Interview: Warpaint @ Boston Calling, on playing festivals, covering Bowie, and that whole ‘women in music’ thing
But a breakthrough seems imminent.
Having officially formed a decade ago, Warpaint’s true origins began in late-1999 and early-2000. Thanks to the once-popular clothing retailer The GAP (who somehow still exists, I believe), the chance encounter between bassist Emily Kokal and guitarist Jenny Lee Lindberg at a casting call for a Gap commercial found both musicians instantly connecting over music, cigarettes and their disdain for the Hollywood lifestyle. Soon enough, their momentary desire for celebrity became a trivial pursuit, and along with Kokal’s childhood friend and guitarist Theresa Wayman and Lindberg’s sister, drummer/Rules of Attraction star Shannyn Sossamon (who left the band in 2008 and was eventually replaced by drummer Stella Mozgawa in 2009), formed the original Warpaint lineup on Valentine’s Day of 2004. They released their debut EP Exquisite Corpse (a hazy blend of psychedelic-Anglicism mixed and mastered by Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante), in 2007, and their debut album The Fool in 2010.
Now, with their second studio album receiving critical acclaim, we caught up with Kokal and Lindberg following their midday Saturday set at Boston Calling. In the freezing, windy cold of City Hall — a far cry from the sunnier pastures out in the open-air City Hall Plaza — we smoked a few cigarettes and discussed the new album, their David Bowie cover of “Ashes to Ashes” that no one seemed to know, touring with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and that little controversy earlier this month regarding Beyonce, Rihanna, and twerking.[embedvideo id=”OnuFYYJHaY0″ website=”youtube”]
Stephanie Dubick: First off, I just want to say how much I loved your set. It was wonderful. How was it for you?
Emily Kokal: We haven’t played in a couple of weeks. We’ve been practicing at home because we haven’t been playing shows for a little while, so it was it our first show in a while. It was fun and overall we all had a really good time. It was also like wake up time because we just came from LA and we played at 3 p.m. It was definitely earlier than we’re used to playing.
Yeah, I noticed a few tech problems here and there. Does that tend to happen a lot when you play festivals?
Emily Kokal: Oh yeah! We’ve had really fucked festival shows where we’ve played two songs, three songs because everything kept going wrong when it came to setting up.
Jenny Lee Lindberg: Anything can happen under pressure.
How long do you have to set up before you go on?
Emily Kokal: Usually anywhere from 20 to 25 minutes. Today we had 50 minutes, which was great, but usually it’s a lot less.
Oh, by the way, thank you for the David Bowie cover. That was great. But I noticed that a lot of people in the crowd had no idea what you were playing.
Emily Kokal: [laughs] I know, I also noticed that. There was one old dude that was singing along to the song, which was cool. We actually did that cover for a tribute album [it’s also on The Fool]. We always want to do covers but we spend so much time with our own songs.
Jenny Lee Lindberg: I think we realize that if we go and learn something and do our homework, we can do it. And it’s really fun. Just getting to feel how somebody else wrote a song, or how someone else plays a song, it opens up your mind to how you approach your own music.
And the way you approached your latest album is really interesting. It’s a more minimalist approach. Do you prefer this type of sound when it comes to writing music?
Jenny Lee Lindberg: Yeah, we like it all. I think it depends on what kind of mood we’re in. We were in a certain mood when we made the last couple of records, and we were in a different mood when we made this record. Our moods are always changing. I think we like to cater to our moods when we’re writing music. It also very much depends on how we feel at the time when we’re making a record.
I don’t think many people realize this, but the band has been around since 2004. With the new album gaining a lot of attention and exposure, do you feel that you’re finally getting the recognition you deserve?
Emily Kokal: I can’t say that I’m personally able to tell or notice how people are feeling about us, but the way we can tell is through audiences and playing live. We don’t read a lot of press or anything. I mean, it was nice that our album went to the Top 10 in the UK but I’m still surprised that people don’t recognize us.
Jenny Lee Lindberg: Totally. I think we all do. There’s a lot times when people are like, “Cool, you’re in a band. What’s your band’s name? Warpaint? OK, I’ll check it out.” [laughs] It’s like when you’re at your local coffee shop and your friends are like, “Oh, you have to go on that tour? I’ve still never seen you play.” That’s an embarrassing thing to admit, bro.
I read that hip hop had an influence on Warpaint. Who were you listening to at the time that inspired you?
Emily Kokal: We were listening to everything. We definitely said hip hop, but we also said about 20 other artists as well. I think were inspired by each other and what we’re all listening to what everyone brings to the table. But I feel like when we get into the room and we start writing, there’s something about the elements of each other that pulls the music out.
Is that how you write? Does one person present an idea that everyone builds on?
Emily Kokal: That happens all the time. But nowadays, though, there’s less time to do that. We used to go fuck off all the time and just go to practice and write for days and hours and hours. But lately it’s controlled time that we have to utilize, so people just bring in ideas.
Jenny Lee Lindberg: It’s somewhat more organized.
So when you sing a song, and then [guitarist] Theresa [Wayman] sings, are those particular songs ones that you wrote yourselves?
Emily Kokal: Yeah, usually. Sometimes we’ll help each other out and sing something that somebody else wrote, but for the most part the ideas and the lyrical content comes from all of us.
Are there certain songwriters that have influenced the way you write?
Emily Kokal: It’s funny, our manager was asking us the other day about who our favorite songwriters are, and I mentioned Patti Smith. Then you [points to Jenny] mentioned someone else that I was like, “Hells yeah!” It was Elliot Smith. He was brilliant.
I completely agree.
Emily Kokal: Did I just nail it for ya?
You did. I think he’s amazing. I always say that Conor Oberst [of Bright Eyes] is the little brother of Elliot Smith.
Emily Kokal: Definitely. They’re both very open and honest; they’re just so vulnerable. I think that’s a really great thing to have in music: to be that open and vulnerable and honest with their insecurities. It’s really healthy to have people hear that and know that they’re connecting with that emotion because they feel bad. And also that it’s OK to express yourself honestly as a rock star.
Do you think people have a hard time connecting with music — like music written by someone other than the artist — that isn’t honest?
Jenny Lee Lindberg: I think it depends on whoever is performing it. If they’re feeling it, it doesn’t really matter — especially if it’s a really good song. And whoever writes it, even if they’re not performing the song, that doesn’t matter, either. It’s about the devotion.
Emily Kokal: Like, Michael Jackson could’ve sung, “You’re a vegetable and I hate you,” and everyone would have loved it.
So in terms of today’s performance at Boston Calling, this is the kickoff of your European and US tour, correct?
Jenny Lee Lindberg: It’s more of a kickoff to festival touring. We have a few club shows in between but it’s mainly festivals… and the upcoming tour with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds.
I know! That’s a phenomenal opportunity for the band. How did that come about? Did Nick Cave approach you about opening for him?
Emily Kokal: He’s obsessed with our band [pauses]. No he’s not.
Jenny Lee Lindberg: We have the same manager as him.
Emily Kokal: It was just a total situation where — and I don’t really know how this shit works — they [the Bad Seeds] either asked for bands that could open for them, or their management gives them a bunch of music and asks them which one’s they liked out of all the submissions. Then it falls into place.
From what I’ve gathered, certain bands find that playing overseas is better than playing in the states. Since the tour with the Bad Seeds is in the US, do you agree with that?
Emily Kokal: At the moment we like playing here because we’ve done so much touring overseas. In the US it hasn’t quite hit yet because we’ve spent so much time outside the US. But the shows here are kinda punky and raw and the crowds are a bit smaller. Also, this is our country as well and we’re connecting with our people — there’s something really cool about that.
Jenny Lee Lindberg: I also think people are still discovering us here. We’ll play a house show or a festival in the early afternoon, so we’re still in that “I’ll check you out” phase.
Well, there were a ton of people at your set this afternoon, so I think you’ll have a ton of people Googling or Spotifying you today.
Jenny Lee Lindberg: It’s nice to win a crowd over; it’s a great feeling. I don’t think that people ever really watch us and walk away.
Not enough people were dancing, though, even when you asked them to during the set. But white people can’t really dance anyway.
Jenny Lee Lindberg: Yeah, I noticed that a lot of people weren’t dancing, either. I think they were just there checking us out.
Emily Kokal: People have to be pushed to dance. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but usually when you start dancing, other people around you start dancing.
Jenny Lee Lindberg: People aren’t drunk enough at 3 p.m. to want to dance.
Speaking of dancing, I’m curious about the new remix that’s coming out in June.
Emily Kokal: It’s a 12-inch with remixes of “Keep It Healthy” by [hip hop artist and producer] EL-P, and “Disco//very” on the b-side by [producer] Richard Norris. EL-P is a homie of ours and really wanted to do something with one of our songs, and I don’t know how Richard Norris came about but I think he just really wanted to do a remix, and he did.
I also want to ask you about the Beyonce and Rihanna controversy back in May. When you issued an apology, did you feel pressured to do that or was that something you felt was necessary to do as a band?
Emily Kokal: It was issued by Theresa and I think it was meant to clarify where she was coming from and what she felt. The apology was a statement/clarification on the way her words came out and the harshness of the reaction [by people online]. It was like, “Wait, there’s more to it than that,” which is the reason why she wrote it.
In your experience have a lot of journalists taken things you’ve said out of context?
Emily Kokal: Oh my god, it’s constant. You really have to be careful about what you say, because you can take anything and blow it up and make it the headline of the story that’s totally out of context. And I think because magazines are a dying industry, sometimes online they’ll go for whatever is the most tabloid-y in order to generate the most traffic. But the media is also a reflection of the people who are a reflection of the media. Like how dumbed-down people are these days that they just want to read about celebrities instead of the fact that Nigerian girls are disappearing? Nobody wants reality, they just want distraction.
So when you read something about the band that’s taken out of context, how do you handle it?
Jenny Lee Lindberg: You just brush it off. You have to make sure that you understand what you’re saying, and if it gets taken out of context, who cares? You run into that shit all the time and that’s when you have to say, “OK, later.”
Emily Kokal: In this day and age I think most people who are intelligent understand how media is. And journalism isn’t the most integral anyways, so I kind of understand why this tends to happen.
Aside from words being misconstrued in the media, do you ever get approached with the “women in music” question, and what it’s like to be a woman in music? And do you ever get tired of that question?
Jenny Lee Lindberg: We don’t really get tired of that question, but there’s really no deep answer. We’re like, “It’s exciting! It’s great! It’s great to be able to do what we do.”
Emily Kokal: I think one thing I will say about it is — from the other side of being in it — is that it’s [music] a really open field, and an open platform, and it’s pretty accepting. If you really put your energy and heart into music, and it’s what you really believe in, I don’t think it’s a hard place to break into.
Warpaint’s sophomore record, Warpaint, is out now via Rough Trade Records.