The Vows of Warpaint

Published January 22, 2014

ABOVE: WARPAINT’S (L-R) STELLA MOZGAWA, THERESA WAYMAN, JENNY LEE LINDBERG, AND EMILY KOKAL. PHOTO COURTESY OF MIA KIRBY.

Despite the confrontational name, the only thing Warpaint is gearing up for is tearing down pre-conceived expectations of what women in rock bands are “supposed” to be like. The Los Angeles-based foursome—comprised of guitarist and vocalists Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman, drummer Stella Mozgawa, and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg—wield hallucinatory effect pedal guitars, glossy electronica rhythms, and swelling, feminist-tinged lyrics as weapons against misogyny.

Fittingly, Warpaint’s self-titled follow-up to 2010’s superb debut The Fool is unflinchingly rooted in alluring catch-and-release swathes of complementary ambience and noise. Yet the hypnotic Warpaint finds the ladies meditative, evidenced by the panged love letter “Love Is To Die” and the poignant closer “Son.” We spoke to guitarist Emily Kokal about how being in a band is like marriage, Myspace, and the challenges in fostering female friendships.

PAULA MEJIA: You’re about to kick off the first leg of your tour. Where are you headed to?

EMILY KOKAL: New York, I think we’re doing a secret show. Maybe a late-night show. From there we go to London, the UK for a couple of shows, then Laneway festival in Australia. That’s going to be fun. Then a little bit of Asia, then Europe again, then home before SXSW. So a full around-the-world one.

MEJIA: What’s the reception like in Asia to your music?

KOKAL: Pretty… fanatical? And not in any kind of dissing way, it’s really fun and exciting. They’re really into it, and I think they’re just so grateful you’d come all the way, and you can really feel the gratitude for it. Same with Russia. They’re already really dedicated fans. They try to be as active as possible through the Internet and other mediums, that’s how they connect to us.

MEJIA: It’s amazing to me how the Internet allows for these discourses to happen.

KOKAL: It’s interesting, too, because it’s unifying the gaps in culture and unifying the youth of the world. They are relating in avenues of how they discover music, and I think it’s closing the gap in feeling so separate.

MEJIA: Agreed. But it can be such a double-edged thing. Not having that barrier lets people say whatever, which can be positive but also breeds hostility.

KOKAL: Yeah. You’re able to be anonymous and so your dark side can come out. But maybe that’s to be expected as new changes happen, because it’s how we are starting to raise our children, too. [laughs]

MEJIA: Our generation grew up with different mediums. The new generation will only have the Internet to reference, which is insane to think about.

KOKAL: I know. It’s a quick progression to everything also being invisible. This information—the gravity of information—being completely invisible.

MEJIA: You guys came up when the Internet and music were really merging. Has the online sphere has been constructive or crippling for women making music?

KOKAL: I can attest, at least with our band, that a huge part of how we got started was through Myspace. And a big part of that was fans hearing about us through the fact that John Frusciante mixed our EP. It’s pretty cool to hear that people liked that mix. We weren’t selling our Exquisite Corpse EP anywhere but Amoeba [Records]. So we had people from the Philippines and Germany buying our album. It went to like, number four on the charts? So we got all this attention from Myspace kids buying our album, because it was the only place they could get it. This was before a lot of people in the U.S. even knew who we were. I would say it really helped us, helped get the attention of Rough Trade.

But I think that it’s a really excellent time to be a woman in music. A lot of the past was women fighting to be where we are now. Every once in a while I’ll get the, “Oh, you’re a pretty good guitar player for a girl,” bullshit like that. But that’s all changing. Certain outfits and avenues of standard rock music have been exhausted, so there’s a definite new life for that. And one way of doing that is women playing together. It has a totally different feel than men playing together. If people like you, it’s a way to put yourself out there because you’re not just a four-dude rock band. [laughs] All the bands that are getting attention, like Haim and Savages, are all performing different styles of music but are filling that same gap.

MEJIA: I keep hearing people say things like, 2013 was the year of women in rock music. But women have been making excellent rock music for decades…

KOKAL: Absolutely. I know.

MEJIA: At least these excellent musicians are coming to the surface—like Grass Widow, Potty Mouth, Sadie of Speedy Ortiz.

KOKAL: I don’t know any of the bands you just named.

MEJIA: Really? I think you’d dig them a lot!

KOKAL: Let me write them down. [pauses] What was the first, Potty Mouth?

MEJIA: Yeah. They’re a really young, irreverent all-girl punk band. They’re really young too, immensely talented.

KOKAL: That’s what is kind of cool. As much that press is so kind of archaic, ultimately people need things to be banged over their head or obvious before they even take interest. By traveling in places like Russia, we come across girls that say, “Hey, I play in a band with my friends. I try to do these things because of you guys.” That’s just happening with all of these bands. That’s what the time is coming to, which is pretty cool.

MEJIA: I’m sure that’s incredibly rewarding to hear that from young fans.

KOKAL: A big reminder, too. If I’m complaining and bitching about something, it’s a reminder that there’s something happening for other people through what I’m doing.

MEJIA: If you’ve changed one person’s perspective, you’ve succeeded. What music was memorable to you growing up?

KOKAL: I listened to my mom’s records. A large part of it was Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, those San Francisco bands that she grew up listening to. She’s from there. And Talking Heads. When I was young, one of my stepsisters, in the ’80s, was really into U2, INXS and weird radio pop rock. [laughs]

Naturally, I also got into Mariah Carey, En Vogue, Salt-n-Pepa. Basically anything on the radio, I listened to it all the time. The Top Nine at 9 would be like, Color Me Badd, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I also listened to a lot of Cranberries. I kind of listened to whatever anyone gave me. If people gave me a CD, if my mom played it. I absorbed it all.

MEJIA: It’s been a while since you released The Fool, in 2010. Seems like you had a long time to sit with these songs. How does it feel listening to the record after the fact?

KOKAL: It’s always a new and different experience! [laughs] Sometimes I can be really critical about fixing the parts, so I gave myself a lot of space after we mixed it. For a long time all I could hear was how things could have been different. But as a whole, listening to it now, when it comes on, I appreciate the experience and the moment in time we made it. I love the idea that you make these relics of moments of your life and you have something to show for it—a lot of life flicks by without being recorded. I like idea that we can keep moving and making, and this is a nice marker of where we were, and how we’ve evolved, and how we’ve reacted to touring all this time for The Fool, and how that album sounded and felt to play live. I like what it represents. It feels like it has opened a door for us to keep exploring new territory.

MEJIA: I love what you said about it being a marker in your development, both as people and musically. How do you think you’ve evolved since you first started to record?

KOKAL: I think everybody has refined—maybe even defined—what they’re interested in and how they approach things. When we were younger, I think it was a little more punky, and the spirit of “Fuck it, whatever.” Part of the maturing process is really having goals of what you want to accomplish, what you want to try, how you want to try it, unifying it with each other, having the dialogue in a band and planning it. The more you’re on the same page, the music is stronger and the infrastructure is stronger as a band. We could get away with a few things when we were younger, but you have to nurture the relationship as you’re “married longer.” It goes psychologically deeper—it’s a relationship before it’s a band.

MEJIA: Right! There is often an illusion, typically among younger people, that marriage is easy. Marriage progresses from a honeymoon period to rough patches to companionship.

KOKAL: Yeah. Exactly. That’s a perfect analogy. There’s something to be said about harmony, but also discordance. I think that can have a positive effect on music. There are hundreds of bands that had the worst relationship and created the best music.

MEJIA: Part of what’s made it difficult for women to work together is the infrastructure of that design. Really knowing how to work together and share and collaborate is hard, and much of that is due to societal constraints. I think in many ways, women have put a lot of emphasis on impressing men, and not nurturing relationships with other women. Sisters, maybe. But I think there are more incidences of cattiness between women.

KOKAL: Totally. As a woman you’re trained to groom yourself to be appealing, and that’s not constructive. Female relationships are put on the back burner as a result, but can be so empowering if you nurture them.

MEJIA: Yeah. And it’s definitely a challenging thing. Going back to that conversation about women in rock we were having earlier, I think it’s a sign of the times with that opening up and those relationships getting more fortified.

KOKAL: As a band, we don’t come from trying to be appealing or “sexy.” There are a lot of bands—and I’m not dissing anyone— that talk a lot about being girls. I’m more into the idea of being ourselves and letting that speak for itself.

WARPAINT IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, PLEASE VISIT ITS WEBSITE.