The women of Warpaint go for unbroke
Their atmospheric guitar rock has taken a while to catch on, but now at least one music publication has labeled them 'the new queens of the underground.'
Stella Mozgawa, however, wanted in. A session drummer who had toured her native Australia with Devo, there was little doubt Mozgawa had the chops. Yet singer-guitarist Emily Kokal was skeptical, and there were five words she needed to hear first.
Mozgawa recalled how she leveled with Kokal, essentially asking the singer for the gig last fall at Silver Lake's Stella Café: "I said, 'I'm ready to be poor.'"
And thus, Mozgawa had said the magic phrase needed to gain entry into an atmospheric rock quartet whose future even an optimist would have likely deemed perilous.
"Here was Stella, who made money and made a living," Kokal said Tuesday at dinner with her bandmates at Hollywood's Sushi Ike. "We were really broke. I didn't want her to think that she could do this on the side. She had to commit. So when she said she was ready to be poor, we were cool."
If afforded time, the songs of Warpaint, which don't build so much as materialize, are full of lurking surprises. With intricate guitars that stress patience and ambience, perhaps it's no revelation that it's taken Warpaint, whose members range in age from the mid-20s to early 30s, nearly seven years to have anything resembling a career.
The band last year inked a worldwide deal with storied British independent Rough Trade, a label associated with dream-pop act the Raincoats and '80s alt-rock forebears the Smiths, among many others. Since aligning recently with the Beggars Group, a consortium of sorts of independent labels that includes Matador Records, 4AD and XL, Rough Trade has become increasingly active, and is doing so at a time when the Beggars Group has set its sights on Los Angeles.
"We were looking at a lot of artists to sign who are based in L.A., and we still are," said Miwa Okumura, an L.A. native who relocated here one year ago from Beggars' U.S. headquarters in New York City to open an Echo Park outpost. "There's a growing music community here. It's always existed, and I get that. But there's so much going on right now."
If the last few months are any indication, Warpaint is proving Beggars right. The band's debut, "The Fool," was released in late October — just as fourth-quarter major-label releases were ramping up. Experimental without being daunting, "The Fool" grooves to the rhythm section of Mozgawa and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg, who snake around the guitar interplay of Kokal and Theresa Wayman with a beat that, if not quite funky, aims for a trance.
It's led Warpaint to a pair of sold-out shows Friday and Sunday at the Troubadour, and the act recently graced the cover of British weekly NME, which proclaimed Warpaint "the new queens of the underground."
Yet L.A. has a way of humbling even rock royalty. Sitting near the band on Tuesday at Sushi Ike were recent Sub Pop signees and moody artisans Mister Heavenly, a group currently joined by Michael Cera on bass. Before any questions were thrown, Kokol took a moment to geek-out by writing the actor's name in all-caps on Linderberg's placemat, attempting to shield her fandom from a reporter.
Warpaint, of course, has long thrived in a slower-paced, less glamorous L.A. "Writing songs seemed to be about taking our time," Lindberg said. "We were trying out all our ideas, and had a hard time signing off."
Lindberg, whose actress sister Shannyn Sossamon was first on the list of Warpaint's revolving door of drummers, had been making ends meet as recently as a year ago by walking dogs and tending bar. Kokal, who was raised by her mother at rock festivals selling coffee and tie-dyed shirts, did time at an Internet cafe.
To hear Kokol tell it, the band was nearing the end of the line as recently as last winter. Just prior to signing to Rough Trade, whose A&R chief Paul Jones contacted the band via MySpace, the band had been weighing a less-than-desirable offer from a local label. Additionally, Wayman, who has a young child and was unable to join her bandmates for the Times interview, was in need of more stability.
"We had been talking to a local label here, and it was a deal where they take all your publishing, give you a small advance and take your merch," Kokol said. "I don't think we would have signed it, but we were close. The offer made me uncomfortable. But we were touring, we had no money, we didn't have jobs and we no longer could afford to do this band."
Rough Trade persuaded the band to pass on the offer, and soon presented a more favorable contract. Don't expect it to be the last one tendered to a local band under the Beggars Group umbrella (Highland Park pop-weirdo Ariel Pink records for 4AD). Okumura, who works in L.A. with Matador founder Chris Lombardi, said a Beggars L.A. branch was long overdue.
"By setting up an office on the more eastern side, we're right in the heart," she said. "There's Dangerbird, Epitaph, Stones Throw, and it's nice to be with your fellow independent labels.
"We have offices around the world," Okumura continued, "and L.A. seemed like a city that we had not yet conquered."
With Warpaint at the fore, consider the battle lines drawn.
-- Todd Martens
Top image: Jenny Lee Lindberg, from left, Stella Mozgawa, Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman. Middle image: Lindberg, from left, Kokal, Wayman and Mozgawa. Credits: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times