Warpaint: The Un-Breakup


There was talk that Warpaint might be over, but instead the band decided to stay together

“If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy,” Dale Carnegie once observed. And such wisdom isn’t lost on Warpaint bassist/vocalist Jenny Lee Lindberg, who only two years ago had toured so rigorously behind the group’s last eponymous album that she actually began to doubt she would ever record another.

“We were pretty spent,” she says. “And there was definitely talk of, ‘Maybe we don’t want to do this’ or ‘Maybe we should take a really long break.’ And, at the end of the day, that’s not what anybody really wanted. But it’s easy to threaten that when you’re tired and burnt out, and you just want to go home and chill out.”

Doubts dispelled, Warpaint—which also includes vocalist/guitarist Emily Kokal, co-singer/guitarist Theresa Wayman and drummer Stella Mozgawa—has returned with its third release, Heads Up, easily the band’s most adventurous. Co-produced with longtime associate Jacob Bercovici (who had helmed the quartet’s self-issued 2008 debut EP, Exquisite Corpse), it boasts sonically inventive numbers like the jazzy, jittery “Above Control,” a gothic-stark “Today Dear,” the Joy Division-ish “The Stall,” a bouncy, buoyant “New Song,” funky R&B march “So Good” and a skeletal “Whiteout,” awash in ethereal three-part harmonies. And the women hit such a milestone by getting busy, workwise—just not with each other.

“We took a break, maybe about a year off, and we all went and did our own thing,” says Lindberg, who wrote, recorded and toured a bass-heavy solo album called right on! under the lower-case moniker jennylee. Simultaneously, Kokal worked with folk-rocker Paul Bergmann, Mozgawa cut sessions with Kurt Vile and Andy Clockwise, and Wayman formed her own spinoff combo, BOSS, with Hot Chip’s Sarah Jones and All We Are’s Guro Gikling. “And I think that was really good for us, because when we came back to Warpaint, we were all very refreshed and inspired. And we had to learn things by not working with each other, which came in nice and handy when we finally returned to recording.”

Camaraderie was never a problem. “We’ve been good friends for a long time, and Emily and Theresa grew up together, and I met them when they were 19,” says the 35-year-old Lindberg, whose sister—actress Shannyn Sossamon—was one of Warpaint’s founding members (she later dropped out). “And it’s ridiculous how much we hang out— if there’s something going on, we’ll all go together, and we definitely go get dinner a lot or just coffee. As a band, we’re all really close.”

Thus, working alone proved startling at first. But they soon got comfortable composing material in their separate home studios, an approach that shaped Heads Up, when the members—instead of jamming together, like they usually did—brought their own material into Warpaint’s main House On The Hill studio in downtown Los Angeles for collaborative tinkering.

Lindberg—who had grown more confident as a singer, courtesy of her side project— came up with the seriously spooky bass line for “The Stall” at the home she shared with her video-director ex-husband Chris Cunningham and their pet labradoodle. She brought the riff in for her comrades to hear, and Mozgawa immediately started thumping the beat, while Kokal added impromptu vocals. Then Wayman plugged in guitar filigrees to the finished mix. “So it was really challenging for her, because it was about knowing when to leave space,” says Lindberg, “and when not to.”

On “So Good,” Wayman and Lindberg switched instruments. “Don’t Let Go” began as Lindberg’s simple vocals-and-acoustic-guitar demo—“Then the girls put everything else on in the studio, and we all sang it together,” she says. And “Don’t Let Go” was a ghost from Kokal’s past, a dirge she recorded at 18. What did Warpaint learn from the experience? “After making my own record, it was a lot easier for me to take a step back and let things happen naturally, without having to control them,” says Lindberg. “Because there’s four of us, we’re always having to agree and be on the same page, and that can be tedious in itself, and it also takes up a lot of time. But it was great because—at the end of the day—we were all on the same page. And I didn’t feel like I had to speak my mind and express myself, because this is all I have.”

—Tom Lanham