Warpaint billboards are popping up on Sunset Boulevard. There's one near that spinning podiatrist clinic sign that greets drivers with either a smiling or a frowning foot, known locally as “Happy Foot/Sad Foot.” (“It's amazing that everyone knows what it means,” says bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg.) Others dot the route along the eastern stretch of Sunset throughout Silver Lake and Echo Park.
“It was quite a treat,” drummer Stella Mozgawa says of the sight. Guitarist Emily Kokal admits that, when she saw herself and her bandmates on a billboard, she remarked to her boyfriend, “This is making me uncomfortable.”
Guitarist Theresa Wayman managed to miss the advertisements for the band's forthcoming album, Heads Up, while heading from Angeleno Heights to Silver Lake to meet L.A. Weekly. Lindberg hasn't seen the billboards either, but when she and Wayman hear they're up, both respond with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
Album-release billboards in this part of town are nearly as commonplace as those for superhero movies. It's not that weird, then, for Warpaint to stand tall over traffic. It is, however, poignant. The four members of this rock band are not L.A. natives, but this is the city where they came together and made their mark.
Lindberg, who grew up in Nevada, moved to Los Angeles in 1999. Kokal and Wayman, friends since they attended middle school together in Oregon, made their first stop in L.A. around the same time, and were on-again, off-again residents until Warpaint formed in 2004. They worked with several different drummers until Mozgawa came into the fold in late 2009.
Originally from Sydney, Australia, Mozgawa moved to Los Angeles about eight years ago to work with Flea; she met Kokal at a Metallica show benefiting the Silverlake Conservatory of Music. When Warpaint were offered a deal with Rough Trade (the label responsible for all those billboards) to make their debut album, Lindberg called Mozgawa to ask if she would be their permanent drummer. Mozgawa was on tour with another band but wanted something where she was more than a “hired hand.” She said yes.
Before Mozgawa joined, Warpaint went through every L.A. band's rite of passage: a Monday night residency in 2008 at the Satellite, then still known as Spaceland, about a block from the sidewalk café where the four women now sit with Lindberg's 2-year-old labradoodle, Ludo. The burnt-out “Dreams” sign at the top of the building is a rare relic of the time when Silver Lake was known more for dirty rock clubs than high-end coffee, and it gets the band reminiscing about the old days, when they had a practice space by the Echoplex and went to rooftop parties to watch other bands play. Wayman once thought of opening a café on Glendale Boulevard near the Sunset Boulevard overpass but changed her mind. “In 2010, people were afraid that there wouldn't be enough foot traffic.”
“Highland Park is the quickest gentrification I've ever seen,” says Mozgawa, who lived there for a year before moving to Beachwood Canyon. The changes make her think of the computer game Sim City. “We go on tour and we're away for a month or two at a time and you come home and the landscape has changed. It almost feels as effortless and sometimes even [as] ill-considered as a video game.”
Los Angeles is in transition, and so are Warpaint — though their evolution should cause less controversy. The changes are most audible in the lead single from Heads Up, “New Song.” It's a dance-rock jam at 120 beats per minute — as solid a beat for the indie rockers as it is for the house kids — with easy-to-memorize lyrics and a happy earworm of a melody. For a band that usually give even their groovy tracks, like “Disco//Very,” a dirgelike vibe, it's a striking departure.
Lindberg wrote the instrumentation for the song. The band tried to flesh it out together, but it wasn't clicking. After setting it aside for a year, they put it in the pool of songs that could end up on the new album, but they weren't seriously considering it until co-producer Jacob Bercovici (who previously worked with the band on their 2008 debut EP, Exquisite Corpse) said they had something good.
“New Song” is the most straightforward pop song on Heads Up, but the rest of the 11-song collection shows a band moving forward in other, less obvious ways. The title track, for example, starts off like a lost outtake from the score for Twin Peaks, then moves into a strange and beautiful combination of '80s-evoking guitars and Fleetwood Mac–style harmonies. On paper, it sounds like a hodgepodge, but everything works.
For Heads Up, Warpaint took an unconventional approach. They worked on their own or in two-person teams to start the writing and recording process in their respective home studios, cutting demos with Ableton and Logic. After the lengthy process of recording their 2014 self-titled album, and the tour that followed, the time off from the full band was a welcome change of pace.
“It can feel stifling sometimes … [but] we've learned how to deal with that,” Wayman says of band life. “We're getting better and better at saying what's going on with us in a moment, as opposed to shoving things under the rug and not saying anything until we explode.”
Working separately became an empowering experience, too. “I worked out some of my stuff so that I could be a contributor without having to meet everybody in the room together,” Kokal says. “That was really satisfying for me. I didn't feel like I was dragging behind.”
They began recording Heads Up in their downtown rehearsal space the day after David Bowie died, until the bleed from the other artists in the building became too much to handle. They laugh as they recall the bass-heavy dub tracks that filtered into the room while they attempted to record quiet harmony vocals.
“We would have loved to have done the whole thing in our space,” Mozgawa says. “That would have felt a little bit more romantic. But I think technically it wasn't really possible toward the end.”
Instead, they retreated to a friend's place in Mar Vista and finished recording there. They were in the process of mixing the album when Prince died. It was, altogether, a few months of labor-intensive work, bookended by the loss of two major music icons.
The lag between making the album and releasing it hasn't been long. In fact, the songs are still so new that, at the time of this interview, they had only played “Whiteout” and “New Song” live. In the days before they head out on tour, Warpaint were learning how to make an album that was made in pieces come together onstage.
But it's a good challenge, says Wayman, returning to a recurring theme as they discuss Heads Up: “We're having to stretch ourselves.”