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Spotlight: Warpaint

Ron Hart | March 26, 2014

“Ecstasy?” Warpaint frontwoman Emily Kokal quips when asked to explain her band’s decision to dive into the experimental sounds that dominate today’s R&B hit parade. “Just kidding—I don’t really know.”

An article in NME around last Halloween described the Los Angeles quartet’s new, eponymous second album as “inspired by rap and R&B,” giving readers the impression that the all-female band spent time huddling around their stereos, picking apart modern soul classics such as Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and The Weeknd’s Kiss Land for their sonic templates.

“That quote was kinda taken out of context,” Kokal counters while describing how those urban bangers correlate to the spacey, groove-soaked sounds that dominate Warpaint. “For this album, we used more electronic instruments than on the previous album. We had been touring in a very specific band arrangement and had been waiting and wanting to try new things. We wanted to shake up our roles and experiment with more than the traditional set up we’d just been in for a long time. We all had a lot of toys collecting dust. Also this is the first album we wrote with [drummer] Stella [Mozgawa] from the very beginning, and we are just a groovier unit after playing so many shows now. We know how to dance together.”

However, what is prominent in the rhythms and melodies of this new record are the sounds of the vintage analog synths in the group’s possession, giving songs like “Disco//Very” and highlight track “Biggy” a vibe that is more Bristol than La Brea in terms of their songs’ warm, pulsing trip-hop-flavored sexiness.

“‘Biggy’s’ inspiration began with this awesome old ‘80s analog string-synth called the Prelude by Sequential Circuits,” she says. “I had had the keyboard for a couple years and hadn’t really played on it much, but one day I just set up a drum machine and the synth line for ‘Biggy’ came out. The Prelude is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever written on and the sound is so unique. It definitely created a mood and the song came out pretty effortlessly once the whole band started working on it.”

And who better to help Warpaint navigate their ways out of the waters of their post-punk beginnings and into the electronica ocean than Mark “Flood” Ellis, forefather of the British alternative movement. (His fingerprints are on New Order’s 1981 debut Movement, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, Depeche Mode’s Violator, U2’s Achtung Baby and PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love, among many other recordings.) Kokal cites the Englishman’s ability to immerse himself into his collaborators’ work as a key factor in the LP’s hypnotic outcome. It is also the reason the band put aside any uneasiness about seeking outside assistance for the creation of Warpaint.

“Flood was the first straight-up producer we’ve ever worked with and deciding to work with a producer at all was something we weren’t certain on,” she admits. “The idea of doing it ourselves or with an engineer was appealing as well. We’d been writing and engineering our own demos in Joshua Tree and things were sounding so vibey [that] we were hesitant to risk losing any of our direct expression, but we met Flood and decided to try it out. He’s made so many eclectic albums with such a wide range of dynamics. He gave a lot of space and vibe to the album and he was very chameleon-like in his way of transforming himself into another member of a democratic band versus stamping a ‘produced’ sound over the music.”

Kokal also cites those initial sessions in the domed house that they rented deep inside the landscape of Joshua Tree National Park as a catalyst for the songwriting process that led to the creation of these 12 songs. Tunes like “Keep It Healthy,” “Hi” and “Love Is to Die” stemmed directly from jams propelled by the calm ambiance of their environs.

“It was a perfect backdrop for writing,” she says with a smile. “It’s so spacious and outer-spacious as well that we felt very much in our own bubble with the elements—beautiful starry nights and fires and having fun together and dancing and drinking tea and sunsets and sunrises. It is inside the album very much.”

The quartet is currently in the midst of a whirlwind four-continent tour, including a celebratory gig at the Music Zone in Hong Kong on Valentine’s Day, which marked their 10th anniversary as a band. A cursory search for recent live clips of them on YouTube will show how much they have grown as a major force on the concert stage, thanks in no small part to their latest batch of songs. And given how much open space their new material has, the Warpaint songs are ripe for a great remix LP—an idea that’s not as far off as it seems given Kokal’s love for her city’s abstract hip-hop movement.

“There is a lot of cool music coming out of LA and new fresh ideas,” she states. “One thing I go out in this city for is Low End Theory. It’s a club in Chinatown that has DJs and MCs and awesome experimentation going on. It’s fun and deep. Flying Lotus will DJ, Gaslamp Killer curates showcases all the time. It’s a special thing happening over here.”