“In Warpaint, there are no fucking rules…”
LA outfit Warpaint, having just released their phenomenal new record Heads Up late last year, are returning to Australian shores for the first time in years for a run of shows all throughout the country in February. Ahead of this string of dates, we had a chat with Warpaint’s Sydney born drummer Stella Mozgawa about the functionality of the band, the fan response to their new album, supporting Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, gendering music and more. Although the group are currently based in the US, Stella grew up in Sydney and has been a member of Warpaint since 2009, while also contributing her drumming to a wealth of artist’s recordings and live shows, including Kurt Vile, Tom Jones, SBTRKT, Megan Washington and Jagwar Ma.
When we spoke, Stella was having a bit of a holiday in the picturesque surroundings of Sydney’s northern beaches. “I’ve been swimming at the beach every single day I’ve been here,” she tells us. During their run of shows in Australia, not only will Warpaint be playing in Stella’s home city at The Sydney Opera House, they’ll also be gracing the stage at the Melbourne Zoo. “We’ve never performed at a zoo before. But we did perform at the Natural History Museum in LA about six years ago. That was a pretty trippy experience. I guess a museum is kind of like a zoo for dead things. Similar, just less alive – we’ve played a few pretty unique gigs actually. I’ve never been to Melbourne Zoo before! Hopefully we’ll be performing in a fully protected tiger free zone.”
Being a Sydney native, we asked Stella if she likes to show the rest of Warpaint around her hometown when they’re here. “We haven’t had a lot of time off in Sydney in the past, only like a day. The first time we did Laneway Festival in 2011, the girls all stayed at my parents’ house, which was really fun. We just chilled on the beaches a lot, everyone was so jet-lagged that we didn’t have any time to do a road trip, or go see sights or anything. This time is going to be fun – we’ve got a day off in Sydney which happens to be the day after my birthday!” They don’t have any big plans for their reprise in Sydney this time around either though. “I think we’re just going to kick it on the beach again. That’s the most important thing right? As long as you get to the beach, I think you’ve done well as an ambassador of Australia.” For the last nine years, Stella has been based in LA, but when she does come back to Australia, there are some particular things she likes to do. “I have this very new tradition of going to Byron Bay every year around New Years, and just hanging out there because it’s so magical. And I always hit up Rose’s Continental Deli in Narraweena, which is where my parents live.” While she’s here, Stella says she likes to “drink too much coffee, eat delicious food, and hang out with legends.” Sounds pretty Australian to us.
The new Warpaint record Heads Up is a notable change in style for the band. There is a more upbeat, funkier element to the work, in contrast to their earlier more mellow and down tempo material. “I think that sound change happened organically,” she informed us. “I think there is a more aggressive side to our personalities and our music that sometimes gets drowned out by all the reverb and the moodiness, so it was nice to just add a little bit of variety. It was never a conscious thing, more so it was something that everyone intuitively felt, and everyone brought their desires for how our sound should develop into their contributions to the album.” The change in style was not an attempt to “go pop” or anything in that vein; it was a feat of pushing themselves as artists. Stella tells us that “in Warpaint, there’s no fucking rules at all, except for the ones that we assign to ourselves. We’re in control of what this band sounds like. There is no record company or group of fans that are dictating what we are, and I think it’s good to take advantage of that. What’s really exciting about our band is that it’s pretty open in terms of the stuff that gets brought to the table.” That ability to bring new ideas into the Warpaint fold is what has given them longevity in their career thus far, and will serve their staying power in the future well. “I think the more that we establish that we can bring in whatever sound we want, then we’re all going to be happier and hopefully make some really interesting music as well.”
When the debut single from Heads Up, the rather infectious ‘New Song’ was released, there was a minor backlash from some Warpaint fans. There were some who believed that the evident change in style signified that the group had ‘sold out’, or were attempting to craft a pop record to make money. “It’s funny that people said we’d made an overproduced pop song, because that simply wasn’t the case. We made this whole album in our rehearsal room in downtown LA, and a granny flat in Venice. We never used a fancy studio or anything like that, and we worked with our friend Jake Bercovici, who produced the first Warpaint EP. The whole thing was really home-style, with so few people involved. We really, truly made the record we wanted to make. So, it was interesting and sort of humorous to see people thinking that we’d sold out, or made a pop hit to appease our label – that’s just bullshit.”
It can be a strange thing to see people pigeonhole music in such a way that if it sounds like a pop song, it must be a cash grab – this is a dated and irrelevant mindset. Stella thinks that this attitude stems from the broader cultural context in which we currently exist – “everything in the world is confusing right now. So people just want to synthesise things that are a little bit confusing and don’t make one hundred percent sense to them, and put those things in a basket. Life is actually a little more complicated than that. There is a grey area with everything, including music. It’s not that simplistic anymore.”
A couple of years ago, Warpaint got to support Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds on tour. Stella, being a huge fan of the band, said that the experience was “a real, true honour.” While on tour, Nick Cave approached Stella after one of their performances and told her that she was “a wonderful drummer” – to which she responded, “you’re a wonderful human being.” Her admiration for the Australian icon is clear when she speaks about him – “there is something really inspiring about watching someone who is so gifted and so fully formed as an artist. Watching Nick Cave, someone who is so in control of his craft, is like a transcendental experience. You realise that this is beyond the next level of artistry. To even be able to watch that as a fan, let alone to be involved with the production in some way is incredible.”
Recently, J Magazine caused a bit of a stir when they referred to Melbourne’s own Camp Cope as “this year’s girl band.” Camp Cope called the publication out on Instagram, imploring them to “quit gendering music.” As a member of a band that exclusively features female members and has been active for a decade, we asked Stella for her opinion on the issue of gendering music, particularly in the media. “We’ve never said we’re fine with being called a girl band. But I think the fact is that we are actually a band of women. If you’re playing in a country with a music industry that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of female groups, then you’re going to be seen as a novelty. But really, it’s just a physical detail that people focus on, having four women on stage. It’s understandable sometimes that people say ‘all girl band’ or ‘girl rock group’ or whatever. It’s because there is a scarcity of all female groups. What’s really powerful that is happening now that’s going to change things, and hopefully journalism changes with it, is that there are a lot of them. It’s getting to a stage where women aren’t really conscious of the fact that they’re putting together an all female band – they’re just putting together a band. The regularity of that being the case is going to change the scene completely. Right now, we’re in an awkward transition phase, where people do use that gender definer. It will soon be irrelevant – I feel that the tide is changing. You just have to go with the tide, and make a point when you need to, but also just make fucking rad music, because that’s the only thing that will help people truly forget who is on stage. Just make great music regardless of who you are, how tall you or, or whether you have a vagina or a penis – all of that stuff is irrelevant. And it’s up to you to make it irrelevant.”
Warpaint’s relationship as a band, Stella tells us, is rooted in both friendship and professional functionality. She compares it to being in a business relationship with a romantic partner – “sometimes you would be responding to each other as a romantic couple, sometimes as friends, and sometimes as business partners. It’s difficult to really pinpoint what function you have in the relationship at any given moment.” Specifically in relation to Warpaint, Stella explains, “it’s a combination of friendship and professionalism. It’s very difficult for us to be 100% business – we’re always fucking around a little bit. We are friends. The band wouldn’t be able to function if we weren’t all friends.”
Stella joined Warpaint in 2009, which makes 2017 her eighth year with the group. It’s a long time to be involved with the same project, and Stella tells us that she’s grown immensely in this period. “I’ve evolved deeply as a musician. The experience of being in a band and committing to something for an extended period of time makes you a different sort of person, and a different sort of musician. Your priorities are different. It’s not about having a short-term experience, it’s about planting seeds that will grow in the future, which is something that I needed to learn as a musician and as a human being.”
Warpaint’s new album Heads Up is available now, and they’ll be touring nationally in February.
Get your tickets here, and check out the dates below.
Sunday 19th of Feb – Perth Festival, Perth WA
Wednesday 22nd Of Feb – The Triffid, Newstead QLD
Friday 24th of Feb – Melbourne Zoo , Melbourne VIC
Saturday 25th of Feb – Sydney Opera House, Sydney NSW