Warpaint: ‘This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino movie – it’s an album a band made’

Warpaint would like to clear something up: they are not – nor were they ever – on the verge of breaking up. “I don’t remember this,” bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg laughs when the subject comes up. “I don’t remember having those conversations be public.”

“It’s, like, in our bio!” guitarist and vocalist Theresa Wayman chimes in.

“‘Oh, you guys are about ready to break up,’” Lindberg says in a slightly mocking voice.

“Yeah … no,” says drummer Stella Mozgawa, shaking her head.

Yes, the Los Angeles art-rock collective, which also includes singer and guitarist Emily Kokal, are still very much a unit. You would never know they had spent much time apart at all, based on the way they finish each other’s sentences and rib each other like sisters. At one point, they spend an entire minute debating when Kokal found out she was pregnant.

“You found out in 2019,” insists Mozgawa, as they all try to piece together a timeline. “You were at my house. You weren’t pregnant in 2018. You would have been pregnant for a year and a half.” Then, just as quickly, Mozgawa becomes distracted: “Look at that amazing bird that just landed in the park!”

It is early-ish on a Sunday morning, and the entire band are gathered at a picnic table in Elysian Park, a sprawling grassy knoll in LA’s Echo Park neighbourhood. Behind us is an Elmo-themed birthday party, with red and white balloons strung up to form a cheery rainbow-shaped archway. “My daughter is really into Elmo,” smiles Kokal, who lives nearby, and later points out her partner, producer j.franxis, walking on a nearby footpath with their daughter Frances in a stroller. Also with us is Wayman’s teenage son, Sirius, whom she jokingly introduces as Warpaint’s bassist. Clearly, Warpaint are and have always been a family affair.

Formed in 2004, Warpaint released their critically acclaimed debut LP, The Fool, in 2010 and shared stages with everyone from the xx and TV on the Radio to Panda Bear and Arctic Monkeys. Across two more albums – 2014’s Warpaint and 2016’s Heads Up – the band cemented their reputation for moody dreampop that could just as easily sprawl into improvised psychedelia or atmospheric post-rock. It’s, well, a whole vibe. “Manifest vibe,” Wayman agrees, and suddenly everyone’s chanting, “Manifest vibe! Manifest vibe!”

“Write it down,” Wayman instructs.

Perhaps the breakup narrative set in because Warpaint, who are nearing their 20th anniversary as a band, have spent the past couple of years scattered across different hemispheres, partly due to the pandemic and partly due to natural life events. After releasing Heads Up, which took them on tour with Harry Styles, MGMT and Depeche Mode, the quartet embarked on a series of individual projects. Lindberg worked on solo material (her second album arrives later this year); Mozgawa collaborated on albums with Courtney Barnett, Cate Le Bon, Sharon Van Etten and Phantogram; Kokal had a baby and worked with Grammy-nominated composer Suzanne Ciani; and Wayman has been scoring films and released her first solo album, LoveLaws, in 2018.

Now, Warpaint are readying their fourth album, Radiate Like This. The media buzz centres on the fact that this is their first album in six years, but the band are quick to point out that the album has been in the works since 2018. It began to take form when they recorded Melting, a slow-burning ballad that, in pure Warpaint fashion, builds a soundscape both soothing and dissonant. From there, the group wrote music for the Motherhacker podcast, and some of those ideas made their way on to the new album. By this point, they were tired. But they kept encouraging each other.

“I think everybody took turns,” Lindberg says. “If someone said: ‘I can’t do this any more,’ we’d rally and be like: ‘Yes, you can. You can do it.’ It’s been like that for some years. We take turns with everything.”

When Covid arrived in early 2020, the timeline, as it did for most artists, got pushed back. Mozgawa, who was in Reykjavík recording with Le Bon at the time, immediately left for Australia. “I couldn’t come back to my house in Joshua Tree [California] because I don’t have a green card,” she says. “Friends and family were calling me from Australia saying they’re about to close the borders. I was like: ‘This is insane.’” Meanwhile, Kokal had given birth only days before. Lindberg had moved to Salt Lake City for what was meant to be a short break. “I didn’t realise how badly I needed to slow down,” she says. “I was hiking every day. It felt like a long, extended vacation.”

“For 10 years, we’ve been doing this thing together. And we’re either on tour or making albums. It was really nice to slow down and hear my own thoughts again. If and when this all starts back up again, what can we learn to make it an even better, more successful experience?”

With their producer in London, Warpaint took their time putting the finishing touches on Radiate Like This remotely – or, as Wayman puts it, “on different moon cycles”. The result is a finely tuned collection of songs that spring from a well of optimism. “‘Positivity’ sounds like such a trite word,” Kokal says. “But I personally wanted to sing about [feeling] a little more liberated. Through the darkness. It’s almost like an incantation or a spell. I want to bring something that feels good, energetically, to share and sing and have people singing with you.”

Although Warpaint are generally not interested in assigning meaning to their music (“It’s not a Quentin Tarantino film – it’s an album that a band made,” says Mozgawa), Radiate Like This does mark a noticeable shift in tone, especially compared with previous singles such as Undertow and Love Is to Die, sonically tense affairs about unscrupulous lovers. The new album sounds lighter, with looser, airier melodies. Nowhere is this more evident than on the kaleidoscopic, cooing single, Stevie, which the band have previously described as being purely about love.

“I was listening to a lot of soul music and Stevie Wonder at the time,” says Kokal. “Stevie’s a girl in love.” Likewise, the raunchy, winking Send Nudes is more musically delicate than previous efforts, mirroring the comfort and ease of Kokal’s nine-year relationship.

While they have no plans to separate, there is no question that Warpaint are in a new place, personally and professionally, and Radiate Like This is an elegant snapshot of their collective evolution.

“I think it’s where we are as individuals,” concedes Kokal. “There’s growth. Maybe we’ve toiled a lot of the darker ground for a long time. And just evolving, growing, being pregnant while I was writing. I had a little bit more warmth that I wanted to sing and express.”

Radiate Like This is out now.

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