Four-Headed Monster

In 2008 Warpaint appeared from seemingly nowhere with a fully formed and unique psych-rock sound. Their raw and untamed talent saw the four-piece gain early critical acclaim, while their irresistible punk attitude cemented them as the music industry’s coolest kids.

It’s now been eight years since the release of their flooring first EP Exquisite Corpse, and in all that time it seems they’ve barely put a foot wrong.
After their self titled album two years ago, followed by a brief hiatus in which all four members took on separate projects, the band is back with their third full length album Heads Up. Bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg talks of the album using words like “maturity” and “evolution” but if the single New Song is any indication, this could also be Warpaint’s most playful and poppy record to date. With the band’s reputation for acting spiky towards journalists we weren’t sure what to expect from guitarist and lead singer Emily Kokal. Aside from being proved wrong, what we learnt is that this is a group who are thoughtful, caring of each other, and in it for all the right reasons.

So how are you doing Emily?

I’m good. I have crazy jet lag so I woke up about an hour ago. But I just made some coffee so I’m ok, I’ve taken care of myself.

You’re about to release your next record. We want to take a slightly different approach and get to know Warpaint from a different angle, rather than focusing on the actual album itself, because I’m sure you’ve been answering the same questions over and over.

Yeah, it’s interesting when you have a new album cycle. Journalists all ask the same questions, but it’s weird because it’s not even that they’re informed by each other. Often it’s before the first round of press has come out, but they all find one idea and it seems to be the same idea. It’s really fascinating actually.

I was just watching this short video with your guitarist Theresa called Guitar Power, sponsored by D’Addario strings. Have you seen that?

I didn’t see it actually.

They take really cool musicians and just riff around on guitar and ask them questions. It’s a nice way to do an interview. I was wondering if that’s something you’d be comfortable doing, jumping up there on camera and showing your wares in front of the world.

Yeah, I don’t know. Theresa is better at that than I am. I’m actually very uncomfortable on camera in general. I like to play when no one is really watching me. . . besides sometimes thousands of people of course.

You come from background where it seems like you built up your own music universe. You’re from Eugene, Oregon. I was doing some research into your former bandmate Mikah Sykes and Little Two’s.

Yeah my first band.

Mikah’s music is really beautiful.

Oh he’s amazing. We still text and talk all the time. He’s got this really amazing ear. He’s really into free jazz. He introduced me to Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and free jazz and old delta blues. He got me into Alice Coltrane and Joanna Newsom. It’s really interesting to go back and listen to his guitar playing.

I thought he sounded a little bit like Elliot Smith.

Oh man, that was me back then. I remember when I watched Good Will Hunting, I think it came out in my senior year of high school, and I just remember being really transfixed by the music in the movie.

That song at the end kills me.

Miss Misery? Yeah it’s great. Mikah almost plays guitar like Alice Coltrane or Joanna Newsom play the Harp. He has this really fluid ability to play with all of his fingers. He’s really a virtuoso. He was the one who got me into the idea of playing in a band in the first place, because I’d never really seen that for myself before.

This might sound strange but whenever I think of Eugene, Oregon, I always think of train-hopping.

Yeah, that makes sense. Especially when I was living there around 2000. Actually Theresa and I moved away the day I turned 18, but I found my way back with a boyfriend and started that band and then lived there for 11 months. It was during that time when Eugene was really an anarchist capital. There was all that Earth Liberation Front. There were a lot of these, Mikah would call them “crusty punk parties”, and he would refer to himself in that way too. I know a bunch of people who lived that way, train-hopping, dumpster diving.

Mika and Will, my band mates, had this house that was kind of an open door, people in and out all the time. There was this guy called Tiger who had gone on a dumpster dive one day and brought back all this fresh food that had been thrown out, and he made us a huge feast from it. That was a normal afternoon.

Do you think you carry any of those libertarian anarchic values with you in your new life?

It was such an education and really liberating for me. I had just been in high school and under house rules with my family, so to experience another side and meet people who I considered real true artists, was a great thing. They play music constantly and play for themselves. They make art. Back then there were two houses across the street from each other and it was just a collective of artists. I learned a lot about sustainability and community, and there was a certain amount of something that I value now which is an outspokenness, and an ability to be political if you want to be political. Kind of a punk spirit.

That was really great for me, especially starting to play music with those two guys, because there were no rules. I had started writing songs by myself when I was in high school and I played a lot of solo acoustic guitar, but they got me on an electric and we would “jam” for lack of a better word, and I don’t think we would ever repeat the same part twice. They were really great musicians and they had a really free spirit in their approach to music. That really helped me and freed me up. I found myself able to pick up a bass or try the drums because there was no judgement. It got me in a really playful spirit that I think has endured.

Was that before you started listening to Enya or after? 

[laughing] Enya came quite early. It’s funny, I think you can pin point the influences of my life based on the cassette tapes people gave me. The most random collection of things that people gave me ended up becoming who I am.

Would you be able to do a bit of sail away for us?

That’s not my Jam.

Enya gets a bad rap but she’s come through again with this whole hipster generation. We interviewed this really cool new music artist Lydia Ainsworth and she cited Enya as a big influence. I think it’s funny how certain artists regain a new life.

Yeah definitely. I was raised in an Irish music loving household. My mum was into Clannad, Enya’s family, and early U2 and The Cranberries. With me, my household was a little chaotic and Enya had this really calming angelic feeling, so that was my way of chilling out. I listened to it so much because I had a cassette player alarm clock and as soon as the tape played all the way through it would flip and play the next side. If I was reading or doing homework the tape would constantly be flipping, so it just became such a part of me. It’s also similar with this album by Harold Budd and Brian Eno, The Pearl. I’ve been sleeping to that album for so long that it doesn’t even sound like music anymore, it’s just like a pacifier.

I have the exact same thing with this album by Gabriel Yared, who did the soundtrack to Betty Blue. I would listen to that all the time when I went to sleep as a child, and it still has a profound effect on me.

Yeah it’s like a nostalgia but also something else. I think when you’re a kid and you listen to things you develop. . . at least for me there was always a very specific visual imaginative world that it still takes me back to. That’s why I found both Enya and that Brian Eno album so comforting. They are both old friends.

What were the other records that defined your early life? 

I grew up in a house where I had older step sisters, four to six years older than me, so what they were listening to was always a big influence. The music that I think of when I remember my childhood is War and The Joshua Tree by U2. Those albums were playing constantly in my house. So I have a great love of early U2, which also gets a bad rap.

Yeah I think maybe because they were admired for their early work, and then as their career went on they seemed to compromise something.

Yeah. The sunglasses came on.

"There’s a real strength inside each member. Warpaint is a four-headed monster rather than a one person band. That’s part of the delicate balance of our band."

Emily Kokal on the inner-environment of Warpaint

Exactly, very well put.

My mum is a real music aficionado. She grew up in the bay area, going to Grateful Dead shows and Leon Russell, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, so my house was filled with a lot of music that was meaningful to her. I can’t think how many times my mum must have played Blue by Joni Mitchell. It’s the way I listen to Portishead’s Dummy. It’s funny that all my influences like U2 would probably be considered uncool, but they were a big part of what inspired me to play music. This created a world of so much music. I was also an 80s child so there was a lot of Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Geroge Michael, and Brian Eno. There are so many feelings I remember from childhood but I don’t know what albums they were. Later on when I was dating John [Frusciante], he re-introduced me to Brian Eno and I was like – oh this is what that was! There were albums I could remember but I never know what they were.

Have you ever gotten into Daniel Lanois?

Yeah, actually I’ve seen him play a couple of times this year. He lives really close to me.

Belladonna is probably one of my favourite records of all time

He’s incredible. I have a lot of respect for his production. He’s got that deserty, psychedelic calming feeling.

The aura that has been created around the band is that you guys are kind of prickly. Talking to you Emily I don’t get that feeling at all. Where do you think that impression comes from?

I have no idea. Maybe sometimes when there’s a bunch of girls coming at you it’s a little threatening? I don’t know. I think we’re all pretty pleasant. Sometimes I’m very verbose and sometimes I’m a lot more shy, and I think that goes for all of us. You know, sometimes you’re in a good mood and sometimes you’re not. We could probably be described as prickly when we’re doing the kind of interviews you spoke of earlier, where we’re asked the same questions we always get asked, because they can be irritating.

Do you like listening to your own records?

Certain albums are easier for me to listen to than others. I am always surprised when I hear a song from an old album. It never sounds how I remember it sounding. I don’t get too nostalgic or pick apart the past too much, but I definitely hear our youth in our old production style. Right now I’m listening to the new album and I actually really enjoy listening to it, but often listening to old albums I find so many things I want to change about it. It’s hard not to judge it, or want to fix it. I also think that for a long time we’ve been a lot better live than on record.

What don’t we understand about Warpaint? What do you think people get wrong about you?

Well probably this concept that there’s a prickliness. I don’t really know what people’s preconceptions are but what I would say about the band is that everybody is really an incredible musician on their own. There’s a real strength inside each member. Warpaint is a four-headed monster rather than a one person band. That’s part of the delicate balance of our band. In a lot of bands there’s one person who’s dictating most things and that can be an easier situation, but every one of us has a vision and a really powerful voice on their own, so to be a collective and to navigate a collective when you have such strong personalities is a challenge. But it’s a challenge we’ve accepted because we know that the sum is creator than the parts. Everybody is also kind of a comedian.

So what makes you guys laugh?

Everything. We have a lot of inside jokes at this point. We have short-hand where we don’t even know that we’re going to understand each other, and I think that’s sometimes the most funny. Like, ok this isn’t going to sound funny at all, but it’s the only example I can think of. Jen and I were texting the other day, and she was saying, “Let’s play it by ear,” except she was too lazy to write out the whole sentence so she just wrote “ear”. And I laughed so hard because I knew exactly what that meant. Theresa’s been my best friend since I was 11 and Jen since I was 19, and Stella for the last ten years, and so we really have developed our own language.

Do you ever Google yourself?

I have done that before, yes. Last time it said I was an actress and the first picture was me getting my hair done, so I learned my lesson. I don’t think it’s a good idea, except maybe if you’re your own manger or you’re trying to cultivate your image. I think the best thing to do is to just stay focused on your work and let everyone else deal with the rest.

Would you agree that we could be perhaps most narcissistic generation in history?

Yeah, I was thinking the other day about how I’ve carried a journal around in my backpack forever and occasionally broken it out in social situations, a bar, a party, if I’m under-stimulated, and how nowadays we have this other thing. Now when you get an itch to be creative or go and make something you can just go on twitter and say something funny, or say that you’re hungry, and get it out of your system. I think that stops you from needing to go deeper into a creative place. I think it’s a massive distraction because often with creativity you need to sit with a feeling before you’re inspired enough to make something. Nowadays it’s harder to get to that place of deeper creative expression.

Our band is not very good at social media. What we have is our manager putting information online about when we’re playing or when our album is coming out, and it’s a bit just like an advertisement which doesn’t feel very personal. We keep our heads down, make our work, tour our shows, but that’s not really staying connected in the way that this whole generation is doing.

Some people have a really big voice on twitter, Kanye or whoever, they have a direct line to their audience. It’s this new way of connecting with your personality, not just your art, and that’s fascinating to me. I’ve been trying to figure out how to have more of a voice on social media so I’ve started to DJ Facebook. I put up songs that I like. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because the social media that we put out, especially if it’s our management putting it up, it’s very self-centred and all about us. But I think it’s great when people use the platform to turn the focus outwards.

There are a lot of famous individuals surrounding Warpaint. I’m talking about Chris Cunningham, James Blake, John Frusciante, Jenny’s sister Shannyn Sossamon and so on. It seems as if there’s a culture of fame and celebrity around the band. Is it important for you to be surrounded by people who have built those kinds of careers?

I think when you live in Los Angeles, especially if you’re doing music or acting, you’re going to cross paths with certain people. I met John completely randomly at a grocery store and then had a relationship with him. It was what it was. I had a massive amount of respect for him as a musician, but it could easily have been anybody, like other people I’ve been with who work in a coffee shop or whatever. Jen’s sister Shannyn was in our band, she was the first drummer.

You can’t escape people being drawn to you or knowing about your band. In fact it used to be kind of frustrating for us, especially when we first started because the only way people knew how to promote us in interviews was to try to talk about the famous people that we knew. And that’s not cool because you want to be seen for who you are on your own and not be compared. Having said that, John mixed our EP, and through that we got a lot of fans on Myspace because of the Chilli Peppers. When we self-released our EP there were so many special orders from Myspace fans overseas and we went to number five on the charts at Amoeba that week. That meant that we got the attention of Rough Trade. So that kind of thing gave us a really amazing start on things, but as far as needing to be associated with famous people? No way.

"I met John completely randomly at a grocery store and then had a relationship with him. It was what it was. I had a massive amount of respect for him as a musician, but it could easily have been anybody."

On meeting her ex-boyfriend John Fruiscante from RHCP

I want to do a bit of word association with you except only with quotes, never done this and it could completely fail but lets try it. First one, “Music is just vibrating air, that’s all it is.” [Garth Stevenson]

Truth. I think everything is vibration, so that is absolutely true to me.

“Classical music is the kind we keep thinking will turn into a tune.” [Kin Hubbard]

No, classical music is the birth place of the tune.

“The thing about music is, there’s really no point.” [Neil Young] 

[Laughing] I think music is a universal language. It’s a current that runs through everything and we harness it in a certain way to make it into something. All sounds could be considered music I suppose.

“Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician.” [Kurt Vonnegut]

That’s true for most actors as well isn’t it? I think being a musician is the best profession in the world.

Warpaint’s third LP Heads Up is out on September 23rd.

All images by Mike Massaro


Analord Series | Aphex Twin

Warpaint’s favourite three records

Warpaint’s favourite three records

Warpaint’s favourite three records