The fierce girl band with the mellow sound
“‘Oh, we like it, but one of you guys is really fat,’” says Stella Mozgawa. “Or, ‘ We really like it that your songs go on for seven minutes, but that’ll never get played on the radio.’”
Mozgawa is the drummer and occasional keyboardist for an LA all-female quartet called Warpaint. And, as you may have already gathered, she’s possessed of a certain cynicism about the music business. A few years ago, when it was fashionable for indie bands to refer to major labels as public enemy number one, this might not have raised an eyebrow, but in 2011 – when the entire recorded-music industry is clinging to anything seemingly buoyant lest it drown – the sentiment seems positively toxic.
That might be because Mozgawa speaks with the thick, take-no-prisoners accent of a native Sydneysider, but is more likely borne of bitter experience, of having played in a number of frustrating bands before finding one that fit.
Warpaint formed in 2004, and from the beginning had certain strategic advantages over its peers. Warpaint’s original drummer, actress Shannyn Sossamon, had starred opposite Heath Ledger and Josh Hartnett in Hollywood blockbusters (she’s the one with the initially endearing but ultimately supremely irritating habit of biting her lower lip in 40 Days and 40 Nights), and the scent of the Red Hot Chili Peppers hung heavy around them. Both of that band’s guitarists have worked with Warpaint – Josh Klinghoffer is an occasional collaborator, and John Frusciante produced their first EP.
A number of Californian bands have straddled the Venn-diagram sets of both famous-musician- association and celebrity-membership, and have proved to be unspeakably awful – Johnny Depp’s band P springs to mind. But Warpaint actually seemed to go out of its way to antagonise any Ledger or Kiedis fans by ignoring the obvious influences and looking to more adventurous sounds for inspiration.
“That was one of the initial things that attracted me to the band – there was no pretension, there wasn’t anything contrived in the way they performed or how the music sounded,” says Mozgawa of the sprawling, ethereal songs that remain the band’s core strength. That odd juxtaposition is Warpaint’s most beguiling feature – while much of its earlier audience might have arrived with stars in their eyes, they couldn’t help but leave with hazily psychedelic rock music ringing in their ears.
Warpaint’s line-up solidified only months before its members recorded their debut album, released in October. But The Fool has received very favourable press, with English music weekly NME declaring, in typically overblown style, “This rings true and thick as dark blood seeping from a wound,” while US website Pitchfork.com – an important arbiter of cool in the world of indie music – praised “a nine-song séance of an album that’s as subtle as it is disquieting”. The band’s swirling, nuanced sound got them on a tour with last year’s darlings The xx (“Inspiring,” says Mozgawa. “You see them live and you realise how genuine they are”). Warpaint’s taking The xx’s slot at this year’s Laneway Festival and was signed to legendary UK label Rough Trade on the strength of their EP alone. “You get reverse sexism sometimes. Someone will come up and say, ‘I can’t believe how good you guys are for women’”
Despite its continuing proximity to Hollywood (Sossamyn returned to direct a video, and singer Theresa Wayman stars alongside Steve Buscemi and Rosie Perez in the forthcoming film Pete
Smalls is Dead), the band remains a tightly knit group – though one that welcomed its Aussie import Mozgawa with open arms when she officially joined last year.
“At first I was a little bit unsure of the dynamic within the band – I’d seen them live and hung out with them on a very piecemeal basis, socially,” says Mozgawa. “So you never know if there’s one dominant mind, or whether everyone contributes together and makes it a very democratic process. It’s definitely the latter.”
A band as a democracy? While it might seem the natural order, it’s actually so rare as to make Warpaint an extreme outlier. Most are, to greater or lesser extent, dictatorships, with one or two dominant musical personalities charting the course. Mozgawa was pleasantly surprised to discover the unexpected political climate when they began writing for The Fool.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she marvels. “And there was no discussion of it before I joined the band. It was just, ‘Okay, we’re getting in, we’re going to do