“My mom was always listening to her old records,” Warpaint’s Emily Kokal says about the music she heard growing up. “She was really into Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Leon Russell, and all those people—Jackson Browne—so I was around a lot of acoustic guitar music.” Guitar-based classic rock and early new wave were in the air when Kokal and Warpaint co-guitarist, Theresa Wayman, were coming of age as budding musicians in Eugene, Oregon. “Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, Al Green, Cyndi Lauper—those were all things I was listening to when I was growing up,” Wayman adds. “My friends recently made a playlist from The Harder They Come soundtrack, and I thought, ‘I listened to that album so much when I was younger.’” But it was electronic music, and specifically ’90s-era trip hop—a genre reliant on samples and drum machines—that inspired them to become musicians.
Trip hop’s dark moods, textures, noir vibe, and heavy rhythmic element—and its repetitive figures and almost trance-like quality—were what they found so alluring. “I started going back in time with music and discovering all these guitar players that had that kind of dark, moody, melody stuff,” Kokal says. “Their parts are like melodic leads.” That describes Warpaint’s music, too: linear ostinatos, unorthodox chord voicings, gentle warbles, and pulsating modulations. In many ways, their music is a re-imagining of their sample-heavy, studio-bound influences, but as a live, guitar-centric band.
“I was about 13 when I started guitar,” Wayman says. “But I wasn’t really into it for a while. I went to drumming, synths, electronic sounds, samplers, and things like that. When I was about 19, my friend had an SG and a bunch of cool pedals in his garage. I started playing with it and I realized what could happen with guitar.”
Warpaint formed in 2004 and released their first EP (mixed by John Frusciante), Exquisite Corpse, in 2008, before settling into their current lineup—Kokal and Wayman on guitars and vocals, Jenny Lee Lindberg on bass and vocals, and Stella Mozgawa on drums and vocals—in time for their first full-length album, The Fool, in 2010. Their third album, Heads Up, was released in September 2016, and although still very much a Warpaint album, marks a significant departure in how the band created their material. “A lot of the album was written in the studio,” Kokal says, distinguishing the sessions from the endless hours of jamming that preceded their previous efforts. “It was really fun, actually, and it was really different.”
Kokal and Wayman are particular about their gear. They both play vintage Fenders and rely on a floor full of pedals, including choruses, delays, and various oscillators. But where Kokal keeps it simple and only recently added overdrive, Wayman has multiple gain stages, frequency modulators, and loopers. She also uses multiple reverbs that she pairs with the one in her amp. “I adjust it every night for the room,” she says. “Some rooms you can turn your reverb way down and it’s fine. Some rooms you can’t get enough.”
We spoke with Kokal and Wayman about their non-guitar influences, unusual chord voicings, and their basic tonal-building blocks—and, although Kokal didn’t say, Wayman revealed her interest in joining a Steely Dan cover band.
Who inspired you to make music?
Theresa Wayman: The music that made me want to start making music was not guitar music—it was Björk, OutKast, and things like that. I remember sitting in my bedroom and thinking, “I want to do this. I want to make beats and something that falls into a pattern like this.” It was really repetitive and satisfying. It was down to the most basic elements and all the best little morsels were tied together to create something so satisfying. I like to incorporate guitar into that kind of music nowadays, but that’s what inspired me to make music. I fell into playing guitar, and in my band playing guitar is what worked.
Emily Kokal: When I was in high school, I was listening to a lot of rap, R&B, and a lot of stuff that wasn’t really reflected in my guitar playing, but it was definitely reflected in the mood. But what really changed my life was trip hop. Portishead, Björk, Tricky, Massive Attack—when I first heard all that music, even Radiohead, it graduated me into finding that kind of music I identified with the way my mom identified with the albums [she grew up with]. That became my music. It had a melancholy to it, but it was dark and rhythmic, and I think that also came into my guitar playing. I started playing more repetitive parts and not traditional song structures. I started getting into mantra-ing-out on a riff and darker, more melancholic sounds.
Dark textures and repetitive patterns are such a big part of your music.
Kokal: Totally. Theresa and I grew up together, we started playing guitars around the same time, and we would play songs together, but we were also discovering all this music at the same time. She bought a DJ Shadow album called Preemptive Strike and it had a song on it called “What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 2).” There is a guitar riff in that song—the entire song is one guitar riff—and I swear that guitar riff and that song influenced me so much. I still feel like my guitar sound sounds like that one song [laughs]. It’s a sample and I just found out that it’s actually a Foreigner sample [“Girl on the Moon”] slowed down. It’s really slowed down and super sexy. I started going back in time with music and discovering all these guitar players that played dark, moody, melodic stuff. Their guitar parts are like melodic leads. I love that stuff.
Wayman: I would say it’s what gets us off. It’s like you make music that appeals to you or to your sensibilities. That’s what it is for me. I like finding the perfect hook or accent to another hook, piecing it all together, interweaving it, and creating a whole that stays within a pattern, but also morphs and changes with what you take out and put in.
FACTOID: Bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg’s older sister, actress Shannyn Sossamon (A Knight’s Tale), was Warpaint’s original drummer from 2004 to 2008. Current drummer Stella Mozgawa joined in 2009 and played drums on all three of the band’s studio albums.
You both use interesting chord voicings and stay away from bar chords, power chords, and even open chords. Where does that come from?
Kokal: When I got my first guitar when I was little, the chords sounded like shit. I would fingerpick and I got really into that. I wasn’t good at playing power chords because my fingers were so small and I wasn’t strengthening them by barring. I didn’t bar for a really long time. John—I used to date John Frusciante—he used to tell me how I played, because I didn’t know. He is more theory-based and he said, “You are really into double stops.” I would usually play two notes at a time to make harmonies. I had an open string and I’d play an open string with another note. Then I’d play a note on that open string, close it, and play another harmony. I would create shapes. The last song on our new album, “Today Dear,” is an acoustic song. It’s a song I wrote when I was 19, actually, but we put it on the record. If you listen to it, it is all double stops and harmonies.
Wayman: When I was younger, I detested the idea of playing anything like anyone else around me. I didn’t want to write songs that used A minor, G, D minor, E—the chords that many songs are written with. There is no problem with that, but I wanted to find something else. I wasn’t drawn to that and I never wrote songs with those chords. Also, when I was jamming with people, which is basically how I learned how to play, I would have this method of playing along and finding the notes that work along the neck and then putting them together into different chords. I was finding clumps of notes that work and I was probably stumbling upon voicings that were unique, different, or not used often. I never learned it from the outside in, as in, “We’re going to play in D minor now. These are the chords that work. Here are the basic formations of those chords. You can play it as a power chord here or you can play…” I didn’t learn it that way. I knew theory. I could tell you what chords are in a D minor scale if I thought about it, but I didn’t know it translated to the guitar like that. The piano is a little bit easier because it’s all right in front of you, but with guitar I never tried to learn it that way.