Warpaint’s Theresa Wayman talks to George Morahan about sexism in music, the band’s countless lineup changes and life in Los Angeles
At a time when bands can materialise one instant and fade the next, LA’s Warpaint are a pleasantly long-winded anomaly. Having been formed in 2004 on Valentine’s Day by childhood best friends Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman (along with bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg and drummer Shannyn Sossamon), Warpaint had to weather six years of perpetual uncertainty before the release of their debut album, The Fool, in October of last year.
As the band’s lead guitarist and co-vocalist, Wayman has been a constant presence, and her faith in Warpaint is slowly being rewarded. “When we first played together as a band – me, Emily, Jen and Shannyn – in 2004, I had this feeling that this was exactly right, that this was perfect.” Their chemistry was immediately apparent, but it’s been a tumultuous few years for the quartet.
“We’ve split up a couple of times, one time for almost a year. We’ve also had a lot of lineup changes.” Sossamon had been in and out of the band numerous times before finally deciding to focus on her acting career and her indecision took its toll on Wayman. “I was devastated when Shannyn left the first time, because the band meant the world to me.” Nevertheless the band soldiered on, having to reconfigure their songs with a drum-machine in Sossamon’s absences.
Yet stability was not ensured once Sossamon had permanently left the band; the core trio were joined by three more drummers before current member Stella Mozgawa took her place behind the drum kit. She joined only three weeks before the band started recording The Fool and Wayman is convinced that the lineup is now firmly entrenched.
“When Stella first played with us, I got that feeling again,” she says. “It was like somebody wanted this project to win. The band needed to be complete and we’d either be lucky enough to find that person or not and we were lucky enough. To me that means this was supposed to happen.”
The confidence Wayman has in her band is quite astonishing, so much so that it could be perceived as delusionary. “Throughout the last few years we’ve all had jobs, but I never doubted the band. Honestly, I’ve never thought it wasn’t something that could go somewhere. If we could get across what we heard and felt, and play that music, there would be people who liked us.” Such persistence was clearly needed to withstand all the difficulties Warpaint have faced.
It helped that the band was built on such a rock-solid foundation as that of the friendship between Kokal and Wayman, who have been near-inseparable since meeting in their home state of Oregon at the age of eleven. The pair spontaneously moved to Los Angeles after a brief time in New York. There they met their future bassist Lindberg, who herself had recently moved from Nevada, and the basis of Warpaint was forged. ‘Shadows’, a highlight from The Fool, recounts Wayman’s difficulty adjusting to life in LA.
“It can get pretty brutal; there’s constant noise and cars everywhere and there’s always helicopters overhead searching for someone who’s on the run from the cops. It wears on you.” An intense schedule has kept the band from home, but also ensures that they remember LA’s more positive aspects. “There’s some really great things about L.A.; the sunsets, the weather, there’s a certain smell that reminds me of when I moved there that made me so excited about life – not that I’m not any more. And the palm trees, I love palm trees.”
“Throughout the last few years we’ve all had jobs, but I never doubted the band. Honestly, I’ve never thought it wasn’t something that could go somewhere”
The prolonged delay between the band’s formation and the release of their debut EP, Exquisite Corpse, allowed them plenty of time to tinker with and develop their sound. They certainly cut a unique figure in the modern musical climate, propelling a blend of ethereal, yet assuredly experimental art rock.
An amalgamation of wide-ranging influences can be held partly responsible for the Warpaint sound (“I’ve always been more inspired by more electronic music and Björk. I was really inspired by her for a long time. She was the reason I wanted to make music”) as well as for Wayman’s style of guitar playing (“I wasn’t really into riff-y, jam-y stuff. I loved Modest Mouse and the way they play guitar”).
However, they are a startlingly distinctive entity and their uniqueness has only been magnified by the long gestation period between formation and the release of their two records. A song such as ‘Warpaint’ (named after the band, not vice versa) has had time to evolve naturally, growing with the band. As a result, it became a rite of passage for all potential Warpaint drummers.
“The funny thing is we didn’t call it ‘Warpaint’ because it had been through every incarnation of Warpaint. We realised later how funny it is that that song had seen every version of Warpaint. That one was hard to figure out with [Stella], it took a little while. But that song has always been hard to pin down.”
It would be a difficult test for any prospective auditionee at nearly six minutes, almost schizophrenic in its range of speed and tone and the best crystallisation of Warpaint’s sound so far. Wayman proclaims: “I love music that travels and has a journey without restriction and yet still demands my attention. But I love the three-minute pop song as well.” But the decision to create such a lengthy song wasn’t a conscious one. “I didn’t even realise we were doing six-minute songs until the record was done and I was looking at the times of the songs,” she laughs.
The prog-like length of Warpaint tracks is a trend carried over from Exquisite Corpse standout, ‘Beetles’ – which takes on many fascinating incarnations during its seven minutes – and has only been nurtured by their label, Rough Trade, which has been home to indie deities from The Smiths to The Libertines. “That’s why Rough Trade is so amazing. They didn’t see us and think ‘this band is great and I’m gonna sign them because I know how to make them better’, that’s not their prerogative. Their perspective is more ‘I like what you’re doing, so keep doing it. We trust you.’”
The loose and freeform Warpaint aesthetic is somewhat deceptive however; each song flits from one idea to the next in quick succession, but they’re all underpinned with great intricacy and texture. Their biggest song is ‘Undertow’, which (at least musically) is probably the tamest of all their tracks to date. Lyrically however, it is probably their most emotionally direct, portraying a difficult relationship from Wayman’s past.
Its content proves appreciably hard for her to articulate. “It was coming from a personal place,” she recalls. “I was really conflicted about a relationship I was in; I was torn about whether or not to continue in it. I was looking at what was going on with me emotionally and how I felt I had pulled someone into my world and decided I didn’t really want them, and then the pain surrounding that,” she stammers.
According to Wayman, the song, and Warpaint’s music in general, lies directly at odds with how the band interact: “Our music is where we get out a lot of those more sinister feelings, because in our daily life we’re really goofy and we laugh a lot,” SHE SAYS. “[Undertow] is kind of translating one of those moments where you’re in a tough place where you don’t know what decision to make and you don’t want to hurt anybody.”
Naturally, the question of being in an all-female guitar band comes up. At best, their gender makes Warpaint stand out and gives pesky journalists, such as O-two, an angle to work with. At worst, it openly subjects the band to annoyingly patronising attitudes. If anything, the band see it as a challenge, taking it in stride. “The sound guys and stagehands can be like: ‘here’s an all-girl band, they’re gonna be like 60s garage rock or really mellow and moody’, but then we usually prove to them that we’re something a little more complex and different than that.”
The band clearly never intended to be such a novelty – all their drummers between Sossamon and Mozgawa were male – but Wayman feels her group are now embracing their inimitability. “I think it is bizarre that there are not more, but we’re a part of that change and it’s always nice to be a part of an obvious evolution.”
As we chat, it becomes clear that Wayman and Warpaint are at a crossroads in their career. They’ve been touring material from The Fool for nearly a year and ideas for their follow-up are coming to fruition in their minds and in practices and soundchecks. “I am itching to record a new album, because with learned so much about how we want our [next] album to sound. I’m excited to develop our sound more.”
Although they’ve been together for seven years already, Wayman believes the band developed a lot more in the 18 months between their EP and the album than in their fledgling years.
“I think The Fool is a more cohesive-sounding album than Exquisite Corpse; Exquisite Corpse is a little bit of this and little bit of that and it’s disjointed. As much as I love it I think we’re more cohesive songwriters now.”
They’re ready to put all they’ve learned on record, but before they do that, they have a summer of touring and festivals to negotiate, including a Dublin date in May. We’ve been told to expect smatterings of Exquisite Corpse, maybe some new gems and a full rendition of The Fool, but just who exactly is The Fool? “We all are. Everybody! Everybody in the world!” I guess the joke’s on us then.
Warpaint play Tripod on May 15th. Tickets are €17-20. The Fool is out now.