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Warpaint on love and tenderness in making music

03 June 2022, 09:00

Armed with Radiate Like This – their first full-length record in almost six years and an immersion in the sensitivities of motherhood, the pandemic and friendship – Warpaint retreat to the shores of Barcelona for Primavera Sound this weekend, to offer their glorious ode to life’s tender moments.

Ahead of that, founding members Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman - guitarists, vocalists and songwriters for the four-piece - appear through the grainy pixels of a zoom call; having for the first time, alongside members Jenny Lee Lindberg and Stella Mozgawa, featured at an instore the previous night in a Leeds record store. “It’s a really nice way to get the tour going”, Kokal considers, “You play some shows but you’re not doing the full set - we can ease into it a little bit”.

A maternal quality encompasses Radiate Like This, Warpaint’s fourth album and latest offering to the world of dreamy synth/indie pop. From the softness of its pastel artwork above the clouds to the sentimental qualities of its tender lyricism, the record is a homage to the disadvantages and the perquisites of isolation. Recorded and written in the desert, the environment is synonymous with the imagery of coarse tumbleweeds churning through barren terracotta sands. Radiate Like This, however, rejects any harshness or aridity, instead emanating lush, rich tones and silky harmonies - the cool oasis in a time filled with innumerable challenges, pandemic-related or otherwise.

“It was such a long process that there were so many different influences”, Wayman laughs. “I don’t know where to start!”. Fundamentally, a considerable portion of direction for Radiate Like This stems from the band’s personal lives and relationships over the past five or six years. With the birth of Kokal’s baby, to the strengthening of the pair’s friendship and the spirit of collaboration, the record celebrates the joys and difficulties of old relations and new beginnings.

“My relationship with Theresa actually got a lot of resolution during this album, we haven’t been very close for a few years, so that I feel like is a huge influence”, Kokal explains. “We came together and helped each other a lot, so there’s a spirit of collaboration and support on this record”. She continues, “We created an environment of openness, especially because we do the same role in a lot of ways. That was a very pointed goal from the very start, which was really nice”, she considers. “I think we achieved it”.

“Under the circumstances too, it’s almost like we set intentions that the pandemic brought to fruition”, Wayman adds. “In many ways we were going through the same thing at the start of the pandemic; we would call each other and meet up, we were able to sit and really understand what the other person was going through because we were doing the same role. We were flip flopping between working things out and supporting each other”.

Motherhood is now a shared experience for Kokal and Wayman, one through which they gained a shared understanding and which heavily influenced the record as Kokal’s daughter was born the day Los Angeles shut down due to the pandemic. The approach to recording also saw a change as a result and, there is undoubtedly a maternal, enveloping quality to the album both sonically, lyrically and in terms of the approach to production. “I went to go and see the Kanye West IMAX experience when I was pregnant”, Kokal explains. “It was really loud and she was kicking really hard so I was really sensitive to sound. Maybe she was stoked? But I didn't want to spend six months in a really loud space”, Kokal considers. “Even going back to influences, I was listening to a lot of ambient and electronic downtempo music which I think we were all doing in general to a certain degree”.

“As for the songs I was writing and where I was at as a person - I had also stopped drinking nine months before I got pregnant. So, for me the songwriting is all influenced by that. Being pregnant also made me write differently. I didn’t want to go and hash it out in a really loud room, I didn't want to jiggle her too much!”, Kokal laughs.

“I think when you’re pregnant you become very aware of how and what you’re doing”, Wayman reflects and smiles at Kokal. “You’re more conscious of what you’re putting in your body and the stress levels. Those are being directly transmitted to this new being - so it definitely coloured everything. It’s been so nice with Francis around; I saw her the day she was born and I saw her five minutes ago, she’s so cute!”

Fela Kuti, the world of Afrobeat and Ebo Taylor are high up on Wayman’s latest listening choices which centre around feel-good, danceable music. “Femi Kuti [Fela’s son] is playing in Leeds at the start of June at the same venue we’re set to play. All that stuff is really inspiring because it just feels like the absolute reason to be playing music; it’s to raise the vibration - and dance and just groove out on something for a long extended period of time to the point where you’re trancing out and you can transcend”, Wayman smiles.

After two decades of Warpaint, Kokal and Wayman mull over the changes and challenges in the recent past, assessing the pandemic’s impact on the band’s approach to collaboration. “The [elements] that weren’t finished, just turned into Ableton and Logic sessions in our respective houses across the state. There was still a lot to do because they weren’t finished when we went into the studio and there was a lot left to write”, Kokal explains. “So, with Covid, I realised that there was a silver lining [for us] but it also made [the album] really hard [to complete]. A lot of those songs were started by Theresa and I in our rooms on our computers, and then they returned to us, to finish them in a slow and laborious way”.

She adds: “But I think if the record just stands as the piece of time that shows this moment and Covid; the way that the album started out as a lot of demos, ending in a way that Theresa and I got to hone and produce the end result. I’m happy that we have an album like that, even though it would be more ideal if it was all of us. In a way, it means it’s closer to being produced by us than anything else”.

Produced by Sam Petts-Davies, known for working with the likes of Thom Yorke and engineering for Frank Ocean, Radiohead, Roger Waters and Red Hot Chilli Peppers, this record was the band’s first time working with the producer. “We’ve known him for a little while so it felt like maybe he would be a nice fit for us, because he’s got experience but he’s also just beginning in a certain way”, Wayman considers. “He’s been working for a long time but his career and work as a producer is really just getting started. It seemed like a good choice - someone who’s in the same place as us”.

With 14 drum mics at Petts-Davies’ disposal and a diverse background in music production, this opened up avenues for development. “It was nice to have someone who also has experience in the engineering world to help us get to a place that maybe feels a little more sonically progressed”, Kokal says. The record feels like an homage to Warpaint’s earlier offerings, but with an elevation that time and experience has also bestowed.

Dismissing the idea of perfection in the arts, Kokal and Wayman explain that Radiate Like This is a labour of love, but one which does not aim to be flawless, but rather, real. “We want it to hit the spot and I actually think some of the imperfections are usually some of the most memorable parts of things”, Kokal considers.

“For example, there’s a part in “Hips” where our mixer lets Theresa’s guitar [project] really loudly. At first I thought wow, this is crazy - you should turn that down! But I became obsessed with the wildness of it, because it’s just exciting. When I see someone have a nervous breakdown, or a freak out, or cry, or do something inappropriate - it’s real. I think as people, we really perk up at those kinds of things, because again we believe that to be really true. So as for over-finessing, we tried to make things work for us, to round out the songs, but we also really didn’t want to overdo it. We wanted to find a sweet spot sonically while not watering anything down - I actually think perfection is dangerous”, Kokal muses.

Navigating the end point of creative work is challenging, Wayman states; the process for any artist or creator is unique to the individual and ever-evolving. “It’s not something that’s so easy to define”, she considers. “But, we have each other to help find and tie those ends - I think that’s really valuable. Sometimes I might think something isn’t right and everyone else will think it’s perfect, or they’ll love it and they don’t believe that anything else could be added or taken away. I listen to that; stop, accept and love it too”, Wayman smiles. Kokal jokes, “We had to have our computers ripped from our hands!”.

"We got a lot out of our system and our process, but we are always evolving and changing” - Theresa Wayman

Revelling in the imperfections of art, the pair consider elements of the record which initially began as accidents, but eventually love the most. “A bunch of our songs include a lot of the original demos. [Ultimately], those ended up being built on top of and inside the finished product”, Wayman explains. These moments, Kokal adds, are some of her favourite parts of the record. It allows for the ability to create when there is a strong sense of uncertainty, sanctioning looser creative flow, as opposed to relearning what you’ve created or written.

“Again, we’re back to that word, ‘perfecting’ it”, she says. “The guitar in ‘Champion’ is actually [Lee Lindberg’s] first take. If you relearn and replay it for the recording - it doesn’t have that quite the same spirit, there’s something about the original. Sam suggested it should be played on an electric guitar [rather than] an acoustic, but even though it’s the same person playing the same thing, there’s a way in which, when you’re writing, you don’t know what you’re doing and those small hesitations create a timing which is so impossible to recreate”, Kokal considers.

“We really appreciate the spirit of that spontaneity inside the song”, she adds. “I think more songs than not on this album include their original moments. “Hips” is a good example, many elements including the drum machine, the synths, the bass, the guitar line, the piano - were all recorded on the first day at my house. Not Theresa’s guitar, but this little noodle-y guitar part of mine [came through]. These things when - if you plug indirect and you don't make the sound pleasant or whatever, it has this spirit and it ends up on this album. We’ve always been this way and I like that about us”.

“We’re always trying to change that part of us”, Wayman agrees, “In fact I think we’re trying to get better so when we do capture things they can stick forever. We don’t have to re-record them if there’s a hiss or noise or anything. Songwriting-wise and sonically, I think we’ve always been going towards being a bit more succinct and a little more clarity and definition in the parts; not trying to cram seven songs into one. We got a lot out of our system and our process, but we are always evolving and changing”.

She adds, “Some of us have been in this band for almost 20 years, so at a certain point you learn and change as a musician. You change in your capabilities and how you make things, not just guitar but production-wise. So we don’t really want to tie an arm behind our back”.

Radiate Like This harks back to Warpaint’s classic sound, drawing colours from their palette and painting them in a refreshed framework. It is certainly a continuation from 2010’s The Fool, 2014’s self-titled album and 2016’s Heads Up, but this feels more elevated, an exploration of romanticism. This time around, Kokal explains that there has been a closer focus on song structure’s, songwriting and vocals. As the pair began the record’s journey writing the demos themselves, this came with a vision of how they could also be finalised. “Because of Covid, that opportunity [came to fruition]”, she explains. “The circumstances allowed it to go through the Warpaint experience. You got the chance to take what you’d started by yourself and build on top of what the band brought to it - to see how it changed and warped and how it became a Warpaint song”.

“I think that’s a big difference between this record and our other albums”, Kokal considers. “It was fun because we never get to do it this way and it was really nice to have that experience, we always run out of money and time, or the producer has to go back to England. Vocals are usually the last thing you do so they get rushed - they’re raw and thrown on, which a lot of people probably like and think is the Warpaint sound. We spent more time making sure the lyrics were right and that the harmonies were considered. That’s been an itch that’s been wanting to be scratched for a while. We wanted to let it be a full experience”.

This process has been in the pipeline for some time, Wayman explains. During the last record, Heads Up, the band migrated to an approach which is more heavy on individual demo creation, which is then brought to the band. “We’ve been moving in this direction and I think this has been really necessary for us”, she states. “It’s not fully sustainable for us to be writing together in a room together all of the time. Timewise, it takes forever, it’s not efficient! People also don’t get enough individual time to figure out what they really want to express. So in that way it’s been really invaluable to have this newer process. Maybe we won't stay here, maybe we’ll implement other techniques from the past, but it’s been really nice to get to experience this process”.

“When you’re in the room jamming together, it’s a lot more limited in how nuanced you can get in a single moment”, Kokal expresses. “There’s a special sense you get when playing in a room together - it’s where the magic is. But we’ve got to know these other processes which are also important. We could have created something which has a bit more of a live quality, but on the flip side of it, that’s what’s cool about getting to play it live - it gets to live in this other world and experience”.

Though the record was born during the pandemic, many of the foundational elements, for “Hips” and “Trouble”, for instance, were recorded live before the lockdowns piqued in intensity. As such, the pair feel that the record is set for a smooth translation to a live audience. “It reflects the energy of the studio”, Kokal muses. “It’s not a layer-focused kind of album like some people might think”.

The first stage of pre-production and writing was completed in Mozgawa’s studio in Joshua Tree in the Californian desert, where the band stayed together, played their demos and began playing along to them. “That was a really special moment for me”, Kokal expresses. “We were all able to get away and away from our daily scenarios, we could just be in the moment and in the music. It was a highlight of the whole album”.

“It was a great way to kick it off”, Wayman agrees as she delves into her most treasured memories from the album. “We had another session at Rancho De La Luna, owned by David Catching, in the desert, [which] was also a really special place to record. Queens of the Stone Age and Arctic Monkeys have also recorded a lot of stuff there. You walk in and it’s filled with instruments and paintings, it’s like a museum that you can play music and record in. That place is amazing, it’s very special”, she reminisces.

Combining motherhood with the life of an artist also stands out for Kokal. “There’s just some great pandemic moments of Theresa coming out to the desert and holding my baby while [the baby’s] dad is engineering me doing something - of the real family affair that the pandemic turned recording into”, she smiles. “Having these moments that were just so different to how you’d expect to do things, shaking up the box of how you think things should be done and realising that it’s all possible. I feel like I learned so much through that process and I feel equipped with a whole new set of tools from doing it”, she says.

“It brought a whole new way of relating to the band - a rejoining and a maturation. But also, I think the cutest thing is how much Theresa came up to not only record, but to basically babysit so dad and I could get a break! Now Francis is obsessed with Theresa. There’s a lot of joy and beauty that came through the process of making this record, even though it was seriously challenging labour, it was a labour of love and I feel like it’s actually inside the album”.

“Even when I listen to it I can feel a lot of true love in it; not just something light and surface level, but something deep and resonating”, Kokal muses. “I’m grateful and proud of us for putting something like that out into the world right now”

Warpaint play Primavera Sound in Barcelona at 11pm tonight. Radiate Like This is out now.
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