 24 at Denver's Buell Theatre.

OpenAir spoke with vocalist/guitarist Emily Kokal and drummer Stella Mozgawa about their newfound writing process, working with well-known music producers Flood and Nigel Godrich, and how each new tour in the States feels like “starting over.”

OPENAIR: Looking at the SnowBall lineup, a guitar band like Warpaint might seem a bit out of place underneath dance music acts like Pretty Lights and Knife Party.

EMILY KOKAL: I actually didn’t recognize a lot of bands on the bill. But we’re used to showing up and playing in all sorts of situations and it doesn’t really affect us either way.

OPENAIR: Like a lot of live dance music shows, the visuals during a Warpaint set really lend to the performance. The color palette both in the light show and on the new record’s cover gives this mysterious aura. What is the band’s philosophy on blending visual media with your music?

EMILY KOKAL: We like to create a mystique around us but also to be really raw and show who we are without shrouding ourselves in excess. We’re a really natural band and part of the performance comes from our interaction as a band together. We happen to have a good lighting guy who’s accentuating those things, but for us so much of it is about our interaction. I think that’s what the audience is really feeling.


OPENAIR: Stella, I believe it was you who said that the process of writing new album marked the first time Warpaint started composing songs together "from the ground up.” On a number of the songs from the new album, one instrument or effect will take center stage, like the bass on “Hi” or the synth on “Biggy.” Is part of your writing process to have one element take the reins and direct the song from there?

EMILY KOKAL: I think as a band collectively we all take the reins. Certain things will come to the focal point, and then that’s the hook or melody we follow. We’ve learned over time to have that conversation of when to speak and when to lay back musically. That’s the maturing process, and the album has a lot more of that. In the past we’ve thrown everything at the wall. Now there’s a dynamic shift, and we’re all in alignment with what pulls you in and what is ambient.

OPENAIR: As far as ambience, the new record has an austere post-punk sound, and I hear elements of Joy Division and The Cure. The album’s production features contributions from Flood and Nigel Godrich, who are well-known for crafting that sort of vibe with bands like Radiohead and Nick Cave. When choosing Flood and Godrich initially, was that the style you were looking to channel?

STELLA MOZGAWA: I don’t think we chose either of them to recreate any sound they’ve done before. It was basically: these guys are uber-professionals. They’re so experienced and have been in so many situations with bands that have completely different dynamics. We were looking for somebody who could be a chameleon and who can support any dynamic when it is revealed to them. Someone who was a total professional and sensitive to what we were doing, instead of coming in and reassembling all the elements into something they were familiar or comfortable with. It’s more of a push-pull relationship with someone we could trust.

EMILY KOKAL: As far as Flood lending his touch the way he does to those other albums, he’s very chameleon-like in the pre-production and the way we were setting up to record. When it comes to being an engineer and mixer, he’s an amazing mixologist. There were a lot of frequencies and space and width he added that, had we been left to our own devices, I don’t think we would have done. I think we would have put everything way up front to represent each person in the song as an individual. There’s something to be said about doing that, but he added texture, space, and distance and quieting down some of the elemental parts of the song. That ambience became a definite part of our album.

OPENAIR: Your set at SnowBall wraps up the first leg of the tour in support of “Warpaint.” Coming up you’ve got appearances at huge summer music festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and Primavera Sound. Some of these you’ve played before, but does it feel like Warpaint is taking a step forward as a band by featuring prominently at these huge events?

STELLA MOZGAWA: Maybe in America. In the U.K. and Europe our presence feels steadier and a bit higher. That presence is more incremental in the U.S. with the more you get involved in those festivals. We have played those big shows before, but over the course of a two year period, where as this is all crammed into 2014.

EMILY KOKAL: We just did a seven week tour playing in Australia, Europe, the U.K., and Asia. In those places, we get a hypey vibe and play really big shows. Then we come home to the U.S. and it's like we spend so much time elsewhere that we don’t really have a chance to totally sink into our own home. So it’s like always starting over.

What was really cool is we played a lot of shows in the last two weeks in the US. Some of the smaller shows were pretty small and intimate, but the audiences were so amazing. It’s a sort of culture we don’t feel [outside the U.S.] even when we play big shows. Its obvious the U.S. has a unique culture that we haven’t tapped into, but it is our audience in a lot of ways. So we had some of our best audiences in a long time in those small venues.